31 July 2021

sleep of reason

"If you believe that the virus is a hoax, that the vaccine has a satanic code and/or a microchip embedded in it, that wearing masks will cause brain damage to children, you will believe anything. And in the end, people who believe anything will do anything. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters."

Fintan O'Toole (borrowing from Francisco Goya

I had forgotten how weird life gets, overall, while on antibiotics. Given that thanks to years and years of immune suppression therapy, my white blood cell count is generally low, as in really low (which makes me wonder how there are even enough of them to show up in blood and piss above normal to indicate infection), this whole week was a mad tumble from bed to bathroom and back. Today, I decided I just about had enough of this and got up way before breakfast, cycled to the farmer's market and made it back in one piece bearing fresh apricots and big fat black cherries and the first greengages. After breakfast I repaired to my boudoir for a lengthy spot of resting. 

madly flowering pincushion flower (scabiosa)

R harvested all our own apricots as the tree has some sort of fungal disease (cladosporium stigmata or shotgun blasts disease) and R hopes that a radical cut will be enough to help. This is apricot tree number four, just not our luck. Other than that, we have reached that important stage of the gardening year where we just watch and harvest and basically let it grow any which way. A bit like that part of my app-guided meditation where the nice male voice tells me to just let my mind go where it wants to go to. Which is when I usually wake up realise I should concentrate on my breathing.

plain tansy competing with buddleia

Reading the news, regardless of source, I could get quite hysterical until I remember my upbringing and I hear my mother's voice in my head hissing "manners" and this strange calm washes over me, followed by the enormous sense of relief that my child and her family are living happily in a covid-free and relatively sane country on the other side of the planet. 

the agapanthus siblings from Madeira

Just as an aside, I had a major debate this week with a young scientist (me in the horizontal position on the phone, but little did he know) about the use of the word enormous. Or rather that he should not use it when comparing therapy success rates in hepatic cell cancer. I suggested he replace it with considerable which he said was boring. What has become of the youth, I ask myself. Anyway, I insisted. His career is only beginning, mine is on its last leg. I win.

some sort of coriander

Here's another poem to keep us all afloat.

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass



 

 


 

 


25 July 2021

Today the grandchild, freshly bathed and ready for sleep, and I, freshly showered and ready for breakfast coffeee, looked through the many photographs around the house and on my desk, photographs of all of us, the way we often do  - thank you social media - and as always, I ask, who is that, who are these people and this time the grandchild said: they are all mine people. 
 
Then R drove me to the on-call Sunday GP where I was told that yes, you do have an infection and we picked up the antibiotics. It is such a relief to have something plain and obvious like UTI for a change. Back home I ate a large slice of R's birthday cake, the 41st one I made him, this year it's mainly ricotta and strawberries and cream and now I am actively bed resting.

22 July 2021

welcome to climate change

We are people who know but pretend to not understand, full of information but without realisation of our power, brimming with knowledge but shying away from experience. Instead we move on and on, in all our comforts and unstopped by ourselves, hoping someone somewhere will show us how it's done or better still - do it for us.

The fingers of both of my hands are not enough by now when I count the colleagues, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, here and elsewhere, who have been affected by last week's massive climate events. It's all there, from death to houses washed away or packed with mud to a merely flooded basement.

A short reminder how the global water cycle works. Water evaporates from oceans, forms clouds that drop water over land that runs back into oceans and so on. Human emissions from fossil fuel use are heating the planet. The more temperatures rise, the atmosphere gets warmer and holds more moisture which brings more rain. For every one degree Celsius increase in temperature, the atmosphere can absorb about seven percent more moisture. 

When areas of drought increase, as is the case with rising temperatures in Siberia and Western US, the water falls elsewhere, actually, lots of water falls elsewhere. More rain in a short period of time than ever recorded. Rain like a black sheet. Last week "elsewhere" was in my region. (For other elsewheres, click here.)

So what next? In the words of a young Swedish woman admired and ridiculed the world over, listen to and follow the science. We have the answers in front of us.

As citizens of the 21st century, we have inherited an almighty mess, but we have also inherited a lot of tools that could help us and others survive. A star among these tools – sparkling alongside solar panels, policy systems and activist groups – is modern climate science. It really wasn’t all that long ago that our ancestors simply looked at air and thought it was just that – thin air – rather than an array of different chemicals; chemicals that you breathe in or out, that you might set fire to or could get high on, or that might, over several centuries of burning fossil fuels, have a warming effect on the Earth.

(read more here

 On a more beautiful note and as a reminder of superior intelligence, I welcome you to watch this.

 


16 July 2021

Today I sat for a while with a colleague who lost everything. Two days ago, she and her partner ran for the car and raced down the street of the village where their house had just been built and where the garden was going through its first summer. She could hear the house being washed away but they never looked back. 

Another colleague told me how she and her family watched the houses in the street below theirs being flooded by mud and rain water running down the slopes and that this morning the fire brigade carried the dead from the flooded basements.

All we had here was 48 hours of heavy rain and little sleep. Our house is still here, the garden is lush and green. My neighbours are all well. We are just a short drive away. The helicopters and the sirens are all around us.

This is climate change. This is the shape of things to come. We have been warned for years.


12 July 2021

covid data

 This is part 2 of my lecture on science data, bear with me.

As you can imagine, this virus, its proper name is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has become the center of attention for scientists the world over. Not just medical science, but a wide range of other disciplines (physics, microbiology, biology, geology, engineering, sociology, psychology and so on) have become involved.

