the sound of sirens

14 November 2015: Street artists creating a mural with the words from the Paris coat of arms on Place de la République: Fluctuat nec mergitur: Tossed but not sunk.
Eleven years ago it was the sound of the sea. If you’ve ever experienced a tsunami as close as I did, practically below my balcony, the roaring of the waves can be startling, especially in a quiet night. In the first night, in the yard of the chef’s house up on the cliffs of the Sri Lankan south coast, where they had taken us with tuktuks after we had climbed the hill because all buildings down at the beach were devastated and the coastal road had been swallowed by the sea, even the sound of approaching trucks triggered my memory of the swooshing of the waves rolling into the garden of the hotel and made me cringe. Four months later, in Egypt, by the Read Sea which is so quiet and enclosed and probably hadn't seen a Tsunami since the days of Moses, I still didn’t dare sleep in a room on the ground floor. The sound of the waves was too discomforting to bear, knowing that the sea was on the same level, only a few feet away.
Nous n'avons pas peur: We are not afraid. Memorial on Place de la République, 15 November 2015.
This time it wasn’t the sea. This time it was humans, gunmen, killers, suicide bombers, who caught us all by surprise, who startled and scared everyone in the city, and millions beyond. We didn’t hear the shots, the detonations, even though we were just a short walk away from the site of one of the first shootings, the one by the two venues on Rue Alibert: Restaurant Le Petit Cambodge and bar Le Carillon, when we were having a nightcap in a bar on Boulevard Magenta and later watched the news in our hotel room until the wee hours. What we heard, though, were ambulances, police sirens, firetrucks, rushing to the scene, trying to contain the damage, to rescue those who had survived. They were sounding for hours. 
Just like in every big city, there are a lot of siren sounds in Paris, all the time: Traffic accidents, medical emergencies, car break-ins, home burglaries, drug dealers, a kitchen fire, or just a false alarm. Most of the time it’s nothing serious. Having lived next to a hospital for the last 6 1/2 years until recently, I’ve grown so used to them going day and night that I didn’t even notice them anymore. The attacks changed that. I don’t think there was only the faintest siren, blocks away, in the past three days that didn’t send a shiver down my spine: Is the car approaching, or is it withdrawing? Is it just a single one, or are others following? Any siren now jumps straight into my consciousness, triggers adrenaline, puts me on alert. Even here in peaceful Rotterdam, when we stepped out the metro, a siren a few blocks away had the same effect.
Over the years, I grew accustomed to the sound of the waves again. They don’t startle me anymore. I can again sleep on the same level by the sea without feeling uncomfortable or in danger. I hope it will be the same with the sounds of sirens.



Airplane disasters are always terrible. Different from ground accidents, they almost certainly lead to the death of many, if not all passengers, because gravity, a lack of pressure in high altitudes, and the huge amounts of fuel everyone is sitting on are three huge risk accelerators when anything goes wrong up there. The past week was particularly bad, bringing three of them: A Malaysian Airlines jet, MH17, which had started in Amsterdam and was on the way to Kuala Lumpur was shot down above Ukraine and 297 people died. TransAsia Airways flight GE222, crashed, probably typhoon-related, into buildings on an island off the coast of Taiwan while attempting to land, killing 47 of the 58 people on board so far. And today Air Algerie AH5017, which had started in Burkina Faso, carrying 116 people on the way to Algiers, came down violently in Mali, probably caused by a sand storm - number of victims as yet unknown.

A friend of mine wrote in a Facebook post that she can't sleep anymore at night:
"Since Thursday I have to think of the very last minutes of flight MH17 in the middle of the night. Last month I was sitting in an airplane seat myself, together with husband and child. Check-in, boarding, searching for your seat number, stowing your hand luggage, the security instructions, the ascent, the information bits coming from the cockpit, for now you are in your own little world high up in the air. And then, suddenly, apparently from nowhere....
The scenario of the last seconds keeps me awake at night. I toss and turn and grind. After 9/11 I also had these issues. Airplanes used as weapons. Now as targets. How do you process something like this? How can you get your act together over this? How can you regain control over something like this? How can you ever board an airplane again? How can love conquer an act like this? My head fails. Much as I try, my head fails." 
I was deeply moved by her pain, and I know what helps when panic and helplessness strike: Breathing. Concentrating on your body. A reality check: I am here. I am whole. I am not in pain. I am healthy. I have shelter. I have food. I am loved. There is no danger now. I can relax. I can breathe.

It's what helped me deal with the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami which cost the lives of 227,898 people, and almost mine too, since I was on the upper floor of a two-story hotel on the Sri Lankan coast when the water was rising right up to the ledge of my balcony. Yes, we thought we were going to die that very day: a pleasant day, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, with blue skies and no cloud to be seen or wind to be felt, with a decorated hotel lobby - yet the whole resort was flooded from one moment to the other. People, including children, were dying in ground-floor rooms, in collapsing houses in the neighborhood, or on the beach. Maybe it's this experience and its aftermath, the screaming people, the dead children and mourning mothers I saw, the more than 30 glass shards I cut with my Swiss army knife out of the foot of a woman who had waded barefoot through the flooded yard and stepped into a broken window pane, all the wounds I tended to and bandages I applied, the humanitarian aid trucks we helped stock later in the mountains with water, staple foods and medication to drive to the crisis regions on the coast, the months and years after this where I couldn't sleep in any ground floor room by the sea anymore, this first-hand knowledge that there is no such thing as safety, that we're all hanging by a thread between life and death, always, that prevents me from mentally freaking out when disasters happen. People can (and do) die prematurely all the time, out of nothing, not only in armed conflicts, but also in traffic or other accidents, from illness, or by the hands of evil people, but that shouldn't prevent us from living while we can.

Back then, we didn't watch any television, and that was for the best. I heard from people who had flown home as soon as they could that still more than a year after the event they were severely traumatized, because in that first week after it happened, they had been glued to the TV screen, reviving the horrors they had experienced first-hand over and over again from the perspective of a camera elsewhere.

Today we don't even have television at home. The news I receive are mostly coming in via this screen, and most of them in the shape of black letters on white ground, with a few images and the occasional video sprinkled in between. I was traveling when the tragedy in Ukraine happened, so I wasn't following the news as closely as I might have on a weekend at home. I understand that many people here in the Netherlands know people (who know people) who have died in the crash. After all, two thirds of the passengers were Dutch, and this is a small country. I understand the effect the constant bombardment with over-charged television images must have on a people who live in a country where people usually live peaceful, shielded lives and where the most common crime is bicycle theft. I consciously have removed myself from TV culture, for my own sanity.

I didn't partake in the National Mourning Day yesterday. I forgot the minute of silence at 4pm (even though I was silent anyway, because I was alone in my office at the time), and I didn't go to Amsterdam to march with 5,000 people who felt the need to express their mourning together with their fellow-citizens by letting thousands of white helium-inflated balloons into the air. Such balloons can, depending on the weather conditions, bridge a distance of up to 1,000 miles before they pop or go flaccid and reach the ground (or the water) again. Birds, small mammals, or fish often mistake them for food, and the ribbons used to tie them can become entangled in birds' beaks, and around the necks of birds and marine animals. Many of them die. If they land in water bodies, they take over a year to degrade if it's latex balloons - if they're made from foil or mylar, they take decades or even centuries, no matter where they land.

And another point: Helium is a scarce gas. It's required for many medical applications, such as MRIs. Many countries, among them the UK, have already discussed banning the use of helium in balloons altogether. Scientists say that human lives could be endangered if there wasn't enough helium around for medical applications.

Yet another friend, one who had actually attended the Amsterdam mourning march, had posted a photo of the thousands of white balloons released yesterday. When I left a comment about my failure to understand why they need to release balloons when they're mourning the dead, knowing about the dangers they pose to wildlife and the environment, I was accused of being 'insensitive', of needing 'a reality check over what had just occurred this week', and of being ungrateful 'to a land which has given you work, a home and a place in which you can exist as a human being with your partner.' And of 'making light of the minute of silence'. 'No offense' were the words he closed his tirade with. Which, given the blow of the accusations, I have a hard time not to take.

I can't help it if people have different value systems than I do. To some people, traditions, rituals, and that kind of symbolism mean a lot. To me, they mean very little. I don't mind these people mourning, not even collectively, if it eases their pain or the pain of those who they are mourning together with. I do, however, have a hard time with the subliminal nationalism which is part of the whole thing; as if a Dutch death would count more than the others, as if the violent loss of a life shouldn't always hurt, shouldn't always leave us in shock, helpless, and desperate - and especially in a disaster like this, which, in the first place, was caused by nationalist conflicts in Ukraine.

