Mind Cleanup – May 2020

May 2020 came and went. I worked from home. The weather was sunny.

The first of those two facts is actually the less troubling one, at this point.

This Mediterranean feel is awfully nice if you are looking to get a tan but it is really kind of worrying, considering I live in the Netherlands, which us Dutchies endearingly refer to as our “cold frog country”.

First week of May

The month of May started out with a few events, my brother’s 40th birthday being the most noteworthy.

This year was also the year we celebrated 75 years since the end of WWII. The 4th and 5th of May were supposed to be big commemoration and celebration days, with activities all around the country.

But then, the pandemic happened. It was a very odd way of celebrating liberty, I’ll tell you that! Also, it was quite awkward to see our king perform all sort of ceremonious deeds, with no more than a handful of people present.

Back to Lifetip # 1

The idea that people are generally good and deserve to be trusted has been coming back to me in different shapes and forms this month.

Jason Mraz’ song “Look for the good” is a cute tribute to the optimistic lifestyle that we all could use a bit more of right now.

The guy that inspired me to write my first lifetip, Rutger Bregman, recently published an article about a historical figure called Peter Kropotkin. All though this prince turned anarchist definitely needs the story of his life to be molded into a Netflix series, Bregman mostly got me with the following remark:

Theories about human nature – unlike theories about molecules or black holes – can come true simply because we believe in them. (…) What would happen if we turned this around? What if schools, businesses, and governments assumed that most people are doing their best? What if we rallied round our tendency to trust and cooperate – a tendency with every bit as much of an evolutionary basis, over hundreds of millions of years?

The guardian also released an article about the goodness of mankind. The example of kids marooned on an island is an interesting one!

Music

Somehow the Trolls movies made an entrance into my playlists, without me ever haven seen the movies. There are quite a few really cool, groovy, funky, bouncy songs in there!

The song ‘Don’t slack” was one of my favorite songs of the month. Definitely check out the actual song but this lyrics explanation is a fun way to get acquainted.

Netflix

May was also the month that I cancelled my TV subscription. It’s Netflix all the way, from now on (all though I might subscribe to an additional streaming service at some point)

One day, when I was feeling courageous, I watched Netflix’ tribute to Michelle Obama, ‘Becoming’. And before I knew it, I was sobbing. For no reason. Or actually ten million reasons, but most of all the realization that this woman is so awesome (and don’t tell me that is not a good reason to cry for).

She is such a soul force.

And all though she wasn’t voted out of the white house, thinking of what came after her is just too much to handle. I didn’t expect someone as awesome as her to be the next FLOTUS, but my bloody golly Mrs Trump is so not like Mrs Obama that it hurts.

I also finally finished watching the Good Place and to my own surprise I found the ending utterly satisfying! It was a real ending for once. It was clever and thoughtful. Yupp. Big thumbs up to the scriptwriters there!

Now, will you please excuse me, as I have a rain dance to perform.

Bird buddies

When my boyfriend and I moved in together, we were lucky enough to do so in a lovely little house in the center of Leiden. As if that wasn’t enough, the house was also equipped with a tremendously luxurious extra; a garden.

We moved in in November of 2016 and quickly got acquainted with the neighbors. And the neighbors I bonded with the quickest were the ones that don’t pay rent. They can be noisy sometimes and sometimes sing “in the dead of night”. Yes, that Beatles song is based on a true story; I’m talking about birds.

Handsome and charismatic Patrick struts his stuff around enthusiastically every winter, but we now know that he spends the summer elsewhere. Scandinavia I’ve been told. We get quite sad each year when the realization kicks in that he’s left. Patrick is a fierce little robin.

Zwaantje (which translates to little Swan, and is an actual name for women in the Netherlands) was the lady Blackbird that lived in the impressive hedera ivy bush at the far end of the garden when we moved in. When she was seduced by an extremely friendly male, we named him Romeo. We were thrilled to see their romance blossom.

Romeo and Zwaantje raised several young and we grew closer to them than I ever thought one could get to a bird. Both were extraordinarily tame, but Romeo most of all. I learned that my human neighbors had a similar experience with this blackbird couple and we often exchanged endearing stories over the hedge.

