Chirstmas Butterflies

Christmas Eve. We are at a friends house for our annual traditional gathering. The cinnamon and cloves from my warm mulled wine fill my nostrils. The soft voice of Michael Buble plays in the background, while the children and their friends are running round with more energy than I can imagine possible at half-six in the evening. I take a break from the several conversations happening at once so my head can have a breather. With my three and a half year chromic sinusitis my head struggles to focus when more than one people are talking at the same time. It throbs. I can’t focus on who is saying what. Sometimes it feels antisocial to break away for a moment, but at the same time a few minutes of silence helps stop the piercing stabbing pain above my left eye.

It is here when I spot it. By the ancient thick stone windowsill sits a butterfly. A beautiful, if a little battered looking, tortoise shell butterfly. A butterfly here on Christmas Eve!

A wonderful sight on Christmas Eve! The gorgeous tortoise shell butterfly I spotted!!

I always thought that butterflies died before the winter. What was it doing here: Waiting out the winter in the warm artificial heat? The life-span of a butterfly is around two to three months – not enough time to ride out the harsh winter months. There were no flowers in the house for it to feed on. It was an enigma. An exciting, elegant enigma.

So I started to read around, and I discovered something that I never knew before. I was shocked. What I had believed for 37 years turned out to be completely wrong.

Here’s what I knew. All insects, like butterflies, laid their eggs before the autumn where they would lay waiting until the first heat of spring told them it was time to hatch. The hungry caterpillars would greedily eat more than their body weight in fresh new foliage, plumping up, before wrapping themselves inside a claustrophobically tight cocoon. Inside, away from the light, away from the outside world, they change. Genes switch on transforming what was a caterpillar into a butterfly. A caterpillar and a butterfly: the same individual that looks like two completely different species. After delicately emerging from their little home in the summer, the adults would feed on nectar and find a mate to make more eggs, where the eggs would wait for spring once more. And so the cycle continues.

The eggs hatching, the big juicy caterpillars munching, and the butterfly emerging is all right. That’s the life-cycle of a butterfly. We all know that. It’s the timings I got wrong. Here’s the amazing thing. Some insects (like stick insects) do lay eggs which are in a state of suspension over winter, activating when the sun is higher in spring time. I thought all insects did this. But, not all of them do lay eggs patiently waiting under a leaf or a log over winter. Many insects lay eggs in spring. Which means that there are butterflies are around over winter.

A butterfly laying eggs under a leaf. The new leaves on this branch are just beginning to grow – the butterfly is laying the eggs in spring! (Image Public Domain)

Where are they? What do they feed on? I thought they only lived for a few months?

I discovered that some adult butterflies hibernate during the winter. Hibernate. Not strictly hibernating like a bear, but they are able to shut their bodies down in a kind of suspended animation. Tortoise shells, red admirals, peacock butterflies and others will find cold places towards the end of autumn, shut down their bodies and sleep until the warmness of spring awakens them again. They can sleep for months until this natural alarm clock stirs them from their slumber.

Of course like many of us, I have seen the incredible footage of millions of Monarch butterflies clinging to trees in Mexico where they literally freeze over winter until spring comes. Monarch butterflies hibernate. I knew that many years ago. I didn’t think that butterflies hibernated even though I saw the Monarch butterflies. I didn’t even make the connection when I saw that tortoise shell butterfly on Christmas Eve. I thought this gorgeous insect was living in the house, finding warmth in the cold darkness of winter.

Dozens of Monarch Butterflies wintering in Pismo State Beach, California. (Photo Steve Corey Public Domain)

It was like something clicked. Something I had long thought was the way things were wasn’t at all. It turns out lots of different insects have different ways of coping with the bitterness of the winter months. Some insects, like adult bees and ladybirds, will huddle together during the colder months: a mass of bodies providing warmth. Others, like ants, will live deeper in their underground homes, escaping the harshness of the cold soil above. Some, like adult stink bugs, will actually invade homes to escape the chilly outside. Some insects have even developed an antifreeze by producing glycerol that lowers the freezing temperature for their bodies. And many butterflies will find a nice tree and hang there, shutting their bodies down until spring comes again. And of course, I found out that butterflies, like tortoise shells, red admirals and others, will find a nice, safe cold place indoors.

Many sheltered places these butterflies find are houses, sheds, and garages. They will shut off everything until the warmth triggers their bodies to awaken again. The trouble is that many of these places are unnaturally heated. The alarm clock has set off too early. And this can be disastrous. Because they are awake, and their life span is so short, they will die either in the house, or outside long before the spring comes. (You can help if you see one fluttering around in your house during winter. Carefully get the butterfly in a tub with air holes (without touching the wings) and move it to a cold part of the house, or rehome it in the shed. Here it will close its body down, and go back to sleep again until the natural time to wake up.)