As a results, there are literally thousands of manuscripts on research findings waiting for peer review and publication and as the number of research papers is so great, it's almost impossible to sift out what should be published first.
Quite early on, around April 2020, the biggest publishing houses of science papers (such as Nature, The Lancet and so on) decided to make so-called "preprint versions" of research findings available. These papers have not yet completed the peer review progress but instead are accessible online and open to peers for discussion and amendments. Basically, peer review live with the added bonus that these preprint papers are scrutinized not just by two or three but hundreds of researchers all over the globe.
Also, many of the experts in the fields of virology and epidemiology decided on transparent distribution of scientific data and made all of their peer-reviewed research data on covid freely available online. 

That's one reason why I am quite fond of scientists.

Listen to an expert with an Irish accent:

and then enjoy this totally unrelated picture of the last of my beetroot, goats cheese and pumpkin seed bread (for the recipe click here) which we just cannot stop eating.




11 July 2021

not back to normal

 I was only joking in my last post, normal? What's that? For the rise in new cases in your neck of the woods as well as worldwide click here. And listen:

 

This here is Dr Richard Horton speaking. He is the editor of the The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, one the world's oldest and best-known general medical journals.

A lot of my work deals with peer-review publications, preparing research findings for publication in  expert journals. So, here follows a short - and possibly boring - breakdown on how science data publication works.

Scientific findings can only be proven, verified or refuted by scientific evidence. Before scientific findings can be published, they are subjected to peer reviews. In order to be able to assess a finding, it is not enough to have an opinion, a gut feeling or 10% half-knowledge as in the youtube academy or the university of google&twitter. In science research, real expertise is required. A science peer is someone with real training, a completed degree, years of research, own publications, lectures at congresses etc. Such a researcher becomes an expert through exchange with other scientists and when they meet at eye level, at some point they receive - via an expert journal editor who has been approached - papers about new research findings from other scientists for review. And these reviews follow a plan. A paper is usually reviewed by several reviewers and always anonymously.  The reviewers check for deficiencies, statistical errors, lack of references and so on. This is a highly demanding (unpaid) activity and not something done on the side. A review can take days, weeks or even months, sometimes there is a lot of to and fro, asking for clarification, additional tests, more detailed information, corrections and so on. Throughout, neither the reviewers nor the authors have any  knowledge as to who reads or submits the paper.

Apart from exact science standards that must be adhered to, the language and grammar of a science paper is strictly regulated (no euphemism, no reference to personal belief/opinion, no hearsay, no embellishment or aggrandizement etc.) - which is where I come in.

Also, before publication, all authors must declare how their work is funded, who had any influence on content and if patients are involved, adherence to the Declaration of Helsinki (ethical principles for medical research with humans) must be proven. The same applies if animals are involved, here every country has its own animal welfare protocol.

Only when everybody is satisfied that all science standards are met will a paper be published in a peer-reviewed journal. And these journals are not for sale on newsstands, they are accessible for members of professional medical associations on their websites and on general expert websites like pubmed or google scholar

When scientists, experienced journalists and science commentators anywhere refer to data, that's where the data comes from, not from a news report or an article in some magazine or what you may have read or heard anywhere online.

unrelated picture to show off some roses (for Robin)




06 July 2021

back to normal

Numbers are really low, summer is lovely, people are getting vaccinated and maybe this country will get its shit together and kids will be next, school will be fitted with those amazing air ventilators that are already installed in most offices and court rooms and government buildings - we have the top range one at work. Still.

I got mad at a young pharmacist today who served me with her mask hanging below her chin. Masks indoors are still stipulated here. She was all chirpy with reassurances about how it's all over and anyway, masks are just so cumbersome when you need to wear them all day. I hissed at her something about lucky she was just a pharmacist and not working in an operating theater. And back home I wrote a sharp email to the manager of the branch. I am not that kind of person, normally.

This evening I went back to rewatching Mad Men, currently bingeing on season 5, the episode where Roger Sterling asks "When are things going back to normal?" (his context is 1966) and if I could, I would tell him, not ever, man, not ever.

. . . in reality, the crisis we just experienced was waking from a dream, a confrontation with the actual reality of human life, which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated, and that a very large proportion of the population don’t do anything at all but spin fantasies, extract rents, and generally get in the way of those who are making, fixing, moving, and transporting things, or tending to the needs of other living beings. It is imperative that we not slip back into a reality where all this makes some sort of inexplicable sense, the way senseless things so often do in dreams.

David Graeber

 

03 July 2021

lost

 Today in a conversation I was told that I should learn to identify as a "person of the female gender" as opposed to "woman" in order to enable the term "transwoman", I was also told that as a mother, I should from now on call myself a "person who gives/gave birth" to avoid discrimination of those who cannot.

Please help.

01 July 2021

Nothing is complete without its shadow. 

Sometimes it seems to be that it's the old sodden weaklings like myself who have the least mercy on our own person. Maybe we expect nothing. Or have been through far too much. Maybe we are just bottomlessly foolish.

Time is the water in which we live, and we breathe it like fish. It's hard to swim against the current.

Louise Erdrich (Four Souls)

I am re-reading my way through Louise Erdrich's novels this year. I may have mentioned that before. 

clematis

Today, it's rainy and cold. (In late June/early July, a cold snap occurs relatively frequently in Central Europe, triggered by an influx of polar air, known as Schafskälte, "sheep cold", because sheep have traditionally already been shorn by now and the onset of cold - especially when summering in the Alps - can be quite threatening. As if we are surrounded by flocks of sheep here. Not a chance.) Anyway, this is normal summer weather for a change.



 

The garden loves it all. We are harvesting like mad, drying tomatoes and freezing berries. In about a week's time, R will dig up the spuds. 



We are waiting for the Delta wave, which feels a bit like standing on a beach looking out at the receding sea just before the tsunami comes rushing in.  Some mornings I wake up with the feeling that it will never be over and in my dreams I am travelling on secret passages across continents and oceans under the cover of darkness - from safe house to safe house like Offred in the Handmaid's Tale - to reach my daughter.

