Thursday, June 23, 2016

Carbon vs Carbon

“Carbon doesn’t like being alone,” Miss J had said to us as she held the chalk in her hand like a dart. I wondered what it would be like to be alone with her at the back of the laboratory. “And this is why we exist,” she continued, squiggling Cs and Hs and Os across the chalkboard. What atomic voodoo was this? Add an oxygen here, and there’s the very stuff your cells burn to stay alive. Remove an electron there, and the resultant acid will kill you. Coil enough of all these little buggers around each other and they will be you.

A year later, lecture halls had replaced classrooms, and Miss J’s quantum alphabet soup made more sense. I could distinguish the structure of aeroplane fuel from drain cleaner with a single gloss. In tandem, frayed striped school ties and scuffed Grasshopper shoes had made way for white lab coats hovering above Kurt Cobain Converses. My mother fought a losing battle against my weekly chemistry pracs: every baptism of bleach brought my uniform only temporary respite against whatever splash or explosion might assault me in the next session.

It would be a while before blood stained that coat, though. First there was the formalin. A molecule of only four atoms kept a body of billions preserved enough for unsteady 19 year-old hands to cut through flesh with (hopefully) increasing aplomb. My coat reeked of the stuff, sweet yet medicinal, vapours from a penny dreadful. (I dreamt once that it was raining formalin inside the dissection room until it spilled out the windows, while cadavers and medical students floated like so many cold and warm bodies.)

Third year, and the molecules became more complicated: sulphur here, nitrogen there, armies of metallic ions, even radioactive ones. The dry dead of anatomy gave way to the wet squelch of pathology. My brain was heady with itself, zooming in and out as it contemplated its likeness in a textbook, mapping out the slippery lobes and membranes while discerning the patterns of chemicals that flowed through each sulcus and gyrus.

I don’t know in what year or what ward I saw the woman’s eyes transition from glossy to glassy: all I remember was that the syringa trees were blossoming outside the isolation unit. The registrar said she’d been ill for a long time. I understood now why they used to call it consumption: she had been eaten out from the inside—so pale and so thin, a minor saint painted by an Old Master’s apprentice in a lesser basilica. She’d had all sorts of molecules pumped inside her but the bacilli had evaded their toxic ministrations.

I held her hand. It stayed warmer for longer than I thought, the atoms inside her still vibrating even though her open mouth had stopped sucking in air half an hour before.

Between my palm and hers it was, really, still carbon against carbon. And from that moment onwards, I didn’t want to be alone.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Notes From An Eclipse


For those of you who didn’t have the chance to witness last night’s spectacular lunar eclipse, I took the liberty of dragging my sorry ass out of bed at 4:30 am to watch it for you. That’s real dedication, if you don’t mind me saying so. I am grumpier than Garfield on any given morning before 9 am; irrespective of caffeine and scrambled egg levels.  

Southern Africa gets a bad deal as far as heavenly alignments go: we hardly ever get to see a total solar eclipse, and lunar eclipses, while far more frequent, still happen at inconvenient hours. Maybe it’s payback for all the other heavenly delights we enjoy, like the Magellanic Clouds and the Southern Cross. The great astronomer Lacaille named a constellation (“Mensa”) after Table Mountain, so impressed was he when he journeyed to the Cape in 1750 to chart the Southern Hemisphere’s stellar largesse.

Lacaille also happened to be a priest, so I wonder what he’d have made of a huge Blood Moon setting ominously over False Bay – a moon that had, last night, made its closest approach to Earth in four consecutive cycles. The combination of full moon at perigee ("Supermoon", denoting the closest yearly approach to the Earth) and total eclipse is particularly rare. The next time this will happen is in 2033.

My own view wasn’t as perfect as I'd hoped. From the verandah of our little Edwardian home, the light pollution from the streetlamps dampened the stunning colours those with darker skies enjoyed. Being in the Southern Suburbs I also wasn't able to see the whole malarkey dropping down, magnified and filmic over the cold Atlantic.