De Correspondent, "a Dutch-language, online journalism platform that focuses on background, analysis, investigative reporting, and the kinds of stories that tend to escape the radar of mainstream media because they do not conform to what is normally understood to be 'news'", published a brilliant article by Rob Wijnberg two days ago which I only got to read today (after the exchange of the comments mentioned above). It's titled "The Awkward Nationalization Of A Catastrophe", and in it, he writes:
"Because MH17 is not a Dutch tragedy, nor a Ukrainian or Malaysian one: It's a human catastrophe. A catastrophe which probably has its roots in exactly the same phenomenon that we now have to counteract: ultra-nationalist separatism, which sacrificed 298 human lives for a nation state. Nationalization of the catastrophe certainly makes separatists of all of us: Mourning our own people, but being insensitive to the suffering of those who accidentally didn't carry the same passport." 
I couldn't have expressed it any better.

Let's get one thing straight: I am certainly grateful for many things I have in this country. I love the bike lanes, the affordable public transport system, and that I can live downtown by the water without having to break the piggy bank. I love the high quality of tap water, the availability of fresh produce year-round, the moderate climate, the comfortable living circumstances, and the fact that all in all it's a society which, by and large, is tolerant enough to let queer people be queer, fat people be fat, and quirky people be quirky (even though they still have problems with vegans, but we're working on that). But does that mean that I have to return my own identity (which is not very German, by the way, but vegan, queer, and international) and assume theirs? That I have to mourn 194 Dutch deaths, while completely disregarding the other people on the plane, let alone everyone else who has died from violent acts lately? That I am not allowed to criticize actions happening on Dutch ground which I oppose and which go against my values (which are entirely non-violent values)? The country hasn't 'given' me a home, nor a job - I pay rent for the apartment, it's a financial transaction: living space against money, and so is the job: my workforce against their money (and way less money than I worked for in Germany). I don't owe the country anything, except maybe for some taxes, but we're currently straightening this out, the Belastingdienst and I.

We need to get away from judging our fellow-beings according to national categories, or rather, according to any categories which aren't the result of their own actions, or else all the suffering and killing will never stop. More than three years ago, I wrote "No Love For Nations", and I am afraid since then nationalism has rather grown instead of shrunk. What's been happening lately in Israel and Gaza, in Syria, in Nigeria, in Pakistan, and now also in Ukraine I find hugely disturbing, and utterly senseless. What a waste of life! And all of these conflicts were started and are kept alive because one group of people who were accidentally born on a certain piece of land or to parents who believe in a certain kind of god don't acknowledge that another group of people who were accidentally born on another piece of land or to parents who believe in a different kind of god have equal rights to be where they are and do what they do. As long as we cannot overcome the borders in our heads, these conflicts will never stop.

And the animals? Granted, in a moral-dilemma thought experiment, if I had to choose between rescuing a human child or a cat, I would rescue the child and not the cat (even though my heart would bleed for the cat). But no child would have died if these balloons hadn't been released. Is respect for animals and the environment in the process of such rituals too much to ask for?

Another friend wrote in a Facebook post today:
"Do we really have to use these questionable means to remember the victims - means which pose so much danger to people, animals, and nature? Is it acceptable to create risk and new suffering to remember the suffering of others? We all feel the pain, but let's remember and honor the victims of this catastrophe with our commitment to not hate, to not pollute the environment, and to support the weaker ones in our society." 
I couldn't have expressed that any better either.


in-flight catering

Dear KLM,

This is about in-flight catering. No, not the service you provide on your long-distance flights, where I can order a special meal which doesn't contain animal products. You usually manage to keep these meals animal-free - even though I've already found the occasional piece of Gouda cheese wrapped in plastic on my VGML tray, such as during flight KL0612 from Chicago to Amsterdam on 19 May 2013. But let's not over-emphasize this slip. Usually you do reasonably well on long-distance flights.
This is about the snacks you provide on short- and medium-haul flights. During my past four flights with your airline I was offered the following snacks:
13 June 2014: KL 1771 Amsterdam - Frankfurt: Cheese balls
15 June 2014: KL 1768 Frankfurt - Amsterdam: Stroopwafels (containing dairy butter and eggs)
26 June 2014: KL 1671 Amsterdam - Barcelona: Sandwiches (chicken and cheese)
30 June 2014: KL 1672 Barcelona - Amsterdam: Sandwiches (ham and cheese)
I asked in all cases whether there were any vegan options available, such as the usual pretzels or nuts which other airlines offer, or a banana or apple, or (for the slightly advanced selection) a sandwich with, e.g., hummus and grilled veggies, or guacamole and grilled tofu, or grilled mushrooms with tomatoes, or grilled zucchini, peppers, or eggplant, or peanut butter and jelly. The answer: Nee. No. Nix. Niente. Nada. Zilch. On the last flight, the (pun intended) cheesy Dutch flight attendant cheerfully suggested that I remove the cheese from the cheese sandwich and just have the bread (which, I am sure, contained some kind of hidden animal product as well, e.g. milk, whey powder, or eggs, like most Dutch bread).
Honestly, I don't understand why. I mean, I am a participant in your frequent flyer program. You know me, you know my passport number, my phone number, my e-mail address, my meal preferences, my seat preferences, my upcoming flights, and all kinds of other things about me. Is it so difficult to add 1+1 when I book a flight and reserve a banana for me? And if that's too complicated: Why not go the easy route and offer a 100% plant-based option for everyone who doesn't explicitly demand meat? A nice whole wheat baguette with any of the above toppings instead of the usual slice-of-cheese-on-butter would serve vegetarians and vegans alike - and on top of it all, it would save you money (plants are usually less expensive than animal products). And since KLM always emphasizes sustainability and corporate social responsibility, you would even have a neat marketing story to tell, because plant-based food only has a fraction of the eco footprint of animal-based products. I know, you're Dutch, and the Dutch love their cheese and meat. Still, I am sure most of them would not object trying something new, if it's fresh, visually attractive, and seasoned tastily.
I know, freedom of choice is important in this culture. But honestly: How free were you really in your choice to consume all these animal products from toddler age to now? Wasn't that choice actually made for you by your parents, the institutions you were members of, and society at large? And didn't you simply comply with it, because it's what everybody did? And wouldn't it be possible to offer the desirable (healthier, more sustainable, more ethical) behavioral option as the default option, with the opportunity to actively opt out instead of having to opt in or not even offering it at all? Social scientists call this choice editing: making the more desirable choice more attractive than the non-desirable choice, for example by making it cheaper or more readily available. You already do this in other areas: The more sustainable seat in economy class is the default option, and everyone who wants more leg space (Economy Comfort) or a bigger, more comfortable seat (Business Class) has to actively choose these options and pay extra.
Just imagine: If you traveled with 80% yummy vegan sandwiches (or cookies, or pretzels, or stroopwafels) on those short- and medium-distance flights, and only with 20% products that contain animal products, and would offer the vegan option by default and only hand out the meat to those people who actively demand it: You would make a massive difference in terms of sustainability and animal welfare, would actively promote the health of your passengers, and probably also save money in the process. And apart from that, we vegans who won't eat your meat and cheese would also have a snack on board and wouldn't have to bring our own bag of nuts or dried fruits, even though we had to pay the same ticket price as everyone else. A win for everyone involved.
Check out this short, but informative video, produced by Dutch catering consultant Natascha Kooiman. And then take your responsibility seriously and change.

Your next chances to prove you understood are coming up soon:
KL 1767 from Amsterdam to Frankfurt on 11 July 2014,
KL 1823 from Amsterdam to Berlin on 17 July 2014, and
KL 1826 from Berlin to Amsterdam on 20 July 2014.

I will happily accept a banana or a bag of pretzels or nuts instead of cheese balls or stroopwafels.



unfinished business

Two days ago my old high school classmate Wolle sent the official invitation for our 30th anniversary graduation reunion which is coming up mid-June. I've known about the gathering for a couple of months already; we're also Facebook buddies. Previously he had announced a dinner on a Saturday night, but now the event has been upgraded to drinks on Friday evening, a guided tour through the school building and a concert on Saturday over daytime, and a brewery tour along with a buffet dinner on Saturday night. And I can't help being giddy.

1983, my last high school year, biology major class
While I met a lot of my 120 former classmates during our 20-year reunion 10 years ago, I've neither seen any of the teachers nor the campus for 30 years now. I am entirely aware of the fact that the brutalist concrete building I spent 9 years in during the 1970s and 80s was completely remodeled in 2012 to now show off a shiny millennial glass-and-concrete building, almost twice the size of the original structure. Yet, this place has set the stage for many of my nightly dreams throughout the last three decades. Whenever I was in trouble, whenever there were significant difficulties to overcome, whenever I was stressed out, whenever big new changes were on the horizon, this school was the venue where my mind preferably settled in at night: The staircases, the classrooms, the school yard, even the bathrooms.

