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Archive for the 'Life in the United States' Category

Tuesday - August 25, 2015

Ragpicker, Governor

d__images_F196809PThe Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California is shaped like a large “H”. If you walk across the middle of the “H” to the left leg and look left, you’ll see the Ragpicker – a painting by Edouard Manet. He hangs on the wall at the bottom of the “H” and, I imagine, keeps an eye on (watches) everyone who walks through the galleries (rooms for showing art) that display (show) the Museum’s modern art.

I’ve always been fascinated by (attracted to; curious about) this life-size painting of such a humble (not important) man. Ragpickers were early recyclers. They walked around cities, Paris for Manet’s Ragpicker, and picked up rags and other objects that could be sold to people who recycled, or reused them. Rags were used to make paper.

Manet was one of several painters of his time who painted the everyday people of Paris. They weren’t wealthy. They weren’t powerful. And many people probably didn’t notice them. But they were an important part of Parisian life.

I thought of Manet’s Ragpicker when I read about Sarah Godfrey’s recent experience. She was at the Park Street subway station under the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, when she saw what she described as “a nice old man who was picking up garbage at the train station on his way to work.”

Sarah walked up to him and remarked, “What a good citizen you are!” He was grouchy (in a bad mood), she said, and complained that the stations were always filthy. She agreed.

She was uncomfortable when she watched him reach down to pick up a “food wrapper and what looked like a used napkin” and reminded him to “make sure he washed his hands when he got to work.”

He looked at her and replied, “That’s what my wife says.”

When they got to the top of the stairs, he threw the trash he had picked up into a trash container, then turned to Sarah and asked, “How many ex-governors do you think go around picking up trash at train stations?”

Sarah said that she laughed and said, “Not many.” She thought for a moment, then asked if he had actually served as governor of Massachusetts.

“Yes, for 12 years,” he answered, and she realized that she had been talking to Michael Dukakis, the former governor of the state.

Hmm. I wonder how many ex-governors – or anyone else – go around picking up trash to try to keep their cities clean. Probably not many.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach and tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo of Ragpicker from Wikipedia Commons.


Tuesday - August 11, 2015

Where Buffalo Used To Roam

640px-Nebraska_Sandhills_NE97_Hooker_County_3Home on the Range (land covered by grass) – an old song from the American West – begins like this:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam (wander; move from place to place),
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

The Great Plains is a large area of land in the middle of the U.S. covered by mostly by grass and farms. The Plains begin in Texas and go all the way north into Canada. There are no mountains there. Instead there are miles of flat land and what we call “rolling” hills that gently rise (go up) and fall (go down) as you drive through them.

The state of Nebraska, where I lived before moving to California, is in the middle of the Great Plains. When you drive across Nebraska from east to west, you’ll drive through the city of Omaha, then pass mile after mile of corn fields until you reach the middle of the state. When you get there, you will have arrived at the area that the songwriter might have been thinking about – the Nebraska Sandhills.

The Sandhills are exactly that, about 20,000 square miles (~52,000 square kilometers) of grass-covered hills of sand. If you leave the freeway, you can drive many miles without seeing another car or truck. But what you will see are ranches (farms where cows are raised) with large herds (groups) of cows and a few small towns.

In the small towns, you’ll find the essentials (things that are necessary) but not much more – groceries, ranch supplies, gas for your car or truck, a church or two, a bar or two, and possibly a small hotel.

It doesn’t rain much here, but there is a large amount of underground water for ranchers to use for themselves and their cattle (cows). And the cattle, mostly Black Angus (a kind of cow), provide Nebraska and the rest of the country with some of the finest beef (meat from cows) you can eat.

The deer are still there. And so are the antelope. But not so many buffalo; many of them were hunted by the American Indians and early Americans for food and for their skin, which was used for clothes.

They say the sky is bigger in the Sandhills. And the sunrises and sunsets are more beautiful. During the summer, it’s not unusual for fast-moving summer storms to form (appear and grow) and fill the sky with towering (very tall) clouds that quickly change from white to gray to black.

