Raspberry or Zerbert? A Case Study in Shockingly Poor Research Methods

My husband and I were at his folks’ house with our baby, and as it will, the topic of blowing kisses on a baby’s belly came up. His family repeatedly used the term “zerbert,” which I had never heard before. I didn’t say anything, because I am a descriptivist by training, and so stuffed my objections of, “It’s called a raspberry, you weirdos!” into my pocket and turned my attention to pondering whence came our divergent terms. The purpose of this study was initially to examine if regional origins of the family member who passed the term along were responsible for the difference.

Research Methods

“Wait one blooming minute,” you will be saying, if you know thing one about research methods, “isn’t this where the literature review belongs?” Gold star! Well done! In a quality piece of research, this IS where the literature reviews belongs. This, however, is not a quality piece of research. In fact, one might argue that it’s a brilliant exemplar of how NOT to do research. Therefore: more on the lit review later.

As John’s family qualifies under the most restrictive definition of Mainers (both of his parents and theirs were born and raised in Maine) and mine are still classically considered Flatlanders (both parents are either from or spent a significant portion of their childhood in Massachussetts), I hypothesized that “zerbert” might be a Maine thing and “raspberry” might be a Mass. thing. I used snowball sampling via Facebook, where the population of my friend list is mostly from New England and homogeneous like milk. (To be clear, this is a statement of fact acknowledging that I am shockingly bad at stepping outside of my bubble. It is a limitation with my sampling method, not a point of pride.) My sampling method turned up 11 participants, so while I can’t speak to who did or did not participate or their specific demographic information (which I didn’t collect), it’s safe to say it’s old (30+) and extremely white.

A three-question survey was offered with absolutely no attempt to assess reliability or validate the instrument. Participants were asked

  1. What is the name of a kiss blown on a baby’s belly?
  2. Who did you learn this word from?
  3. What state or country did that person grow up in?

While participants were given the chance to answer freely given the inclusion of an “other” option, the first two questions offered multiple choice solutions that distinctly reflected my wildly unfounded hunch that these two terms were reasonable offerings to provide and that the point of origin was likely to be either an immediate family member or member of your parents’ immediate family or a friend of either generation.

Data Analysis & Results

What is the name of a kiss blown on a baby's belly? 72.7% answered raspberry.

I was unsurprised that most participants answered raspberry, because that’s my personal bias to begin with. I was surprised that no one entered any additional answers in “other.”

Who did you learn this word from? 45.5% answered parent or sibling.

Parents and siblings, the way immediate family was operationalized for the sake of this study (itself a limiting way to ask the question, in retrospect), were the most common source, but given the diverse responses from the majority of the participants and the fact that the 45.5% is equal to an n of 6, it would be remarkably poor form to suggest we’ve learned much from this.

What state or country did that person grow up in? 30% answered Maine.

I was surprised that only 30% of participants learned the word from someone who was raised in Maine. Those answers provide me with pretty decent guesses as to who participated because of the aforementioned issue with the problematic homogeneity of my social sphere, and also presents problems with protecting the anonymity of my participants. This study will definitely not qualify for federal funding.

Review of the Literature

John asked me why I was giggling to myself after posting this survey. I blame the sleep deprivation of grad school layered with the sleep deprivation that comes hand-in-hand with parenting an infant. For the giggling, I mean. I can’t blame sleep deprivation for this kind of nonsense… just for the degree to which I found it funny. John squinted at me and said, “Isn’t ‘zerbert’ from The Cosby Show’?”

So, um. Yes. A quick Google would have made it patently obvious that this entire inquiry was completely pointless and also a little awkward to draw attention to right now. And also, it’s spelled “zrbtt.” Which is why you do your lit review BEFORE your research. Don’t forget, kids: quality lit reviews justifying the need for the study in context of the current state of the field? Essential marker of quality research.