I have been to the bone doctor because my GP wanted another set of eyes to admire my arthritic hands and feet. He also looked at my knees and shoulders and basically predicted an all-round necessary renewal of most major joints in the near-ish future. After some angry tears I reminded myself of all the predictions from experts that have not come true and decided to improve my wait-and-see approach. 

Also, I lost a bit of a tooth today, while eating an overripe apricot for goodnesssakes, and now have to go to the dentist tomorrow,  which is a million times worse for me. 

Here is some soothing Irish music content to calm down.

14 June 2021

summer

After two days in a deck chair reading and dozing, aka the weekend, I went into full holiday mode and power washed the side patio. Now I am properly wrecked and it's not even midday. I still have another seven days, two of which will be spent preparing and recovering from a full gastro-/colonoscopy on Thursday. I know how to have fun.

the bird bath is hidden behind the poppy

Seriously, it's gorgeous outside. This is the time of year I love most, just before the real heat, when the wind is balmy with the aroma of the philadelphus and cheddar pinks blossoms, when robins and finches fight in the bird bath and warblers sing in the early mornings, when once again without fail, the first tomatoes taste like heaven and we sift carefully through the wild strawberry plants underneath the hazel bush. Tiny wild strawberries are the diamonds of fruit.

philadelphus taking over from the clematis

 

cheddar pinks

Anyway, just a few things that crowd my mind. 

On the importance of getting two vaccine shots (full article, click here):

A likely explanation for the high rate of Covid-19 among the recent vaccinees is an individual overestimation of the protective effect that occurs shortly after receiving the first dose. Weary from a year into the pandemic, the recently vaccinated ... may have exhibited a less defensive behavior towards becoming infected after the first dose, falsely assuming they are already protected. For example, they may have been less vigilant ... when socializing ... This may have led not only to an overall increased individual risk of symptomatic Covid-19 ..., but also to an increased risk of onward transmissions.

Making all members of the public aware that full protection will not be in effect until after the vaccination schedule of the administered Covid-19 vaccine has been completed is also essential to prevent public doubts about these vaccines' extremely high efficacy, to combat novel “variants of concern” and therefore to unveil their full potential in preventing deaths, and ending the pandemic.

 

Also, completely different subject:

To join in the company of women, to be adults, we grow through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother's indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusion or embarrassing clarity. It isn't enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weaknesses the rest of her life. It is alright to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that it has no principles. She simply must be to blame.
Louise Erdrich (The Painted Drum, 2005)


06 June 2021

Sunday reading and herd immunity

You'd be surprised how quickly 2 kg of blueberries can be consumed in and by a small household. In other words, there is very little left. We are now stuffed and have restocked our storage  of antioxidants or whatever beneficial ingredients blueberries surely must provide.

June has become sticky and close with short heavy showers. The garden is happy.

The roses have made their spectacular entrance to this year's season.

My favourite virologist has given another interview explaining his hypothesis of the origin of the Sars-2 virus and explaining why herd immunity is not what we need to look at. My rough translation (for the original click here):


In 2003, a doctor in Singapore contracted an unknown virus. Then he flew to New York, and there he got sick. It was known that he had been in contact with seriously ill patients in Singapore. On the return flight, the plane landed in Frankfurt for a refueling stop. The man was taken off board and placed in an isolation ward. At that time I was working in Hamburg at the Tropical Institute, which looks after imported infectious diseases, and had just developed a laboratory method that can identify viruses that had never been seen before. That's how I got involved in this detective story. At that time it was already epidemiologically clear that something was happening, something new, transmissible and triggering pneumonia, but nobody knew what kind of virus that was.

I applied the new method, and it turned out that there were sequences in this patient's virus from a coronavirus that were not yet known.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had additional sample material from a second patient, a WHO doctor who had died of this disease in the intensive care unit in Bangkok. We were able to show through a joint investigation: two patients who have never met, but who both had an indirect epidemiological connection became ill in the same way from the same virus.

It is not that bats bring such a virus directly to humans. In my field work, I examined Sars-like coronaviruses in bats. In the laboratory, we could show that these Sars viruses in bat populations are not easily transferred to humans. So which animal is the in-between carrier? Often these are farm animals that are crammed together under conditions where the virus can boil up. Humans interact with these animals differently than with distant wild animals such as bats. Take fur animals. Raccoon dogs and viverrid cats have their fur pulled over their ears while they are still alive. They let out death screams and roar, and aerosols are emitted in the process. Humans can then become infected with the virus. These animals were shown in the early 2000s to be the source of Sars-1. And now Sars has come back, as Sars-2.

For me the source is the fur industry. The laboratory hypothesis, that Sars-2 is man-made, does exist. If you look at it from a purely technical point of view, if you just look at the genome, that's within the realms of possibility. But I know the techniques very well that you would need to change a virus in this way. If someone had developed Sars-2 in this way, I would say they chose pretty awkward method.

There are actually two laboratory hypotheses. One, that it is malice, that someone intentionally constructed such a virus. The other, that it was a research accident, that in spite of good intentions and curiosity, an experiment went wrong. The malicious thing, to be honest: you have to talk to intelligence officers about it. As a scientist, I cannot judge that.

You can't just put a virus in a Petri dish and do some kind of experiment with it. Building a DNA clone like this from a virus takes two to three years of molecular biological work. By the way, researchers actually have made such clones from the original Sars-1 virus. So if you had wanted to develop a kind of Sars-2 in the laboratory, you would have added changes to a Sars-1 clone to find out if this adaptation makes the Sars virus more contagious. But that is not the case here. The whole backbone of the virus is different: Sars-2 is full of deviations from the original Sars-1 virus.

