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 blaĆ°ra (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.

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.