Also, another quick Google turned up a longer list of terms for blowing kisses on a baby’s belly, of which, my favorite by far was this:

In the south we called it ‘blithering,’ or blowing blithers. When you look at the definition of ‘blithering idiot’ it makes sense. It’s an old term.

Elise – Stack Exchange – Aug. 18, 2016

It gives me such a vivid mental picture of the phrase “blithering idiot” and adds rich cultural context to my own behavior as a parent. Also, the etymology trace is delightful. Blither <v.>, variant of blether (Scottish, to talk nonsense), probably from blaðra (Old Norse, wag of the tongue), possibly either imitative in origin or from *blodram (Proto-Germanic, something inflated)…which is also the source of bladder. Fun stuff, people. Fun stuff.

Discussion & Limitations

I hope it is deeply clear to everyone reading this that I have presented you with a study is one limitation stacked ever so carefully atop another to craft an absolute masterpiece in wasting time. One of the ethical concerns in research is equity in sharing your results and benefits thereof with participants. In this instance, however, I think keeping this monstrosity to myself might have been the more beneficial act, so I’m blowing it on that front too.

What I have learned is that a non-representative and underpowered sample of my friends and family have a preference for raspberry over zerbert and learned the term from a parent or sibling. I have also learned the term “blowing blithers,” which is all the retrospective justification I need. How do you learn stuff you don’t know you don’t know? Sometimes, you just muck about and sometimes, you get lucky.

What you have probably learned from this experience is that it’s probably better for the world if I go get ahead on the reading for my research methods class. I already knew that, however, and I can’t imagine that the information enriches your lives, so the best I can hope for is that my mucking about gives some of you a laugh.

Diapers, folks. Diapers.

Okay, folks. I’ve got a really bonkers Unknown Unknowns post for you…a year and a half after I meant to start writing about this kind of experience.

I decided to do cloth diapers with Ronan because I’m cheap and I like the planet. I say “I” because, let’s be honest, John and I are pretty traditional in our household work breakdowns. I have no desire to mow the lawn or snowblow the driveway again for the rest of my life. He is really good at keeping our old and finicky washing machine in working order, but his grasp of how to operate it is…not strong. He’s supportive of doing cloth diapers because he likes reducing waste, but it was ultimately my call as the doer of laundry.

The cloth vs. paper debate is a terrible one.

There are a lot of emotions and arguments out there about which way to go with it. You can do cloth diapers expensively and wastefully. You can do paper diapers with reasonable environmental impact (although not cheaply). If you have both time and money, you can do the crazypants expensive cloth diapers that throw questions about their ecofriendliness into question. If you have money and no time, you can buy really nice eco-friendly diapers that are sustainably produced and break down reasonably well. If you have neither time nor money, like most parents, you probably need to buy whatever’s on sale. John and I happen to have more time than money, so we decided to do cloth prefolds with fitted covers.

Whatever you other parents reading this chose for whatever reasons, you’re totally right too. Good job.

The chief problem with doing diapers is learning how to do laundry.

I kid John for not knowing how to wash his own socks, but when I started doing diaper laundry, I quickly realized that I actually have no idea how to do laundry either. I mean, I have a process for doing laundry that seems to keep our clothes from smelling, but did you know that it’s possibly to avoid deodorant buildup on clothes?? I…did not. Not until recently.

You see, we have the unfortunate situation of having pretty hard water…and a high-efficiency washer. It’s rough on clothes and also doesn’t get them all that clean by just chucking detergent in an walking away. As adults, that has functionally just meant that I would stop wearing certain shirts without sweaters to hide the armpits after awhile. I thought that was totally a thing and that everyone who uses deodorant (which is another debate altogether, but I dislike smelling funky and my skin can’t handle any of the effective natural deodorants I’ve tried to date). Apparently, it is not a thing for people who know how to do laundry.

