Tim Riehm

Phase Change

Society has a tendency to make us feel like we’re stagnant in a world that’s constantly moving forward — to make us feel like those dreams we’ve been working on might just be as out-of-reach as everyone said because, well, what do you have to show for the work you’ve already put in? Sometimes it feels like you’re treading water or like you’re building this thing with sand, and every so often, right when you take the plastic, castle-shaped cup off the top of your creation, a wave rushes in and leaves you with a sloppy pile of what-could-have-been. And, maybe it’s not so dramatic as all your effort being swept away, but rather this feeling of, “What was all that for? Why did I do all that work for nothing?”

When I was in school, I learned about states of matter — you know, solids, liquids, gas (plasma if you’re crazy) — and  we were taught about what it takes to get from one to the other. We looked at graphs of what happens to the temperature of different things when you start adding energy (or heat) to them. And, contrary to what your instinct might tell you, there was no such thing as a straight line. It wasn’t just this nice, gradual change from solid to liquid to gas. In fact, most of the phase diagrams ended up looking like a small set of stairs, starting with a diagonal line going upward but then leveling out at certain points into a completely horizontal line — and the pattern continued like that from solid to liquid to gas. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say you have a solid like butter, and all you want to do is melt it down to a liquid. So, you put it on the stove, turn on the heat, and wait. You’ll notice it doesn’t change instantly. Even as the amount of energy put into that butter is rising because it’s being heated on the stove, it doesn’t look (at least initially) like it’s changing into a liquid or getting any hotter. Then, if I’m putting energy into something and its temperature isn’t rising, what’s that energy even doing? Is it even worth it? Side note: If you were proactive and looked up an example of a phase diagram, you’ll be able to visualize what I’m about to say a little better, and if you read this and want to look one up now, I’ll wait. 

Sweet. Welcome back. On your diagram, you’ll notice those flat parts that I mentioned earlier. Well, those are what’s happening when it looks like nothing is happening to your butter. Just straight, sideways lines — not up and not down. So, what’s that energy doing if it’s not going into raising that butter’s temperature? It’s breaking all those atomic bonds that have to be broken to make the jump from something boring like a solid into something hella-sweet like a liquid. Energy is like currency, and you can only pay for one thing at a time, and maybe it’s not going toward something so noticeable as that rise in temperature, but it is working toward something.

Well, I think that’s the most elaborate metaphor I’ve ever used in one of these things, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t illustrate the point. Careers can force us to live these moments of life like chapters in a book for so long that we find ourselves looking ahead to see how many pages are left. But, we still have to read to the end. We have to go through eras where it seems like we’re working and working (and working) but nothing is happening because we’re building momentum. We’re breaking the bonds that held us in place, so that we can become something different — and it’s never obvious that it’s happening. You just have to know that it is. 


I rested my chin lazily on my fist as I stared out the window to my left. I was sitting right next to the plane’s wing, but the turbine was almost lost in the black of the night. There was nothing above or below — just the silhouette of a machine fading away the farther I looked — and I could almost feel the chill of wind on my face, brushing my cheek as I wondered at the void. Today had been long, but finally we were on our way to a relatively final destination, to a bed. Already the natural force of this new country seemed intent on denying us entry, as if something supernatural was channeling the elements in defense. Earlier, we were forced to turn around in Halifax. We had actually flown the entire distance —  were minutes from the ground — when the pilot pulled up in caution and made a few turns in surveillance, until he finally announced we’d be flying to Quebec instead of our intended destination. The wind was powerful, throwing and jerking the plane in whatever direction it pleased, as if the tips of our plane were connected to strings, reaching above the clouds where a careless child was just beginning to learn how to use a marionette.  Two hours later, we landed in Quebec only to be told we’d be returning to Toronto, the airport we’d initially left for Halifax. Six hours and many miles later, we exited the craft — stretching our legs, breathing sighs of relief, and, well, wondering where we were headed after that.

It’s disheartening to move, fly, work for so long only to end up right where you started. Whether it be time, money, or breath, something ends up feeling wasted, and you feel lesser than before. And, though that sensation of waste was felt much more tangibly as we were sitting in the Toronto airport and waiting for our next attempt at changing location, it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. But, it did feel like a distant memory — like an old friend you recognized from high school who gained weight or changed his hairstyle. Things had been moving forward in my career, in my relationships, in my wallet, and I’d forgotten what it feels like, at least for the moment, to feel motionless in the worst ways.

We never notice when we’re moving. In a car, in a plane, we can see the trees pass outside our windows or the ground shift below us, but once the novelty has lost its luster, we get distracted and turn our attention back to whatever task sits in our laps. We appreciate the first steps, but never the seventh or eighth. We celebrate the door opening, but not always the act of walking through it. Because, well, it’s work, and our noses stay down, pointed at the screen that, in most cases, makes it possible to move forward.

And, I get it. We can’t stare out the window forever, and there’s truly not enough time to stop and smell every rose that life has to offer because it’s in our nature to want to plant more. And, there’s both beauty and frustration in that. But, there are so many more roses than we realize, and the revelation dawned — as it has so many times before — as I sat feeling sorry for myself at the gate of our next flight. I was in another country, experiencing music in a way I had never before, traveling miles — or kilometers, depending on where you’re from — because of this thing that started as a hobby, developed into a passion, and eventually created a career.  In retrospect, maybe the seemingly fruitless miles travelled, only to end up in Toronto again, simply added to the count of miles that I’ll eventually travel for music.

We had to retrieve our checked luggage from the failed flight, which meant we had a second round of security ahead of us. But, we didn’t even bat an eye at that point because our flight for later that night had been delayed an extra two hours due to ice. Once we had finally made it to Gate D11, with callouses on our heels from uncomfortable shoes and on our hands from carrying our guitars, we plopped into the closest chairs we could find. I shut my eyes, diving into a half-sleep that probably added to my fatigue rather than lessen it, but in that moment, I was at peace, and even though I was still, I was moving forward.