Obscurities: Anthropause

I came across this word today, and knew I had to find out more: Coined by scientific researchers in 2020, it refers to the impact on wildlife that Covid-19 has had; specifically, the pause of mankind on a global scale through lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Whales have changed their conversations – it’s quieter out there, with fewer cruise ships (those massive floating cities can drown out every other sound in underwater monitors for an hour as they pass by); Pumas have been spotted roaming through Santiago, Chile, and flocks of Flamingos have landed in the waterways of Mumbai, India. The wild animals that live in cities, coming out only at nights in normal times, have started coming out to play in broad daylight. Birds, who have had to learn to call louder to attract mates in areas with traffic, can suddenly be heard loud and clear.

Not all changes have been positive, however; we live in a complex world, and in a world where some people will take advantage of the situation: Poaching has risen, as has Amazon deforestation. But on the whole, wildlife has benefited from the absence or reduction of human activity and presence. Roadkill has been reduced, and in those areas near nesting sites, such as beaches, birds have been laying more eggs than in previous years, possibly because they feel safer and are less disturbed by human noise pollution. Studies are beginning to emerge about just how the withdrawal of humans on a mass scale is impacting the environment and wildlife, and I hope that one of the results of such research is a plan for making our lives on a global scale become more compatible with, and supportive of, nature and natural rhythms.

In the meantime, with lockdowns continuing in many parts of the world (and because one never knows when and how travel restrictions will return, and no one wants to get stuck paying for a hotel in a foreign country for weeks on end of quarantine, travel is largely self-restricted), mankind is safely behind closed doors, and wildlife will come out to play.

Photo credit: NY Times, Andrew Stuart

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The Nature of Time, or the Time of Nature

Did you know that, as animals get bigger, their pulse rates slow down and their lifetimes lengthen? This means that, from hamster to elephant, each gets around 1 billion heartbeats, though the hamster only lives around 3 years, while the elephant lives for 70; because the elephant’s mass is enormous, their pulse (30 beats per minute) is far lower than the hamster’s (450 bpm). For more information on this, please click here.

This phenomena makes for an interesting juxtaposition when other creatures cross our paths; because each creature has a different metabolic rate, time is relative: A mosquito has plenty of time to move out of our hand’s way because her faster metabolic rate makes our movements seem slow motion; by contrast, if a redwood tree or a yew tree, each of which can live hundreds or even thousands of years, could tell us how it perceives us, perhaps our lives would seem like a blip in time by comparison.

Slow motion filming is becoming not only more popular on platforms such as YouTube, with channels like The Slow Mo Guys, Smarter Every Day, and How Ridiculous, to name a few, but it’s also becoming more accessible as the cameras and their capabilities improve and they come down in price. Even more accessible is time-lapse photography, which has become so prevalent in our media that we might not even recognize that what we see in a few seconds took days of one shot per hour to set up.

Louie Schwartzberg is considered the pioneer in time-lapse cinematography, and you’ve seen his work, though you might not realize it: If you’ve ever watched, for example, the logo clip of Warner Brothers Studios at the beginning of a film, you’ve seen his time-lapse rolling clouds. At the moment, Netflix is showing “Fantastic Fungi”, a film about, well, Fungi, and Schwartzberg is the genius behind the film. It’s a fascinating look into the time of nature, as well as the nature of time.

To watch a fascinating behind-the-scenes video about Fantastic Fungi, with interviews from the cinematographer, please click here. Enjoy!

Photo Credit: IMDB, “Fantastic Fungi”

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Just for Fun: Nothing Happened

I don’t know where this is, or who took the photo, but someone’s got a great sense of humour!

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History Undusted: The Personal History of a Household Apron

Aprons have probably been around since the dawn of clothing; up until the Industrial Revolution, most people only had the clothes on their backs, or at most one additional change of clothing – in which case they were considered either very well off or thieves; a large number of the thefts reported in the 17th and 18th centuries had to do with clothing articles; the clothes made the man or woman, and if they could upgrade their wardrobe through “five-finger discounting,” they might have a better chance at finding a good job with better wages.  The style of aprons has changed through the years, and while sometimes their function was little more than a fashion statement, such as in the painting below, their main purpose has never become obsolete:  To carry out every imaginable chore in and around the home.

