Archive for October, 2010

October 31, 2010

Cramping my style

Don't cramp my style, © Melanie Taylor |

I always liked this idiom.  It isn’t very frequently used anymore but is widely understood and but shows good command of the English  language.  If something cramps your style it means it limits or restricts you in some way, makes you hold back and not express yourself fully.  It is a casual expression but since it does not have bad connotations it can well be used in a business conversation.

Examples of usage are: “This new job at the bank is really cramping my style I have to wear a suit every day when I much prefer to wear shorts and sneakers.


“Those Monday morning 8 am meetings are really cramping my style.  I used to go out late every Sunday but now I can’t do that anymore.”

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October 31, 2010

Out of the woods

Out of the woods © Henrischmit |

Another nice American idiom that is useful in everyday life and easy to explain.   Literally if you are out of the woods (forest) – a dark and dangerous place – you are in safety.  Figuratively it means the same thing: to emerge from a difficult or dangerous situation.

An example would be: “Bob had major surgery after a bad car accident.  He was is a serious condition for a while but it looks like he is out of the woods now.”

The negative version “not out of the woods”  is used even more frequently.  One uses it to describe a situation where one can relax a bit but the danger is not completely over.  Example:  we have seen signs of improvement but the economy is not out of the woods yet.

The German equivalents are: “aus dem Groebsten heraus sein”, “aus dem Schneider sein”, ueber den Berg sein”

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October 30, 2010

Word Confusion, part 1

The glass in the back has less Martini and fewer olives © Spirita |

In English like in (presumably) all other language there are words and grammatical concept that are just plain confusing, so confusing in fact, that sometimes native speakers don’t get it right.  In some cases that doesn’t matter too much because the words are rarely used but then there are some that are very common and those need explaining.

Lets start with the following pair: few/less

First the things they have in common: both are adjectives and both mean “small in amount, degree, or number”.  And here is where the difference lies:

Few is used with countable objects.  Examples: “I have fewer sweaters than Jane does.”  or “I only have a few dollars left.”

Less is used with uncountable objects.  Examples: “There is less juice in this glass.” or “I have less time for my hobbies these days.  I work too much.”

October 30, 2010

Bubbleboy and guns

I don’t like guns. There you have it. I don’t own one, never have, never will. I believe – contrary what the NRA says – that guns kill people. I think nobody should buy eggs and ham at the local supermarket carrying a concealed gun, have drinks at a bar with a gun at the ready, or drive a car with a gun on a dash board.

Dangerous squirt gun fun, © Scott Rothstein |

Call me un-American but this is the West, not the Wild West. Grizzlies have long ago stopped roaming California and for other problems like horse thieves and trespassers there are laws addressing this.   As to people who’s political opinions we find repulsive – we teach our children that everybody is special and all people are our friends. Maybe we should try and find within ourselves the strength to adhere to the same principles rather than shooting them.

All the more surprising is it that I find myself in the position to have to defend my son’s constitutional right to carry – a squirt gun.  You see, by some fluke of nature or – more likely some unsavory piece of genetic code on the Y-chromosome and therefore entirely his father’s fault – my son loves guns. Loves, loves, loves guns. Any gun, all guns, plastic guns, squirt guns, BB guns, real guns especially. Everything is a gun, every stick, the fork, the tooth brush, pencils, crayons, fingers, drinking straws – I could go on.

Guns are not tolerated at school. Now here is a sentence I have no problem with, in fact I certainly hope they aren’t. It’s the fine print that bothers me, because guns includes – in addition to automatic, semi-automatic, and other real weapons so lovingly and frequently depicted on TV – plastic guns, toy guns of any kind, and by that I mean absolutely any kind, including that dangerous all-time favorite of violent and unstable kids: the squirt gun.

Now, I could even, maybe, on a particularly tolerant and politically-correct day somehow see that that might make sense – kids getting wet and all – if the punishment for carrying a concealed squirt gun would be something along the lines of a slap on the wrist, a 3.5 minute detention, or a stern look. However, slaps on the wrist are obviously unacceptable violence and therefore out, detention just means that the detainee needs to be supervised and who would want that hassle, and a stern look might really scare the little ones.

So, in their infinite wisdom they have come up with a wonderful solution that also satisfies all those who think that little boys should never touch a toy gun until they are about 13 by which time they can just go to the local Big 5 Sporting Goods and buy themselves a real one with the money they made lawn mowing or writing apps for the iPhone: the kid gets kicked out of school.

Again, I am not kidding. “Zero Tolerance” it is called. The kid brings a squirt gun it is bye-bye local public school close to home. I have no idea what happens to such kids, violent scum of the earth that they are, so will do some research and report that.

Meanwhile, I am frisking my son every morning for concealed weapons like a common criminal. He thinks it is hilarious to sneak stuff by mom and I just hope that I don’t miss a squirt gun one day.

