Confounding Colloquialisms: Expressions that make you go, “What?”

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A colloquialism is a word, phrase or other form used in informal language.

Parents can say some pretty weird things. My father grew up in Iowa, the heart of the Midwest, so some of the things he said seemed weirder than normal to us California-kids. Like the time he scolded my sister at the dinner table, saying she was “As independent as a hog on ice.”

Our reaction: “Huh?” (Could’ve been, “WTF?” but we weren’t allowed to swear.)

Hog on ice

Seriously. We’d lived in Southern California all our lives and had never seen ice or hogs in real life. We just stared. He took our stunned silence for acceptance and compliance, which was probably a good thing. For a lot of years, I assumed the hog-on-ice thing was an my dad’s own home-grown Iowanism. That is, until I started on my writing journey.

When I started writing, I started to notice all the odd informal sayings we used every day. I knew the implied meanings from the context in which they were used. But the meaning itself? Not so much.  That’s why I decided to take on a handful of these oddball sayings…

“As independent as a hog on ice” Flailing about

Strangely enough, I’m not the only one who has been confused by this saying. This phrase has been baffling people for decades. Yes, decades! Etymologists started searching for an explanation from the time it first appeared in the mid 19th century. In 1948 Charles Earle Funk titled his first book of word origins “A Hog on Ice”. His foreword contains a seven (7!) page narrative of his inconclusive quest for the roots of this phrase.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as “denoting independence, awkwardness, or insecurity.” That about sums it up for a hog that’s slip-n-sliding across the ice, much like Thumper and Bambi in the Disney animated feature. “You’re doing it your way, and making a mess of it,” was what my father meant by his independent-as-a-hog-on-ice speech.

Time magazine usage in 1948, “They like to think of themselves as independents … independent as a hog on ice.”

“In two shakes of a lamb’s tail” Fast, really fast

In general usage, it is easy to infer that this phrase means “a very short period of time”.LambsTail

But why a lamb’s tail, of all things, to measure time by? Seriously. A little historical sleuthing uncovered that this is phrase is a distinct Americanism that dates back to the early 1800’s.

Apparently, a lamb can shake its tail pretty darn fast, much faster than other animals. Who knew? The term crossed “the pond” during the World War I, and became popular as British army slang.

“Bite the dust” ~ To die

Tomb stoneI always associated this phrase with westerns. So I was not too surprised to discover that it was made popular by American westerns of the 1930’s. Picture a cowboy falling to the ground after being shot, and quite literally biting the dust when he lands face down. Because of its association with westerns, I was completely taken aback that the phrase actually dates  back thousands of years before, to Homer’s Iliad. The following  translation was made by American poet, William Cullen Bryant, in 1870:

His fellow warriors, many a one, fall around him to the earth and bite the dust.

Some might say that Bryant introduced the phrase in his interpretation of Homer.  But I’m not going to argue that point. It works for m.

The phrase also appeared in the mid 1700’s in Tobias Smollett’s translation of Alain-Rene Lesage’s novel “Gil Blas (1715-1745):

…we make two of them bite the dust.

Again, the accuracy of the translation could be open to debate. However, I think it’s interesting that traces of the phrase date so far back.

“Till the cows come home” ~ A very long time

If you grew up in a city with no exposure to cows or farm life, this phrase makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. That’s because the expression alludes to cows’ fondness for extended leisure time out at pasture where there is lots of green grass to munch on. The cows would only rush back to the barn when their udders hurt and needed milking.

The phrase originated back in the late 1500s to early 1600s. But again, it was the cinema of the 1930s that made the expression popular. Groucho Marx used it in Duck Soup (1933) when he said to Margaret Dumont,

I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows till you come home.

Cows in a green pasture

Images: morguefile.com


What’s your favorite confounding colloquialism?


A Very Grumpy “Cat Summer” ~ Kitty Compassion in Action

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Grumpy … for the Good of All Cat-Kind

Grumpy Cat (Tardar Sauce, herself) isn’t as grumpy as she’d like you to think she is. In fact, she’s a little sweety. Her Grumpiness recently reunited with her celebrity cat friends to make a music video for the good of all cat-kind. Friskies has promised that for each video view (click video window below) before September 1, 2014, they will donate a meal of dry cat food to cats in need—up to ONE MILLION meals!

Grumpy Cat, Tardar Sauce herself

“Cat Summe” stars  Grumpy Cat (Tardar Sauce), Nala Cat, Oskar (the Blind Cat) Klaus, and Hamilton (the Hipster Cat). All donations are made in memory of their late friend Colonel Meow.

