The Hidden Life of Trees

secret life
A book in its natural habitat

The serious tree scientists I know warned me off from reading this. “It’s unscientific,” they said. “He talks about trees wanting things and thinking. He has no way of knowing what they want or if they think.”

And, for a while, I didn’t read it.

Instead, I enjoyed the brief section on ‘how trees work’ in Hugh Johnson’s “Trees.” But it wasn’t enough and, eventually, I picked up a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees.

Is it unscientific?

I don’t rightly know. There is talk of trees smelling and tasting, but then he explains exactly what he means and it’s clear that he’s using human-centered language to communicate with humans. I never felt he passed anything off as fact that wasn’t, and always clearly labeled speculation.

His level of anthropomorphizing trees can be seen in the way he talks about beech and oak trees ‘competing.’ That’s not a shocking use of the word in biology. (At least, not for us armchair biologists.)

Is it good?

Yes. An unqualified yes.

So much so that I thought it presented enough information, easily absorbed, for me to have the framework for my A Year in the Woods project. So, that’s great.

Now, though, a week or two after I’ve finished reading it, I have to say that I didn’t retain a ton of the information. Sure, there are things I learned: the younger trees leaf out first, because the ground warms up before the air, and spring ephemerals are dormant for ten months of the year and are a sign that a forest is at least 150 years old.

But, there’s a lot that I read and it blew my mind… and then I didn’t have any other information to connect it to in my head and it’s gone again.

So, it’s a great book and heartily recommended to anyone who likes trees or the forest, but it may be hard to absorb everything in one go. (If you’re like me.)

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The trouble with Google Analytics

I have a small problem with Google Analytics. And, to be fair, a part of that problem is me. And I’m sorry.

A while back, I set up a Google Analytics tracking tag across the entire site for the entire site. Then, I set a reminder to look at the data later. After all, there’s no sense in obsessing, right? However, as the sites I have set up as a sort of funnel to the worksheet generator start to get traffic (and as I continue to invest energy into drawing attention to them)

Here’s a brief reflection on what has been hard for me, as well as how I hope to improve it.

It’s overwhelming

I’m very confident that ninety percent of the traffic to my site right now comes from me. That said, when I log in to the page, I’m overwhelmed by data and it’s really hard to pick apart which data is mine and which comes from someone else.

This is compounded by my next challenge.

I did a bad job with URLs

When I was setting up the URLs of the site in Django, it just seemed easier to include a lot of information in the URL itself. So, my site has a lot of things like ‘/group/<id>/’ as a URL, where the individual group number is a part of the URL.

It hasn’t been a problem until now, but now it means that each group shows up as its own URL in the analytics report. That creates a lot of noise for me to try and pick through as I try to see how people who are not me interact with the site.

Even more, once others are using the site more, it’ll make it hard to see how people who aren’t me are actually using it as a product.

What I’m doing now

Google enables you to set up goals in analytics. I didn’t bother with that before, but I’ve established two different goals:

  • People click through to begin the signup process. I often check what the site will ask of me before I use it. It would be nice to know how well my site is leading people to that opportunity.
  • People making it to the end of the signup process. Obviously, this is my ‘real goal.’ But, as nobody seems to be doing it, it would be nice to have it recorded when they do. Even more, it would be nice to see what path leads them there.

I’m hoping that Google will not only record how often these goals are ‘achieved,’ but also separate that traffic out from the rest. Where does it come from? What do they click on beforehand?

What I’ll do with my next site

Based on my experience with analytics so far, I think I’ll consider them more in designing the URLs of my site. I’m starting to consider work on the Fantasy Pilgrimage idea and I think that I’ll include more in the query string than in the URL.

Adding things like group numbers (or, in my case, the UUID of specific vocabulary words) in the URL means that each user visits their own specific subset of URLs. Moving them to a query string would mean that each user visits the same URLs and the analytics could give me a more generalized overview of the way users interact with my site.

 

To-Do lists and timers

Maybe I’m late to this party, but a I’ve tried to get more done in my days, I’ve learned to really appreciate the value of a good to-do list and timers on my phone. In fact, they may be the thing I use my phone for most — after photos, perhaps.

