A working vacation

Some time ago, one of my children asked me to explain what an oxymoron is, and I scrambled to find a good example. Well the title of this blog is a good one. Or is it?

Years ago as Ph.D. students in Jerusalem in the mid-1990s, my spouse and I were among the very bottom percentile of technology-driven Israelis–we did not own a cell phone. I find myself reminiscing about the time when I took the shuttle bus from the Hadassah Medical Center parking lot to my laboratory building, and as usual the bus was packed like a can of sardines and I was hanging on to a seat for dear life. Cell phones were becoming very popular, and there were two men standing on either side of me shouting away into their phones, and intermittently shouting at each other to “shut up so I can hear”. I actually ended up breaking up the developing pushing/shoving fight between the two of them, and thinking to myself that I never want one of these contraptions that seem to ‘dehumanize’ people. Does technology ‘dehumanize’ people? There is a wonderful series of photographs published in Carl Zeiss’ semi-annual “Innovation” booklet entitled “Love in the time of the internet”; particularly the one entitled “Digital Blind Date” that seemed to sum up my fears…

But I pride myself on my ability to adapt, to learn new tricks, and not to fear the advance of technology–in the lab and in my personal life. So when we arrived in Rockville, Maryland here in the US for post-doctoral studies, with a 3 month old baby, we realized that it would be extremely helpful to have a mobile phone. After all, we did not want to get stranded on a highway somewhere with the old car we were barely able to purchase.

As we moved to Omaha, Nebraska to take on faculty positions about 7 years ago, we found it useful to expand our plan to include a second mobile phone; after all, we now had two motor vehicles and two children, and instant contact became a necessary fact of life. With a daughter who has just begun middle school, has after school activities and rehearsals, we recently found a third line quite useful.

About 2 years ago, a friend and colleague of mine suggested that I get a “Blackberry”. I looked at him like he was crazy. After all, I work all day and half the night in front of a screen, have wireless internet at home, and seem to be “always in contact” with my lab and with work. Journals, grant agencies, students. Do I not deserve a little “quality time” without being online 24/7?

Well, I thought about it–as I noted earlier, one of my many few attributes is that I can be convinced, when a good argument is put forth. I am not afraid to admit I am wrong (but don’t tell anyone…). I decided to give it a try.

To my surprise and satisfaction (now 2.5 years later), I found that the immediate access to e-mail (and now Twitter and even Occam’s Typewriter) did not drive me crazy. In fact, on my first vacation, a series of hikes and travels through some of the beautiful parks in the Pacific Northwest (and a visit to Cath’s beloved Vancouver), I found that the Blackberry–hooked directly to my university e-mail–provided me with a great deal of relief and comfort at knowing that I could stay “in the loop” and be able to respond to any arising crisis in my lab. Why didn’t I realize this earlier?

Such was the case when last week I spent 6 days in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico– a beautiful place for a vacation (admittedly not our first choice as we are not “beach people”, but chosen for a variety of personal reasons). As my children played in the sand, I would wander up and down the beach, answering e-mails, making sure things were going smoothly back in the lab, and I was even able to publish my most recent blog, “Regression to the mean” from my Blackberry sitting by the pool after coming out from a swim.

Have I lost my freedom? I don’t think so. On the outings we were able to arrange, dolphin swims for the kids, “zip-lining” over the jungle canopy, and the best–bird watching, the Blackberry was silent or away in a locker (did not want to drop it several hundred meters into the jungle below). So was this really “a working vacation”? Or was I able to relax more, knowing that I am in easy contact?

Below are a few of the wonderful sights we saw. In future blogs I hope to go back and post images from other recent trips to central America (Belize and Costa Rica), and eventually older trips to S. America.

A Mexican iguana, recently

These are Mexican Crox, not the Cromer-type...

Unknown teal-green plant, Banderas Bay near Nayarit, Mexico

Masked Tityra

Can anyone (Kristi?) help me out with this one?