Here’s the thing with cloth diapers, though: if you have mediocre laundry skills, your kid will get a diaper rash. A lot of parents would give up and just use paper faced with a persistent rash, but Ronan has seemed completely unbothered by this rash (world’s chillest baby). Given that we are intensely aware of the need to change our way of life so he’ll actually have a useful planet to grow old on, we’ve continued to experiment with the cloth diapers, and I’ve Learned Some Things.

Hard water messes with detergent.

I have to descale our kettle every couple of weeks, so we knew we had hard water. Hard water is just water with a high mineral content, which is delicious, at least at our house. It also, however, interferes with the effectiveness of soaps and detergents on a chemical level. Over time, fabrics end up with a buildup of detergent and mineral particles and ammonia that wasn’t fully carried away. Hello, rash factory. The advice for dealing with hard water breaks down into three categories:

1. Strip your diapers.

I don’t understand stripping on a chemical level. The process is that you buy something like RLR or Mighty Bubbles and every so often, depending on how quickly you have buildup issues, you run an extra cycle after washing to refresh the diapers. If the buildup is bad, you might have to run a few cycles. That’s helpful, and necessary if the buildup sneaks up on you as it did on me, but it’s another chemical to buy and more laundry cycles to run, which factors into the time, money, and environmental impact questions. I also found a number of people arguing that stripping is only necessary if you don’t know how to do laundry properly, so I figured I’d try to learn laundry more deeply, which factors into the other two troubleshooting categories.

2. Soften your water.

You can soften your water at a house level, which we have always sort of meant to eventually get around to at least for the hot water just because hard water shortens the effectiveness and lifespan of your water heater and washing appliances. But it takes money and time that we haven’t gotten around to investing, and while cloth diapering has bumped it up the priority list, we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Fortunately, you can also soften water in the wash. I had been chucking vinegar in with the diapers because it works to descale the kettle, but on further research, vinegar seems to be not very effective and is hard on fabric. I tried Borax next, because it functions to boost laundry by softening water, but further research led me to the revelation that Borax is a precipitating water softener. I didn’t master the chemistry deeply enough to explain what’s going on there, but the long and short of that is that it works best in higher water environments. For high efficiency machines, you’re much better off with a non-precipitating water softener like RLR or Calgon. Even with those softeners, however…

3. More water helps.

Enter the stage in which I learn that I have no idea how to coax the best performance out of my washing machine. This changes per machine, and there are more knowledgeable people than me writing about this topic, but I discovered that for our particular machine, you can trick it into using more water by throwing in a wet towel to increase the perceived weight of the load. Also, the delicates cycle uses the most water in most high-efficiency machines, if those other people are correct, but…

You really need to know your machine.

Apparently, top-loading high-efficiency machines with no agitator rely on friction between the fabric to get clothes clean. That means you need the drum to be 2/3 or 3/4 full for it to work its magic. I was washing diapers alone. Twenty-four cloth diapers all by themselves in a machine that’s big enough to wash a king-sized duvet without breaking a sweat. That one took some pondering. I landed on giving the diapers an oxygen bleach soak and a rinse cycle before adding the rest of the baby laundry for a normal detergent + Calgon cycle, and that was an improvement, in that Ronan’s rash seemed to be diminishing. It hadn’t gone away completely, though, and this is the point at which we had a pediatrician visit, at which point I learned about detergent.

Detergent matters.

I had been using a natural, gentle laundry soap that some cloth diapering blog recommended, but I didn’t realize that there’s a difference between laundry soap and laundry detergent. This gets into chemistry I haven’t mastered well enough to explain, but the long and short of it is that detergent does a better job at not leaving residue, especially in hard water environments. Furthermore, our pediatrician noted that especially for fabrics that might sit wet against skin for any amount of time, like diapers, it’s extra important to actually use hypoallergenic detergents designed for baby skin. So I switched detergents, and finally, finally, Ronan’s rash started to clear up. Then he started sleeping consistently through the night.

Overnight diapers are a genuine conundrum.

