An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Col. Chris Hadfield (2013)

book322If you happened to be on-line in recent years, the chances are that you may have seen chatter about a You-Tube video of Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield strumming his guitar and singing a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey”. (If you missed it, check it out. It’s pretty cool.) Not only is it a good cover, but it was also filmed when Hadfield was at the International Space Station (ISS) where he was finishing up his time as Commander. (Hadfield also gained fame by taking some superb photos and implementing loads of space-to-classroom educational outreach components. He’s seems to be pretty awesome, and an overall good guy.)

International_Space_Station_after_undocking_of_STS-132In his book, Hadfield takes the lessons that he’s learned on his journey training to be an astronaut and the first individual to go to space representing the Canada Space Agency. I love space exploration, but I haven’t really paid much attention to it since the most recent shuttle tragedy. I don’t know a lot about physics, some aspects of engineering, and other science-y details, but this lack of knowledge is entirely my fault for not paying better attention during my earlier school years. However, after reading Hadfield, I can’t say that I’m suddenly a well-informed expert in these matters, but I know a lot more than I did before this, and all the kudos should go to Hadfield for making his space experience fun and interesting via easy to understand and well written information.

Along with describing his long and arduous astronaut training, other ongoing themes throughout this read are to be a lifelong learner, to work well with others, and to pay attention to details as well as your bigger goals. (Other people will probably draw other conclusions, but these are what I pulled from this. To use a clichéd business expression: these are my take-aways.) So, perhaps not particularly new or unique thoughts, but when it’s wrapped in Hadfield’s life story and his career in space, it’s extremely palatable. Hadfield has a charming way about him – he’s seems to be brimming with enthusiasm, itching to keep on learning, whilst being extremely humble of his role in life. It’s a great combination, and one that kept me reading. (I’m usually not a big self-help book person, but this book is much more than that. Trust me.)

To wit, Hadfield wrote this about the importance of life-long learning:

It’s never either-or, never enjoyment versus advancement, so long as you conceive of advancement in terms of learning rather than climbing to the next rung of the professional ladder. You are getting ahead if you learn, even if you end up staying on the same rung.

I love this quotation as it’s exactly how I feel about life-long learning myself which is something that I frequently strive to do. I’m a big believer in the “beginner’s mind” approach to life, and really enjoy being exposed to new things and adding more details to the topics I already have familiarity with, so this advice really resonated with me and made me smile. Hooray for a fellow tribe member!

Here is his writing about the importance of preparation (vital if you’re an astronaut):

Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them [the risks themselves]. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy. Aside from anything else, the possibility of a sequel is nonexistent.


(Above) Chris Hadfield doing a space walk.

(Above) Chris Hadfield doing a space walk.

One of Hadfield’s big pushes in the book is to have a big plan ahead of what you want to happen, but pay attention to the pesky details that need to take place beforehand. His advice: “What’s going to be kill me next?” From an astronaut’s POV, that refers to thinking logically and chronologically about the immediate actions whilst keeping your eyes on the end goal. To me, he’s recommending a balanced “forest and the trees” approach, instead of an either/or dichotomy.

space_earthBut the book wasn’t all life advice – some of it were descriptions of everyday life on the International Space Station which were fascinating. For example, when you’re in space for a long time (months vs. days), your vertebra spread out as there is no gravity to weight down on it and so when people return from the ISS assignments, they will be taller than when they left. (Hadfield was an inch or so taller upon his return.) But the new height is only temporary as when you return to Earth and its gravity, you start to shrink back to your more typical height.

Another thing that’s very different was when Hadfield tried to shake hands solemnly with the outgoing Russian commander, a fellow astronaut who was leaving the ISS to return home. Shaking hands in space (without gravity, of course) means that when you actually do the action of shaking hands and you do the brief up-and-down movement with your hand, your whole body goes up and down whilst your hands actually stay still which, for some reason, just seems really funny to me.

After being an astronaut on the ISS, wouldn’t life seem rather mundane once you had returned to Earth and resumed your normal life? Hadfield addresses this too which I thought was rather cool. So many people seem to do One Big Thing in their lives (astronauts or not), and then rest on their laurels and do very little after it. Hadfield’s approach is to applaud the hundreds of little steps that were taken day by day to get you to that high point as well as acknowledging and recognizing the people who made that One Big Thing possible at the same time. Again, not particularly new or unique advice but I just loved the way that he wove his space experiences with normal everyday life. Most people are not going to be astronauts, but can probably relate to his sensible approach related above. The manner that Hadfield wrote in was notable: he seems to be very humble, down-to-earth, and witty whilst being very smart and capable at the same time. This came through again and again through the read, and it really impressed me.

