Sling A Little Slang

I’ve always loved listening to the music of language, especially those words and phrases outside the tidy boundaries of Merriam-Webster. Somewhere in the Exurban Dictionary of my brain, I filed them away, the associated gray matter swelling with each new person I met and each new place I visited. Here are some of my favorite slang expressions:

1. Slide it, Earl
I first heard this from an old boyfriend who came from the pseudo-Appalachia of way-upstate New York. He said it when someone-usually someone behind the wheel of a pickup with a gun rack on the back window and a dog riding in the cab-was driving too slowly for his taste. He didn’t outright say he’d invented the phrase, but strongly led me to believe so. (Hey, I was young and gullible.) Not only had I adopted the phrase, but after he disappeared from my life, other future boyfriends picked it up from me like a nasty, embarrassing rash. Which annoyed me. What annoyed me even more? While watching an old episode of Match Game on the Game Show Network recently, Gene Rayburn gestured to the manually-operated bonus round answer board and said, “Slide it, Earl!” Feh! I’ve been HAD.

2. Half a bubble off plumb
Ah, this has a beautiful sound, just kind of rolls off the tongue, which is the best thing about great slang. This is a wonderful phrase for someone or something that isn’t quite right, albeit probably in a good way. As in, “My aunt’s half a bubble off plumb, but that quirkiness is probably what I love most about her.”

3. Sea change.
This came to me via an uncle, who was actually not an uncle but one of those friends of the family my parents insisted we call “uncle.” We were having a political discussion and he said something like, “To get that kind of legislation passed, we’ll have to see a real sea change in Congress.” He couldn’t believe I’d never heard the term before. Apparently, according to his explanation, people in the pre-aviation days, seeking relief from a broken heart, consumptive illness or other assorted shattered dreams, would board an ocean liner for Europe, hoping their bad humors would dissolve in the Atlantic. Hence, sea change. Or it could have been from Shakespeare. To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to.

Early in my advertising career, a colleague coached me on how to quote jobs. We were working on one for a particularly obnoxious, petty nickel-and-dimer (speaking of slang). “And then, of course,” she said, “We add the five percent PITA tax.” As in “pain in the ass.” When I went client side, I was particularly conscious of not needing this tax added to my jobs.

5. Buzzkill
Another word I love for the sound. I can just hear a mosquito being vaporized in a lamp. Which is also, for the mosquito, anyway, a real buzzkill.

6. Grok
I love this word, as it encompasses so many activities at once. Coined by Robert Heinlein in his 1961 sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, it means understanding something all in one gulp. Or, from the novel:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed-to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science-and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

Unfortunately, this word is slipping out of favor and, at times, is being replaced with the unctuous, camera-ready “aha moment.”

7. Frack (original series), Frak (reimagined series)
One of my favorite words ever coined, this was a Battlestar Galactica writer’s way of getting away with a juicy expletive on television networks that frowned upon juicy expletives. Frak is currently bobbling into over- and mis-use. Please help me save “frak” by using it as judiciously as you would any other f-bomb. Thanks. And thank you to the environmentalists of New York State, for another definition of this slang term: “Frack” is short for hydrofracking, or hydrofracturing, a potentially water-table-contaminating way of fracturing sedimentary rock to extract natural gas. To which many of my fellow New Yorkers respond, “No fracking way.”

8. Spiffanilla
I think I made this up. Means, roughly, “awesome.” Please feel free to correct me if, say, an old boyfriend copped it from a game show.

What are your favorite slang words or expressions?

(Thank you, Plinky people, for today’s prompt, “What’s your favorite slang word?”)

Imagine, as you hold it in your hands…

(Note: this sprang from a Plinky prompt, “What are you looking forward to?” Thank you, Post-A-Day people!)

Years ago, at a writing workshop, I did a guided imagery exercise that involved visualizing my first published book.

After the workshop leader took us through a relaxation sequence, we began. I imagined the heft of the novel, because my manuscript stretched on as seemingly endless as a John Irving tome, and was weighty enough to make a fine doorstop or a traction-control device for the back-end of my car. Then I imagined the cover: the bright colors, the illustrated scene, the inlay of the title and my name. My name. My name. My name on a book. I never thought it would happen.

It didn’t, at least for that project.