People who know the Sandhills talk about how peaceful it is there. Ron Scheer, a California professor, writes that “the Sandhills provide an endless supply of peace and quiet…. The best moments are spent just listening to … the birds singing from every direction, and the wind.

To learn more about Nebraska and the Sandhills, I encourage you to watch two short videos. The first, My West: The Sandhills of Nebraska, is by Professor Scheer. The second, Nebraska Skies, is by Bill Frakes, a well-known photographer.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo of the Nebraska Sandhills courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.



Tuesday - August 4, 2015

Forget That Ferrari and Opt for a Trip

Paaka_kahakai_kailuaWe’ve all had that experience of waiting to buy something we want: a new smartphone, a car, or even something simple, like a book or a pair of shoes. We want it now, but we wait in anticipation (with the expectation) of the pleasure we’ll get out of a new possession (thing we own).

But if we want to get the most pleasure out of waiting, we should opt for (choose) an experience rather than a new possession. You may have heard people say that experiences, rather than things, give people more happiness. Well, that’ true, even when you’re simply waiting for it.

In a series of studies published last year, a Cornell University doctoral (getting a Ph.D. degree) student asked people to evaluate (judge) what it felt like to look forward to (wait with expected pleasure for) experiences versus buying things. He found that the waiting period was even more pleasurable, more exciting, and with less impatience (having the feeling of not wanting to wait anymore) when buying experiences than things. Experiences could be anything from taking a trip to attending a concert to going surfing (the sport of standing on a long board on ocean waves).

The researcher suggested two reasons for this. He surmised (guessed based on the evidence) that material goods (things worth money; things with value) are easier to compare to other material goods than experiences are to other experiences. For example, it’s easy to compare your new smartphone to your friend’s and perhaps find your own smartphone wanting (not as good; less than perfect). We want to keep up with the Joneses (be as good as our neighbors and friends), and buying new things is accompanied by anxieties (worries) about not measuring up (being as good as others or what is expected).

Another reason waiting to buy things might be less pleasurable is that when we buy material goods, we know beforehand (ahead of the event) pretty much (nearly) exactly what we’re buying. If I buy a new shirt, I can picture myself wearing the shirt and looking good, but there isn’t much more to imagine. If I plan a trip, I might be able to imagine all kinds of scenarios (possible situations) that could be fun, exciting, and even life-changing.

The good news is that the older you get, the simpler the anticipated (expected; predicted) experiences can be. While you may need extraordinary (very big, major, and unusual) experiences to maximize (give you the most) happiness when you’re young, as you get older, those experiences can be quite ordinary (common; everyday; not special). The thought of taking a walk on the beach, listening to music, or enjoying a good meal with friends might be enough to give you the same level of anticipated enjoyment.

And since I’m very old, all I need is the anticipation of reading your comments to make me happy…and maybe a very small slice (piece) of cake.

How about you? What anticipated experiences – extraordinary or ordinary – gives you pleasure?

~ Lucy

Photo Credit: View across Kailua Beach to the offshore islet known as Moku nui from Wikipedia

Tuesday - July 28, 2015

Are You A Hoarder?

smaug_the_magnificent__fanart__by_redwryvenart-d6qfma1“Hoard” is not an everyday word, but the idea of hoarding often appears even when the word isn’t used. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Some of my students have enjoyed The Hobbit and Treasure Island – two books that have been made into movies. In The Hobbit, Smaug is the dragon that kills most of the dwarves (imaginary creatures that look like small men), takes their gold and other treasures (something valuable), hides them deep inside Lonely Mountain, and uses them as a bed. Smaug is a hoarder.

In Treasure Island, Jim finds a map and, together with some others, follows it to an island where a very large treasure has been buried by a pirate (someone who robs or steals from ships at sea) named Flint. Flint is also a hoarder.

A hoard is a large collection of things that someone hides so no one else can find it. Sometimes people will hoard things like food to have it in an emergency, for example, during a war.

When we hear the word hoard or hoarder today, we often think about something a little different. We think about people who become so attached to things with little or no value that they find it difficult to throw them away.

