Exploring “It”

Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent.  The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”).  What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success.  After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago.  My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken.  And that is where true talent often shines through.  Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.

Examples of “It” in Action

Fahrenheit 451 movie image
Fahrenheit 451 (2018)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Why “It” Works

Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform.  However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects.  Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance.  I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.

In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim.  If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds.  The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.”  His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word.  Because clocks don’t strike thirteen.  And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.

Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it.  Make it count.  Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard.  This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim.  In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered.  Dark and stormy nights are commonplace.  Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.

Summarizing “It”

Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible:  Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).

Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature.  Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments).  Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.


References

Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm

Truth in the Forest

I don’t think I’ve ever told you of that Halloween night eighteen years back – a night that started off merely eerie, and ended in something like horror. I haven’t forgotten it, and by the time I’m done, neither will you. And, before you ask, yes, this story is actually true. Just because something is told like a story doesn’t mean it is only a story.

It began like this: it was October 31st, and night, and a well-intentioned neighbor knocked on our door to let us know that she thought she’d seen our horses escape. They were normally confined to the fields and sprawling forest behind our house on the edge of town, but now they were outside the fence. Or so our neighbor thought she’d seen, she couldn’t be sure.

Panicked, my mother and I frantically pulled on boots and jackets and wound scarves hastily about our necks, for there was a wind and a chill in the air. We dashed outside, but saw no horses around the perimeter of the house, and none near the road, which was the most important part. So we decided to divide and conquer. My mother grabbed a bucket of feed and stood by the barn calling, while I set off with a flashlight and my own bucket for the woods.

It could not have been a worse night for finding the quiet, shadowy beasts that horses can be. It was a full moon, to be sure, but that wind was truly raging, shaking the nearly leafless branches and bare vines into a distracting, obstructing dance. I didn’t believe in ghouls or whatever else was supposed to inhabit such environs on such a night, but that didn’t stop me from starting when, much like Little Red Riding Hood, I discovered I was not alone. Our cat, Asta, had followed me, his sooty fur blending in with the dark.

He hopped up on a fallen tree and began meowing insistently. I gave him a caress, but that did nothing. Oh, well, no pleasing cats. I set off through the woods again, calling for the horses, loudly crunching leaves underfoot. Yes, that was the sound I was hearing, just the crunching of leaves. Those leaves crunching wasn’t masking and blending with some other, scuttling noise.

I carried on for some time, finding no evidence of horses, but slowly becoming aware that I thought I heard a buzzing sound, growing louder and a bit louder by the footstep. I was sure it was just a phantom or my own imagination, maybe vibrating leaves in the wind. And, of course, Asta was there still, his meows becoming even more demanding as he began darting in front of my feet, tripping me up more than once – accidentally, I also thought.

Finally, at one spot between two cedar trees, Asta became such a nuisance that I concluded I had better pick him up and carry him the rest of my search. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed the buzzing sound had swelled into something real and solid, and close.

I hoisted Asta to my waist, but before I could take a step forward, he yowled and scratched at my face, forcing me to drop him. He collected himself, and stood between the two trees, back arched, fur spiked. I hardly noticed. Something was moving behind him.

I lifted my flashlight, and saw – something, several giant patches of iridescence that fluttered, and many large branches, unusually hairy, which then moved and began crawling about, and numerous giant, inky pools of eyes framed by antennae the size of saplings. And the buzzing was a veritable din.

It was then that Asta opened his mouth: “See, you really shouldn’t go that way,” he said, quite calmly, for all that. “Stupid human, I’ve been trying to warn you all night…”

Oh, fine. The talking cat taking it a bit too far?

You see, when I said the story was true, what I meant was that there was truth in the story.

It wasn’t Halloween, though it might have been October. Or November. Or maybe even December. Or, let’s be real, seasons in my neck of the woods are sometimes hard to differentiate, so it might have been January or March. I don’t remember. I did check, though, and there was a full moon on Halloween night eighteen years back. But I was in grade school back then, and when this story really took place, I was in high school.

There was definitely a moon that night, though, and it was windy, and the forest made strange shapes, but we lived on only 10 acres so it was really more like a patch of trees. We found our horses, in case you were wondering. They hadn’t escaped, and I was nowhere near the hive of very normal-sized bees that at one time lived on our property. The whole thing was eerie, a bit, true, but nowhere near that fabled “horror.”

