Friday, December 19, 2014

Where It Could Be

Where the pizza is so delicious you enjoy sinning against Tim Noakes. Where you curse that you’re out of R5 coins and then ignore the polite car guard. Where you realise that in Sydney you’d pay more for parking anyway. Where you squirm at the atheist professor’s viciousness but find his logic faultless. Where you get given a supercilious pout for wishing someone Happy Christmas and should have only mentioned the “Festive Season”. Where you can’t help crying when you walk into St Vitus in Prague because the stained glass windows give you Stendhal syndrome. Where playlists allow Metallica to follow the opening theme from The Jungle Book. Where you wish you hadn’t destroyed the comic strip you made up about a philosophical Dachshund because at age eleven it was just too twee.

Where you can’t get it into some people’s heads that sharks are fish, even though many of them give birth to live young. Where you want to scream at the doe-eyed Young Earth Creationist that everything is 13.7 billion years old and that their God has more important existential, um, fish to fry. Where you enjoy taunting the same person with the evidence that all humans are lobe-finned fish and that the Koi in their alcoholic aunt’s pond are more closely related to him than they are to Peter Benchley’s famous shark. Where the same bullied person bakes you muffins when you’re ill and hugs you when you’re sad. Where you realise you’re writing a lot about fish, which is weird, because you like howling at the moon. Where someone’s relative gets knifed to death in suburban Paris and they’re secretly grateful they’re not living in the only place with problems. Where you can’t make any comment about the clusterfuck in the Holy Land because Someone will be Most Offended. Where I have already offended someone reading because I used the word clusterfuck.

Where a teenager still thinks "awesome" is the awesomest word because California here I come. Where a mother gets up at 4 am to raise another woman’s child while her own daughter is a three-day bus trip away. Where young men wake up next to women they don’t know and slink away flushed with self-loathing. Where the clichés are true but the stereotypes aren’t. Where a patient thanks a doctor for her kindness which she learned from a nurse in a clinic. Where a cat’s paw on a chin makes the planet stop spinning on its axis. Where learned friends discuss Russell’s Teapot and the only teapot you want is filled with Darjeeling. Where we gasp greedily for likes of our Facebook statuses but the only things that go viral are the avian flu. Where the sidewalk ends. Where the twilight just shatters the the silhouettes of the veld and tagged leopards melt into the comforting dark. Where a membrane so thin can safeguard the very atoms of life. Where you walk on a beach as wide as a runway and shout four-letter words at the sky.

Where the sky is just wry and smiles at your whys and the rhyme makes you grin at the sea:

In this very last place with strange grace on my face, that is, oh, oh, where I want to Be.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kelp Forests of the Galaxy

The buzz of the fan competes with the whirring of the fridge’s motor, drowning out the sounds of insects and birds outside. The sun is bright and merciless on the mountains, but they are bright green in defiance. Apparently leopards lurk in these hills. I would hope they do, the last of the Cape’s big cats, solitary predators that have avoided the reach of man.

Bain's Kloof, where I wrote this post. Life is hard...
I’m more frightened of baboons than leopards, and we have been cautioned to keep the cottage closed for fear they might come in and maraud the kitchen. Cape baboons are terrifying creatures; the males have fangs that would rival any vampire’s.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m not particularly fond of primates in general. This does not mean that I hate them or anything. Chimpanzees and gorillas and orang-utangs should be left alone. I hate that we anthropomorphise them, never mind hunt them in some societies or use them for comic relief in films. And any form of cruelty to animals is horrific. But there is something about the shit-flinging of chimps that annoys the crap (!) out of me. Probably because we did the same, aeons ago. I don’t like monkeys being kept as pets either. Vervet monkeys in KZN are a particular pest as well. And far more dangerous than some would believe. They are wild animals, and wild animals that are not particularly frightened of humans.  Let me not start with vivisection, I am horrified by it and I have to live in a cloud of hypocrisy because much valuable information has advanced medicine from this necessary evil.

No. Just no.
Horses I don’t particularly like either. Actually, it’s not so much the horses as horsey people. I would want them to roam free, not be castigated by high-society, chardonnay-sipping mink-manure types who see fit to trample their muddied and shit-caked boots wherever they like. (Okay, some horsey people are lovely, for example, my niece and some dear friends in Tzaneen. But in my experience they are the exception.)

And horses, also, do not seem to like me: perhaps they sense my inner wolf. I’ve ridden them before, but they always bolt and try and throw me off. And, the smell. No thank you.

No. Give me panthers and wolves and bears, please. Give me dolphins and whales and seals and otters. Even giant squid hold more fascination for me than the fellow members of my mammalian order. I even appreciate bats, particularly fruit bats: of my favourite memories of visiting the Seychelles are the giant fruit-bats with their foxy faces swooping down at sunset to perch upside down in the palm trees.

My favourite spot in the Two Oceans aquarium is the giant tank with the kelp forest that sways to and fro in a hypnotic rhythm. The underwater rhumba is awe-inspiring and calming; I zone out here in the best of ways. It’s a beautifully recreated exhibit of some of the loveliest waters on our planet. Out here, right now, writing in this beautiful spot in a green valley in the Bain’s Kloof pass, one would hardly register that from space the Earth is mostly blue. The Blue Marble, verily.

The "Blue Marble" photgraph in its original orientation,
South Africa is at the top. As it should be.
Interestingly, that famous picture of Earth taken from space, in its original orientation, showed Africa “upside-down” — the photograph was swivelled 180º so that it would look more familiar to us. As I’ve noted before, there is no “upside-down” in space, the only orientations we could possibly infer from a planet is its axis and the plane of its ecliptic around the star which it orbits. But that could be in any direction.

However, stars do form a disk of denseness in a galaxy; the Milky Way is relatively flat, for example. I love the fact that given enough randomness, order often emerge. If there is enough matter around in a local area of space, it will clump together to become spherical. This is one of the prerequisites for being called a planet (major or minor). Our Earth is basically a sphere (okay, an oblate spheroid if you want to be picky) and so is the Moon. A comet or asteroid does not have enough mass to form this shape, so it remains unequally shaped.

Is it a star? Is it a planet? Not quite either...
Notwithstanding the amazing feat that we recently landed a spacecraft on a comet, I was a little sad that we’ve never sent something to Ceres, the only (minor) planet in the asteroid belt. Poor Pluto was demoted to this status recently; it’s not even the biggest of the minor planets. Eris is bigger, as well as an even more distant one (or are there two) with beautiful names of Hawaiian deities I can’t remember right now.

Recent evidence suggests that the largest planet in out Solar System, Jupiter, is not so much a planet as a failed star. Were it bigger it could well have ignited and formed the faintest of stars, so-called brown dwarves. There are many in our galaxy, and they themselves can cool to form proto-planets. They’re just too dim to be observed. The Earth is part of a remnant of a massive star that was torn apart to form our current sun and her various children, the rocky ones (us, Mercury, Venus, Mars), the gaseous ones (Jupiter, Saturn) and the icy ones (Uranus, Neptune). Many people realise that besides being crushed by the gravity you wouldn’t be able to actually walk on the surface of Jupiter, because it’s made of gas. We can only live on rocky worlds, and then only if they are the Goldilocks distance from the sun where we can have seasons with the correct axial tilt and, of course, oxygen and liquid water.

