One Acorn

If I haven’t mentioned it before, my wife and I teach a law school course for students engaged in public interest internships.  This story is less about the course than about one of the many students who pass through our class.  His name wasn’t Ed, but that will do for this story.

Ed was in his final semester of law school.  We spend a lot of individual time with our students, so we got to know him pretty well.  Ed had gone to law school because his parents are lawyers, and he had no other particular direction for his life.  Nearing the end of his formal schooling, Ed confided that he didn’t think he wanted to be a lawyer and had decided not to take the bar exam.

As nice a young man as he was, you could see something resembling surrender in his eyes.  When he spoke in public, I could detect a stammer in the soft voice that came from his always downcast face.  We took a particular liking to Ed, not in spite of his lack purpose, but perhaps because of it.

After my first year of practice, I had similar doubts about whether the law was my calling.  The adversarial approach to practice and the necessity of pursuing clients for your own profit troubled me, as it did Ed, who clearly didn’t have the heart for that rat race.

We both encouraged Ed to take the bar exam and continue to look for a role for himself in the law.  I tried to tell him that there was a place for a lawyer who preferred helping by solving others’ problems, rather than fighting to win.  When we parted at the end of the semester, he promised to keep an open mind.

Time passed and students have come and moved on, each one different, but none have been as conflicted and as honest about it as Ed.  We hear occasionally from students, but the email from Ed was a surprise.  He wanted us to know that he had passed the bar and taken a position at his local legal aid organization.  He thanked us for encouraging him.

Life doesn’t make much sense as you live it day to day.  Sometimes you search for a direction or wonder if you have taken the right path.  People come and go with the days and both seem to run together in muddled memories.  Just often enough though, someone or something special stands out that you realize you had a hand in.

In Ed’s case, we believed in him when he doubted himself.  Now he will be able to do the same for his clients.  Who knows but the chain may go on and multiply in others’ lives.

I often think there is not enough good in the world to justify having hope.  Then an email like Ed’s appears, and I am encouraged to carry on.  Who knows what the seed of a kind word may sprout by and by.

 

 

 

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The Persistence of Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Emily Dickinson

 

 

There have been many things once thought of as unique to humans that turned out not to be quite so. Crows can use tools, dogs at least seem to smile, elephants mourn their dead, octopuses hoard treasures, and more than a few creatures can recognize themselves in a mirror.  What’s left, the scientists say, is that mankind is the only species to “self-reflect,” to be capable of considering himself from a different perspective.  Only humans can contemplate their own purpose and mortality.

If that is true, I have to say that some people are more human than others, because I’ve known more than a few who hide behind dogma to avoid their own reflections and also the occasional one whose gene pool was not deep enough to cast a reflection.

Still, what I wonder is why we continue to hope in the face of all the tragedy of this world.  For some reason, that characteristic seems to color our self-reflection with its rosy tone.  The evidence against a reliable basis for hope is pretty substantial, and yet we continue to believe that we will rise again with the sun each morning.  We believe the future will be better for our children, and we believe that hard work will be rewarded.  The lottery industry is even based on this premise, but the odds of making it out of this world alive are even worse than those.

I suppose some say that optimism is a Darwinian necessity – we have to be blind to the odds in order not to be eaten alive by our fears.  But if that is true for humans, how do you distinguish the non-sentient rest of the animal kingdom which carries on without the reason to know better?

I claim no expertise, other than having pondered the question for some time, but perhaps the onus of knowing we will die comes with a balancing gift of hope.  The Greeks offered something like this bargain in the myth of Pandora, who found hope remaining in her box after its contents of woe were freed.  Judeo-Christian scripture pairs the knowledge of good and evil with its corresponding curse that we shall all surely die.

Some years ago, I kept a blog named after Emily Dickinson’s poem above, which documented the time when my son was diagnosed and treated for a rare form of leukemia.  It was hope that kept me going and that drove me to help him see the ordeal through.  There was little medical basis for hope, but it sustained me and I marvel still at both its persistence and the stamina that it gave me.  One can read the same story in the language of faith, and I would respect that point of view, as well.

In any language, hope is a mystery from which miracles arise, or in the words of L.J. Suenens, “Hope is not a dream, but a way of making dreams a reality.”

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Talk Southern

A Guide to those who “ain’t from round here.”

It may come as a surprise to some that a “Southern Drawl” is the way people really talk in “these parts” and not just a way for pretentious Hollywood types to get cheap laughs in an evening sitcom. There is, however, no reason to be intimidated by the natives here. They really do talk slowly, which is a help (as long as you don’t laugh).

