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.

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