Friday, Mar. 07, 2003, 6:15 PM

States of matter

A few days ago I stopped at a fast food place to get some dinner. It was a very cold day and I received a huge tub of drink that I could not finish while eating and placed in the cup holder of my truck. I didn't finish it. Two days later, the tub of drink still in the cup holder with the straw at such an angle that it poked me in the wrist every time I shifted into second or fourth gear, I decided it was time to throw it away. I have this habit. Well, I have a few. Anyway, I have this habit that involves picking things up. When I pick things up I tend to shake them with quick subtle movements of my wrist. Sort of the way a cat shakes its paw when it has encountered something unexpected, like snow or jello. So I picked up the half-filled styrofoam cup and shook it only to discover that the contents were frozen solid. Not slushy, not iced on top, but frozen entirely hard. Since I live in an apartment in the city I am relegated to parking on the street and the temperature had not exceeded freezing since the bladder-buster-sized drink took up residence in the cab of my truck.

Standing next to the dumpster in the parking lot of my work I popped off the lid from the cup. I had to slide it straight up off of the straw that was frozen into the slab of Pepsi. I tore the styrofoam cup away in strips until I stood holding a straw with a cube of Pepsi suspended from its bottom like the clapper of some ingestible bell. How strange it is to me the changing states of matter. Not unlike people. Not unlike me.

And then just two days ago I went grocery shopping. I had run out of grapefruit tangerine juice and dishwashing soap. I was very tired, having been up late nightly talking to Mudgirl until the wee hours. I was very very tired. I had not been so tired since the time I stayed awake at college for 74 hours straight. So there I am meandering down the aisles with a tired and glazed look when I came to the salad dressings. Dressings in clear bottles so that you can see their innards. Dressing like Italian, oil and vinegar, and balsamic. Salad dressings that over time without external agitation will natural separate into like particles, not unlike cliques in high school. I put down the basket with my soap and juice and picked up a different type of dressing in each hand. I slowly tilted the bottles one way and then the other, watching the roiling of the liquids inside. The oil and raspberry vinaigrette created the effect of watching a red sea in a storm. The Italian contained multiple striations of liquids and suspended solids that displayed the convection currents readily when jostled.

So I stood in the center of the aisle swinging the bottles of dressing like a maraca player in slow motion and thinking about the viscosity of the different liquids, relative mass, density, gravity, inertia, centripetal and centrifugal forces when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a couple standing a the end of the aisle watching me and whispering. When I stopped to look at them they whispered to each other, smiled at me and moved on to another aisle. I'm sure they thought I was high or wasted or both. Later, when I opened one of the freezer doors behind which the ice cream was kept, I took note of the condensation of the moisture in the air and the sublimation of the ice into steam from the cartons of tropical flavored frozen yogurts.

And when I walked out to my truck with my groceries dangling in blue bags from my hands I stepped through puddles of water that had melted from piles of snow. In different conditions the state of matter can change. When subjected to varying forces matter will mutate. People will also change over time, when subjected to pressure, and when their environment changes. Learn to appreciate all states of a person. Learn to respect all states of that person for their benefits and their potential volatility. Take note of and stake out the boundaries between those states. And learn to sit back and marvel at that person regardless of their state, secure in the knowledge that it is not immutable, and neither are you.