I’m not a superstitious or religious person (are the two the same?). I don’t believe in ghosts or the supernatural. (Although for some reason I find horror films with ghosts much more tense and terrifying than monsters or serial killers. They actually make the hairs on my neck stand up and send a horrific shiver all the way down my spine. I know they are not real, but they genuinely scare the pants off me.) There is a little romantic side to this little meander. In folklores of old, many people believed that butterflies carried the souls of people who had passed away. Some people even believed that seeing a butterfly at Christmas was the spirit of a recently deceased loved one visiting.

I smiled a little when I read those folklore tales. My mum passed away unexpectedly just after new years day last year. Even after a year it is still a shock. Today it is still not real. How can someone who has been an important part in your life suddenly just not be there anymore?

I’ve never seen a butterfly in a house ever before. I doubt it was her soul visiting. Knowing her, it is much more likely she was chuckling and telling me to get back to enjoying the mulled wine. I know that’s obviously not true, but it’s nice to imagine it. One thing I do know, is that I will not look at tortoise shell butterflies the same ever again. In a way, now her spirit kind of does live on in them: I see these glorious butterflies often in the summer, and now I shall always see them with the thought of a wonderful woman who was taken away from us much too early.

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T. rex: Generations

­Dinosaurs. Love them or hate them, they are a part of our culture. Ever since the first scientific discovery of giant reptilian bones by Gideon Mantell in the 1820s, they have captured our imagination. The fossils showed that enormous, strange reptiles once lived and breathed on our planet. And some were enormous. Bigger than a house; these giants dwarfed most living things. Some walked on four legs, some walked on two. These were creatures unlike anything seen before. The stuff of imagination: except they were real.

Richard Owen, the slightly egocentric, arrogant Victorian scientist, made these extinct reptiles even larger than they were by naming them in 1841. He grouped the three creatures then discovered (Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus) into a scientific Class that would become a household name: he called them Dinosauria, meaning ‘terrible lizards’. A name which was not only was easy for anyone to say, but also added to their gigantic, terrifying nature. Strangely the scientific names of dinosaurs are discussed outside of specialist circles with relative ease (think of Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, or Triceratops), whereas all other animals have a common name. Today children can pronounce dozens of dinosaur genera without blinking an eye – how many beetles or mammal genera roll of the tongue with ease?

The awesome life size sculpture of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (Photo by me)

Soon after coining the word dinosaur, Owen helped create the first life size models at Crystal Palace, putting dinosaurs in the public eye for the first time. Since then they have been hot news. The press even followed the dinosaur rush in the late 1800s between two North American palaeontologists who fought it out to find and name the most dinosaurs they could (and led to bitter rivalry between the men). Even today, at least once a month, dinosaurs are in the media.

Why are dinosaurs so popular? There is something unreal about them; something almost from legend. We can see the enormous bones on displays in museums and get a real sense of the size of these animals – they are even bigger when we gaze up at them as a child. (Not all dinosaurs were massive. Most were smaller than a human. But of course the big ones get a lot of attention.) One group of dinosaurs even survives with us today: the birds.

They are one of the few group of prehistoric animals that regularly feature in films and books. Early films used wonderful stop-start animation in films to recreate them in dramatic from, such as King Kong (1933) and 1 million years BC (1966). Recently computer animation has brought them into our homes in even more realistic detail than ever before (Jurassic Park, 1994, Dinosaur, 2000). Dinosaur books fill the shelves of book shops. A-Z of dinosaurs, prehistoric life, dinosaur fact books, and many, many more are ready for the hungry reader, young and old. At least two popular science books on dinosaurs have been published this year, and both have sold extremely well. Like sex, dinosaurs sell.

Do we need yet another dinosaur book? If it is good enough, then yes, yes we do.

And Ted Rechlin’s new book, T. rex Generations, is good enough.

Ted Rechlin’s new book, T Rex Generations, published by Rextooth Studios.

It’s a fictional story about a family of Tyrannosaurus rex living life at the end of the Cretaceous. And it’s pretty nicely done. Rechlin has created an almost graphic style comic for his story, almost resonant of Frank Miller’s graphic novels like 300 and Sin City. The artwork is faultless, with little touches that show Rechlin knows what he is talking about. The story is brought to life by his dynamic illustrations.