Grumpy Cat supervising BBQ

Each Video View Feeds a Hungry Cat

The plight of homeless cats is close to my heart. I work in Silicon Valley, where many of the high-tech office parks have become dumping grounds for unwanted cats. I took on feeding a small colony of “feral cats” near where I work, along with the responsibility of trapping and getting them fixed (TNR, trap-neuter-return). I had to help these cats once I realized they were homeless because of the negligence of people.

Now you can help homeless cats by watching a video and sharing it with your friends and family. You’ll be surprised by how good that (not so) little action will make you feel. Spread the “Cat Summer” loving …

Watch and share the following video

For every video view through September 1, 2014,
Friskies is donating one meal of dry cat food to cats in need.
Up to ONE MILLION meals!
You can make a difference!

“Cat Summer” Grilling and Chilling ~ Fun in the Sun


Historic Hollywood Bowl: Hosts The Beatles to Beethoven

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I was excited about attending a recent concert at the Hollywood Bowl (Joshua Bell and Friends), in Los Angeles, and couldn’t help sharing the news with whoever would listen. I was shocked when two different people asked, “What’s the Hollywood Bowl?” It was all I could do not to say, “Are you kidding?” I grew up on Southern California. But still. The Hollywood Bowl is an American icon, and has been used as a setting in films and television for years.

I would have dismissed one person not knowing about The Bowl. But two was a cry from the universe to write this post. Attending a performance at the Hollywood Bowl is a bucket list kind of thing.

Everything is better at the Bowl. It just is…

Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

[image: Wikipedia, by Mathew Field]

From Rustic to Iconic

The Hollywood Bowl is the largest natural amphitheatre in the United States, located in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles, California. When the Bowl opened to the public in 1921, it was used in its natural state with only makeshift wooden benches for the audience to sit on, and a simple awning strung up over the stage.

The popularity of the venue grew with the boom of the film industry, and by 1926 designs for a permanent stage were underway. For the 1927 season, Frank Lloyd Wright‘s son Lloyd Wright built the first of the iconic shell structures. By 1929, the Allied Architects built a shell that stood on the site until 2003. A larger and acoustically improved shell debuted in the 2004 summer season, incorporating design elements from the 1929 shell and the first shells designed by Lloyd Wright.

 

First known musical event at the current site of the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles

[image: public domain, USC digital Library]

The two women in the photograph above are performing on the barn door (1920) to test the acoustics of the site, the first known musical event at the Hollywood Bowl. The barn door was placed approximately where the band shell was built.

Classical to Rock and Roll

A common misconception about the Hollywood Bowl is that it caters solely to the classical music crowd. The LA Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra both make their home there, but each season hosts productions from a wide variety of musical styles. For a complete list of upcoming performances, visit the Hollywood Bowl website.

The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl album cover artRock and Roll has a long history at the Bowl. In fact, The Beatles appeared at the Hollywood Bowl on April 23, 1964, just months after their US debut. Tickets for the show sold out in 3 1/2 hours, with the only sales being through select ticket offices, no online sales. Over 18,000 people packed the Bowl that night. To keep The Beatles safe from the overzealous fans, a smooth getaway scheme was devised. A decoy limo was used to attract the fans, while the band members slipped away in a nondescript Plymouth Valiant. In later appearances at the Bowl, a Brinks armored truck was used to escort The Beatles to and from their hotel to avoid a panic situation.

The screaming crowd at The Beatles first concert was so loud that no one could hear the music. However, it was recorded (as were their two Bowl concerts in August of 1965) and later released as an album under Capitol Records (US) and Parlophone (UK). [image: Wikipedia]

The Beatles 1964 concert became the bench mark for rock and roll concerts at the Bowl, but many famous rockers have played there before and since. To watch The Beatles performing at the Hollywood Bowl on April 23, 1964 go here.

Pre-Concert Picnic Tradition

One of the most engaging customs at the Bowl is the tradition of pre-concert picnicking. Some of the surrounding picnic areas open as early as 4 hours before each concert. Tables are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Those in the private boxes nearest the stage, can choose to enjoy a luxurious dinner served to them by professional wait staff. Whether it’s a casual picnic or box dining, you can’t beat the delightful al fresco dining under the stars. For more information, see the Hollywood Bowl website.

Dining at the Hollywood Bowl


 

What’s Your favorite outdoor concert venue?

