On brains and paying forward, but mostly about brains

Do you know how a thought brings on another thought? ↓

And then that thought brings on another? ↓

And another?↓

Yesterday I heard Marc Lewis say that people who view drug addiction as a disease base their opinion largely on the fact that drug addiction changes the brain - and it does, there isn't a question about that...

...but so does being a London taxi driver. Their brains' memory centers are, on average, around 20% larger than the rest of the population, so when looked under an MRI, their brains are actually different to mine and yours. (Providing that you're not a London taxi driver, are you?)

And it brought me to the plasticity of the human brain; how regardless of people's age and health and experiences, their brains are constantly changing. Tomorrow's brain is different to today's and today's brain is different to yesterday's.

It never stops. Never.

Last week The Kid discovered the beauty in colouring in with various-coloured pencils and he quickly progressed into doing such intricate, patience-requiring works that me and The Man were left somewhat... open-mouthed looking at what he'd produced.

Like this.

Many times he'd witnessed me and The Man pick up various-coloured pencils, but last week his little brain went, hmm, I'd like to try that!, and now he's off.

And although The Kid has insisted on colouring in more and more pages, to a point where it did cross my mind that it may not be a regular thing for a 4-year-old to do - it takes a whole heap of time and concentration to do something is small swatches like that - after a moment of worry I simply told myself that...

He doesn't need to be ordinary. He can be extraordinary. (If he wants to.) (And I'm cool with that.)

So, yeah: his little brain is constantly "sponging" in knowledge and experiences, changing as a result of those experiences and it is my job to continuously support and nurture that.

As we head into hospital later this week for a fourth set of casts for The Kid and a friend of mine watches The Girlie (for what has now become a weekly occurrence of several hours at a time), I try to remind myself to not feel guilty about it. At the moment I am like a sapping termite of generosity, so frequently on the receiving end of help and so limited in what I am able to offer others, but... it won't always be like that, I tell myself. Look at it as paying forward.

And besides: I'm investing in my kids. If a friend was needing help to support their kids and I was in a position to help like that, I'd do it.

(Which doesn't take away from the fact that I am so grateful, from the top of my head right down to my toenails (which need clipping, but yeah), that I could put up a statue for that friend and it still wouldn't be a gesture big enough.)

Later this week we'll be able to see if The Kid's muscles and tendons have started changing in response to casting, and next week we'll be able to see if there's anything interesting to see on his brain's MRI, and in three weeks' time when casting ends we'll be able to start physiotherapy to "re-train" his brain in regards to using his muscles and tendons; and just like London's taxi drivers, his brain will change in response to all that.

Talking of paying forward: 9 years ago I was walking on a coastal road near Anchorage, Alaska, and a lady stopped to offer us a ride in her car. We declined at first, but she insisted, and it ended up being a beautiful day where she not only offered us a ride to the airport, but took us to her home where we had a shower and dinner with her family, and before that a 2-hour hike around the hills surrounding her home.

A hillside house with a beautiful view across the Cook Inlet in Anchorage, Alaska, and its beautiful family

Flattop Mountain is arguably Anchorage's most-hiked trail

It was the first time I'd sat into someone else's car like that and accepted their generosity, but the lady simply said, "Pay it forward," and I've tried sticking to that.

On my way to kiwi-ism

I think I'm on my way to becoming a Kiwi, sort of. The other day I caught myself saying "iggs" instead of "eggs", as in, we were in a shop and I said to The Kid, "We gotta get some "iggs"."

And now I've been summoned for jury duty in our local court. It'll be... interesting, organising childcare for what will possibly be a 2-hour, 1-day event, or may end up being 2 weeks instead.

Stay tuned.

Stories of rafting and Earth's crust

A few weeks ago a friend of mine lent me two books by Erin Mckittrick: A Long Trek Home and Small Feet, Big Land. I'm not entirely sure why, but probably because a few weeks prior to that we'd talked about rafting and she'd realised that the two rafts I was talking about were pack-rafts - inflatable boats big enough to carry a person but small enough to fit in a backpack - and Erin Kckittrick has done a lot of her travelling in a packraft.

It reminded me of rafting.