What is great about this fictional story, is how the latest scientific knowledge is subtly included as part of the narrative. You are reading about a fictional family of Tyrannosaurus and unknowingly learn so much at the same time. That in itself isn’t easy to do, but demonstrates Rechlin’s skill as a writer as well as an artist. You will discover other dinosaurs around at the same time as they tyrant king. You will learn about the latest scientific research on the development of Tyrannosaurus rex. And much more: whilst the story is fictional, the information is not.

One thing that this book does, where others have failed, is to show that these dinosaurs – perhaps the most famous of all dinosaurs – faced the same struggles as animals do today. The struggle of finding food, the failure of the hunt, and the infant mortality, are all weaved through the story elegantly. Reading it you can visualise these animals as real animals struggling to survive, fighting to live. It is reminiscent of the hard life on the savannah today.

There are so many dinosaur books around. Fact books. Fun books. Popular science books. They are all great and are all full of fantastic information. This is different. Adults can enjoy it as much as children. It can easily be read as a bedtime story for little ones. It’s a nice story where you are swept away into the Late Cretaceous, where monsters hunted: only these monsters were real alive 66 million years ago.

I’m a big fan of Rechlin’s art work. The animals he illustrates are somehow as real as some of the more detailed palaeoart. His illustrations are different though.. They are not full of intricate detail, yet this doesn’t make them feel less alive. It is the character he skilfully creates which brings them alive.

With many dinosaur fact books there are illustrations of the dinosaur complimented by dozens of fascinating facts. For me, these are great to see what these extinct reptiles looked like, but they lack something else. They lack that living connection. Through his character filled illustrations, Rechlin manages with ease to portray these animals as real, living things. Reading his book you are immediately transported back to a time when these iconic animals struggled in life.

Visit Rextooth Studios for more about Ted’s art, and cool up to date information about the topics he writes about. Here are links to this book and two of my favourites:

T rex: Generations is available here.

Tyrannosaurus rex is available here.

End of the Ice Age is available here.

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What weighs 50kg?

We write a lot of labels in museums. Museum curators write them for exhibitions and displays. These labels help the visitors to discover more about the object on display. They can open an unknown world about that object: the history; the story; the relevance.

There are different ways of writing museum labels. Personally, I prefer to write them in a slightly conversational tone, being quite informal. Visitors will engage more with the object on display if the label next to it is exciting and fun. (I wrote a little about writing labels in museums here.)

Sometimes we need to describe our object a little more. It may be a fragment of a fossil, so we may want to say how big the animal would have been when it was alive. This is great as long as people can relate to it. Saying the animal would have been 10 metres long means very little to anyone. Saying the animal would have been as long as a double decker bus is so much more visual for anyone who reads it.

If I’m describing the size, or weight, of something, I want visitors to be able to visualise it.

I recently had to write a label for an object, and struggled with the weight comparison. This thing was pretty heavy, but behind glass the visitors wouldn’t really get a sense of just how heavy. It weighed 50kg. I wanted to get this weight on my label, but 50kg doesn’t mean a lot to most people: 50 bags of sugar is a bit better, but it’s still not quite right.

So, I asked Twitter. And of course, Twitter responded.

There were an enormous range of responses. Some of the more interesting ones were comparing 50kg to numbers of animals. One chap said ‘a 50kg butterfly’. Another said ’35 million ants’. Whilst this is probably true, I wanted something that the majority of visitors would immediately see. 35 million ants, or 25,000 krill is pretty tricky to visualise.

There were a surprisingly large amount of replies that said ‘me’. I quite like the personal touch to this – it’s always nice to get a little personal touch in a label. It makes the object and the information more relatable to visitors: something special behind the glass, and with a personal touch it makes it something relatable to you and I. Sadly, I doubt that many museum visitors know Robyn, Paolo, Nadine or Elina.

There were an awful lot of replies about dogs. And many of the replies included pictures of dogs. And even the dog owners and their dogs. Obviously cute (and somewhat terrifying given the size of some of them), dogs are a nice choice as people love dogs. But when we get into specific breeds, do the majority of people know what a Newfoundland dog is? Regrettably I didn’t chose a dog as my weight comparison. But I will give you a few of the horrifying adorable abominations doggies.


