Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue

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We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.

Adieu, Apostrophe!

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Maybe this is a strange thing for someone to say who spent as much time as I did learning to use apostrophes, but I won’t miss them when they’re gone. It seems clear to me that they will go. Like the hyphen, we’re quickly learning we can live without them; and texting, I think, will be the apostrophe’s death-blow.

I always found apostrophes a little equivocal anyway. The rule—as I learned it—was that an apostrophe had three functions: One was to indicate a dropped letter in a contraction of two words, as “don’t” for “do not”, for example; and “sha’n’t” for “shall not”, which—to be correct—actually requires two apostrophes. (So does “foc’s’le” for “forecastle”, even though “forecastle” isn’t actually a contraction of two words at all, but one word that sailors pronounce very badly.) A second use was to indicate possession (“Jack’s book”), although this rule was just a refinement of rule one, since “Jack’s book” was originally a contraction of “Jack, his book”—a usage that has been obsolete for so long that a lot of people don’t realize that it was ever the “correct” way, and “Jack’s” would get you points off on your English paper. To make the rule regular, “Mary, her book” would have to give us the form “Mary’r book”, which you’ll notice doesn’t exist.

The third use of an apostrophe was to pluralize individual letters, as in, “all the a’s and b’s”, which I still think is useful but I seem to be the only one who remembers it.

Do we need any of those? The extra apostrophes in “sha’n’t” and “foc’s’le” went the way of the Dodo and we still recognize those words when we see them—which in the case of “shan’t”, we hardly ever do anymore. As indicators of possession, apostrophes seem to cause more confusion than clarity. I’m so tired of seeing “it’s” used incorrectly (it can only be a contraction for “it is”), that I’d rather just never see that word with an apostrophe ever again. And “Jacks book” seems intelligible enough to me.

But anyway, love ’em or loath ’em, in twenty or thirty years I think apostrophes will be gone. In 1978 the Colorado State Legislature decreed that the only acceptable spelling of the name of the mountain is “Pikes Peak” without the apostrophe; and as goes Pikes Peak, so goes the nation. Remember that you heard it here first.

Age of Innocence?

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A few days ago I was telling a writer friend about a story I was working on, in which the protagonist was a child growing up in the 1920s—an era I characterized as more “innocent” than our own. My friend objected. People weren’t more innocent then, she asserted. They were just more hypocritical about pretending to be innocent. Neither of us had any data to support our positions, but I did offer this anecdote (which I did not include in my story, by the way).

In 1924, my maternal grandfather was employed by the railroad, and one of the perks of the job (it may have been the only perk) was that he got free rail passes. They were for travel anywhere in the US; but only for the “day-car,” meaning seats, not berths, and they didn’t cover food, of course. But unlike most married women of her day, my grandmother had a part-time job. She supervised a team of women—mostly housewives like herself—who supplied fancy-work to order for Marshall Field’s department store. My grandmother spent the money she got for teaching the women to make beaded purses and embroidered baby layettes to bankroll a family trip to relatives in California.

Even with rail passes and my grandmother’s savings, the five-day journey was an extravagance, and economies had to be made. My grandmother packed a basket with enough food to last the first two days (the diner, my mother always remembered, charged the shocking price of ten cents for a single boiled egg in the days when a dozen eggs cost twelve cents at the grocery store). For the first night, my grandparents and my mother’s baby sister shared a berth (it must have been snug), while my mother and her older sister were supposed to sleep stretched out on seats in the day-car. (On subsequent nights the family would be able to afford two berths, because one day out of Chicago, ridership on the train diminished, and the price went down.)

The train left Chicago at dinnertime, and at ten o’clock the family went to bed. The day-car was still fairly crowded, but luckily my mother and her sister each got a seat to herself—though not, as they had anticipated, facing one another. Instead, my mother was on one side of the aisle, and my aunt on the other.

And on the seat facing my aunt was a man. He was already asleep, with his arms folded and his hat pulled over his face.

Next morning at breakfast, my aunt looked terrible. Eyes ringed with blue, she could hardly hold her head up. When my grandmother questioned her, she admitted, shamefaced, that she hadn’t gotten a wink the night before; but wouldn’t say why until her mother—probably fearing the worst—took her aside. In private, it all came out: The man in the seat opposite had slept soundly, never stirring—but the only “fact of life” my aunt knew was that if a girl slept with a man, she might have a baby. My aunt was eleven years old.