Let me explain it with a picture: To check, for example, whether adjustments make the virus more contagious, I would take an existing system, incorporate the change and then compare it with the old system. If I want to know whether a new car radio improves the sound, I take an existing car and replace the radio there. Then I compare. I'm not building a completely new car for it. But that's exactly how it was with Sars-2: The whole car is different.

This idea of a research accident is extremely unlikely for me because it would be far too cumbersome. So the most plausible source is carnivore breeding. The fur industry.

I have no evidence for this, except for the clearly proven origin of Sars-1, and this is a virus of the same species. Viruses of the same species do the same things and often come from the same source. In Sars-1, this is scientifically documented, the transitional hosts were raccoon dogs and viverrid cats. It is also a fact that raccoon dogs are used extensively in the fur industry in China. If you buy a jacket with a fur collar anywhere in the world, it is from the Chinese raccoon dog, almost without exception. 

Fur animals are predators. They eat small mammals. They also chase bats in the wild. And bats only have one short window a year where they all have their young at the same time. A lot of newborns fall from where they are hanging during day time onto the ground. And these wild cats know that. They go into bat caves and eat their fill. And they can catch such viruses in the process. Often, the fur farms add wild animals to their stock. That’s why it’s easy to imagine how such viruses were introduced into these breeds. This is an industry with close contact with people, where they can become infected.

Fifty or sixty years ago, when an intercontinental flight was the exception and only diplomats flew to China and trade with Asia was carried out via shipping containers - at that time such a virus would not have spread so easily. Travel makes it easier for a local epidemic to turn into a pandemic. We humans use more and more land from the wild animal area and intensify livestock husbandry. We eat more meat. The richer people get, the more they use animals. The denser and larger the animal population, the greater the chances that a virus, once it is introduced into the population, will explode and mutate like Sars-2. 

The concept of herd immunity was a misunderstanding from the start, to think that 70 percent will become immune - regardless of whether through vaccination or infection - and the remaining 30 percent will no longer have any contact with the virus from then on. It's just not the case with this virus. Anyone who does not get vaccinated will contract Sars-2. The term herd immunity comes from veterinary medicine, from the cattle plague virus, the measles virus of cattle. Highly transmissible, but can be prevented for life by vaccination. There you can really do such calculations: We have a livestock population that is self-contained - how many of the animals do we have to vaccinate now so that the virus cannot circulate? That's where this term comes from. 

But we humans are not a closed herd. We travel and we exchange goods, and even without traveling there is the neighboring village, and that has a neighboring village and so on, all around the world. And this is how viruses spread. In a few years, one hundred percent of the population will either have been vaccinated or infected. Even after that, Sars-2 will still infect people, but then it will no longer be like the initial infection. The initial infection is the stupid thing, after that the disease that causes it is less bad. It will probably be some kind of cold.


 

 

 


 

 


03 June 2021

bear with me

It's very late at night or early in the morning, take your pick, and I am sitting here with the whole interwebs because my digestive system is in crampy and colicky disarray. I am so used to it, you have no idea. I know it will take between four and six hours since my last bite and we are almost there. Also, the messaging app from the insurance keeps bleeping about heavy rain and thunder to come.

So far, I have watched the last episode of Mare of Easttown and I did cry a little bit. I recommend this series to all, you may not cry. Then I watched The Mauritanian which is pretty much as expected when you have read the book. In between, I edited some boring stuff on end-stage liver disease. You know the drill, surely, alcohol is No Good. The liver is the diva of our organs. One glass of bubbly and all else falls to the wayside. Sorry, if this sounds disrespectful of divas. Not all divas are into drink the way the liver is.

It's summer, I am serious! After a cold and wet spring, at last. We have been told by those who have the authority, including my father, that this year's spring was close to what a normal spring used to be before climate change, we had forgotten or rather, we got so used to early heat waves and drought by mid May.

Look, clustering iris with buttercups at their feet:

and fancy clematis:



So all is gorgeously pleasant, we are picking strawberries for breakfast and pull up those cute little red radish for dinner and so on. The spuds and the brassica are coming along nicely:

white and purple allium this year:


 incredibly interesting fact:


 this quote describes my current state of mind.

I think of my brain as a dog whose owner is asked politely to leave obedience school because the dog is hopeless and is causing problems for the other dogs.

 Evie Ebert

Yesterday, we received an elaborately cooled parcel by post all the way from the coast near Huelva in Spain containing two kilos of freshly picked blueberries, fat and round and deepest purple-blue deliciousness. I put half in the freezer and the other half is sitting in the fridge, from where R has been gulping handfuls. This evening I prepared a pile of last year's almonds (soak in hot water and slip off the skin) and ground them up so that by tomorrow, once my intestine cramps have gone, I can make Ottolenghi's blueberry, lemon and almond cake. Because, tomorrow is that other holy Thursday, corpus christi, when all is shut and so on. Actually, it's already tomorrow. I can smell some rain.


25 May 2021

rainy garden


there has been so much rain that the three big barrels collecting the rain from the small roof area of the bike shed are full for the first time in years
 
my darling little trellis apricot tree

buttercup takeover

lots of woodruff under the little pear tree, should make some May wine
and this is the birthday letter from Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland (and published poet) to Bob Dylan


21 May 2021

Friday selection

We are heading into the long Whit weekend, or Pentecost for some, with Monday a holy holiday. We have many holy days here in agnostic Germany, especially now, in May and June. Just past, there was Ascension Thursday, now Whit Monday coming up and next week Corpus Christi. On these days, everything is shut. If you forgot to buy food, you can try the petrol station and maybe find some old stuff deep down in your freezer. I remember my surprise when I first came to live in catholic Ireland where these days are not observed. Also, the amazed reactions when I explained about holy days in Germany. What, they exclaimed, in a country that has divorce and protestant churches?