 

I have enjoyed an amused life here in the South from birth and not suffered from the experience. My wife has grown to be loved and admired by all for her ability to speak the language almost as if she were a native. With this handy guide should be able to “git along jes’ fin” (do quite well) yourself.

 

The most important word to “larn” (learn) is the ubiquitous “y’all”, pronounced “yawl”, using as many syllables as you can draw out of four letters. Y’all is technically both the singular and plural form of the second person pronoun, you, in the King’s English. It can be used more liberally (a word to be used thoughtfully, by the way), such as in seeking another’s attention, when it might seem rude to simply say, “Hey you!”

 

Please do not be confused by derivative forms you may hear of the word y’all. Those who make careers out of studying language have tried without avail to distinguish y’all from “you all” (an optional form for use in referring to more than one “you”) and the less common “all y’all” (a version for use in reference to larger numbers or to a group that may not all be present at the time).

 

So, if someone says, “Y’all are welcome to come,” you should consider that a genuine invitation (Southern hospitality is as real as “Co-Cola” – No, don’t dare ask for a Pepsi). If they say, “All y’all come,” you should feel free to invite friends and family, particularly if they have more than one first name, like “Billy Bob” or “Peggy Sue”. (Hyphenated last names are looked on with skepticism here, perhaps because of the fear that if cousins married one might end up being “Jolene Jones-Jones.”)

 

Another well-used term is the much-maligned contraction for the words “am not”, the ubiquitous “ain’t.” An example of common usage might be, “We ain’t had that much fun since the hogs got in the hornet’s nest.” Related and equally useful contractions you may hear are “wern’t” for “were not” (which is pronounced much like “rurnt”, though that term is used to describe good bait when made into sardines.

 

A related term to listen for is “t’wern’t”, which means, “there were not”. The words “did” and “you” are often formed into the contraction “d’jew” and should not be considered a reference to one’s family history, which, by the way, most Southerners consider a matter of pride, so long as no direct ancestors can be traced to Alabama. For entertainment, you might try using contractions of your own making and see if the locals recognize them.

 

You may be confused by the word “fixin’”, though in the context of slow Southern life, it has a special place in the parlance. To say that one is “fixin’” to do something is not unlike a husband on the couch telling his wife he is going to mow the grass. Fixin’ to go to town means simply thinking about it and does not imply that one should get the hounds in the truck. If you happen to hear the related term, “goin’ to”, it may have no relation at all to a destination at all and more to do with an intended act at some, as yet unplanned, future time.

 

Unlike the Eskimos, Southerners have no real word for “snow”, but a great many ways of saying, “guess”. One can “reckon”, “figure”, or “thank”, all of which show that we from the South are thoughtful in more than just our hospitality. “Hail”, which you may here, is not a form of precipitation, but rather where Yankees go when the die.

 

You may find yourself served with “greens”. These are not part of a golf course, but a bitter vegetable eaten by Southerners only in the presence of unsuspecting Northerners, who are smilingly offered generous helpings. Turnip greens and black-eyed peas are traditionally served on New Years Day as an augury of good luck for those who survive the experience.

For many more insights, and a great deal of humor, I recommend The Liberal Redneck Manifesto, by a trio of Southern humorists.  Read it and weep a few tears of laughter.

 

 

 

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April Showers

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

– T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

 

What is it about April?  It should be the welcome rise of Spring, but it also holds something back.  From the beginning, it seems to kick you in the gut.  According to Mark Twain, “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.”   Thomas Tusser put a half-hearted positive spin on it in 1557, “Sweet April showers do spring May flowers.”

Among other notable ignominies, Galileo was convicted of heresy, Oscar Wilde was arrested, Martin Luther King was killed, Lincoln was assassinated, William Henry Harrison died in office of pneumonia, and FDR passed away of a cerebral hemorage.   The Titanic sank this month, and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 occurred.  Suicides peak in April, with Kurt Cobain being one of those to have succumbed.  Perversely, Dr. Kervorkain even participated in his first assisted suicide during April.  Just to round things out, George Orwell’s 1984 begins, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

On a more hopeful note, Earth Day is held in April, as is Arbor Day.  April is National Humor Month, no doubt in association with its opening day.  April 2 is appropriately designated as Fact Check Day.  Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in April.  Raphael was born this month, as was William Shakespeare.