But this year, I’m looking forward to seeing that old dream become reality. This time, the book will be thinner, as I have learned how to carve away the excess marble. This time, I know exactly what the cover will look like, because I watched my husband design it. (It’s adorable and quirky, like my protagonist. And my husband.) This time, I am just as excited, if not more. I can already see it on store shelves, and as a tiny icon on Amazon. I can imagine flipping through a copy to find the marked page, clearing my throat to begin readings at local bookstores.

I’ve watched so many writers do this, from TC Boyle to Audrey Niffenegger, from Valerie Martin to Joyce Carol Oates. I watched eagerly, at the edge of my metal folding chair, as the writer du jour pushed hair behind an ear, slipped on a pair of reading glasses, did any number of those nervous little gestures that ready them for interaction with the crowd. I made note of wardrobe choices. (I especially loved TC Boyle’s Chuck Taylor cons and Joyce Carol Oates’ knee socks.) I studied posture, body language, and whether they put on a fake reading voice or sounded more natural.

I watched as, clutching my book, I waited on line for a signature and maybe a word or two. Some were better at this than others. Some knew better how to engage a crowd. Some were shy and disappeared as soon as possible. Some did not appear to hold up well under the stress of a national book tour. Some reveled in it. When I told TC Boyle (while I was trying not to throw up or wet myself, because I adore him) I love his novels because he invariably sends me to the dictionary, he grinned slyly, then signed my book in Latin.

I wonder how I will be on the other side of these equations. I’m a little shy, and not very comfortable in crowds. But I want to meet people. I want to learn how to engage an audience. This is hardly going to be a national book tour, but still, I’ll be doing events wherever I can arrange them. I have this vision of standing behind a podium and despite feeling slightly queasy, reading my words with power, pathos, and gentle amusement when warranted. Maybe people will laugh in the right places.

I have a feeling that once this process starts, with reviews and appearances, virtual and hardwired, it may pass in one fun house blur. But what I do so want to remember is every sensation surrounding the moment when I have a printed book in my hands. I’ll be upstairs, squirreling around on Facebook writing my next novel. I’ll hear the groan of the UPS truck hauling its boxy self up my driveway, then the squeal of its brakes. Then the shuffle and thump of the delivery person’s boots, the thud of a heavy package landing on the landing, and an aggressive ring of our bell. My stomach will tighten. (Because I’ve worked in printing, and know what horrors can result.) I’ll wake my husband, and we’ll trot downstairs and get the package. I’ll cringe as he approaches it with his Leatherman.

“Will you relax?” he’ll say, huffing out exasperation as his hand slices through the tape.

Finally, after much too long, he’ll get the thing open. We’ll both grab a copy. He’ll examine the cover for printing errors. I’ll just hold it in my hand in silent gratitude and wonder. Then notice I’ll something odd on the front. Is that…an Oprah Book Club sticker?

I know. That sticker won’t really be there for this novel. Must be my powers of guided imagery working it for the next one. Hear that, Ms. O?

What are you looking forward to this year?

Side Effects of Writing Fiction

A few weeks ago, Health magazine came out with a ranking of the ten most depressing jobs in America. Writing came in at number five, right after Justin Bieber’s bodyguard and Lindsay Lohan. Reasons cited were frequent rejection, irregular pay, and that moody, creative thing that makes many of us want to eat chocolate and cry.

I understand all of these and yet I still write. I write because I have to. If I don’t, that moody, creative thing will kick in, and I’ll want to punch holes in the wall and knock people’s hats off, then eat chocolate and cry. Here are some other side effects I’ve suffered as a fiction writer. As with anything else, your actual experience may vary.

1. Spontaneous combustion. Attempting to operate heat-generating kitchen appliances while writing may result in scorched pots, wailing smoke alarms and the need to create alternate dinner plans. (See Appendix A, Fire Extinguishers, and Appendix B, Take Out Menus.)

2. Training accidents. Training your roommates, significant others and/or children to respect your writing hours must be done firmly and consistently. As with puppies, inconsistency leads to accidents. Yelling at someone who knocks on your writing room door and says, “I’m going to get the mail” is a perfectly normal response, as you would have figured that out on your own following his or her return with various envelopes and flyers, and still gotten your writing done. (See Appendix C, Training Accidents Leading To Spontaneous Combustion, or Appendix D, Apologies For Every Occasion.)