And yet: seeing our satellite turn to vermillion… and then to rust… and then to crimson, hovering above the back of Table Mountain… it left me stunned and not a little creeped out. It’s a trick of the light, I said to myself. It’s just the Earth’s shadow, I reasoned, remembering the first eclipse I watched with my dad. But the word ‘shadow’ made it freakier. Realising that the entire planet can cast a shadow tripped the fantastic switch in my brain. No wonder people used to go all End Times whenever there was a comet or supernova or the Moon started bleeding. I was watching Joel 2:31 and Apocalypse 6:12 play out on an Imax, minus the earthquakes. (Thank heavens there were no earthquakes. John of Patmos has a knack for giving small children nightmares, and part of me was time-traveling back to that winter afternoon in our old house in Pretoria, my six year-old self reading about the Seven Seals, terrified.) 

It was 04h47 GMT +2 and thousands of people were watching this with me. In London, perhaps, a queasy 18 year-old on the South Bank glimpsed it, his vision already blurry and stroboscopic from three too many ales. In Iowa, maybe, an old lady pondered the scarred red ball over the cornfields, missing her late husband who once worked for NASA on the Apollo missions. Somewhere on the Croatian-Serbian border, who knows, a police guard stopped thinking of refugees for a few minutes, remembering a folk-tale his grandmother had told him when he was little.

Of course, Armageddon didn’t come, the Earth passed out of the umbra, stock-markets continued their jitterings, and slightly disappointed moonwatchers like me shuffled back into their houses to prepare for the day.

The mathematics of the eclipse was ordinary and utterly predictable.

The hush of awe so many of us felt was less so.

Our left brains know that the Moon is barren, devoid of green cheese, a battered skeletal ball of silicates that does not really make my favourite creatures howl at it (much to my disappointment). But without it we’d have no life here. No tides. No gravitational locking to prevent us hurtling away into the dark. No Clair de Lune with its daunting five flats. No T.S. Eliot rhapsodizing on windy nights, reminding us to

…Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune*,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smooths the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face…

* "The Moon harbours no resentment". From "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" by T.S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)

 Unsettling and beautiful, isn’t it? Kind of like what I watched this morning before dawn. And if the Moon has cosmic smallpox we’re at risk too. The Earth is a fragile, tender thing, constantly in pain somewhere, constantly spinning around a star that will one day consume it. I’m not trying to be maudlin here. I like it that we freak out a bit when the “lesser” rock surprises us, donning a crimson gown instead of her usual silver one.

It unites us, even if only in the brief moment of the eclipse.




Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Expectans Expectavi Aestatum: A Hibernation Survived

I really, really am not a winter person, to the point that I have become fetishistic about it: I actively psych myself up for the days between the 21st of March and the 21st of June, when the Southern Hemisphere tumbles towards its longest night. Being an insomniac who hates getting out of bed on the best of days, winter mornings turn me into a cross between Eeyore and Gollum. I make sure I take leave in June and am unusually happy after St John’s Eve because I know then, for sure, the days are getting longer. 
Living in Cape Town doesn’t help much if you associate Africa with sunshine: I tend not to do well when the sun only rises around 8. Since my job requires me to be at work at 07h30, you can imagine the joy of both arriving and leaving in the dark. I doubt I’d ever survive in Scandinavia. The scariest thing about the excellent Swedish vampire movie Låt den rätte komma in was the polar darkness it was set in – that and the ugly architecture of the block of flats where the story plays out. When I lived in the UK I completely avoided winter by flying south every December and January… Mozambique. Durban. Brakpan. Anything but the dark.

I was thus quite excited when I went for a routine set of blood tests which revealed that my Vitamin D level was below normal. I paid no attention to the fact that my cholesterol had risen or that my Hepatitis B titre had dropped necessitating a painful booster shot… no, no, no, everything could now be solved by taking a bright purple pill that looks like an obese Smartie. It’s 50 000 units of pure cholecalciferol so potent you need a prescription for it and can only take it once a week. And it’s become something of a fad; pharmacies on the peninsula are rapidly running out of stock.