Last night, however, I actually dreamt of the reunion. It still took place in the old school building, with all the details I described above. After occupying my hotel room I ended up walking through the hallways, staircases, and rooms all by myself, until someone called me: Dinner was supposed to start, and it was in the neighborhood, in the home of one of my classmates, Susi Röhrig, who I haven't thought of in years, if not decades. I told them I would join a bit later, because I still had some unfinished business to tend to. And so I did.

In my former dreams, these walls have staged dramas, romances, suicides, feelings of being lost, hopelessness, laughter, and community - just like they did in real life. I've dreamt about the the awkward windows: Three panes, a large one at the top and two smaller ones at the bottom, one of which could slide sideways to open, manually operated by handles with big round knobs at the end. About the blackboards, with their side wings and the shrieking sound the chalk made when handled the wrong way, and the wet sponges some teachers liked to throw at you if you were misbehaving. The desks, which had wire frames on the sides to hold the school bags. The large central staircase that started on the ground floor right in front of the teachers' lounge, next to the gray armchairs without arms: It had stone steps and angular wooden handrails resting on black metal bars. The small dark staircases on the edges of the square block that surrounded an open-air atrium - the original layout of our school. The 'aquarium', a classroom completely encased in glass and the only classroom facing the inner yard, exclusively to be used by the three oldest cohorts who didn't have their own classrooms anymore, but nomaded through the building. Once I read out loud a self-written love poem there during German class, and it was one of the most embarrassing, but also most surprising things I did in my teens, since the class didn't ridicule it.

The special rooms, such as the audio lab, where we listened to Shakespeare and Goethe audio dramas in English and German class. The chemistry room with its big yellowed periodic table of elements on the wall opposite the window, and the little lab behind the blackboard, where we poured things into other things and watched them react with each other - and snatched small amounts of ether to get high in the afternoon. The art room on the ground floor, many a sweet memory involving linoleum blocks and knives, tempera colors, the black-and-white prints we created in the photo lab, and the smell of turpentine. The area behind the last stall by the window of the girls' bathroom, where we used to gather and smoke, against all regulations, and then flee through the open window if a teacher came in to check on us.

(c) Echo-Online.de
The inner yard with its evergreen bushes, surrounded by large tiles made from small pebbles cast in concrete, where I broke the only bone I've ever broken so far in my entire life: My little finger, while tripping during a game of Gummitwist (for which I have no translation) at the tender age of 10. I had a cast for 6 weeks, and I had to write an essay for German class with the left hand, which was such a drag that I almost failed. Today I found a recent picture of my favorite German teacher from back then, who I had in classes 5 and 6, and then again in 12 and 13, in a newspaper article online; he's the one in the middle. When I was in class 5, he was a young man with jet-black hair who had just graduated from teaching academy - ours was his first class as a form tutor).

The little booth from where the janitor sold school milk and buns during breaks, for 20 Pfennig per plastic beaker or bun (the chocolate milk was 30 Pfennig, and the buns with a cheese crust 35). The arcades around the inner yard where I received my first real girl kiss on a damp autumn day at age 13, and which, in spite of its sweetness, left me terrified that someone might have seen us and might think I'm a lesbian. The aula, where I participated in many a performance of the school's choir, orchestra, and theater group - and once passed out and fell off a table I was supposed to stand on, because I was too excited to sing.

And then, the gym. Always the gym. The big hall with the parquet floor, where huge garage doors had to be opened to access the equipment. Circuit training, with the large medicine balls, the jumping ropes, the benches, the bucks, and all the other instruments of torture, and of course the high bars, climbing frames, and climbing ropes which terrified me because I had a fear of heights. The equally terrifying team sports, where I dreaded to be picked last to join any of the teams because nobody wanted to lose due to a fat girl who couldn't (and still can't) run - especially in relay runs. But also the huge soft high-jump mats we tried to rest on for a bit after sports class, until the coach shooed us out and into the changing rooms upstairs which smelled like stale sweat and shower soap and had little wooden benches to sit on, and clothing hooks above for the street clothes.

The lawn around the buildings, and that one time where one of my friends who lived in a neighboring village came to school on her horse, then tied it to a lamp post and let it graze there during lessons - which was not approved by the principal and thus remained a one-time event. The teachers' parking lot, where we hid behind the bushes that one day after placing an ox eye which we snatched from anatomy class under the door handle of the principal's new car and witnessed his disgust when it fell right into the palm of his hand and stared at him while he was trying to open his car door. The little sports field with the red cinder ground that left those ugly scratches and wounds on your legs and arms if you slipped and fell down on the ground.

Best one I could find, alas,
only a thumbnail. On the left, the
stairs to the former aula and
gym building.
There are amazingly few images of the old structure on the Internet, and leafing through my personal photos from the time doesn't reveal anything usable either. The website of the school is still as fragmentary as it was when I checked it a couple of years ago, so that doesn't add any value either. One of my classmates has offered to collect photos from everybody from way back when, and then present them during the reunion. Maybe some others were more diligent in documenting our common past.

I am not sure why, in my dreams, I always escape to this building when times get tough: Is it because it gives me comfort, because I happened to be there during tough times (aren't times tough for all adolescents anyway?), because our brain tends to go back to early imprints when we have to deal with difficulties, or because there's indeed unfinished business waiting there for me? All I know is that I seem to have a strange connection with the venue, more than with any other place I spent a lot of time at. I feel major excitement to be able to return to it soon and meet up with some of my old classmates and teachers too. 


making money

Euro sign in front of the
European Central Bank in Frankfurt
during the Occupy protests, 2012
Making money. This expression seems wrong to me. I don't mean morally wrong (even though that is disputable too, as we will see in a bit), but factually wrong. The people at the central bank are the ones who make the money; they print it. People who accumulate money are not the ones who make it. They are the ones who take it away from others. I am not an economist, but the way I see it is that the central bank issues a certain amount of coins and bank notes. The amounts which different people dispose of differ greatly from the onset, but that's not the point. The point is that if one of them 'makes' more money, that means that someone else will have lost money (for reasons of simplicity, let's disregard inflation, which doesn't really change the general equation, but only increases the amount of money issued centrally). And usually, the one who loses the money to the one who 'makes' it isn't the one who used to have a lot in the first place, but the one who already had little from the beginning. Which, in return, brings us back to the question of moral wrongness.

Making money. Is that an American expression, or originally an English one? As British friend Jon states, "In the UK we used to earn. Now we gain or make. Damned yanks."
Interestingly, the term 'making money' isn't reflected the same way in many other languages. In Germany and the Netherlands, you 'earn' or 'deserve' money (Geld verdienen/ geld verdienen), in France, Italy, and Spain, you 'win' money (gagner de l'argent/ guadagnare soldi/ ganar dinero), and, as friend Sophie commented, in Hungary you 'look for' money (pénzt keresni). Just as those who say they 'make' money don't, it's also questionable whether those who 'earn' or 'win' it really do, or whether they rather take it from others; by being smart, or ruthless, or by trading it for some kind of commodity or service. Commodities are usually created in a combination of raw materials and labor, and unless you're a self-sustaining one-person enterprise, this labor at least includes other people's labor, which you got from them in exchange for money. If you trade any commodity, you have to make sure that the amount of money you spend on raw materials and labor will not exceed the amount of money you get for selling the commodity, plus a profit margin on top, which can help you make investments for future transactions - or buy this gorgeous yacht you've always had an eye on. If you can't secure such a return on investment (and also if you spend all the excess money you get for yachts), you will be out of business in the long run. The profit which you get on top of what you spent is what people mean when they talk about 'making' money. In terms of the raw materials, selling these usually means that either the planet or animals are being exploited and/ or polluted/ harmed - which is, again, morally questionable in itself.

From Facebook
Making money. Google says in their company philosophy that "You can make money without doing evil." Just like Facebook, they get their money from advertising. They do it in a way that poses little intrusion or a low bugging factor for the users, but still: the users are the product, not the customer. The customers are the advertising clients - the ones who pay Google to advertise their products or services. And the advertising money comes from people who buy the products or services, so, ultimately the ones who are supposed to view the ads and follow the calls to action. And, once again, nobody 'made' any money, but took it away from those at the bottom of the capitalist food chain; from the ones who don't have anything but their labor to sell.

Instead of using the term 'making money', we should all use 'accumulating excessive amounts of money'. It's a far more accurate expression for what's really going on. Language can shape society. Let's not have it trick us into believing that excessive amounts of money can be 'made' just like that, without harming other people, animals, or the planet. Because they can't.