3. Alienation of affection. You may, through no fault of your own, fall in love with your characters as you write them, and will want to sneak away to spend quiet moments alone with them. This is normal, although your significant other may feel otherwise. (See Appendix D, Apologies For Every Occasion, or Appendix E, Flowers and Chocolate)

4. Antisocial behavior. You may find yourself increasingly reluctant to attend social events, especially those far from home, preferring instead to lock yourself away in front of your computer or notebook. (See Appendix F, How to Feign Illness)

5. Unreliability. Even if you desire to attend a social engagement or agree to pick up a friend at the airport, you might have trouble leaving your characters behind. You may sink back into their world, only to be reminded of your previous commitments by an angry woman’s voice calling you a “douche” on your answering machine. You may then drift back into your room, musing about the etymology of the word, thinking you must write a blog about it soon. (See Appendix D, Apologies For Every Occasion or Appendix G, Brain-Piercing Alarm Clocks)

6. Utter and complete joy. Finding the perfect words, putting them together just the right way, and stringing those sentences together like exquisite glass beads may lead to unexpected feelings of euphoria similar to eating chocolate. (See Appendix H, Does This Mean I’m Cured?)

Having any side effects of your own?

5 Things The Designated Hitter Rule Taught Me About Business

On January 11, 1973, Major League Baseball’s American League enacted the Designated Hitter rule. It’s a stupid rule, in my opinion, and many baseball purists agree with me. The rule states, in part, that the position in the batting order normally taken by the pitcher may be replaced with a “designated hitter,” and therefore the pitcher may remain an active player (on the mound) without having to hit and, you know, break a nail or something. Since professional baseball, outside of its art and poetry, is also a business, here’s what the consequences of this rule have taught me about the business world:

1. Keep your skill set updated. Have you ever watched an interleague or World Series game and noticed that the American League pitchers (when they are forced to step up to the plate at a National League team’s park) look like little leaguers taking their first swings at the ball? Since they don’t have to bat, they lose the ability, while some of the National League pitchers, like current free agent Dantrelle Willis, are pretty decent at the plate. Therefore, if you’re in the market for a pitcher for a National League team, one who doesn’t embarrass himself in the batting box is a much more attractive option.

2. Think strategically. Part of the manager’s job is to think strategically. The game of baseball has many moving parts, including where you position your fielders, how your batters fare against left- or right-handed pitching, and how to keep tabs on a speedy baserunner like the New York Mets’ Jose Reyes. The designated hitter rule removes from the manager’s purview decisions about keeping the pitcher in the game as the ninth spot in the batting order grows closer. This is a huge part of a National League manager’s responsibility. Letting the American League managers off the hook is doing them a disservice. Yes, it can be said that relieved of this responsibility, AL managers can better focus on other parts of the game, but I believe a NL manager is more well-rounded in his strategic thinking. At work, too, if you opt out of some aspects of strategic thinking, you could be letting your competitors hit your hanging curve out of the park.

3. Change can be good…if you allow it to happen. In the American League, a heavy hitter who is no longer as effective in the field, like Boston Red Sox DH David “Big Papi” Ortiz, is very often put into the designated hitter position. This allows a player who has grown slower or battles chronic injury to extend his career. This, some say, also saddles a team with yet another player on the roster with limited abilities when they could shop for a player who can hit and field well. In the business world, many people are afraid of change, even hanging on to concepts and practices that no longer work as well as they used to.

4. Don’t hide your talent. If a pitcher comes up to bat with a man on first, he may attempt a bunt to move the player into scoring position. Because this happens so frequently, many National League pitchers are excellent bunters. In the National League, a random position player may not be able to lay down a killer bunt or even an effective one. American League pitchers, although they might have this ability, rarely get to try. It deprives them of a chance to show that they have other ways of helping their teams win than just on the mound. Maybe you can help your business succeed by using some hidden talent.

5. Life isn’t fair. Historically, American League teams score more runs than National League teams, and some say have an advantage in interleague and World Series games. This is, I believe, because National League managers are saddled with more responsibility. Until Major League Baseball decides to either enact the DH rule for the National League or get rid of it entirely, this inequity will continue. But that’s life, and the faster you accept that some things are not fair, the better you can focus on continuing to do your best. And maybe work on correcting those inequities for the future.

If I Could Turn Back Time

Normally, I don’t spend too much time looking backward with regret, but this nifty little writing prompt from the Plinky people got me thinking.

Do you remember Elfquest? It was originally a series of comic books and graphic novels launched in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1978 by the husband and wife writer/illustrator team of Wendy and Richard Pini. (WARP Graphics, collectively.) Elfquest stars Cutter, an elf on a mission to unite his fellow-elves, and a forest full of colorful creatures from Sun Folk to trolls to humans (called “High Ones”) to an extremely annoying, tiny, fairy-like creature who speaks in italics with a syntax that would make Yoda proud. (Currently, this gnat-with-a-wand is used as a cursor graphic on their website.)