It reminded me of the trips we made in Estonian winters, where we'd have to bang paddles to get rid of the built up ice and cover gloves in plastic bags so the hands wouldn't end up as drenched ice blocks instead:

Camping on the bank of Emajõgi, Estonia

Leisurely paddling on Emajõgi, Estonia

Midwinter evening on Valgejõgi, Estonia

Setting up camp overnight, Valgejõgi, Estonia

It can take a while to paddle down a river... Valgejõgi, Estonia

Then the trips around Wanaka:

A high time of my life where we drove old, banged-up cars and lived in shared flats, but bought expensive, high-tech outdoor gear and used it regularly. The way priorities were meant to be ;) 

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka

Hawea river

The Man with his brother on Clutha river

The Man on Hawea river

Heading out on Lake Wanaka on a still winter's morning

Lunchbreak on an empty shore

Where a raft can easily carry, but a car can't go - a lunch, a nap, and then back into a raft and home

Having had those experiences meant that when I read Erin Kckittrick's words, I could sense some of it better. I could picture some of the terrain she has moved through:

Near Anchorage, Alaska

When she mentioned the Iditarod sled dog racers, I knew that I know some of them:

Denver glacier, Alaska

Even the cover of her book, Small Feet, Big Land - the mountain that provides the backdrop there is the mountain I named my son after.

The more stories I listen to and the more stories I get to experience myself, the more real the new stories I come across feel to me because of all the intertwined experiences, memories of smells, knowledge...

It also meant that whilst reading Erin's and her husband Hig's words on their blog last thing in the evening right after having collapsed in bed from the exhaustion of having been a parent that whole day (oh, hi kids!), I came across a fascinating story about what would happen if earthquakes stopped:

"Question: are earthquakes an inevitable “side-effect” of a planet that can support life, or can you imagine a planet whose surface is stable enough that it never quakes the way ours does?

Answer: /.../ One way to look at it is to imagine what would happen if you shut off tectonics on earth and then watched what happened.

For a while (tens to hundreds of millions of years I’d guess) it wouldn’t be a problem. No more volcanic eruptions would reduce nutrient input into some ecosystems, but similar nutrients could be derived from mountain erosion.

Gradually erosion and deposition would lead to a planet dominated by ocean and broad coastal plains with rounded upland hills and low mountains. At this point the rate of erosion would be dropping off because the softer sediment would already be eroded, and steep slopes where erosion is enhanced would be reduced. This means that the mineral portions of soils, and dissolved minerals in groundwater, would be becoming less and less. Also without upland sources rivers would be sluggish and low oxygen. Beaches would be broad and muddy, and tides would be damped by broad shallow seas along the coastlines. This is a planet where diversity is reduced, but life is likely still abundant.

Next the land would vanish, eroded away by the ocean. The ocean floor is covered in a layer of clay, sealing off any geologic nutrient sources. Life would have to evolve to make use of a narrower spread of chemical building blocks, but would still have sunlight as an energy source.

This picture is built around the impossible scenario where tectonics on the earth get shut off. If you had a planet where the nuclear heat that powers tectonics was absent from the start, then there would be no topography to start with. Many scenarios for the beginning of life, and for life’s survival of hard times like possible “snowball Earth” periods, rely on geothermal springs. And without tectonic mixing of the earth’s mantle and crust much of the volatile water and CO2 might never reach the atmosphere… perhaps it would be a frozen dry rock."

And all these wonderful stories because of talking about a pack-raft.

Which reminds me: this friend (who lent me the books) and I made a deal that when there is a warmer weekend - her cut-off point is around 19 degrees Celsius - we will take the rafts down one of Christchurch's rivers and go explore. And then after that there is another friend I'd like to take rafting with me.

I look forward to that!

The family times

If you stepped in my living room right now you'd find Brooklyn Gospel Singers' "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho" blaring on the speakers;

The Kid singing along to it with the lyrics of, "Dig a hole, dig a hole, dig a hole!" (gotta love kids' mis-pronunciation...);

and the three of them dancing around in a circle.

Good morning, Maria :)

On tomboys and cast shoes

The Man: "I like that you're a tomboy."

Me: "I'm not any more. Not that I don't want to - I just don't get to do tomboy stuff any more. Most of the time I'm cleaning the house and taking care of kids and making food... parenting stuff."

The Man: "...she says whilst fixing shoes and securing them with gator clamps."

PS. Turns out that shoes that are meant to be worn with leg casts (ie are usually worn by people who are somewhat injured and limited in their activities) fall apart easily when they are used actively: on playgrounds, traipsing through botanic gardens, climbing up steps. Go figure.

PPS. The go-over-cast pants are still working beautifully.

On dolphins and evolution

Driving home from the hospital I listened to an interview with a dolphin researcher. Fascinating stuff - especially the bit where sex between a dolphin and a researcher was implied :P.

In the end of the program when they were reading out listener feedback, there was an e-mail from a person who was making a point that dolphins are yet another example of intelligent design: that their echolocation is so technically advanced that there is no way it evolved bit by bit; it must've been created at once, wholly.

