He just knew…

The past two days we have spent together with Heike’s parents. We hadn’t seen them in a year, and although we make video calls to family regularly, it’s implausible that my 2 year-old son remembered his grandparents from the previous physical meeting. At age 1, there’s little that is saved on the hard drive, I think. But who knows, maybe family recognition is saved early and long-term. I’m no expert in memory formation.

My son does see a small handful of people in our neighborhood. We find it important to not let the pandemic impact too much in terms of bonding to adults that are not his parents. We get along well with our neighbors, who are also not from around here, and have a similarly aged kid. They’re also fun people. Both families shared the same worries about the pandemic side effects hurting the kids at a more social level, so since this spring we also more actively interact with each other’s kids, and this is noticeably nice for both parents and kids. Rafa now feels comfortable with both parents of the neighborhood kid, and he now happily plays in the neighbor garden without us having to be around (of course the others are there!). However, although he’s clearly comfortable and engaging socially, he also keeps a distance at some level. He wouldn’t ask to be picked up, or hug or talk much. There’s a certain level of shyness.

I was curious to see what would happen with grandma and grandpa around. I hoped for them (and for him, too, I guess) that he would feel comfortable and respond similarly to these ‘new’ real versions of the screen time grandparents. I was quite perplexed to see that within a matter of minutes he was in their camper, having full-on toddler conversations with them. This morning, the moment we opened our campervan door, and they opened theirs, he was gone. For the first time in two years, we had no son around. It was the weirdest thing. Where he used to come to me or Heike for everything, now it is all ‘opa’ and ‘oma’. Hugging, playing, talking. It goes on and on and on. Mom and dad? We’re mostly ignored. And that’s alright. He seems to just know that they’re his and he’s theirs. It’s quite special and I’m happy that the pandemic apparently did not affect our boy in that sense.

Aside from the apparently unbreakable bond between kids and grandparents, one other thing struck me hard. What a ridiculously tough ride has it been, throughout this pandemic. Juggling childcare with Heike throughout each day, every day has become the standard. We have no help or family anywhere near. I’m now typing this post at 5pm while taking some self time. Self rime… I forgot what it felt like. Heike’s outside, enjoying the sunshine, while Rafa is playing with grandma. This has been unthinkable for a long time. Writing before he’s in bed is just not an option. I barely manage to keep doors closed for work, during the work week, as he knows very well how to open them. As a result he regularly storms in and interrupts whatever is happening. Obviously he’s always where we are, almost at all times. There seems to be an end in sight. From July we will have child care again, and this will give us some more space. I think the time is right.

In moments like this I realize how tired I am, and how much the virus has disturbed society, without even getting into our own bodies.

A scene from a sci-fi movie

It was true. We ended up surprise camping in a beautiful place. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the place unbeknownst to us, but that others ensured us would be great, was indeed a quite idyllic and beautiful town.

It’s beautiful
It’s idyllic

But something felt off.

Wherever we went there were crowds of unmasked tourists. It was a scene that I could only remember from a seemingly distant past. The numbers of covid-19 cases are now suddenly so low, and by now quite a proportion of the adult population vaccinated, that normality is on people’s minds. For any hotels and campsites, a negative test result was needed. We didn’t enter gastronomy, but from what we were told, negative tests were needed here too. It’s likely that most people here have been tested over the past two days. Test centers were open for free tests. All seems safe and regulated, and yet it felt like a scene from a sci-fi movie. This is somewhat ironic, because the past one and a half year also felt like something only seen in sci-fi movies.

It’s also an agoraphobe’s nightmare

Spending an afternoon strolling down tourist-filled streets gives me a huge sense of sensory overwhelm. My brain is on fire. I’m not used to having so many people around me anymore.

I don’t know.

I think it will take me a long time before I will ever feel again like normal.

They said it would be pretty…

This afternoon we drove off to the West, and to be honest, I don’t have a clue exactly where we are. I just drove as my wife gave me instructions, later followed by our loyal companion Google Maps. We’re now on some campsite. Because we arrived late and immediately brought our boy to bed, we are more or less tied to the location we parked our campervan. So, other than the surrounding area, consisting of grass, other campervans and caravans, I can only guess what the place looks like.