Dancing Girl, Levitsky Dmitry, 1735-1822

My paternal grandparents, the Herrings, were Kansas pioneer farmers; my grandmother (Mary Mae) headed west from Indiana in a covered wagon with her parents (James Allen and Carrie Christine Higbee nee Aaroe) as a baby; she grew up on the prairies of Kansas, met my grandfather, and the rest is history.

Nis and Maren Kirstine Aaroe-Aagaard, immigrants from Vonsild, Nørre Tyrstrup, Vejle, Denmark, who settled in Kansas; taken ca 1890. My great-great grandmother is in her daily apron at the spinning wheel.

Most of my childhood memories are of my paternal grandparents’ farm; we spent many weekends there helping out, and I spent a week or two every summer with them.  My grandmother was always in an apron, except for Sunday mornings and special events – and those are the times when photographs were taken, so unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her in an apron.  But I have something much better:  A hand-sewn quilt, made lovingly by her from around 1920 to the late 1970s.  The materials used for that quilt are her old aprons, Sunday dress scraps and other spare cloths; I remember seeing her in several of them.

Apron Quilt, Grandma Herring, sewn between 1920s and late 1970s
Apron – 1950s Vintage Fashionable Aprons

Being a farmer’s wife, my grandmother’s aprons weren’t as fancy as these vintage patterns shown above; they were plain, simple and hand-made; they did what they were needed for, and no more, no less.  But as simple as they might have been, those aprons were worth their weight in gold on a farm:  They protected her scanty wardrobe – she didn’t need much, didn’t want much, and was satisfied to take care of what she’d been blessed with.  Those aprons carried baby chicks, kittens, flowers, herbs, chicken eggs, apples, firewood and wood chips, baby birds fallen from nests in a wind storm, and the occasional sugar cube for the horses.  They wiped away tears, cleaned dirty faces, dusted furniture if guests were walking up the path, took delicious things from the oven, cold things from the freezer, and helped open canning jars.  They shaded a cold pie on her lap in the old Chevy truck while we bounced across the fields to bring my grandfather a picnic for lunch break in the summer heat (she could have used an old quilt for the pie, but that was often used to cradle a large mason jar full of ice cold water, the best thirst-quencher I know). Those aprons helped gather grains, and stones to move either from the garden or to the flower bed.  They carried chicken feed and broken eggs shells to feed the chickens to make their eggs stronger; they held potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, sweet peas, strawberries and squash.  They were the perfect cradle for a garden watermelon, rolling it into the refrigerator to get it nice and cold on a hot day. They warmed her hands on a cold day as she dug for the last of the potatoes before winter’s freeze, and hid her dirty hands when guests arrived unannounced.  They polished cutlery, fanned her face to cool her down on a sweltering hot day, and were the perfect place to hide for shy children.  One never knew what that apron would do next.

Little could my paternal grandmother have guessed that the quilt she made from so many scraps of memories would eventually accompany her granddaughter back over the ocean her mother had traversed as a newborn baby from Denmark, and end up within 20 km from where my maternal ancestors have been traced: Zofingen, Aargau, Switzerland. I can’t imagine any other piece of cloth carrying so much history, authority, importance, practicality, humility, common sense and love.

Adapted from an article originally posted on History Undusted, 5 Oct. 2015

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Life & All that Jazz: Musical Chairs

Have you ever played musical chairs? If yes, you know that feeling: Everything’s going along, the music’s playing, and suddenly it stops – you have to change your plans immediately or you’re too late and out of the game.