Anyway, we have been informed that this year the local Corpus Christy procession will take place, albeit with distancing, which means it will be twice as long, snaking past our house, white and yellow flags and the rosary through a megaphone. One year, a long time ago, we were hosting a small group of African scientists attending an international conference (there is a private network in our city supporting people/countries who cannot afford the hotel fees) and they loved the display of this strange and mysterious local custom.

Anyway, long weekend. Time to recharge.

So for today, a few snippets only:

This excerpt is slightly edited and translated by me from a podcast script by Christian Drosten, virologist who identified the first SARS-associated coronavirus in 2003 and who developed the diagnostic test (PCR) used world wide.

Talking about herd immunity is pretty irrelevant, because everyone will become immune. 100 per cent, not 70 or 80 per cent, but 100 per cent in the population will inevitably become immune in, give or take, a year and a half. Either through vaccination or through natural infection. This virus will become endemic, it will not go away. Anyone who actively decides against getting vaccinated now will inevitably become infected. There is nothing you can do about it. Because, of course, the lockdown and distancing and masking measures will be cut back at some point. Then the virus will circulate in the population. It will circulate in the throats of people who have been vaccinated, who will not even notice that they are carrying the virus. It will circulate, of course, in the throats of children under twelve who cannot be vaccinated at the moment. The virus will spread in an undetected way under a blanket of immune protection. Then it will hit people who are not immunised by vaccination, who are fully susceptible. Those who are then infected, of course, may possibly end up in intensive care and many will die.

After the summer and in the autumn, people will have the opportunity to reconsider and say: Do I want to be vaccinated instead of getting infected naturally? If they don't get vaccinated, then of course they will get infected. This has nothing to do with political debates or compulsory vaccination or any kind of ethical debate. It is a free decision that people ultimately make. But I believe that those who actively decide against vaccination must know that they are also actively deciding in favour of natural infection.

And this music, oh how good is that! I have been listening to it for the last couple of days, the entire album is on youtube. There is a story behind it, click here for more. This is my favourite track.

and this is also my favourite track

18 May 2021

 

In illness .... We float with the sticks on the stream, helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up--to look, for example, at the sky.

Virgina Woolf

If it were not for my never ending monotonous litany of symptoms, which with predictable regularity is calling on me, my patience, my stamina, my stoic self - where would I be these days? Theoretically I am all for remaining stoic, after all it supposedly involves an indifference to high flying emotions, but in reality, that has never been my strong point, so it is hard work. Asking me to recollect myself - but as what? To reorient - but towards where?

Also, I consider one of my major achievements that - after much tossing and turning and chaotic thinking in the early, early hours - I finally allow myself to just lie there and Observe What Happens Next. I feel very Zen writing this down. Mostly, I am so tired by then that I fall asleep but it's the thought that counts, surely.

So yes, I have now managed the art of stepping back, mentally (having long since stepped back physically) from the ordinary claims of the world. But somehow, I still find myself walking on eggshells waiting for things to get worse, especially with the novelty set of side effects a new medication brings, the way it messes with the nerves along my legs and the - as yet - moderate hair loss. I am not so sure whether I am ready to swap my thankfully thick hair and the full sensory faculties of my legs for - what? I quite forget. Maybe a longer life? 

Next year R will turn 70, which makes him older than his mother ever was and almost the age his father was when he died. He is a picture of health and fitness and unlike his father was never a smoker and unlike his mother did not have multiple pregnancies and a massive traumatic car accident. Everything is stacked in his favour. 

When the first medical expert mentioned to me that my life expectancy will be somewhat reduced, I cried while waiting for R to pick me up. That expert was a piece of shit, really, because he urged me to get on the liver transplant list as, in his words, my liver had five years, max. But my daughter hasn't even finished school, I replied. (He was wrong. My liver recovered, while other bits have since packed it in. I don't think about it much.)

On Sunday, during my duty phone call my father in his nonchalant way mentioned that he has accepted to be locked up in this care home until his death. I almost replied, maybe that won't be long now. But I held my tongue. Whereas he felt it appropriate to add, you with all your health issues and medications, you'll probably die before me anyway. I politely changed the subject.

It is disappointingly cold outside, so that on these long bright evenings, we sit wrapped in blankets and watch the rain showers blowing across the lawn. Everything is lush and soggy and colourful to look at, the garden is enough. Almost.




14 May 2021

 We are at the end of the tulip season and just before the roses, with lilac everywhere. This is what I picked yesterday walking through the garden, one blossom each, excluding anything that will become a fruit and flowers on trees, because: too high.



Cannot remember where I read this, but this week has served as an example that any idiot can weather a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.  

I could list now that this week, I washed the windows, baked bread (of the no-knead variety) twice and apple crumble once,  roasted miso glazed aubergines, cooked asparagus risotto, made jam with the last frozen strawberries from last year, finished the latest knitting project (and now I am at a bit of a loss), cycled 64 km in total, read two novels*, ate the first juice apricots from France, went to the physiotherapist twice to unclench my aching joints, drank gallons of tea and spent 25 hours being gainfully employed.

Worn out doesn't quite cover it. But still:


*We run the tides, by Vendeal Vida and My phantoms, by Gwendoline Riley

08 May 2021

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

Seneca

So, I am amazed that I have arrived at another Saturday in one piece and upright, that I did loads of work, clearing my inbox, fat and full last Monday morning, step by step or rather manuscript by manuscript before falling asleep before dinner last night.  

The garden is all tulips still, what usually is a week at most before they collapse under the sun, has stretched for another and another cold week, there's also lilac everywhere and a tiny show of wisteria, but for the rest, we are weeks behind or maybe we used to be weeks ahead for years. It will, no doubt, all explode soon enough, the garden blossoms I mean. My baby apricots are coming along nicely, at least that.