But I’ll tell you what is true, cross my heart: out cat Marble walked by my side all through that patch of woods. No, not our black cat, Asta, who we did have. It was Marble, not black like a bat, but white and gray, like the Irish cat Pangur Bán. Marble follows me nearly every time I walk through those trees, even today. I like to imagine he is some sort of guide, guarding me from something – from what, I don’t know. But I can tell a story.

Review: Bibliotheca

What started as a $1.4 million Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 finally came to fruition in 2016 with the publication and delivery of a four-volume edition of the Bible (or 5 if customers chose to have the Apocrypha included in the slipcase). What was unique about this edition, you may rightly ask? There are many editions of the Bible that cost well under $199. So why the steep price tag?

Well, these four volumes–divided into the The Five Books & The Former Prophets, The Latter Prophets, The Writings, and The New Testament–represent a reader’s Bible of sorts–no page or chapter divisions, and with a single-column layout. In addition, the materials are very high-quality, from the stone-based mineral paper that the text is printed on (supposedly longer-lasting than normal paper) to the cloth material covering the exterior. So a reader’s bible for hipsters? Well, basically.

bibliotheca_celery_standard_sq_1024x1024
from the website; the above is similar to my edition except mine includes the Apocrypha separately, not in the slipcase.

What I have discovered since receiving my editions is 3 things:

  1. I am less likely to read a book that I view as too valuable to handle regularly; the editions collected dust on my shelves for the first two years of ownership. They looked great, though.
  2. Now that I have begun reading from these books more regularly, I am beginning to appreciate the designer’s decision to use a revised version of the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV) translation, which, from my understanding, is largely the original ASV with “thee’s” and “thou’s” updated to use more modern expressions. The reason I appreciate this is that I can read familiar passages and encounter slightly different phrasing that makes me pause to figure out what the passage is saying; the translation seems very readable and clear, but also different from the NKJV and ESV I’m accustomed to. So I often find myself meditating on the meaning of a passage before pulling up another translation to verify the meanings are similar. The process has been fun!
  3. I also appreciate the lack of verse and chapter divisions–it makes it easier to see connections between thoughts, especially in New Testament epistles, where I often stop reading at the end of a chapter or topical division. In 1 Peter 3:1-12, for instance, it is easy to see the transition from Peter talking to wives, then husbands, then everybody together. There’s no “Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake” header splitting verses 1-7 and 8-12. It is a continuous thought as Peter addresses several audiences. Seeing this progression is possible with any Bible of course, but the simplicity of the page design makes it easier for me to recognize.

I pre-ordered back in 2014, waiting until 2016 for delivery, and only this year did I finally begin to take the books off the shelf and crack them open more regularly. Was it worth the wait? The books are very high-quality and have provided a helpful bit of variety (I know! The nerve of praising novelty with respect to the Bible!) to my Bible reading, so I say–yes.

Circumnavigating the Globe

At least in literature, adventure often surprises the least adventurous and the most unsuspecting people in their ordinary lives, dragging them off and away to save the world, to do daring deeds, or to travel the world in eighty days.  And that is exactly what happens to rich, gentlemanly Phileas Fogg, a man who does the same thing every day for years, until one day.  In Around the World in Eighty Days, author Jules Verne spins an extraordinary tale of how Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout cast Fogg’s life of routine out the window and embark on a trip to circle the globe in eighty days.

The adventure begins in an unsuspecting manner.  Phileas Fogg is dwelling in late nineteenth century England and, as usual, goes to his club.  However, when Fogg tells his friends at the club of a newspaper article which states that, thanks to the modern transportation system, the entire world can be crossed in eighty days, his friends deny the article’s accuracy.  Fogg says that the feat can be done and enters into a wager with them, promptly setting out from England with Passepartout to prove them wrong at the risk of £20,000 (for the curious, approximately $650,000 by today’s standards).  Without any forewarning, the unadventurous pair find themselves thrown into a journey through exotic countries full of dangerous people and treacherous paths.  And to top it all off, they are being secretly trailed by Detective Fix of Scotland Yard who suspects Fogg of being a bank robber.