Depending on where you live, you might have experienced yesterday as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, or Fastnachtdienstag, or perhaps another term I am not even aware of. Which means that today is the beginning of Lent, according to the Christian calendar of events. I had seen a few of my friends announce that they would live sugar-free until Easter, some are skipping the alcohol, and another one chocolate. While I am not a religious person and never gave up anything for Lent before (and even, in the past, secretly ridiculed people who followed this ritual), I can appreciate the positive effects of downsizing, minimalism, and trying to find out how to do with less instead of more. Space, money, spare time, freedom, and flexibility: all these are qualities which usually increase once you forgo material abundance or habits which have you in a tight grip. When I still used to smoke, intercontinental flights were painful: right after checking my luggage and before I went through security, I sneaked out of the airport for the last couple of puffs I was allowed for hours to come, and as soon as I had landed and collected my rollercase, I was looking for the first ashtray available around the airport before even checking for follow-up transportation. That craving has gone now, and I am much more relaxed about traveling long distances and can focus on more important or more pleasant things in life than the next opportunity for a nicotine fix.
A photo posted by Gabi Helfert (@cybergabi) on
But I knew that giving up another consumption habit (after meat, cheese, eggs, fish, milk, seafood, and nicotine have already been extinguised permanently) wouldn't cut it for me at this point in time. If anything, it had to be something that had to fix a current issue I am struggling with. And suddenly, today I knew: I will give up posting dissenting comments on anything online that isn't my own. No open opposition with Facebook posts I read, no "yes, but" on Disqus, no heated debates in online forums, on blog posts, or any other online source, for a full 6 weeks. I will still reserve the right to debate on my own streams as I see fit, and of course leave comments of approval or other happy remarks if they come from the heart, but I will not voice dissent, provide counter arguments, or cite contradicting facts and figures when anyone posts anything that goes against my grain. I won't even say 'Go vegan' anywhere except on my own stream.

How come?
Last week I had two profound experiences. The first one was a feedback round that was prompted by an assignment in a weekly mindfulness class I have been attending at work since January. As part of our homework we were asked to request feedback from three persons who know us, but aren't the usual suspects (partner, family, close friends), regarding a few of our good and less good qualities. I picked a couple of colleagues from all over the organization (someone from my team, but mostly people from different teams or even different departments or even completely other parts of the organisation) to get feedback from, and since some of them had answered late and I started to panic and ask a few more, I had feedback from 6 people in total in the end. On the bright side, the positive qualities by far outweighed the negative ones. But there was a clear pattern in the things that came up as 'to improve': I would summarize it as combativeness - short on manners, unaware of tone of voice, need to learn letting go, impatient, intimidating, blunt, need to be in control, and a lack of kindness were terms which were expressed in this context. In a way, this list was almost the opposite of the qualities mentioned on the positive side: Enthusiasm, drive, passion, sincerity, honesty, responsibility, competence, reliability, caring, and dedication were some of the terms that were expressed in this context. And indeed: In the session following the exercise, we were introduced to the Dutch organisation development consultant Daniel Ofman's matrix of core qualities and his view that our pitfalls are often just a too much of our core qualities, and that our own allergies towards other people's behavior are often their pitfalls, and thus too much of a core quality they also have.
While this exercise and the feedback received was nothing profoundly new to me, the way of looking at it with the help of this matrix and viewing the bigger picture instead of only the detrimental traits or behavioral patterns was refreshing and encouraging.
The other extraordinary experience was a workshop in Kinetic Awareness®, taught by the amazing Thomas Körtvélyessy, the magic of which is hard to describe, considering that we were mostly lying on the floor, wrapped in blankets, for hours. I had met Thomas first in 2011 during a protest that we both attended, but since then we've exclusively been in touch on Facebook - until he posted about his workshops a few months ago. From the first moment I read about them, I wanted to participate (also because dance improvisation is something I am very curious about), but it never panned out - until this chance came along. The workshop took place in a beautiful studio, an old factory building in Delfshaven, and I was totally enamored with the the way Thomas incorporated the concepts of slowness, mindfulness, and gravity as energy source in the work, not to mention his gentle, professional, and effective guidance in the process. After 3 1/2 hours of work, I felt more alive than in a long time, and it's a feeling that even now, 5 days after the workshop, still continues, even if slightly muted.
Leaving comments on the Internet comes easy to me. I enjoy debate, I am interested in many things, I love to learn, I have quite some knowledge about a variety of disciplines, and I actively search the discussion with others, whether online or offline. I also appreciate honesty and straightforwardness in others, which is why I attempt to display these qualities myself: what I stand for, how I feel, and what I think are no secrets to most people I interact with. The downside is that I sometimes get entangled in lengthy verbal exchanges, with no result except (in the best case) agreeing to disagree or (in the worst case) losing friends over stubborn controversies or making a fool out of each other.
Today, while reading a few Facebook posts, I realized how hard it was for me not to compose a witty, precocious, or simply provocative response to some of the stuff that was posted out there. I caught myself several times starting to type responses already in comment windows, but then deliberately deleting them again, since that's the pledge I took. While I more recently already begun to reevaluate my urge to debate in real life (or at least adjust the tone of my contributions so as to come across less combative and more constructive) I hadn't yet tackled my online behavior yet.
This will be exciting, and I have the feeling this exercise will provide me with some new insights about the way I tick. And isn't that what we all should strive for - self-awareness?
In that sense: Bring it on, Lent. 


happy 10th birthday, flickr!

One of my first photos on Flickr - uploaded in
October 2006, two months after I joined.
Flickr was always on my mind back then.
In August 2006, almost 8 years ago, I had returned from a beautiful houseboat vacation in Ireland with my former partner. I brought back an SD card with several hundreds of photos, and I had no place to empty them, because my hard disk was full and my CDROM drive broken. So I was looking for online storage space for photos, and came across something called Flickr. Back then, I thought I basically needed a place to dump my photos before I would be able to get more offline disk space, so I uploaded a bunch of them there. Unfortunately, there was an upload limit of 3 per day and 200 in total for the free account, so I purchased the Pro version for $25 per year, which gave me unlimited storage space, as well as an unlimited number of sets (which is how photo albums are called in Flickr).
After a few days, people started to leave comments on my photos, and inviting me to join groups. In less than a week, I was hooked. I quit watching TV and started spending a lot of time on Flickr - joining groups, signing up for projects (my biggest one the 365 Days daily self-portrait project which I did for two consecutive years), making new photographer friends, learning a lot of things I hadn't known about photography, getting inspired - and finally, also, meeting Flickr people in the flesh. Here's a probably not comprehensive list of Flickr friends I've met in real life:

Briggate.com - My second-longest Flickr friend at all. Amazing street photographer, amazing wide-angle portraitist. He liked my self-portraits, and we became friends. Visited him numerous times in Leeds and had him over in Rotterdam, too - one of my most appreciated photographic mentors, and a truly generous and inspiring soul.
exfordy - Met him via the HiMOM group, one of the first 'rating' groups I joined. He was part of a bunch of maybe 5-6 people who heavily interacted there on a social, non-photography level. He took me up to the London Eye in 2009 and let me stay with him and his wife in Essex for a night. The three of us had a fabulous Indian dinner.
nicebiscuit - He drove over from Macclesfield with his lovely son one day while I was visiting Leeds in 2007. Even though we never met again, we're still Facebook friends to this day.
Synecdoche - A fellow 365er. She came up to meet me in London in 2008 and go shooting together with herspiral (see US Midwest) for an afternoon. We should meet again.
tootdood - Introduced him to the concept of self-portraits, but he took it to a new level with his humorous storytelling. He did several 365 projects too. I visited him on many occasions in Manchester, first in 2007. Long photowalks together and he also taught me some trickery in post-processing.
Chris Hester - We were Flickr buddies for a while already when he came along during a visit to the National Media Museum in Bradford with Briggate.com in 2007.
Strawbleu - I went to a number of the photo camps he organized in Leeds (first one in 2007), and he came over for a visit to Rotterdam last year too. Admire his capacity to make his projects fly.
Mojo... - We went shooting together on a rainy night in Manchester, together with a number of fellow Mancunians. Best real-life joke I ever heard involved her class and a long exposure shot of the Manchester Wheel. We laughed oodles.
Air Adam - another Mancunian who joined us on said photo walk - and a true gentleman who covered my ass while I was shooting in the filthy nightly alleys of Chinatown.
John FotoHouse - Met him and his wife during my first Photocamp in Leeds. He followed in my footsteps after listening to the talk tootdood and I gave about self-portraits.
foto.phrend - Wife of John FotoHouse, also met her at Photocamp. She does amazing texture photography and abstract minimalism. Such an eye for detail.
Wannasonic - Also met at PhotoCamp. She, her husband Len_Scapov, and the FotoHouses mostly turn up in a quartet - even on their holiday pictures. Nice people with a great sense of humor.
Len_Scapov - The other half of Wannasonic, and, like John FotoHouse, was inspired by my self-portraits and started a 365 project himself.
StripeyAnne - Another one of the Leeds Flickr group - apart from her photography I also enjoy her blog posts and her general good humor.
squirrelmonkey - The only Flickr staff member I've ever met (even though she doesn't work there anymore); got to know her also at one of the Leeds Photocamps.
Auntie P. - We met via Ms. Tea and the self-portrait crowd, and then in person on my 2012 birthday which Joey and I spent in London. Had a coffee together and are active Facebook friends, but should really visit for longer one day.
saraelhassani - Met her via Briggate.com and the Leeds Flickr group. An inspiring artist and blogger. She came over to Rotterdam in 2009.
griff le riff - Really inspiring street photographer based in Leeds. Joined him and Briggate.com on one of their shoots of the weekend streets in Leeds. I admire his balls.
bezzer66 - I met him via tootdood during a visit in Manchester in 2010, and on a second occasion in 2011 when he took us along to Photocamp Leeds. Sadly, I learned that he passed away very suddenly last month, at the age of 66. He was a very kind man, and I feel very sorry for his family and close friends.

