Optimism or pessimism, what side are you on?

I had a weak moment the other day and posted something on Facebook I shouldn’t have. I triggered the wrong kind of attention, but was charmed that I got some of it nevertheless. Which is morally wrong of course. I didn’t mean to beg for attention, but noticed that people who I hardly speak to showed me their concerns. Which makes me think… I did something that was socially incorrect, showing weakness, and I should know better than that. But even though people don’t like the weak, I got a surprising amount of digital affection. As the majority of these nice people can’t even recall my eye colour, I won’t take it too personal. But I don’t blame them either. I think it’s our natural response as social beings to live up to society’s expectations. “Treat people how you want to be treated” and all that bullocks.

But if we want to meet the demands of a social society: who decides what is right, what is wrong, and how do we agree on morals anyway? I think we all disagree so much on these topics that we act nice but avoid getting to actually know each other, and rather stick to “I really like the top that you are wearing”. No judgements here, I tend to do the same. I love having laughs and talks about non-intellectual stuff with strangers. I prefer to save whatever brain capacity I have left for work, no offense. So let’s talk about curvy bums and bad hairstyles instead shall we? “That famous person gained like, so much weight like, I know right?” “Hellloooo, 24 toilet rolls for only 45 rand, that is ámazing!” “My goodies, the last time I got so drunk I totally vomited in the Uber, haha my word!”

But what happens if you have laughed about farts long enough, entertained people that don’t entertain you back, and maintained conversations that leave you feeling brain-damaged? And what happens if you run out of inspiration to babble about the silliness of silly things in life, because you are actually not doing so well? When you aren’t at your best or show signs of discomfort, your company will vanish very quickly I tell you.

So that was an introduction, off we go. Optimism and pessimism: two words we invented and gave meaning to. Optimism is generally perceived as positive and appreciated highly in society, but it can bite you in the ass if you hang on to it too much. Pessimism, on the other hand, is considered negative and we don’t like folks openly executing this. But then, people of the latter category more often win arguments and get to say “I told you so”. They might be less popular, but they are hardy and protect themselves against false promises and fake people. And I kind of admire it.

I often look at my warn-down face in the mirror to convince myself I can become a better person. I should work harder, live healthier, be nicer to people, and grow a bigger bum. A surprising amount of morals and motivation floats to the surface when I speak to myself in the mirror. But this week, when I shared a rare moment of emotional negativity with whomever befriended me on facebook some blurry moment in time, I realized that I shouldn’t be so open about my personal disappointments. I was being too optimistic for too long and it resulted in a mental breakdown. Optimism, I think, is just a means to deny the reality that some things won’t get done, no matter how hard you try. Or it makes us deal with the lack of interest from other parties, who show no sympathy to your work motivation. Or it’s a way to convince ourselves that things will get better and justice will be served, as long as you give it time and keep up them good morals.

I stopped believing in this nonsense and got convinced that the future beholds nothing but pessimism for us. We should be strong and not share moments of despair publically. After all, facebook is sócial media, and when people go social they don’t want drama. Get a baby, some kittens or a political opinion: otherwise rather keep it to yourself, please. Instead, I decided that I wanna become a pessimist: never too young to convert and change your believes right?! It’s gonna be so awesome, I can just be honest and piss on everything. And even though people might like me less for it, I think I have reached a point where it can’t regress much more anyway. Screw the opinion of other people; I’m a hard-core pessimist now, I shall never be disappointed again! I’m gonna be totally like: “Who cares, I knew you weren’t gonna show up”; “Whatever, I totally guestimated you wouldn’t reply to my email”; “No stress, I presumed you didn’t wanna do that anyway”; “All cool, I expected you were not gonna pay me salary”. It’s great, I am so resilient, I don’t care, about anything, or anyone, it’s all bad. Guess who’ll be laughing last motherfuckersss!

Oh my god, I can’t believe I just said that… it’s so negative. The reality of a pessimist holds so little fun, I don’t think they ever laugh at all. They might often be right, but they don’t laugh. And by nature, I really like laughing… about anything ranging from bad hairstyles to excessive bowel activity. It takes little for me. Perhaps, for this reason, I can’t be a hard-core pessimist after all. I should rather try to stay optimistic while dealing with an endless supply of disappointments, false promises and fake people. And I can learn how to filter the good from the bad, and focus on things that do succeed in the chaos of failures. I can even wright a book about it! If it sells well it might just make some real, tangible money! Or is that too optimistic… I’m working on it, but I’ll get there.