This is a picture I took a few years ago, but the same tulips are flowering right now.


I have been immersed in Jack by Marilynne Robinson, forcing myself to read slowly because, well to me it's a gem. And this morning I actually did a google search for Jack Boughton, hoping against hope to find a hidden picture. In the movie version of the book, which I have directed in my mind, he is played by Sam Shepard, a disheveled Sam Shepard and Della is played by, maybe, Lupita Nyong'o. Only their age doesn't match and I do have a problem with movies where older male actors are paired with much younger female ones. So I had to develop a kind of time shift in my mind, bringing a younger Sam Shepard back to life and so on. 

Reading Marilynne Robinson is a unique experience, as I am not the slightest bit religious and this book, just as her novels Gilead and Home and Lila, is at times a sermon, a prayer, a hymn book, albeit with an observed distance, nothing preachy. Often, I have to think of the Dutch Calvinist outlook that to this day is reflected by the uncurtained large and sparkling clean front windows of Dutch houses, allowing anybody to have a good look inside, as a metaphor for the honest soul that has nothing to hide.

I read out this bit to R (and he, the good catholic boy he once was, got a bit of a fright, asking, what have I done wrong now?):

You are not good for your own sake. That probably isn't even possible. You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you.

Other than that, I work hard ignoring the ongoing low level aches and super high level exhaustion. Had a nice chat with our GP about ageing and chronic illness. I told her, it first happened so gradually, without me noticing until one day when I could not remember what being healthy felt like. And how I should have known this was going to happen, should have paid attention. But she just shook her head and said, nothing stays the same for anybody.


 




 

27 April 2021

Let's start with an image from the garden. It's dated, more than a week old and we all know how spring races on.  Anyway, these beauties (wild tulips) are still flowering all over the place.

I am having a rough old time. What with side effects of this new biological while waiting for it to kick in to show me its promised glorious powers. (I am beginning to have doubts. My inner hypochondriac is having a field day.) But just for the record, four weeks of cortisone therapy, starting high and tapering down to almost nothing, have not only revealed glimpses of my former self - free of all the aches and filled with energy, I was in best form - but also confirmed once again the inflammatory nature of this autoimmune disease. Isn't it a pity that cortisone is such a toxic agent. I could get addicted to it. But for now and following doctor's orders, it's almost gone, I am down to 2.5 mg for another couple of days and the old stiff and tired woman has come shuffling back into my life. And that's not even mentioning the gruesome inflammatory bowel scenario.

Wisely , I postponed my appointment with HR until last week. Any day earlier and I would have thrown any offers of earlier retirement out the window. Me? I would have laughed, look at me, I am in great shape. 

Whereas now, I am stuck with the same old same old. Should I, will I, can I, etc. and on days like today, how much longer, and even louder: when?

 . . . the morality of illness is about seeking to do the right thing, but no single right thing is usually available. Thus 'rising to the occasion' involves living with a combination of uncertainty about what is being done and necessity to do something, since even inaction is a form of doing. The morality of illness means responding to the question: "How do I become the sort of person who has to live with a decision that I never should have had to make?"

Arthur W. Frank, Illness as moral occasion: restoring agency to ill people (in: Health, Vol. 1, No.2, Oct. 1997, pp. 131-148, to read the entire essay, click here)

Anyway, I have a bit of a time to think and throw the dice. A few more consultations with experts. 

Lovely music helps.


18 April 2021

All this is history now.

This week, we finalised my father's exit from his childhood home. It was a complicated affair. 

This was the house where he grew up in from when he was five years old. After he had walked away from his marriage and with the golden handshake he had received at the end of his career, he moved back there. He lived there with my grandmother for a while, but only until he got her safely removed to a care facility. It also was a complicated affair.

He sold the house about twenty years ago securing what in English is called usufruct, a legal right given by an owner to someone who is not the owner, to use the owner's property for a certain period, usually for the remainder of that person's life. This was in fact not at all a complicated affair. Usufruct has been applied since the Middle Ages, especially in rural Germany.

Here he is, the kid on the right watching his uncles and cousins digging the basement foundations.

 
And this is what it looked like after completion in front.


 

And here I am (on the right) with my sister (2nd from left) and cousins on an Easter Sunday visit.

 
 
This is what his sitting room looked like before he moved to the care home last summer.  The woman in the painting is my great grandmother.


. . . and here he is, in the same room, maybe six/seven years old, my sister sold the sideboard today. He is with his first model railway on xmas. All through his and our childhood the model railway was set up for the holidays, with many new additions, which meant that he and we spent a good deal of the xmas holidays gluing together models of this and that and by the time I was about 10 years old, it had become an elaborate affair with tunnels and mountains, churches, cities, motorways, light and sound and all the trimmings you can imagine. It lives now in its own room in my oldest nephew's house.




11 April 2021

As of today, no frosty nights and the two days of snow storms have not fazed the fruit trees! 

The tiny apricots are growing, the greengage and mirabelle plum trees are still flowering with abandon, the rhubarb has shot up and the borders are a colourful tulip, forget-me-knot and grape hyacinth wonderland. The method of frost protection Ellen suggested (spraying the trees with water) is used here by the big commercial orchards and I briefly wondered whether we should get out the sprinkler. I also contemplated the heat methods used by the vine growers in France, which are basically huge candles lit between the rows.


But in the end, we have been lucky and keep our fingers crossed for the next couple of nights and then we should be all clear.