Concentration is a mixed blessing

I like to think that I’ve been blessed with pretty good concentration. I can focus on something longer, I think, than most and actually enjoy blocking most of the world out.

When I’m supposed to be doing things in parallel, though, that’s not always a blessing. Food that was boiling on the stove may be burning by the time I remember to check it. A kid who was told “twenty more minutes of Minecraft” may easily get forty minutes if I’m distracted somewhere else. (Though, really, shouldn’t the kid monitor the time on his own?)

I’ve found that, for these situations, teaching myself to set a timer on my phone every time I think “I’ll check that in ten minutes” — and then teaching myself not to turn the phone off until I’m on the way to check — has really made me more effective.

Sticking to something

Similarly, when I realize action isn’t required of me for another week or so… well, a timer won’t work. For that, I’ve found an app that will give me notifications that can’t be brushed away without being marked done or ‘snoozed.’ (It’s called “Tasks: Astrid To-Do list clone“)

Again, it’s been a question of teaching myself to realize “this is something I’ll forget, I’d better add it to my to-do list,” but it’s meant that I get a lot more done… and on time.

Even more, things I want to do often — liking writing postcards once a month the family — can be entered as recurring tasks. Maybe other people just think “hey, I haven’t written a postcard in a while” or “I just did my monthly invoice, that’s a reminder I should write some postcards,” but that doesn’t seem to work for me.

My recurring reminders include fitness, and cleaning the balcony. (I feed birds on the balcony, and don’t want a certain wife I know to think it’s too poop-encrusted.) Every three days, I even get a to-do notification that I should check my calendar for the next three days, so that I don’t get any surprises.

Some things — mostly coding — I keep track of on paper. When it’s time for me to code, I get out the paper I was using to take notes and keep track of things to do and look where I left off. For everything else, though, there’s a timer or a to-do list.

Call me childish

I get that “I only get done what my phone tells me to do” seems a bit childish. Or, maybe, millennial. But, I’m focussed on getting more done with lest frustration and, for now, I’m happy to have found something that works for me.

What do you do? How do you maximize your time?

Practicing practice

A memory of my dad

I think that the biggest thing that my dad gave me to take into adulthood is my memory of him constantly learning, constantly growing. The kids were often (involuntarily) part of his quest to learn new things. These ranged from reading about the Civil War and visiting battlefields (not my favorite vacation memory) to teaching himself amateur radio and morse code or getting qualified as a physics teacher only a few years before his retirement.

From my dad, I have the idea that I, as a human, am really never finished growing. It’s given me the courage to pick up new skills (such as coding, or piano) as an adult.

And, because I’ve loved it, it’s something I want to give my kids.

Not the kind of thing you can preach

We all know parents who believe in “do as I say, not as I do.” I’m not a big fan of that for several reasons (I’m 38, can you really expect more willpower from a 5-year-old?).

But, this is especially the kind of thing that I can’t preach to my kids. (Which is not to say that I don’t, I won’t be upset if they have “you just have to practice” echoing in their ears as adults.) But, it was watching my dad that brought me to that realization.

So, it seems logical that it’s something they have to see me doing.

And so, I’m practicing practicing

For a while, when I thought about this, I thought ‘well, I code, and the kids can see me learning that.’ But they can’t see me learning that. They just see Papa standing at the computer concentrating. I could be doing anything, as far as they’re concerned.

So, I resolved to get my good example game on.

I’ve started playing piano again. And, in fact, because I’m going to teach myself to practice a skill in the hope that my kids will know it automatically, I’m focusing more on drills and scales and the likes than I did the last time I played.

I draw. Art was always the domain of my little sister, but it’s a free hobby and something the kids can do with me.

I’m still plugging away at Latin. The kids are officially learning with me, but more so that we can talk about it and that they can know I’m working on it than as any kind of test prep. They’re learning individual nouns (arborpuella).

The idea is that these are activities I can do a little bit every day (or, most days) rather than standing at the computer not really accomplishing much because the kids are distracting me. They’re activities (maybe not Latin) where the kids can appreciate what is good and bad and realize that it took me a long time to learn a new song on the piano and hopefully understand that they can learn new skills through practice.

