Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The nose doesn't know

In case you were concerned for my health after my lengthy bout of travelers' ailments, I am pleased to announce that it has improved greatly...in some respects.

For the past couple days, instead of hacking my lungs out every hour on the hour, I content myself with a little conservative wheezing at bedtime and a hearty amount of messy throat-clearing coughs when I get up. Then I'm more or less good for the rest of the day.

But if you thought I was in the clear, oh ho no! How naive!

The day I returned to Maryland from Hawaii, I felt my nose begin to get stuffed up. At this point, I'm pretty certain that late May in Maryland produces some kind of allergen that apparently only affects me. It seems like my worst stuffy noses always appear around this time. But most of the time, I'm either traveling or returning from travel, so I'm never quite sure if it's just the change of environment that sets it off.

In any case, this time, aggressive treatment with nasal steroids and antihistamines and decongestant pills kept my nose from ever getting completely blocked (thank heavens; usually I have to resort to the oxymetazoline spray, but I guess I got it early enough this time!), but I've been drug-dependent for almost a week now.

On Sunday night, the first day I felt confident enough to stop taking decongestants, I was eating my favorite food – cookie dough – when I noticed it tasted like nothing at all. I realized something unusual that has never happened to me before: while I could still breathe through my nose, I had lost my sense of smell!

Monday morning, upon waking, I still couldn't smell a blasted thing, so I reluctantly took another decongestant and soon was smelling the roses again (and the strawberries, and the flour, and all the other ingredients I put into my cookie batter that I was actually, for a change, going to cook!).

However, by evening, again sitting down to eat cookie dough, I found it utterly flavorless—again!

This morning, still experiencing the world in a state of olfactory blindness, I decided to try out my neti pot again (it's never seemed to help much with my congestion) and zapped my nose with a new bottle (not expired, as have been the last two I used) of fluticasone.

And then I could smell – sort of – for most of the day.

I bet you can guess what happened next—I couldn't smell anything again. And then I could. And then I couldn't. And then I could. I believe my sense of smell will eventually return to its pre-infection state of virtuosity (I've actually become quite proud of my sense of smell in recent times, since I spent my formative years with chronic congestion barely ever smelling anything), but in the meantime, I'm pretty excited whenever I get to smell anything. The scent of baking asphalt? Woohoo! A fart? That's great! Any terrible smell is better than being deprived of the most underrated of senses!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Trouble Traveling: The Exceptions and the Rules

Some of my friends call me Grumpy Cat because I can cop an attitude like you wouldn't believe (but underneath it all, I'm still adorable...right!???). Complaining about vacations is just one of the many services I offer, and with three vacations in the past 3 weeks (plus another one to Boston a couple weekends before that), I've had plenty of opportunity to complain...and also plenty of opportunity to be pleasantly surprised!

A good somebody-or-other admits when they're wrong, and I'm going to be that somebody-or-other and take back some of the nasty things about vacations I've said in the past, because on the whole, this series of holidays went relatively smoothly.

For instance: You might not know this, but if you're around me when I'm on vacation, you'll know that I am convinced I have the worst luck with respect to weather. One of my pet peeves is being cold, so naturally when I want to get away from it all, I want to go somewhere where it's warm. But whenever I travel, it always seems to be to a colder climate in the winter (Iceland, anyone?). Or to a warmer climate in the summer (Indonesia, I'm looking at you!). On those rare occasions when I travel to a warm clime while it's still cold in Maryland, it seems to inevitably suffer a cold snap right when I arrive. Or else my home area becomes unseasonably warm right after I leave. But my last two trips debunked this phenomenon—I left for New Orleans when Maryland was on something like its 15th straight day of rain, but the weather in New Orleans was delightful almost the whole time I was there. Meanwhile, the weather in Maryland barely topped "tolerable." The day I returned, the temperatures rose, seemingly just for my benefit, but stayed cloudy and chilly for about a week after that—just in time for my trip to Hawaii. The day I returned from Hawaii, however, the temperatures in Maryland rose into the 80's. Lesson learned: Traveling doesn't always mean the weather is going to suck.