Could we ever be able to colonise another planet? And would we bring with, ark-like, said wolves and panthers and bears? (Or, we could always have the reverse scenario... Planet of the Apes much?)

I was both captivated and frustrated by Christopher Nolan’s epic “Interstellar”. I thought the director and producers captured the relativity physics relatively (no pun intended) well, and though the conception of traveling beyond the black hole’s event horizon was a bit mawkish, from a story arc point of view it worked beautifully. I would have liked Matthew McConaughey to have been less leaden in his performance; John Lithgow outshone him as the grumpy but caring father-in-law and Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain were simply spectacular.

And here you will find me at peace.
If we meet aliens, I hope they are wise and caring like the guardians in the Green Lantern comics or zany like the Solomons in 3rd Rock From The Sun (another area where John Lithgow gave one of the most hilarious performances in the history of television.)

Or, perhaps the aliens are already among us; maybe they are the kelp forests, swaying to and fro incessantly, watching and waiting... watching and waiting.

Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to that exhibit. Maybe the kelp senses my little cosmology-addled brain, and is trying to communicate with me. I wonder what it’s saying. Come swim? Stop polluting the planet before we start colonising you and eat your little soft bodies? Thanks for the sunlight? Aren’t octopi cute? Douglas Adams was right about the whales?!

I’ll let you know if I wake up covered in seaweed, but for now, you may find me staring at that tank on my next post-call weekend... who knows what the kelp might tell me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Words, Words, Words

We need words, and we need the ocean. In fact, we need an ocean of words to wash over ourselves sometimes.

 We take language for granted. This is necessary, of course. Our constantly beleagured brains habe to process grammar and vocabulary at a breakneck pace, parsing sentences and contexts as we enter our daily streams of speech and text. Nobody needs to know what a noun or a verb or an adverb is in order to use them. 

We hardly remember that vernal time when we just acquired language without thinking about it. Linguists grapple whether there is a language centre and a language instinct (Pinker; Chomsky) or whether it is just a thing-in-itself we can’t analyse. But even as speaking in the most complex of tongues is always going to be an imperfect way to pass our thoughts from one to the other across time and space, it is what makes human life possible.

English is blessed (and cursed) with a fat vocabulary. One metaphor I learned as a child is that the language is a giant Amazon river, born of Germanic mountain streams but fed by so many tributaries that, at its mouth where it connects into the common human experience, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain its source. There are streams from the Romance, from the Slavic, from the Arabic: the list is long and exhaustive.

Sometimes we lose sight of this, so that people baulk when I say to them that Afrikaans is in fact very closely related to English: it even sits on the same branch, West Germanic. English (and Afrikaans), being part of the vast tree that is Indo-European, is even related to Hindi and Sanskrit and Farsi (Persian.) From a single seed sprang forth a forest.

Sometimes we need to look up from the forest floor and appreciate that canopy. There are high leaves on the trees that can delight and inform. Words like syzygy, barycentre, hypaethral, apogee, benthic. They speak of the skies and the oceans. They might not be essential to daily survival, but we need to be reminded of the innate magic of words. When you see a small child speaking for the first time you are watching a magic spell in action, something inexplicable, but necessary, and vital.

We should dream of that time when we grasped words without needing to reach for a dictionary. Fortunately, we always have the friend of context available, and nowhere does it come more to the fore than in books. Something great happens when we place our vocabularies next to those of another, who has exposed it in their writing, and we gaze on the common ground and divisions and exclusive areas.

What astonishes me most is the capacity for learning other languages. When European explorers encountered people from other nations, other continents, whose tongues were completely unrelated to our own, the collision brought initial confusion, but ultimately, clarity. Because French and English are cousins, if not siblings, we can easily understand that “cat” and “chat” mean the same thing, and “travaille” must be related to “travail” and “bateau” cognate to “boat.” Not so with Xhosa. Or Navajo. Or Japanese.

Yet, with patience, we begin understand each other. The easiest, of course, is to place children in a situation where they are exposed to both languages. A child with English parents placed in a German (or Mandarin, or Zulu) school will pick up both tongues and become fluent to the point that it will be difficult to ascertain what is their mother tongue.

It was children who invented understanding.

Even adults can obtain astonishing competency, even if complete mastery eludes them. Joseph Conrad, a Polish immigrant, only learned to speak English when he was 19, yet became one of the most important writers in the language. He never lost his Polish accent, but, reading him, you’d never think English wasn’t his mother tongue.

The larynx is an astonishingly complex organ, a master instrument we carry about nonchalantly. A fine network of nerves innervate a nexus of interconnected cartilage, articulating, the tongue in happy tow. We sing notes without needing words, yet when we add words we exalt both the music and the language we pour forth. And in singing, we lose our accents; we revert to a common dialect, as it were. Anyone can be taught to sing. And anyone can learn more words.

Then there is the magic of writing. It is the last of the arts of language to develop, because words and associations must be learned and placed in context. But it doesn’t just draw its energy from here. Roots reach deep into the symbolic, the subconscious, the passion from story, an energy that was witness to ancient hunts, fires, even the protean moments where we were not quite fish and yet not quite furry.

Where and when a group of cells congealed to be able to become aware of itself is a mystery, a beautiful mystery I am happy not to understand. For now. The spread of Christian Empires was partly predicated on the fact that the God at the centre of it all was, ultimately, unknowable to It/Him/Herself.  I have confidence that science has the capacity to discover it, and if I’m privy to the knowledge, it won’t be spoilt, for yet another mystery will open like a nested Russian babushka doll. Knowledge creates fractals, snowflakes out of triangles, casting light as it probes into the darkness that races away to depths still deeper and more shadowy. As I like to quote so often: “the larger the searchlight, the greater the circumference of the unknown.”

It is at the edge of language that we encounter shadow, and our primal need to name things kicks in. We are always forming new words, and we do that partly to assuage our fear. Words like “tweet” and “facebooking” and “clusterfuck” may seem frivolous. but they delineate the fuzzy line between the conscious and the pre-conscious.

So go ahead and read more. Learn a new word. Place yourself on that front wave, and surf the edge of chaos. You’ll be richer for it, knowing that even if a wave knocks you sideways, you won’t drown in the ocean, but, merely catch a glimpse of the yet undiscovered jewels that will one day surface.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

J'Accuse! (Or, The Big Bad Wolf Strikes Back)

He's never been given a fair hearing. Until now.


I am the Big Bad Wolf, and I have some things to say.

I accuse you, Brothers Grimm, and possibly Madame Perrault, and, who knows, even gloomy old Hans Christian, for getting a shitload of things wrong in translation.

(1) The Three Little Pigs were contravening building regulations. Someone had to stop them, or the whole forest would have burnt down. (FYI, the third little pig’s brick house didn’t cut the municipal by-laws either, the electrical wiring was dangerous and wasn't forwarded to me for inspection. Since Pinocchio retired I have to approve all electrical plans, too.)

(2) Reynard the Fox: You’re a trickster and I’m sick of being your fall guy. Wait until I tell all about your dealings with the mob and your affair with Goldilocks. Rumplestiltskin wants his Porsche back. I’ll deal with you later.