The first photo I ever posted to Flickr was the inside of
a rose. I still remember the little park in Ballinasloe,
Ireland, where I took this shot.
US Midwest
wcm777 - He drove all the way from Kansas to Chicago in 2009 just to go shooting with me while I was there for a day; fellow-Pentaxian who even lend me his fisheye lens while we were taking a boat ride on the Chicago river.
Madison Guy - I saw a photo of a bridge he took and fell in love with it. We became online friends, which led to me meeting Miriam, which led to me meeting and marrying Joey - with Peter and Miriam as witnesses. We see him and his wife every year when Joey and I are in Madison. A beautiful soul, and what a photographer.
frau cowtown - Met her through her photos of cows. I stayed at her beautiful family home in Illinois in 2009 and visited Chicago with her and her family. Thanks to her I know the very spot where Bill Murray repeatedly stepped into the puddle in Groundhog Day, which was filmed in her town (and not in Punxsutawney, PA).
herspiral - She's a teacher of Miksang photography and contemplative writing, and also a fellow-Pentaxian (gone Nikon). Met her on Madison Guy's photos - she's another one of the many Madisonians I got to know over the years. She was in London while I had a job interview for a job in Rotterdam in 2008 there (got the job, too), so we met up (together with Synecdoche, see above). We clicked instantly, and she invited me over to her wedding reception in Madison, WI a year later. I went and met my wife there. The rest is history, and she became one of our witnesses. We've been visiting back and forth too, trying to meet at least once per year.
dylandigits - I met her via herspiral and became friends with her too. I particularly enjoy her thoughtful posts on Facebook, and we should really do Deutsche Kaffeestunde together again.
Joey Johannsen - While it is true that we're married and met via herspiral, which is by far the best gift Flickr has given me, she had been following my Flickr already for a while before we met at herspiral's wedding reception in 2009 and let me stay at her house, with the two cats which have joined her and became mine too when she moved to Europe and in with me a year later. I had just been rude enough to ignore her - something I try to make up for every day now. She's a great Miksang photographer and teacher too.
rocksinmypockets - Met her on herspiral's wedding reception too, and later a number of times during my visits to Madison. A very talented letterpress artist at Free Rabbit Press, Madison.
leedav - She's another one of the 365 crowd and happens to live in Madison too. We met for the first time at the cafe where she cooked. She's an amazing chef and also cooked for our wedding. Through her, I ment KAP'n Craig and Angela Richardson.
Angela Richardson - She's one of the most creative persons I know, and always has some exciting art project going on. We met at a pizza party at leedav's house and became friends. She joined us at our wedding, and lent us her bikes when we were visiting Madison. A very sweet and generous woman.
KAP'n Craig - He was at said pizza party too - and later took us kite flying and shooting from the kite. His photos are world famous in the area of kite aerial photography - he's had assignments as far away as China where he flew an indoor kite at the opening of a new sports stadium. Also, a truly generous friend who always tries to make time whenever we visit.
thechrisproject - Another one of the Madison photography crowd, with a specialty in street photography. He came to the opening of my first US solo show in 2010.
Nanotime Photography - We visited a Miksang workshop together in 2010. She's not really Midwest, but that's where we met. Later, we did a photo swap, because I adored some of her minimalist photos. Still friends on Google+, and she's one of the few who are still active on Flick too.
Energy Ink Arts - A Madison artist who I also met at my first solo show in 2010. She was so kind to organize my participation in an art fair in the region, which I couldn't do from a distance. We're still friends on Facebook.
lbsnaps - used to be a neighbor of Joey's in Madison - I met her in 2010. She was also the driver for our wedding which happened in Iowa, because the US only acknowledged gay marriage nationwide a few weeks ago, so back in 2010 we couldn't marry in Madison.
DrStarbuck - met her as a friend of Joey's in a cafe in Madison in 2010. She and her wife McBeth are beautiful, generous people who we try to meet whenever we're there.
nolamiksang - met her during a Miksang photoshoot in Madison in 2009, and last year again in Oakland where she happened to be at the same time as we were. Always such a delight.
McBeth - DrStarbuck's other half who I first met in 2012 and who finished her photography degree a few years ago, with a lovely project that I adore: The content of other people's drawers.

The oldest photo I ever posted to
Flickr is the wedding photo of
my maternal grandparents from
1922. They both wore black
because my grandmother had already
had a child - the product of a rape -
when my grandfather married her.
He was twice her age, she bore
9 more children from him,
and he died before she was even 60.
That's when her life began.
US East
ms. Tea - My first fellow-365er; met her in Amsterdam in 2008, visited her in Massachussetts in 2009 and stayed at her house, and then she came to our wedding reception in Wisconsin in 2010. One of my very early Flickr friends, and we're still in touch, mostly via Instagram and Facebook these days.
Flickr Dave - Also a fellow-365er; he came over to Baltimore with his wife while I was staying there in 2009 to have dinner together. Amazing kite aerial photography.
dogfaceboy - We met each other over pictures of brussels sprouts and beer - a very prolific fellow-365er with an incredible range of talents, including writing, photography, singing, and mosaic art. I visited her in Baltimore in 2009; we went to a lot of museums together, and she introduced me to a number of her friends from the region and online. When I was visiting New York we met up for a photo shoot with Aunt Teena and jodi*mckee. She attended our wedding reception in Madison and even played a song on her guitar for us.
Aunt Teena - I met her in 2009; she picked me up from Penn Station and let me stay a night in her and her husband's living room while they were still living in Midtown Manhattan. We went shooting together many times, and she is such enjoyable company. She joined us at our wedding reception in 2010, and Joey and I went back to New York and stayed at their new place in New Jersey in 2012. She was a trooper, joining us on our long hikes through the city - she even walked the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River with us, straight into Manhattan. A very faithful soul, and one of my very best Flickr friends. She also takes many photos of nameless pretty flowers.
imagecarnival - Another Baltimorean who is one of the few celebrity photographers I know. Check out his portraits of Prince. Met him in 2009 while visiting there.
Seton Droppers - A fellow 365er who joined us for dinner in Baltimore back in 2009 with his wife. We also became Facebook friends over time.
jodi*mckee - I stayed a night with her and her husband in Queens while I was in New York in 2009. We went shooting and dining together, and Joey and I visited her and her family again in 2012 for a dinner in Brooklyn, after she had her adorable little daughter and I had my adorable little wife. She's got an eye for pretty.
JKönig - Has a big heart for turkey vultures and stray cats. I stayed a night with her in the Hudson valley in 2009, where I also met Flo's Diner and Franchise. We went shooting together and had a barbecue at night. I always wanted to return there. Maybe I will some day.
lightthatbends - She went on a Staten Island Ferry ride with me and Aunt Teena during my visit in 2009. A very crafty person, and a beautiful soul.
Franchise - She was there when I visited JKönig in 2009. One of my few Flickr friends who is still very active there, as well as on Facebook. We share our love for animals, and our willingness to do without them on our plates.
pi c's - Another fellow-365er. She joined dogfaceboy and me on a shoot in Baltimore. There was lots of great beer involved, too. She's a killer at Scrabble, and we're still friends on Facebook.
TeeTa - used to be dogfaceboy's neighbor, but moved away. Met her during a pizza dinner on the porch. She once was stationed in Germany, and we talked about the German film.

My most popular photo on Flickr is still this 2007
self-portrait wearing the traveling socks. It's been viewed
over 67,000 times, is part of 27 galleries,  was faved 440
times, and received 220 comments.  
US West:
.Manisha. - We also met in the 365 Days group. She has this wonderful Indian food blog with amazing recipes. Joey and I visited her and her family in 2011 when I had an exhibition in Colorado. Great people.
Lalalaa Dolce Vita - Another fellow-365er, and one I finally got to meet last year when we visited the Bay Area. We met at a vegan patisserie in Oakland together with nolamiksang, then had a delicious lunch at a vegan Mexican restaurant in Berkeley, and we visited the local Shambhala Center too where she practices.
O Caritas - We were Facebook friends before we became Flickr friends. A fellow-vegan who let us stay at his house for almost a week during our visit to San Francisco in 2013. Also, a kick-ass tour guide of San Francisco, a truly generous soul, and creator of incredible beauty in his photos. One of the few Flickr friends I have who shoots for a living, so if you're looking for a really awesome photographer in the Bay Area, he's your man.