Elizabeth is a good example. She is a writer. And she worries that she and her partner are hoarders because their small house is full of things they have collected but never use. She writes:

I’m pretty sure my partner and I are hoarders, or least well on our way. We have one entire room in our house that’s too full of clutter (a large number of things that are scattered around) to walk through — a library of junk (old unwanted objects)….

What’s in there? Comic books. Textbooks. A shoe collection. Costumes. Sewing notions (supplies). Slightly used wrapping paper. Old photos. Plastic bugs. Real dead bugs…. Pulp fiction (popular stories). Action figures. Notebooks. Items carelessly chewed by long-dead pets. Wine goblets (glasses)….

The junk room door is always closed. My daughter doesn’t even know we have a third bedroom.

The rest of the house isn’t much better.

For some people, hoarding is not just a bad habit (something you do automatically without thinking). It’s a serious problem. It’s irrational (it doesn’t make sense) and compulsive (they can’t stop). Their houses and apartments become so full of junk that they are no longer safe or healthy to live in. And they do everything they can to make sure that other people don’t find out what they are doing.

Elizabeth worries that they’re hoarders. But her partner thinks they’re just messy. And she says that he’s probably right for now. But she worries that they might become hoarders after her daughter leaves home.

One short note: there is another word – horde – that sounds the same as hoard. Horde refers to a large group of people – for example, “A horde of soccer fans ran onto the field after the soccer game.”

~ Warren Ediger – ESL tutor/coach and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo of Smaug from is used under Creative Commons license.


Tuesday - July 14, 2015

Let The Kids Do The Cooking!

Food-Ball-AZTVI ran across (found by chance) some interesting advice recently in the On Parenting (about being a parent) section of the Washington Post newspaper:

“Every kid 16 and older should be making the entire dinner once or twice a week as one of their chores (regular responsibilities). And kids 12 and older should be responsible for at least making one dish at every family meal.”

The writer believes that we need to prepare our children to be self-sufficient (able to take care of themselves) when they leave home to go to school or begin their first job. Teaching them to cook – and giving them opportunities to practice cooking – is part of that preparation.

If we prepare our children in this way, the writer believes they will eat better-tasting, less expensive, and healthier food. So she thinks we should teach them to follow a recipe (instructions for preparing food), use basic cooking equipment, and all the other things a good cook needs to do. And she believes that we should give them as many opportunities as possible to practice what they are learning.

This article brings up an interesting question: What should parents do to prepare their children to leave home to go to school or begin a job? What did your parents do? What did you do with your children?

In the same article, another writer argues (says it’s true) that it’s “my job as a parent to give my kids” what she calls “life skills (abilities) that will help children succeed after they leave home.” Her list of skills includes things like cooking, cleaning, laundry (washing and taking care of clothes), being organized, and managing money and time.

My mother was one of those people. She wanted to be sure that we – her two boys and three girls – could take care of ourselves when we left home to go to school. She taught us to cook, wash and dry the dishes (we didn’t have an automatic dishwasher), clean the house, take care of our rooms, do our own laundry, and even sew buttons on our clothes. Then she made sure we got a lot of practice. I’m glad she did.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach and tutor, creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo from Raising Arizona Kids.

Tuesday - June 16, 2015

Writing in English: Verbs That Help Your Reader See

dog_with_glasses_by_danihee-d53949bGood writers think of one thing: how to make what they want to say as clear as possible.

In Writing In English As A Second Language, I quoted (said what someone else said) William Zinsser, who wrote that “your best tools are short, plain…active verbs…. So fall in love with active verbs. They are your best friends.”

Mike Emrick is the play-by-play announcer (person who describes a game on radio or TV) for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. Many people believe he’s the best. The verbs he uses are one of the reasons why. The verbs he uses help his listeners see the action.

Recently someone made a list of verbs Emerick has used to describe Blackhawk games. I’ve chosen a few of them to show how good active verbs can give your reader or listener a better idea – a picture, in fact – of what you’re describing.