Men, genes and disasters

We all have a bad day sometimes and I’m having one right this moment. It’s probably just the rainy weather and my period kicking in, but today I feel like I’m nothing more than a clump of cells, a combination of genes, and a machinery of hormones trying to make it all work. It makes me sad to know that my neutrons, electrons and proteins are just the same as everyone else. Don’t we all want to feel special every now and then? Reality is that we are all, in fact, nothing more than a collection of cells and genes, with hormones running full hours to keep them functioning. But we shouldn’t led that fact get us down, we should embrace it! Genes give us life, create proteins that build our bodies, and release hormones. And if it wasn’t for hormones we wouldn’t be able to sleep, feel happy, get hungry, digest food, absorb nutrients, and take a dump the next day. Just to mention a few examples.

But I also strongly believe that genes and hormones can work against us, and that they might be the main drivers of the chaos that we have created on this planet. It starts with the selfish gene, as Richard Dawkins describes it. He pretty much states that we are nothing but machineries designed to pass on genes to the next generation. Because it takes sex to keep genes going, we produce hormones that make us all behave like desperate, horny beasts. Men are programmed to spread their sperm generously because they produce endless supplies and suffer few consequences, whereas woman are rather picky on who to share their eggs with, as only a limited amount is produced and lots of energy is required. It’s only fair that ladies try to keep them legs closed until they find a suitable sperm donor that is willing to stick around for the next 15 years, which is about the time it takes to raise a child to independency. It would surely take some load of our shoulders.

In the animal kingdom, genes normally don’t require that much time and dedicated effort to be passed on. Most animals let go of their sprout from the day they are born or after no more than a year, after which the parents shamelessly continue humping around to produce yet another generation. When less time and energy is invested in care-taking, parents have the luxury to pick bed partners not based on parental quality, but rather on their genetic toolkit. It has been proven that some animals can sniff out potential mates that are genetically distinct and fit enough, and it seems that the ladies always prefer boys with the crazy genes.

Other animals can’t pick up another’s genetic assemblage that easily, so they tend to make males work hard to prove that they hold the very best sperm. This so-called sexual selection has pushed some males in the animal kingdom so far that they can hardly support their antlers, extensive feathers, or other traits that turn the ladies on. In some cases, such accessories substantially decrease the fitness of the appealing males, by making them more vulnerable to predation or starvation for instance. Some males will even fight till death to proof ladies their worth. Because even if you die young, as long as you got lucky it’s worth it right?

Realizing this, the behaviour of men around me makes total sense. Men have genes, which are selfish, and demand to be passed on. Sleep-overs are the only way to achieve this, which is the reason why men act so desperate to get our attention (evolution hasn’t yet caught up with condoms). Desperate acts for affection, however, rarely work to convince a lady to spend the night together, as only few of us accept the pity card and take one for the team. For one night perhaps, but for actual reproduction we rather choose a man who is confident, successful, strong and does shit for us that we are capable, but not willing, of doing ourselves.

Now, the problem is that some men have mistaken the ladies’ need for good genes with the need for domination. These men use brutal force, power, or money as a means to spread more genes, sometimes against the will of the ladies involved. The modern trend seems to be that wealthy, instead of genetically suitable, men get to reproduce, as the need for money now outweighs the need for protection against bears and the provision of food. Mr McCartney seems to have gotten it all wrong; money does buy you love. And ever since women started to like men that focus on power and money, instead of sexy bodies and parental skills, we have ruined our planet with fast cars, bulldozers, and guns. The disasters we see around us are all the fault of men, dominant genes, female hormones and erections; it’s that simple.

This trend has also obscured the purpose of evolution, as some men with completely unsuitable genes get to reproduce excessively; Donald Trump being a good example. As a result, genetic deterioration has occurred in modern human societies. And that weak men get to spread sperm isn’t doing us a favour. Nowadays, some people can only see through thick glasses, chew on food after years of braces, and face the light of day with severe sunblock. And in all honesty, I too have to maintain myself with allergy medication, sleeping pills, and steroid cream to hold my skin together. I think it’s the genetic deterioration.

I can blame my ancestors for being careless with their egg cells, but if I take a good look around or open any newspaper, they surely must have judged better than my generation. Perhaps it’s time that us ladies get together and fight the selfish genes that drive some men to be so sexually desperate, obsessively materialistic and socially obnoxious (I shall call this “the Trump syndrome”). We should do research to proof that money doesn’t relate to strong genes at all, and that we could rather focus on getting good jobs ourselves. Following, we solely have to spend our energy on handsome man with lots of brain cells that do nice things for us. If we all embrace contraception until (and if) we find the perfect sperm donor, this world could be a better place.