Another thing I've come to expect as a general rule of thumb is that if you bring an umbrella, it won't rain. However, one day in New Orleans, I read the weather forecast for rain and put my umbrella into my bag. And voila! It rained! It actually poured somewhat torrentially. Just goes to show, one can never be too prepared.

Speaking of being prepared, on every trip, there is inevitably something I need that I forgot. It becomes one of the things I hate most about traveling when I'm forced to fork over the big bucks to buy new what I already own...and this vacation, it was kind of a doozy. I forgot to pack any shorts. On a trip to Hawaii! Of all places! (At least I didn't forget my entire suitcase, as another of the wedding guests somehow managed to do). I did have to buy two new pairs of shorts at a sub-optimal price: 7$ and 8$ respectively, but I can't actually be too mad. They fit great, and both provide a somewhat needed addition to my wardrobe, enabling me to get rid of an older pair that I don't much love.

Although I dropped the fashion ball a few times in packing for New Orleans, by the time I got to Hawaii, I'd caught my stride (also having had time to sort through my newest summer clothes helped). Shorts shortage notwithstanding, I only twice regretted my choice of outfit—once when I wore my gym clothes all day in anticipation of a hike that never happened, forcing me to wear the same outfit the following day, and once when a new shirt I'd packed started fraying all over the place and I didn't have anything to cut it with because my pocket knife had bitten the dust the day before I left for New Orleans. Most of the time, I felt proud of what I was wearing, proving that living out of a bag doesn't have to mean looking like a bag lady.

Lastly, flying in an airplane (which I did 4 times over the past 3 weeks—more if you count each connecting flight) turned out to be less of a horrifying experience than I was anticipating. While turbulence still fills my heart with dread and my arteries with adrenaline, I never once felt the urge to shed tears out of terror, as is usually the case. On the way back from Hawaii, I even was able to sleep for most of the 6-hour flight, which is usually unheard-of. For that, I credit 3 weeks of inadequate sleep, plus the assistance of my ReLeaf neck pillow, which I recommend to any traveler who has trouble sleeping sitting up.

There was, however, one yucky thing about traveling that held as true as ever: I got sick. In fact, my body seemed to be so ready to get sick that it didn't even bother to wait until I'd started traveling—I got two illnesses back-to-back the week before I left. I like to think that was my body's way of facing the inevitable and getting it out of the way before it could be too much of an inconvenience—I recovered from both illnesses before I even got on a plane. But that wasn't enough to protect me from my curse. While in New Orleans, I contracted another infection that caused me great pain and forced me to spend my last day in the city alternately crying and visiting the CVS Minute Clinic for some antibiotics. I was going to give you the blow-by-blow of all the illnesses I suffered and all the symptoms, but I decided that might be too much information for polite company. Let it suffice to say that one of the illnesses came with a lost voice that plagued me throughout New Orleans, a sore throat that started in Hawaii, and a cough that followed me through all three trips (the second was Richmond, only a day) and still persists after three weeks—meaning that there was no point during my travels that I was not sick!

Monday, May 23, 2016


When you do a lot of yoga, you hear a lot of anatomical terminology, some of which is scientific and some of which is far from it. For example, yoga instructors like to refer to your "sit bones," which I had never heard of before my first yoga class. A scientist would call these bones the ischial tuberosities, but I guess we can't all be scientists. If you want to use common language for an anatomical part, that doesn't bother me any.

What does bother me is when you use the wrong anatomical term for an anatomical part--the most frequent culprit being vertebrae. 

The vertebrae, collectively, are the bones that form the spinal column. Because the term comes from Latin, and latin plurals are wack, it should surprise no one to find out that vertebrae is a plural form of the word vertebra. Therefore, each individual bone in the spine is called a "vertebra."

So every time a yoga teacher tells you to rise from your forward fold "one vertebrae at a time," an ancient Roman grammarian rolls over in his grave. Probably most modern medical professionals would do so too, if they were not still alive.

So my advice to all those who, in their line of work, need to refer to the bones of the spinal column, is to either stop that and say something sensible like, "Rise to standing starting with your head and working your way down your back," or else get your Latin plurals straight. It's "one vertebra at a time!"

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to pronounce caramel

An anonymous commenter on my last language post made the insinuation that I incorrectly pronounce the word "caramel." An interesting allegation, since one of my friends constantly criticizes my pronunciation of that same word. Surely the commenter could not have been my friend! Surely a friend would own up to their identity when making such an outré claim! Right?