Without Phileas Fogg as its main character, Around the World in Eighty Days would be an entirely different book, for Fogg is most unusual.  First of all, he is very honorable and sticks up for his views, no matter what the risk to himself or his fortune—hence the wager with his friends and the venture around the world.  In addition, Fogg is timely and very particular, but the best aspect of his character is that, beneath the indifferent and meticulous outside, hides a good, generous heart.  One of the few characters who delves deeply enough to discover this heart is Passepartout, Fogg’s French valet.  When he enters Fogg’s service, Passepartout thinks he has found the ideal master and is ready to settle down in a quiet, well-ordered life.  Consequently, the journey around the world, which begins the very day Passepartout starts working for Fogg, delivers quite a blow to Passepartout’s ideas of an easy life.  Passepartout is a likeable man who makes friends easily but is also careless and absentminded at times.  After resigning himself to the hectic journey his master is dragging him on, Passepartout eventually realizes that he is enjoying himself and that perhaps a quiet life can wait for the moment.  The story’s third character is Detective Fix, and he is determined to apprehend “guilty” Phileas Fogg.  However, this requires Fix to tag along with Fogg around the world, and Fix finds himself participating in many of Fogg’s and Passepartout’s adventures.

Van Gool's Around the WorldAround the World in Eighty Days is a delightful adventure story.  Tagging alongside the main characters as they traverse Europe, India, Asia, the Pacific Ocean, America, and the Atlantic is a fun pursuit, and Verne’s book is a well-woven tale that has certainly earned its position as a classic in the library of fiction.

P.S. A fun version for children that has forever shaped how I imagine Vernes’ characters is Van Gool’s adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days (see picture on left).  The illustrations are  engaging, and I would highly recommend it for kids!  I loved it as a little girl and still feel nostalgic just thinking about it.

A Stereotypical Millennial Wasteland

My friend sets the pizza boxes on the table, turns, and makes a general announcement to the expectant partygoers: “There’s pepperoni, Hawaiian for you weirdos, and also cheese pizza. Help yourself. Just give me cash or Venmo me five bucks sometime.”

Well, this is awkward. Like most of my millennial brethren, I no longer regularly carry around those totems known as “cash.” But, up until now, I have also been avoiding digital payment platforms.

Sure, there was that one time I let someone pay me over Facebook, an act I regret, as The Hackers, or more likely Facebook itself, are surely coming for me. Besides that, I’ve mostly conducted my informal transactions via the good old-fashioned bartering system: you bought the chips and guac at Chipotle last time, so I buy the chips and guac at Chipotle this time. Occasionally, for larger purchases, I’ve resorted to an antiquated system, utilized by my great-great-great grandmother, known as “checks.”

But my friend wants concrete payment in the near future, not IOU karma. I could go to the bank later and get cash, but the ATM only dispenses twenties, and sure, maybe I could go inside and they’d give me a five dollar bill, but that would require talking to someone. And so would going to a store and breaking up a twenty there.

Well, the time has come to bite the bullet. I download the Venmo app. I start the sign up. I breeze through those pesky little Terms & Conditions, and get to a screen that insists I enter my phone number. I do so.

“This phone number is already registered in our system.”

Oh. I thought I was a lone holdout in the war against the machines. But no, the truth is much darker. I do have an account – but I had erased its existence from my memory. 

Hazy images float through my mind: another age, another me, going on a trip with friends, perhaps, and venmo-ing my share of the hotel fees. Let’s see. What email would I have been using at the time? Probably my old Yahoo account. I don’t have access to it anymore, in fact, I straight-up deleted it after The Hackers got to Yahoo for the 52nd time.

(As a side note, Googling “What’s going on with Yahoo these days” will just get you a bunch of sketchy links to “is yahoo down? real time status updates.” It will not get you news about the state of the company. Google is not your boyfriend; you can’t make conversation with it.)

Anyway, let’s see if I can use my old email to reset the password.

Success! I enter it as my username, and an automated text is sent to my phone number. I reset the password, replacing whatever it was with the super secret mega-safe password that I use far too commonly. For my efforts, I am prepared to be greeted with some sort of Welcome screen.

Instead, a new message appears. “Fancy new device you’ve got there,” it says, somewhat snidely in my mind. But, thank you for noticing, I guess? 

The next screen lets me know that they’re going to need to confirm that it’s really me signing in from said new device. “If you select the phone number above, you confirm that you are authorized to use this phone number and agree to receive SMS texts to verify your identity. Carrier fees may apply.” How helpful.