(3) Little Red. Oh, how you broke my heart. You told me you loved me, but then you fell for the huntsman, because he was cooler than me apparently. You know he just wanted you as a trophy wife. Before you knew it, you had five children and he dumped you for Cinderella.

(4) Werewolves? Well, it’s not a curse that I can pass on my gift. That first human asked for it. He was dying, you kno, wounded. So I bit him. I would have liked him to control his hunger. Sadly he couldn’t. I was younger then; I didn’t think he’d start a bloodthirsty epidemic. But my kind does keep the vampire population under control.

(5) Oh, yes, the Woodcutter again. Do you know what it feels like having your stomach hacked open and filled with stones? Why bother with the stones in the first place anyway? The abdominal wound would be fatal enough. Anyway, being a magical creature, I didn’t die. Instead I lay for a long time at the bottom of the lake and I did a lot of thinking. After the pain had gone away I realised they were magic stones - your fault for not checking. It took a while to get them out (it’s pretty gross, too, digging around in your guts) but eventually I healed. By that time I had become quite used to lying on the floor of the lake and taught myself to walk under water to the ocean. The dolphins and crabs didn’t judge me which was refreshing; they’d never seen a wolf before. I even met the Little Mermaid and we bonded for a while over Bellinis on her private island, lamenting how fickle humans are. I really admire her, because it takes years to rematerialise from the foam.

(6) But, in all fairness, there are some happy stories. I can’t just be angry. So I’d also like to thank Mr Rudyard Kipling and Mr Jack London for their more positive portrayals of my kin (and, now that I think of it, even Mr Prokofiev, because in his story he at least doesn’t kill me, but takes me to the zoo.)

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’d like to go howl at the moon and possibly hunt a bunny rabbit. You know, since I have big teeth, all the better to bite with and all that clap-trap. In the meantime, please forward any correspondence to my secretary, Old Mother Hubbard.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On Darkness

I want to talk about darkness. About shadows.

There is going to be a lot of Jung flying about here, and as I am not a Jung scholar, I apologise for taking great liberties with the great man’s theories.

Shadows are things do not exist without light. Yet we all cast them, and the brighter the light, the more obvious they are.

Shadows are dark, by definition. We are programmed to fear darkness, because we usually equate it with evil. Things lurk in there that we probably don’t like. We treat our shadow worlds like dustbins, shoving things we’d rather not face into the black corners. We know that deep down in the oceans exist scary creatures: jellyfish, viperfish, giant isopods and squids, things we don’t want near us when we swim.

We come to the conclusion that the darkness is a convenient place to store anything, like an eveready cupboard we can stuff things into when we need to appear neat and tidy.

But it is only a temporary holding place. Separated from the light that is supposed to probe and unpack them, undesireable things learn to adapt to a new ecosystem. Think of the bleached moles and spiders that have evolved in deep caves. Fungi grow there, metabolisms alter, and colonies of strange creatures form. Then, one day, these altered beings creep out of the cave when we least expect it.

What lies beneath?
And what do we blame, after we have screamed and run away? The darkness. When in fact, we polluted it in the first place.

We forget that evil, actually, is banal. It can exist and thrive during the day or at night. We forget that we hide good things too in our personal caves, to our own detriment. We deny our ability to stand up to unfairness. We indulge in the incessant forgetting of our strengths. We cast aside the vast collection of happiness, of dreams, of moments of joy with the slightest arrival of criticism or slight.

The problem is, how do we see these shadow things for what they are, when our eyes are meant for collecting light? Plato famously said that we plunge with torches into a cave, but are unable to experience the knowledge of the darkness because we have to bring fire. (And, for those of us raised with Christian theology, we must remember that the traditional conception of Hell is not dark, but rather, populated with raging flames where the damned are roasted eternally.)

It took the British psychoanalyst Bion to come up with the confusing, but startling concept of the “beam of darkness” we need to shine into that cave. It is only through it that we can understand the inverse of light. This necessarily implies a descent into the unknown, with the realisation that we carry an internal battery as it were that has been charged, yes, by the sun. Suns collapse into black holes, but they burst forth again in supernovas, brighter than they have ever been after their sojourn into the unfathomable black.

The truth is that dark feeds light, and light feeds dark. Such has been the wont of the Universe ever since its birth.

In the cave with its black light, alone, we can breathe, and sort the wheat from the chaff, so we can bring them into light again. The giant squid that we thought was lurking there to squeeze the life out of us turns out to be an atrophied shrimp. Strings of painful memories evaporate into a sad but soft mist as we coax them out into the sunshine again. And, if we combine the discernment the light taught us with the instinct of the dark, we can exorcise the fake demons we conjured and finally bid them goodbye. (I think now of the sorry debacle of the nineties when ethically suspect hypnotherapists conjured fake experiences of sexual abuse from their patients with highly controversial “regression” therapy.)”

Keeping things in the dark, as it were, is of course vitally necessary to cope with life. We don’t need to remember how we drove to work, or what muscles we used to swallow our bacon and eggs this morning. We can’t remember the conversations we had yesterday. The brain needs to engage in more complex things, so that we remember instead how to sing along to a favourite song, or how to swim when we spot a beautiful lagoon, or make an important transaction or prescribe a patient an essential drug. As for song, it is only because of the silences between the notes that we can appreciate the music. Silence brings punctuation, and punctuation affords understanding.

We could equate our consciousness to stars glowing in the darkness, then, at their coronae, we encounter the membrane of the pre-conscious that encapsulates them. And there they float in the deep unconscious that flows between the stars. Or, to use my favourite analogy which a friend told me: think of an ocean. Think of a kelp forest that sways from side to side, and that at the surface, an island floats. The island is our consciousness, held by the kelp, that sways on the bedrock of the unconscious that anchors it. The bedrock needs no light. Nor does the ocean. But when light shines through it, it is filtered, and becomes even more beautiful. The moon emits no light of its own but is content to reflect that of the sun’s.

Where do we find our beam of darkness?

Perhaps the eyes glow only because
they need to lead the way.
It is difficult. It is a primal thing, animalistic, a night creature unhindered by rational thought. We fear it, thinking it will bring destruction. But it will only bring destruction if we shear it off from our beam of light with scorn. We forget that we gestated for nine months without light in our mother’s womb, or that in sleep, our eyes are closed, melting into an internal night.

We do not need to tame this creature, we merely need to meet it at the mouth of a cave and let it show us the way. Native Americans speak of a totem animal; in visualations and dreamscapes they descend to meet it. My totem animal, fittingly, is a wolf of course. But it could have been an otter, a fish, or a starling. The physiology need bear no resemblance to the container of the darkness, it merely needs to be able to enter it. We trust this animal, guiding us past the rush of our thoughts, leading us, until we realise we are carrying a torch, our beam, that can shine either light or dark. And there we will find the subconscious has brought forth castles of quartz, stalactites of diamond, conflagrations of jewels.

What will happen when our beam shines? What will be illuminated? What will we be able to bring back? Hopefully, our cave will be neater, freer, with room to breathe. For new things to be stored... temporarily... to cool perhaps, under a sun that has scorched them.