Along the same lines, Hadfield reminds us that it’s not always all about us; sometimes we need to be the support staff for someone else’s dream (or for a team to reach a much bigger goal such as space exploration). It was just such an excellent read at a time when the general milieu is about new year resolutions, setting new goals, turning a new leaf…

So, in case you can’t tell, I loved this book. As I mentioned above, this is an autobiography of an astronaut more than a self-help book – his advice is just slipped in between the lines of describing emergency space walks and being the U.S. Navy’s top test pilot, so it’s so subtle that you don’t really notice the suggestions. Even if you do notice the recommendations, they are straight as an arrow and very sensible that it would be difficult to disagree with any of them.

To wrap this up, I loved this book and Chris Hadfield has been added to my list of “Interesting People to Come to my Dinner Party”. (Other invitees so far: Robert Lacey and Nick Hornby. Date and place TBA. Guest list is a work in progress.)

If your interest in space is tweaked after this review, another great read about every day life in space is Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”. (Anything by Roach is going to be good – this title just happens to be about what’s involved if you need to pack for a trip to Mars.) Hilarious and informative which is always a good thing.


The Book Sale…

As happens in a lot of towns and cities in the U.S., our local Friends of the Library (FoL) held their big annual book sale last weekend, and as I am a bona fide addict with regards to books and general booky-ness, I went. (Got to support the team, you know.)

And – I might have gone. Twice. Maybe. Maybe once on Friday with a friend of mine, and then maybe again on Sunday afternoon. You know – just to see if I  missed a title that I couldn’t live without. I think I got a good pile both days – nothing too huge, but definitely some books that will be good reads at some point in the future.

Titles as follows:

  • Out in the Noonday Sun – Valerie Pakenham (Non-fiction about late Vic/early Edwardians who lived abroad in the colonies around the world)
  • Cost: A Novel – Roxana Robinson
  • Dickens’ Fur Coat and Charlotte’s Unanswered Letters – Daniel Pool (non-fiction about strange little details of famous Vic authors et al.)
  • Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (non-fiction about African immigrant who arrives in U.S. with very little and becomes a medical doctor)
  • Sanctuary of Outcasts – Neil White (non-fiction about US’ last leper colony)
  • Native Son – Richard Wright (classic by Af-Am author)
  • Forever England – Beryl Bainbridge (non-fiction (?) which compares a few families from the North of UK with the families of the South)
  • Dead Cert – Dick Francis (good mystery about horse racing recommended by said friend)

And then, to balance out the annoyance that arose recently from reading that awful Moran book, I delved into the pile to find some non-fiction about women, women’s history and issues, and came up with the following:

And then – to try and be productive last weekend and because it was actually quite cool outside, I made the Executive Decision to make the first beef stew for this winter/fall season. So below is proof that I can cook without sugar (sometimes). (And yes, I do see the crumbs on the lids. Now…) :

And my favorite (really, only) apron which I found on top of a cabinet where it’s been hiding for a few years…

My Stroke of Insight – Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2008)

A friend has passed this book on to me saying that it was a good read, and as I was searching for a book that covered a subject very far removed from Victorian history (just for a change), I picked this one up. It’s a non-fiction that documents (autobiographically) how the author had an unexpected stroke in her late thirties and how it has affected her life. It’s also an interesting twist in it in that the author is also a neuroscientist and so this has deeply colored how she relates this medical experience.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of the long journey to recovery (post-stroke) and the steps she had to take along with the different choices she made. Her stroke left her completely unable to access her left hemisphere of the brain (unusual type of stroke, fairly common location for one) and so she had to re-learn how to talk, walk, speak, eat etc. (The left hemisphere of the brain attends to linear decision-making, the details of life, and I think memory among other things), and so there was this astounding process of discovery for her.

Since she had been a noted scientist in the mental health field prior to this event, it was also a big shift for her self-identity and it was tough for her to remember ( as I think it would be for anyone else) that just because she had a stroke did not mean that she was now “less than” she had been – she was just different.

This topic was particularly interesting for me as my father had had a stroke in 2001 and I feel that I was spectacularly uninformed about strokes, how they affect people in their various manifestations, and the process of recovery so this was really helpful for me. I realize that each person will have his/her own experience of a stroke (should they have one), but this was a particularly well-written of this one woman’s experience. Somehow, the author managed to recall with striking recall all the details of how her stroke felt to her from the minute it started to the end of the process.

This would have been very helpful to know when my father was dealing with the brief aftermath of his when he was still alive, as we (as a family) had little to no idea how to help him or even what had really happened. I believe he had had a left hemisphere stroke, and so his language abilities were strongly affected. Losing language (left brain) would cause so many challenges and obstacles (as related in this narrative) that it would require enormous patience and skill for family members and the caregivers who surround that patient.

