Hippie Writing Coach Vol. I, Issue 3: Expletives

Today, we are going to talk about how to keep those @#$%!&* expletives out of your writing.

No, not that kind of expletive. Under the right circumstances, the expletives you use during rush hour can add emotion to your writing, provide insight into a character’s personality, or emphasize a point. (Don’t believe me? Watch a @#$%!&* Quentin Tarantino flick.)

For purposes of this blog post, when I say “expletive,” I am referring to syntactic expletives — pronouns that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence but are there for structural reasons.


There are many fine swear words in the English language.
During class, it is inappropriate to use those words.
There were fifteen kids in detention after the teacher cracked down on profanity.
Here are some things I will not tolerate in my class: insubordination, cheating, and grammatically incorrect profanity.
It is entirely possible to drop an f-bomb without ending your sentence in a preposition.

Sometimes you just can’t avoid an expletive. For instance, there are only so many ways to say, “It’s raining.” (See what I just did there?) Just don’t get carried away. Like passive voice, expletives often add unnecessary words and can make your writing sound dull and flat. Removing expletives can improve your writing.

Meh: There are many fine swear words in the English language.
Better: The English language contains many fine swear words.

Meh: Here are some things I will not tolerate in my class: insubordination, cheating, and grammatically incorrect profanity.
Better: I will not tolerate insubordination, cheating, or grammatically incorrect profanity in my class.

Notice that removing the expletive not only shortens the sentence, but also makes it more active by giving it a clear subject that is actually doing something.

Use the search feature on your word processor to find instances of “there are,” “there is,” and “it is” in your writing. When you find one of these phrases, try rewriting the sentence to remove the expletive. If the new sentence makes sense and sounds OK, use it. If it sounds awkward or confusing, keep the expletive.

If you need practice, try rewriting the example sentences to remove the expletives.



Sensory Overload (Interacting with Autism Project) from Miguel Jiron on Vimeo.

I worked with several kids with Asperger syndrome or other autism spectrum disorders during the course of my four years at Webster.

I adored those kids.

They don’t know it, but just by being part of my class, they gave Riggy a better mommy. That seems fair, since Scout gave them a better teacher. “The gift goes on,” as Sandi Patty says.

This video made me cry.

I am applying to grad school this week. For reasons.


How to reduce your stress levels

The other day, I found myself entangled in yet another Facebook conversation with a low-information voter who gets all his ideas from talk radio and direct-mail propaganda and thinks that changing the subject is a valid debate strategy.

You know the type: He starts a debate over something like whether ordinary civilians should have military-style assault rifles with high-capacity clips, and as soon as you start asking questions he can’t answer, he starts citing statistics about handgun bans. Nobody was talking about banning handguns, but he thinks he’s the second coming of Stephen Douglas because he’s managed to prove a point, and never mind that the point has absolutely nothing to do with the subject actually being debated.

Talking to one of these people is like trying to have an intelligent conversation with the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It gets tiresome after a while, and if you unfriend him, you only reinforce his bad behavior by making him think he scared you away with his Mad Debate Skillz.™ (“Come back here, you pansy! I’ll bite your legs off!”)

I solved the problem by announcing that from here on in, every time I saw a conservative blathering about guns, gays, abortion, President Obama, or Hillary Clinton on Facebook, I was going to donate a dollar to Hillary’s presidential campaign. (If she doesn’t run, the money goes to the Democrat of my choosing.)

My Facebook acquaintances now have three options:

1. Shut up.
2. Help pour money into the enemy’s war chest.
3. Unfriend me.

I don’t particularly care which option they choose. If they choose 1 or 3, I don’t have to listen to them. If they choose 2 … well, after watching her destroy a mansplainer the other day, I’m willing to make some sacrifices for mah-girl. I put two bucks in her jar this afternoon, and I’ve never been happier to see obnoxious political spam crawling across my feed.


See me, feel me

Riggy had a rough weekend. A longstanding problem with his eyes — for which he was undergoing veterinary treatment — declined suddenly. He was fine Friday night; by Monday morning, he couldn’t see anything at all.