During the day, it’s easy to change a diaper every two hours to be rigorous about keeping a rash dry. At night, prioritizing sleep for all three of us complicates the equation, because diaper changes wake the lad right up. On the one hand, it’s AMAZING to put him down at 6pm, find him consistently dry when I dream-feed him at 10pm, and have him sleep through until 5am. On the other hand, that means 11 hours in the same diaper, with possibly up to 7 of those wet if he pees immediately after I feed him. We’ve added moisture-wicking doublers and played with moisture-wicking covers like fleece and wool (tip: fleece and wool are better at keeping skin dry, which is definitely useful for teething drooling rashes), and while I think those help reduce the degree of rash, they just haven’t been enough to clear it fully. My mom suggested, gently while thrusting a massive pack of paper diapers into my hands, that we try putting him in paper at least overnight, since paper diapers can hold a lot of fluid before your baby’s skin experiences moisture. And you know what? It works.

So here we are, at almost six months, with a diapering routine that I think we can all live with. I’ve grown to enjoy the smell of Dreft-fresh diapers hanging on my great-aunt’s old laundry rack, Ronan’s rash-free, and the level of waste involved is within tolerance for our environmental sensibilities. It’s been a ride, but even when we’re eventually done with diapers, I’ve got some translatable laundry skills (softer towels! reduced deodorant stains!) and a heap of empathy for the struggle involved in making choices about diapers. It’s a nutso little world, parents, and you’re all doing a good job, and this has been a hopefully useful exploration of how I learned those laundry and empathy skills.

When to Bathe a Baby

When our nurse at the hospital showed us how to bathe Ronan, she said, “Bathe him when he’s dirty.” I squinted at her and thought, “He’s a baby. How dirty can he possibly get?” 

With the end of month three in sight, I am no longer puzzled.

Reasons to bathe your baby, a haiku series:

Poop on all the things.
Snuggles with adult armpits.
Fingernails are gross.

Let-down milk face bath.
More spit-up than milk eaten.
Breastmilk cheese for days.

The dog licked his feet.
I needed to wear sunscreen.
STRANGER TOUCHED HIS HAND. 

Lost in a Labyrinth

About a year ago, I woke up dizzy. Not the manageable kind of dizzy you get when you’re tipsy or running a fever: I was too dizzy to move. Even turning over in bed made the world spin and my stomach lurch. I woke John up because it scared the living wits out of me.

He googled home remedies for vertigo and performed the Epley maneuver for me. It didn’t give me instant relief, but I took some migraine medicine, thinking that might be the problem, and went back to sleep. When I woke up again, the dizziness had receded, much to my relief. I still felt off, but I had plans to go help a friend look at wedding dresses, and I was not going to miss that for anything less than a major medical emergency.

Which is exactly what I woke up with the following morning.

The dizziness had returned, so I had John drive me to the walk-in clinic. The P.A. also performed the Epley maneuver, which did nothing for me. She concluded that I either had a minor illness that would sort itself out, or a lifelong issue with Benign Paroxsymal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), for which there is treatment to alleviate symptoms, but no actual cure. She told me to do the Epley maneuver periodically, pick up some meclizine, and head to the emergency room if it got worse.

We drove home, stopping at the pharmacy for meclizine, and I took some, starting to feel panicky at the possibility that I’d never be able to drive again. Relatives on both side of my family have BPPV, and even though they’re not close enough to be counted in the people who are used to assess family history and risk factors, it scared me. I only know a little of their struggles, but BPPV is intermittently crippling and can be severely hampering of your activities. Lying down, head spinning, thoughts racing, and the meclizine wasn’t helping. I got sick to my stomach.

I’ve been sick with flus and migraines in the past, and this was nothing like that. An hour past emptying my stomach of its meager breakfast, I could barely catch a breath between dry heaves. John decided this qualified as “worse” and shepherded my increasingly incoherent self to the emergency room, where they preceded to get me rehydrated and no longer puking before telling me the exact same thing the P.A. had at the clinic. The hope they left me with was that, if the Epley maneuver wasn’t giving me any immediate relief, it was more likely that I was dealing with labyrinthitis, which is a viral infection of the inner ear that will usually sort itself out within a week or two.