April is most often associated with religious significance. The story of the Passover, also called Pesah, is told in the Bible in the book of Exodus, Chapter 12. It begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nisan, which falls in March or April, given the fact that the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar year.

Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25, since it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon in the Northern Hemisphere.  One might assume that Passover and Easter would always coincide, since the events leading to the Crucifixion occurred during Passover.   History, however, doesn’t always repeat itself.  For a good primer on the topic, see this site.

In appreciation of T.S. Eliot’s line above and all that he contributed to Twentieth Century poetry (and the struggles of students attempting to make sense of his The Wasteland), the community of poets arranged for April to be named National Poetry Month.  It is richly and widely observed, and my favorite source is YourDailyPoem.com.

In recognition of the month, I thought I’d offer a short poem of mine, in memory of my mother, who died all too many years ago.

 

September Elegy

I passed by your grave today

and happened this time to pause.

 

It was the first day to smell of Fall –

cool, as it was, with an early dark.

 

Kneeling beside your name,

I saw what seemed a scrap of yellow –

 

a frayed silk petal in a poignant shade,

from another’s memory of you.

 

Time, it seems, may fade the finest flower,

but the memory of love lives on.

 

 

 

 

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Meaning

I have been rereading the same article for weeks now and each time learning more.  It is not necessarily that I am slow, but more that it has something to say that resonates richly with me.

Four Ways to Bring More Meaning to Your Life, by Eric Barker, writing for The Week, has a message for anyone searching for relevance in the world.  He doesn’t speak of success, and there is nothing necessarily religious in his message, although there is certainly a significant place for religion in his advice.

Basically, he offers these four related pieces of advice (I’ve included my own commentary, for what it may be worth):

  1.  Belong to a group.  We need each other, and we also need, in some way, to be there for others in need.  It is a basic human need.  One’s group may be small and informal, or for some that group may be a church, synagogue or mosque.  Beware of considering work as a group, because one’s belonging may be deceptive, whence the term, “work friends.”
  2. Have a Purpose.  I happen to teach, but it is not about the subject matter.  It is about preparing law students for life as an attorney, a transition that is difficult without training or a mentor.
  3. Embrace Storytelling.  This, it seems to me, is a way to give a personal context to oner’s purpose.  I love to relate how a Korean student now gives me a hug each time I see him, simply because I believe in him and have encouraged him.
  4. Know Transcendence.  Know and have a role in the bigger world.  In that context, your problems are small, but your place matters.  I’m reading Einstein’s God, by Krista Tippet, in which some of the foremost minds ponder questions of religion, meaning and transcendence.

I suggest to my students that they evaluate various aspects of their lives and careers periodically.  When all is said and all is done, that is good advice for anyone, including myself.

 

 

 

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They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait

Arthur C. Brooks published a recent article in the New York Times that asks and answers the question, “Depressed by Politics?”.   In these troubling and divisive times, he suggests that the answer to anxiety over current events is to, “Just let go.”

Before agreeing with Brooks, I’d like to first commend all those who feel empowered to protect so many of the positive steps that have been taken through compromise, bipartisan efforts and good judgment over many decades and are at risk of undoing.  In describing his “Shining City on the Hill” image of America, Reagan referenced funding for the arts as one bright spot.  George W. Bush supported immigration.  Supporting these and other causes should be mainstream thinking, and debate over them should be about particulars and not over blocking them all together.  I honor those who are willing and able to be the voice of reason in a time when denying the truth is an accepted norm among those in power.

My thoughts here, however, are for those, like me, who have to avoid much of the news in order to carry on with life in our presently surreal world.  Brooks talks in terms of anxiety and depression, but, if you have ever experienced the feeling, it can be as debilitating as seasickness on unsteady waters.  If you read the article, you will find how politics can be like clinging to a tree.  The metaphor works better than it sounds, so read it and see.

My own thought is that we must be grounded in what we know to be true and in our values, in a way a bit like a tree.  Pendulums swing, sometimes wildly.  There will be a time when a firm place will be needed again for the pendulum to swing from.  They call that place “the bearing,” akin to the phrase, “getting your bearings.”  Interestingly, the term for the swinging end of a pendulum is a “bob”, which in some settings means darting and weaving erratically.

There are more scientific reasons for those names, of course, and metaphors themselves are only illustrations.  Still, for those of us who can’t take the madness of politics today, our time and place will come.  The blind poet, John Milton, wrote aptly in this sonnet:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

We have not yet heard the last word.  Until then: hope, purpose, and as much faith as you may believe in, will more than suffice.