Don’t feel sorry for Riggy. He felt sorry for himself for about an hour Monday. Then he got tired of pouting and claimed his birthright as a rat terrier.

Ratties may be the smartest little dogs on this earth. The average rat terrier can and will perform a cost-benefit analysis on every request you make of him. He will comply if and only if he is convinced the benefits outweigh the costs. Ratties are also creative thinkers. Scout once improved her running technique by watching our late greyhound run, and she routinely used her paw to extract sticky treats from jars if she couldn’t reach them with her tongue.

Riggy hadn’t demonstrated quite that level of proficiency up to this point, but then, he hadn’t needed it, either.

He needed it Monday.

He looked pretty depressed when we got home from the vet’s office, so I bought him a McDonald’s sausage biscuit, which perked him up considerably. (I didn’t hand him the whole thing; instead, I tore off pieces and made him earn them by finding them with his nose.) By Monday evening, he’d learned to follow our voices all over the house; figured out how to get on and off the deck by himself; used the tips of his ears as feelers to avoid bumping into things; and begun plotting a new cat harassment strategy that did not depend on actually seeing Walter.

Ratties are irrepressible little problem-solvers. It’s their most endearing trait. They may encounter setbacks, but those setbacks are always temporary; if they can’t remove an obstacle, they will simply run around it, climb over it, or knock it down on their way to whatever they want.

Having a rat terrier in the house keeps me honest. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself, I look at the little dog bouncing around my living room like a pinball, and I remember that problems are best handled with intelligence and creativity. After all, you can’t hassle the cat while you’re pouting in your crate — and everybody knows hassling the cat is way more fun than pouting.


Munchkin Tuesday: Monchhichi

I wanted one of these when I was little. I never got a real Monchhichi, but when I was about 7, I used my allowance to buy a knockoff that was designed to cling to things. I loved that ridiculous toy right up until one of its hands came loose from the curved metal strap that kept its arms perpetually curved in a “hugging” position, allowing the metal to poke through the fabric. I tried to fix it, but it wouldn’t stay together, and Mom finally made me throw it away because she was afraid one of us kids would get cut on the metal, which had pretty sharp edges.

If I remember right, the hand came loose when I tried to make it stick its thumb in its mouth like a real Monchhichi. Stupid poorly constructed Monchhichi impostor. 😡

Too bad I didn’t own any Star Wars action figures. If I had, Fake Monchhichi could have gone down in a blaze of glory by losing its hand in an epic lightsaber battle before falling into the chasm of my bedroom wastebasket and being carted away to the curb to meet its ultimate doom in a trash compactor. Sadly, instead of meeting a dramatic and noble end, the poor thing had to endure the ignominy of sustaining a compound fracture while attempting to suck its thumb, which sounds more Kevin Smith than George Lucas….


Hippie Writing Coach, Vol. 1, Issue 2: Passive Voice

If you want to make your writing sound dull and hackneyed, using passive voice is probably the fastest way to do it.

In grammar, “voice” basically has to do with whether the subject of a sentence is doing something or having something done to it. English verbs can have two voices:

Active voice — The verb form you use when the subject of the sentence is doing something.
Passive voice — The verb form you use when the subject of the sentence is having something done to it.

Voice is difficult to define without using a lot of linguistic jargon. Fortunately, the concept is pretty easy to understand once you see a few examples, so let’s dive right in.

Active: Carly Rae Jepsen released a cover of “Both Sides Now.”
Passive: A cover of “Both Sides Now” was released by Carly Rae Jepsen.

Active: Canada rejected the U.N.’s demand for an apology.
Passive: The U.N.’s demand for an apology was rejected by Canada.

Active: The president sent troops into British Columbia.
Passive: Troops were sent into British Columbia.

When I taught sophomore English, I always told my kids that passive voice is what you use when you’re trying to get yourself out of trouble, and active voice is what you use when you’re trying to get somebody else in trouble.

Passive: Mom, the window got broken.
Active: Mom, Ryne hit a baseball through the window again.