We had quite a laugh when one of my neighbors confessed to me she had given all the birds names as well, but quite different from ours. She had named the male first – Koos-, and then decided the female was ‘Koosje’, which is the feminine version of the same name. A ‘Romeo’ is obviously not the same kind of character as a ‘Koos’ (a very mundane Dutch name). 😀

And as you can tell I am speaking about them in the past tense, because at some point, something happened…

We hadn’t seen much of the blackbirds during the winter months but when spring arrived and there was still no singing to be heard from the rooftops, we knew they were no longer with us. And it wasn’t only our rooftop that was quiet. The whole neighborhood (perhaps even the whole city) was silent. It was eerie. And sad.

It may have been the Usutu virus, a disease that targets blackbirds and has decimated populations in other European countries in recent years. Maybe a cat got hold of one of the two, and the other flew off. We don’t know, but there is no denying it was an odd season without them around.

And then last winter, to our utmost delight, a new couple moved in.

My neighbor is convinced that the male is actually our old friend, Romeo. I am not so sure, all though I do find his friendliness remarkable. Maybe one of his sons? The female is definitely not Zwaantje, we all agree on that.

The new lady blackbird is a bit skittish but that’s OK. She peaks at us through the trees when her partner hops over to the garden door to claim his breakfast raisins. She joins him as soon as we step back inside. I haven’t named her yet.

It may sound crazy but it really fills my heart with joy when I see Romeo (or his successor) taking elaborate baths in our little birdbath. He does so with so much passion and love of life. I can watch it all day.

And all though the blackbirds are definitely our bbffs (best bird friends forever) the cutest ones are without a doubt the blue tits.

Their big beady eyes in their tiny heads make them look like kid’s toys. Their little eye masks give them a bit of a samurai look, especially when the male raises the little tuft on his head, to look extra tough (but not really).

And don’t get my started about their young… Adorable. Just heartrendingly adorable.

The blue tits enjoy taking little splashy baths as well, after which they sit on a branch nearby and elaborately groom themselves. And then they fluff up their little feathers and become little feathery balls of squee.

Apart from the robin, the blackbirds and the blue tits, we have daily visits from several turtle doves, sparrows, great tits and sparrows. Less visible (but I know they’re there) is the wren and the dunnock.

Also jackdaws, magpies and jays stop by sporadically, all though I would prefer they stayed away. The turtle doves usually fight them off bravely, oftentimes at the cost of a few feathers.

I have become very protective of my feathery friends. The other day I scolded my neighbor for delousing his roses with a poisonous liquid. Doesn’t he know he’s not only killing the lice, but also the birds that feed on them? I didn’t explicitly call him a murderer to his face, but I did show him my meanest frown when he told me what was in that spraying apparatus… There are natural ways to shoo lice away, you know?!

And that’s when I realized living here has turned me into a little garden gnome. Or perhaps it’s turning me into my dad. Those two options might even be the same thing. And I’m pretty OK with that!

This dedication to my Bird Buddies is a contribution for my own personal A-to-Z challenge, which I will be adding to once a month.

Lifetip 5: Climb on the soapbox

This lifetip is based on an idea Rutger Bregman spoke about in one of his podcast episodes, as were the previous four. It is motivated by his conviction that this is a time to be explicit and open about good deeds and ideology. We can go back to humility later. Right now we need to “be good out loud”.

The idea behind this, is that seeing others do good deeds is inspiring and contagious.

Charity & Public goods

There is a whole science behind understanding how and why people decide to do selfless things. Organizations that rely on donations and charity from the public can benefit greatly from these observations when applied to a fundraising campaign.

It has been observed that people’s decision making changes when confronted with different circumstances (such as time pressure or group dynamics). I find all of that super interesting, but it’s not really relevant for the point of this blog post, so I’m going to leave it at that. If you want to know more, this relatively short YouTube vid is a good place to start.

A 2004 Harvard research confirmed the idea behind this lifetip, revealing that seeing others making donations to a a charitable cause makes an individual more likely to do the same. Gentle encouragement from a family member or celebrity can also make a big difference.

Just be nice

An organization in the Netherlands that has put this message to the test is called SIRE. It’s sole mission is to make us better people through commercials and posters since 1967.

In 2019 it launched a campaign revolving around the hashtag “doeslief”. That word is a contraction of “doe eens lief”, which is basically the Dutch way of saying “just be nice”.

The videos and posters from this campaign showed statistics of unkindness, followed by nothing more than #doeslief (#Justbenice).

The image above shows three posters from the SIRE campaign #Doeslief, stating:

  • “146.571 vulgar tweets were sent in 2018 referencing cancer”
  • “Every year 8% of all public transport employees gets spat on”
  • “Cash register employee Myriam will be ignored by 30% of all customers today”

The campaign made many people chuckle at the time, but there’s no denying the phrase “Doeslief” did catch on. People say it to each other when they see a good deed being done or when there is need for one.