Life as a Joburger

I’m going to tell you a little story about Johannesburg. Partly informative and partly as a warning, cause life ain’t always easy here as a foreigner. I think I’ve lived here long enough to give my honest opinion about this city, and I would like to take this opportunity to make a few things very clear to other visitors. I mainly want to warn people that come to Jozi with certain expectations, when they are crazy enough to visit this city in the first place. Jeh, Africa ain’t for sissies and Joburg definitely ain’t.

Firstly, let’s talk about crime. People love talking about crime in South Africa and Johannesburg has been a specifically hot item. Tourist agencies and travel guides will tell you to avoid Joburg by all means, and rather spend some extra hours on a detour when Joburg is on your path. So I would like to state the following: you will be very, very disappointed when you do dare to visit Johannesburg and expect crime, as it is largely absent. I have lived here for 4 years and have not yet looked death in the eye. To make matters worse: I’ve had zero crime-related encounters thus far, none. No guns, no muggings, no harassments whatsoever. It is actually very likely you will leave this city without any cool stories to tell your friends at home. To illustrate: those many “I was shot in Joburg” T-shirts and posters often refer to photography, as all these people have actually never been shot. It is highly disappointing for some people.

A second issue I would like to warn tourists about: people in Joburg are extremely nice. They tend to have small conversations with strangers, help them out whenever needed, invite them for a drink at their table, or even open their doors to them. The strangest thing is that these Joburgers want nothing more from you than a nice chat, and will leave you alone afterwards. This is unheard of in many European cultures and might take some getting-used to. Joburgers also laugh a lot and make jokes that will make other people laugh. For strangers visiting this city it might be considered uncomfortable, because they are not used to such open and genuine human interactions.

Moreover, people that sympathize with racism and think South Africa is the place to be will be distraught when visiting Joburg. Joburg is actually very mixed and in most places people get along no matter what race, age or background they represent. It is even okay to be gay or transsexual. Joburg people seem to simply like being in the presence of other nice people, no matter how different they are. So please be aware of this.

Another thing I noticed about Joburgers is that they don’t care how you look or what you wear, which might be shocking to foreign visitors. They come all this way from fashionable Europe and no-one pays attention to their designer dress, which is not always appreciated. Because people don’t really focus on looks in Joburg, they tend to build more character. This can cause conflict, as many fashionable visitors from abroad have never worked on their character. So if you solely depend on your looks, Joburg might not be the place for you. I have also seen disappointed visitors that were told to never wear jeans, bags or jewellery in Joburg because it will attract crime. You will find out that all people in Joburg wear these items without any problems.

Then let’s move on to the aesthetics of Johannesburg. People often picture a large, dark city with high buildings and dirty streets. So if this is your thing, I’m gonna have to disappoint once more. Only few parts of Joburg are dark and dirty, and the part of the city that has high buildings is only very small. In fact, most of Joburg is hidden amongst trees, only has one-store buildings, and many parks and dams. Highly disappointing.

Even the traffic is different in this bad-ass city. Traffic rules do exist but are not considered to be there for our own safety. Traffic lights, referred to as robots, cheer up the streets in the same way as Christmas lights do, but are not to be taken too seriously. The same goes for indicator lights on cars. They look nice when flashed, but rarely serve the purpose of showing other drivers what direction one is heading. There are also many stop signs and roundabouts in this city, and they are used in whatever way suits the driver at the moment. When traffic rules are violated you don’t have to worry about police cars too much. Well, not more than usual that is. Because in Joburg, the police is your enemy even when you do nothing wrong. They always find something to fine you for, so you might as well give them some value for your money. I have occasionally created life threatening situations in traffic just to avoid an encounter with the police in a road-block further down the road. Pretty bad-ass.

Another thing I want to address about Joburg is that the weather is exceptionally nice. I come from the Netherlands where people bitch and moan about the weather all the time, and I felt uneasy with the lack of bad weather in Jozi when I moved here. I had nothing left to moan about. It’s never too hot and rarely too cold, and it’s sunny most of the time. Very annoying. To make matters worse: when it does storm it storms so bad that there is literally no time to complain about the weather. When roads are flooding, roofs are falling and bridges are collapsing, you just focus on making it home alive. And the next day it’s sunny and 30 degrees again, which makes it so inappropriate to moan about the weather the day before.