My writer friend and I eventually compromised on our positions: She agreed that there was a time in human history when the so-called “innocence” of young people was more “protected,” and I conceded that this era was very short (the approximately one hundred years or so between the time when ubiquitous barnyards ensured that the means of mammalian reproduction was on regular display, and the time when popular media took over that function).

On the other hand, we weren’t able agree on whether this kind of “protection” was a good thing or not. My friend did find the story hilarious, however. She said I should use it some time.

So now I have.


Image by Charles O’Rear, 1941-, Photographer (NARA record: 3403717) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Have a Little Respect (for your readers)

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Long ago, just at the time that I was nervously considering submitting my first work for publication, I happened to come across an article (in a magazine I respected), called something like, “My Life as an American Gypsy.”* I was interested. Growing up, I’d seen groups of Roma sheepherders near where I lived (in the days before RVs became standard, they’d adopted large Cadillacs in place of their traditional caravans), and I was curious about their lives.

The piece was purportedly written by a contemporary Romani-American woman, but when I read it I discovered (to my annoyance) that it was nothing more than a slightly reworked series of incidents lifted straight out of Jan Yoors’ memoir of his life with the Lovari Romani in 1930s Europe. My annoyance stemmed from the fact that Yoors’ The Gypsies (I highly recommend it) is a standard work on the subject, and not only I, but lots of people, have read it. I felt totally dissed by the assumption that I wouldn’t know the work.

I was insulted—but I learned a good lesson. Readers read. Some of them—like me—read a lot. With this in mind, I never ever directly recycle anything I read into something I intend to share.

Other people’s personal experiences are great source material, though. I’ve praised family stories for this before, and I’ll say it again: If you listen carefully, Granny’s got some good stuff there. And if you look around, Granny’s granny—or at least, somebody’s granny—probably kept a diary or wrote a memoir way back whenever. Whatever historical period you want to write about—and without borrowing any one specific incident—you can mine primary sources for all sorts of period detail.

Project Gutenberg is my new favorite source for historical tidbits. For instance, I’d never considered the inconvenience—even danger—that colonial New Englanders subjected themselves to by observing European fashions in a rough new country with lots of snow and not many Old Country conveniences until I read Anna Green Winslow’s account of how a broken axle one Sunday forced knee-breeched and daintily shod neighbors (no trousers or boots at church, please) to abandon their carriage and struggle in silk stockings through three feet of snow. Keeping in mind all those voracious readers I mentioned, I’d never plagiarize Miss Winslow; but I could easily come up with a story of my own in which it’s a significant point that, in Ye Good Olde Dayes, there was no Gore-Tex. Anna Green Winslow’s Diary, written in 1771 and first published in 1894, is a treasure-trove of all kinds of historical material, in fact; and it’s free to download.

Another good one—which in my opinion ought to be required reading in American schools—is Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, which pretty much knocks the stuffing out of Gone with the Wind-type ante-bellum fantasies of the Old South. This one was a forehead-slapper for me. The reality of plantation life becomes obvious when you keep in mind that plantations were intended to be money-making (preferably, lots of money), and not humanitarian-or even humane-endeavors. Again; the book’s free, convenient to get, and contains information not only about ante-bellum America, but also things like women’s issues. Ms Kemble left her husband, but spent years afterward feverishly placating him so that he would refrain from invoking his paternal right to take their children away from her.

And then there are the periodicals…

Ah, nothing like a good Victorian periodical to remind us that it isn’t just tight stays that can constrict women.  One year of “Godey’s Ladys Book” is packed with enough articles written by male clergymen about a woman’s duty to shut her mouth and please her menfolk to precipitate clinical depression in any normal female.

On the other hand, “The Prairie Farmer”, full of no-nonsense articles written by farm-wives to advise other farm-wives on how to increase cash-flow in the butter-and-egg sectors happily makes it clear that, whatever the folks at “Godey’s” thought, a lot of women were getting right out there and making something more than household ornaments of themselves. And with the full support of their men-folk, too.

All of which makes me wonder why would anyone plagiarize one book (and risk offending the subset of their readers already familiar with it) when right at hand are a thousand good sources of material on every subject. –Of course, I admit it’s really easy to get so interested in reading those thousand sources that you have no time to write at all. That can be a problem. It’s certainly mine.


*I should point out that this was in the days when “gypsy” was the accepted name for people who now prefer to be called “Roma” or “Romani”, and I certainly intend no offense by using it.