Except, the only option listed “above” that can be selected is not a phone number. It’s an email. My Yahoo email. The one that no longer exists.

(In moment of what I thought was inspiration, I would later go home and dig up my college laptop, hoping against hope that it was the device I originally signed up for Venmo on. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, it was not said device.)

And so here I sit, unable to access Venmo, that most hallowed of digital banks, all because I had the gall to get a new phone. I suppose I could call Venmo, see what could be done. But no, that presents the same problem as going to the bank: people that I must interact with.

I suppose I should be grateful, as Venmo’s distrust of new electronics probably keeps my information safe from The Hackers. But right now, I just want to pay my friend for pizza and not talk to anyone. Like a truly stereotypical millennial.

Review: Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Director Quentin Tarantino excels at suspense, building anticipation that something terrible is about to happen in many of his most memorable scenes. Most of the time in Tarantino’s latest creation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the situations defuse themselves, but the few times they don’t, chaos ensues.

The movie tells an endearing buddy story—washed-up western TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) stars as the “heavy,” or villain, in all his newer films and yearns for the days when he was young and played the hero of the pictures in which he appeared. His stuntman and best friend, Cliff (Brad Pitt), drives him everywhere he needs to go, a requirement after Rick racked up one too many DUI’s.

Rick also lives in a house next door to actress Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski–something that becomes important as the film begins to intermix fiction with the real-life events of the Manson murders that occurred around that time. The film’s story seems to wander at first, but actually builds carefully, laying out characters and beats scene-by-simmering-scene while intermixing real-life Hollywood notables such as Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee with Tarantino’s own composites. It’s a film of many layers that is enjoyable on the surface as a dramatic, off-beat, humorous film filled with memorable characters and moments. Yet with a little knowledge of history and the events surrounding the Manson murders, some of the scenes take on more significance and have greater impact.

Of course, this is an alternate history, so we know that Tarantino is putting his own twist on the disturbing historical events. While not a violent movie by any means, the film contains a few violent moments that make the film warrant an R rating (along with profanity, drug use, and some sexual references – at least according to the film’s IMDb page).

What is this film? Is it wish fulfillment? Haven’t we all wanted to go back in time at some point or another, saying, “If had been there when this or that historical event happened, here’s what I would have done.” Perhaps this film is for know-it-alls? Regardless, the result is quite gratifying while also being suspenseful. The suspense is also greater since, due to the composite nature of the movie, we actually don’t know everything that will happen. Tarantino, not history, holds the last card here.

This is a movie for movie buffs as well as buffs of history. It’s well-acted, well written, well designed, well-photographed, and well—just all-around well-done.

The Accidental President

How often do the “normal” people and moments in life capture national fascination?  After all, the public and the media like to focus on stories that deviate from the norm, that are bigger than everyday life, and that take the audience away from their typical lives.  However, a person or event occasionally becomes extraordinary by being quite ordinary and yet surprising the world in some unusual way.  Harry S. Truman was one of these people.

The Accidental PresidentIn the biography The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, A. J. Baime provides insight into Truman’s life, career, and the national and international impact of his time in office after FDR dies.  This story is fascinating as it shows how a Missourian with little money and almost no public presence rises to the highest seat of power in the United States.  What makes Truman’s career even more remarkable is that he was extremely ordinary.  Baime writes about Truman and his future wife Bess, “Bess Wallace was everything Harry was not.  She was fashionable, athletic, and popular.  Harry, in his own words, ‘was never popular.  The popular boys were the ones who were good at games and had big, tight fists.  I was never like that.  Without my glasses, I was blind as a bat, and to tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.  If there was danger of getting into a fight, I always ran’” (44).  Humorously, Baime explains that even though “Harry sat next to Bess Wallace in church school…[i]t took him five years to get up the courage to say hello” (44).  These descriptions sound more like a depiction of Charlie Brown, not future president material.

Despite his ordinariness though, Truman wins against all odds time and time again, and his honesty and hard work appear to have been key to his success.  Also important to Truman’s character is his continuous dedication to his family.  He always makes time to look after and stay in touch with his mother, sister, daughter, and wife.  When his family is most concerned about the huge responsibility that has been thrust on him, Truman is worried about how being president will affect the privacy and lives of his family.

Dewey Defeats Truman headline
Truman surprised the nation by winning the 1948 presidential election and proving newspaper headlines wrong.