The last good advice I want to give to my fellow Joburg visitors is that there is no need to spend too much money here. People are often advised to only book the fanciest hotels, dine in restaurants with ultimate security, and to never walk around but rather stay in bullet-proof taxis. It’s not that fancy hotels aren’t nice, but so are cute guest houses of which we have many. And we have many lovely restaurants that sell the finest food for little money. And they even have outside tables, right on the street, surrounded by plants. Because Joburg has many nice plants. And although taxis are nice to get around with, you can even walk in Joburg; in fact we do it all the time! And we have bicycle lanes, and people actually cycle around too! And we have city parks where you can picnic without bringing armed protection. And there is a lot of street art too. There are even walls with the most stunning graffiti without a single drug dealer around. We also have many events with live music, food markets and performances with a zero-terrorism record.

So my conclusion: Joburg is pretty bad-ass and it takes some getting-used to, but once you do it’s a pretty damn good city.

Ugly people and boredom

I have never feared becoming 30 or put an emotional value to this age, as it’s really nothing but a number. But then I actually turned 30… Even though I still feel the same, and convinced myself that wrinkles give me that classy look, I somehow became more observant. Or was I just in denial before, unwilling to give in to my intuitions and accept my observations? Somehow, my first holiday as a thirty-year-old has changed my perspective and I can no longer look at humans the same way, or myself for that matter.

It started with an innocent trip to the zoo. Seeing all these beautiful and weird animals, whether they were birds, antelopes or cats. They are all pieces of evolutionary art. But then I also saw the creatures that were looking at them and I had a little out of body experience. I became aware of my fellow humans looking at majestic tigers stuck in a cage, and unlike the tigers, it wasn’t a pretty sight. The humans around me were hairless, except for a patch of excessive hair growth on top of their heads. Their white skin displayed an array of colourful sunburns, pimples and rashes. The creatures on the free side of the fence were generally overweight, which they didn’t mask very well with their poor choice of clothing. Their bodies all of a sudden seemed odd; standing upright with their arms hanging beside their plump bodies, a concentration of fat around their nipple areas, heads that were sized out of proportion, noses that stuck out, hanging bellies and no tail to balance them. Sexual selection clearly wasn’t favoured during human evolution.

When I came home I tried to shake my thoughts off and recover my faith in human aesthetics, by watching movies starring the Collin Farrells and Scarlett Johanssons of Hollywood. But soon after I went to an animation park in Johannesburg, which didn’t do much good regarding this matter. The many day visitors were no treat to the eye, and I was often stuck in queues with people that actually did the very opposite to my eyes. Again I pictured those majestic tigers, colourful parrots and fluffy tamarin monkeys, wondering where it all went wrong. But it didn’t just stop there. I became aware of the ridiculous situation I found myself in.

There were about 150 people standing in a queue, waiting to go sit in a little train that went up and down a track. Everyone was queuing up for the duration of an hour to get a little rush of artificial adrenaline, by sitting in a seat than spun around for no more than three minutes. And that’s not all we do outside working hours for entertainment, this is only the beginning. First of all, we often involve ourselves in sports, either out of social desperation or to get rid of excess weight caused by consuming food items that are so unnatural that our bodies are not capable to digest them. So we go on eating chips and sugar cones, and afterwards go out to get some body movement in ways that could also be considered unnatural. We start running for hours to return to the very same place and call it jogging; we gather in groups to move limps under the weight of water and call it water aerobics; we sit on mats and bend our body in impossible ways and call in yoga; and lift objects so heavy that our muscles can hardly support them and call it weight lifting. In nature, these activities would be a complete waste of valuable energy, and evolution would have filtered this nonsense right out.

But we have overcome evolution by domesticating animals, cultivating crops, storing water supplies, building comfortable houses, and inventing means of transportation. These days, we only have to walk from our doorstep to our car to get to the nearest shopping mall. We have made sure that even the very weakest will survive. But the downside is that we have become spoiled, overweight and bored. And boredom has a hold on us, as we seemingly do anything for some entertainment in our corporate, westernized and digitalized lives. We jump out of airplanes, climb up walls only to descend again, hit balls with golf sticks so far that it can take up to an hour to find the damn thing, and hit balls with rackets so other people can catch them and throw them back again. People have also made a sport out of cars, by driving them down impossible terrain or in endless circles, to see who can drive the fastest or most circles in a certain time frame. We also run in circles, or wear shoes on wheels while doing so, and jump over high obstacles, and throw heavy discs as far as possible, or slide down snowy mountains on a plastic board; just to see who can do it the fastest or highest. People that aren’t fit enough to run or jump tend to avoid boredom in other ways. They throw darts at a board trying to hit the right number, fill in numbers on a piece of paper in hopes it’ll match somebody else’s, or throw numbered cards on a table in a variety of ways. Others collect miniature trains or other weird objects, or yet others dive into a digital world full of dragons, fairies and Pokémons.