You don’t need to know much about hockey to make sense of (understand) Emerick’s verbs. Just remember that in hockey, players skate back and forth on the ice and use sticks to try to hit the puck (small round piece of hard rubber) into the other team’s net, or goal. It’s like soccer on ice.

I’ve chosen two groups of verbs. The first group describes how players hit the puck. The second group describes how the puck moves, especially as it goes into the net.

Here are some of Emrick’s verbs:

Chop – He chopped at the puck. / He hit at the puck as if trying to cut something with a tool.

Finesse – He finessed the puck into the net. / He hit the puck in a skillful or expert way.

Jab – He jabbed at the puck. / He hit at the puck with short quick movements of his stick.

Muscle – He muscled the puck into the net. / He used all his strength to hit the puck into the net.

Sky – He skied the puck. / He hit the puck high into the air.

Swat – He swatted at the puck. / He tried to hit the puck the same way you would try to hit a mosquito or some other insect that was bothering you.

Hop – The puck hopped into the net. / The puck jumped into the net like a rabbit.

Curl – The puck curled into the net. / The puck moved into the net in a curved (not straight), or circular, line.

Trickle – The puck trickled into the net. / The puck moved slowly into the net, little by little.

Skitter – The puck skittered across the ice. / The puck moved lightly and quickly, like a small animal.

If you do a lot of reading and listening, and pay attention to the verbs writers and speakers use, you’ll discover many more good active verbs.

Can you think of some other good active verbs for hockey or soccer? Let’s see how many verbs we can come up with that fit one of the sentences I used above – He _____ the puck (or ball) or The puck (or ball) _____ into the net. Add your verbs to the comments.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo from Deviantart used under Creative Commons license.

Tuesday - June 2, 2015

Bucket List: The Story of a Word

bucket listFor word lovers, it’s often fun to trace (find or discover) the history of a word. I frequently stop at the Online Etymology Dictionary – etymology is the study of the beginnings, history, and changes in the meanings of words – to do just that.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a word – bucket list – that first appeared just a few years ago but has already become very popular. How popular? I received more than 63,000,000 search results when I googled it (searched for it using Google).

In the popular 2007 movie Bucket List, the word meant a list of things that you haven’t done, but want to do before you die. The movie was about two men who had terminal (an illness that causes death) cancer and tried to do as much as they could before they died. The movie is how most people first learned about the word.

To understand where bucket list came from, you have to go back to an idiom – kick the bucket – that first appeared in 1785. You may have heard that one. If someone kicks the bucket, it means they died. There are several different ideas about where the idiom comes from, but no one really knows for sure.

In 1999, Justin Zackham, the man who wrote the movie, began a list that he called “Justin’s list of things to do before he kicks the bucket” – things to do before he dies. The name seemed too long, however, so he shortened it to “Justin’s bucket list.”

As Zackham’s bucket list grew, he decided that a bucket list would make a good story for a movie. He wrote the movie script (the written form of a movie), and when the movie was completed, everyone agreed that Bucket List was the best name for it.

When words become popular and a lot of people begin to use them, the way they use them often changes. Bucket list is no exception (it’s not different). Zackham first used it to describe the list of things he wanted to do before he died. But a few months ago, President Obama used it in a speech to refer to the things he wanted to do before the end of his presidency (time as president). As a result, the meaning of bucket list has already shifted (changed) to include the things someone wants to do before an important time in their life.

Let me make a prediction (say what will happen). I think that a lot of people will think that bucket list is a cool (fashionable, attractive) new word and want to use it. And they will use it in a variety of new ways – for example, to refer to any list of things that they need or want to do, what we call a to-do list. Some day you’ll be able look in a dictionary and see if I was right.

I’m wondering, what would you put on your own bucket list?

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

Photo from irrevspeckay.

Tuesday - May 26, 2015

The Boys of Summer*

Tee_ball_player_swinging_at_ball_on_tee_2010Yesterday was a holiday in the United States called Memorial Day, a day when we honor (remember with respect) those men and women who fought and died for our country in the military. Memorial Day is also the unofficial (not legally, but informally) start of summer for most people in the U.S., since it comes on the last Monday of May.