We try too hard, of course, to integrate things. I think we should feel liberated that there are limits to what we can know. That these things are shared and nurture us. Millions of molecules are assembling and disassembling in our cells right now, but we are not aware of them, instead, we can read, kiss our loved ones or admire a sunset. And as carbon is essential to life, arsenic is toxic, yet they are made up of the same fundamental particles.

Carbon, of course, is black in the light, while arsenic is silvery-white and lustrous in its elemental form. It would be very dangerous to assume their actions based on their colour now, wouldn’t it?

Let us examine the night now, the most tangible darkness we know.
Who are you, and why are you here?

I was afraid of the dark as a child. I needed a night light, except when the full moon shone. I regularly checked for monsters under the bed and kept the cupboards closed in case ghosts decided to take up residence there. Is this perhaps because we unwittingly teach children that the dark is bad? Certainly, it is disarming when we cannot see. Up, down, left and right become completely arbitrary (forgetting gravity.) The normal layout of maps is a hangover from Western dominance of the seas; there is no reason that South shouldn’t be at the top. (There is, in fact, an upside-down map of the world available, and it is refreshing to look at.) It took my cat to disabuse me of this: a night-creature himself, he purrs and lies at the foot of the bed, his eyes engineered with rods that make maximal use of the scarcity of photons.

Then my bed would becomes a spaceship. Here I’ve learned to float, not to fear.

There are many ways we can acquaint ourselves with our nocturnal shadows. (Often we are forced to here in SA with out rolling blackouts, thank you Eskom.) We can drive to Sutherland where the Karoo sky is at its blackest and see the galaxy the way its meant to be. We can go to the Bushveld and sit around the fire until it dies and then lie in our huts and listen to an African night at play. We can get up early and walk to the ocean before sunrise and see the daily birth of our star.

But most of all, we can close our eyes and wait for the dreams to come.

Cruelly for me, I struggle with insomnia. I’ve tried meditating, medication, warm milk, banishing electronic devices from the bedroom. Our current regimen of eight hours of sleep followed by daily activity is in fact artificial. During pre-electric days, humans would alternate sleep and activity during the night, dozing for a few hours, then becoming productive.

Electricity not only illuminated, but scarred our pineal glands forever. And so we reach for melatonin, for zolpidem, for yoga classes and B-RST free milk. It is perhaps a fitting irony that we are forced to confront the dark when insomnia hits.

The dark illuminates, too.
I’ve formed a relationship with my insomnia. I don’t fear it anymore, I let it guide my thoughts as I lie in the darkness listening to the rustle of the wind and the soft breathing of my wife. Clocks tick, the dog settles herself in her sleep, the foundations of the house creak. Night birds sing and far away the odd car revs its engines. The night is as alive with life as the day. Eventually, I do fall asleep. I only wish civilisation would make allowance for those us whose clocks are wound differently: I would happily start work at ten and work through till seven in the evening. Then I could potter around at midnight at my laptop and let the words flow, and do their magic in the darkness, and let the shadows speak.

But I digress.

The very pixels of the words that form on the screen right now are black: where the light is turned off. And yet I read.

As Zukofsky said: Come, shadow come.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Paul Walker, Tinctures and The Kindness of Denmark: A Ramble

It’s one of those post-call days where my mind is treacle. I “arrived at the blank page” eager to continue my latest effort on a novel after a shift that was reasonably kind to me and my registrar: I actually slept for eight hours and was bright-eyed at 8 am. But no fiction sprung from my fingers. Instead, I stared at the screen for a good fifteen minutes and took a cursory tour of my iTunes library, eventually fiddling about with the visualiser. Hardly creative stuff. Yet I still maintain that there is no such thing as writer’s “block”, at least not as an excuse. So I let myself ramble here. Freewriting —the parent of this post— is a much-neglected tool. I think of it as a little cardio workout before you hit the weights, and even if it gives you cramps you can at least take pride that you got up and went to the gym instead of think up a hundred excuses to avoid it. I’d already WAB-ed enough this morning —deworming the dog, rearranging the dairy products in the fridge, finding the right keystroke combination for em and en dashes: look!— and then it came to me, while I was taking a shower. Paul Walker.

Paul Walker (1973 - 2013)
The late actor, famed for his athletic good looks and meteoric rise to fame in The Fast and the Furious was rightly mourned by many young men who idolised his masculinity that was neither macho nor fake when he died, ironically, in a James Dean-esque fireball car-crash last year. At 40, Walker was still in his prime. He looked 28. He was (despite most of the screenplays where he had little leverage with to chew scenery except with his looks) a very good actor: look at his turn in Pleasantville as the conflicted 1950s jock who grapples with reality messing with the fairy-tale world he lives in. He had amazing hair. He was moreover a “guy’s guy”, evidently into all sorts of extreme sports, and, moreover, a nice guy, with no pomp or scandal or ego. He was a caring father. He was devoted to various charitable causes. Though I’m by no-means an action movie boffin, his death was a very poignant moment for me.

I kept thinking of E. E. Cummings’s line in his disturbing poem Buffalo Bill: “how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?” It illustrated at once how simultaneously democratic and banal death really is: there is no distinction between celebrity or tyrant or poet or civil servant. It just comes. Cruelly, indifferently. And sometimes I gag, thinking how immune to feeling I need to make myself at work, certainly in the moment of doing my job when crises hit, to the catastrophes that befall even the most innocent and undeserving victims: like children. My mind is actively trying to suppress a few horrific cases I’ve seen recently. One of last night’s was a grim reminder of how much harm “traditional” medicine can inflict. Let’s just say the patient is at least going to lose a limb if they survive.

A propos, this is why I believe in democratic legislation of all substances that are passed off as medicine: I don’t care what tincture or plant or sugar pills they originate from. Strychnine, one of the most evil poisons in existence, is a wholesomely natural plant derivative, and it was actively peddled by snake-oil salesmen as a panacea years ago. Of course, a host of life-saving medicines have come to us from the plant kingdom too: atropine, morphine and aspirin from the deadly nightshade, poppy and willow tree respectively come to mind. Quinine, from cinchona bark, was the first true bulwark against malaria. And so on. 

The tragedy is that many people unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot seeking alternative cures. I am not defending Big Pharma at all… but if you think about it even for a moment, imagine those souls with a curable tumour who, frightened by scary tales about chemotherapy (which I fully agree is a horrible thing to go through), seek solace in this tincture or that extract. It happens. And, sorry, there is absolutely no evidence that homoeopathy works beyond the placebo effect. I’ll bury you in scientific papers to that effect if you want. Yet hundreds of “remedies” are sold as being able to assist with symptoms or illnesses without any checks or balances at all. 

If you think MMR causes autism, you are STUPID.
The worst damage is done by a small amount of vociferous, untrained individuals who seek to actively smear evidence-based medicine based on loony word-of-mouth theories. The recent spike in measles epidemics following the whole MMR vaccine / autism bullshit is frightening. I have little time for people who choose not to vaccinate their children because they refuse to investigate and discover that the evidence that vaccines cause autism is ZERO. You are putting your child’s (and other people’s) health, and even their very lives, at risk. I’m not mincing my words here: the nonsense perpetrated is one of the most spectacular fuck-ups in history. There are isolate, valid reasons not to vaccinate sometimes –allergy, for example- but the usual “logic” is as crazy as the stupid woman who decided to feed her cat a vegan… yes, you read that right, a vegan… diet and then wondered why the poor animal nearly died. Cats are obligate carnivores. Projecting ones anthropomorphic sensibilities onto a defenceless animal in this manner is inexcusable.

Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine against stupidity. Except, perhaps, education. 

But I’m doing myself a disservice by letting vitriol build up and detracting from the chief subject of this post: the surreal way that, at least on the surface, the death of an actor thousands of miles away affects me more than the hundreds of lives I’ve seen stricken by awful pathologies. But the feelings for them are there: here I have to trust Jung and Freud that the emotions are suppressed into the subconscious. And out they will come, even if we don’t realise it: an eczema flare-up here, a tic there, or a vivid nightmare in the bowels of the night. Memories are like ghosts: they haunt in dark corners and rattle chains when you least expect them. Furthermore, they’re drowning ghosts: they seek, beyond all else, to surface.

This is why debriefing after trauma of any kind is so important. Doctors are getting better at it. I would imagine that any trauma sets up a grief that needs to be processed and, well, mourned. We mourn the passing of loved ones with obvious understanding. Grief is not a mental disorder. We should learn to mourn our losses (as trivial as some may seem) appropriately, before they metastasise into tumours of depression and anxiety. We simply need to find our therapy. For me, writing is one such thing. And if I consider myself an “artist” in that I do seem to have a way with words sometimes, it’s just that I’ve realised that an artist is a craftsman who has learned to make his craft not just speak but sing. Anyone can be taught to sing. There is scientific proof for this, too.

Paul Walker’s bright, brief life is poignant because it is simple to process. Stalin notoriously said that a single death is a tragedy and that a million is a statistic. Mull that over, though, and a cold shiver will hopefully race across your spine. It is sadly true that so much evil spreads when good people do nothing. I do not think the vast majority of Germans were evil when the Third Reich unleashed its awful purging of six million innocent souls: but because no good was done evil proliferated. 
Some Danish-Jewish children who
were safely evacuated to Sweden

The happy inversion of this happened in Denmark. Although the Nazis invaded, and I quote my source direclty, the Danish Resitance Movement managed to evacuate 7 220 of Denmark’s 7800-odd Jews to neutral Sweden. Holy crap. That’s a success rate of 93 percent. Over 99%… yes, 99% of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust. This is because the Danes stood up. And they did it with quiet resistance. There was a collective awareness that evil was happening, and simply with this awareness, good flourished. Calmly, the Danes gave the Führer the finger. 

Granted, those who resist evil often meet violent repression. But good needs to be obstinate when you realise that evil is an addiction to good in a way… it seeks to eat good and is never satisfied. That, at least, is how I parse the problem of evil.

If Paul Walker’s passing is shocking because such a Nice Guy was cruelly snuffed out, let’s look at someone who had his share of problems: A death that moved me deeply was that of Glee star Cory Monteith, who struggled with drug addiction for years. My wife and I were actually watching an episode of Glee when we picked up the tweet that he had died. The cast of this wonderful show had wormed their way into our hearts and they had become family. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that term, family. Much good has been done by entertainment… especially well-crafted entertainment… becoming a solace and a joy for people. If you took Star Wars away from me you would rip out parts of my soul, and a sense of magic would be gone from my life. When we pooh-pooh popular culture simply because it does not have the canon gravitas of a Van Gogh painting we throw a generation of babies out with the bath water. 

Cory Monteith (1982 - 2013)
Monteith’s death was almost certainly an accidental overdose. Addiction is a horrible disease, and though addicts are often bullishly destructive to themselves and others we need to understand this scourge with compassion. Tough love, but with compassion. Cory seemed a poster-boy for corn-fed American youthful optimism. Yet, amid the outpouring of grief from fans were some nasty comments that he deserved to die because he brought it on himself. What dark demons lurked underneath that boyish smile? Can we ever know? Cory was not a monster. He seemed a lovely young man. He was a conflicted young man, certainly, who probably never loved himself enough. And in a similar vein, I now realise that the schadenfreude so many displayed when Amy Winehouse died was a collective pissing on her great talent. We need to rather concentrate on the fact that art is not a disease. For many it is the lone good in which they can attempt to undo or subjugate their demons and foibles. We fall into the trap that great art has to somehow be tortured and water-boarded out of us, even if it may be a struggle to get it out in the first place. As I’ve said before, for every Hemingway I give you a Steinbeck or a Fauré or a Bach. Goethe himself said that the light is there and the colours surround us. 

And now, words are flowing out of me “like rain into a paper cup” — Across the Universe seems to have hijacked my brain. The words may be disordered and unruly, but I am grateful for the downpour. And, surprise, there has been no headache, no angst or self-loathing, go-figure.

I may not have added any understanding to any of the deaths I’ve mentioned above (I haven’t, Mr Freud, alluded to any of the personal losses in my life, tellingly.) But, if anything, I feel human again, after a night where a whole team of us had to rely on black-humour to get us through the dark hours.

Even though I wrote about it I am not become death after all. No world has been destroyed.

So, thank you Paul. Thank you Cory. You entertained me, and millions of others. I only hope to entertain some in return.

Jai Guru Deva Om.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Where The Wolves Are

Many of you may have noticed a quirk of mine: my obsession with wolves and werewolves. My friends have known this for a long time and it’s certainly a source of amusement for them. As a child I actually believed I was a werewolf and anxiously hoped that during my adolescence, under one glorious Full Moon, I’d finally sprout claws and fangs and run around howling my heart out… not to rip any innocent creature to shreds, you understand, but to connect with something very wild and primal and beautiful that has always been just out of reach. 

Wolves have some of the closest-knit
family instincts in the animal kingdom.
The wolf is something very special, even sacred to me. Native Americans have long respected the wolf; they call the animal their brother. The wolf has been an image in my mind for as long as I can remember: as a little boy I found fairy tales harrowing when I found out what usually happened to poor old Big Bad. His stomach cut open by the Woodsman. Carried off in chains in Peter and the Wolf. 

I had little sympathy for the Three Little Pigs or, especially, Little Red Riding Hood, thinking that a smart woman would know better than to go traipsing around the woods without a taser or pepper spray. When I found out that the original version of Cinderella had the Ugly Sisters cutting off their toes to fit into her shoe (which was a fur sandal, not a glass Jimmy Choo) I suspected something had gone horribly wrong in our canon of fairy tales. Something had been inverted, at times artificially sweetened or simply lost in an ancient translation.  
This is how it should have been, Mr Grimm.

It was fear, and the wolf was a symbol of that. Not in my fairy tale, some obstinate neurons in my hippocampus decided. I’m not going to project that onto such a magnificent creature. 

I don’t blame the Brothers Grimm: they were collectors, presevers of folklore. When I discovered Kipling’s The Jungle Book I had my “aha!” moment: here were wolves that were wise, benevolent and caring. And even in Disney’s jolly but totally inaccurate version, the scene of Akela brooding over the pack council haunted me. It was one of Disney’s last works he personally produced and where his protege, the aptly named Wolfgang Reitherman, matures as a consummate animator. 