I can’t say it will work. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I’m responsible to make them into the kind of adult that I am. I think I’m responsible to be the best adult I can be, and to make sure they know the tools I used to get there.

Consequences… and diabetes

discussion that my wife and I have often is that our kids don’t really ever suffer consequences. Partly, that’s my fault. I’m as much a sucker as the next guy for “it won’t happen again” (spoiler alert: it always happens again).

And, partly, that’s a part of us understanding how uncomfortable some things are, and wanting — for good reasons — to spare our kids that. After all, we ‘only’ have three kids and their lives aren’t yet so complicated that we can’t offer a lot of support.

Day to day manifestations

It can be simple things: “Did you do your homework? Show me?” I — the one who never liked school and sees the teachers as ‘the enemy’ — rationalize the teachers should use up their patience getting the kids to do homework. Not us. After all, we barely see the kids during the week, why waste valuable family time on activities that very clearly fall under the heading of ‘school’?

Because my wife — who is German and ‘from’ the German system my kids are in — sees each homework activity as a brick in a set of stairs that will eventually carry my kids to success. And she sees dire consequences if the homework isn’t done.

I’m not German. I’m ‘from’ the American system where the teacher is frustrated and maybe humiliates you in front of your classmates and that’s it. I figure that, if that kind of responsibility is important to the teacher, they should set up their own system of consequences.

Right?

After all, if I say “clean your room” and it isn’t cleaned, then it’s on me to be the heavy and to establish consequences. I certainly don’t get help for the teacher on that.

The thing is: my wife and I don’t completely agree on what’s important, and the kids know which parent to ask for what. That’s not unusual, but I worry that it means my kids live a generally consequence-free life.

Add diabetes to the mix

And now, with diabetes part of the oldest child’s life, things have gotten… More difficult. Plans that I had to send him out on his own (he’s nine — and never unsupervised) with his bike to make a map of the neighborhood now seem riskier.

Even more, I’m realizing he’s trying less and less hard to manage his diabetes calculations, because he only has to guess at the correct injection to give himself for a meal and then his mom barks at him and then gives him the correct calculation. She, of course, thinks that it would take too long to make him do the calculation two or three times while we’re waiting to eat. I — the strict father, I guess — don’t see a problem with saying “are you sure?” and then letting him undercorrect. After all, the doctors made it clear that nothing terrible would happen.

Mom, though, is a diabetic and knows that high blood sugar is no fun. And she’s not willing to subject him to that.

So, she basically does the calculations for him when she’s home.

Why it matters

I’m a big fan of the idea that there aren’t any ‘normal’ childhoods and that, as long as the kids aren’t abused, reality will eventually file off all their rough edges sooner or later. I don’t worry about making an ‘ideal’ childhood for my kid.

But, as a spectator of the world around me, I see parents belittling twelve and thirteen-year-old children for being so helpless. We all know that that is too old to depend on parents. However, the parents belittling their children don’t seem to realize that they’re responsible for training their kids.

And it’s harder to learn new habits with thirteen than with nine.

That’s why I’m a bit frustrated that my plans to introduce consequences — or, rather, to allow my kids to start suffering the natural consequences of their (in)actions — seem to have been set back by this stupid disease.

Stupid diabetes.

How do you manage it?

If you’re a parent and you’re reading this, how do you manage these things? What consequences do you insulate your kids from? What do you do when a diabetic child makes a mathematical error? How do you and your partner negotiate these discussions?

Sharing to attract teachers

So, after reflecting on my strategy to introduce the EFL worksheet generator to the world, now seems like a decent time to reflect on how it’s going.

My blog for EFL teachers is slowly coming together. It turns out I have more to say that I realized, and the act of reflecting in a deliberate way has helped me feel more confident as a teacher. So, either way, that’s a win.

Recently, I pushed myself to write a post on how to use reading activities in EFL classrooms, because I have a lot of EFL reading worksheets that I can share. (I hadn’t planned for there to be so many links in this page. Is it good SEO? Bad?)

The idea is simple. I started at ISLCollective.com, a site for teachers to share worksheets they’ve made. There aren’t many reading worksheets for adults (which is why I made my own, but also a chance for me to stand out) so I figured I’d cross-post some there.