I started reading Elfquest as a college student and went on to collect most of the original series, because I loved the story and felt a special bond with the couple, since I grew up just a few miles from Poughkeepsie.

Now let’s skip forward a few years. I’ve moved from Syracuse to Boston and have returned to the Hudson Valley. By day I’m a mild-mannered graphic designer. By night I’m working on my first novel, the behemoth I’ve previously written about, the one of the 138 rejections. The underlying theme of the tome is a comic book caper, and I’d even included bits of comic book text I wrote as one of the characters.

I read chapters of this book to my writing group weekly, and get a lot of useful feedback. One Thursday night, our faithful and fearless leader/moderator, Laura Jan Shore, invites a friend to sit in on a session.

It’s Wendi Pini.

I don’t know whether to wet myself or throw up. It’s not enough that one of my comic book heroes is sitting in Laura’s living room when I walk in, I (gulp) will be reading my work in front of her. That is, unless I faint after I wet myself and throw up. Then I realize what I’d brought for that night’s review: a scene from my novel about a comic book writer, most of which is a chapter of comic book writing.


I smile, shake her hand and generally, I hope, act like a normal person. When my time comes to read, there’s a knot in my stomach so big I’m surprised no one can see it through my clothes. I get that damp-palmed, jaw-quivering, one-bead-of-sweat-dripping-down-my-chest feeling. Working my feet against the planks of Laura’s dining room floor, I begin to read. I try not to think about Wendy’s reaction. I try to forget she’s in the room. My voice shakes and my heart’s thumping, but somehow I get through it.  She gives me good feedback, including some real-life inside baseball of the comic book industry.

Then she offers me a job.

Holy crap. I think my heart has stopped. Wendy-freakin’-Pini has offered me a…job? Me? Or is she talking to the guy across the room, who is a real writer, while I… well, I am about two thirds of the way through the first draft of my first novel. I am a neophyte. I am a chrysalis. No, I’m the slimy little thing inside the chrysalis…

So I mumble something about not having the experience.

Then I turn her down.

And cry for about a week.

If I had taken her up on her offer, who knows how or even if my life would have changed? Would I have grown into the apprenticeship, gotten a title of my own, maybe won awards? Would I have given up on the novel, given up on novel-writing completely? Would it have changed my personal life in any way?

What if I got into that time machine, took the job, and hated the person I turned into? Although I’ve got my flaws, my quirks and my hypocritical idiosyncrasies, I like who I am. My journey at times has been rough, but I’ve earned those battle scars and they’ve made me stronger.

I still want that time machine, though. I want to revisit the moment I made my decision and kick my mealy-mouthed, floor-scraping ass. Turning down a job is one thing. But turning it down because I was too scared to imagine my inevitable failure?

That’s totally and completely human.

What would you do with your time machine?

Hocus Focus

At latest count, I had a half-dozen projects in the works. Being the good little Franklin-Covey acolyte that I am (hey, don’t laugh, it works…at least for me), each of these projects is divided into its own sub-projects, which are divided into tasks, each with a priority level, a time frame and a whole bunch of sticky notes. So it’s no wonder that sometimes I have a bit of trouble focusing. For instance, I’ll be writing an article about the downfall of the Madagascar hissing cockroach when suddenly I’m ticking off a shopping list in my head and…hey, wait a minute. Mandibles. I was writing something about mandibles. Oh, hell, now where did I put that piece of paper with the anatomy chart…and don’t forget to buy quinoa…or maybe I should get millet this week…

You’ve been in this position, I’m sure.

Some days, focus comes naturally to me. I prioritize my tasks and knock them off my list, one after the other, a powerful feeling of smugness taking over as I lean on the pen for each checkmark. I’ll write an entire first draft of an article in one gulp. But because there are days when I am so easily distracted that the sound of Husband clipping his toenails downstairs bugs the pants off me, I have strategies to help focus my attention, even if I sometimes have to fake it at first. For instance:

1. Instrumental music, especially jazz, especially Miles Davis, can help me block out the background jibber-jabber in my mind.

2. When I’m feeling scattered, honing in on my mantra, “Be here now,” often reins me in. I practice mindfulness, which for a writer is like herding cats, and these simple words help me focus on the present moment.