Russet-crowned Motmot, near Banderas Bay, Mexico

Not as nice as Cath's starfish banner, but beggars can't be choosy...

Yellow-winged Casique

Male Painted Buntings-- in fact two of them--the Americas' most beautiful bird?

One more: Who am I?

Who am I? Can any non-molecular biologist help?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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22 Responses to A working vacation

  1. Mrs Caplan says:

    I’m filing for divorce.

    (On BlackBerry mobile device)

  2. Jenny Woods says:

    I think your unknown vine is Strongylodon macrobotrys, also known as the ‘Jade Vine’.

    I totally agree with your thoughts on being in constant contact. Far less stressful to know one is dealing with problems as they occur rather than having to face the whole lot at once after a break.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Thank you for the ID! Admittedly, botany was always my Achilles Heel, although I love plants and flowers–just don’t know anything about them!

  3. jennywoods says:

    Hmm, getting error message re: my last comment.
    If it didn’t get through – I think the vine is Strongylodon macrobotrys.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Looking at the Nat’l Audubon Society bird field guide, perhaps the unknown avian creature is a CURLEW or WHIMBREL? Any advice from experts?

    • Bob O'H says:

      GrrlScientist thinks a whimbrel, but she’ll have to go through her books first.

      The curlew is definitely out, though, for all sorts of reasons – including it’s not distinctive enough.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I guess the cute mammal is a coati, but that’s just a guess.

    Mrs Crox and I sometimes discuss whether total communication is always a good thing – it becomes a kind of addiction. I have tried short breaks away from my iGadgets but I can always find an excuse to fiddle with them, much as Bilbo did with the magic ring in his pocket.

    Yesterday, with much worry, we allowed Crox Minor to have her own FB account – but even with a picture that isn’t her, and privacy settings upped to the max, we still worry. But peer pressure is a hard nut to crack. I often have the sensation that our children are digital natives, whereas we are like immigrants learning a second language.

    The change between before- and after-tech is so complete, though, that one wonders what we did before cellphones were invented. I guess we planned ahead more. The growth of mobile telephony has certainly had a deleterious effect on superheroism, as superheros can no longer find the telephone boxes they need to change into their superhero costumes.

    • My permanent reminder for this change in out way of life is the number of FILMS pre-mobile telecomms which had crucial plot twists hinging on phone boxes being out of order, or people having arranged critical meetings but missing one another by minutes.

      There was an interim period when film-makers got around this by having mobiles lose the signal / run out of battery power at crucial moments, but they don’t do this much now – it looks so contrived that the audience falls about laughing.

      Non-conflict of Interest Declaration: Do not own a Smartphone, as I’m too cheap.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I am pretty sure that you are right about the coati- we did see them in Costa Rica a few years back. This looks like a “white-nosed” coati.

      Your analogy to “the ring” is a good one, and the fiddling with it did often lead to uncomfortable circumstances, if I recall my Tolkien accurately. I probably did over-idealize the situation, as family members have occasionally complained about my “virtual absence” from reality now and then.

      On the other hand, in my defense I will say that a few minutes of “virtual absence”, now and then, is better than several hours of total and physical absence in an office in front of a computer. But I agree that there is a slippery slope that will probably take a prolonged process of evolution and co-evolution to arrive at a the optimal ratio between reality and virtual reality.

  6. KristiV says:

    Definitely a coati – I wouldn’t be surprised if they, like their ringtail relatives, are occasionally mistaken for lemurs. “No, I swear, they were lemurs ….” I remember seeing coatis for sale at a pet store in Houston years ago.

    Great bird photos, Steve! Painted Buntings are beautiful, but at some of the Hill Country sites where I typically go birding, they’ve got some stiff competition in the looks department from Vermilion Flycatchers, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and Green Kingfishers. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to Mexico beyond the border towns, and now I can’t even go to those any more. I used to play polo at weekend tournaments in February in McAllen, and the polo field is very close to the US – Mexico border; I often wondered what would happen if one of my horses ran away with me (sometimes they get a bit full of themselves during games), leading to an unintentional border crossing.