Regardless of who dropped the controversial comment, I think it's time to set the record straight. What is the right way to pronounce "caramel"?

Before I delve into the reference material, let us consider the two sides of this argument, which basically boils down to the pronunciation of the first A. Is it the A of a sigh of relief, such as in most of the Romance languages, the A of words like "car" and "far," (and represented by "a" in the International Phonetic Alphabet, which will come in handy as you read the rest of this post)—the way I've always pronounced it? Or is it the particularly English A of words like "ass" and "bad," (represented by æ in the IPA)—as my friend insists is the only right way?

To get a balanced perspective on the issue, I consulted one of my favorite reference tools: Onelook.com, which searches over a thousand dictionaries when you ask it for a definition.

When I perused several dictionary entries returned by my search for caramel, I found that every dictionary listed several alternative pronunciations. So one thing became immediately clear: there is no single "correct" pronunciation.

However, let's assume that any person who feels so strongly about the superiority of their pronunciation will, much like any fanatic in any other arena, rabidly attempt to create a conflict where there is none. So let's explore the issue further. 

Although all dictionaries surveyed allowed multiple varying pronunciations of the word caramel, every dictionary, by default, has a preferred pronunciation—whichever one is listed first. So I surveyed the results of my OneLook search to ascertain which pronunciation was more commonly preferred in the dictionaries.

After weeding out duplicate entries, links which went nowhere, and entries with no pronunciation listed, I found 13 entries. If the dictionary included a sound clip of the pronunciation, I used the first listed sound clip as their default; otherwise I chose the first phonetic pronunciation listed. The Oxford, Collins, Macmillan, Wikitionary, Wordsmyth, and Dictionary.com references ruled in favor of the "æ" sound; while the American Heritage, Vocabulary.com, Merriam-Webster's, YourDictionary, Infoplease, and Free Dictionary entries leaned toward the "a" sound. The Cambridge Dictionary stated that the "æ" version is a British pronunciation while the "a" one is American, but since the debate over whether American or British English is "better" is an anthill best left undisturbed, I'm leaving those results out of my survey. That leaves us with a six-to-six tie.

If that's not enough to unambiguously conclude that neither pronunciation is any more correct than the other, then I'll be a dirty bird...but, as it happens, I do have one other test that we might use to determine a clear winner. Let's consider the origin of the word!

Words and their pronunciations are constantly developing and changing, but whenever there is a conflict regarding how to pronounce one, I would defer to the earliest origin. For that, I refer to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which states that the word caramel is derived directly from the identical word in French. In French "caramel" is pronounced with a decidedly æ-like first vowel, which would seem to give the win to that pronunciation. However, the French word caramel came from the Spanish word caramel, which would be pronounced with the Spanish "a" sound, lending some heft to my side of the argument. But wait! Looking further, we see that the Spanish caramel derives from the Medieval Latin "cannamellis." At this point, I'm out of my league, not knowing the first thing about Medieval Latin pronunciations or where to look them up, and in fact, no one can know for sure how a language was pronounced in the distant past, so I think it's high time to give up this chase!

Considering the overwhelming number of resources that claim my pronunciation is quite acceptable, I'm going to go right on calling a caramel a caramel (and pronouncing it the way I always have). Anyone who wants to tell me I'm wrong will have to produce a native speaker of Medieval Latin!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

They hear we got swag

I work on a college campus and I go to a lot of conferences, so getting free stuff is a regular part of my life.

I am not sure how free gifts with corporate logos on them became known as "swag," but I do know that I've received quite a lot of them over the years, and I consider myself quite the authority on what makes them good or not. I'm here to share my opinions on some of the promotional gifts I've received over the years. I intended to include photographs with this post, since a picture is worth a thousand cheap pens, but since I am in Hawaii and have neither my collection of conference goodies with me nor a speedy internet connection, you will just have to settle for this large amount of text.

