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Portmanteau Words

Portmanteau words are those in which two meanings are packed into one word. They are formed by blending or combining two words into one. Lewis Carroll, best known for the classic” Alice in Wonderland”, was the first to come up with such words in his poem Jabberwocky. Two of the his words are brillig ( brilliant+ evening) and slithy (slimy + lithe).These two never became popular but there are many others that are in widespread use today. I was amazed to find how many portmanteau words there are. I divide them into three classes.

I. Those in common usage that we don’t think of as portmanteau words. Two examples are flare ( flame + glare= a sudden burst of bright light) and chortle ( chuckle + snort = to laugh in a breathy gleeful way). Those two I like, but I hate meld (melt+ weld= to blend or combine) probably because it is overused.

II. Those which are commonly used and are obvious portmanteau words. Some examples are smog, brunch, sitcom, infomercial, Chunnel, Cineplex, modem and fanzine. Turducken (Turkey+ duck + chicken =  a chicken stuffed into a duck  stuffed into a turkey) is the only  three-in-one portmanteau word that I know. These are all familiar and easy to decipher but there are others that are of more recent vintage which may not be so obvious. A prime example is affluenza ( affluence + influenza) which means “a lack of guilt or motivation experienced by people who have made or inherited a lot of money”. Apparently, the word dates back to 1954 but became known to the public at large as a result of the notorious drunk driving trial of Ethan Couch. Couch was a 16 year old who drove a pick up truck into a crowd of people that was helping a stranded motorist. Four people were killed and one of the passengers in Couch’s pickup was permanently paralyzed. Couch’s blood alcohol limit was tested at 0.24 ( three times the limit). At his juvenile trial in 2016, a defense expert used the term affluenza while arguing that Couch’s wealthy parents had coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility ! He was found guilty and sentenced to only 120 days in jail and 10 years probation. Before he began his sentence, Couch’s mother spirited him off to Mexico but they were found and extradited back to the U.S. He was subsequently sentenced to two years in jail.

III. Those that are not only obscure but are impossible to break down into their component words. For example, what do you think listicle means. I would have guessed an article that is part of a list. Wrong! It actually means ” a piece of writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list”. Go figure! What about manspreading? It is defined as ” the practice whereby a man traveling on public transport sits with his legs wide apart so as to encroach on an adjoining seat or seats”. I must admit I found that word hilarious, even though it wasn’t as funny as when I encountered its practitioners in real life.

However, the word that really gets my goat is glamping which is a combination of the words glamour + camping. It means vacationing in a rustic setting while enjoying luxurious amenities such as sleeping on soft bedding in a safari tent or teepee, having ample hot water, toilets with heated seats and restaurant quality food “cooked” under the supervision of a chef. ” Cooking”, in this case, means turning your steak when chef at your elbow tells you exactly when to do so. The word angers me because it is the antithesis of camping which implies roughing it out in the great outdoors. Glamping merely gives the illusion of ruggedness while babying customers who pay handsomely for the experience. If I were to coin a word to describe my feelings about such people it would be contempanger ( contempt + anger). The word does not exist ( I just made it up) but all the other portmanteau words in this post can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hard to believe but true!

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Winter Sun

In all of December 2017, Moscow received exactly six minutes of sunlight. Six minutes…. over thirty-one days!! The rest of the time it was cloudy and overcast. Not that last December was much worse than usual. The average amount of sunlight that Muscovites enjoyed in other Decembers was eighteen minutes. Still pitiful.

The lack of sunlight, the early darkness and the longer nights are the things that bother me most about winter. The cold and the snow of a New Jersey winter I can handle particularly since I don’t have to worry about shoveling the driveway ( taken care as part of the maintenance package in our development) or going to work ( I’m retired). What’s also good is that, in New Jersey, there are usually aren’t periods of sustained cold and that, even when it is cold, the sun is out almost every day. We count sunlight hours , not minutes… unlike Moscow. And what a difference it makes. True, the sunlight is weak. It doesn’t matter. Just the fact that the sun is shining is enough; that we can see it provides a lift to the spirit. We had some days last week when the temperature was in the teens ( 14 deg. F = minus 8C) but this week it is in the mid-forties ( about 7 deg. C). It’s a big difference and one almost feels warm today.