 

It was inevitable that someone would do the classic shot of themselves lying next to a sturgeon. These are pretty big fish. Some species can grow longer than I am tall. This group of fish are pretty old too, with the earliest fossils being found around 240 million years ago. It’s a shame that these giants are not well know in the public eye. And more of a shame I couldn’t use this example with the photo:


A chimp is quite a good one. Male chimpanzee can weigh between 40kg and 60kg, and females can weigh between 27kg and 50kg. They are quite muscular animals. And instantly recognisable too. But, the variation is too much. Would the label say ‘an average sized male chimpanzee’ or ‘ a large female chimpanzee’? When we start to describe obscure specifics we are entering a realm of pure chaos for label writing: it gets messy, there’s waffle, and a new world of attempting to visualise something a little off the norm.

The same can be said of anything which is ‘half of’, or ‘an animal with something else’. Half a dolphin might just traumatise the kids reading the label. And, as fascinating as it truly is, I don’t think a Blue Whale testicle is a good comparison. (I think it is a fascinating comparison in it’s own right, but not for my label.)

The Giant Pacific Octopus is a neat example. It does weigh 50kg. Unfortunately many people won’t have seen one or know how big it is. These are pretty big beasts, which can be longer than a black cab. As nice as it is, I won’t use this example, because I would need an illustration to show the size of the Giant Pacific Octopus, and that makes the label get too complicated.

Of course, museum folk jumped in with their example. My favourite – 1000 herbarium sheets. It’s quite an interesting fact. Herbaria are collections of pressed plants. They are mounted on thin sheets of card, with all the information written onto the card. I actually didn’t know that 1000 sheets would weigh 50kg.


There’s an awful lot of choice. From pressed plants to the testicle of a Blue Whale, a lot of really interesting things weigh 50kg. Which one am I going to use for my label. I think I am going for something simple. Something everyone can visualise. Something cute.


Thank you to everyone who responded. And I will leave you with a final one for your thoughts:

 

 

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Memories shared

“Are you sitting down?” came the voice from the other end of the phone. That’s when I found out my mum died the day after New Years Day. It’s a blur to remember what my dad and I said. I sat in my cluttered little office for a few minutes after hanging up. Shock. Dream-like. So many questions. A haze.

Then I made my way downstairs to carry on with preparing for my son’s birthday party.

Death and life both shared that day.

Cubby cheeks and big pouty lips. I haven’t changed much.

Do we really ever deal with death? I’m not sure. I think we cope. We have to. But I don’t know if we really deal with it.

I’m not very open with my feelings. I am awful with any attention – I sweat, my freaking eye twitches, my heart pumps so hard you can see my shirt moving. I rapidly make a silly joke to hopefully move the attention away from me. For as long as I can remember, I think that other people have much worse problems than me, so I feel uncomfortable talking about myself. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing; it’s a way to express things I otherwise wouldn’t say.

That’s how I cope. I don’t talk about it. I find things to do. Keep myself busy. Try not to stop. Make sure my little ones are happy, secure and loved. I try to be there for my three brothers and two sisters who are each coping their own way.

I do feel guilty. Guilty I didn’t call more often. Guilty I didn’t visit more. Guilty I didn’t write. Guilty I never once said ‘I love you’. My parents lived a 5 hour drive away, but that’s no excuse.

Apparently I loved that horse. And those shoes.

Life is so short. It can be taken away in an instant. Without warning.

My mum had a heart attack in the early hours of the morning. She was only in her late 60s. Seven children. Five grandchildren. She was a very kind, thoughtful, and funny woman; traits I hope I have inherited.

Despite coping, there are triggers that snap you back to the fact that that person has gone. The sound of a television programme. The smell of my favourite dish: goulash. Oh, garlic, lots of garlic. Your own birthday. Their birthday.

In the UK today is Mother’s Day. A little gimmicky, like all these ‘special’ days are, but it’s a day to celebrate and appreciate all the incredible hard work mothers do for all their families. I don’t think that only applies to the living.

It is a huge thing to lose a parent. Many people have lost their mother. Some at really early ages. Coping is the easy part. We can talk to those who are close to us. We can keep ourselves busy. We learn to cope. Time does help. (I am in no way dismissing how difficult it is to cope. Every individual person will cope in their own way. And they will find a way to cope which works for them.)

Dealing with such a loss is harder. It might even be impossible. Do we have to deal with death? Really?

Perhaps we don’t.

Sharing our memories, our stories, no matter how small, keeps them alive. These are real things that helps them to live on. Even though they are gone, they will always be close to us. Because they will always be alive in our hearts.

For my two children, she won’t be forgotten. Her quirks, her kindness, her life will be told through stories. Memories shared: defying death.