My least favorite conference swag includes stickers and temporary tattoos. These items are a cheap and easy way to promote your company, except no one wants them. I struggle to find places to stick my stickers. Usually I feel that they make any surface uglier, though I tend to use them to decorate the covers of my work-related notebooks. Temporary tattoos, though, are almost a complete waste. No one wants to walk around with someone else's logo affixed to their skin. The day I wear a corporate temporary tattoo is the day someone pays me to do so.

Pens are also a total let-down as far as free gifts go. When I used to work in retail, pens were always disappearing, and I would have been glad for a free conference pen or a dozen...but now that I work at a job where I actually get free pens on the regular, well, I've been using the same 2 pens since I started 4.5 years ago.

T-shirts are one of those gifts that you get really excited about until you actually own them...and then they sit in your closet taking up space for months while you reject them in favor of clothes that actually fit and are fun to wear. Finally you donate them, unused, hoping some poverty-stricken recipient will just be glad to have a shirt at all.

Somewhere in the middle ground are things like sunglasses. They were a cool novelty when I first started getting them for free, but now they are ubiquitous, and my Cheap Sunglasses collection is getting a little unmanageable! At least, though, when you go to a conference, you can usually count on getting some free eye protection if you ever need to step outside into the glaring light of day.

Gifts that I usually find useful are quality reusable water bottles. I'm not talking the cheap squeezable bottles with sport tops that always seem to leak, but good, durable bottles that go the extra mile. Somehow my water bottles are always going MIA, so it's nice to have a constant stream of replacements. My current favorite is a lightweight clear plastic, reasonably sized bottle with a wide opening and leak-proof screw-off lid. Steel bottles are another favorite, though they are not often dishwasher-safe.

Once upon a time, my life was so devoid of lip balm that when my lips got dry, I would put hand lotion on them (rather than buying a tube of balm, naturally!) Nowadays, I have so many promotional lip balms, I keep one in my purse, and one at my desk at work, and another next to the bed at home, and I still feel I will never run out! However, despite my excessive supply, lip balms are one of those conference gifts that I continue to appreciate. I think businesses could be on the right track if they just expanded their reach with other types of small personal care items that people constantly need to replace—things like sunscreen tubes, nail clippers and files, dental floss and toothbrushes. I'd add shampoo and lotion to this list as well, but people who go to a lot of conferences probably also go to a lot of hotels, which means a free neverending supply of those items!

Currently topping my list are the large spring-action clips. These usually have magnets on the back, so they are probably intended to hold reams of paper to your refrigerator or antiquated steel filing cabinets, but for me, they make perfect food-storage clips. Although I have a sizeable collection already, one can always use another clip to hold a bag shut! 

The winner for the best corporate swag ever is one that I haven't found yet: pocket knives! Perhaps we don't see these because they could be deemed dangerous, but a little one-inch pocket knife isn't going to kill anyone, and they're about as handy as tools come. You can get these for like a dollar (I know because I'm constantly having to replace the ones I lose or abandon at airport security!), and if you stuck a logo on one and gave it to me for free, I can guarantee it would rarely be out of my sight.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Why I hate to travel

If you haven't noticed yet, my boyfriend and I travel a lot. Probably 3 times a year, we're jetting to some far-off locale for a week or a weekend. The most common question I receive when small-talking with one of his friends is "So where are you heading next?" followed by "Are you excited?" Which always leads to an awkward spot in the conversation, because the only honest answer I can give is "No."

I hate traveling.

Don't get me wrong. I like adventuring. I enjoy exploring. I love seeing new places and sights. And I'm happy for every break from work and responsibilities I can arrange. But I hate the actual process of traveling. And since I can tell (from the puzzled expressions I get whenever I tell people how little I want to go on my next vacation) that no one understands, I am going to attempt to explain why.

I hate living out of a suitcase, not having all my stuff at my fingertips. At home, no matter what horrible thing may happen to me, I'm prepared. On a trip, no matter how much you prepare, something inevitably happens that you're not ready for. Every tiny forgotten supply causes a major ordeal, and usually the resolution is to purchase an expensive replacement that you'll never use again because you already have 3 backups at home. 