Summer is associated with lots of different activities – vacations, going to the beach, picnics, barbeques – but for millions of American boys, summer is all about baseball. (Baseball is also played now by some girls, but most girls prefer to play a similar game called softball, which uses a larger, softer ball.)

When I was a young boy, I, too, wanted to play baseball. I grew up in a family where almost everyone played sports. All of my older brothers – all eight of my older brothers – played some sort of sport, and so I decided very early on that I should learn how to play a sport as well.

So when I was five years old, my father signed me up (registered me; put me on a list) to play what’s called “tee-ball.” Tee-ball (also spelled “T-ball”) is a form of baseball, but unlike regular baseball, there’s no pitcher. (The pitcher in baseball is the guy who throws the ball; the person who tries to hit the ball is called the batter.)

In tee-ball, there’s no pitcher because five-year-old boys can’t throw very far, and you can’t really have a baseball game unless the batter has a ball to hit. So instead of hitting a ball thrown by a pitcher, the batter hits the ball off of what is called a tee, which is a cone or stick that sits on the ground (see photo).

I remember very well my first game of tee-ball, down at Griggs Playground, a small park near my house in St. Paul. In my first at bat (when I first tried to hit the ball), I hit it pretty hard. I ran to first base. My team was happy. My older brother who took me to the game was happy. I was happy. So far, so good.

Later on in the game, when my team was out on the field trying to catch the balls that the other team hit, I was told to play a position call “shortstop,” which is the player who normally stands between second and third base. Like all the players out on the field, the job of the shortstop is to catch the ball if it is hit toward him. What could be easier?

After a couple of batters, one rather large five-year-old on the other team came up to the plate (walked to where the batter stands to hit the ball). He swung his bat (moved the long stick to hit the ball) and hit the ball right at me.

I froze (was unable to move my body). The next thing I remember, the ball hit me right in the face. Bam!

I immediately fell down and started to cry.

The coach (the leader of the team, an adult) came out on the field and asked if I was okay. I told him I certainly was NOT okay. I mean, I didn’t expect this game to be painful.

I told the coach I was quitting, right then and there (at that very moment; immediately). I walked off the field and my brother took me home. That was it – the end of my life in baseball after only a few hours.

I never returned to baseball, and, to be honest, was never very good at any sport when I was a child (or now as an adult). But I still love watching baseball, and plan on spending many hours this summer doing just that. I learned my lesson that it is much less painful watching baseball than actually playing it.


* The title of this post is taken from the title of a well-known book about baseball by the same name.

Image credit: Tee-ball, Wikipedia

Tuesday - May 19, 2015

Writing In English As A Second Language

Zinsser_CasualTwo weeks ago I wrote about heroes and told you about a few of mine. Sadly, one of them – William Zinsser – died a few days later; he was 93 years old.

Today I want to remember him by doing something that would surely please him. I want to share with you a speech he gave in 2009 to a group of international students about writing in English as a second language. I have used his words as much as possible.

Zinsser said that he was “hopelessly in love in with English because it’s plain and strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise (exact) shades (differences) of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex (difficult), that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English – if it’s used right.”

Good English writing, according to Zinsser, begins with good nouns and good verbs. “The good nouns are the thousands of short, simple…nouns…of everyday life: house, home, child, chair, bread, milk, sea, sky, earth, field, grass, road.… When you use those words, you make contact with the deepest feelings and memories of your readers.” Never use a noun, he said, because you think it sounds more impressive.

“Your best tools are short, plain…active verbs…. If you could write…using only active verbs” – like he wishes, she learns, or they discover –  your writing would automatically be clear, warm, and full of life. “So fall in love with active verbs,” says Zinsser. “They are your best friends.”

Zinsser told the international students that there are four principles (basic ideas) of writing good English:

Clarity. “If it’s not clear, you might as well not write it. You might as well stay in bed.”