We’re in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (or whatever, my wife keeps coming up with some variations of that name, so I’m not sure). Of course we’re not completely here by chance. There’s special reason for it. Since this week they finally loosened some restrictions for foreign tourism – albeit under strict local regulations still. What this means is that we can finally meet up with some family, after not having seen them for a year. Heike’s mother and her partner will arrive here tomorrow with their own campervan, and we can enjoy some time together. After a year of seeing his grandmothers through a screen, I’m happy that Rafa now gets to play and interact again in real life with one of them.

So, even though I have no clue what it is we’re visiting here, we will have good company. And neighbors and colleagues already indicated that the place was well-known for being beautiful and nice. Whatever happens, it will be a good weekend.

Stop thinking, start writing

Prologue

One should not have Zoom meetings all day. Geez, that messes up your head. I have been staring at a screen since 8AM this morning, and only briefly stopped to grab a bite and bring my son to bed after lunch. I have been outside (at 5.30PM) to water my tomatoes. That’s when you know the day has been good for your mental and physical health.

Anyway, let’s continue with some interesting stuff.

I ended this long day with a great Zoom session. A masterclass on writing by Stephen B Heard, hosted by Ana Pineda from I focus and write. Stephen explained how his own struggles in writing led him to compile his book on scientific writing, and basically launched him to a lifelong adventure of optimizing writing. (I think he did so quite successfully) I guess his central thesis was that we almost all struggle in writing, even though in academia almost all of us (have to) write a lot. That doesn’t mean just manuscripts. There’s a whole lot more. Stephen gave us a back-of-an-envelope calculation of his yearly writing estimate, including manuscripts, proposals, administrative reports and blog posts. I think he underestimated, as it did not include any emails (or Tweets!). Other than that, his calculations seemed very conservative and realistic, and taken togetger he estimated that he wrote about a Harry Potter novel’s equivalent in terms of word count (roughly 165.000 words if memory serves me well). That’s a pretty impressive statistic!

So what’s the secret to writing a lot? Stephen gave many insights into different tips and tricks that might help those that struggle out. I guess to learn the answer, you should pick up his book on writing ;-). I haven’t read it yet, but certainly will. I think I may have already picked up some strategies that I might try (for instance, measuring my own distraction levels, especially when I write professionally).

I also considered running a similar calculation for my own total writing output, but when I checked my blog’s ‘insight’ tab, I noted that since January 30 – the day I started writing daily blogs – I have already churned out a decent series of words. This post will make me hit the 75.000 word mark. Of course quantity and quality are not the same thing. But still, I was somewhat amazed. It means that if I continue writing daily posts (which I am finding quite an enjoyable routine, to be honest), I may end up writing a small Harry Potter novel on my blog alone. (Title suggestions are welcome)

So what’s my secret to writing a lot? There is no secret. The only secret to writing a lot, is to write a lot. What I’m saying is these words don’t write themselves. You have to be the main driver of it, if writing a lot is what you’re after. Content doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many people read it, or like it, or even hate it. If your goal is to write more, you should write more. Trust me, if you start thinking less, editing less, and just start writing, in two months time you will start seeing a difference. A huge difference. Words will flow more easily. What used to take two hours to write, now comes in twenty minutes. But also, you will start to see things differently (and you will likely get a new appreciation of the written arts). Stories will start appearing to you. Not all your writing will be good! Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes no one will read it. Sometimes it feels like you’re writing the biggest mess. And maybe often it is? So what? The goal is to become a better writer, and a better story-teller. And this solution – to start writing more – is the only solution that works. Experience is the best teacher.

Stop thinking, start writing!

Every review these days

I have now reviewed “A fantastic manuscript that contains A LOT of new data and is in pretty decent shape for a first submission” by Author et al. and have read it with great interest.

The design is novel and the concept is interesting. However, I do have some major comments, followed by some specific ones.