Werner Freund, in his 80s, lives with wolves.
Epiphanies followed as I searched, trying to connect with that protean moment when, in the light of that flickering ancient fire, a wolf stepped out of the darkness and fearlessly stared at one of my forebears, becoming man’s best friend, not his worst enemy. I discovered Jack London, whose Call of the Wild and White Fang I… er… wolfed down. (And the great but damaged author thought he was a wolf, too.) There was Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, a memoir of transformation where he as a young researcher spent months in the Arctic observing a pack of wolves, coming to the conclusion that they were not decimators of caribou herds but a vital part of the ecosystem. The zenith of my discovery was Barry Lopez’s 1970s masterwork Of Wolves And Men, a glorious celebration of the similarities between the lupine and the human. 

How about a truce?
While we are not in the same mammalian order, on many levels wolves are closer to us than chimpanzees or gorillas. We are both pack animals with hierarchies and social orders. We have a group instinct –for better or for worse– and love expressing ourselves. We play. We mourn the loss of our loved ones, we banter and snap at each other and mark our territory. It’s fitting that the archetypal companion animal is the friendly wolf —the dog— and not another primate. Wolves are also of the best fathers in the animal kingdom, something man could do well to learn from. And they mate for life. 

I was almost tearful when biologists renamed the domestic dog Canis lupus familiaris, recognising it as a subspecies of the wolf (Canis lupus) and no longer a separate species. Yes, your fluffy Yorkie or faithful Labrador is actually a tame wolf with fully compatible DNA. On some small level, we had reached out a hand, trying to rebuild the bridges we burnt, even as the loathsome Sarah Palin boasted about shooting Alaskan wolves from above. 

My personality was a shapeshifting one. In my adolescence, the concept of the werewolf became an anchoring point of that great change: adolescence. Some teenagers become goths, some teenagers sit in darkened rooms blaring loud music, until hopefully and painfully we learn the truth at seventeen (to quote Janis Ian.) I was an awkward teenager who often made himself fresh fodder for ridicule with his big nose and orthodontics and possibly schizotypal traits.  Perhaps that is why I found solace as, inside my thoughts, I howled softly at the moon and dreamt of running in a pack.

Predator, but not necessarily a killer.
Freud and Jung would have a field day.
Clinical lycanthropy, the delusion that one is a wolf or werewolf, was long recognised as a distinct psychiatric disorder. I don’t think I’m deluded: I do not growl at my patients or use my friends as chew toys. I just have a degree of magical thinking, and I think this makes me a better writer. Call be a sub-clinical lycanthrope if you like; we all have our oddities. Freud and Jung drew heavily on the magnificent beast as symbol of predation or wild archetype. I have my right to believe in fairy tales, one in which the wolf is not a monster in the forest but in fact the guardian spirit who leads a little girl to safety. Naturally, I adore werewolf fiction, because (1) they are so much cooler than vampires and (2) the symbolism is denser than a turn-of-the-century London fog.

Don't get me wrong: wolves are wild animals, and as cuddly as they might seem (to me) they deserve respect. You cannot keep a wolf as a pet; they need kilograms of meat a day and need to run miles. (Fortunately the importation of wolf-dog hybrids has been stopped in most countries.) They do not necessarily howl at the moon. But they do not deserve abject fear and loathing. But the sad fact is that humans have decimated wolf populations without stopping to think that they are not the monsters we make them out to be. Recorded accounts of wolves attacking humans are vanishingly small, and even in those cases the majority were rabid or injured. 

We exterminated them in most of Western Europe — there is not a single wolf left in the British Isles, and only a handful of them exist on the Iberian Peninsula. Their populations were decimated in the United States and Mexico. Sizeable numbers now only remain in Canada and Siberia. However, when I was in Prague recently, I was delighted to hear from a local that the Czechs and the Slovaks, along with the Poles, are proud of having the most stable populations of wolves in Europe. 

In the US was great controversy when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park (it’s a National Park, for heavens’ sake, a site of their original habitat!) but Nature had the last laugh at the hands of the haters: their reintroduction improved the local ecosystem. You can watch a fascinating documentary here about how the wolves of Yellowstone altered the very course of the rivers:

You might think it odd of me to be so passionate about an animal when I live in Mzansi with her beautiful bestiary of lions, cheetahs and critically endangered rhinoceroses and wild dogs — the latter also a tragically misunderstood creature. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a passionate supporter of our rich ecological heritage. This is a planetary thing, and, as someone once said, humanity could be judged on how it has treated the wolf. Gandhi himself spoke of the true measure of a civilisation can be measured by how it treats its animals (and, by extension, all its vulnerable ones: children, the aged, the poor.)

We have much to learn from the wolf: tolerance, affection, endurance, family, playfulness. If we stare into those ancient wise eyes with an open mind, we will see our humanity reflected back at us. We already know that dogs are of the most loyal and loveable friends mankind has at its side. It’s time we acknowledge their noble inheritance, for our sake and the sake of our beautiful blue planet.

Excuse me while I go watch the moon rise.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Arachnophobia and Dead Marsupials: The Australia Diary 1

I had always imagined visiting Australia as part of a grand round-the-world tour by boat, entering Sydney Harbour on a magnificent steamer doing the Titanic “I’m flyyyyyyying” impersonation with the wife. I’ve been fascinated by the island continent since I was a little boy: tales of Uluru, dreamtime, kangaroos and wombats featured vividly in scenarios I dreamt up where I was an intrepid explorer with a faithful Great Dane by my side. This was possibly the result of reading too many Prince Valiant comics on Sunday afternoons on a full belly, falling asleep in the sun.

It was rather prosaic, then, that my first trip to Australia would be necessitated by the sad passing of my sister's husband. Together with my other, eldest sister (who lives in Durban) I rushed over. This is just was siblings do, of course. It was only as I settled back on the flight from Cape Town to Singapore that it hit me that the three of us would be together under the same roof for the first time in over two decades. I was not expecting to see anything of “Australia” except bits of suburban Sydney, as I had foreseen two weeks of helping around where I could and offering what support was possible.

In spite of this all, it turned out to be quite an adventure. I say this with the disclaimer that almost any travel is an adventure to me, even a day trip to  Johannesburg for  a conference. I like to imagine that I’m flying away from the Shire of Cape Town to Mordor for an important mission: and don’t tell me the Hillbrow Tower is not the All Seeing Eye of Sauron when set against one of those lurid orange highveld winter sunsets. Airport lounges, customs gates, luggage carousels... they brim with the energy of a moving life, an urgency spurring you on to see a different side of the planet.

The only significant east-west journey I had undertaken before was the venerable transatlantic run from London to New York just under a decade ago when I went to visit my cousin who delighted in living in a loft in Manhattan. It was was one of the most remarkable holidays of my life (and the cheapest, as the pound rose to 1 GBP to 2 USD and I essentially had no costs besides my airline ticket.) Arriving at the same time I had departed was a novelty. In the bright May sunshine of 2005, the Big Apple opened up to me in both a rush of charm and excitement. There was, as far as I could tell, no such thing as jet lag, just a whirling in my mind that shouted “ohmyGod... I’minthegreatestcityintheworld... NewYorkNewYorkyayyayayayayay!”

