Tarragona in March is chilly. Luckily, the day was bright and the sun glittered on the turquoise water. The Roman ruins dotted across town look over the coast, and a few locals took in the early spring sunshine in fragrant parks next to the amphitheater or on the breezy beach. Hungry from traipsing around the empty stone ruins, we ventured into the town, down a rough-and-tumble road, stopping at the first deli-café hybrid we stumbled across–

A hole in the wall, with a menu written only outside and featuring hamburgers, platos, sandwiches. The three of us ordered bocadillos with jamón. The friendly café owner had kind eyes, and the place was empty save one other person sipping café con leche and reading the paper. He brought out our bocadillos, spread with tangy tomato sauce on crispy baguettes. Jenny had ordered a café con leche, delicious with the baguette. It was too late in the day for caffeine, but I was trying to pin down a craving.

“How much would a cup of milk cost?” I asked in meager Spanish. The owner smiled— “Don’t worry. Un regalo.” A present. In that tiny café in Tarragona, Spain, I enjoyed warm, creamy milk with my bocadillo.

Arguably it was just a cup of milk. What about the regalo made it so special?


Regalo—faithful Google says it comes from the old French word for “galer” or “to make merry, to amuse, to rejoice” Etymologically speaking, a regalo is at its heart something that makes us happy. Our English word “gallant” comes from the same root, apt when the verb became the adjective for “bold or amusing one.”

In English, the word “gift” or “present” implies a special occasion. It tastes like frosting and ice cream, sounds like the crinkle of wrapping paper on a snowy morning. Gifts are surprises from those that care about you, or maybe quid pro quo for the invitation. Gifts happen sparingly, so sparingly that I was euphoric when my mind automatically translated the café owner’s “regalo”—it was my lucky day!

An English speaker would have used some sort of idiom—like “on the house”—to describe the free milk. Perhaps Spanish speakers see the word “regalo” as the same, and my English-wired brain perceives the use of that particular word as something special merely because of the way that standard English-Spanish dictionaries translate it. Maybe I’m ascribing English nuances to Spanish words.

But wouldn’t it be a nice thought if “regalo” is used because of its special connotations? That is, we can find small regalos in everyday life, things that we don’t have to wait once or twice a year for, that can make us incontrovertibly happy? We don’t have to spend a lot of money or take a lot of time to give a regalo that will brighten someone’s day. If a shop owner with kind eyes can, in a single moment, simply hand a complete stranger (and tourist, to boot) a cup of milk as a regalo, what’s to stop any of us from giving simple regalos away?

Regalos don’t have to be complex, or beautiful. They can be simple and spontaneous, bringing nothing but happiness to the receiver.




Subsume—it pierced my mind in the wee hours of the night, when I was delirious from lack of sleep. It seems like a strange mix of “sublime” and “consume,”—two very opposite words; one frees and the other captures. In definition, subsume is akin to the latter. But it strikes me as something that has a deeper meaning than merely to be devoured.

“I am subsumed in hatred” seems to me to mean “I am utterly drowning in the infinite sea of hatred.” Not something like “a big animal called hatred is eating me.” Looking at the definition, subsume seems to be organizational, scientific—example sentences like “Red, blue, and green are subsumed in the word ‘colors’” leach all power from the word and relegate it merely to the realm of taxonomy.

I refuse to believe that the word is so innocuous. Subsume seems violent to me, an unstoppable force of nature that is underestimated in Merriam Webster.

Google tells me that the word comes from the Latin roots “sub” meaning “from below” and “sumere” meaning “to take.” This probably implies that the word should lie on a higher plane than the objects it takes, elevating the words that live below it to its level in some hierarchical sense. But what’s to stop subsume from lurking underwater, taking objects from below instead?

The subsumed objects are not being rescued—they are drowning. Somewhere in the utility of the word is the insidious power of stripping an object of all its unique qualities and letting it drown in the sea of subsummation.

Consummation has sensual overtones—it is the ringing gavel of finality. Subsummation, by contrast, is the vacuous break of waves on the beach. It belies a larger infinity, going on as long as the eye can see. Subsummation is the logical end to the act of subsuming. Below the mottled waves is a veritable treasure trove of objects snatched from a higher plane and dragged under.

Maybe subsummation isn’t all bad—sometimes the things that we crane our necks to see are too complex to understand. We need them to be dragged under the waves—we need to pigeonhole, process, synthesize, subsume these abstract or intricate or dense ideas so that we can simplify our lives and understand what’s going on around us. Sometimes we’re grateful to that unfeeling infinity for taking the complexity and making it disappear.