So when I got home, I googled, "dolphins intelligent design" - fascinated (and slightly amused) to learn more. I did not need to be disappointed: the results were just that, fascinating and slightly amusing.

For example:

"Dolphins breathe using their lungs just like other mammals, which means they cannot breathe in the water like fish. For this reason, they routinely come up to the water's surface to breathe. On the top of their heads is a hole enabling them to do just that. The bodies of dolphins have such a perfect design that, when it dives into the water, this hole is automatically closed by a cap, thus preventing water from leaking into the dolphin's body."

As I was reading it, I couldn't help but think, "Yeah, that's because all the other dolphins whose 'caps' didn't close died and didn't get to procreate."

It then diverted me to another article which made me laugh: oolon.awardspace.com/SMOGGM.htm
  • "Terrestrial salamanders, which live their whole lives on the land after hatching, have to return to water to lay their eggs."
  • "Conversely, aquatic creatures such as sea turtles, which spend their whole lives at sea, have to struggle out onto land in order to lay their eggs."
  • etc.
It's a beautiful feeling, to be living at an age where I have access to such a multitude of information, and getting it is so easy.

And fun!

A difficult day

I had a dream that I visited Estonia and met with dear friends, most of whom I haven't seen in about six years. Upon waking up I felt like the experience had been... robbed from me; that I had had a chance to hug - to REALLY hug! - and then I woke up and it was all gone again.

The whole morning I walked around reminiscing about this dream. The more I thought, the more it panged in my chest somewhere - the want to... hug. To actually hug; not just e-mail and Skype.

I quickly had a look at prices of plane tickets. I though about when and how I would make this happen, if it were an option - but now I have to keep reminding myself that at the moment we are saving money to buy a home, not plane tickets. A home!

But it still pangs in my chest somewhere - this want to actually hug, as in, hug in real life.

It's been such a long time...

PS. A friend pointed out how similar my kids are. I agree ;)

The Kid, three years ago, and The Girlie, now

On sandpits and leg casts

Okay, so this is going to be a bit of a brag post - maybe even a very brag post! - but...

I want to tell you about a piece of clothing I made for The Kid. I'm way proud of it! And: I think it may actually be worth it sharing it on the internet here, because if it has helped me and The Kid so much, chances are it may help someone else, too.

So: a week and a half ago The Kid's legs were put into bilateral casts. His bones aren't broken - the casts are there to try lengthen his Achilles tendons which are a little short - and so he is allowed to put full weight on his feet, to run around, to climb things.

But he isn't allowed to get the casts wet. Or dirty.

It means no showering or baths (wet sponge cleaning only), and no sandpits or otherwise dirty play which may get dust / sand / dirt inside his casts. In fact, if casts do get wet or dirty, it's back to the hospital to take them off and to put new ones on, and it's... let's call it cumbersome.

Usually wearing casts means lots and lots of inside play and taking great care when going outside, but with a child like The Kid it is hard. He loves sandpits. Like, really, really loves sandpits! Our usual routine when dropping him off at preschool in the mornings is that when he says goodbye to me and gives me a kiss, he goes straight for the sandpit (and the various digger toys) and stays there until morning tea when it's time to come inside again.

Also, he likes getting dirty which is a habit that's encouraged in our family - not getting dirty per se, but not minding getting dirty if it's part of something that is fun. When he explores, he goes for it, and when we get home I just chuck everything in the washing machine (again); he rarely gets told off for it. He is also a bit clumsy which comes with getting dirty, so let's just say we use a washing machine a lot.

But with the casts on for an average of six weeks I was... dubious about how we were going to organise this. Either way we were going to find a way to deal with it, but I very much disliked the idea of having to keep him out of the sandpit for six weeks and for the preschool to keep him out of the sandpit whilst allowing all other kids play there.

Which is why I came up with this:

They're kind of like waders, except they're not waterproof (though they are water-resistant) and they only go up to his knees where they continue as usual children's pants.

Here, a few more photos:

I basically bought a pair of waterproof pants from the second hand store, cut up that rubbery fabric to make a set of "boots" and then sewed those "boots" onto sturdy children's pants. And, voila!, The Kid is allowed to go in the sandpit, and get dirty, and do almost everything he normally does, even though he is wearing leg casts underneath. 


I even showed these pants/waders to our physiotherapist and she was way impressed. And I am, like, really glad it's all working out for us, because if I had had to come up with something else every time he wanted to use the sandpit or run through dewy grass in the park or do other stuff that is fun (and dirty), I would've been more tired than I am now.