After adding a second page to the worksheets that begins with “Hello teachers! (Do not print this page)” I introduced myself and included links to the post on how I incorporate reading in the lesson, as well as to the website hosting them. And, after two days, they’ve been downloaded more than a hundred times and I’ve had my first click-throughs to my blog.

Sure, it’s only two, but it’s two more than I had.

Now, I rationalize I can post the beginning of another series of stories (I have two, at two different reading levels, at the moment). And, because there are a lot of things that are not available for download, as I make them for myself, I can post them as a way to attract more people.

After writing all this — there is a genuine benefit to thinking in writing — I realize that I should also be making resources to help new teachers organize and think about their lessons. (New teachers are the people I’m trying to attract.)

I just checked at ISLCollective and there are a total of seven downloads available as ‘teacher training material.’

I guess I know what I need to do.

Finding a new routine with diabetes

Since the diagnosis, we’ve had the hospital stay, a weird five-day ‘crash course’ at the hospital, and the return to school. They’ve all been taxing in their own right.

However, I’m mostly amazed at child number one’s (the diabetic’s) resilience as we try to find a new routine.

Diabetes isn’t easy for kids

My wife was diagnosed with type one diabetes when she was nineteen. As long as I’ve known her, she’s had it. You’d think she’d be ready for this. You think I’d be familiar with diabetes.

The thing is this: child number one is half her weight, and seems to be doubly sensitive to insulin. So, any miscalculation has much more drastic effects. Even more, his pancreas is still producing about 10% of the insulin it produced before, and he seems to react to injections — and to sugar — differently at different times of the day.

The result is that, in addition to calculating the sugar in what he eats, he also has to look up the time of day in a table, do some complicated math (multiplication and division with up two two decimal places — and he’s in third grade) and figure out how much he should inject himself.

Then he has to eat everything he planned to eat, and nothing more. That part alone seems frustratingly difficult for me at thirty-eight.

He gets some help

This isn’t to say that our poor third-grader is on his own throughout the day. We live in Germany which is a weird, medical paradise. The doctors gave him a Verordnung (an order? everyone is explicit in telling me it’s not a prescription) for a caregiver and a medical care company near the school sends someone at mealtimes.

We do the math for him, and create these tables that he only needs to learn to read together with his caregiver.

And, of course, the teachers are super supportive. Which is to say, they let him do he has to do. (But the after school care seems happy to look the other way if other kids take his snack, so there’s that.)

Constant adjustment

Part of what has been hard for us has been the reality that you start with some ‘suggested values’ for many variables — how much insulin per unit of carbs, the correct amount of carbs to eat before doing sports, how many carbs to eat to correct for low blood sugar, the amount of slow-acting insulin to inject twice a day — and then you basically do trial and error.

In the week before last, there wasn’t a single day that we didn’t adjust his ‘food factors’ and recalculate the table he needed and his caregiver used. We constantly reduced his slow-acting insulin, and we reduced the amount of insulin he needed at breakfast — completely skipping it (intentionally) one day — before feeling like we got a handle on how his own personal diabetes worked.

And, the doctors tell us, we won’t feel comfortable with it for very long before his growing body changes the way all of these things interact and we can start the experiment again.

He’s a trooper, his dad is a whiner

From time to time, he gets upset or asks when it will all be over. But, in general, he’s pretty strong about saying “I didn’t inject myself for that, I can’t eat it.” And, I’ve pointed out to him, he’s getting more sweets now than his brother and sister, but only when his blood sugar is low (and we want to avoid that in the future).

I’m the one who feels bad for him. He sits down at a meal and has to figure out what he’s going to eat. I can’t do that. I eat until everything is gone.

And, we invest a lot of time together with him, but it’s not fun time doing stuff together. It’s time in which we lecture him on where to put his stuff in school because the caregivers couldn’t find it. Or, practicing math because he has to be much better at it.

I never wanted to be a dad who made the kids’ at-home time about managing their school performance. And, indirectly, I feel myself turning into that kind of dad. And I mostly feel sorry for myself in all of this.