AurelioZen - He was the reason why I first visited Rotterdam - World Port Days 2007. I adore his urban photos.
joostburger - He was there too when I first visited Rotterdam and introduced me to the old North, off the beaten path. When I started working in Rotterdam, we did a web project together. Lost touch though.
Maerten Prins - I visited him in Nijmegen a couple of times in 2007 and 2008. We share our love for graphic architecture, and he came to my housewarming party in Rotterdam in 2009.
Kleiobird - Met him in 2007 on said visit to Rotterdam at the World Port Days, where he was brought along by AurelioZen. We became friends and later lovers. He was the main reason I moved my life to Rotterdam in 2008 - before I met Joey and realized that this was what I really wanted. I still see him every once in a while and still cut his hair, but he's not really active anymore on Flickr.
Lilly Dana - One of the fellow Rotterdam Flickreenos. Met her in a coffee shop in 2008, and later on a photowalk in my neighborhood in 2009.
kunstschieter - A cartoonist and graphic designer with amazing talent, and a fantastic macro photographer too. She and her husband live just down the road, but we got introduced in 2009 by Kleiobird during a cheese fondue dinner. Both she and her husband quit Flickr after the last redesign, but she joined again just yesterday. She also makes kick-ass vegan cookies. We should really get together more often.
krobbie - A fellow Rotterdammer who I met during a photowalk shoot at the Kunsthal.
Peet de Rouw - We share our love for industrial night shots. He pretty much owns the Rotterdam harbor - some of the most amazing nightly harbor shots you'll ever see in your life. Also, a true gentleman and a wonderful Facebook friend.
Karin van Bragt - Met her via Maerten Prins. Great shots of architectural detail. She also came to my housewarming party in 2009.
pink's - Although she lives in Rotterdam, I got to know her via Miriam who lives in Madison. She's an amazing collage artist, which also reflects in her photography. Plus, she took Joey and me on a trip to the Van Nelle Factory where we set off the alarm system and had to deal with the cops.
-hndrk- I invited him over to a lecture at the university, and he came and joined Joey and me for a shoot in the city. For a while we visited each other back and forth in Den Haag and Rotterdam, but haven't done so over the last year or so. He's a great art teacher and best company to visit museums with.
lugarplaceplek - Met him in 2011 via pink's. Great urban photography, and he was the one responsible for us being able to visit the Van Nelle Factory.

vollefolklore - She used to live where I used to live - shooting together in Offenbach's harbor in 2007, and still Facebook and Twitter buddies.
Ambidexy - We share the love for industrial landscapes. She also used to live where I used to live - we also met up for shooting, on the weekend after my mother had died in 2007. Still so grateful for the distraction.
topfloor - Great black-and white photographer. We met first during a strobist workshop in Frankfurt in 2007, and then again during a visit to Berlin in 2010.
Trini W. - She was also one of my fellow-365ers and took amazing self-portraits in THAT light - a spot in her hallway by the window. She's one of my most active Facebook friends, and I've visited her and her lovely family twice, once together with Joey. It's about time to return.
kimba77 - I met her via Trini. She joined Steffen and me on some photo walks in our old home town in 2007, where she lives close by, and at Frankfurt Airport, and I also once met up with her in Frankfurt downtown when I visited. Sadly, we pretty much lost contact over the years.

Kat Colorado - spent a weekend shooting with her in Basel in 2008 (she came up from Zürich, I came down from Frankfurt). Oodles of fun!

Flo's Diner - Met her while staying at JKönig's place in 2009. Inspiring woman. She moved to the West to become a farmer, and we lost touch.
Surly Bratt - She's one of my oldest Flickr friends, from the HiMOM group. Our physical encounter was only very brief and happened at the MOMA in New York City. We should really plan a visit to Toronto, where she's a cake artist with some of the most incredible creations you've ever seen.

Steffen Jakob - we grew up in the same small town in Germany, just two years apart in age, but never knew we existed before Flickr. He reacted to a geotagged photo of mine in 2007, and then one thing led to another. Introduced me to a lot of Viennese Flickr peeps.
Eve O. Lushion - met her via Steffen, went shooting together and did lead casting together on New Year's Eve 2007.
Regina J. - met her also via Steffen and stayed at her house a number of times - one of the most awesome hosts you may wish for! She also came to Rotterdam a few times for visits and stayed here. It's about time that we meet again.
~shrewd~ - Met him via Regina J. Went shooting together in my old hometown in Germany once.
b_highdi - Another one in the Viennese crowd who I met thanks to Steffen. We always try to go shooting at least one day when I visit Vienna. She's got a great eye and a gorgeous little son.
maxst001 - He first showed up during a shoot with the Flickr Vienna group in 2007, and then we met again when Joey and I visited Vienna in 2010 and 2012, when he and his wife joined us for a tour of the Viennese underground canal system and cooked dinner for us at their place. They also once visited Rotterdam for a day.

There are a few more who I've met, but who have quit Flickr, and many more who I would love to meet one day, most particularly: troutfactory, my only Flickreeno in Japan; Qathi, who I might get to see during our scheduled visit to Portland; JWas, my only friend in Alaska; Gamma Infinity, who has been a Flickr friend for so long, and, together with his wife, met up with Joey while she was in LA and won her over; AH in Pgh, one of the most amazing still life photographers I ever saw, with an Ecclestonian quality; penelope's odyssey who not only takes the most amazing photos, but also writes the most amazing stories; auntsmack4u who we almost met during our stay in New York 2 years ago, but then messed up schedules and missed her; jgcf who is more of a Facebook friend these days than a Flickr friend, but has always stayed in touch; Puff Dragon who is one of the most creative persons I've ever not met, but wanted to; dabblewit, my woman in Australia, who has repeatedly invited me over, but for some reason it never panned out; scribblegurl and smalldogs (one of these days I must visit LA, there's just too many cool people living there); Esther17, the desert photographer, who I really want to go shooting with together; beingjoey who I hope to meet during our visit to Portland this year; Szoff, fellow-vegan and the other half of O Caritas, who sadly wasn't there while we were (a reason to go back); Lotus Carroll and Thomas Hawk who are both stars on all social media they are present on, but still have enough human decency to occasionally visit the photostreams of those of us who are less famous and leave a comment or a fave.

My first ever self-portrait on Flickr, August 2006, in my
office at Siemens Frankfurt,  before the 365 Days
challenge even started. I still have that mug, but that's
about the only thing that stayed the same since then.
It's true: Flickr isn't what it used to be back in the olden days. The interface doesn't invite to interact anymore. It has become more of a portfolio show than a site where people really want to share thoughts along with their or other people's photos. Also, the arrival of mobile makes people fave more and comment less. It's still wildly popular, and I've seen a lot of people join lately who have never had accounts before, but now that it's completely free this becomes an option again. I've also noticed that my photos get way more views now than in the past, so there must still be some people who are active. I've made a number of new friends lately too, but these are people I hardly know on a personal level, so I don't feel the urge to meet up with them, which I did with my old friends who shared a lot of their personal stories on Flickr too. This is something that has decreased a lot over time.

I am still incredibly grateful for Flickr. It's been an amazing 8 years there, and it hosts almost 18,000 of my photos, all neatly tagged and bagged so that I can retrieve them again any time at any place. It went with me on my travels around the world, it brought me friendship and love, and it provided me with an endless amount of inspiriation and education. I never became friends with 500px, Picasa, Behance, or any other photo sharing service apart from Instagram which I only use for phone pics, as it's intended to be used for, and Facebook sucks for photo hosting anyway. Flickr changed my life in so many ways that it's hard to even list them all. And seriously: you can get used to the new user interface. I did, too.

Happy 10th Birthday, Flickr. I'll be around. See you there?


vegan: skinny, beautiful, and never sick anymore?