I lost a solid week of work to lying on my couch trying not to puke while medicated in a nearly catatonic state. Meclizine, which is the generic name for the more recognizable Dramamine, has the tendency to put you to sleep, and I felt that effect hard. I would wake up long enough to sip at a lukewarm electrolyte beverage, watch half an episode of Adventure Time, and pass out again. I’m still not sure if the last three seasons of Adventure Time are completely incomprehensible or if it just felt that way because I was missing the bits that tied everything together.

The dizziness passed after five or six days, and I was able to go into my scheduled vacation feeling well enough to sit up and read and play one of those online cooperative town management games with my mother’s league. As I was recovering, my aunt got in touch with her experience of being knocked out by labyrinthitis, and she gave me a smart piece of advice: get a referral to an Ear, Nose, Throat specialist immediately to be put on steroids to reduce my risk of permanent hearing loss. I was flabbergasted. No one in the emergency room had suggested this might be a risk, but when I called my PCP, her office put the referral through immediately and managed to get me in quickly.

The ENT doctors’ office in my network is awful. It’s in an old house with carpets that need replacing and a lack of adequate air quality management for the heat we were dealing with, and after five minutes in the office, I was going pale and the doctor asked me if I needed an emesis bin. Gritting my teeth, I managed to say, “I just need some air,” and he cracked open the door, letting in the AC which, mysteriously, did not penetrate the treatment rooms at all. I’m not sure if I was really overheating, or if the slight discomfort from the warmth and the chemical smells of their disinfectants was making me panic about a recurrence of the labyrinthitis. John was waiting for me in the waiting room, because I had been forbidden to drive until I was dizziness-free for two weeks, and the specter of dizziness possibly returning had me on edge.

I felt like my ear was plugged up with wax, but the ENT doctor told me it was perfectly clear and that the feeling of being stuffed up was mild hearing loss. He put me on a very short, quickly tapered course of steroids immediately, wished me luck with the discomfort of that experience, told me to call if I didn’t think I could stand it, and told me to come back in a few weeks for a hearing test.

I took the steroids. I stuck to the course. It was unpleasant. I did, however, pass my hearing test. More or less. The results came back as within normal ranges with an insignificant imbalance between my ears, the weaker culprit being my right ear, and that ear still doesn’t fell 100% right, so I’m pretty sure I suffered a very little bit of hearing loss and got fairly lucky that I had a relative to point me to the ENT doctor, because if I hadn’t had her insight from having been through it, the hearing loss could have been substantially worse.

And here’s another thing: John and I had been trying to get pregnant for over a year without success and were on the brink of seeking medical advice/insight on what might be getting in the way. The course of steroids happened to coincide with the beginning of my cycle and finished right before my fertile window. I was tracking a bunch of fertility signs, and they all went from “yeah, they’re there, I guess?” to “clear as a bell, yes, all signs point to fertile,” and four weeks later, the pregnancy test read positive. No medical person has backed up this theory in the slightest, but I’m convinced I must have been dealing with some mild inflammation making conception a little less likely, and the steroids, in treating my ears, managed to give us a shot at parenthood.

What I Learned

I decided to share this medical episode in extreme detail partly because shared anecdotes freely available can be helpful to other people dealing with the same weird issues and partly as part of my long-promised, long-neglected series on learning things. These are the things I took away from that challenging bit of life experience:

  • Every day of bed rest will take three days to recover from in terms of stamina and muscle use.
  • If you’re dealing with a medical issue, make sure you’ve got someone with you who will know and think to ask, “What other potential complications should we follow up on, and who should we talk to?
  • Vertigo is no joking matter.
  • There are easier ways to learn things than having semi-major medical emergencies.
  • ENT offices should not contain carpet and they should be thoroughly air-conditioned.
  • Having a good partner when you’re seriously unwell is everything.
  • Sometimes, if you get incredibly lucky, a bad thing might just clear the path to a good thing.