But—and how can there not be a but?— the inevitability of subsummation cannot mean that we are happy to see everything we truly care about lost at sea. And if we don’t rescue the things that have already been lost to the waves, sooner or later the briny green and barnacles will make these objects—once free to roam in all their complexity—indistinguishable.

We have long known, as Bruegel might say, that big fish eat little fish. But far more sinister than any marine predator is the danger of letting the tranquility of the salty sea breeze pacify us. Subsummation is the danger that we think less about. More concerned about being consumed by the big fish, we forget the threat of being subsumed by the ocean.

So remember the dangers of subsummation, and never underestimate its agent, subsume. In this seemingly innocuous word is the power to destroy all that we hold dear—to, by the power of its infinite, uncaring waves, wipe smooth the jagged faces the things that truly matter.


My least favorite word in the English language?


It’s a word we use these days to mean a vaguely pleasant time: “How was the date?”

“Oh it was nice.”

It’s a word we use to describe the weather when we don’t feel like going outside, instead merely looking out the window: “Oh, weather’s nice today.” It’s a word we use to describe approbation when we hear something that will hold our interest for approximately three minutes before moving on: “I scored with Julie last night!”


And of course, my biggest pet peeve of all—using “nice” as a word to describe people who are a vague mix of everything above: vaguely pleasant presences vaguely pressing our perceptions.

“Nice” is a kind of Orwellian platitude, a word that’s been used in so many contexts and in so many situations for so long that it’s lost all real meaning. Once a word with obsolete (but precise!) definitions in the English language, it was used as words should be: with care. Laurence tells Friar John of Juliet’s fateful letter to Romeo: “The letter was not nice [trivial], but full of charge…” he cries. When Mercutio falls bloody at the hands of Tybalt, Benvolio mourns to the prince: “How nice [silly] the quarrel was, and urged withal/ Your high displeasure.” Alas, the glory days for that word have gone. “Nice” deserves now to be in that infamous writers’ pantheon of utterly useless and misused words, joining its brethren: “very,” “never-ever”, “really”, “like.”

We’re wasting our breaths when we use such an empty word. What does it really mean, after all, when someone says the weather is “nice”? Is it sunny? Cloudy? Breezy? In using the word “nice” we are perpetuating not only the deep, abiding uncertainty of whether or not we’ll need a sweater today but also the deep abiding uncertainty of what the speaker really has to say. I’ll never know what kind of weather is “nice” to him. And chances are, I’ll never ask.

The situation becomes much direr when we inflict that infernal word on people. I should know. Growing up, I was the tall introvert with glasses, and when people asked who I was—invariably—they received this answer:

“Oh, her. She’s nice.”

And that would be the end of it.

Using that word reduces someone’s entire humanity to something absolutely meaningless, squeezed between the confines of the “n” and the “e.” Instead of actually taking the time to use the English language properly, thinking about words and their meanings, we slap on “nice” as filler, mad-libs style, adjective-plus-noun, hurling someone’s entire lifetime—all their experiences, feelings, thoughts, beliefs—into this whirling black abyss. Nice people are doomed to a doughy, shapeless kind of existence, and no matter how far or fast we run, no matter how interesting or social or attentive we attempt to be, we remain nothing but “nice.”

And we use this profane word to describe our friends, our family, the people we love most in the world! If you truly care about somebody—if you truly know them, I am absolutely certain that there are other, less insulting words to describe them. After all, if I asked you to describe Jesus, or Santa Claus, or Madonna, you certainly wouldn’t say “nice.” You might say instead “inspiring”, “jolly”, or “drop-dead sexy.” But never “nice.”

There is still an issue to address for my skeptical readers. What if you don’t know your target? Even I’ll fall into the trap of using “nice” to describe someone I don’t know very well. It’s an easy pitfall, especially in an age where brevity is becoming more and more valued, and thought less and less.

But even for those acquaintances, it’s trivial to think of better words to describe them than “nice.” Are you referring to their excellent manners in society? Use “polite.” Their eagerness to associate with others? Use “friendly.” Their willingness to give up their belongings for others? How about “generous” or “selfless” or “altruistic”?

“But,” you may be wondering, “what if I want to say something about my target less specific, to point to their general excellence of character?”

Well then, I implore you to use the word “kind” instead, a far more descriptive and meaningful word that says so much more about the warmth of spirit you are obviously encountering.

To my worst enemies alone will I reserve the word “nice,” because to them I say that they are not worthy of my thought and time enough to call or “revolting” or “contemptuous.” I won’t spit on my worst enemies—I won’t even acknowledge them. They are not worthy of the basic humanity that calls for me to listen to what they have to say, or understand who they are as people.

So then, to them and to them alone will I reserve that damned four-letter word, and if everybody on Earth were to do the same, the English language would be all the better for it.