Simplicity. “Simple is good. Most students from other countries don’t know that. When I read them a sentence that I admire, a simple sentence with short words, they think I’m joking. ‘Oh, Mr. Zinsser, you’re so funny,’ a bright young woman from Nigeria told me. ‘If I wrote sentences like that, people would think I’m stupid.’ Writing is not something you have to decorate to make yourself look smart.”

Brevity. “Short is always better than long. Short sentences are better than long sentences. Short words are better than long words. Don’t say currently if you can say now. Don’t say assistance if you can say help. Don’t say numerous if you can say many…. Don’t call someone an individual [five syllables!]; that’s a person, or a man or a woman…. Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation. Writing is talking to someone else on paper or on a screen.”

Humanity. “Be yourself. Never try in your writing to be someone you’re not. Your product, finally, is you. Don’t lose that person by putting on airs (acting better than you are), trying to sound superior (better than someone else).”

If you want to read more of Zinsser’s suggestions for writing in English, read Learning to write – in English on my web site. And if you’d like to learn more about writing from him, consider getting his book On Writing Well.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of Successful English, where you’ll find clear explanations and practical suggestions for better English.

Photo of William Zinsser from his website.

Tuesday - May 12, 2015

Do You Have Americanitis?

NYC_subway_riders_with_their_newspapersThe suffix “-itis,” pronounced “AYE-tus,” is used in medicine for a physical condition where a part of your body is inflamed, with the area swollen (grown in size), red, hot, and painful. It’s used in the names of many common medical conditions. Arthritis, for example, is an inflammation of the joints (where two bones are connected, usually where you bend), and tendonitis is the inflammation of the tendon, the tissue or material in the body that connects muscles to bones.

Sometimes, outside of medicine, we use the suffix “-itis” to refer to a made-up or fake medical condition, usually to be funny. Seniors — students in the final year of high school or college — might have “senioritis,” a condition where students don’t study very hard, their attention wanders (don’t stay on the main subject), and they wait impatiently for the school year to end.

In the late 1880’s, doctors coined a new term (gave a new name) for a set of common symptoms (signs or indications of illness) they noticed in patients. This condition was called “Americanitis.” It’s not clear who first used the term – some say a visiting doctor from England and others say one from Germany – but it became widely used (used by many people) to describe the negative effects of an American way of life.

People noticed that Americans worked long hours and too hard, they hurried or rushed from place to place, and they worried too much. This, they believed, weakened Americans’ nerves, the fibers or long pieces of tissue in the body that send messages from the brain to different parts of the body and back. This weakening, it was thought, resulted in many common medical conditions, including high blood pressure (amount of force used to pump or move blood through the body), heart attacks, stomach problems, and nervous disorders (psychological problems, such as anxiety (worrying too much)), and many more.

As you can tell, Americanitis was a very ill-defined (vague; not having a clear description) condition. If you were working long hours at work and couldn’t sleep, you may have been diagnosed with (said to have the medical condition) Americanitis. If you were taking care of a household (members in a home/family) and had sore muscles and stomach pains, you might have had Americanitis. Americanistis was a frequent diagnosis and many treatments (what can be done to make an ill person better), including electric shock treatment (applying electricity to parts of the body), were prescribed (recommended by doctors).

It’s not surprising that many people who were told or who suspected (believed) that they suffered from Americanitis turned to (looked to for a solution) medicines. In those days, patent medicines (common medications made by a person or a company that do not require a doctor’s prescription) were very popular, and medications were not regulated (need to follow laws) in the way they are now. Pills and tonics (old-fashioned term for liquid medicine) were sold and advertised to cure (fix a medical condition; eliminate an illness) you of Americanitis. If you look at the advertisements, Americanitis was anything and everything you can imagine, and so were the cures.

Within 50 years, doctors stopped taking the idea of Americanitis seriously. Today, the term Americanitis is no longer used in medical science, but many might say that the American lifestyle is still bad for your health.

Do you suffer from Americanitis, or at least the behaviors that people associate with it, such as working too hard, hurrying all the time, and worrying too much? Would you like to buy my cure for that? Only a little electric shock is necessary.

– Lucy

Photo Credit:  Crowded rush-hour New York City train from Wikipedia