And winter has its compensations. It snowed last week  (about 4 inches) and, because it was below freezing, the snow froze and clung to the tree branches like icicles. I was driving to the supermarket and it was a fairytale setting with the snow covered fields and the ice clad trees. By today, all the snow had melted and one was left with the stark beauty of barren fields and leafless trees. There was also the knowledge that this is a passing phase. February is usually the coldest, snowiest month but then there is the promise of spring . Winter just makes us appreciate it more.

San Diego is said to have the perfect weather.. sunny all year around with the temperature never far from 70degrees F.  I admit that it sometimes sounds attractive but then I think it would soon become boring. ( Another perfect day… Ho hum). Give me New Jersey and the change of seasons any day.

 

The New York Times recently had an interesting article “Does Your Doctor’s Age Matter?” It was authored by Dr. Haider Javed Warraich, a 29 year old Fellow in Cardiovascular medicine at Duke University Medical Center. In the article, Dr. Warraich states that, when it comes to choosing a doctor, patients place a premium on age because they equate age with experience. Dr. Warraich argues that “In medicine, a lack of experience may actually not be a bad thing” and to support his opinion he cites a Harvard research study which says that patients treated by younger doctors are less likely to die. The study concluded that younger doctors are less likely to 1) order unnecessary tests 2) to face disciplinary action and 3) be cited for improper prescription of opoid painkillers and controlled substances. It also found a positive correlation between lack of experience and better quality of medical care. Younger doctors were found to be more likely to use innovative practices, learn new procedures and be free of relics of the past.

Now, I have the highest respect for Harvard University but I find it difficult to accept these findings. For one thing, I have no idea how pronounced the results were in favor of younger doctors. How strong was the correlation between lack of experience and better medical care? Furthermore, some of the conclusions seem contrary to what common sense tells me. It seems to me that younger doctors, because of their inexperience, would be less confident and thus likely to order more tests rather than less.

I prefer to trust my own experience with doctors even though it is anecdotal.

To begin with, let’s agree that age and competence are not mutually exclusive. There are some good young doctors, some bad ones and many in-between. There are also some good old doctors, some bad ones and many in-between. I would not choose a doctor solely based on age. If a good friend strongly recommended a doctor (and if that doctor accepted my medical insurance), I would want to be his patient regardless of his age. I will admit that if a doctor was very youthful, I would be a little uneasy about his skills and I would definitely be uncomfortable dealing with him because of the generation gap. Contrary to the Harvard study, which said that younger doctors are “more likely to place the patient on a pedestal than themselves”, I have found younger MDs to be brash and less respectful. Sometimes, I also feel they are less interested in older patients, an unspoken vibe that “You have had your innings already.”

The one thing that I will agree with is that younger doctors are likely to be more innovative and open to new procedures and techniques. I remember that when my wife was considering a knee replacement we were very impressed by a local surgeon who had performed thousands of such operations and received the highest accolades from his patients. Then, a close friend told us of her experience with a surgeon in his forties who used new techniques that resulted in less invasive procedures, smaller incisions and a much reduced rehabilitation period. My wife doesn’t need the surgery anymore but, if she did, I know which one she would prefer.

On the other hand, medicine is not only a science but an art. Med school is only the beginning of a doctor’s education. The greater part of his education occurs later as he hones his skills on real world patients, real life situations. I remember a doctor who used to practice in Rahway. He was not impressive in his appearance or manner but his diagnostic skills were phenomenal. He was able to accurately diagnose what was wrong merely by listening to a patient’s description of symptoms and by asking the right questions. His patients loved him and valued him highly. His office receptionist once said to me, “If I ever fell ill, there is no one I’d rather have as a doctor than Dr. M.”

Insofar as choosing a doctor for myself is concerned, I would opt for the one who was strongly recommended, regardless of his or her age. Wherever possible though, I’d choose one who was in his or her fifties or younger but that is for a practical reason. I want a doctor who is not close to retirement age, one whom I can rely on for the next several years.

