To flow and to float: On "Why We Swim" and "Spaceman"



When I lined these books up for my June to-read list, I had no idea how similarly both books would make me feel after the last page. I got so caught up in the narrative of each book that I sped through each of them in three days, and found myself wanting to go outside and soak up all the earth that Earth could give me. 

It's always nice to be reminded of our humanity - all aspects of how as individuals, and as a species, we manage to survive. And, in many ways, flourish. In the course of the universe's history, we've only been here for a short time. We've barely scratched the surface of what there is to know about the world and what's outside it. But that short blip of time has been long enough for man to endure, flourish, and even dare to want more. Humanity, as it seems, has a penchant for pushing the boundaries. Often, this leads to surprising and exhilarating results that make life more meaningful. And while we sometimes court danger along the way, unlocking something new about the world makes it all worth it. 

01 | Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

My love for this book only grew exponentially with each chapter. I can say part of it is because I miss swimming so much, and I loved living vicariously through the author as she chronicled her journey (researching for "science" but really just frolicking out to sea with some of the best open divers), all while I'm cooped up at home with no choice but to stay put.

This book dove into (pun intended) the history of swimming for recreation. Have you ever wondered how the first man discovered swimming as a hobby and not just a skill for survival? It's fascinating that the earliest evidence of recreational swimming is from some 10,000 ago, through prehistoric drawings in a cave now known as Cave of Swimmers in Egypt. It contains Neolithic rock paintings depicting people with their limbs bent as if they were swimming. The paintings convinced Lazslo Almasy, the explorer who discovered the cave in 1933, that water might have been a natural feature in the immediate vicinity of the cave and that the swimmers themselves were the painters. What we now currently know as one of the driest deserts, Sahara, was once a landscape with lakes and other bodies of water. Years later, a paleontologist named Paul Sereno would discover human remains interspersed with prehistoric fragments of pottery that were up to ten thousand years old in this once Green Sahara. This only proved further evidence that prehistoric human swimmers could have existed - and thrived.

Each chapter of the book looked into aspects of what makes humans so drawn to swimming. Much of our physiology is composed of water, and our bodies respond well to being surrounded by it. But it's also fascinating how some people are more biologically inclined to withstand the harsh nature of the waters. In fact, we know them and are probably related to them in some ways. In the coastal regions of Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle, lives the Bajau tribe, an "aquatic society" of free-diving fishermen who can swim down to 200 hundred feet and stay there, alternately swimming and walking along the ocean floor, ten minutes at a time, waiting for their catch. They can spend five hours a day submerged underwater. For thousands of years, in what is today Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the youngest Bajau sea nomads have been initiated into a life of the sea before they even learn to walk. Turns out, the Bajau have recently been shown to have spleens that are 50% larger than typical humans, which explains their exquisite skill. 

Then there are unbelievable humans like Gudlaugur Fridporsson, Lynne Cox, Dara Torres - just amazing, exceptional people all around. How their bodies withstand cold temperatures and fatigue is just unimaginable. But they pushed themselves to the limit, broke records, survived disasters. And somehow, became just one with the water. It's crazy and inspiring. Makes me want to go out and dive into the open waters, freezing temperatures and unpredictable weather conditions be damned. 

Swimming is healing. I've always believed in the therapeutic value of immersing ourselves in water because it makes us feel light, and brings about a feeling of calm and ease. But what I loved about this book is how it dove into the history and biology of our species to discover why we are drawn to it, and why we will probably never stop pushing the limits when it comes to the oceans and what lies beneath.


02 | Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino

Right off the bat let me just say that I've been watching NASA and space videos non-stop for a good chunk of this quarantine. I've gotten to know astronauts through YouTube videos and their Twitter feeds; I've learned about what it means to stay in the ISS for months at a time; I've seen the many ways they've answered the question "How do astronauts eat in space?" I guess deep down I still don't want to give up on my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

Mike Massimino's one of the more prominent faces you'll come to know when you search for astronaut videos. He's been a spokesperson for NASA, teaches aeronautical engineering at Columbia, and even appeared as himself in The Big Bang Theory, apparently. He's become one of my favorite astronauts to watch and learn from (along with Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency), so when I found out he had a book, I knew I just had to read it.

What I loved about his story was how compelling it was despite being very simple and straightforward. Middle-class family from Long Island, above-average boy in class, a little funnier than everyone else, gets along well in any circle. I identified with that. He wasn't a genius, by any means, but wow, he was determined. He really went out of his way to be on the path towards becoming an astronaut. Took up master's and PhD degrees, moved to many towns, worked with different professors, scientists, and engineers, racked up all the experience necessary to become qualified to apply to be on NASA. But it was not at all easy. He experienced all kinds of rejections and failures that would make anyone quit trying for good. (I mean, even his freakin' eyeballs had a weird shape that disqualified him from the physical exam!) 

His determination is so admirable. It took him more than a few decades, but man, what a journey. And the fact that his space missions were so unique and tied to his past experience (both trips were to repair the Hubble Telescope and not on the ISS) was nicely serendipitous. The culmination of all his past work, which were consequences of his past detours, made him the most suitable candidate to join the Hubble repair missions. It was so inspiring and so rewarding. The physics of actually going to space - and the way he described it - was so captivating too. It's such a feel-good read. 

This book actually reminds me of Colin Jost's autobiography. Their backgrounds are quite similar. I identify so much with people who aren't the most brilliant, most talented ones, but who acknowledged their privilege and didn't waste the opportunities they had in front of them. They just continued working, doing, creating. They kept their heads low, remained close with their families and friends, and never lost sight of why they loved doing what they do. They may not be the smartest guy in the room, but they certainly had the most fun. They kept reminding themselves of how lucky they were to even be in NASA (for Mike) or in 30 Rock (for Colin). In the end, the totality of all their experiences is what made them stand out. 

*

“It’s a planet,” I said. “It’s not what we thought it was back home. It’s not this safe cocoon, man. We’re out here spinning in all this chaos. The Earth is a planet. The Earth is a spaceship, and we’re all space travelers.”

We're all just land animals trying to find our way through the waters, on a huge satellite traversing space. We work, we seek leisure, we find ways to evolve and endure. We learn to live through the indignities of life and find meaning in whatever it is we discover. It's complicated, this Earth, this space we're occupying. And yet, it turns out, when you're able to swim through the deepest trenches or to fly through the farthest point in space possible, it's all so simple: life is short and fleeting. But it's beautiful for what it is in this moment in time. Soak it in. 



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