 


Staging and Props ~ Building Character and Depth Into a Story

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Props for Props

Creating a believable set for film and television is similar to creating believable settings in fiction. It’s all about staging and props. To be honest, but I didn’t realize how much time and attention went into building and dressing a set until I took the Universal Studios VIP Tour. Who knew there’s an entire warehouse filled with every type of prop you can imagine? Seriously.

Universal Studios LA props department

The VIP Tour provides an intimate behind-the-scenes view of how they create television and movie magic. An amazing treat, since I love films. But I was surprised that it also gave me insights into how to craft stories with more character and depth. [photos by moi, Universal Studios Hollywood]

Establishing the Setting

Sound Stage 44 on Universal Studios back lot is where the television show, Parenthood, a NBC family dramedy, is filmed. I learned that it took one day, 12 hours for a team of carpenters to build out the entire set.

Set for Parenthood, Universal Studios, LA

The Craftsman bungalow in Parenthood is set in Berkeley, California. The architecture and location establish the mood and tone of a story, as well as setting expectations for the family that lives there. Their morals, values, even their environmental and political beliefs. If it was a ranch house in Texas, we’d project an entirely different set of expectations on the family. When a setting is fully developed it becomes a character in the story, such as the graveyard in Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”.

Dressing the Set

Dressing a set is the process of making it believable, giving it depth that reflects the characters. The Parenthood set took a skilled set designer six weeks to fully dress. The furniture, draperies, books on the bookshelves, pictures on the walls, and the knickknacks were all chosen to reflect the personalities of the people who inhabit the house. Subliminally, those items convey personality and quirks without having to say a word.

Inside the set of Parenthood, Universal Studios, LA

Props are also used to hint at a plot thread or character trait, such as items that are in a bedroom closet, or on display around the room. In an episode of Glee one character was going to enlist in the service, and the set was dressed with patriotic props.

Patriotic props used in an episode of Glee

In fiction, we’re always told “show, don’t tell”. What they fail to say as often is that “what” we show is just important. Too much detail slows a story down. A smattering of well-chosen detail—describing items that convey reflect character and give their personality depth—moves the story forward while keeping the reader engaged.

Staging and props are a craft focus for me in my current project. So, I guess this post is a reminder to myself more than anything.


 

How do you approach staging and props in your stories?

 


 

Who’s Your Yoda?

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The Magic of a Mentor

YodaI used to believe that I had do everything on my own. If I didn’t, then I couldn’t take credit for the results. Luckily, I met someone who clued me in on an insider secret of the successful:

If you want to be successful at anything, apprentice yourself to someone who’s mastered the art.

Kind of like Yoda, the little green guy from Stars Wars with the pointy ears. Without Yoda mentoring him, Luke Skywalker never would’ve become a Jedi.

I’ll be straight up honest. I didn’t go looking for a mentor. I kinda sorta just bumped into him. By accident, in the most serendipitous of ways. It was one of those serendipitous meetings that changed your life. I wish I could say  that over a few short months I became a shining success in my area of study. But that would be a flat out lie.

The reality took a whole lot longer, and turned out to be better than anything I ever could have imagined. At the time, I wanted to become a computer animator—back when the industry was in its infancy. Along the way, I discovered my passion for writing for young people. Sometimes the wrong path brings you to the right place. And it was my mentor who paved the way for that transition through the (snail mail) letters we exchanged over the years.

The magic of the written word ~ Letters from Frank

I met my mentor, Frank Thomas, in 1983 at a glitzy computer graphics symposium at UCLA. I wandered up to the tradeshow area after one of the panel discussions, and ended up standing next to an old man. I overheard him telling the young woman demonstrating one product that he’d worked at Walt Disney Studios as an animator. He looked pretty old (ancient to a twenty-something-year-old), so I asked, “Did you know Walt?”

“Yes,” he replied. “If he were alive today this is where he’d be”

Me, to myself: You’re my new best friend.

At the time, I didn’t know that Frank Thomas had joined The Walt Disney Company in 1934 as employee number 224. Or that he had animated dozens of animated Frank and Jeanette Thomasfeatures and shorts, including The Brave Little Taylor, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, to name a few. I knew he worked with Walt, and that was good enough for me. Our 21 year conversation, started with a single handwritten letter that I sent to Frank, care of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

Over the years, I continued to pursue computer animation, and worked on projects with Silicon Graphics and Dreamworks. Through it all, I  exchanged letters with Frank, and came to  meet his lovely, and amazing wife Jeanette. In a sense, they became like family.

Frank was generous in his letters with his expertise in traditional animation, as well as what he was learning about applying that knowledge to new technology. But it was the “storytelling style” of Frank’s letters that made the biggest impact on me. Early on, I realized I couldn’t write just anything in a letter to him. I had to write a story. I worked to make my letters as entertaining as the ones Frank always sent. He was teaching me about story structure and humor, without realizing it.