October 29, 2010

Bubbleboy bikes – or not

Parked Bike ©Cristian Nitu Dreamstime

California is big on all things green. Fine by me, I grew up that way, recycling, turning off the lights in rooms I am not in, conserving water, riding my bike.
My son’s school is a mile away. My son loves his bike and wants to take it to school. That’s fine, school encourages it, there are walk/bike-to-school days and a special enclosed bike/scooter parking area. And since so few people take advantage of it those who do are well-known. In a school of 1,500 kids the principal greets mine by name and makes a comment about his scooter.

All’s good, right? Not so fast. After school my boy goes to an after-school which is about 1.5 miles away. The ideal scenario would play out like that: dad takes son to school with the bike, mom hops on hers at 2:25 pm and picks up junior at school.   Mom and son ride bike to after-school. Bike gets parked, mom rides home and adds 15 minutes biking to her daily calorie log (60 calories burned!).   Son and bike get picked up later by mom or dad.

The reality is slightly different:  after-school does not allow kids to bring, use, or even park their bikes/scooters on the premises. Why you ask. So did I. The answer: if one brings a bike, all will want to bring a bike and we have no room for all the bikes so they would stand around everywhere and it would be too dangerous.
The school has ample free space to park bikes. Most kids are pre-schoolers who traditionally do not ride bikes to school. The after-school program has maybe 50 kids. My guess would be that about 2 or 3 tops would come by bike – occasionally.

Naive as I sometimes am, I wanted to have a rational discussion about this topic. “Look” I said “He isn’t bringing his bike as a toy. It is a means of transportation. He will not bring it into class and will not play with it during the time he is here. We just need to be able to park it somewhere safe.”
“I can not allow that. We can not have bikes on the school grounds. It is too dangerous.”
Me: “Sorry, I think you don’t understand what I mean. We are riding our bikes here from school and need a place to park it.”
“You’ll have to take it with you when you leave.”
Me, puzzled: “I am coming by bike as well. How am I supposed to take his bike back with me on my bike??”
” I can’t tell you how to do that but you can’t leave his bike here. He can bring it for ‘bring-your-bike-to-school-days’ twice a year.”

We went though several rounds of this over the next two weeks. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought I must have somehow misunderstood. My English is good, but maybe,  I missed the critical part. The part where she says: “he can’t bring the bike inside and ride it around on the carpet but other than that there is really no problem.” But I didn’t. She meant it. Parked and locked bikes are dangerous and as such forbidden on the grounds of my child’s after-school. Damn the CO2 emissions and the health benefits from physical exercise. It all pales in comparison to the huge danger a parked bike poses to kids who never, ever walk the school grounds unattended anyway.

Now, my son takes his scooter to school. I pick him up by car, stuff both child and scooter in, drive him to after-school and take the scooter home. He can’t ride his bike anymore. My car is too small, I cannot fit both him and the bike in.

October 29, 2010

Don’t Drop the Ball

Maybe you are playing basketball or football and somebody yells at you not to drop the ball  – in that case you take that advice literally and do not drop the ball to the ground if you can at all avoid it.

Literal ball dropping at a football game (c) Jacob Petersen/ The Lumberjack

It is another expression borrowed from American football where it is a really bad idea to drop the ball because then it can be snatched up by the opponents and they can make a run for the goal.  Consequently, in a business context “dropping the ball” means to fail to perform as expected, not to live up to one’s responsibilities, to make a (serious) mistake.

It is a fairly serious expression so if your boss tells you: “I am giving you this important project, make sure you do not drop the ball!” you better make sure you perform.

It is also used after the fact, as this example of a headline shows: “DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has dropped the ball on network security”  this is followed by the following strong statement “Bleak doesn’t begin to describe the picture painted by this morning’s news coverage of a 35-page government report scoring – and excoriating – the nation’s ongoing inability to protect critical network operations from cyber attack.” (

October 28, 2010

More kicking

Kicking butt in the literal sense, pic:

Believe it or not, there are more idioms and expressions with kick.  Some of these are slang and therefore not suitable for any type of formal or business setting – but it is still good to understand them.  Some are colloquial but very useful and without a negative connotation so they can be used in informal settings.

We’ll start with the obvious: Kick butt (or kick ass, which is more vulgar).  It means two things:

literally it means to beat somebody in a fight

figuratively it means to be really good at something – “he is a bit chubby but don’t be mistaken, he is a kick-ass tennis player” (here you can’t use “kick butt”, only “kick ass” will work) or “she is a kick ass lawyer”. It is also used to indicate that something is very good, outstanding, spectacular.  “They play kick-ass music at that club.”

The you can kick the bucket which is another not so nice way of saying that you die.

You van also kick a habit.  That is a good thing, it means you got rid of a bad habit.  “After 25 years of smoking he finally kicked the habit last year.”

For part 1 of all the kicking click here

October 28, 2010

Compliments, woman to woman

One thing Americans do frequently  which is a lot less common in Europe is making compliments.  Even total strangers get complimented on occasion.  These are mostly woman-to-woman compliments, a type of compliments pretty much unknown to many Europeans.