1. The design is too complex. The story should be streamlined (streamlined is the buzzword of 2021). Below I provide irrelevant specific comments that do not give you any particular idea how to do so

2. The statistics are complex and all wrong. I have no particular suggestion on how to do it right. But just be better.

3. Valuable data are missing. It seems that you did not collect valuable background information on the airflow over the third fully expanded leaf, or anything else that is not related to your hypotheses. More irrelevant background data could have given a better understanding of the system.

4. There are too many hypotheses. The story is too complex.

5. But what’s your hypothesis for all these measurements?

6. Give me your fucking kidney! (I already have your left lung – I was also reviewer 2 in your previous paper.

Specific comments:

L25: Blabla, broad context. For instance cite this irrelevant paper by my colleagues.

L35: Another paper is relevant, because it shows nothing that is particularly related to your study system.

L55: Although you didn’t measure or hypothesize anything about them, mention that earwigs are important too.

L55: What about all other insects?

L56: And nematodes. Nematodes too.

L80: Nice design. You should have collected more data.

L100-120: I have no clue about statistics, but this looks too complex.

L200: I cannot read the axis titles.

L205: This is a small effect.

L206: This is a small effect.

L215: This is a small effect.

L218: This is where I would present the data that you did not collect.

L250: The discussion is speculative and not to the point.

L260: There was this marginally significant think that had hardly any effect. I think it is pretty important. Could you elaborate on this?

L270: Could you speculate why this finding is what it is?

L280: Here, the irrelevant measurement that does not yet exist would really (not) make your study any more relevant.

L290: There are 30.589 caveats that need to be mentioned. Not measuring useless things is an important one, but probably a caveat paragraph would be a great addition and would strengthen the manuscript.

L300: I like the ending, but it would be good to highlight that more research is needed.

Signed – Anonymous.

Were you scared too?

I know I should be happy – and believe me, I am – about the fact that in less than two months we are having a family expansion.

But can someone please tell me that it’s perfectly normal to be scared shitless?

Before the birth of our first, I was happy too. I had just finished my doctoral thesis. The baby was about to pop out. We prepared everything we could (well except the name, but you have to believe me that that was an exception). Life was pretty good. I wasn’t even that nervous about what was ahead. I just felt ready at the time.

Nothing had prepared me for what was about to come. A parenting tsunami of epic proportions. A wave that was not only giving, but also taking, a lot of our energy. Perhaps we were doing it wrong. We decided to move to another country with a three month-old baby. At the same time I was still rounding up my PhD and starting a postdoc position that – well – may have been better suited to someone with more experience, at least at that time. It was a rough start, and in all of that, Heike and I had only each other to rely on. They say it takes a village to raise a child. We didn’t have a village. To be honest, we didn’t even really have friends close by to share it with. We were all alone. Now Rafa really wasn’t the best sleeper. (But I have not seen the worst!) He never slept a full night until he was 18 months or so, and even now, he rarely does so. He would often wake up at night three times or more. At some point, my brain just gave up on sleep, resulting in the most horrible bouts of insomnia that sucked the life out of my mental well-being. As a result, I just wasn’t functioning in the way that I expect of myself. And for this, I have felt a lot of guilt. I have learned the hard way that I always took for granted that I was an excellent sleeper. I know now that I need my sleep. Good sleep is not a given, it’s a privilege. My wife was a bloody champion through all of this. I at many times felt like a hopeless pile of horse crap. At present, I have recovered in many ways. I now just feel like a hopeless pile – and that’s okay, this is just something I need to learn to accept.

What scares me in all of this, is that Rafa was not really much of an exception. He’s pretty average in terms of sleeping, and to be honest, with everything else he is super easy. Chances are that the second kiddo will not sleep any better, or be easy in any of the other aspects. I know I will again be losing a lot of sleep. I know, this is by choice. Of course we considered all these things in our decision to have a second child. We now have a much more stable position, including a permanent roof, some friends and neighbors to rely on, and a more established spot in our new home country. We should be in a much better position to handle this. I am happy, and excited and curious to get to know our new family member. Nevertheless, now that count-down is starting, it is starting to scare me. I can smell the horse crap also coming closer, and I don’t like the stench.