However, they are very warm (it's 20 degrees Celsius outside today), which is why I am planning on making another, lighter pair. A friend of mine works for Macpac and has given me a bagful of Goretex-like fabric, so I'll try to sit down behind a sewing machine again one evening. 

Because the pants/waders are not meant to be waterproof - only water-resistant - then it doesn't matter that I don't tape up seams from the inside and do all the other stuff that producers of waterproof clothing do.

And they work. They work!

The realities of parenthood

Do you also sometimes look at a sink-full of dirty dishes and think, didn't I just wash a whole sink-full?

Oh well.


The Kid has a carpet-burn on his forehead. He was pretending to be a digger - crawling around the living room with his head down, like a digger bucket - and now he has a carpet-burn on his forehead.


Random thoughts on a Friday

It is such a petty thing to celebrate... but!

I tend to drive according to rules. If a sign says 60, I slow down to 60; if a sign says 100, I won't go over 100; if I pass a school during drop-off/pick-up times, I slow down to 40.

Except, I seem to stand out whilst doing that. Several times a week I drive past a school at about 8:50 in the morning and, like clockwork!, when I slow down to 40 - like the sign says - I instantly gather a following of cars behind me. And I am not dumb: if I am going 40 in a 40 zone and there are cars catching up with me whilst I am doing 40, they must be doing more than that.

Or on a highway near where I live: recently a new speed zone was introduced bringing the top speed down to 60 and several times I've been honked at. Like... what!?! I drive the speed limit and I get honked at?!?


And so this morning I watched with glee - with pure, unadulterated joy - how in that school zone where I regularly pick up a following of cars who do not abide by school zone speed limit, a policeman was operating. He was measuring speed, and ticketing people who were over the limit. And, quite expectedly, where he had a line of cars pulled over, there were two SUVs and one fairly new Honda.

And I was, like, suck it up, bastards!

Because darn I am tired of feeling like an a$$hole when I am the one who slows down near schools and they honk at me for doing it.



A few days ago I got to talk to an Estonian lady about what it means to me to be living in New Zealand as an Estonian, and it got me thinking.

For example: she described with a kind of disappointment the mouldy tomatoes sold in her local shop in Estonia and it got me thinking that I would actually like to eat food that... spoils. Not spoiled food - but food that spoils. Food that's capable of spoiling.

Compared to what I grew up with in Estonia, here fruit and vegetables take a long time to go off. Having worked on several farms whilst backpacking and having seen the amount of spraying (herbicides, pesticides etc) that goes on, I am not surprised that it does, but... still. Talking to that lady reminded me of it.

I know organic produce is available, even in Christchurch, and I know I could get hold of it fairly easily, but I know the price tag involved. My family goes through such an obscene amount of fruit and veggies each week - in part due to these two monsters ;)...

... that we have made a conscious decision to eat large amounts of treated food, rather than small amounts of organic food, and it's a decision I stand by.

Frances Mayes wrote in a book called Under the Tuscan Sun,

"At home I plan a menu ahead, though I frequently improvise as I shop. Here, I only begin to think when I see what's ripe this week. My impulse is to overload; I forget there are not then hungry people at home. At first I was miffed when tomatoes or peas had spoiled when I got around to cooking them a few days later. Finally I caught on that what you buy today is ready - picked or dug this morning at its peak. This also explained another puzzle; I never understood why Italian refrigerators are so minute until I realised that they don't store food the way we do. The Sub-Zero giant I have at home begins to seem almost institutional compared to the toy fridge I now have here."

Which is one of the reasons I cherish homegrown food so much. There's not much - we work with what we've got - but still.

In the backyard we have a nectarine tree which is in bloom right now and if the weather holds, we may have an abundant crop of nectarines again come late summer.

Along the fenceline where there is a strip of exposed soil, garlic grows.

...alongside strawberries.

By the bedroom window a lemon tree has been providing us with lemons all winter long. It is sheltered from the wind where it grows, and red brick wall captures heat during the day which protects the tree from frost.


We are doing well.

It's been five days now since The Kid's legs have gone into bilateral casts and though Monday was a bit rough with the first set of casts not working well - which then led us to a late evening hospital visit where casts were taken off and another set were put on - it is now quite well-rehearsed the way we go about our days.

The Kid is a trooper. Honestly, I thought there were going to be so many more restrictions on what he could do and couldn't do, and instead I have found that it actually quite... works. The way it's done.

I may write a separate post about why the casts were put on and what we have done to accommodate the change (including a pretty cool piece of clothing I made which has allowed The Kid to use the sandpit!!!), but for now I'll just say that: we're doing well.

And by the way: The Girlie's walking :).