In these cases the compliment is normally for a “thing” like a nice purse or scarf, a suit, maybe haircut not for the person as a whole.  I have a green briefcase which I use for meetings and conferences and I have had many women compliment that particular accessory with words like “I love your briefcase”, “What a terrific color!” or “That’s so great, where did you buy it?” I mostly happens in the ladies’ bathroom when we are all standing in front of the mirror reapplying lipstick.

That purse is so cute! © Budda |

Friends or acquaintances will often go further and say things like  “You look wonderful today”, “Oh my God, you lost so much weight, you look great!”

Being generous with compliments is actually a very nice thing once you are used to it.  In the beginning it confused me, I didn’t know why people would bother but it is really quite a mood booster if some stranger looks at you and says something nice and flattering.  It might not be the most profound thing ever said to you but it doesn’t matter, it brightens the day a bit.

My husband tells me that guys don’t do that or only on the rarest of occasions.  Oh well, their loss.

October 27, 2010

Bubbleboy Loves Cupcakes

Every kid's favorite, many a mom's nightmare: the colorful, sugary cupcake © George Bailey |

My friend G likes to tell the story of a time when her kids, now all grown, successful professionals, were young. The story goes like this: G, a professional single mother of three, had the audacity to bring a tray of cupcakes to school for one of her kid’s birthdays.  The popular outrage was not over the cup cakes per se but over the fact that they were – gasp – store bought not homemade.  Now if you knew my friend G you would know that she didn’t just pop down to 7/11 the morning of and bought a bunch of crumbly, sticky, good-until-2013 type cupcakes. The woman went to a nice bakery, carefully selected a variety of cute cupcakes and yes, OMG, outsourced the task of actually making them to a qualified professional.

We all had a good laugh about that story, including her, but I could tell it was still eating at her, all those years later, the self-righteousness of the other parents. Just glad that her kids are happy, healthy adults, else whatever problem they might have might get blamed on their mother’s refusal to bake and decorate cupcakes between the hours of 11 pm and 2 am.

Well, that was then and now: I am forbidden to bring home-baked goods to my child’s after-school. The third “DON’T” on the Birthday & Food Sharing Event Policy reads: “Don’t bring any homemade treats such as cakes, cookies, or cupcakes.”

Huh? No explanation given. I assume, though, that they just don’t trust me. I might not have cleaned my hands with disinfecting wipes before kneading that dough, I might have used sugar of the non-approved, non-organic type, or decorated with something that contains artificial flavors and coloring, I might just use a baking sheet that hasn’t been steam cleaned and therefore might carry remnants of last weeks banana bread on it. All sorts of dangerous, unsavory things might happen in my home.

Now, you might say that I should be glad about Rule #3, at least I can’t be shamed into feeling guilty like G back then. I can just skip down to Safeway and pick up one of those big sticky-sweet cakes that come adorned with Dora the Explorer, Superman, or race cars – depending on the child’s preferences. I could, if it wasn’t for Rule #2 which specifically prohibits me from bringing large sheet cakes with icing. Together with Rule #1 – bring nothing that contains any nuts whatsoever – that makes it pretty much impossible to buy anything.

Where does that leave me with regards to my son’s birthday celebration? A nice big tray of carrot and celery sticks, a fat-free dip, and some gluten-free crackers will be just lovely. The kids are going to have a blast and my son a handy excuse for everything that might go wrong in his life: “Mom, do you remember my 6th birthday party when you brought the celery sticks to my school party? That day I realized that you don’t love me and that’s why I feel compelled to smoke pot/drink beer/race my motorcycle now that I am 17. It is all your fault.”

I am a lucky mom, though. My son’s birthday falls smack in the middle of summer. So the luck of the draw (I could call it careful planning but that would be disingenuous) is saving me this one time.

October 27, 2010

Bubbleboy and Breast Cancer Awareness

The terrible b-word wrist bands (pic:

October is breast cancer awareness month.  I like it. Let’s raise awareness and raise money for more research.  Whether it really helps that Safeway puts the sliced mushrooms in pink containers instead of the usual blue I don’t know.  I guess it doesn’t hurt,  I noticed it so other people probably will.

But I was already sensitized to the pink cause because of the following contentious  issue: wristbands.  There are wristbands out there with the following immoral slogan: “I (heart) boobies”.

Yikes, the b-word! (one of many b-words, I can think of a bunch of the top of my head).  I actually think “boobies” for breasts is kind of a silly, childish word rather than an off-color one but I seem to be pretty much alone with that opinion and therefore, because of the contentious b-word some schools – I was informed – have banned wristbands for breast cancer awareness month.  I learned about that whole controversy from another parent in my son’s after school program.  She told me – whispering so that kids wouldn’t actually hear her say it – that the slogan due to the b-word  “isn’t quite as wholesome as it could be.”   So what do we do in California, bastion of freedom that we are?   Easy, we ban wristbands for breast cancer awareness from the campus of our schools.  What else?

The issue never came up in our house.  At 6 my boy has decided that pink is a girl color and he wear ribbons, wristbands or anything else in pink anyway.