It's a year now since I stopped going to work every day, a year since I have been inside a super market, a restaurant, or anywhere indoors in one room with people. Not a single coffee-to-go cup or take-out sandwich. Not a single trip anywhere except for necessary appointments. Seriously, I don't miss any of it. We have developed ways and means to stay in touch with friends and family and that's the only aspect I will welcome back.

I think the pandemic invites me to take stock. It opens up the opportunity for me to carefully sift through our way of life, piece by piece - and to consider what can go and what we will need in the future. I am making plans. My physical energy is limited and I have found this to be a bonus, strange as it may seem. I have not grown tired of cycling along the same river, through the same forest, around the same suburb.

While many just think about how they want to get back to what was their (seemingly) "normal" before the pandemic, and other are still pretending that nothing really is different, I am convinced that we are at a crossroads in our coexistence with other creatures, and I am certain that most of us feel like that, consciously or unconsciously, in fully formed thoughts or vague notions. And I mean our way of inhabiting this earth as living beings and the way we are sharing it with each other.

This pandemic will not be the last, there will be more in the future. Zoonoses are diseases that jump from animals to humans and some animals carry viruses to which we are not immune. Some of the reasons why this happens are deforestation and factory farming. Both are man-made. The future pandemics will be man-made. There is much to think about, much to get involved in.

I can already hear the whispers and shouts about how we humans cannot help ourselves, how we are going to hell anyway because we are unable to do anything about anything anyway and so on. We have been fed this line of doomsday thinking with climate change. And to an extent, I agree. But I am also deeply hopeful and for that, I don't need all of humanity to understand what is going on and what needs to be done. As with herd immunity, all it takes is a certain percentage, let the rest continue to moan and blame human inabilities. 

It's a handy narrative, doomism, it goes hand in hand with science denial, as explained here:

 

I realise, too, how so much easier this is, if I give up/in, at least I can get on with my comfortable life for the next decade or so before I kick the bucket. And whenever I have a sleepless night about my grandchild's future, I can pull out the handy arguments about humanity being unable and that it's all downhill anyway and that there is nothing I can do.

This from a recent interview with climatologist Michael Mann (to read all of it click here):

Any time you are told a problem is your fault because you are not behaving responsibly, there is a good chance that you are being deflected from systemic solutions and policies. Blaming the individual is a tried and trusted playbook that we have seen in the past with other industries. In the 1970s, Coca Cola and the beverage industry did this very effectively to convince us we don’t need regulations on waste disposal . . .  look at (the fossil fuel industry), which gave us the world’s first individual carbon footprint calculator. Why did they do that? Because (they) wanted us looking at our carbon footprint not theirs.

Doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. . . . if people believe there is nothing you can do, they are led down a path of disengagement. They unwittingly do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by giving up.

But “too late” narratives are invariably based on a misunderstanding of science. Many of the prominent doomist narratives - . . . - can be traced back to a false notion that an Arctic methane bomb will cause runaway warming and extinguish all life on earth within 10 years. This is completely wrong. There is no science to support that.

Good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes. It can be enabling and empowering as long as you don’t get stuck there.

 

 


 


 

04 April 2021

here goes the sun

 


( artist: Tom Gauld )

Here we are, in fear of the coming polar vortex, hoping that the flowering fruit trees will be able to handle maybe/hopefully just the one very cold night. I just went and told the little apricots to hang on in there and that they are my personal favourites. Also, earlier this afternoon I cycled against the freezing northerly wind pretending to be fit and healthy. It was nice for a while, only I fell asleep the minute I got home and sat down, which was a bit of an embarrassment because you really look like an old geezer when you snore sitting upright. Anyway, I am now recovering to some form of sanity, awaiting the evening entertainment and drinking tea. The birds are very noisy and busy in the hedge and the sunset is spectacular.

dailigone (Ulster* dialect): dusk; twilight. 

*Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, it is made up of six counties, four of which are part of Northern Ireland.

 

26 March 2021

cold spring

We are waiting for warmth. So far this year, spring has been cold, mostly. Apart from the freak summer for three days in February. My brother, the family expert due to his geophysics degree, mentions the gulf stream tipping point effects, I try not to listen. (He actually manages a bookstore, has been for most of his working life, so much for geophysics. He is a clever man.)

Today, I am to start my new medication regimen. Yet another monoclonal antibody I will inject into my thigh muscle every two weeks on a Friday evening. I asked R to fold the instruction leaflet (it's actually a fat little booklet) in such a way that I can skip the pages and pages and pages with the possible side effects. He offered to rip them out and store them elsewhere. Yes, please. 

As always, I briefly ask myself, what if they're wrong, what if I'm overdiagnosed, what if I'm actually completely healthy?

Still, I have plans, I am so greedy, I want a really amazing life.

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

John O'Donohue

 

23 March 2021

One of the things I want to experience in real life and never have as yet, is to witness a murmuration. This one comes close to what I expect life has waiting for me somewhere. It'll do for the time being.

 


It was filmed earlier this month in Ireland, on Lough Ennell in Co Westmeath, by Colin Hogg and James Crombie. The story behind this video is here.

Like the fool I am most of the time, I went and got myself yet another vaccine. Yesterday, my GP called to remind me that I only had the first of two shingles vaccines and that this was almost six months ago and hence, time was of the essence. But, but, but, I said. Come in, she replied, it's two weeks since your second covid shot, all will be well. I want you to be covered.

I debated this with my inner idiot and decided that she, the GP, not only has a heart of gold but also that I want to be in her good books so R can get the covid vaccine asap and so I actually baked a tray of oatmeal cookies for her staff last night and this morning cycled over to her office after breakfast. 