Some people get bored with their own bodies and dedicate their time to getting as skinny, tanned, or muscled as possible. These people even get together on stage sometimes to compare their lack of body fat or excess of muscle tissue. During these little get-together’s, there is a tendency to focus on the cloth they wear and specifically on the fabric, shape, colour variation and person who made the body coverage of choice. And there are often hundreds of people spending their free time to go look at these people on stage, clapping their hands to make noise whenever they get the chance. To cheer up their ugly appearances, people also put make-up on, ink in, and metal through their skin.

And it gets more bizarre. We consume things that were never intended to be consumed, either by swallowing it, smoking it, injecting it, or snorting it. Just to feel a bit happier, crazier, or more relaxed. It was boredom that led to the invention of these drugs, and chronical boredom that led to excessive consumption at the cost of our own health. Many people choose drugs over the basic needs in life: nutrition, sleep and sex. Not everyone though… some people rather solve their boredom by having freakish, and totally unnatural forms of sex. The way in which some people have misunderstood sex has shocked me to the core. Absurd role playing, disturbing fetishes, swinger clubs, violent bedroom rituals; let’s rather not go into detail. We surely got some explaining to do when intelligent, alien life forms find our planet.

Suddenly, I get snapped out of my thoughts, as it is finally my turn to hop in the seat that will make me go up and down, and do a few loops and flips on the way. After these exciting few minutes I go home. Firstly, I watch a little story on a screen about somebody else’s life. Next, I put some metal objects through my ears, hang some beads around my neck, apply some dark lines to my face and make my eyelashes look bigger than they are. I’m meeting a friend and we normally do little more than sit at a table, while drinking alcoholic beverages that make our brains feel funny. When I come home after hours of endless babbling about nothing memorable, I cuddle my bunny; a little being that probably doesn’t even recognize me and has no memory of me feeding him every day. I go lie in bed to read a story about yet another person’s life. I’m either too drunk to admit that I’m just the same as all those other ugly, bored humans, or just too young. Maybe I’ll be ready when I’m 40.

By that time

There will soon be a time when we have to rephrase “human over-population” to “human pest-population”, and replace “climate change” with “climate catastrophe”. By that time, nature will have been diminished to a bare minimum to allow for our uncontrolled population growth. I foresee that by that time we will start to value nature and all the goods it brings. As economic theory predicts, rare goods increase in value and nature is becoming rare at a rapid rate.

I am currently on holiday and chose to retreat to a nature reserve, as always, and enjoy the African bush. Nature and wildlife lift our spirits and enable us to recover from the buzzing and draining city life. Once in nature, muscles stop hurting, heads stop spinning, and eye-bags pop back into place. It’s the green scenery, clean air, lack of traffic noise, sound of crickets, starry sky and the pleasant company of animals that do the trick. What a treat.

Not everyone has the privilege to enjoy the bush when one pleases, however, as it already requires a fair sum of money to be able to spend some time in nature. And the price steepens quickly if you want a spot in nature for yourself, not to be shared with other people. Understandably so, as we share our daily lives in the city with so many people already. Holidays should be relaxing, nature should be wild, and we prefer to not fight over space for this one moment a year.

The problem that we are facing now, and even more so in the future, is that the amount of people is increasing at a shocking rate and that many more are becoming financially comfortable enough to afford a yearly holiday, often desiring an escape to nature or tropical island. Nature and pristine beaches, however, are running out of space. Because people do not only appreciate nature for an occasional holiday, but predominantly use it to supply us with minerals, coals, crops, palm oil, beef steaks and beyond. To extracts these goodies, nature must make way.

But soon we have enjoyed all the goodies in the world (referring only to the greedy Western world), and the oil and minerals that were at offer will have become depleted. Consequently, nature will become so rare that its value outgrows that of diamonds and gold. Wealthy people will stop obsessing about their accessories and indoor design, and instead start desiring open fields and oxygen. Business man will start buying up exhausted farm lands or abandoned industrial areas and invest in reforesting the bare soils. Once they have built a nice lodge in the midst of the regenerated forest, other wealthy people will appear that are willing to spend their money generously on a peaceful and green holiday retreat.

By then time, however, the animals that use to give forests life and their character will long be gone. Extinction is taking its toll already, and few species are likely to survive our destructive lifestyle. The small pockets of nature that will be recovered in the future will be little more than overgrown cemeteries. But technology is advancing, and genetic tools will soon allow us to bring extinct species back to life. We should start making a genetic database of the species left today, to allow future generations to bring them back to life after extinction by cloning or selective breeding.