I translated this blog post from Claudia, Totally Veg! from German, because she has an excellent point which I believe is useful when considering effective vegan advocacy.
Yesterday, at the cash register of my trusted health food store, two vegan rookies were standing in the line behind me. How I know that? The hints in their shopping cart were quite unambiguous: Kale, kale, kale, popped amaranth, almond butter, barley. In addition the book of the vegan triathlete Brendan Brazier, clutched tightly and marked with eager bookmarks. I turned around, paid for my smoked tofu and vegan cream cheese, and was happy for the adventurous people behind me. At the same time I sent a little prayer to heaven, asking for veganism to hold all its promises of salvation for them.
Vegan cupcake from Heavenly Cupcakes Rotterdam
I am sure you've stumbled upon the announcements: "Become a vegan and your skin will glow!" - "Go vegan, and the pounds will melt away!" - "Switch to vegan, and you won't ever be sick again!" These aren't promises of the present, even if books about a super-healthy vegan lifestyle are experiencing a boom these days. These promises have been around for a long time, also back in the days when I became a vegan, but now they have been blown out of proportion.
While it is undoubtedly true that a balanced vegan diet reduces the risk of many illnesses (such as high blood pressure, high levels of cholesterol, heart attacks, strokes, colon cancer), my stomach hurts when I hear all those promises which we give vegan rookies. Because we often can't keep them. And because in the end broken promises will boomerang at veganism itself.
The benefits expected from a vegan diet have become so incredibly huge that one might think we have built the holy grail from green smoothies and quinoa. Porcelain complexion. Ideal weight. No wrinkles. Top form. Colds are past tense. No allergies. Eternal fertility. Almost too good to be true. But what happens if all these benefits don't occur? If I, in spite of consuming kale and sweet potatoes and millet and freshly squeezed juices, still have bad skin, am overweight, and contract the occasional flu? Then it's the fault of veganism, because it can't keep what it has promised, and the disappointed rookies retreat and hurl themselves into the next dietary adventure. Alternatively, you're accused of being no true vegan. After all, more smoothies, more matcha, more chia seeds, less white flour, more coconut sugar would lead to the desired result, and actually you have no idea how to be a real vegan and should be ashamed for eating so unhealthy. And these allegations don't even have to come from others; sometimes the nagging voice inside our own head is enough to make us blush with embarrassment because we're not a 'successful' vegan. But what if we're not the problem, but if the expectations are simply too high? Is it really a successful promotion for the vegan lifestyle if we make promises that will only come true for a handful of people and leave all others behind in frustration?
I've been living vegan for 5 years. That doesn't seem like a long time, but in the rather young vegan community I feel like a dinosaur (Brontosaurus, not T-Rex). I may truthfully state that I take care of eating a healthy diet. Grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes are the base, I cook every day from scratch with mostly seasonal and whole products. Sometimes I also eat a treat, bake a cake with white flour and sugar and drink a glass of wine or beer in the weekend, something that doesn't have nutritional value, but exclusively serves my peace of mind. In total, a healthy vegan diet. But here it comes: I don't have a porcelain complexion. I have oily skin, with occasional zits. Should I eat more amaranth, maybe? I have a hormonal imbalance that has nothing to do whatsoever with veganism, but that doesn't make a vegan top model of my skin. And believe me, I've tried it all. Even amaranth.
But thats not all, and the next confession is so shocking that you are allowed to cling to your armrest: I've gained weight since I went vegan. How much I don't know exactly, but enough that the skinny jeans from former days don't fit anymore. I don't have a problem with that, in my view I'm still far from overweight, I feel great and have bought some new jeans too. I gained weight because on the one hand said hormonal imbalance has shown its ugly face, and on the other because I love cake. I am sure I could lose weight. But swapping all vegan black forest cake for chard is a bad deal when it comes to quality of life.
And another confession: I'm also occasionally sick. Not as often as my friends and colleagues, which is certainly due to my healthy diet. But all the freshly squeezed juice in the world wasn't able to protect me from viruses, and that's why last summer I went down with a bad stomach flu which almost made me pass out in a work meeting and made me crawl between toilet and bed for two days. Shit happens. And even as a vegan, you have the right to be sick.
The promises of a vegan diet weren't kept in my case. Of course I feel fitter than before, but I haven't become the vegan fighting machine with alabaster skin and a wasp waist. And that's okay for me, because I didn't have any heightened expectations. The reasons for our physical flaws are often complex, and don't always have to do with our diet. And therefore nobody should feel ashamed because they're still fat, or occasionally sick, or have brittle hair and don't conform with the vegan ideal. We aren't vegan failures, but people who are too complex to simply be operated by a spinach gear shift. At the same time we should tone down our promises a notch when we try to convince others of veganism. Realism has never hurt anyone. Of course there are health advantages, of course you can feel the difference, but veganism is no panacea. And frustration and shame are certainly not a good promotion for a vegan lifestyle.
Thanks, Claudia, for sharing your experience and the conclusions you draw.

For those of you who are curious about my own experiences with veganism, here comes a list of things that changed for me in the physical department:

  • I lost around 15kg in the first year, but plateaued after I also quit smoking. I eat too much for my good, not necessarily many unhealthy things, but mostly unhealthy quantities, and I love carbs, sugars (also unrefined sugars, such as maple/agave/rice syrup and other non-white sugars have calories), and fats (chocolate and vegan cream - need I say more?). 
  • My skin is doing fine, in fact, much better than when I last quit smoking (when it turned into a disaster). I do have the occasional zit, usually at the end of my menstrual cycle, but only a few a year, which is much better than a few each month.
  • My blood is exemplary, except for a borderline-low vitamin D level, which is currently being fixed by overdosing on it once a week for 8 weeks. But that's not the fault of veganism; many people in our type of climate, with little sunshine, have issues with that.
  • My arthritic knee is much better than it used to be while I was still eating dairy. I can do long walks again without agonizing pain, and if in pain, it usually recovers pretty fast again.
  • I am much less tired and need less sleep. I used to sleep 8-9 hours per day and was still not feeling rested, now I sleep 6-7 hours, get up at 7am, and don't crumble after lunch anymore.
  • My digestion is impeccable. There's a lot of truth in the sticker which says "I am vegan. I poop 3 times per day." While it's not always 3 times for me, not a day passes by without at least one bowel movement.
  • No more acid reflux. Apart from many other detrimental ingredients (casein, lactose, bovine growth hormone, antibiotics, etc.) dairy acidifies your stomach (and is therefore also bad for your bones, because the calcium gets stripped off to neutralize the acid), and that was apparently my major cause of acid reflux. Haven't had any episodes since I went vegan.
  • As for being sick: I do notice fewer colds/ flus than I used to have, and when I have them, they aren't as violent and disappear faster. I now have around 2-3 sick days per year, while before I went vegan, it was easily twice as much.


so you think you can use my photos on your blog?

See, I like sharing my photos on social media. It's a win-win situation: You get to enjoy what I photograph (and I know that many of you do), and I get your appreciation for it: In the form of likes, faves, comments, or shares. But appreciation is a funny thing: it only works as long as I still get to control what happens to the photos and who gets to see them. Once you take this control away from me, by downloading my photo and uploading it to your Facebook album, header image, blog, website, Instagram, or any other kind of media outlet, that's not appreciation anymore. It's intellectual property theft. 

If you have a commercial blog (and that includes blogs that make money by hosting Google ads), there's a high likelihood that I'll be most happy to sell you the rights to use my photo on your blog. You earn money with your blog, so if you use any of the content I created and have the copyright for, it's fair that I get some of that money too. You will get a commercial invoice which you can use in your tax declaration, and a nice thank you note too.

If you have a non-commercial blog (i.e., if you don't earn any money with your blog), you have to ask before using a photo. That also applies to real-life friends, Facebook friends, Flickr friends, Instagram friends, colleagues, and any other person who feels we have any kind of relationship that entitles you to use my photos. Even if it's only a crappy phone shot. Even if your blog is the next BoingBoing. I might let you use the photo for free, or against a license fee, or not at all, depending on you, your blog, the photo, or my mood. The only scenario where you don't have to ask is if it's a photo I took of you. Then you may use it without asking, but I ask you to be kind enough to give me credits for it - at least if you didn't pay for it.

It is most definitely not okay to just use a photo you see on my Facebook/ Flickr/ Instagram/ elsewhere without first asking if you can use it. All my photos are my intellectual property, and I get to decide who uses them where for which kind of remuneration. It doesn't matter that I have another source of income and don't need the money from my photography, or that you think I should be grateful that you feature my humble work on your blog which you are sure will win the Pulitzer Prize or at least get mentioned by Oprah. It's just the rules, and since it's my photo, it's me who makes them. Period.

If I gave you permission to use the photo on your blog, do not download it to your computer and re-upload it to your blog's file system, unless you paid any money for it. Instead, be nice and embed the photo from its original source with a link back to the photo. Mostly that will be either a photo page on Instagram or on Flickr. In the unlikely event that you only saw the photo on my website or my Facebook profile or page, let me know and I can direct you to the original source on Flickr or Instagram.

How do I embed a photo from Instagram?
Go to your blog and find the spot in your blog post where you want to display the photo. Switch to HTML mode. Open the respective photo page on my Instagram stream in a new browser tab or window. Click on the three dots in the right bottom corner of the photo page, and then on Embed. A new popup will open which shows you a code starting with the <iframe> tag. Copy this code and paste it into your blog post in the respective location in HTML mode.