Ant-Lands — Free for the Holidays!

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You’re probably bored by now, right?  Too much holiday cheer; too little time to yourself?  Here’s a thought:  Read a book.  My book.  In honor of the holidays, you can download a free copy of my post-apocalyptic novel, Ant-Lands, from now through January 10, 2017. Go to Smashwords and use this coupon code: ZJ72E

You may enjoy it. Let me know if you do.

Here’s the blurb on on Ant-lands.  Keep in mind that I HATE writing these things: Centuries after civilization was destroyed by genetically engineered workers called Ants, a small girl, victim of an Ant-raid, is rescued by a melancholic soldier; while in a town nearby, a schoolteacher struggles to build a new life. A horrifying revelation uncovers an unexpected bond between the three, which—provided they work together—may at last make it possible to defeat their common enemy.

And here is the first chapter:

on a night of no moon

A woman lay fully dressed on a straw-stuffed pallet on the floor of her hut in a tiny farming settlement and stared into the darkness of its single, dirt-floored room. Beside her, her small daughter was sleeping curled up like a kitten with her doll in her arms, but the mother lay rigidly alert to every soft night-sound. Life in the village of a dozen or so sod huts and barns was generally promising and secure. The early spring weather was pleasant and dry; the crops were greening the fields; and the Ants in the Ant-lands—as the woman reminded herself—were said to be going about their work nearly naked and wholly unshod.

This reassured her. Men who had nothing, having nothing to lose, might be driven by desperation to acts of aggression. But Ants judged that the time was right to make war on their neighbors when the harvests had been sufficient to feed workers to ret flax and weave linen for clothes, and cattle were plentiful enough that there were hides available to make shoes. A bare, hungry Ant worked passively all day in his colony’s fields, and Men in their own countries had nothing to fear from him.

The Ants were not insects, of course, despite their name. In fact, it was said that very long ago they had been man’s own creation, made to labor for him. Physically, they resembled man; though the Ancients had by some means no longer understood made every Ant entirely like every other one, so that all were identically short-statured, blue-eyed, and fair. But in that past age something had somehow gone desperately wrong; and man’s creation (made in his image), was now man’s feared enemy.

It was because the night was one of no moon that the woman was afraid. The watch in the watch-tower had been doubled, of course; but if one pair of eyes could make out nothing in the blackness, twice nothing was no improvement. In another hour or two, perhaps (she had no clock to tell her how many), the sun would rise and all would be well again. But while the dark persisted the mother lay without sleeping, and almost without breathing. She knew that the villagers were so few that their only hope in the event of an Ant-raid lay in the Ants finding them wide awake and forearmed.

A sound outside the shuttered window: A footstep. An early-rising neighbor? The woman sat up, and willed her heart to beat more softly so that she could hear. No second step followed the first, and she had lain down again and drawn a breath of relief when the unmistakable metallic whisper of a knife being drawn from a sheath brought her bolt upright again. More footsteps, a grunt, and the jostle of one body against another; and then a sound like heavy raindrops pelting to earth. When a head is struck from a body the heart does not immediately know to stop pumping, and blood spurts from the severed neck in a gory fountain. The sound was that of great gouts of a watchman’s blood falling from the watch-tower where the Ants had surprised him onto the ground below.

“Anne,” the woman whispered urgently, shaking the little girl awake. “Up, up.”

The child stumbled sleepily from the pallet. She knew instinctively not to speak.

Dragging the rough mattress aside, the woman felt for the hole dug in the earth beneath it.

Into her daughter’s ear she breathed softly, pushing her down into the cavity, “Here. Lie here: That’s right. Make yourself as small as you can.”

The child still clutched her doll. “Mama…” she whispered—just that one word.

Dawn was breaking at last—too late!—and mother and child could just see by it the gleam of one another’s eyes.

“Stay here, stay covered. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, don’t move. All right? Not until you’re sure it’s safe.” But how would such a little one know? “I’ll come for you, if I can,” the woman whispered.

Another glint than her mother’s tear-bright eyes caught the little girl’s attention—that of the knife, a big one, in her mother’s hand.

The noises outside were growing louder and more frenzied. Gods! A child’s cry!

“Stay here, stay still; all right, Anne?”

The little girl nodded soberly.

A scrape at the door—

With a mother’s hungry eyes she devoured her child’s face one last time. “You must live,” she murmured, touching small Anne’s cheek. “You must try to live.”