So by the time that we collectively start to value nature, in the far future, trees shall be given space once again and ecosystems can start to recover from a 500 year lasting long cancer. After that, we can start growing extinct species in labs and release them in the artificial forest patches, to optimize the holiday experience for wealthy travellers. It is unlikely that these species will form viable populations, capable of surviving in a world that is so far-fetched from what evolution made them fit for. Consequently, breeding species in labs must become time-efficient and financially viable enough to allow for a consistent output of animals. Clone some cells, modify a DNA string here and there, add mutations where needed, and gorillas and tigers will soon be ready for delivery.

But once this business becomes booming, the demand will increase and people will desire more exclusive specimens. The problem is that some habitats are easier to recover than others, and some species are easier to de-extinct than others. Surely we will be able to buy a piece of land in Africa, grow some grasses, plant a couple of acacia trees, and add a giraffe to cheer up the scenery. But will we be able to put blue whales back into dead oceans and release river dolphins into polluted waters? And will it be possible to regenerate a tropical rainforest that takes up to 1000 years to recover to its original level? And will human-made forests be able to support butterflies, birds of paradise and tree frogs? It is very possible that by the time that nature becomes a booming business and people are craving wilderness adventures, technology will limit us to recover all the biodiversity we once had. Certain privileges that are still present today might not be restorable in the future and will be lost for ever. Coral reefs, glaciers, sea turtles and snow leopards will belong to history books, and history books only.

By the time that human greed is forced to take a step back and nature is allowed a chance to recover, we will realize that the loss of biodiversity does not only decrease the quality of our holiday retreats, but also our quality of life. Ecosystems work so well because it takes many species to make the system work. Very likely, our blue planet can no longer offer us goods in the future the way it did so generously in the past. By that time, food resources will not only become limited in the array of options, but also in the quantity. We have doomed ourselves with persistent droughts, contaminated air, collapsed ecosystems, failing crops, and a lack of fish and wild animals to feed from. Some parts of nature and certain species are unrecoverable, no matter what technology we invent.

Perhaps, by that time, nature will outsmart us. We have imposed our own downfall and nature can take over once again, and head towards a natural balance. Evolution requires some time, but this planet still has a good few billon years ahead of her. Forests will become lush again, new species will evolve, and maybe one of these species will reach an intelligence comparable to ours. They might be as curious as well, digging up our bones, revealing our lost empires, figuring out the meaning of our languages from the literature we left behind, and discovering just how successful and advanced humans once were. They might even learn how to play some of the CD’s they find in a place once known as Memphis Tennessee; at least humans knew how to make music 3 million years ago! I’m sure that by the time this new form of intelligent life has properly documented “the human era”, they will learn from our mistakes and take better care of this planet. A happy ending after all.

Miss Sensible ain’t my friend

Being sensible is supposed to be a good thing, but I have disliked the word ever since I learned about it in English. It’s supposed to be a positive characteristic such as compassion and respect, but I feel it is my biggest enemy at times. The problem is that I am actually quite sensible but execute it very poorly, which constantly leaves me feeling conscious of my bad life decisions.

Being too conscious of my poor behaviour and inability to execute my sensible nature, makes me feel guilty towards myself most of my free hours. Every time I’m enjoying a glass of wine (dry, only dry) I could be working on my thesis, or catch up on the political situation in Venezuela, or learn to play the piano, or take an Arabic course… Terrorism is happening, might as well get on board. Okay that last statement was not too thoughtful, I had some wine (ice on the side please).

Having too many ambitions and expectations is the problem, being so damn sensible and all. Why can’t I at least drink my wine (house wine will be just fine) not in a bar but behind my laptop at this very moment so I can wrap up my PhD thesis? There is always too much temptation, distraction… and the next morning I wake up in a weak state, whereas I could’ve set my alarm early to go for a hike or teach unprivileged children how to grow vegetables.

My sensible self conflicts with my behaviour and it’s eating on my conscience. I was that person who graduated a Master in Ecology ‘on the side’, opening study books only when I had to take a train or wait in a queue, because I had too much other shit on my mind. I wasn’t unwilling to study, but I chose to work a minimum of 40 hours a week in restaurants as well, and I couldn’t miss out on social events either. I wanted more than a Master degree and just enough money to survive. I wanted to travel the world in the meantime and see every band that visited Amsterdam, and that’s a lot of bands.

But I managed: I waitressed my ass of, enjoyed life, passed exams, gave up sleep, travelled and dámn did I pop that bottle of Champagne when I finished my Masters. I celebrated by booking a return ticket to Quito; I left Dutch cheese for what it was, said goodbye to my house, quit waitressing, left my lover and friends behind and enjoyed a joyful and carefree life for three months backpacking in South America. Me being unable to execute my sensible nature, again, led to some trouble (robberies, sexual insults, being stuck in the middle of flipping nowhere) but I had the time of my life. And while being in Colombia, I had the unexpected luck to get the job of my dreams.