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A bit of a headache – the sequel

Sequels are never as good as the originals: Jaws 2 (that beach resort was pretty unlucky); The Jewel of the Nile (spoiler: there was no actual jewel); Basic Instinct 2 (yep, there was a sequel); Speed 2 (admit it, you’ve seen it); Dirty Dancing 2 (we do not talk about Dirty Dancing 2) … The list goes on. Countless hours of our lives that we will never get back. And they don’t even make good party talk.

Fortunately (for this blog post) there are exceptions to the rule, and there have been some great sequels. The favourite to the Star Wars trilogy is The Empire Strikes Back (I confess, Return of the Jedi is still my favourite from the original trilogy). Aliens kicked ass. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was wonderfully great. Grease 2 was way more of a cool rider than the first.

There is some hope.

Last October I had a little operation on my sinuses. A small ‘balloon’ was pushed up one of my nasal passageways and then expanded. The hope was to enlarge the passageway in my nostril, allowing the snot to flow freely down and out and to release the pressure in my head. For 16 months prior to this operation I had chronic sinusitis. 16 months of a headache. 16 months of pain, pressure, tiredness, and aching eyeballs. 16 months.

The snot didn’t flow freely. The release never came.

That small gloop was thought to be the cause of tremendous pressure in my head for the last 16 months. A balloon was inserted and expanded. The blob went. The pain stayed.

 

It’s an odd thing trying to describe something to someone who has never experienced it. Sinusitis is painful. For some people it is like an intense pressure headache for a week. Others feel pressure and pain just below their eyes. It can be caused by blockages: mucus getting stuck in cavities. My experience was a little more dramatic. Every day I had a headache. Not a normal headache. A headache where I would be more than happy if you got an electric drill and drilled just above my left eye to release the pressure.

Now it was 23 months. 23 months of a headache.

23 months.

As with all invisible illnesses, on the outside you can appear fine. But inside, every day, every minute, there is pain. The pain from the pressure is there everyday: it doesn’t go away. Sometimes it thumps. Sometimes it stabs. But it is always there. And there is nothing you can do. Sprays didn’t work. Drops were useless. Antibiotics didn’t touch it.

After the first balloon operation didn’t work, my surgeon (the expert on Jack the Ripper) booked me in for another, more ‘aggressive’ one. I am strangely proud how much he was fascinated with my sinus anatomy: “these nasal passages are the worst I have ever seen” he once told excitedly. At one point he tried to put a camera up my nostril, and after pushing it just half a centimetre up, he admitted defeat by saying “Nope. That’s not going up there.” My surgeon wanted to scoop out some of my bone in my sinuses to make my passageways bigger so they wouldn’t get blocked.

And so on Thursday last week, I went in and had my second surgery on my sinuses. I don’t know if other people get this, but I wake up from the general aesthetic feeling a little bit tipsy. The first person I saw when I woke up was a recovery nurse looking after me, and she looked like a Julie, so I insisted on calling her Julie (she was called Mel). I remember telling someone that “I look after dead things” – probably not the wisest of things to say in a hospital. Despite my silly behaviour, all the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff were fantastic and treated me with such good care. The NHS is a fantastic service and we are incredibly lucky to still have it.

The only thing left is the head to heal. It feels like an expert on Jack the Ripper has been up there. And I guess this will take time to heal. It really hurts across my entire forehead. One thing that I am still waiting for is the absorbent pack to come out. After the surgery was finished, they shoved some absorbent gel up my nose to help clot the blood. After 48 hours I was told to blow my nose and it should come out. Nothing has come out apart from a few tiny square jelly cubes covered in blood. It should come out soon. Otherwise I will have to go in see my surgeon again….

Well, let’s hope I don’t have to go through this to get that pack out from up my nose. (Clip from Total Recall, 1990).

 

Now I am at home, and have been in bed for the last four days, writing this blog post in short bursts – too long out of bed and I feel dizzy. Why am I writing this? Growing up I always knew that there were so many more people worse of than me, so I dealt with things by myself. I am now extremely crap with sympathy (and compliments) – I blush, my eye starts to twitch and water, and I can see my shirt rise from the ridiculous pumping of my heart. I am not writing this for sympathy or compliments (please – I hate it when my eye twitches).

(Incidentally, my eyes start to water because of kindness. They do it all the time. If I see some kindness in a shop, my eyes water. Watching the kindness of Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones gets me every time. There is often ‘something in my eye’ if I am watching a film. Kindness will set the tears flowing.)

In my writing I normally like to include how much more we can appreciate the world by looking at the wildlife around us. I guess this post is more about noticing the people around us. We spend a massive amount of our day with work colleagues or alongside random people to and from work. We are all often so busy with our own worries or job pressures that we barely even notice someone behind the counter or next to us on the train. Take that second to say thank you to the person at the checkout, to stand up for the person on the train, to acknowledge if a colleague looks a little tiered. Life is short, yet you can make someone’s whole day so much better by just noticing.