How do other parents of several look so energetic and awesome? Do you also feel like hopeless piles of horse crap? Have you grown accustomed to sleeping shitty nights? Were you scared? How the hell did you handle this pandemic?

Chefs versus druglords

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

It is – almost without exception – the first thing people ask me after I tell them we are expecting another child. How is that important? Even if I would know (I don’t), it would be none of anyone else’s business, so I wouldn’t share it. But everyone is so incredibly obsessed with it. Especially family. My mother was reading all the bodily signs like some kind of wicked voodoo witch. Belly shape, kicking behaviour, the amount of nausea in the first months, the way Heike walked, hell she probably just sensed the aura. Whatever she did, all signs were clear. This was clearly going to be a girl. My mother, by the way, was not the only one who claimed this. Only two out of many people guessed it right. The first was my brother, for the simple fact that he would say anything that disagrees with my mother. He just got lucky. The second, I think, also just guessed it, although he claims to know these kinds of things. I’m not sure what to believe, but at least he had it right. Not that I believed him for a second. Heike and I both believed firmly that the crowd was right. Our gut feeling also told us – this was going to be our girl.

When Rafa was born, this was quite an interesting scene. We did not really know what it would be. We chose to keep it a surprise. But since we basically knew for a fact that it was going to be a girl – and maybe because Rafa came ten days early – we had only made a firm decision about a girl’s name. The jury was still out on the boy’s name. I was personally pretty convinced by the name. Rafa is a cool name (and don’t you fucking dare say otherwise!). We hated all names in all the baby name websites, and were getting increasingly annoyed about it. We had to get inspiration elsewhere. We were at the time also binge-watching Narcos on Netflix, where some loco cartel boss’s name was Rafa. Not exactly the type you want to name your child after, but I thought the actor was pretty charismatic, and I still think Rafa is a pretty cool name. You can probably guess why Heike was not so sure about it. More or less in the same time span, we were also binge-watching another Netflix show, this time one on cooking, called The Final Table. We enjoyed watching that show, and one of the finalist cooking duos was Rafa and Ezra. This naming combination just sounds good, even though one of them was probably also named after some drug lord. They were also charismatic and friendly guys. These were more examplary for naming a child – maybe. This show was fun to watch, and luckily also gave Heike another source of inspiration than a Netflix series based on Mexican cartels. Who cared anyway. We expected a girl. So we never spoke of it again.

We were in fact really so convinced that it was going to be a girl that we did not take the ‘formal’ decision on a boy’s name until the very last minute*. The whole birth process took about twenty hours, and during this time, not once did we evaluate the chosen names. Our baby was born, naked, nameless, but with his boy parts firmly present in the nether region. How was this possible? Ah well, who cares. We didn’t. We were equally happy with our little boy worm! But it was there and then, in the middle of the night, 00:54 on the 15th of July, that the question was finally presented to us, and reality kicked in.

“It’s a boy. What’s his name?”

I kept my mouth wisely shut. There was a moment of silence.

“Rafa”, she said, after a clear moment of quiet contemplation.

I’m not sure what our son was named after, but it feels good to have both backup stories, depending on who asks…**

———————————————————————————————————
*We’re much better prepared this time… (and no, it’s not Ezra or some other drug lord)
**The number one question we’re asked after “What’s his name?” is “Oh… eh. From Raphael?” (What a stupid thing to ask. We have just told you the name is Rafa.) Now we all know where it may come from.