After the shot, I sat for the required 15 mins and chatted through the open door with the receptionists about oatmeal cookies. I had no allergic reaction but the ground was somewhat wobbly which I ignored and cycled on to the farmer's market and back home whereupon I went to lie down and fell asleep for a bit few hours. And woke up to the same low bp I had after the covid vaccine. Only this time round, I am ever so cool about it. I even called my father as if I was on top of the world and we debated the failures of our government. We agreed on all points and in the end, he said, and I kid you not, your voice, which is very lively, frees me from some worries.  But he hung up before I could ask him to clarify "worries". 

My brother referes to this as the calendar wisdom replies when the hearing aid shuts down.

Other than that, spring is here. R is digging and potting and as of today, the potatoes are in the ground. I sit and watch the bees pollinating the almond trees. And the pear trees. And the peach trees. Also, the blueberry bushes. Very busy world out there.



21 March 2021

watching

The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.

David Graeber

Over the last two weeks, I have watched the six part documentary by British journalist and film maker Adam Curtis: Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World  "that explores how modern society has arrived to the strange place it is today. The series traverses themes of love, power, money, corruption, the ghosts of empire, . . . it deals with the rise of individualism and populism throughout history, and the failures of a wide range of resistance movements throughout time and various countries, pointing to how revolution has been subsumed in various ways by spectacle and culture, because of the way power has been forgotten or given away." (it's available here)

It is overwhelming, ambitious, clever, creative, a rush of images, fragmented shots, music, portraits of strange anti-heroes, Black Panther, psychedelic dogs, Chinese opera, and all in all very very addictive and fun to watch.  Click here for background and the review from the New Yorker.

It starts with the quote above and it ends with the quote above. And thus it ends - at least for me - on a hopeful note because it refuses to accept that we as humans are unable to act transformatively in the world but that instead, political leaders have run out of ideas for what’s next.

Along the way, we learn that the Ku Klux Klan borrowed its emblematic costumes from D.W. Griffith's classic film Birth of a Nation.

We also learn that the first James Bond director made a propaganda film for Saddam Hussein. And we learn that Bob Geldof's "Live Aid" charity for the starving in Africa was hijacked by Ethiopian rulers to eliminate civil war rivals. 

And this:

 

 If almost seven hours is too much, just watch part one and part six.

No easy viewing, no easy answers maybe a whole lot of rubbish, but an experience I would not want to have missed.

With the pandemic, paranoia has accelerated but I don’t think it just came from that. People were so shocked by Brexit and Trump, that they started imagining all kinds of dark theories about Vladimir Putin, rather than facing the reality of politics in power – which is that actually you’ve got a shitty society at the moment and you should do something about it.

Adam Curtis

 



16 March 2021

not out of the woods or beware of the mutations

One week since the second vaccine. I just filled out the requested report on the side effects for the vaccination center which will be part of yet another study on this pandemic.

This is what happened: first six hours, i.e. Tuesday afternoon after the jab, tired and nauseous, nothing dramatic. During the night, shivers, sweating, no fever, more nausea, headache. Next morning massive vertigo, unable to walk straight, headache, nausea, shivers, slept mostly. Second night same story as first. Vertigo and headache stayed with me until Sunday, and by Thursday, that is day two post vaccine, my blood pressure had gone down well below 90/60 every time we checked and my GP ordered me to drink tea, lick some salt and walk around and upstairs when possible to get things going. That eventually did the trick, yesterday was the first fairly normal reading but bp is still dropping from time to time.

It all felt like hard work was going on. 

So, what else. My country has suspended the astra seneca vaccine for the time being, hopefully just for a matter of days. Here, there have been by now seven cases of a rare type of thrombosis, the so-called sinus vein thrombosis - usually there are less than 50 cases/annually.  Six of them were women of younger to middle age.  All cases occurred between 4 and 16 days after vaccination and three of the seven people have died.  In such a rare disease, seven cases within such a short time is significant and coincidence is highly unlikely. My uneducated guess is co-factors (possibly contraceptive pill plus smoking plus autoimmunity plus whatever) and/or vaccine batch related.

And now it's all down to risk assessment.

Then there is this from a brand new publication (read here) by a team of researchers from Harvard, Berlin and S. Africa, not yet completely peer-reviewed (the bold highlights are mine):

Vaccination elicits immune responses capable of potently neutralizing SARS-CoV-2. However, ongoing surveillance has revealed the emergence of variants harboring mutations in spike, the main target of neutralizing antibodies. To understand the impact of these variants, we evaluated the neutralization potency of 99 individuals that received one or two doses of either BNT162b2 or mRNA-1273 vaccines against pseudoviruses representing 10 globally circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2. Five of the 10 pseudoviruses, ..., were highly resistant to neutralization. Cross-neutralization of B.1.351 variants was comparable to SARS-CoV and bat-derived WIV1-CoV, suggesting that a relatively small number of mutations can mediate potent escape from vaccine responses. While the clinical impact of neutralization resistance remains uncertain, these results highlight the potential for variants to escape from neutralizing humoral immunity and emphasize the need to develop broadly protective interventions against the evolving pandemic.

In other words, the vaccine may not (immediately, eventually, yet) bring the desired salvation, "neutralization" means vaccine, "broadly protective interventions" could mean anything from vaccine boosters to ongoing mask wearing and distancing and oh well, have a think.

I went to the farmer's market today and distance-met with a friend in bad shape, someone working in the field of arts, freelance, successful, so busy, we rarely had time to meet. We recalled the years we each happily lived in far away tropical places with the ever present threat of debilitating illnesses. Her years were spent in places far more dangerous than where we lived.

Trying to remain level headed, we agreed that basically we are acting like angry spoiled kids because a virus is messing with our comfort zones. This actually cheered us both up. Go figure.

On a more cheerful note, here is Curt Smith, of the 1980s band Tears for Fears, and his daughter Diva with one of the big Tears for Fears songs that made me swing my toddler on my hips around the room.