To steal (and slightly change) a quote from one of my favourite (and most tear-jerking) films About Time, “live each day as if you’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of your extraordinary, ordinary life.”

And thank goodness they haven’t made a sequel to About Time. That would be unforgiveable.

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A bit of a headache

For 16 months I have had chronic sinusitis.

16 months.

If you have had sinusitis, you know what it feels like. If you haven’t, it is pretty tricky to describe. Imagine a headache. Only this headache never goes away. It feels like it is expanding your skull – only your skull can’t expand because it’s solid bone. The best ‘every day’ analogy, would be when you land at an airport, and your ears feel blocked. After a few minutes, the air pushes out of you like a deflating balloon, with that ever so satisfying ‘psssssscht’: it feels quite good, because your ears are not blocked any more. Sinusitis feels a bit like that. Only the pressure is in your forehead. And there is no satisfying ‘psssssscht’.

Another way of describing it would be to drill into my forehead to release the pressure. And it would be just lovely.

Sinusitis is caused by something in, or around the sinus cavities. Some cavities can be blocked full of mucus (or snot). Other cavities can get irritated by dust, pollen, or even over sensitive nerves. These are generally dealt with by drops, sprays, or antibiotics, sometimes resulting in a somewhat unexpected sudden discharge of mucus (snot). For such a severe, chronic pain, I imagined all my sinus cavities to be blocked. For strange shaped cavities to be pressing here, or obscuring that. Sadly, there was nothing spectacular about the cause of my sinusitis. In fact, it was caused by a rather pathetic looking, extremely small blob at the bottom of one of my sinus cavities.

This is my head. That small gloop has caused tremendous pressure in me head for the last 16 months.

This is my head. The red arrow points to where a small blob of gloop has caused the pain.

That small gloop has caused tremendous pressure in my head for the last 16 months.

Every day.

For 16 months.

It doesn’t keep me bed bound all the time. It is just there. Throbbing. Pain. Sometimes it does get very bad. So bad my eyeball hurts. My eyeball!!

After shoving several small tubes of sprays and drops up my nostrils, and a myriad of antibiotics and steroids, I finally got an operation booked in. I was to have a balloon sinoplasty. A simple operation where the surgeon drills up my nostril, and inflates a small balloon to expand the sinus cavity. My surgeon (who also, somewhat terrifyingly,  happens to be an expert on Jack the Ripper) peered up my nostrils for the first time and said that they are the worst nasal passages he has ever seen. That’s always lovely to hear. Now the surgeon will be drilling up both nostrils to expand both cavities, and making my nasal passages a little less tight.

(For those who haven’t heard me talk, I sound uncannily like Mr Snuffleupagus. My voice is super nasally. I talk like I have a permanent blocked nose. And because of that I often mumble. I am a little intrigued if this will help me sound a little less like a giant puppet mammoth.)

 

I have just had the surgery, and I am now home. I woke up after the surgery feeling a little bit drunk. I don’t know what I said to the poor post-theatre staff, but they were giggling. I am sure I mentioned dinosaurs. And Star Wars. And Game of Thrones. I looked in the mirror, and I am strangely unscarred: I thought I would wake looking like Darkman, but there were no bandages and no bruises. I am a little terrified of seeing gallons of mucus (snot) fall uncontrollably from my face. I am told it won’t happen. Lets see.

The staff were all amazing – I was in and out in 6 hours. I saw half a dozens different staff, each unbelievably kind, friendly and caring. And it was free. FREE. For everyone’s moaning about the NHS, the service, and staff, do an incredible job. They were all fantastic.

So now, home, I lie here and wait. That’s the hardest part. I am never ill. I get bored if I am not doing something. This is actually my first day off work sick. Ever. In 10 years of working at the museum, I have never had a sick day. And I am annoyed that that ridiculously, almost verging on comical, small bit of gloop forced me to take a few days off.

I normally don’t write about myself. I am terrible with sympathy: I honestly don’t know what to say if it is offered to me. I start to get flushed. Nervous. I rapidly change the subject. The same thing happens when I am complimented on something: I have literally no idea how to react. In person, when someone can see my face, I am a mess. I avoid eye contact. I do a ridiculous smile which clearly shows my discomfort. Sometimes my eye twitches. Being conscious of this, I feel my face starting to twitch. I then waffle about something incomprehensible before passing the compliment back onto that person. It is not pretty.