Tips on stalking a mentor

If you think “a successful person would never want to help me”, you’re wrong. Not everyone may be as accommodating as Frank Thomas, but if you have a genuine passion for their field and show an enthusiasm for learning, your mentor-of-choice will most likely take you under their wing.

FACT: People like to talk about their passion with others who share their enthusiasm.

Here are a few guidelines you might want to follow:

  • Call to ask for an “informational interview”. This works especially well for high school and college students.
  • Or, write a letter (yes, on paper) stating your purpose and why you chose them a your hero. You can include an email address as a convenience for a return reply.
  • Always be polite and courteous of their time.
  • Be professional (in accordance with industry standards) in dress and speech.
  • If they do meet with you, follow-up with a thank you letter (on paper) expressing an appreciation for their time.
  • If you want to continue working with a mentor, always bring something of interest, such as information about the industry they might not know. Anything that *shows them* you are actively working toward attaining your goal.

Have you Ever worked with a mentor?


 

Money for Nothing: A Real-Life Parody

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When art imitates life…

Money for NothingThe British rock band Dire Straights came with the smash hit Money for Nothing on their Brothers in Arms album released in 1985. The song peaked at number one for three weeks in the United States.

But that’s not what’s interesting.

HOW the band got the idea for the song is the REAL story…

The band members stopped in a department store one day to watch the televisions on display, that just happened to be showing them performing. As they stood there, a couple of workers came in carrying new merchandise. They set down their boxes to watch to watch for a minute, and commented that “those guys get money for nothing and chicks for free.”

The band members appreciated the irony of the situation and did their best not to laugh. Then went back to the studio and wrote hit single. TRUE story. For reals. I knew a few of the people who worked the computer animation for the music video, and got the inside scoop.

Check out the music video. It’s classic.

Money For Nothing: Dire Straights


Trailer Talk: What’s in a voice?

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The Movie Preview Guy

Don LaFontaineDon LaFontaine has been the most recognizable voice in movie trailers for decades. His voice had a tenor and resonance that established him as a legend throughout the voiceover industry.

His passing was a huge loss, and the people who have tried to take his place don’t come close to matching his game. To hear “The Voice” tell his own story, go here: Don LaFontaine

Thank goodness for Pablo Francisco and his hilarious spot-on impersonation of LaFontaine—in his standup comedy routine.

Why don’t they hire Pablo to do the voiceovers for movie trailers. WHY?

Pablo Francisco ~ Little Tortilla Boy


A First-Draft Mad Dash ~ And the Not-So-Pretty Truth

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The one thing I have to accomplish—or I won’t be able to live with myself—is to be a traditionally published author. I know. It makes no sense in so many ways. Yet this is the rainbow bridge of my dreams.

Rainbow Bridge

Because life isn’t always about making sense. It’s about living without regrets.

I came close to my goal with the book I queried late last year.  But close isn’t good enough. I realized a little (?) too late that the story, while good, wasn’t unique enough for a debut author. No worries. I’ve heard of a number of now-published authors who didn’t make it out of the gate with their first book. Then when they sold their second book, the first was sold too. That’s the success scenario I choose to believe in.

So…  Now it’s time to kick up my game with a new project that has a unique concept. It’s time to dig in and get serious with the infamous First Draft.

First Draft ~ Fact and Fiction

Pounding out a first draft is different for every author. For some,  the words flow out of their fingers like milk and honey in the promised land. Yeah, right. So. Not. Me.

For me, a  first draft is all-consuming. It’s when the characters blossom to life in my head, transforming into three-dimensional people. Usually with a healthy dose of attitude. Story wrinkles slap me in the face—plot pits big enough to swallow a T-Rex whole—I didn’t foresee in the initial planning phase. It’s a fictional wrestling match and dance party rolled into one, an oxymoronic medely of inspiration, frustration, and a high flying creative dopamine rush.

Yes, folks. The writer’s high is real. And it’s free for anyone crazy enough to venture down this path.

I’d like you to think that my First Draft Dash is as fluid as an Olympian going for the gold. But let’s be real. My first draft process looks a lot more like this…

Running of the bulls in Arizona

In the race to keep the momentum flowing, real-life stuff falls off the truck, only to be trampled beneath the hooves of those bulls.

Dust, dishes, and laundry be damned… and the better part of social media too.

Ready…Set…Go!