In contrast to his unimpressive personality and ordinary origins, Truman’s life is anything but ordinary, and The Accidental President is a fascinating biography.  Baime packs the book with interesting details and narrates events in a story-like manner that makes the biography very readable.  Thanks to Baime’s skillful juggling of places, people, and events, the different scenes of the story tie together smoothly and help the reader grasp what is happening simultaneously around the world.

While the title The Accidental President appropriately captures how unusual Truman’s career turned out to be, I think perhaps a more fitting title would be The Providential President.  As much as people may criticize or disagree with Truman’s policies and decisions, he turned out to be the right man for his hour.  Truman faced difficult decisions and stressful scenarios with courage, honesty, and dedication, and I think succeeding generations should take care before passing judgment on Harry S. Truman.  After all, he had to make some of the hardest choices and deal with some of the greatest challenges any American president has ever confronted, and he did so without the clear support of the American people that an elected president would have had and without the history-making charisma that most world leaders have possessed.  President Harry S. Truman proved a common man could become the leader of a world power and accomplish the extraordinary.


Works Cited

Baime, Albert J.  The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That  Changed the World.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY: 2017.

Lilies in Water

“Good news!” called the Intern, as his boss, the museum’s director, finally emerged from her meeting. “The object labels for the Monet exhibit are finally here, and are being installed right this sec!”

“It is 4:00 p.m. the day before the exhibit opens!” the Director exclaimed. “How could they just now have gotten the object labels to us?”

The Intern shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “I wish I knew. I got them the info over a month ago, and I’ve been calling all week, and they just kept saying it was ‘taking longer than expected.’”

The Director sighed. “Well, at least they made it in time, if just barely. Let me know when they’re done installing them – this is an incredible exhibit for us, and we’re expecting almost a thousand people tomorrow at the opening. I’d like to take a look at the finalized display before I leave.”

“You’ve got it, Boss!” the Intern mock saluted.

An hour later, all the signs were installed, and the Director, followed by her intern, walked into the gallery and gazed around admiringly. There they were, over 50 of Monet’s famous water lilies and other assorted garden paintings, all together under one roof – her own museum’s roof. She smiled, and turned to the first painting’s placard.

Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water (1917), it read. 

It took a moment for the Director to register what she was reading. “Um, Josh,” the Director called, with an unusual tremor in her voice. “What is this?” she pointed a slightly shaking finger at the title. The Intern trotted over, but without waiting for an answer, the Director turned hurriedly to the next painting.

This one said: Water Lilies Where the Water Looks Kind of Brown (1917). Water Lilies Where All the Flowers are Purple-ish (1918), said the next, and the one after that: Water Lilies Where the Flowers Are Purple-ish Again but There’s Also a Willow Tree (1918).

“Josh, you sent the label info over to the printer, what…” the Director struggled to find words that were calm and non-accusatory, but all that came out was: “What did you do?”

The Intern apparently failed to sense the displeasure in his boss’s inquiry. He beamed “Oh, well, Monet really wasn’t very inventive with his painting titles. They were literally all just Water Lilies or The Japanese Bridge and I thought, like, how are visitors going to talk about which ones were their favorite, you know? ‘Which one did you like’ ‘Oh, I liked Yellow Irises’ ‘But which one?’ So, I added some description to all the titles, some color commentary, if you’ll pardon the pun. Problem solved!”

“All the titles,” the Director repeated, numbly.

“All the titles!” the Intern repeated, enthusiastically.

Indeed, as the Director wandered blankly around the exhibit, every title had some alteration. Water Lilies that look like Monet was Experimenting with Finger Painting (1921), The Biggest Water Lily Painting (1920), Weeping Willow with a Whole Lot More Orange than the Others (1920). They’d never be able to reprint them all before the exhibit opened.

It was The Japanese Bridge that Doesn’t Look at All Like the Japanese Bridge (1923) that finally caused the Director to snap. Later in his life, Monet had developed cataracts in his eyes, and he’d painted that particular picture of the Japanese bridge that didn’t look very much like the Japanese bridge when he could barely see anything.

“Josh.” The Director turned to the Intern, and looked him dead in the eye. “You’re fired.”

Unfortunately, the satisfaction of saying that was nothing compared to the chagrin the Director felt the next morning, when she overheard a museum patron talk about how their favorite painting was definitely “Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water.”