In a way, this describes the past few months for me: If you’ve read my past few posts, you’ll know that my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer in March. Life had been running relatively smoothly up until that moment, the music purring right along. Then screech, it stopped, he had surgery in April, and a piece of colon had to leave the game. The music had started again: After six weeks of him recovering and us thinking things were on track for a smooth ride, screech, the music stopped and we had to take immediate counter-action. He was in and out of hospital with infections, problems with the stoma, ups and downs, changes of plans several times (sometimes several times in 24 hours), and the stoma (thankfully) finally had to leave the game. Every time he was in hospital, because of Covid regulations, I was the only one allowed to visit him, which meant that every other day I took an hour’s trek there, maximum one hour’s visit, and another hour to reach home again. For three weeks, the music played along as he healed from surgery and began to regain weight bit by bit (he’d lost around 12 kgs. by then, not one of which was “extra weight”, I might add). Then the chemo started; we had everyone and their friends praying, worldwide, that there would be no dire side effects, and into the third round, that’s exactly what’s been happening – basically nothing! Nothing negative, I should say; all he’s really felt is a bit “blah” on the third day in, and a bit of tingling in his fingertips, and that’s it! PTL!

In all of that, I was holding the fort here; trying to keep friends and family updated, keeping the house clean and making sure we had food in the cupboard in case my husband got his appetite back, and then cooking whatever he felt like eating at the time. We had three weeks of holidays (here in Switzerland, we’d refer to them as UHU [Ums Huus Uma] Ferien, meaning “around the house holidays”; in English, one term is staycation): We took day-trips out as my husband had energy for: We took a day trip on Lake Zurich, with lunch on the lake; we had a picnic at a local bird sanctuary park that has mainly storks and ducklings; we took driving tours, went to a pocket-sized zoo, and then, as his energy returned, he started going on small (for him) hikes, then longer ones, as well as longer bike rides, building his energy and his appetite again.

As his energy improved, mine took a breather! I’m sure all of you can relate – at some point in your life, when a pressure is removed, your adrenaline subsides and you suddenly start feeling like you’re deflating. I’ve had several Covid flare-ups in the past few weeks, which hasn’t helped (I had a mild case of Covid-19 back in March 2020, and after months of bone-deep exhaustion, it started tapering off, with flare-up days happening less frequently now, but still rearing up occasionally). So far, vaccination has been a questionable option for me because of other health considerations; but more research is required – if it will eliminate flare-ups and the other long-term symptoms, I might just get it over and done.

All of this may help explain why I’ve been silent here for a month. I don’t like it – I’ve been having withdrawals; but when I haven’t had the energy to dive into an interesting topic for this blog, I’ve tried to work on my current novel’s manuscript (though on flare-up days, I can kiss any creative endeavour goodbye!). Now that life is starting to settle into some semblance of a routine once more, I hope to meet with you here more often again!

In the meantime, take care, and stay healthy! I will see you very soon, so keep your eye on the blog!

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Psychology Undusted: Third Places

Several years ago, I wrote about this topic; but viewed from today’s perspective, I thought it might be worth ruminating on, so here’ goes:

Everyone has three places they spend time in: The first place is the home; the second is either school or the workplace; and the third is a place that feels comfortable – a home away from home, or a place we can unwind. The third place varies from person to person; it might be your local hairdresser’s, a pub, Starbucks, a small café, a favourite park bench, a nearby spot out in nature, or a library or museum. Companies like Starbucks have capitalized on people’s need for an environment of comfort; they have couches and armchairs and free Wi-Fi, and don’t make you feel like you need to drink up and move on. Your third place might even be virtual – Facebook and other social media sites where you like to “hang out” and connect with friends. It might be your local community centre; such places are crucial to a neighbourhood, whether or not we realize it, because they facilitate a sense of group identity. When a local crisis arises, they have been the places people gather to distribute clothing or food to those hit; meeting others, encouraging them, helping and being able to contribute to the greater good are all important to our sense of humanity; we all want to feel useful and needed in some way.