If that's not enough, I'm sure you can understand why living out of a suitcase is especially painful for someone who loves her extensive wardrobe as much as I do. Not only do I have to limit my packing in quantity, but I also have to limit it in practicality. Everything must be wrinkle-resistant, must be layerable in case of unexpected weather, must be comfortable for long walks and long trips in a vehicle, must frequently be conservative and plain so as not to mark me as a stranger in a strange land, and, if space is especially tight, must match everything else in the suitcase so I can re-wear them in different combinations. With all these restrictions, there are only a poor few garments that pass muster for travel, and consequently, I have to wear the same old things every time I go on a trip.

I also despise flying. I would hands-down prefer to drive 16 hours to get to my destination than spend 2 hours on an airplane, but sometimes, you are forced to fly. When I fly, I have to agonize over what to pack in my carry-on, beat up my conscience over the amount of fossil fuels I'm wasting, spend hours sitting in a germ-infested airplane cabin trying to avoid disturbing my seatmates, die of boredom going through security, die of boredom waiting for the flight, die of boredom waiting for layovers, and spend the first hour of every flight in a state of abject terror (seriously, the more I fly, the more I am convinced I'm going to die in a fiery crash).

I hate being the foreigner. Traveling within the U.S. is not so bad, but whenever I'm in another country, I know I stick out like a sore thumb. I'm looked down on for being American and preyed on for supposedly having money. I hate speaking another language badly, and I feel like a lazy snob when I default to English. Even something as simple as having to ask for directions to a landmark, or where I can find a supermarket, is terrifying. For someone with crippling anxiety even in relatively familiar social situations, being in a different country is enough to send me back home with a case of hypertension.

Traveling always makes me sick. Being around a slew of new people harboring a slew of new viruses is a sure recipe for infection. Almost every time I go somewhere new, I come back home with the worst kind of souvenir: a cold.

This Friday, we're off to New Orleans for a week, followed by a Saturday's rest, then I'm heading to Richmond for my brother's Monday wedding, then on Wednesday it's back into the air for a week-long trip to Hawaii for another wedding. If that's not too much travel for a travelphobe, I don't know what is! You could wish me a bon voyage, but I think it would be more appropriate to send me your condolences.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Li'l Language Lady again admits to being wrong.

Recently I boasted about the list of words that I, unlike the author of the article that inspired me, have always pronounced correctly. Not to make you think I'm some kind of linguistic egomaniac, I am now here to list some words that I have had the wrong idea about.

Quite a long while ago (long enough that I should have forgotten, but I didn't, because it was embarrassing!), I claimed quite adamantly that "informatory" was not a real word. After all, we already have "informative" and "informational"—why would we need yet another variation of the same adjective? But sure enough, according to Webster, "informatory" is legit. This reminds me of the time that I smugly (and wrongly) believed that "problematical" was a made-up word.

Now onto a topic that is only related in the sense that it's also a word I had no idea of the meaning of—crudités. I knew it's a food, because I read it in stories where fancy people are serving finger food. It sounds like a food that would be fried, or at least crispy, but not very tasty really, just a bland cracker-like thing. Turns out it's really raw vegetables. Bonus! It's always spelled in the plural, even when used with a singular verb! I only learned that last year.
And lastly, here is a word close to my heart. It has become so familiar to me that I hardly believe I was once so wrong about it's nature, but indeed I was—Serif. 
This word is used extensively throughout the design (and web development world) but I had been confused about it for a long time before I was finally set straight. While I was aware of which fonts were serif fonts (those like Times New Roman, for example, with the little crossbars at the tops and bottoms of vertical lines) and which were sans serif (those like Arial, without such ornamentation), I could not wrap my head around their names. Why would serif fonts — the ones that were all fancy and covered with extra fiddly bits – have such a simple name, while the simple ones have the longer, more complicated name? Finally, all was made clear to me: serif is the word for the extra fiddly bits, and "sans serif" means "without serif(s)." At this point in my life, I had yet to figure out that "sans" is the French word for "without." I don't remember when I learned this valuable tidbit, but I do remember that it was quite a revelation to me, since I'd been so confused for so long. And it doesn't stop there. At the same time that I learned the proper meaning of serif, I also learned I had been pronouncing it wrong in my head (fortunately I'd never had cause to pronounce it out loud) as "sir-EEF" when it's actually pronounced "SARE-if."
So there you have it. We all make mistakes, but when I learn I have made one, I'm probably going to share it on my blog so no one else can make the same one!