3. Lack of focus can sometimes mean I’m trying too hard. I take a quick break for a physical task like tidying my studio, getting the mail or folding laundry. Then I go back to my project refreshed.

4. In The Wealthy Freelancer, Steve Slaunwhite recommends a great way to get through a task more efficiently: the 50 Minute Focus, originally developed by marketing expert Dean Jackson. For this, you make a bargain with yourself. If you can focus exclusively (no phone, no e-mail, nothing) on one task for 50 minutes, you take 20 minutes off to do whatever you want (assuming your schedule is that flexible.) So if I write my article about the articulation of Madagascar hissing cockroach mandibles for 50 minutes (okay, I’m starting at 40), I’ll have a cup of tea and a full-body stretch break. And maybe sneak in a few minutes of deep breathing before starting the cycle again.

5. Sometimes I’ll get squirrel-brain from too much external stimulation. Then I go into commando sensory-deprivation mode: shut Husband’s office door, shut mine, ignore phone, turn off e-mail and Facebook, and, if I’m especially fritzed, insert earplugs. I love my earplugs.

What helps you focus?

The Health Hazards of Freelancing

Twice during my career, I’ve jettisoned the 9-5 world for the independence and flexibility of freelancing. Twice I’ve had to face the pitfalls of being my own boss: the long hours searching for clients, the pulsating pressure of an hour to go before deadline while my husband is asking me how to make soup, and no colleagues down the hall to vent my troubles to or talk about the latest episode of Mad Men. But one pitfall I hadn’t anticipated was how easily this new stress could take down my health and, if I wasn’t careful, render me pretty much useless to my clients. If you’re new to freelancing, want to work for yourself, or even are a seasoned pro, watch out for these common health traps.

1. Don’t just sit there. Chances are, you did a lot of walking at your old job, and maybe not so much now that you’re working from home. Bodies were made to be in motion, not sitting in cramped positions for hours at a spell. Prolonged sitting, especially in an uncomfortable chair (more on that later) can lead to back and neck problems. Set an alarm if you need a reminder to take regular breaks. Or find some work tasks you can do standing up. I proofread standing up, and look upon it as a welcome break from sitting.

2. Get out of the house once a day. Even though my husband also works from home, I have to bust out once a day, otherwise I start to feel claustrophobic and “outside” of the real world. I’m much more efficient if I’ve had this break, even if it’s only a short walk around my neighborhood.

3. Keep regular hours. Setting regular work hours isn’t just about developing the discipline needed to be a successful freelancer. While you may have to work longer or later hours from time to time, especially when you’re first starting out, your mind and your body function best on a regular schedule. It will help your digestion, your metabolic functions and your sleep. Speaking of which…

4. Get enough sleep. Say you’ve underestimated the time you’d need to finish a project, you’re facing down a wicked deadline and now you’re looking for things you can put off to give yourself extra time. Cut out Conan or Dave, but don’t cheat yourself on sleep. You won’t be the sharpest pin in the voodoo doll the next day, and mainlining Starbucks will only make it worse.

5. Develop a stress-management practice. I like deep breathing. It only takes a few minutes a day, and for me, it’s a reminder to slow down and pay attention to my body. You might like meditation, yoga, or taking your dog for a long walk. Whatever relaxes you (and gets you away from the computer) is best. If you let that stuff build up, it’s like poison.

6. Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy food…where you can see it. It’s so tempting to take a break from a less-than-exciting task (data entry, ick!) and sneak down to raid the pantry. No wonder so many freelancers put on a few pounds at the start. But if there’s a bowl of fruit on the table, or a dish of cut-up veggies in the fridge, you’ll be more likely to grab those than the cookies your significant other insists on keeping in the snack drawer.

7. Get ergonomic. It’s vital to your health and productivity to design a workstation that is efficient and suited to your particular proportions. After your computer and your health insurance (you do have health insurance, don’t you?), your next largest expense should be your office chair. You don’t have to spring for Herman Miller’s latest Aeron, but you need something that’s adjustable and has a good lumbar support. As my physical therapist (to whom I’ve given lots of money because I spent a lot of years in lousy chairs) says, “Your chair should fit your body like a good shoe fits your foot.” Also, put the things you use regularly within easy reach to avoid repetitive strain. And, if I ever see you cradling that phone between your ear and your shoulder, I will come down there and give you a time-out. Don’t think I won’t, either.

What about you? If you work for yourself, what strategies do you use to stay healthy?