Thinking about that topic now through Covid-coloured glasses, at some point we’ve all lost our third places through lockdowns; the rules that govern social interaction have changed drastically, and it has effected the psychological health of both individuals and communities alike. While some of you may have been able to return to business as usual more or less, other regions have had multiple lockdowns; in either case, the subtle changes have made third places less inviting: Regulations about masks, needing to make reservations in restaurants that are half-empty, filling out contact tracing forms, etc. Perhaps your favourite haunt didn’t survive the financial strain of months of forced closure, or it closed because the owner passed away. More than missing that physical place, many people have suffered because of social distancing: Not being able to meet up with friends, spend time in good company, and, in the advent of mass home-office work, even the absence of spontaneous encounters with co-workers around the break room. Having a drink together over Skype or Zoom just isn’t the same; the spontaneity is missing. Those people who thrive on physical contact, such as a hug or a pat on the back, have suffered deeply on a psychological level whether they realize it or not.

Some positive effects have also come from lockdown: Many people have intentionally invested more into their local community; we’ve shopped locally or supported the local restaurants by ordering delivery or take-away more often than we normally would have, or bought from local farm shops (we’re blessed with an abundance of those in our area); by working at home, carbon emissions have been reduced by thousands of daily commuters (usually only one per car) not being on the road. Our holiday budgets have taken a breather. We’ve wasted less money on impulse-shopping. More and more people have felt the growing need to be off-grid and self-sufficient for future times of crisis, and the tiny home and homesteading movements are booming. More people are planting gardens, or they’re spending more time with their family.

Pre-pandemic habits made it easier to compartmentalize life: We had the home and the workplace in separate physical locations, which made it easier to leave the stress of one behind when returning to the other and, depending on your home or work environment, the relief of change might have been a subtle but necessary transition for your mental health. The potential emotional or mental strain that happened when those two places merged, at the same time losing our third place possibilities through lockdown, is not to be glossed over. The thing about the third place is that it’s also a responsibility-free zone; there are no expectations or obligations placed on us there; that kind of environment also inspires productivity and creativity, and many people have lamented becoming more “lazy” or “lackadaisical” in their habits over the past year; why get dressed up if you don’t have to go to work or be seen in public? Maybe you’ve grown comfortable in your “junk around the house” attire, or not wearing make-up or not shaving. The old adage of “Fine feathers make fine birds” is true: If you want to feel creative, dress for it; if you want to mean business in your schedule, dress for it. Even if you’re alone at home. Then, the transition to being seen by friends and strangers again might not be so daunting.

Returning to those third places may not be as easy at it sounds; we may never perceive such places the same ol’ way again. While some people can’t wait to get out and mingle, many of us have become cautious around groups of strangers – will they observe healthy social distancing and hygiene rules? Will they stay home if they’re sick? One thing I will never miss is someone giving me the Swiss three-kisses-to-the-cheeks greeting and then telling me they forgot to mention it – they have a cold. I’ve been far less sick in the last year, because of social distancing, than ever before*! I’ve been relieved to know that people are not wiping their noses on their hands and then offering it to me in greeting; hand disinfectants are ubiquitous now, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

[* I was recently chatting with my doctor about that topic, and she said that serious cases of influenza and pneumonia are already beginning to increase, even though it’s summer here; the suspicion in the medical community is that, because we’ve been disinfected and protected from fighting the minor cold viruses throughout the year, they’ve learned to hit aggressively if they get the chance. So talk to your doctor, or educate yourself through serious medical websites, about how you can support or encourage a healthy immune system.]

Today, while we were out for a day trip on the Lake of Zurich, I noticed that while many people have the typical pale blue medical masks, a variety of colours are becoming more common; they’ve at length become a fashion accessory. You can buy cloth masks in shops everywhere here now, or sew your own like I do. Back when this all started in 2020, many people scoffed at the idea of wearing a mask in public, and now it’s so engrained in us that we stare if someone forgot to put theirs on (here, they are required inside any building as well as when using public transport). Despite the hygienic regulations, things are slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy here; restaurants are open again (though masks can only be removed while you’re seated at your table); street cafés are popular because, as of right now, masks are not required outdoors (though that may change again now that the dangers of infection through aerosols are better understood and greater than previously assessed); and third places are becoming available again. People are cautious – and frankly, they have reason to be (I say this from the perspective of one who has long-term Covid symptoms that flare up every 3-4 weeks), but they’re starting to emerge from their hibernation, and that’s a good thing.