I’m Trying Patreon

All good intentions of writing about learning and how we learn went up in smoke last year when I got really sick and then got a normal amount of pregnant. Life got nuts. I learned many, many things that I have every intention of sharing with you, but time and energy have not coincided in, well, about a year.

Personal Interlude

Ronan was born about two months ago, and he’s a delight. My time today is brought to you by the vast amount of sleep he’s needing to bounce back from his first round of vaccines. I’m probably not going to do a lot of picture sharing because he’s his own person and I don’t love the culture of exploiting the cuteness of offspring online, so I’m mostly just not going to drag him into my online world until John and I decide on some guidelines for what respectful inclusion of a minor with no voice in the process looks like.

Back to the Point

My writing beyond the blog has stalled out lately for the same reasons the blog has stalled out. I’ve got all of this content just gathering dust in the back corners of my various backup systems, however, and I thought I’d air it out a bit. To that end, I’m going to be putting some stuff up on Patreon. Poetry, short stories, first drafts. For the time being, everything will be open to the public, so go check it out. When I get my schedule back to something that allows me to set aside a consistent block of work for writing, I’ll invite folks to be come patrons in order to vote on which projects I focus on and give patrons early access to. Make sure you’re on my email list or following this blog (sidebar menu, button at bottom) if you want to be sure to catch those invites.

It could be awhile before those notifications go out because, on top of having an infant, I’m going back to grad school in the fall. Woot! But keep an eye on my Patreon all the same. The content I’ll be sharing there is all existing drafts for the moment, and it doesn’t require a lot of brain power, time, or energy to do that work.

New Look, New Blog Segment

Howdy folks!

I’ve just moved my website between hosts—hence the new look. I was about five years overdue to update my theme. Not totally in love with this one, so the look may change as we go for a bit. There are a few kinks I probably have not yet noticed that I haven’t worked out. I’m changing up some of my back-end functionality so that I’m not holding onto anyone’s email addresses on my server. The GDPR is effect (yay, privacy regulations!) and, not really wanting to write my own privacy policy, I’m just going to use services that have responsible policies in place. The by-product is that commenting and forms will be hinky for a bit while I sort myself out.

On a fun note, I’ve decided to introduce a new blog segment that explores epistemology. That’s right folks: we’re gonna get into known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown uknowns. Mostly the last bit.

Without placing judgment in either direction on the context in which Donald Rumsfeld was using this here, he’s not totally wrong about the big buckets of human knowing and unknowing. I’m especially interested in the idea of unknown unknowns. It’s a hobby of mine. Namely, when we’re learning new things or doing science how do we find out what we don’t yet know we don’t know?

I’m not a scientist, of course, so my exploration of this topic is going to consist of me trying to do a bunch of shit I have neither extensive experience with nor remarkable talent for and sharing the outcomes with you. I’m stocking my medicine cabinet with bandages and antibiotic cream…a sure sign that entertainment will be had.

I haven’t settled on a name for this segment yet. Unknown Unknowns? Haps and Mishaps? If you’ve got a better idea, let me know via Facebook or Twitter.

A Gif is Worth 61 Words

I’ve been thinking a lot about facial expressions this year, while I crank through my spree of annual productivity, and what I’ve decided is that gifs are popular for a really good reason: they capture subtle expressions that do not translate well to print.

“He did that thing where you’re already kind of smiling, and you smile a bit wider with half of your face for just a fraction of a second, but which isn’t a smirk, because smirking implies a sardonic intent, and the tiny movements of the skin around his eyes indicated that he was, in fact, delighted with what she had said.”

Or, you know, this:

They’ve translated Moby Dick into emojis…I guess it’s only a matter of time before people start translating literature into gifs.