Except for family and a few close friends, I haven’t shared my daily headaches on Facebook or Twitter. Personally, I don’t see the point, or the need to. There are much, much worse things happening all over the world than my head pains. Much worse.

So why write this post. It is not for sympathy (or compliments). I think a lot of us go through problems in our lives every day. Some people may share health issues on social media. Other, like myself, do not want to worry people. A headache every day for 16 months is bad (real bad). If I mentioned it on social media every single day for 16 months, it would drive people crazy! I can’t lie in bed moaning. Life goes on, and it is what we make it. Some people have really serious, lifelong issues. I don’t want those to feel smaller because of a headache. (It is really interesting to discuss, and could be a really long blog post, because the pain anyone has affects them. Everyone deals with it differently. This is how I deal with it – it is not the right way, or the wrong way. It’s my way.)

I know some friends who have been through really terrible things. One good friend has sinusitis so bad, they get flu-like symptoms at least twice a month. Every day she has the sinus pain, but no one would ever know. Another friend has had the most horrendous chronic pain in his back and insides. He has had numerous appointments, and operations, and at one point it was close to life threatening. No one would know because he carries on.

I guess the reason for me writing this post is that people are going through something every day. They may be caring for a family member, or themselves. If you are reading this, you know you are no alone. You only have to share what you are comfortable sharing. If you have a bad day and have not been as productive as you wanted, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the pressures of social media can add an extra strain. The truth is, it doesn’t matter: Twitter will still be there with the awesome science; Facebook isn’t really going anywhere; your blog post can wait.

What is important is you. Your health – mental and physical. If you feel crap, rest. Rest, and know you are not alone.

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What the tide leaves behind

Winter is the season people love to hate. It’s dark when you leave the house in the morning, and it’s dark when you get back home. It’s wet. It’s cold. It’s often wet and cold. The landscape seems empty, dull, lifeless.

Look a little closer, and there is actually a lot to see. You could easily name a robin as soon as this inquisitive little bird comes into sight on a nearby branch. Other little birds maybe less familiar, but they are there too fleeting between branches. Trees may stand naked in woodlands and fields, yet they stand proud. And so they should, for a real beauty is exposed, normally hidden during other seasons: lichen. Attached to the bark is a remarkably large assortment of lichen species: flat crusty yellow ones, small green fury ones, and wavy lettuce ones. Natures very own henna tattoos.

In the summer, this beautiful lichen (Cladonia sp.) is normally hidden by the leaves on this tree.

In the summer, this beautiful lichen (Cladonia sp.) is normally hidden by the leaves on this tree. Just look how beautiful this is: like sugary crystals!

 

For most of us, when we build up the courage to step outside in the cold harshness of winter, we don’t stop to look at the trunk of a tree. We mutter an expletive at the cold or the wet (mostly at the cold and the wet), and do what we have to do quickly. No-one wants to be out in the cold longer than they need to be.

Nature is asleep and most people just want her to wake up. There is one place during winter which never really sleeps.

A trip to the beach is normally the thing to do in the summer. Us Brits go beach crazy at the slightest sign of a blue sky in the summer. Beaches are rammed with towels, wind breakers, and half naked people risking 10 years off their lives for a few weeks of a tanned body (which inevitably ends up as extremely painful sunburn – we always forget we have pretty fair skin).

In truth, beaches are best enjoyed during winter. Stepping out of the warm car, a fresh cold wind blasts your face for a minute. Your wellies are on, coat is zipped up, and you are ready. Your wellies make deeper footprints than your summer bare feet as you start to walk on the sand. Or if you walk onto the shingle, there is a loud crunch under your feet. After a moment, you don’t really notice the cold. What you do notice is the beach. The stillness. Silence: just the waves rushing in gently, and pulling out again. Apart from a few people scattered here and there, and a colony of sea gulls, the beach is yours.

Watching the waves roll in and wondering what animals are living in the cold sea water.

My eldest watching the waves roll in and wondering what animals are living in the cold sea water. He, and his little sister, enjoy the beach most at winter because there are no people, and it is theirs to explore.

 

It’s lovely to walk along an empty beach. What’s more, my little ones love it too. There’s more than just sand (or shingle) and water, and my little ones are fully aware. We always head to the where the water meets the sand/shingle (called the strandline) first, and then follow it to the end of the beach. We then sharply change direction, following the rocks to the top of the beach, before following the beach back to where we began. A nice circle walk on a beach. Sounds exciting? Oh, it really is. One walk and three surprisingly different areas to explore!