From reading this person’s experience, it seems that it would be very tough indeed for people on both sides of the recovery process, and so I would think that reading this fairly down-to-earth recount of how a stroke affected this one person could only be helpful.

Bolte Taylor was also very helpful in reminding me (as a reader) to live in the present moment more – this is not a new concept for me, but it certainly is a tough one for me to live by and remember. As Bolte Taylor wrote:

“I may not be in control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to process my experience…”

I found this to be a riveting read that I gobbled down in one day and would highly recommend it to any interested peeps out there.

The Power of Habit: Why We do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Duhigg (2012)

The Power of Habit sounds as though it should be placed in the Self-Help section of your local independent bookstore, but it’s really more along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell and his ilk in that it’s a more science-y based book (although there are some self-help tips in it towards the end in terms of changing habits etc.)

Written by the NYT’s Charles Duhigg, the book takes more of a meta-analytic approach to habits, reviewing scientists and their published research in terms of human and organizational habits. It’s really quite fascinating for me to read, especially since I spent a lot of my professional career trying to change people’s habits from a public health perspective. So many talks and so much time chatting to people about developing more healthy behaviors…

Towards the turn of the millennium, I was involved in a large community-wide health initiative and tried to read as much as I could about changing behavior for the long-term: how did people change their long-time habits? And how do you keep them sustainable? At the time, I was a big believer in Prochaska et al and their Stages of Change, and I still believe that there are stages of development that most people have to travel through to make big changes in their lives.

This book took a slightly different angle to Prochaska and viewed habits as a behavioral loop that would be similar for almost everyone, whether they were smoking or sitting on the couch all day. (And actually, Duhigg addresses other non-health-related behaviors as well – a habit is a habit is a habit after all.) If you are more of a theory-driven learner and like me, need to know and understand the “why” before there’s any chance of moving further, “The Power of Habit” is set up to warm the cockles of your heart. Pages and pages of readable discussion about the various scientific studies that have been published about behavior, from the success of AA to not buying a cookie at three o’clock every workday. I wouldn’t say that this info was mind-shatteringly new for me, but it was thoroughly researched and supported by reputable studies so that its conclusions are more convincing than others have been.

What was interesting about this book was how it demonstrated some of the research findings into real-life scenarios. For example, studies have proven that most people who enter a large supermarket will automatically turn to the right when they go through the front door. (Do you?) This routine habit means that most supermarkets will put the more expensive impulse buys there. (For example, one local supermarket here has its florist, chocolate box selection and magazines to the right of its main door at one location.)  Thinking about it, it also has its grocery trolleys there as well, so that makes me wonder: did the placement of the trolleys come before the behavior or did the behavior come before the trolleys were put there?

It also helped to explain just why the produce section in most places is located towards the beginning of the shopping trip for a lot of people. According to Duhigg, it’s because if the consumer has already put “healthy” food into the trolley, then it’s easier (and more justifiable) to put a packet of Pringles on top as “the healthy food evens it” out sort of thing. I had noticed the arrangement, but could not work out why. Now I know one possible reason.

Additionally, it explains radio stations. Most listeners crave songs that are familiar to them, either because they know them through repetition or because the songs remind them of another song. We can only listen to a few things at one time, and if we’re having to concentrate on new (and therefore different/challenging) songs, then we have less attention to pay to more important actions (like driving a car). Few people will admit that they like Celine Dion songs, but research shows that if a Dion song comes on the radio station, hardly anyone will change the channel. They might protest in a survey or to their friends, but they won’t actually move to change the channel. (Interesting – will have to see if I can see this in action.)

Familiar songs are called “sticky” by those in the music biz (apparently), and makes sense to me as most top 40 adult contemp songs sound quite similar to me when I first hear them. (Not that I am a big fan of live radio as I get frustrated by the ads and the DJ drivel. But supposing I did…) When a radio station wants to introduce a new song that is not “familiar” in how it sounds for its audience, the station will sometimes “sandwich” the new song between two older and much more familiar songs so that the listener is not faced with having to deal with “too much different” at one time.

All fascinating stuff for me to learn. The book even portrays the Civil Rights movement and AA as beginning with habits, both on the personal and the cultural level. A quick and very interesting read that I enjoyed.

Duhigg is a very good writer and has been working for the NYT since 2006 doing investigative journalism. He backs up what he says and tends to keep his personal opinions to himself (which I appreciated). The only thing that disappointed me about the book was that it didn’t have a formal bibliography for further study. Apart from that, this made me think and that’s always a good thing.