Traveling from Cape Town to Sydney was an entirely different beast. Kudos to Singapore Airlines, their route and service is certainly one of the more comfortable and convenient options. There is a mere 1 hour layover between Singapore Airport and the flight to Sydney. My problem was that I love flying and find it soothing, and completely underestimated the effect the sleeping tablet I had taken would have on me. Of the entire journey, I have a vague memory of jumping onto a skytrain to cross terminals at Singapore. In short I had no idea how I changed planes. It was only when we were four hours from Sydney that it occurred to me that nearly 20 hours of travelling had passed. It was a testament to the orderliness of airline regulations that I had not ended up on a flight to North Korea via Fiji.

G'day, mate!
Then the surreal experience of being picked up by my siblings on a strange continent thousands of miles away from home. I passed out in the back seat of my sister’s Passat and only woke up five hours later starfished on her couch with a very bad Justin Timberlake film playing on Fox. They say it takes you one day per time zone that you cross to recover, and given that my normal circadian rhythm is schizotypal at the best of times, I was promptly thrust into a frankly hallucinatory world. (I have been known to mistake pillows for giant marshmallows if I miss so much as an hour's worth of sleep.)

I had already entered Australia with some apprehension because I am an arachnophobe and Sydney is home to the most venomous spider on the planet, the Sydney funnel-web. This particular nasty also has the delightful habit of chomping down during an attack, flailing its legs about while continuing to bite its hapless victim. Of course, it’s typical of me to read up on my destinations beforehand to dream up worst-case scenario escape plans. I made sure I left for our honeymoon in the Seychelles ready to conquer a giant fruit-bat attack, said hello to Prague fully prepared to get abducted by die-hard Communist insurgents (instead I was rewarded by a thrilling half-hour of being locked in the loo on the train to Vienna) and was now ready to conquer Oz with the combined knowledge of all Animal Planet’s documentaries on the Antipodes. I was just irritated that I hadn't been able to buy funnel-web spider anti-venom ahead of the time on eBay.

I'm a platypus and I'm okay...
The Land of Down Under is, of course, home to the most dangerous animals on the planet —snakes, jellyfish, Jason Donovan—Australia even has the only venomous mammal on Earth, of course. (I speak of the platypus, which was probably the result of the good Lord spilling His morning macchiato on His iPad, causing a short-circuit and uploading the wrong information to the AnimalWorks 3.1 server in downtown Elysium.) When the platypus was first discovered and a specimen sent back to Europe, zoologists dismissed it as a hoax a la Piltdown Man. I was now primed to be attacked by every known member of the Australian bestiary and even mistook the first tree fern I spotted as we drove out of Kingsford Smith for a triffid.

It was the day before the funeral. My sister made the wise decision to take us on a drive around the city instead of staying at home; the next day was going to be sad enough. This might sound flippant to you, but when I lost my father my friends made sure I spent as little time at home in the horrible pre-funeral gloom: they took me to the movies, stuffed E-number laden take-out into my face and played Pictionary with me. I don’t remember much of it, but I will always be eternally grateful for their company. When you are bereaved you enter a parallel universe and expect to be isolated from the world forever. While there is nothing one can do to reverse the loss, showing up and hanging around unobtrusively is one of the greatest things you can do for a person while they process their sorrow.

It turned out to be a beautiful day, and we ended up in a nature reserve north of the city with a spectacular view of the Pacific. We stared at the panorama in the soft early autumn sunshine and I felt our moods brighten. There is very little that being near the ocean cannot remedy. I was captivated by the lush foliage and remarked that for the first time, eucalyptus trees actually looked beautiful. In South Africa, they’re usually tragic sentinels in one-horse towns with only tumbleweeds and a rusting petrol station to keep them company.

As we got back in the car to drive home, my sister mentioned how weird it was that she kept noticing graveyards and funeral parlours around her since her husband had passed on. There was an awkward silence as I digested this, remembering how it rang true for me: it’s a common phenomenon, a type of hypervigilance perhaps, that sets in when one has been emotionally traumatised. I tried to change the subject, mentioning how I was looking forward to seeing some Australian wildlife.

He was just hopping along his way to Bondi...
At that very moment, we drove round a corner and saw... a dead wallaby, lying spread-eagled on the side of the road.

“Well, there’s your first glimpse,” said my sister quite pleasantly.

“Oh shame, poor thing,” said my other sister. “Just lying there. You’d think drivers wouldn’t race round the bend like this.”

“Mmm,” I said, trying to parse all this. I remember thinking, at least it was just a wallaby. Imagine hitting a kangaroo. Or an emu. Or some resurrected giant Australian pterodactyl that hadn’t been discovered yet but lurked around the outskirts of Sydney.

“What a weird creature,” my eldest sister continued. “I don’t understand marsupials. I wonder what else we’ll get to see.”

Presently, a second dead wallaby appeared around the next corner.

We stared aghast at the grisly little scene for a few seconds, and then all three of us burst out laughing. For a moment, a levity had come to a sombre time.

“I promise I’ll show you some living Australian wildlife soon,” I remember my sister saying.

I sniggered, and then felt another jet-lag induced daze come over me as the Passat descended the hills back to the city. I would wake up a few hours later in the couch (apparently big sisters are efficient at dragging comatose little brothers onto couches) this time staring at Cameron Diaz in a negligee.

I checked my fingers: yes, five on each hand, so I was not in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

I shuffled off to brush my teeth, hoping that a swarm of box jellyfish had not somehow entered the Sydney water supply to come barging out tentacles flaring through the taps. I had been a guest of the upside-down continent for just a day, and had not yet been bitten by funnel-web spider or eaten by a crocodile.

As I flossed, I felt sorry for the two dead wallabies, but thought, for three people at least, they had not died in vain.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

We'll Always Have A Galaxy

Quarks come in different flavours:
"up", "down", "strange" and "charmed".
(don't ask me why!)
Here is a representation of a proton
made up of two ups and one down.
Some of these things I know:

I know that I am made up more of empty space than of actual matter. I share fundamental coding with sea cucumbers and jaguars. My inner harmonies were formed over 13 billion years ago in an explosion that was so hot and vicious and unfathomable in energy that its shadow is still detectable across everything that is, was, and will be. None other than the poet e.e. cummings used Hubble's law of the expanding universe as a metaphor for the power of love when he wrote, "and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart / I carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)". When I am gone the smallest known bits my constituent parts (which my learned kin have variously called quarks and leptons, among others) shall be recycled in many, many, different configurations and permutations.

I cannot describe or codify to you exactly what a quark is but I do love the sound of its name, but I know that without them we wouldn't have atoms, without which there wouldn't be molecules, without which there wouldn't be nucleotides or proteins or cells to make up you, me and Dolly Parton. Speaking of cells, in every cell that constitutes my body are slave bacteria with their own independent coils of DNA, without whom I would literally be powerless. Mitochondria, if you didn't know already, are pretty much why multicellular life exists today, and their study has spawned some of the sexiest discoveries in the history of science. For those of you who'd like to undergo a beautiful mind-bending odyssey about how mitochondria shaped life (and death) as we know it today, I cannot recommend Nick Lane's Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life highly enough.