The pallet in place again, the woman ran to the door and listened. She was waiting for the Ant who had tried it to move aside. She had already decided that she must not be taken inside the hut. She must get out somehow, clear of the door, and then run and run as hard as she could; and at last, when she was caught—she knew she would be caught—she must fight. Every step she ran led the Ants further from her child; every Ant that she tired by running was an Ant who would search the hut less carefully. And any Ant that she killed was an Ant who wouldn’t kill Anne.

In one swift movement, the woman threw aside the bar to the door and burst out.

She made it as far as the clearing surrounding the watch-tower, twenty steps or so from where her daughter lay shivering with fear, huddled in a hole in the ground with her doll in her arms. Eyes closed, the child kissed the doll’s face repeatedly, seeing in her mind as she did so her mother’s loved one—but she made not a sound. She was trying to live.

As she lay hugging her rag-baby, an Ant whose feet were bare and who wore only the ragged remains of what had once been a roughly-sewn shirt caught her mother by her long hair and flung her to the ground, and her mother, making good on her promise to herself, sprang up again slashing wildly with her knife.

She was not, in the end, able absolutely to kill the Ant. His own comrades performed that service for her later when the injuries she had inflicted festered, and he could no longer keep up with the common pace back to the Ant-lands. She fought him until another Ant, coming behind her, struck off her head with his great iron sword.

As soon as he had done so, both Ants immediately lost all interest in the woman. A dead Man was neither a threat nor plunder. As her body fell, Anne’s mother’s head rolled a little way, to the feet of another Ant. He kicked it casually aside.

Some Useful Information If You Plan to Set Your Novel in the Nineteen-Fifties

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When I was thirteen years old, I read Pride and Prejudice, which taught me a lot about writing in general, and especially about the value of small, period details in historical fiction. Not that Jane Austen wrote P&P as historical fiction, of course. As far as she was concerned, it was just regular fiction; and I personally like the way that means that she didn’t feel any need to describe every detail of what everybody wore. Some people love costume-descriptions, and there’s a lot of historical fiction that’s almost more historical than fiction that caters to those very people. Myself, I treasure the tiny, just-right particular, such as—in the case of Pride and Prejudice—the line “…the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy…”

Apparently I’m not the only person whose attention was caught by this sentence. A quick Google-search (not possible when I was thirteen) reveals that not only is it widely known and quoted, but that there are websites whose specific purpose is to teach Jane Austen fans how to make shoe-roses. To get that information in my day, I had to spend a lot of time in used bookstores, poring through old books of housekeeping advice. I ended up buying a lot of these books, despite the fact that most were mildewed and I am allergic to mildew. (You can kill mildew in a microwave oven—try not to set the book on fire—but home microwaves are another thing that did not exist back in the Pleistocene, when I was thirteen.) I treasure the book in which I finally found an explicit definition of “shoe-roses” (it includes the advice that “if the shoes be very worn, make the roses large, to cover them”); but I have to admit that the jewel of my housekeeping-book collection is the one containing directions for doing something Jane Austen probably never even considered: gilding a live fish. Yes, gilding; and yes, live. The idea was that if you were giving a party, and if you had a fish-pond or bowl (and, presumably, if the fish in the bowl wasn’t already a goldfish), you could dazzle your guests by gussying the little fellow up with a few sheets of gold-leaf. Best line in the whole book: “The fish does not mind this.” I have never found a literary use for this nugget of information, but I’m working on it.

Anyway, what this is all leading up to is that for some reason that I cannot begin to imagine, the 1950s are hot. This means that people who weren’t actually there are suddenly writing books about the fifties, throwing in—willy-nilly in some cases—factoids of the Fifties Experience that, while true, are sometimes a little too obviously culled from history texts and fashion magazines.

Consider this: Does your house/wardrobe/menu resemble those in today’s fashion magazines? I thought not. So in case you’re thinking of writing something about the fifties, here are some particulars you can put in it, guaranteed genuine, to supply what we will call “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”*

First and foremost, not everything in the fifties was from the fifties! The people who make movies are the worst for forgetting this. People mostly still drove forties cars; and due to the shortage of new cars during WWII, some of them drove thirties cars. A big shiny thing with lots of chrome and fins was rare enough to turn heads in a middle-class neighborhood. People’s houses were filled with forties stuff, too. If you think the ubiquitous aqua/burnt orange/grayish pink fifties color schemes looked good with an off-white naugahyde sofa—you’re right. The combination was pretty cool, actually. But imagine it instead with an overstuffed davenport—in a color somewhere between brown and purple—left over from 1946. For most people, that was the reality of 50s decorating.