    @ Austin: The “mobile running out of battery” contrivance figures into the plot of the second Stieg Larsson novel – wonder how they dealt with it in the movie? I’m always forgetting to recharge my iPhone, perhaps because I have a love/hate relationship with it, and often leave it untouched in my bag or in a locked drawer at work, for days at a time. I do check e-mail on my laptop pretty obsessively, though.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I’ve seen Vermillion Flycatchers in Costa Rica, and they are pretty amazing, but I’ve not seen Indigo Buntings. There were Varied Buntings at the same site as the Painted, but the pictures were so blurred (even worse than the Painted) that I opted to leave them off the blog. Kristi, you need a trip to Costa Rica- the hummingbirds are incredible there…

      • KristiV says:

        I have this anecdotal impression that Vermilion Flycatchers are friendly, companionable birds. The problem with that impression is that when I see Vermilion Flycatchers, I’m invariably out at my friends’ ranch, accompanied by one or more horses: leading a horse, riding a horse, cleaning up after horses, feeding horses. Where there are horses, there are flies, and where there are flies … flycatchers.

        Greater Roadrunners, OTOH, are genuinely companionable, I think. On several occasions when out running, I’ve had a roadrunner emerge from the underbrush and run just ahead for a surprising distance, repeatedly stopping and turning around to look back at me as if to say, “Hey, slowpoke! You’ll never catch any snakes at that rate!” The Spanish nickname, paisano, leads me to think that other people also believe that roadrunners are companionable.

        Costa Rica is within the realm of possibility … I have a research collaborator and friend who is retiring this year, and she and her husband (also a scientist) have built a house in Costa Rica. They are both birdwatchers too.

  7. I first got a cell phone during my PhD – I was cycling to work on a route that took me along a river, then a canal, then through some woods, and realised that it might be a good idea to have a phone on me in case I ever ran into trouble. Of course, the one time I did fall off my bike (I came round a corner into a shady part of the path where the overnight hailstones hadn’t melted yet. Ever tried cycling on ball bearings? I don’t recommend it), the worst injury I got was from landing on the massive 1990s Motorola in my jacket pocket. I had a massive phone-shaped bruise over my ribcage, but the phone was fine – not a scratch on it!

    The next time I fell on a phone (skiing this time), it was a slimmer and more fragile model. The phone’s buttons all actually worked still, but the screen was completely shattered. We switched to walkie-talkies the following season!

    I do enjoy having my iPhone with me so I can stay in touch at all times – but I also enjoy breaks from it. Our kayaking trips (plus our recent trip to Cuba) tend to take us out of cell phone reception areas, and electronics-free days make for a lovely change of pace once in a while!

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Co-evolution with phones. As Henry noted above, I guess we were all more organized and planned things much better in advance. Are we evolving to plan-as-we-go?

    It’s actually similar with GPS contraptions. I grew up with topogrphical maps, and navigations were something that was second nature to me years ago. The other day, I found myself on route on the road in midwinter Nebraska to a small town in Iowa without even bothering to take a map. I know that London cabbies have this huge developed area in the brain for navigation–well my area is undergoing atrophy…

  9. steve caplan says:

    I wrote to our excellent guide from the birdwatching tour, Alejandro Martinez Rodriguez, who wrote the following about our “mystery bird”:


    10 points to GrrlScientist!

  10. Randy M. says:

    I was looking for the name of the bird (whimbrel) that I just took a picture of three days ago on Playa Negra near Santa Cruz, Costa Rica. I am glad that I found your site and now have a name for the bird. Your photo is great, a lot better than the one I took. What do you use for a camera?

    They call the coati-mundi a pizote (pea-zoh-tay) in Costa Rica.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      The camera is a pretty simple Pentax digital SLR with a 50-200 mm lens. I think I was just lucky that the whimbrel was oblivious to humans walking down the beach and allowed me to get very close with nice bright light.

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