So half a year later I’m in Africa, specializing in a topic which most people don’t know the existence of, and I’m enjoying it. But South Africa has great wine (sauvignon blanc, preferably), and it’s distracting me from higher purposes in life. I’m not doing too badly on the PhD front, but I know I could’ve done better… Could I really, or is it misplaced guilt? Maybe my sensible self is making a pack with my guilt because she feels left out and wants to get back at me by making me feel useless all the time. Or maybe my sensible self feels hurt because I seem to prefer a glass of wine over her company (chardonnay will do, but only unwooded). It’s always a glass before I catch up on politics – “I don’t have internet at home, how could I possibly get involved?”, or before my piano teacher shows up – “I never really had one so it’s unlikely he’ll get their first”, or before my Arabic course arrives – “I tried to order one online but 150 euros?! that’s like 45 glasses of wine”.

Look, I know what it’s like to feel second best and I don’t wanna do that to my sensible self. After all, she’s constantly with me so we might as well try to get along. In my defence: I rarely get drunk, I never get to a point where I forget stuff, harass people, or can’t find my way home. I really try to good, but it’s never good enough for my Miss Sensible. I always wake up thinking I could have spent my time better.

Because I want to make things up to her, I often find myself cleaning random stuff in my house at late hours. I have been polishing my vacuum cleaner with dishwasher and scraped off dirt from the bottom of my table chairs with a metal brush. I have painted walls that didn’t belong to me and tidied up other people’s store rooms. I have cleaned up rivers, volunteered for various NGO’s, donated money to random funds, nursed ill friends, and fed poor people. But I still don’t know the capital of Kyrgyzstan or the atomic mass of nickel. Because while I could have transferred Wikipedia’s knowledge to my brain, I was chatting to strangers in various bars.

My hero Jerry Lee Lewis once said: “People say I’m a drinker, but I’m sober half the time”. I’m actually fairly often sober, but I still mess up. Men, for instance, illustrate how bad I am at making good decisions. But then again, those things are bloody difficult and how can a woman really get it right? But there is more; I often lose more money than I make, sleep too little to reach full brain capacity, ingest too much E-numbers to have my stomach function properly, and smoke more than my lungs can keep up with. And after occasional grand fuck-ups, I still find it hard to change things for the better; isn’t one supposed to learn from mistakes? Maybe I should be relieved I don’t, it would only stimulate me to make more.

In my world, sensible, wine (“another glass please, last one I promise”), guilt, conscious and mistakes are just synonyms. But I know they are not. I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself. I’m still positive I’m gonna finish my PhD, and I still score quite well when it comes to basic knowledge. Of course I could’ve done better, but couldn’t we all? All of us clever people could have finished three Master’s degrees by now, and learned five languages, and played guitar and piano at the same time while rocking the harmonica, and dance salsa better than Shakira, and paint like Mr Van Gogh himself. But whatever knowledge you stuff in your brain, it’s gonna die with you anyway. Six feet down under. We might as well have fun, travel, meet people and sleep in on a Sunday morning, while you should actually be doing some gardening. I think the grass can wait another day.

 

For the Sake of Science

I’ve got quite the name in Johannesburg (Melville to be precise): Laura the poop-scooper, the dog-shit researcher, or the Dutch dung-digger. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of it, but indeed, I make the best out of a turd freshly baked by the most endangered carnivore in South Africa. Other people just see a brown pile to avoid stepping in, I instead see steam coming off and the world of DNA research opening for me. And it leaves me with a lot of shit to do… The jokes don’t harm me. It only gets difficult when people start asking me the whys and the whatfores. If I’m so concerned about conserving the last of these animals standing, how is genetic research going to help?

It’s a question that I struggle with and normally avoid answering by faking an acute attack of bladder pressure, an unexpected call from a long-lost family member whom I have yet to find a name for, or the note that I have forgotten to feed my imaginary dog. Because the interrogators have a point: how do I avoid forests from being cut down and our last wild dogs from being poached, from the safety of my air-conditioned and unlimited-coffee lab? The thing is that I can’t. When people do insist on an answer, I normally start spitting out words such as allelic diversity, genetic drift and gene pools… enough to make them move to another table or order a round of tequila.