 

 

 

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Regrets

What do you do with regret, especially when your heart is torn, and it is your own fault.  That should be a question, but it is more of a fact for me today, in all its ugly truth.  A mistake that, like a bad tattoo, will never go away and cannot be fully erased.  When you rue a decision, it is forever.  Time may blur its edges and circumstances might even make it matter less to others, but the pain is for as long as you continue to care.  That, when love is involved, is at least forever.

I’ve never been one to dwell on the past, but my life has had its share of mistakes, mostly due to immaturity or masculine cluelessness.  As I think about it, most of my regrets are from making things worse by not deciding until someone else did it for me, out of frustration and sometimes anger.  Often the result has been worse than if I had acted when I should have known to.  Trying to be nice, it turns out, may simply be cruel in the end.  I feel that way today.

Today’s example matters less than finding how to go on, now that I let life decide for me.  Living with your own remorse is cruel company.  I suppose that no one would have been happy with whatever I had decided to do, but the same is true now and the problem is now out of my hands.  Here in the South, the best someone might say about me is, “Bless his heart, he meant well.”  Faint praise that may well be my epitaph.

I have no silver lining to end this post, only sorrow and regret.  A hole left in three lives – in the hollow shape of a heart.

When all is said, and all is done, mostly we try not to cry.

 

 

 

 

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Reality Check Time

During the night of November 8, I didn’t sleep.  The disturbing outcome of the election continued to keep me awake for the next two nights, as I tried to absorb the shock of a reality show host and serial business failure becoming President.  Like most Americans, I had long given up hope that Congress could reign in its extremists to craft sensible legislation, but I had hope that Hillary Clinton could manage to keep the government doing its job using the pragmatism that truthfully is her nature.

I had described Donald Trump as the equivalent of the joke candidate that often ends up on the Student Council ballot in high school but never wins, because – even in that low stakes setting – an electorate has some sense.  To those who couldn’t imagine Hilary Clinton as President, I offered that, if she won, there would be a divided government in which little would be done.  This, I explained, was a traditional Republican’s dream outcome.

I took a long time to regain my sense of balance in what seemed a world turned upside down.  Outright racist conduct suddenly became public and common.  Much of what had been crafted to assist those on the margins of society was suddenly on the table for repeal.  The small steps taken over decades to end environmental protections for ourselves and our children were set to be walked back.

The shocks came almost like physical blows to me, as one who cares about people and their future.  If that makes me a liberal, I’ll accept your label, though I prefer being considered simply thoughtful in both meanings of the word.  Regardless, I genuinely feared for the survival of what we take for granted as the world we have lived in.  This was, after all, a candidate who, when briefed on the nuclear arsenal to be at his fingertips, asked why we couldn’t simply use nuclear weapons.

Nothing that Donald Trump did following the election gave me comfort.  Many of his Cabinet appointees were openly hostile to the laws and values that their agencies were to enforce and pursue.  The list is long, and the addition of family members and right wing ideologues to his inner circle left me shaking my head somewhere between disbelief and disabling fear.

Out of the free fall that I felt our world had stepped into, I slowly found voices of reason coming from places once tagged by many as extremists in their own right.  The ACLU, which has always been stalwartly devoted to the Constitution as the lodestar for the country, spoke up saying it intended to see Donald Trump in court.  Many thousands of donors added their support.  Planned Parenthood received unheard of support from a great many who feared all the good they do might be thrown out with the bathwater, an apt metaphor.  Other voices followed, leaving me still reeling, but knowing that I was far from alone.  I am grateful for their courage, dedication and thoughtfulness.  They are who actually have made America great, along with those of every background who work every day to make a place for themselves in a world that they make better and safer for all.

Sometimes through the courage of only one, we have survived demagogues set on gaining power through spreading fear through lies.  Consider the integrity of the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, who said to Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  His voice of reason and compassion exposed the Senator for the fraud that he was.  When Welch finished, the record shows that the audience applauded.  McCarthy soon fell from favor and died three years later, a nearly-friendless alcoholic.

We live in a time and place in which lies are accepted as the truth by those whose ends they serve.  “Alternative facts” now abound and sadly, our sitting President not only openly lies, but clearly believes his lies himself.  I hope the majority of us still all agree that no one is above the truth.

It is too soon to reflect on the most recent claim that President Obama wiretapped candidate and President-Elect Trump.  Far from all has been said.  I hope, however, that seemingly paranoid Twitter rants from the early morning hours will be judged by the light of day and the truth that it exposes.  We need more than mere decency now.  We need sincere thinking, far-sighted judgment and decisions that have common ground.

