Thwaites undergoats an udderly ridiculous joureny

thomas-thwaites-goat-man
Goat and follow your dreams; if a man can become a goat, then you can definitely become a popstar

The concept behind GoatMan is ingenious. It sounds like an invention only someone desperate, determined and open-minded would do. Which is Thomas Thwaites in a nutshell, or should I say, goat’s cheese wheel.

Stumbling along in life, with no job and acting as a unwilling trustafarian, Thwaites decided to turn his life around. Somehow, he thought that becoming an elephant walking across the Alps was the way to do it, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust. Which does still sound decidedly trustafarian-like all things considered, but at least the author wasn’t dog-sitting anymore.

Having trekked to Copenhagen and given some shamanic guidance in a hut, Thwaites realised he should’ve been a goat all along. It would’ve got my goat to say the least if I was part-way through an elephant design project and changed animal, but Thwaites didn’t seem to mind. Throughout the book we are guided through his process of realising his goal: visits to goat farms, creators of prosthetics, animal dissections (ft. snow leopard and an alpaca with practically tuberculosis) and a psychologist all feature. It’s exciting stuff.

Winning the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize for the project, as seen in the book GoatMan by Thomas Thwaites, this goes far deeper than merely thinking ‘goat-like’ thoughts. Impressively, Thwaites commits to the project with a level of dedication seldom seen elsewhere, and the documentation of this is displayed aesthetically, which appears to be the designer of Thwaites coming through, or in any doubt, a great publishing house. For every notable event, there is a technicolour image to boot, my favourite being (not the goat’s rumen spilling everywhere in graphic detail whilst I thought about my last meal, but in fact) Prof. Hutchinson’s freezer. It’s filled with hundreds of plastic bags with mysterious lumps and it’s all rather intriguing. Lumps being dead animals and intriguing meaning including giraffe necks and elephant feet. Check out his blog here: http://www.whatsinjohnsfreezer.com

As a concept it’s fantastic; sometimes it’s wonderful to do something just for the sake of it, not because it will ‘look good on my CV’. I hear this so often, with people wandering off on Duke of Edinburghs (it’s overrated- I ran out of food because my porridge pots broke and I woke up with frost on the inside of my tent), or attending up to 8 hours of extra curricular activities a week in the hope of impressing someone later in life in an application. Whilst pursing interests is important, I find that since the only incentive is to gain a place at an academic institution, it seems like a waste of time. Most people I know don’t even know what they want to do next weekend, let alone for their degree courses. Yet societal values have convinced us that the only path to success is: go to university, have a long working career- establishing yourself as upper middle class whilst you have a family, then retire. That’s the conventional measure of a happy lifestyle today, with the amount of wealth accumulated punctuating that achievement. But what if that isn’t true? There are so many assumptions in there, and now people automatically think they want going to university, but with no real incentive of their own except that that is what everybody else is.

So this book appeals because it is a rebellion of that. Sure, Thwaites did it to drag himself out of a pool of unemployment, but he could have worked as a waiter to do that. He didn’t know that he was going to win the Ig Prize for the Project. He received (and still does probably) uncertain comments from people around him surrounding it, but he preserved because that’s what he wanted to do. To live a simpler life is a noble aim, I suppose. It’s difficult to let go of everything, of contacts, the internet, unnecessary material objects. There’s an underlying fear of making that decision and getting so far behind with the world that if you don’t hurry, it’ll be too late to return.

Yet to take the time out and simply read this project counteracts that. You’ll never put reading this on your CV, and you’ll be so enraptured that you won’t think of your phone. Think of reading this as a little rebellion, your own holiday from being a modern Homo sapiens.

Advertisements

Brain on Fire- Susannah Cahalan

maxresdefault

A month of being somebody else. A month of confusion. A month of paranoia.

It might sound like the premise for a murder mystery involving stolen identity, however when renowned journalist, Cahalan, was overtaken with a mysterious illness, that is precisely what ensued. It started with seizures, rapidly, suddenly, then strange fleeting moments of outer-body experiences, thrilling highs and bursts of tears. Nobody understood what was going on. For the rest of her life, Cahalan was an ordinary person. Throughout the onset of her symptoms, she was diagnosed with everything from excessive alcohol consumption to bipolar disorder. The severity of these symptoms soon rose though, and she was confined to a hospital for a month, leaver her with only the vaguest of memories from that time: videos revealed her psychotic nature, doctors reports highlighting her inadequacy at even speaking. This breathtaking book takes  us through Cahalan’s shocking journey, revealing every aspect from her family’s grit and support, to the doctor who saved her life when many had abandoned her.

The style and fluency of this is outstanding. The way Cahalan illustrates the finer details is truly absorbing, with the balance between detail and factuality struck ideally. Of course, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as she is a journalist, but still you shouldn’t take eloquence for granted.

I am avid fan of neurology books, as frequent readers may have ascertained, and this book pleased me thoroughly. Due to the nature of Cahalan’s illness, it was unusually troublesome to pinpoint, so to read about all the various tests she had to take, such as memory recall (and how that deteriorated to an overwhelming extent) and the extract of spinal fluid both interested me. Can you believe, for example, that when Cahalan was asked to draw an ordinary clock, she drew this:

tumblr_mdhveeXvnT1qd9dz2o1_1280.jpg

People should read this book. Not because they might care about the science or even the tale of survival of a bright young woman. After all, in my opinion there was a distinctive lack of in-depth scientific knowledge- it would have been more interesting if there could have been a little more knowledge relating to her condition. No, people should read it because it will crush their complacency. Today we live in a push button society- you already know this. Change your appearance? Trip to the plastic surgeons and you’ll be fine. Change country, climate, job, life. All possible. What cannot be manipulated to such an extent is your health: there are still a lot of things that scientists and doctors simply do not know. There a thousands of illnesses with no cure. Some people claim bizarre diets work for them, others religion. But the truth of the matter is that for most people, once that disease is contracted there is nothing to be done; as a species we have much further to go before we can be satisfied with ourselves medically. We must never forget it might be us next- nobody grew up expecting to be that person falling ill.

This concept is conveyed expertly: multiple doctors gave her wildly inaccurate diagnoses. Many refused to treat her or gave up. One such thrilling element in the book are the red herrings, the missed clues and painstaking search to find a name for her condition, to identify it.

One notable issue is that there is no baseline character, so that when Cahalan does descend into a psychotic state, although things are clearly not as they ought to be, we don’t have a clear cut idea of the behavioural changes that been undertaken. Also, Cahalan has quite a forceful character, with this showing prominently in her writing and the episodes she describes. If you don’t enjoy people with that behavioural trait, it will make reading this slightly tougher as you lose a large proportion of the sympathy you would have had for her.

Generally, a great insight into a rare illness (Dalmau’s disease), that reveals that our brains are much more complex than anyone can fully comprehend.