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Psychology Undusted: Lines of Desire

Have you ever felt guilty for taking a shortcut across a grassy patch rather than following the official concrete path? Or have you ever noticed a bare strip through grass? These are known as desire paths, or lines of desire (the latter term comes from the French phrase, “lignes de désir”, from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1958 book, “The Poetics of Space”.

Architects would be well advised to pay attention to these worn paths when planning official paths through public parks or around businesses, because no matter how neat their officially-laid paths look, those lines of desire will continue to be followed and worn into the earth. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of democracy triumphing when a desire path gets paved over after the fact.

So why do they happen? Sometimes it’s a question of taking a shortcut from one building to the next, or from one corner to the next. Sometimes they are made out of consideration for others: During the pandemic, new lines of desires began appearing, but rather than being shortcuts, they simply ran parallel to existing paths – these were likely an attempt at avoiding proximity with others when passing on a side walk. Desire paths can be seen as the paths of least resistance, or as a silent protest against being told where to walk or how to get from points A to B. These paths have been seen as symbols of rebellion, anarchism, individual creativity, intuitive design, opportunities to take fate into one’s own hands even if treading the expected nine-to-five otherwise, or even as a passive aggressive reaction against authority.

Many languages have their own terms for desire paths or lines of desire: In Dutch, they’re known as “elephant paths”, and in French, they’re known as donkey paths, while the Germans, pragmatically, call them “trample paths” (so unimaginative!) But the diversity proves that desire paths are a universal human tendency.

Some businesses or schools, such as the University of Michigan, waited until students and staff showed them where paths would be most appreciated before paving them in; the aerial view (Google Earth) over the campus shows the intricate weave of the lines of desire that would likely not have occurred to the landscape architects:

I’d encourage you to take a walk, keeping an eye out for those lines of desire near you; if you’d prefer not to go out, then take a virtual walk – google the term “desire paths” in the image mode, and see just what pops up! Enjoy!

Personal update:

For those of you following our situation, I will say that the day after my last update everything got turned on its head once again! Chemo has been delayed another 3-4 weeks, as my husband ended up in emergency again, and they finally decided to rebuild his stoma before starting chemo. He’s now back home after over a week in the hospital, and is gaining appetite, and hopefully gaining weight again now! He’ll have a couple weeks to recover before the next phase of his treatment takes off… that’s as of THIS moment. Planning further ahead than a day is a bit pointless right now, so it’s a wait-and-see game…

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Psychology Undusted: The Doorway Effect

We all know that experience of walking into a room with a purpose and immediately forgetting why we went in there. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, and it’s not a sign of senility or even a question of age: It’s a function of our working memory that glitches by going through a doorway – as simple as that.

Our brains process a lot that we don’t even think about: We breathe without a thought, we walk in a straight line usually, we can walk with relatively good balance (unless there’s something else interfering, like alcohol or an ear infection), and we can think about a myriad of other things while walking, sitting, or even laying down – all thanks to the grey matter inside our skulls. We can create something physical or something using words or music, and we can differentiate between events of the past, present, and the future.

But sometimes our brains chuck out things it considers irrelevant or no longer required; our working memory is constantly adjusting to the new circumstances we find ourselves in in any given moment, so it creates what are known as “event boundaries” – and one common boundary in our physical world is a doorway. We can also have virtual doorways: when we move from one circumstance to the next, the events are segmented or “compartmentalized” in our brains; this is known as the “location updating effect”, or simply, “the doorway effect”. You may have wanted to get an ingredient for dinner from your pantry; but when you walk through that doorway, your brain mistakes the temporary requirement as no longer applicable and moves on to the next circumstance facing you. That leaves you standing there with a blank expression, wondering why you’re there.

In this age of relentless bombardment of marketing, of internet, or of being able to face-time or Skype or WhatsApp with friends and family in any time zone at the touch of a screen, it’s no wonder our brains sometimes feel overloaded and chuck out something we actually needed to remember just a bit longer. But there’s a trick to remembering what you forgot: Just walk back through the doorway into the room you had the thought in the first place, and it should trigger that forgotten purpose.