A follow up hashtag is now being used on social media, when an every day hero gets a shout out: #daslief. In correct Dutch that would be written as “Dat is lief”, meaning “That is nice”.

Claim the spotlight

So, don’t wait any longer. Claim your place in the spotlight.

Did you save a duckling from being run over? Tweet it!

Did you throw somebody else’s litter in the trashcan? Tell a colleague!

Did you wash your elderly neighbor’s windows? Take a pic and share it!

There is that danger of becoming an annoying and presumptious smartass. Just remind yourself that staying quiet and modest would mean the only ones talking would be the Drumpfs of this world.

So be nice, be generous, be a hero. And be explicit about it. #Daslief

Axolotl questions

The A-to-Z Blogging Challenge started on the 1st of April. A Wednesday. It was not convenient for me. I saw the first few days of the month pass me by and decided I would catch up in the weekend.

By Saturday, April 4th, I saw I could no longer sign up, at least not officially. And then it dawned on me… It did not need to be April. Posting one blog a day following an alphabetical chronology can also be done in May! Besides, May starts on a Friday; much more convenient…

So, today I start my own A-to-Z challenge.

I dedicate my first blog, the letter A, to the Axolotl. I realized it must be so when I saw this T-shirt being recommended to me on social media. And I desired it deeply. I still do.

I axolotl questions and you should too.

Have you ever seen an axolotl? They are fascinatingly odd.

And if you think they look odd, then wait until you learn more about their physiology.

Axolotl Lifecycles

Axolotls are actually salamanders. Salamanders hatch from eggs. They then grow into limbless larva, looking very similar to tadpoles. Then they start growing limbs; first the front legs appear, then the back ones. Up to that moment all salamanders are fully aquatic and therefore have cute frilled gills adorning their faces.

Your regular salamanders then proceed to grow into boring adults. They develop lungs for breathing above water and lose the frills. When they’re ready, they just walk out of the water and never look back.

Axolotls are rebels though. They hang on to puberty, stay in the water, singing Under the Sea all day, I assume. They successfully reproduce without ever morphing into the adult stage.

And it’s not that they have lost the ability to do so. Noooo sir. If for some reason the water they live in no longer suits them or if it dries up for some reason, they do what they have to do.

It must be said, they look really gross as adults. Because I wan’t you to keep the cute image you have of them and also don’t want to embarrass them, I’m not going to include a picture of an adult-stage axolotl here.

Axolotl regeneration

Axolotls don’t only stay young because of their youthful souls. They posses the freakish ability to grow back limbs and tails. But that’s not all; they can regrow whole organs, including their BRAIN!

That is why every scientist has an aquarium these days with a couple axolotls in it. They hold the secret to immortality! OK, maybe not immortality but they could definitely teach us more about healing processes.

An article on Big Think website explains it as follows:

We’ve understood the basic process of regeneration in axolotls for a while now. After a limb is severed, for instance, blood cells clot at the site, and skin cells start to divide and cover the exposed wound. Then, nearby cells begin to travel to the site and congregate in a blob called the blastema. The blastema then begins to differentiate into the cells needed to grow the relevant body part and grow outward according to the appropriate limb structure, resulting in a new limb identical to its severed predecessor.

(…)

Since humans possess the same genes that enable axolotls to regenerate, researchers are optimistic that one day we will be able to speed up wound healing or even to completely replicate the axolotl’s incredible ability to regenerate organs and limbs. With continued research such as this, it’s only a matter of time until this strange salamander gives ups its secrets.

Body swapping

All of this may have you wishing for an axolotl aquarium of your own, but don’t let their cute faces and quirky features fool you; these guys are dangerous!

Luckily, I learned about the fatality of axolotls in my early twenties and can therefore still walk the earth on two legs.

If you ever run into an axolotl; just don’t look it in the eyes…

You can read Julio Cortazar’s story here or listen to a lovely lady read it aloud in the video below.

The short TLDR-version of the story:

A man living in Paris becomes fascinated by an axolotl, a creature that he observes in the aquarium of a botanical garden. He visits the exhibit every day and feels a growing bond between himself and the creature. One day, as the man is pressing his face against the glass, looking into the eyes of the axolotl, a bodyswitch occurs. Stuck in the body of the axolotl, he sees his own face looking back at him from outside the aquarium. The aquarium is now his home… until some foolish visitor walks by and decides to look him deep in the eyes…

Based on a true story.