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.

 

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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.

 

South Africans, a different breed

A special breed, those South Africans. The longer I live in their country, the more I feel like the odd one out. Or rather to say, the normal one in. I mainly noticed when I was back in the Netherlands the beginning of May, and tried to look at my people from the eyes of a South African, after having been on the other side of the lens for a year now. The differences seem subtle for an ignorant tourist, but astonishing once observed from up close.

Firstly, I advice anyone to speed up their pace in Holland. People are busy and like to complain about it. I was constantly complimented by how much effort my friends had to make to see me, which hardly felt flattering. Soon enough my agenda was fully booked too and I found myself speed-cycling in Amsterdam from coffee to wine, and chasing trains from village to town. In South Africa, on the other hand, social plans are rarely made or hardly followed, but you can always knock on someone’s door if you are in for some supper, or sit at ones table if you feel like a spontaneous drink. Love it.

The downside is that I’m still Dutch by heart, and not being able to plan a weekend drives me slightly Tourette still. Appointments and time are irrelevant in South Africa. Phrases such as ‘no stress’, ‘see you now-now’, ‘no sweat’ or ‘just now’, still mean substantially little to me. African time basically means that people can easily arrive 1.5 hours after the agreed time. But at least they are honorable about it, and receiving a message “ill be there now-now sweety” an hour late, does charm me, while slowly my skin is turning crispy in the African sun.

And it’s not just African-time I find tricky, there is the African-lifestyle as well. Eating healthy is a daily challenge, exercising is frowned upon, and going to a bar for one wine is out of the question. South Africans drink on another level than Dutchies do: stronger, daily, and limitless. Shots of jagermeister and lekka lekka vanish in the bar at the same rate steaks evaporate at a braai. And most surprisingly of all, the drugs culture in Johannesburg makes my legalized Dutch jaws drop two floors down. The amount of names for marijuana is endless (e.g. ganja, pot, maconja, splif, daga) and it is, again, consumed daily and limitless. Cocaine is consumed more moderately, but only because the wallet won’t otherwise keep up. I have been offered cocaine on children’s parties, Sunday afternoons on the way to the supermarket, and on Thursday mornings because coffee had run out. I have learned that instagram and chop chop have a different meaning here, and that I can better not say I’m going to powder my nose when visiting the toilet.

But at the same level as South Africans astonish me sometimes, have I shocked people with my Dutch manners. Compared to generally timid South Africans, Dutch people can be recognized from miles away by their confident body posture, indiscreet language and immodest attitude. If I were to discuss my menstruation hazards or poor sex-life over dinner in Holland, nobody would even raise an eye-brow. In South Africa, people will respond in horror, de-friend you on facebook, or start praying on your behalf. In fact, if you don’t live by proper South African manners, people will simply refuse to help you in a supermarket or answer an innocent question on the street. Never, and I mean never, forget to start any interaction with “Good morning, how are you?” ‘Good, thank you, how are you?’ “Good good, thanks.” Dozens of times per day, while nobody really cares how you are doing.

It’s politeness, I guess.. Over-politeness actually has the opposite effect on me. Boys that go out of their way to open the door for me leave me itchy, the constant question if ‘everything is fine’ makes me want to scream in a pillow, and persistent effort to impress me has got me to behave colder than I used to consider necessary. How often have I missed the down-to-earth, straight-forward Dutch boys, that will just let you be. Also the amount of religious palms I have received over the past year, to save my soul, got severely out of hand. I am an atheist and a lot of people in South Africa have the hardest time accepting me as a full human-being knowing that.

About a week after my return from Holland I was invited by a friend to his sister’s wedding: “ought to be fun” were the words, and I agreed that no harm could be done saying yes to that kind offer. But maybe I was being naïve; Im Dutch and they are African, after all. Because I was stressed to meet my friend in time at the airport I got up way too early to arrive at Dutch, not African, time: half an hour early, 8 o’clock sharp. But then my phone broke on the way, and I never saw my friend get out of domestic flights. And then I waited for 1.5 hours, and ran up and down the hall to look for him. And then I panicked, and then people came to help this poor stressed-out European girl who was talking backwards by that time. I explained in a mix of Dutch, English and sign language that my phone died, my friend probably left, and that I couldn’t even go back home because I lost my bankcard and spend my last money getting to the airport. They offered me some morphine and a computer, and I managed to find my friend’s phone number on facebook. At last I could call him, to find out he was chilling at the Wimpy, having a coffee or two… It turned out his brother would only come fetch us in another 2 hours time.

So we wait in the sun and my blood pressure drops slowly. About noon we are finally picked up and transferred to his sister’s house, not the wedding quite yet. Here the waiting ritual continues for about three hours. My heart rate increases again, as waiting is one of the things Dutchies are not good at doing. But at three o’clock the moment is there, and the wedding finally seems to be happening. Half an hour later we arrive, in a faraway place, where the other guests know no more than we do about what’s going to happen next. People randomly wander around, often still have to get dressed, but eventually find the church where the ceremony is going to take place at some undefined moment in time. And so I sit down.. the uncomfortable, stiff cheese-head amongst the curved, singing Zimbabweans and South Africans. I get a few appreciative hand-shakes, notice some long-lasting stares, and see several disapproving looks in the direction of my friend Sisanda. But it is a wedding, so one is there to enjoy. And when the wedding ceremony finally starts, 1.5 hours later than planned, I once again feel excited, which 5 minutes later turns out to be totally misplaced.

There was a preacher and a lot of ‘hallelujah, praise the lord’; there was clapping and a lot of praying. It was in a cold, dark church and the ceremony was endless. But at least I had the safety of the herd, hoping the sheep around me wouldn’t notice they had a wolf amongst them. Although I did my fair share, praying to God this would all be over soon. Almost two hours later my prayers were answered. On my way out the door, zigzagging through the singing crowd to find the bar, I came to the realization that at Christian weddings people are not ashamed to toast to the happy couple with a champaign glass filled with orange juice… I was going to have a little rehab, it seemed.

And not even two weeks later, I was in for the same joy ride. Another wedding, being the ‘plus one’. I should have known better by now and taken the easy way out. It was a ‘white’ Afrikaans wedding this time, but the circumstances differed little to me. A church, prayers, awkwardness, and another day spend in complete silence. It might be the alcohol-deprivation, but for the second time in two weddings now, I was sitting on a table with strangers who couldn’t bother to talk to me or involve me in any other social activity. That would be unheard of in Holland, where people will talk to anybody, compete to tell stories and crack provoking jokes effortlessly. In the Netherlands, a useless conversation is always better than no conservation. On these weddings, on the other hand, the food was consumed in silence. I was left counting the amount of lines on my hands, over and over again, summing them up in my head, and dividing the total to get an average, including standard deviation. I convinced myself that my fellow South African wedding-crashers must have been too shy or polite to approach the Dutch stranger in the corner, and that is was nothing personal. Although I couldn’t help blaming myself for not wearing the long sleeved dress instead…

But at the end of the day, those South African oddballs grew on me. They are always in for a joll and take life just a little bit less serious then we do. South Africans definitely win from Dutchies when it comes to generosity and hospitability, and they laugh considerably more than other people I know. Going back to Holland might become the real challenge.