See the difference? Politicians use passive voice a lot to deflect blame for crappy decisions. Kids use it to deflect blame for mistakes. Grad students use it to sound smarter than they really are. It’s a weaselly way of writing. At best, it makes you sound prissy; at worst, it confuses your reader.

Try rewriting these sentences in active voice:

1. Plastic lightsabers were purchased for the boys by their Aunt Emily.
2. Marjorie’s cell phone was hacked by some pervert.
3. I was hit by a foul ball while ogling the third-base coach’s backside.
4. The body was discovered by a newspaper carrier early Tuesday morning.
5. My patience was tested by his constant use of passive voice.

Incidentally, one of the best riffs I’ve ever read on passive voice was from a book called How to Write a Romance and Get It Published. I know we’ve already established that steamy love scenes are more trouble than they’re worth, but if you can score a copy of the book somewhere, read the chapter called “Beware of the Pillaging Mouth.” The author, Kathryn Falk, offers a brilliant (and hilarious) explanation of why passive voice is the enemy of good writing.


Scenes from a winter garden

I wandered out to the garden yesterday to see what was going on out there. Here is what I found:


The girls were taking advantage of the unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon to do a little housekeeping. All three hives were active, although the one closest to the house wasn’t quite as lively as the other two. In front of the hives, the henbit and purple deadnettle were thriving.


The Italian flatleaf parsley that refused to grow all summer apparently has decided to come up in the middle of winter. I’m not even going to try to figure out what’s up with that. (I am, however, going to take advantage of this situation to make tabouli in the near future.)


Strawberry plant, apparently impervious to the recent cold snap, appears to be thriving. It’s never produced berries, but it’s survived so many indignities that I just don’t have the heart to get rid of it. Maybe I’ll transplant it into the actual garden and treat it to a nice blanket of straw mulch and some compost one of these days.


Magic Mirror

To the thieves I am a bandit
The mothers think I’m a son
To the preachers I’m a sinner
Lord, I’m not the only one
— Leon Russell, “Magic Mirror”

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of identity, and it occurs to me that there’s a huge disconnect between who we are and who we appear to be.

Our identity is God-given, a multifaceted thing, with a wide range of talents and interests and concerns and priorities, many of which we reveal only when the occasion warrants. We all express divinity, but we express it in different ways and to varying degrees, and it’s in those differences that we find our individuality. As Mary Baker Eddy puts it on page 477 of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:

Identity is the reflection of Spirit, the reflection in multifarious forms of the living Principle, Love.

The full range of that individuality is apparent to God, but in the human experience, our relationships tend to be context-driven, which means our perceptions of each other frequently present an incomplete picture.

Example: My guitar teacher, Zaphod, is one of my dearest friends. In the five years, we’ve known each other, we’ve worked together, laughed together, commiserated together, and weathered various crises together. He’s basically the big brother I never had, and I truly didn’t think anything that came out of my mouth could surprise him at this point.

I was mistaken.

Last week, I’d been dinking around with the chord chart for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and I mentioned it to Zaphod, who wasn’t familiar with the song and asked me to sing it so he could learn it. He was shocked to discover that I had a decent set of pipes, because he’d never heard me use them for anything but reprimanding unruly sophomores, icing down impertinent consultants, or raising questions in faculty meetings.

Zaphod knows me primarily as a teacher, beekeeper, and Route 66 enthusiast. Others know me in different contexts: To the journalists, I’m an editor; to the roadies, I’m an activist; to the vet, I’m Song and Riggy and Walter’s mommy. All of those are accurate descriptions, but none is a complete picture.

In “Magic Mirror,” Russell muses:

Magic mirror, if we only could
Try to see ourselves as others would

Seeing ourselves as others would can temper our words and actions and make us more compassionate. But I’d like to go a step further. One of the keys to healing is to see ourselves as God would: as complete, perfect expressions of divine Love. Once we see ourselves that way, it’s easier to act accordingly — and to see others with the same healing sense of wholeness and harmony.