PERSONAL UPDATE:

For those of you wondering how we are doing: My husband starts chemo this week; it’s been an up-and-down ride, and planning further ahead than a day has been a waste of time, so we’re taking one day at a time. After a week in the hospital with an infection and a round of antibiotics that also messed with his stomach and digestion, he’s beginning to feel a bit better, and is gaining a bit of weight again. We have holidays over the next few weeks, so when he’s feeling up to doing something, we can take day trips out. Today, we drove to a nearby nature reserve and enjoyed watching nesting storks and large prey birds, as well as Highland cattle. we’re taking life very slowly right now. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes!

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History Undusted: Limbo

Over the past year and more, we’ve all experienced limbo in one form or another: Lock downs, restrictions, cancellations of events or flights or holidays or plans to meet up with friends, and the uncertainty of how long it will all last. Then there is the feeling of limbo that comes with my personal situation of waiting for the cascade of appointments for my husband’s chemo to begin; we had a set-back last week with a bacterial infection and a week’s hospitalization, so we’ll just have to wait and see if he can keep the appointments already made or not. Limbo. Waiting to find out if he can be brought home tomorrow. Limbo.

My writing, both in the forms of this blog and of my manuscript, have both been sucked into the state of limbo as well, as I’ve spent most of the past few weeks, and more intensively the past three days, on the phone with people who’ve asked how we’re doing, or answering messages on my phone or social media. Sometimes I feel like my manuscript is calling for me to work on it, and I’m trying to reach it while wading toward it waist-deep in a thick sludge of other priorities – it’s been just out of reach for days, because by the time I actually reach it, I have no energy left.

As I was thinking about those limbo moments, I actually started wondering just where the limbo dance comes from, historically; I remember doing it as a child – the local indoor skating rink played limbo every night. So, here’s a brief low-down on the low-down dance:

The origins are vague, as is the etymology of the name: Starting in late-1800s Trinidad, the name might have come from the Jamaican English “limba“, i.e. limber. Interestingly, the game is used in Africa as a funeral game, and there may be a connection between the two regions through the slave trade which brought Africans to the Jamaican islands, as it is also a popular “dance” for wakes in Trinidad. The rules are simple: a person passes under a bar, face-up, with the only body part allowed to touch the ground being the feet. The game is considered the unofficial national game of Trinidad and Tobago, it only began to gain popularity beyond the region in the 1950s; it was adopted in the mid-1950s as a form of physical exercise for American military troops. It was often attempted to a rhythmic song, and one of the most popular was the Limbo Rock, by Chubby Checker. Just listening to the song brings back the feeling of the cool breeze blowing around the skating rink as people sped to get in line for the limbo stick as soon as they heard the music start over the loudspeaker!

As we face our own times of limbo in this age of Corona, or in the circumstances we find ourselves in, perhaps it would perk up our spirits to hum the Limbo Rock and take it with a bow and a smile.

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Virtual Tour: Odd Collections

Most people collect something as a hobby; I’ve collected various things over the years: Stamps, postcards, arrow heads, fossils and minerals or gemstones, and coins. All of those are fairly common. The oddest thing I used to collect, in middle school, was spiders: I had about 500 different species in test tubes, and I would use them with my science fair presentations that was, for several years in a row, a growing display of all things arachnid, including my pet tarantulas.
But there are folks out there who make that last collection of mine look normal: People who collect thousands of toothbrushes, or back scratchers, or “Do Not Disturb” signs, or erasers, or milk bottles. Where most of us have a collection that fits into a storage box, others have them the size of an entire room or two. OCD is probably also on the top of their profile descriptives, but then maybe they’re just passionate or fascinated about something most people would never think about collecting.

To have a look at 43 odd collections, just click HERE. Some of these are only odd in their amount collected, while others are just downright gross (think world’s largest chewed gum ball, or navel lint…). Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong sentiment in those cases, but nevertheless, have a fascinating time vicariously checking out the odd quirks of others!

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