Splashing in the cold sea water is just one of the joys of walking along the strandline. We often run in together as the water is being sucked out, and play a little game of ‘chicken’ to see who stays the longest before the water gushes back in again. Often my two get a little too confident and I end up lifting them both up to save them from getting drenched – the waves don’t care who is in the way, and icy cold water sops over into my wellies.

To the untrained eye, the tide has left a lot of green smelly seaweed. My son, however, spots different types of seaweeds: red and green, and a thin branching, coraline one. He picks up barnacles, shells, and even a sea anemone and some jellyfish! His little sister watches him, and she starts to spot things too, a shiny mussel shell, a sponge, and a marine worm. Thier eyes pick out everything. Thier little fingers, red and cold, examines each new thing closely, eagerly asking questions, and enthusiastically telling each other. The receding tide leave a lot things on the beach, evidence of life hidden beneath the waves.

On one beach a year ago, we saw a hermit crab washed up, and the empty shell was just a few meters away. It may have been looking for a bigger shell, but Creb wasn’t moving anywhere. (My then 4 year old thought of the name Creb – perhaps because it sounded like Crab? Nothing to do with Clan of the Cave Bear!) With sea gulls around, we moved Creb to a safer rock pool area, and built a little shelter out of slate for protection.

The hermit crab ithout a shell. We built a little shelter for Creb to protect it against seagulls. I often wonder where Creb is today. Did he find a new shell...

The hermit crab ithout a shell. We built a little shelter for Creb to protect it against sea gulls. I often wonder where Creb is today. And I wonder if he ever did find a new shell…

At the end of our beach are cliffs. Undeterred by the cold, and without a break, here is where we explore next. This is a different place. Walking along the strand line we saw lots of wonderful things washed up, but they were all dead things. At the base of the cliffs, there are pools. Pools full of live to peer into. Humans have placed lots of large boulders, which helps (a little) to protect the cliffs from the never-ending onslaught of the sea. As the tide recedes, small pools of water were left between rocks and boulders, and with them so were some animals.

We scramble over the jagged rocks, and spread out. Carefully we all start to look in the rock pools, and lift up rocks. Shrimp, almost translucent, zoom across the water. A crab scurries and squeezes itself under another nearby rock to hide. Hermit crabs vanish with alarming speed inside their shells. Cushion stars stay perfectly still on a rock we just lifted. Here, each little pool is full of life! It takes us a surprising amount of time to make our way up to the top of the beach: each rock pool is carefully explored with loud excited shouts when something is found (and both my little ones are careful to put the rocks back how they were).

 

My little (nearly) 3 year old daughter carefully lookign at a shore crab. (After this photo was taken, I got nipped. And it hurt!)

My little (nearly) 3 year old daughter carefully looking at a shore crab. (After this photo was taken, I went to put the crab back, and it nipped me, really hard. I may have let out a little high pitched shreik.)

 

We eventually reach the top of the beach, where a path runs parallel to the sea. We follow it back, along the sand, not on the path. Here we would be walking a foot or so deep in water if it was high tide. Fortunately it’s not. My toes are still numb from being soaked to save my children earlier. The walk back is calmer and we talk about what we have seen already, with our eyes to the ground. Sentences are cut off as someone spots something: a mermaids purse (the egg case of a nurse hound), a delicate sea urchin, a squid beak. Just a few examples of how amazingly rich the marine life here is: we didn’t see a squid, but we found a squid beak so we know they are swimming out there. Holding it in their cold little hands, they both look at it, and then out to the water. It is easy to imagine what they are thinking.

Colourful shells and polished stones are all picked up, and placed in pockets. Crab claws too. And there are lots of them. I explain that as the tide was going out to sea, sea gulls would have eaten a few unlucky crabs. My son points to the colony who are still there. He asks why two are bigger and darker than the others. I didn’t spot them earlier on, but he is right: two of the sea gulls are actually greater blacked back gull! I haven’t seen one before that day! These are a bigger species than your common gull and they are magnificent to see. (To view the world through a 5 year olds eyes is something we should all try – we would see everything differently, and see so much more.)

Winters on a beach are the best times on a beach. There are hardly any people and the beach is yours to explore. The tide exposes an otherwise hidden world that we can discover for ourselves. It is difficult to respect what you cannot see: with each visit we see something new, and our respect grows. Not only our respect for nature as adults, but my little ones respect grows too. I don’t want them to be Eco-warriors. But by being able to see and hold the varitey of creatures along the shore, they have a richer understanding of the world around them, and appreciate its beauty.

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