What became the “walk-in closet” was often referred to as a “Hollywood closet” in the fifties, because unless you lived in Hollywood, the closet in your bedroom was small. Which was fine. You didn’t have many clothes to put in it anyway. Also, all shoes were uncomfortable until the day before they were totally worn out. My family was poor and I wore cheap shoes, but I have to assume from the speed with which rich people adopted lovely, soft, comfortable running shoes when they were finally invented that expensive shoes were stiff and caused blisters, too. Good line for a fifties party scene: “Jeepers, my feet are killing me!”

Big Brother, aka your neighbors, was watching. Big Brother gossiped, too.

Racism and sexism were pervasive. Throw in a joke about what bad drivers women are and if no one in your book challenges it—even though insurance companies knew women were better drivers than men, and charged them less for insurance—and you will have created a genuine fifties moment. Racist “humor” will also set an authentic tone, but by today’s standards, even the mildest will rightly be considered highly offensive. Risk it only in works of a particularly “gritty” nature.

In the fifties, if your mom was a terrible cook, you were screwed. Fast food was a very new concept, and resorted to only occasionally. Restaurants were expensive, and not child-friendly. If your mom was the kind to boil pork-chops and believed canned peas—also boiled—were good enough for anybody, you had no alternative but to eat boiled pork-chops and canned peas. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) Also in the fifties, lots of foods that didn’t belong there were made “interesting” by being suspended in lime jello. These foods included Vienna Sausages. Really.

Men had jobs. Women had children. And hobbies. Your average lower-middle-class house was filled with ugly ceramics, hideous needlepoint, or crocheted everything. On the other hand, toilet-paper rolls “disguised” by a crocheted lady in a flared skirt were better than a mom with that other fifties hobby, which was heavy drinking.

I lived through the fifties. I lived through the sixties. At no time in either decade did I ever hear one single adult admit to liking rock and roll music. Ever.

There you have it. Make what use of you will of these gems. Or, on the other hand, don’t. Write about the sixties, instead. Trust me: The sixties were better.


*W.S. Gilbert; The Mikado. I am a HUGE fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.

How to Become a National Merit Scholar in One Easy Lesson

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Unless you count words like “groovy”, which has been of limited use to me since the mid-1960s, I personally do not have an enormous vocabulary. But I know someone who does, and I know where she got it, so I’m passing the information along to anyone else who might be interested. (And yes, she was a National Merit Scholar.) When you sit down to write, you can never have too many words to work with. The right one, in the right place, makes all the difference.

And by the “right” one, I do mean right, and not merely close, or right-sounding— as in “complacent” for “complaisant”, for instance, which I encountered just yesterday in a letter from somebody who really knows better. Trust me: The thesaurus provided by Word can be a useful jog to the memory, but its assertion that this or that word totally unfamiliar to you is an exact synonym for the one you do know should not be relied upon.

My secret method for acquiring a powerful and versatile vocabulary not only works better than lists to memorize, anything offered by Microsoft, or even a Word-a-Day calendar; it’s lots more fun, too. My secret is reading nineteenth century literature. Tons of it.

Sure, you can pick up new vocabulary from the literature of any century, including our own. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English language when writers were more determined to stuff even the most trivial matter full of words like “lucubration”, and “pulchritudinous” than they were in the nineteenth century. Even in adventure books—intended for the masses and young people who had not yet been to University—“gloamings” were “crepuscular”, and storms “illumed” by “coruscating” flashes of lightning.

And that’s the great thing about my method. With it, instead of battering your brain with some dull scholarly tome in an attempt to force in new words, you get to read Mark Twain; Bret Harte; Lewis Carroll; or something—anything—by Jane Austin. –And don’t neglect H. Rider Haggard, whose She, I believe, at one point enjoys an empyrean feast.

What could be easier or more fun? Read cool stuff: learn new words. Win/win.

Also, you will learn a lot of grammar from long nineteenth-century sentences that you will never pick up from, say, Ernest Hemingway, who thought he was going overboard if he put two dependent clauses in the same paragraph.

Still, if you happen to get that Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas, you should totally go for that, too.