Starting lineThe good new is, first drafts don’t last forever. In fact, this is going to be a relatively short sprint.

Head down and fingers to the keyboard on March 21st.

Crossing the deadline finish line on June 21st.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Yeah… about this blog…

During the first draft dash, I won’t have the bandwidth to come up with thought-provoking posts on a regular basis. In February, when I was plotting out the new project, I did Zip. Zero. Zilch blog posts.

I didn’t want this blog to go dark for the next three months, so I’m bringing out a series I’ve been thinking about for some time. It will be based on a series of letters written to me by legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas over a number of years. The correspondence originated out of my love of animation and computer graphics, but ultimately brought me to the path of writing fiction for young readers.

Coming up next:
“Letters from Frank ~ Insights on Animation, Computers, and Elephants”


WAnt to share your First Draft process?


Be Your Own Hero

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It’s amazing how four simple words can resonate with such great intensity:

Be your own hero.

Hugh Jackman as The WolverineI tweeted those words, because they felt *solid* and *true* but without knowing why. I certainly wasn’t thinking or feeling like the Wolverine.

But as with so many other tweets, once I hit Send, the words were forgotten.

That is, until the retweets flooded in. Apparently those words felt solid and true to a number of others.

But WHY?

What does it mean to ‘Be Your Own Hero’?

That’s the question I asked myself when I saw the response to that tweet. And not in the Hollywood-action-film-hero context either. Even though that’s the first imagery that usually comes to mind.

Heros_1

Characters who travel the Hero’s Journey in film and fiction provide valid role models on “how to become a hero” on a number of levels.

But “being your own hero” goes deeper.

It’s not about storming the castle, taking down the evil warlord, or finding the golden fleece. In fact, the exact criteria will vary as wildly as there are people in the world.

I can’t tell you how to be your own hero. But after a much thought, I defined a list of criteria for myself…

How to ‘Be My Own Hero’ — 5 Easy Steps

  1. Take that one thing I have to accomplish or “I won’t be able to live with  myself”, and make it happen. Against all odds.
  2. Do what I’m most afraid of. Because that’s what I most need to learn.
  3. Strive for excellence. Never settle for mediocrity.
  4. Stand up for myself. But more important, stand up for those who may be weaker and need the support.
  5. Live my dream to its fullest … remaining fluid, embracing life circumstances with open arms, while still holding true to the vision. Because that’s the stuff real dreams are made of.

What’s on your “Be your own hero” list?


The Selfie That Brought Down Twitter & Why It Matters

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The 2014 Oscars were last Sunday evening, March 2nd. If you don’t live in a cave, you probably heard about Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie that broke Twitter.

If you just came out of your cave and missed all that action, you can get the deets from the Los Angeles Times article about the event here and the New York Daily News article here.

2014 Oscars Selfie that broke Twitter

One Message ~ Over 2 Million Retweets

Basically here’s what happened…

Oscar host, Ellen DeGeneres, encouraged Bradley Cooper to take the infamous picture of her and the cozied-up group of A-List actors, including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

Long before midnight that night, Ellen’s selfie was retweeted more than 2 million times. The overwhelming influx of network traffic brought Twitter to its knees. Or, to use a highly technical term, “they were hosed”. So much so, that Twitter later sent out an apology regarding the 20 minute disruption in service that happened after 8 p.m. PST.

Why it’s a big deal…

People who don’t use Twitter don’t get how big this is, both on a technically and humanly—the way we work and live.

I’ve been a technical writer in the software industry for a number of years, and have been exposed to a broad range of technologies in some of the most influential companies in Silicon Valley. Twitter, and other high-profile companies that provide real-time services, have substantial server farms to compensate for traffic during peak times. Nothing short of World War III should bring them down.

So … for ONE TWEET to hose the services of a company like Twitter is HUGE.

But something else was remarkable about this phenomenon. It shone a lantern on how Twitter affects the way we interact and communicate as a society.

One message shared over two million times because it resonated with a population, is nothing short of amazing.

This says something powerful about instantaneous connectedness. How the world is a global community in which we share thoughts and ideas in a fraction of a second. More important, how much we have come to depend on this ability.

I was one of the many who live tweeted through the 2014 Oscars broadcast, talking with people across the nation and around the world, retweeting and replying to tweets. I experienced the “Twitter crash” in real-time, the frustrating sudden loss of being able to communicate with other tweeters.

The retweets-heard-round-the-world from Ellen’s single tweet demonstrated our power as a collective whole. Because at the end of the day, technology is nothing without us—the people who drive it.


How does technology affect the way you communicate and live?


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