How do I embed a photo from Flickr?
Go to your blog and find the spot in your blog post where you want to display the photo. Open the respective photo page on my Flickr stream in a new browser tab or window (make sure that you have switched to Try our new photo experience beta in the bottom left corner of the photo page). Click the upload icon (arrow pointing up from out of a rectangle) on the photo page. A pop-up will open, where you then click the embed icon (< / >). You will see a code starting with the <iframe> tag. Copy this code and paste it into your blog post in the respective location in HTML mode.

Once you've reached this point, you're almost done. The only thing I am still asking for is to mention my name as the photographer (Gabi Helfert) and link it back to my portfolio website. That's all.

Thank you for your attention.


mother, why do we kill (animals)?

Friend and much-valued fellow-campaigner Tobias Leenaert is the co-founder and president of the extremely effective and inspirational Flemish vegetarian association EVA, and his work is one of the main reasons for the fact that Ghent is regularly mentioned as one of the most vegetarian-/vegan-friendly cities in the world. Today, he was mentioned and quoted a few times in a remarkable article in the Belgian newspaper de Standaard, written by Ann-Sofie Dekeyser. Remarkable because it's one of the rare occasions where academic philosophers and ethicists get a word in the discussion on the morality of eating animals - along with the president of the Flemish farmers' association, who commits the slippery slope fallacy in her argumentation, but apart from listing the usual strawman arguments and bluntly emphasizing the industry's profit motive doesn't contribute much of substance.
I took the liberty to translate the whole piece to English, as well as to add this likewise remarkable little cartoon which landed in my Facebook feed this morning, and which fits the subject like a glove. Needless to say that I wholeheartedly agree with Tobias' estimation: The future will be vegan. It's the most compassionate way to eat. It's the most sustainable way to eat. And, if done properly, it's the healthiest way to eat. Feel free to comment below.

Mother, why do we kill (animals)?

Ann-Sofie Dekeyser, 21/12/2013, De Standaard

Vegetarianism for everybody. Is that the following step in the moral evolution after the abolition of slavery, the eradication of apartheid, and equal rights for women? ‘Within a few decades we will conclude that we were barbarians today.’

Animal rights activists and butchers are busy these days. And you, as a consumer, are too. For what is being served on the Christmas table is a delicate question. I’m not talking about Aunt Martha who doesn’t like this, or Uncle Joe who is allergic to that. But about who finds what ethically responsible. Christmas is traditionally a meat holiday. Will you go for the cruelly produced foie gras as a starter and the overbred mega-turkey (the relative of the super-sized chicken) as the entree? Or will you opt for organic food, which is good for nature, but not always sustainable? Or will you eat, just like the people from the Ethical Vegetarian Alternative (EVA), marinated tofu, sprouts, barley risotto with swiss chard and crispy fried tempeh?
The Dutch foundation Wakker Dier [=jolly animal] put together a ranking of the biggest victims of Christmas. Number one is the turkey, followed by rabbit, deer, duck (most foie gras comes from ducks, not geese), and wild hog. In our country, the ranking may not be that different. Belgians also keep demanding their piece of meat. This is why every Belgian - according to figures from Vlam (the Flemish Center for Agricultural and Fishery Marketing) devoured 30.4 kg of pork, chicken, beef, veal, lamb, and mutton in 2012. 
Yet more and more philosophers and ethicists are convinced that we will ask ourselves in the near future how it was possible that we could ever be as cruel to animals as we are today, even though everybody knows that the meat which lands on their plate used to be a living animal who could feel pain. Tobias Leenaert, President of EVA, cuts right to the chase: ‘Sometime in this or the following century we will look back at ourselves and see barbarians. In the past we kept slaves, apartheid was a normal thing, and women had fewer rights than men. All of this we find outrageous today. Well, animal rights are the next step in the evolution. There will come the day when we realize that slaughtering animals for food is just as inhuman as keeping slaves.’

From pig to poodle
The collective awareness is changing. We shiver when we hear that a snow leopard who escaped from a Walloon wildlife reserve was shot to death, we dread the images of wailing angora rabbits, and we jubilate when wild animals get banned from circus shows. Yes, when we watch under-cover images from Bite Back that show how it can look like in pig factories (with limping sows and containers full of dead piglets) we are shocked. But when some days later the inspectors of the Federal Agency for the Security of the Food Chain (FAVV) declare that the factories in question didn’t violate any animal welfare laws, our conscience calms down. Nevertheless, some pig farmers have admitted that the practices shown in the video are a normal part of the trade.
What is it with the double standard of the meat eater who pets his cat lovingly in the evening, but mercilessly chows down a dead calf for lunch? ‘We lose ourselves in two contrary intuitions’, says philosopher and economist Antoon Vandevelde (University of Leuven). ‘On the one hand, there is a distance between human and animal, and on the other hand, there is a convergence of human and animal. In our society an animal is not an animal anymore. They don’t stand on the meadow, but are locked behind closed doors in the tiny crates of the animal industry. We don’t associate the chicken fillets in the supermarket shelves with the living animals that they once were. We see them as products. This is an extreme “reification” of animals. Pets, on the other hand, are extremely anthropomorphized, they are groomed, made obedient, and trimmed until they resemble their holders.’ 
The first people to be concerned with animal welfare were the utilitarists, around the end of the 18th century. In 1894 Henry Salt was maybe the first to write about animals’ rights in his book of the same title. But the breakthrough only came in 1975 with Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. His name sake, Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, wrote: ‘Towards the animals, we all behave like Nazis.”
Vandevelde, himself ‘an old Belgian who grows his own animals and only eats what he slaughters himself’, calls it perverse that people nowadays eat a beef steak like an apple from a tree. That harms animal welfare. But he also says that the notion of animal rights is problematic. ‘Animals can't demand their own rights.’ This is also where the comparison with slaves and women is misleading. They could arguably express their will, and more than that, many emancipatory movements were initiated from the groups themselves. Which is something animals aren’t capable of.

A monkey with rights
The Dutch philosopher Erno Eskens doesn’t let this count as an argument. ‘We give demented people, babies, and people with severe mental illnesses also rights, even though they aren’t able to advocate for themselves.’ Eskens barged into the debate which emerged this month when an American animal rights organization tried to free the locked-up chimpanzee Tommy under the motto ‘a monkey has the same rights as a human.’ Eskens doesn’t plead for animals to get human rights (what would a monkey do with the right to administer his own finances?), no, he wants people to get animal rights. ‘We are all part of the animal kingdom, each animal species must get specific rights. Some are the same for all, like the right not to be tortured, but some differ. An electric eel doesn’t have the same needs as a human.’
‘Humans and animals are less different than we thought, but the law treats them differently’, Eskens continues. ‘People have rights, for animals there’s only fiduciary duty. Just like for a house; the owner has to take care of it, that’s all. He may even inflict suffering on the animal, as long as it is for a “justifiable” goal. The economy is such a goal which justifies pretty much anything.’

Citizens or hamburgers
Eskens speaks, just like many other animal rights activists, of speciesism (yes, that’s an entry in the Van Dale [Dutch dictionary]), in analogy to racism. Discrimination based on species, thus, more specifically: The unfair privilege of man over animal. He wants to give animals the status of legal persons, because they also have feelings. ‘See animals as citizens.’ Thus, not as hamburgers.
He realizes that this requires an enormous mind shift. One that Anne-Marie Vangeenberghe, spokeswoman of the farmers’ association, doesn’t find necessary. ‘What is the next step? That we’re not allowed to grow plants for consumption anymore, because they also make experiences? I don’t know whether we will see ourselves today as barbarians in a hundred or so years. You have to see everything in the spirit of its time. It’s a mistake to refrain from habits today because we might see things differently a century from now. Who knows, maybe there will be a war and we will look back at ourselves as wimps. One thing is for sure: A person has to eat. What people forget in this discussion is the extremely high nutritional value of meat. It’s a part of a balanced, varied diet. Yes, vegetarians can take pills to make up for the missing vitamins, but then I’d rather eat meat. Meat of animals which the industry treats as animal-friendly as possible. But for us, they continue to be livestock. They have to produce, to earn.’
The debate over meat continues to be very polarized. Activists and animal farmers sometimes say that it feels as if they had a different faith. Religion can’t be governed by ratio. Still, Tobias Leenaert believes that ratio will convince the meat eater to convert. ‘In combination with empathy. One day there will be a meat-free society. I am sure of that. You have difficulties imagining that? Well, my old PE teacher at school took exams with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. That’s unthinkable today. Norms change. The day will come that eating meat won’t be taken for granted anymore, but vegetarianism or veganism will become the established ideology.’