We do know that apart from its celebrated role in regulating calcium (and hence bone development) Vitamin D is involved with mood and circadian rhythms. Because I work under perpetual artificial light and am given to reposting cat pictures on Facebook at 10 pm, my own circadian rhythm is a lopsided 13/8 polka composed by John Cage during an acid-trip. I’m cursed with a night-owl personality that struggles to fit into the dreaded Pollyanna “early to bed early to rise” lifestyle WASPy Western civilization insists upon.

How I miss varsity days, when you could study like a demon between, well, the demon hours of midnight to 3 am, sleep through the first lectures of the day and yet function fully across all other time zones. I spent most of third-year Pharmacology slumped in a stupor at the back of the lecture hall – not because the subject was boring (it isn’t) – but because it fell between 8 and 9 am. Forget three in the morning. 8 am is the actual witching hour, only here can one understand the true nature of person by watching their behavior when the caffeine hasn’t yet kicked in. Even as many of us lay faceplanted and drooling on our textbooks (they were just the right size to be a travel pillow), our young brains somehow absorbed the Gregorian chant of molecules intoned by the lecturers. We passed. Having to revisit the subject for my primary specialization examinations was definitely not as easy… and I shudder, thinking that I wrote those bloody exams under darkening skies.

In my hobby as storyteller, I seem to dwell a lot in midnight forests, but I do this best under African sunshine: I’m writing this now at noon in a back garden, staring out at a sun-kissed Table Mountain, the trees around me are a-bud with bright green embryonic leaves. Dogs bark, people unzip their jackets, patrons think twice about flat whites and order chilled juice instead. Sumer is icumen in, and rapidly so: my playlists are replete with Britney Spears and The Beach Boys, gone for now are Radiohead and Tom Waits.

Vitamin D3, or 25-hydroxyhcolecalciferol
Of course, the easiest way to sort out low Vitamin D and flagging mood is to go outside for a few minutes each day. This is easier said than done. Few of us can live in those shiny happy worlds that exist in margarine / washing powder / feminine hygiene product commercials. Most of us have to work, squint at screens under fluorescent lights (at least when there’s no load-shedding) and remember to floss.

I was naturally delighted to be offered sunshine in a pill. My little hypochondriac self is easily wooed by the placebo effect. I’m not sure if it was replenishing an actual deficiency or the unusually half-assed winter we’ve had, but I felt better within a few days. I waited, patiently as David in Psalm 40*, for the solstice to unseat me. Instead, we ended up landing in a steaming 30-degree Durban en route to the Drakensberg. The usually green and misty hills of the KZN midlands were cracking in the worst drought to visit the province in decades. The only personal tragedy was that my iPod wasn’t recognized by the rental car’s sound system. (June 21 is also my wife’s birthday so there’s always that to take away the sting of midwinter.)  *Psalm 39 in the Vulgate-Septuagint system, if you're being nit-picky. 


Which takes me to this moment, where I’ve decided to end this paragraph and take a walk by the ocean. I’m still taking my cholecalciferol though. Sunlight is a double-edged sword for someone pale and bald like me; I’d rather take the purple Smartie in perpetuity than end up with a basal cell carcinoma on my head. As Katy Perry sings, I need SPF 45 just to stay alive. But I can enjoy the sunshine. For this I’ll force myself to get up earlier on weekends and my days off, despite the cat’s protestations or the latest inanities beckoning from my Tumblr and Facebook feeds. The solstice has passed and the vernal equinox awaits: the time of T-shirts and sunglasses and Pimms cocktails beckons. I have to remind myself I am lucky that I can ponder the sunshine in security. Meanwhile, the rand continues in its free-fall, the new Google logo polarizes people, I learn how to use an Oxford comma, and the refugee crisis in the Middle-East grows in a tragic bloom. You can take the purple pill, but you can’t stay in bed all day. Even on the darkest winter day we should remember what Albert Camus said: In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that is a summer you don’t need to wait – or slather on SPF 45 – for.