Changing perceptions

While watching the smash hit  Netflix series The Crown, I was struck by how the Duke of Windsor has gone from being a hero to a shallow,  selfish dilettante and quite likely a Nazi sympathizer. Initially, he was admired by many of my parents’ generation for giving up the throne of England to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. That view has long since been discarded. Historians now feel that it was lucky for his country that he abdicated, paving the way for his younger brother to become King George VI.  By all accounts, the latter was a man of sterling character who overcame his insecurities and worked well with the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill to guide Britain through her darkest days. The Duke meanwhile was an embarrassment who was appointed Commissioner to the Bahamas to keep him out of the way and spent his later years as little more than a pitiful shell of a man who spent his days travelling and attending endless parties.

An even more striking example of changing perceptions is Herbert Hoover, the most derided American president of his time. His image is forever tarnished by his ineffectiveness during the Great Depression  which began in October 1929, just eight months after his inauguration. Hoover’s insistence on balancing the budget even at the cost of raising taxes sent the economy into a tailspin from which it never recovered until FDR succeeded him. And yet, there was much about Hoover that was laudable. His early years read like a Horatio Alger story. Orphaned at age 9, he was sent to live with an uncle who disregarded the young boy’s brightness.   He was sent to work as an office boy even  before he completed high school. At age 17, he passed an entrance exam that enabled him to attend Stanford University, then a free school. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in geology, he was unable to find an engineering job. He took a job loading ore carts at a gold mine in Nevada City  CA, working 10 hours a day, seven days a week for the miserable pittance of ten cents an hour. After several years of this dead end job, he was chosen as trouble shooter for a British mining company where he rose to become chief engineer. When World War I broke out he helped evacuate Americans stranded in Europe by the war and displayed remarkable efficiency in bringing home 120,000 of them home. His finest moments were after the war when he was chosen to head The Committee for Relief in Belgium. At the time, Belgium was in sad shape , its  farms destroyed, its factories shut and its food stocks depleted. The Belgians were in grave danger of starving but Hoover managed to supply them with 20,000 tons of food, every week for a period of 2-1/2 years – a feat which made him an international hero and earned him the title of the Great Humanitarian. However, a  recent book by Bill Bryson is not so laudatory. Bryson’s book says that Hoover missed no opportunity to publicize his humanitarian work and that others, such as Myron Herrick, the U.S ambassador to France worked just as tirelessly but never sought the spotlight. So how should Hoover be remembered … for his humanitarian feats or for his ineffective Presidency? There is no easy answer.

In bygone days, celebrities were usually protected from the results of their peccadilloes and their character flaws hidden from the public. JFK , for instance, was  a serial womanizer whose affairs were kept under wraps until long after his assassination. Journalists felt an obligation to do so out of respect for the President, the position not the man. In those days, there was too little information about public figures. Nowadays, there is too much. Every action is dissected, audio and video equipment intrudes on every moment, public or private. News is mostly opinion and it is difficult to know what the truth really is.

The British cricket writer , Peter Roebuck, tells in his autobiography of a chance encounter with a soldier.  At the time, Roebuck had been dealt with rather shabbily by the powers that be. The soldier approached, shook his hand, wished him well and said” The closer you get to men of substance, the more they seem like shadows.”

How true.

Friends had long ago told us about the Netflix series The Crown and how good it was but we put off watching it. “How interesting could it be?” we thought. I am not a fan of the British royal family and Queen Elizabeth has always struck me as a colorless character, her monarchy boring. Consequently, my wife and I didn’t watch The Crown until two weeks ago. Then, in the space of eight days we raced through both seasons ( 20 episodes) and absolutely loved it.

These first two seasons ( I believe a total of six are planned) cover the early years of Elizabeth’s reign which began in 1953. The first episodes provide a preamble to her ascension to the throne with flashbacks cluing us to the circumstances that led to it , notably: the abdication of Edward VIII ( later The Duke of Windsor) and the short reign and early death of George VI, Elizabeth’s father. We also get vignettes of Elizabeth’s childhood: her father’s affection for her and her sister Margaret, and her marriage to Prince Philip her impoverished second cousin from another branch of the family.