I do have my reasons and believes for doing what I do, and I think research is the first step to conservation, but I also think that science these days is often redundant and lacking in any higher goal. In cases, good cash is spent on proving things we already know or things that don’t really matter in the end. The world of academics is a world of its own I realized when I got caught up in it. During my study in ecology at the Free University of Amsterdam, I noticed that including ‘conservation’ into your research was being compared with hanging onto astrology or believing in aliens. Instead, research should be about enhancing knowledge, jerking off at statistics, publishing papers, and bragging about impact factors. Academics have replaced drinking alcohol with reading articles, watching movies with attending public lectures, and begging for phone numbers with begging for co-authorship.

I support the dusty article-culture (let society please become a bit more aware of what’s going on), but how often have I seen big bursaries being spent on useless research? Science for the sake of science, I guess. Because really, what’s the purpose of knowing that red king crabs move at the speed of <0.01 to 0.15m per second, up to a distance of 270m per hour? (Jørgensen et al. 2007) And has it enlightened our world to know that when you provide your hamster from food long enough, it will eventually choose food over sex (“don’t we all”; Schneider et al. 2007). And what is the benefit of comparing the degree of positive emotional expression at high school pictures with the success of marriage at an older age? (Harker & Keltner 2001) Perhaps, if they’d inform future teenagers about the results when the picture is taken, it might save us ladies some crying tissues and vibrator batteries. Furthermore, did we need research to tell us that larger portions of food lead to more energy intake? (For both normal-sized and overweight people that is; Rolls et al. 2002). Last one (I can go on forever): how about the discovery that five-month-old chimpanzees prefer harmonious over inharmonious music? (Sugimoto et al. 2010). I’m not joking, studies like these have often taken up several years and multiple authors.

I’m not alone in this. As a humorous counter-part of the Nobel Prize, scientists now have the opportunity to win the IG Nobel prize as well. Research that doesn’t make us smart, but laugh instead. Last year, Mabuchi et al. (2012) studied the friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, in case a person were to step on a banana skin on the floor. The previous year, it was proven that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely it is to stand up. More interestingly, once a cow stands up, it is difficult to predict just when it will lie down again (Tolkamp et al. 2010). The year before, scientists discovered the mind-blowing fact that leaning to the left makes the Eiffel tower seems smaller (“please be aware when visiting Paris”; Eerland et al. 2011).

So then in my case, maybe I should just reply by saying that I think wild dogs are cute and fluffy, that genetic poop-research is a way for me to make money, and that if dung-DNA leads to me getting my PhD I might get the chance to do a bit more for our green planet. Because we have to start somewhere in the end. Looking back at the Middle Ages, research of any sort has at least opened our narrow minds, nurtured our human curiosity, and challenged the spell we’ve put upon ourselves called religion. I would maybe only advise people to spend resources a bit more carefully. If people can’t define the purpose and use of their study within 15 minutes, maybe just donate the bursary to WWF or the Red Cross, and have a cold beer instead. And for all the academics still hanging in there: “The chance of finding out what is really going on is so remote that the only thing to do is get a sense of it and keep yourself occupied.”

 

Eerland A, Guadualupe TM, Zwaan RA (2011) Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller: Posture-Modulated Estimation. Psychological Science 22 (12): 1511-14.

Harker LA, Keltner D (2001) Expressions of positive emotion in women’s college yearbook pictures and their relationship to personality and life outcomes across adulthood. Journal of personality and social psychology 80 (1): 112-124.

KMabuchi K, Tanaka K, Uchijima D, Sakai R (2012) Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin. Tribology Online 7 (3): 147-151.

Rolls BJ, Morris EL, Roe L (2002) Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and overweight men and women. American society for clinical nutrition 76 (6): 1207-1213.

Schneider JE, Casper JF, Barisich A, Schoengold C, Cherry S, Surico J, DeBarba A, Fabris F, Rabold E (2007) Food deprivation and leptin prioritize ingestive and sex behavior without affecting estrous cycles in Syrian hamsters. Hormones and Behavior 51 (3): 413-427.

Sugimoto T, Kobayashi H, Nobuyoshi N, Kirivama Y, Takeshit H, Nakamura T, Hashiya K (2010) Preference for consonant music over dissonant music by an infant chimpanzee. Primates 51(1): 7-12.

Terje Jørgensen T, Løkkeborg S, Fernö, A, Hufthammer M (2007) Walking speed and area utilization of red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) introduced to the Barents Sea coastal ecosystem). Developments in Hydrobiology 195 (195):17-24.

Tolkamp BJ, Haskell MJ, Langford FM, Roberts DJ, Morgan CA (2010) Are Cows More Likely to Lie Down the Longer They Stand? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 124 (1-2): 1–10.