Thursday, June 21, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #450] A plug, or, something to entice

Most of you probably know that I've been a keen Bill Bryson fan since happenstance led me to find one of his books, "Neither Here Nor There", on a shelf in my sister's chambre de bonne in Paris.  In the nearly two decades since that chance meeting, I've read and often reread everything he's published.  I've introduced him to many people, sometimes more successfully than others.  I'll admit freely his more recent works are more mature than the first ones, but I matured along with his writing, and I love them all as they are.

Below is an excerpt I've just reread, the introduction from "A Short History of Nearly Everything".  Even if you've no intention on delving into the Bryson oeuvre, these nine paragraphs capture a lot of the amazement that there is in just being us.  No pressure to read, but hope you enjoy it if you do.  If not, I know a cave with great algae on its walls.

Cheers,
Shaun




A Short History of Nearly Everything (Introduction)

Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you-indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting-fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn't, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life is curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements-nothing you wouldn't find in any ordinary drugstore-and that's all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed, they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and planets, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so usefully material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn't actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other physical properties on which our existence hinges. There needn't actually be a universe at all. For the longest time there wasn't. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing-nothing at all anywhere.

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and that they assemble in such a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living thing that have existed since the dawn of time, most-99.99 percent-are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself-shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything-and to do so repeatedly. That's much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get from "protoplasmal primordial atomic globule" (as the Gilbert and Sullivan song put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walrus-like on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely-make that miraculously-fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.

____________________________________________________________________________________
Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | www.nocirc.org

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #449] Berlin macht immer Spaß!

I went to Berlin the weekend before Norway with Rahul and his friend, Brent, who is visiting from Australia.  No need to gush over the continent's greatest city yet again, but just thought I'd share two pics from the weekend.

Also, to the surprise of many, we had two kick-ass vegan dinners while there, one at Kopps, and one at La Mano Verde (have the chocolate cake if you ever go - phenomenal!).  So contrarian to German stereotypes is my mistress.

Cheers,
Shaun



Only in Berlin: find you don't have that sling when you realise you need it?  Just have one delivered!




This was taken on my way to the airport Sunday morning; these three old men were waiting at the gated door to the bar for it to open, which it was just starting to do as I passed.  I think Berlin needs to move up my list of potential retirement locations!

____________________________________________________________________________________
Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | www.nocirc.org

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #448] Update on Mama - Post Party

Hi all,

Several people have asked after Mom, so thought I'd send an update.

I went back over to America last month for my Mom's and her twin sister's birthday party.  Lara and Lisa put together an awesome party at an outdoor space in Peotone and, fantastically, surprised Mom by arranging for all her friends from her old volleyball team to show up to surprise her.  The surprise happened before I arrived, but everyone said it was really touching and Mom was over the moon.

The party Lara and Lisa put together was perfect, despite cool weather.  In addition to the volleyball team, friends and family came in from literally all over the world to see Mom.  We had food and drinks, followed by drinks and drinks, gossip and storytelling, and a great montage of photographs and newspaper clippings from when the ladies played volleyball and their years immediately after.  Mom was so pleased and seemed emotionally and physically recharged afterwards.

Mom always said she wouldn't do chemo if she ever got cancer.  However, she decided to give it a go after her oncologist explained that newer chemo treatments aren't as harsh or taxing as the old.  So earlier in May, she had the first of six scheduled rounds of chemo, each separated by three weeks.  Despite the prediction of minimal side effects, Mom became very ill for several days and felt horrible.  As a result, she's decided not to pursue chemo, but will continue to stick to her healthy anti-cancer diet.  Between her first scan in January and pre-chemo scan last month, the tumours in her lungs didn't grow at all, so we're hoping the healthy lifestyle will keep Mom's body fighting the tumours.

I skype with her several times a week and she looks and sounds good, is active and feeling positive.  Lara, Lisa and the grandkids are around often, as well as Mom's sisters, Dar and Judy, Mom's "third daughter" Janine, and other rotating family members and friends, all of which keeps Mom busy and happy.

So all-in-all, she is doing well and we're, cliché, taking things day by day.  I'll be going back out this Summer and again in the Autumn.  I never thought I'd spend so much time in Manteno, Illinois!  <grin>  I'll continue to keep you posted, but for now, send Mom thoughts, love and positive vibes - and eMails, phone calls and visits don't hurt either.

Cheers,
Shaun





Mom (in her sassy blonde wig) and the other hell-raisers.

____________________________________________________________________________________
Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | www.nocirc.org

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #447] Caveat emptor

This past weekend, my boyfriend, Rahul, and I took a long weekend away to the Saudi Arabia of Scandinavia, Norway.  With a population just under five million, and being the fifth largest oil exporter and third largest gas exporter in the world, there are plenty of petrodollars (or petrokroner, to be precise) floating around the economy, boosting wages and prices, both of which are heavily taxed, enriching anyone lucky enough to be Norwegian* and impoverishing anyone else foolish enough to go there.

The first thing anyone says when you tell them you're going to Norway is how expensive it is.  As a Londoner, you take the warning in stride.  And then you sit down at an average outside bar in this resource-rich country and order your first £10 ($16) pint of beer and officially and truly feel sticker shock.  It actually feels novel and a bit decadent, and you delight in the absurdity of it all.  But with each passing £7-10 ($11-16) pint and £90 ($140) dinner**, it grows tiresome.  Eventually, you're just not having a good time, despite all Norway's potential, because you feel like you're being ripped off constantly.

But you do get what you pay for.  Both of the cities we visited, the capital, Oslo, and Norway's second city, Bergen, were beautiful, clean and well-serviced by equally clean, efficient public services.  And a benefit to the high prices is that neither of these cities has been overtaken by stag and hen does.  The streets (heck, the bars!) are bereft of drunken Anglos and Eurotrash, despite their beguiling settings and being reachable by low-cost air carriers.

Oslo regularly ranks highly on the "Best Places to Live" list and it's easy to see why - it's pretty perfect on paper, and, with enough money, you could have a really nice life there (or in Bergen, which I preferred).  Unfortunately, for those of us who need a little grit and friction in our lives, you'd also have a very dull life there.  I will take the (less) overpriced maddening jumble that is London any day.  But it was nice to see -- once.

Yours in post-Norwegian poverty,
Shaun


*An anecdote that illustrates the Norwegian phenomenon: all rich countries attract migrants from poorer ones to service its key cities; rarely are the staff of restaurants firms native-born, for example.  In Norway, the poorer immigrants serving the diners at its restaurants are Swedish.

**Two curries, a shared appetiser and the cheapest bottle of white.


Oslo's main shopping street.


Oslo from the new opera house.


Me, counting the change and having a small seizure after paying for our first pints.


Typical Oslo streetscape.


Norway has not signed onto the whaling ban.


Vigeland Sculpture Park, a delightful (and free) diversion in Oslo.


The pinnacle at the centre of the park.


The Bergen Railway, connecting Oslo to Bergen, is called "Europe's greatest railway".  Although it lacked what I imagine is the sudden dramatic landscapes of a similar journey through the alps, it is a fairly consistently beautiful ride once you're a bit outside of Oslo.  The lands of Southern Norway, I have to say, reminded me very much of Alaska.


The city of Bergen is built between "seven mountains", providing a more dramatic setting.


Its streets are eminently beguiling (the exact streets that would swarm with tourists anywhere more economical).


Bergen was in the Hanseatic League and its portside buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage site.



____________________________________________________________________________________
Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK | www.nocirc.org
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