I almost thought I had lost her

Relationships come and go. I have experienced this over the past few years all too clearly. I have ‘lost’ friendships over the past decade that I thought I would never lose. Friends I spoke to and saw every day less than a decade ago now don’t even know I have a kid, and even have a second one in late-larval developmental stage. I guess people make very untrustworthy friends. (There is no blame here – I am as much a useless friend as the other side of the equation(s). This pandemic is not doing my friend role in extant friendships much good either)

From a very early age I sought friendships elsewhere. Being quite heavily bullied for being different in primary school, I didn’t have many ‘human friends’ at the time. I guess I had to find an alternative, and I connected much more strongly than most with other things, such as nature. Particularly, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants have always had a special place in my heart, and I have cared for many over the past 25+ years. I have also had two felines that have been with me for quite some time. There used to be one (since 2007), but one turned into five (in 2009), and even though I got rid of the surplus, one of the babies ended back up – via an impressive series of irresponsible ownerships – in my student house years later (in 2012). This one was – quite honestly – simply left behind by its official owner when they moved out (in 2013). I somehow felt responsible, and promised never to let them go. They seem alive and well. I think they both have most of their nine lives left (although the mother once jumped from a third story window, which must have cost her at least one). I digress, I didn’t really want to write about cats.

This story is more about the unexpected bond I appear to have with plants. I have always had many plants. At some point in my student times, I had a twelve square meter room and shared it with around 20 snakes (at the time already drastically reduced from 150 or so), 50 tarantulas (and another 25 or so other arthropods – not counting the hissing cockroach colony), and probably 200 or so plants. It is quite amazing – really – how I managed to stuff all of this, and a bed and a closet, in one room. I was always germinating something and the windowsills were always filled with all kinds of plants.

Just one of many trays with seedlings. I think these were Musella lasiocarpa
I even had a couple of Welwitschia mirabilis – These dudes are notoriously difficult to grow (mature plants grow along the Namibian coastal deserts and take up water from fogs rolling in from sea, and this is tough to replicate). Although I managed to keep some alive for six months or so, I eventually killed them. It’s still on my wish list of things to do right…

Like human friendships, most plants also come and go. I often gave away plants. Although I have also worked professionally with plants for 20+ years, some also died under my watch. (I suck at amateur pest control…) However, one, the first one I bought when I moved out of my parental house, is still with me. It’s a Monstera deliciosa, better known as a Swiss cheese plant. I bought this one, I think, in 2007, as a two or three-leaf plant. It was tiny. Over the years it grew and grew and grew. It became a monster that deserved its scientific name. It has moved house with me nine times (that includes a five-month stayover with parents-in-law when Heike and I were traveling in Southeast Asia in 2013). During most of this time, this plant looked amazing. The worst thing that ever happened to her was that she got a little dusty. She has always been pretty much spotless otherwise.

Imagine that this was one of the better-looking leaves… It looked grim!

I don’t know what got to her when we moved to Germany. I mean, I know I was pretty overwhelmed and shocked myself when I just got here, which lasted more or less a year. It seemed that my plants felt my stress, or at least something bugged them too. I have lost several other nice plants that had been with me for years, and many still struggle now. To be honest, I still don’t fully understand what happened. Was it because the water had different minerals? I have moved places before, and all of my plants have had worse light or nutrient conditions without a doubt. For sure something stressed them out a lot, and they became vulnerable and attracted many pest insects. I repeat – I suck at pest control. Maybe because the pests also have a special place in my heart. My Monstera, my oldest green friend, the one that had always stood strong, survived the worst of light conditions, the coldest winters in poorly insulated student rooms, it was dying on me. I’m alright with some plants dying on me. But this one? It was different. I really felt horrible about it. Last summer, the plant looked terrible. The leaves had gone dull, greyish-green, and brown-edged, and although this champion never had any pests, ever, it now was feasted on by thrips (a lot of typical thrips damage, too). It looked bad. Really bad.

I almost gave up on her. Late last autumn I decided to give it one last chance. I trimmed it back by quite a bit, keeping only the leaves that seemed to be able to provide some photosynthetic energy. I think I removed about two-third of them (and she was still pretty large). I don’t use pesticides, but I washed her leaves under the shower several times to remove any present pests, until I no longer found them (thrips are not that fond of water). I prayed to the plant gods to stay by her side.