Tracking back even further, way before cells even existed, we have carbon. What we regard today as life started as a little sideshow because of this certain element 's tendency to hate being alone and want to hold hands with as many of its mates as possible. Yet, in its native form, we could disregard the sixth element on the Periodic Table as mere subway soot, use it to draw a picture with a pencil (if only I could draw) or, with true Saffer style, use as little cakes of charcoal to burn flesh freshly hunted from the great plains of Woolworths. This ritual, of course, ritually practiced order to bond with fellow males while consuming liquids critically laden with a certain, highly prized 9-membered molecule that contains two of these gregarious atoms at its core.

Electron micrograph of a mitochondrion -
remnants of ancient bacteria that eukaryotic organisms
such as ourselves depend upon to burn glucose to form energy.
Perhaps most astonishingly, I am able to transmit these all these thoughts to another conscious being (possibly one day someone not even of my own species) by deciding to record them in a mutually agreed on, decipherable external code. I'm of course talking about written text; language. One of thousands that exist on the planet. Even more astounding: this is happening virtually, as my fingers press keys on a board, which transmute pressure into electricity and then wireless undulations that are picked up by the Bluetooth magician in my desktop and then somehow binary code in a processor. Never mind the subsequent dance to virtual memory and then pixels doing conga lines across a screen (and that happening only when, and if, they pick up instructions because YOU decided to follow a series of links in a frighteningly incestuous nexus of electronic relays we call the Internet). I am not the first to marvel at all of this, nor the most eloquent in attempting to describe it, but I do it because I... I want to. I, for some bizarre, yet beautiful reason, need to, on this random night when I can't seem to sleep, a process that is vitally important for the functioning of those little enslaved bacteria.

So, on the one hand, there are millions (billions? I get order of magnitude fatigue easily) of universes inside me, and yet I am just one of 7 billion or so hominids on a single blue planet orbiting an apparently average-sized yellow star some fifteen thousand light years from a galactic core that may or may not contain a black hole. (I hope it does, because, awesome.) The simultaneous insignificance yet profound mysticism of Earth's location is much more beautifully set out in the opening lines of Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy", which I refer you to immediately if you haven't read it. Like the Lord of the Rings, I divide people (without prejudice) into those Who Have Read It and Those Who Still Need To. (I Still Need To Read LOTR, I offer up to you, as a gesture of my own fallability.)
The galactic sprawl seen in time lapse. Or, awesome.

I turn here, as I often do, from thoughts microscopic to macroscopic. Long after I am just an afterthought of a burst radiation, my (my own! your own! our own!) galaxy will collide with its neighbour Andromeda. After whatever galactic insurance claims have been settled, they'll form a new, massive, probably ellipsoid supergalaxy, hanging out casually with another fifty-odd or so regular commuters in a ten-million light-year or so smudge of the Universe we have decided to call, in a spectacular moment of scientific banality, the Local Group. Come on, people.

Maybe in a thousand years time "Local Group" will have evolved into some pretty word like "lykaalgrwwp" and be as fundamental to the vocabulary of our beloved Lingua Anglica as the words "sun" and "moon" but really? Couldn't we rename it to something cooler? I mean, we have "The Milky Way" which is both endearing and whimsical for our galaxy. Even the word "galaxy" comes from the Greek word for milk. And yes, in case you've been living inside a box all your life, on a really really dark night the great spiral arm we perpetually look out on really does look like a river of milk.

We have named planets after gods and goddesses and stars after giants and nymphs and great men and women. But our home county in the Universe as it were deserves a better moniker, I think. It doesn't have to be majestic (we already have majestic, for example, we are located on the Orion Arm of the Milky Way. Something civic like Galaxis Prime would be a start. We could go retro-artsy, say Cthulhu Manor. Or self-deferential nerdy, as in Nearscape (see what I did there). Or maybe Nermal even. Even "The Smudge" would do. But please, please, please do not call my local cluster of galaxies simply The Local Group. I propose a naming competition, the winner of which would win a trip to the Total Perspective Vortex in Adams's book for being so impish as to name a corner of the infinite. But naming things is a big part of what makes us human.

In case you were lost, here you are.
Whimsicality aside... actually, wait. Stop right there. I like to think that the Universe is not cruel and random; it is rather whimsical. This is a fairy-tale construction on my part, of course, to deal with the Primal Terror that we might be Alone (or, in the other variant, we are Not Alone and thus the necessary subplots of (a) we are either Too Utterly Insignificant To Be Noticed or (b) indeed Being Watched By Something (or Things) Which (i) May Or (ii) May Not Be Benign. Note to self, all three form great bases for stories and religious movements).

 So to rephrase: Whimsicality by my side, I'm  grateful to be part of Awesome Sprawl that I like to call the mess of things we find ourselves in. Not just our daily scurrying across bits of the planet's crust, but the nested movements within movements of moons and planets and stars and galaxies (and Smudges) move me profoundly. By that I don't just mean  in the physical break-neck and possibly nausea-inducing sense if you think of the mathematics of all that compounded velocity. It moves my soul, a concept something which numbers —as yet perhaps— cannot parse satisfactorily, I'll leave it to you to interpret that dangerous S-word as piously or deconstructivist as you like. At 37 years, I can only speak of an oceanic sense of belonging, a craning up of my neck to something so big, so, so big it has the paradoxical effect of making me feel needed and wanted.

I have, perhaps, a sense of cosmic separation anxiety, and this might simply be an extended case of nostalgia and sodade borne out of listening to the slow movement of Dvorak's 9th too many times when I was delirious with malaria once when I was 17. Do not underestimate the morphine-like effects of things written in D-flat major.

The icing on the celestial cake is, of course, I happen to live with a particularly wonderful and mostly sparkly pink bundle of molecules called a wife to
Leia: "I love you". Han: "I know." (They'll Always Have Endor) 
share this cosmic journey with, and who in her red-haired magnanimousness is content to let my clatter my thoughts into The Mistress (my iMac, Lydia... who was previously called Scarlett... long story...) for later editing and your hopefully pleasant consumption.

At the core of this, then (at the heart of the heart of the root of the root of the bud of the bud of the tree of e.e. cummingsian life) is this, to set down this:

You are not alone.

You have a galaxy.

You have a local group of galaxies.

"We'll always have Paris... no, wait, the Solar System, no wait, The Milky Way..."
Let's just all agree on a cool name for our neighborhood perhaps? And maybe we can form a I heart my hood movement, even a Neighborhood Watch for those of you who want to use Hubble as a pair of snooping binoculars. Nosy ladies with poodles and Far Side glasses enquire within, vacancies available. Must be able to bake cookies for visitors from other parts of the Universe.

Shouldn't we all feel the need to take part in a Galactic Pride march or something? At least planetary pride would be a start. Because, you know, wormholes. Because shifting focus and Big Pictures and all that. Because Sense of Belonging and End of War and other Aquarian Ideals I get befuddled with.

Because, where we are, and how we are moving through it, is frustratingly difficult to explain and yet astonishingly simple to experience, and quite simply, just beautiful.

We are that.

We'll Always Have A Galaxy. (For now, but that now is sufficiently, deliciously long enough for me.)