The series is a masterly collage of scenes that give us a sympathetic portrait of a young woman, totally unprepared for the monarchy, who nevertheless grows into it, overcoming government ministers who look down upon her, palace intrigues, a petulant husband who feels emasculated by his role as Prince consort and a train of events that she has no control over but which will reflect upon her as the Queen of England. Among the problems she has to deal with: her sister Margaret’s dalliance with a married man Group Captain Peter Townsend, and her later marriage to Antony Armstrong- Jones; the aging PM Winston Churchill, at 80 a shadow of his former self who still thinks of himself as indispensable; his successors Antony Eden beset by health problems and in over his head  and the weak ineffectual Harold McMillan; the Suez crisis; the breaking away of Britain’s African colonies beginning with Ghana and, in the last episode of the second season, the Christine Keeler scandal which threatened to ensnare Prince Philip if only because of his connection with Stephen Ward the osteopath and procurer who committed suicide before he could be tried.

As she overcomes these problems, Elizabeth is shown as growing from an inexperienced, under-educated unsure young woman into a true monarch even though she has limited powers. Claire Foy is magnificent as Queen Elizabeth, portraying her as one imbued with a strong sense of duty, dignified, hardworking, vulnerable and lonely and yet possessed of a quiet strength that comes through when she needs it most. The scene in which she stands up to her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, and turns down his quest for a meaningful job is a masterpiece. It made me want to stand up and cheer.

She is ably supported by the rest of the cast particularly Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, John Lithgow as Winston Churchill and Alex Jennings as the Duke of Windsor. The one weak link, in my opinion, is Matt Smith who plays Prince Philip and turns in a one-dimensional performance. Other strengths of the series are the excellent writing ( Do people in real life really express themselves so well?), the attention to historical detail, the costumes and the pageantry and the lovingly photographed English countryside.

The Crown does not have violent scenes, nudity or even partial nudity. Neither does it have epic  battle scenes. That it yet is so gripping is a tribute to the acting, the smooth pacing of the unfolding story and the superior acting and writing. There was one episode, about Prince Philip’s  struggles as a young boarder at Gordonstoun which I thought was given more screen time than necessary. I understand how it led to his insistence that Charles follow in his footsteps and attend that school but surely it need not have taken up an entire episode. I would have much preferred to know more about the early attraction of the young Elizabeth to Philip , as also the way in which both Elizabeth and Philip neglected their children, particularly Charles.

Growing up in India in the fifties and early sixties, I was exposed to more coverage of the British royal family than most Americans. Once I came to the U.S in 1968, I ceased to follow news reports about them and read only the major stories about them such as the death of Princess Diana and its aftermath. Consequently, most of what I knew about Queen Elizabeth pertained to the early years of her reign. I certainly didn’t know the extent of the Duke of Windsor’s Nazi sympathies or what a bounder Antony Armstrong Jones was or the suggestions ( in this series) that Philip was a womanizer who played around.  I am sure the writers and producers of the Crown have a solid factual basis for the events described in the Crown but have no way of knowing which of the details are imaginative extensions of the truth. This, after all, is faction ( a blend of fact and fiction) or ” creative non-fiction”.

Whatever be the case, the series has left me impatient for the next season. Until then, I am going to bone up on stories about the British royal family. Already, I have gotten from the library a book on Prince Philip. In The Crown, Philip does not come across as a likeable character. He is always whining, obnoxious and loudmouthed, resentful at his secondary role, harsh with Prince Charles and not there for his wife when she really needs his support. I didn’t like him even before I saw The Crown but was he really that bad? The book I have seems to say that he was a talented man with many accomplishments to his credit. I want to find out if that is really true.

 

 

I love Thai food. I love the soups, satays, crunchy spring rolls, green papaya salad,  curries ( red, green, yellow and Masaman), stir fries flavored with basil, noodle dishes      ( Pad thai, flat noodles , glass noodles), the desserts. I have been eating at Thai restaurants for the better part of fifty years and on occasion, even cook it at home. I think I know a little bit about it. I was surprised therefore to read an article in the New York Times magazine complaining that Thai restaurant food in America has become too sweet. This couldn’t be true, I thought. I remember Thai food as being predominantly spicy and sour, not sweet.

In the past two months, I’ve been to three Thai restaurants, two in New Jersey and one in Henderson, Nevada and guess what… the food, especially the noodle dishes, was too sweet. At one of those places, the pad thai was so sweet it could have passed for dessert. When did this happen? Was my memory playing tricks or had Thai food always been sweet?