For the next few months, nothing happened. This was to be expected. My plan was to reduce bad parts, reduce pests, so that she would somehow survice winter, and hope for the best in spring, when she traditionally popped out leaves like a maniac. In February, she started producing ‘eyes’, where new leaves bud out eventually. A month later, she had developed several leaves, but all looked deformed. All new buds had issues unrolling their new leaves, and looked horrible. Luckily, all the leaves after looked pristine. She developed about fifteen to twenty new leaves, and the latest ones look amazing! I think she’s back!

Look at them new leaves smiling and shit :D. I think she’ll hang around for a couple more years!

I never expected that I could care so much about a plant, but I am very happy that I managed to save this ‘friendship’ :).

At least we saw some pretty bugs

Look, a tower crane…

Today we’re in the horribly named Gungoldinger Wacholderheide. I bumped into this nature conservation area about an hour north from here recently, while I was checking out a list of nature conservation areas in Bavaria. I’ve noticed that although agriculture dominates everything here, the nature conservation areas are generally quite worthy of visitation. This specific area is a sandy loamy heathland slope with rocky outcrops, and it borders the Altmühl river. Supposedly it has a good plant diversity. (Conveniently, this area has good facilities for camper folk, although admittedly, most camper people here are 20-30 years our seniors)

Once seen, it cannot be unseen…
Help? Edit: Steven de Goede came to rescue here – this is white swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum hirundaria) a poisonous plant that is rather rare in my home country.

Aside from a few common flowers that I had already mostly spotted in the Garchinger Heide last week (including the Helianthemum nummularium that I will of course never forget), there was little new to be seen, but I think the peak for plants this area may be in a few weeks from now. We did see some pretty insects.

Always good to see the dozens of insects that are attracted by umbellifers, in this case cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris).
A pretty reduviid bug
A restless ant queen, looking for a mate or a place to start a colony

I admit, I was a bit disappointed about the plant diversity here. Maybe I didn’t explore enough… The area does have beautiful views over the valley. I convinced Rafa to sit with me on the ledge and enjoy it for a while (well he convinced me, really. I have fear of heights, but had to look like a cool dad somehow). My boy was mostly interested in cranes, motorcycles and farmers passing by on loud tractors. From these heights we could see one farmer mow and destroy all his agricultural borders along a plot within the protected area. I didn’t understand the particular need for this, but I’m a dumb ecologist, what do I know…

They said take it slow

I think I deserve a short post today. I have just collected my second dose of BioNtech/Pfizer at the end of this afternoon. The doctor told me to take it slow, as the second shot often gives a bigger blow. No alcohol, no sports, sleep well, drink a lot of water. So far, so good. Only a sore arm, and – like with the first shot – some light fuzziness in the thinking chamber that my therapist insists is probably just induced by anxiety. After today’s shot, they asked me to wait for 15 minutes in a small room with about ten other people. It wasn’t really clear to me why, and no one told me. I sheepishly followed orders – as did everyone else. Maybe they hoped to catch the immediate allergic responses? Not sure.

Anyway. Not too much writing today. They told me take it slow.

Tonight I’ll celebrate my developing immunity to SARS-CoV-2 by relaxing a bit and starting a new book from the to-read-list. I just finished “Charles Darwin’s barnacle and David Bowie’s spider“. (What a pleasant read!) This book is entirely centered around scientific species names (and especially those of the eponymous kind). I’m a nerd for species names and have had some kind of obsession with them for as long as I can remember, and was happy to read that there are others that seem to suffer from the same obsession. So I found it fascinating to read the stories behind some of them. However, I think this book is written in such an accessible way that anyone with a bit of passion for nature and history will find value in reading it. Given that there are probably enough species names left to fill another book, I am certainly hoping for a Volume 2. Completely coincidentally, my friend and former colleague Ana from I focus and write has organized a free masterclass next Thursday with the author, Stephen B Heard, scientist blogger (or blogger scientist?) at Scientist sees Squirrel, who has also authored a book on scientific writing, and of course the many scientific papers that must have formed the basis for the book on this expertise. You can still sign up on Ana’s website (linked above). I will be there for sure.

Have a great (slow) weekend!