A little internet research showed me that complaints about Thai food are not new. Ten years ago, one commenter sagely declared ” When you ease up on the heat, the balance goes wrong”. Another groused ” I hate this creeping sweetness thing. ” Yet another implored ” Don’t cater to the American sweet tooth this way.” As far as that last comment is concerned, I am glad to inform you that we are not solely to be blamed. Similar criticisms were voiced by restaurant goers in countries as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Apparently, Thai food was not always sweet. But when did it become so?

To answer this question, I looked up several Thai cookbooks and found that while many recipes did call for sugar or palm sugar, the quantities varied widely. In cookbooks published in Thailand and in blogs based in Asia, the quantities of sugar specified were appreciably smaller. I next looked up pad thai recipes in several blogs and cookbooks. I found that for the same quantity of noodles, the amount of sugar called for varied from a low of 1 teaspoon to a high of 1-1/2 Tablespoons  (more than four times as much). One recipe in the N.Y. Times  even specified 1/3 cup of honey.

It looks as if Thai food was made sweeter over the years to suit the Western palate. Many Westerners can’t handle spicy food and rather than drive them away, restaurateurs added sugar, lots of it, to their dishes while also cutting back on the heat. I confirmed this by speaking to my daughter who has spent a month in Thailand. She agreed that while Thai recipes, particularly the noodle dishes, did often include sugar the food was not overly sweet.

One final thought: In all the neighboring countries of Asia ( Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) the food is always spicy and often sour. Does it make sense that only in Thailand it is sweet? No way.  The New York Times article was right. The food in many Thai restaurants in America is too sweet and  it is inauthentic.

 

Handwriting

I miss writing. Not writing per se, but writing by hand … the act of putting pen to paper which today is obsolescent and fast becoming obsolete.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate the convenience of typing rather than writing things out longhand with pen or pencil. I am old enough to remember the days before word processors when office memos had to be typed out by secretaries. I marvel that they were able to reach speeds of 35 -40 words per minute with few, if any, mistakes. I also remember how difficult it was to white -out the occasional error .

When computers became common I was initially resistant to using them because I’d never learnt typing. I quickly changed because it was so much easier to compose my memos and articles. With computers, it is so easy to change words here and there, to shift sentences and paragraphs, to edit and revise. It would probably take me four or five times as long to write this piece if I had to write it out in pen or pencil. Not for me, the old way of doing things.

And yet…

I miss the physical act of writing and all the steps it entails.  Sharpening pencils. Getting out the writing paper, the eraser.  Sitting at the table staring at the blank page can sometimes be frightening but, oh, the pleasure of  getting the words down on the pristine unlined paper. Rounding the g’s, crossing the t’s, dotting at the i’s… it’s beautiful, it’s satisfying, it’s personal, it’s sensual. When I look at the completed page, I feel a sense of accomplishment. This is MINE. I don’t feel nearly the same pleasure as when I look at my type written work. Yes, it’s neat, it’s compact, there are no spelling mistakes thanks to Spellcheck but.. it is almost too easy.

Writing is also a link to the past, to others. I still have some few recipes in my mother’s handwriting, some letters that my father wrote. When I look at them, I can see them, my parents that is, as clearly as if I were looking at a photo. They have been gone many years now but I can clearly see their handwriting in my mind’s eye. I can’t say the same about my children’s handwriting. They do most of their writing on the computer and, except for their scrawled signatures, what their handwriting looks like.

Precisely because a word-processor is so easy to use we have seen a decline in writing skills, a carelessness in the way we communicate, a creeping disregard for the beauty of language.  Most people are just concerned with just getting the task of writing over with. They see no reason to be exact, no need to learn correct spelling . After all, that’s what Spellcheck is for, isn’t it? In much the same way that calculators have led to a loss if our mathematical ability, computers have caused a decline in our language skills.

When I started to write this piece, I was thinking primarily of the lost pleasures of writing by hand. I accept that typing on our computers is the way to go but I find opportunities to write in pen or pencil. For instance, at the discourses  we attend on Saturdays, I make copious notes. So do many other attendees but, even here there are some who can be seen tapping away on their I-phones. You’ll never see me doing that. Never.

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