If you are the praying type, this is a good time.  If your voice is for hearing by those merely around you, have the decency to use it.

Follow up:  The FBI Director has now testified before Congress, saying that he has found no basis for the President’s wiretap claim.  More forbiddingly, he confirmed that the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

It took over two years for the Watergate scandal to force President Nixon to resign.  History may not repeat itself and the truth does not always reveal itself.  Still, time will tell.

 

 

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The Only True Wisdom…

“A sailor spends his life

living stories to tell.”

RJC

I’ve come to believe you are truly old when you have more stories to tell than things left to do.  It is not that I’ve finished my bucket list, but I have done much more – not always well – than I still dream of or am able to do.

I keep a board littered with Post-It notes containing things I’d like to do before I am done.  I have a few more sailing trips to tick off, but the list of museums to see is growing longer, although more than a few are about sailing and boats.

The point I meant to make, before I digressed into that story, was that I’m beginning to understand that I don’t have any answers to life’s hard questions, only anecdotes:  stories to tell.  One of the first things they teach in law school is that the answer to every question is, “It depends.”  I still teach law school, and I am more and more uncertain what to say when asked questions by students who are trying to make decisions about their careers and the lives they have ahead.

When asked how I decided to join an honored, though often seen as less than honorable, profession, I’m left with only my own story to tell.  In my senior year of High School, some friends said they were going to UGA and that I should come too and join the party.  I asked what I would study, and they answered, “You should be a lawyer, you would be great!”  After the student laughs a little and rolls his eyes, I say, “I suppose the moral of the story is that sometimes the decision is less about making the right choice, than doing what it takes to make it the right one.”

When my son was the same age, he asked me  to help with his calculus homework.  It was the first time I’d ever had no idea how to help, and while I was summoning the humility to admit I didn’t know, I had a thought.  “Well, if you were trying to teach this to someone,” I said, “how would you do it?”  Fortunately, he took the bait – hook, line and barrel, or perhaps it was lock, stock and sinker.  Whatever, it was at that moment that I sensed what I’ve come to know too well: the closest thing I have to good advice are stories to share.  What you glean from them will be your own wisdom, someday to share in your own tales.

And about the title, look it up.  When all else is said, try Socrates.

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Language of the Sea

I happen to be a lifelong sailor.  I took to the sport from the start as if it was what I was born to do, just the way they depict in Disney movies.  I’ve owned more sailboats than cars and am most at ease with the motion of a boat under my feet.  A friend once told me that he never quite “got me” until he saw me sailing.

One particularly good sailing website is Scuttlebutt Sailing News.  The site recently featured an article you should catch, Nine Everyday Things a Sailor is Better At.  Item number two is the best of the lot:  walking straight when drunk.  It should almost go without saying.

There is an ocean of sailing trivia to draw from.  One fact in keeping with the note above is that sailing is one of only three sports for which drinking beer is considered part of training.  The only other two are bowling and rugby, and there is some doubt as to the former being a sport.  The phrase “three sheets to the wind” originally described a sailing boat out of control (sheets meaning the lines that control sails).  That said, a sailor will tell you there are no “ropes” on a boat, only lines with varying names based on their use.

Men, and sometimes women, often wear blazers, but the word first referred to the jackets worn by sailors aboard the H.M.S. Blazer.  A church pennant is the only flag authorized to fly above a ship’s national ensign, but only during a religious service, when one might well be wearing a blazer.

A crows’ nest is a straightforward term, but “as the crow flies” reflects the fact that crows abhor the water and will fly straight to land.  To fathom something today is to grasp it in your mind.  Originally, however, it was the distance between the outstretched arms of a man, or what we now define as six feet.

Sailors are supersticious about setting sail on a Friday.  To prove them wrong, the Brits named a boat the H.M.S. Friday, placed her under a captain of the same name, christened and set her to sea on a Friday.  She was never heard from again.

The term “starboard”, representing what we think of as right, grew originally from an Old English term meaning “steering oar”.  In ancient times boats were steered by an oar or board attached to the side of the boat.  Since most sailors were right-handed, it was attached to the right side of the boat.  It was not until the Common Era that boats began to use the more efficient stern mounted rudders.  The first recorded example is from China, but it seemed to appear quickly around the world, without any apparent sharing of knowledge.

Perhaps my favorite nautical term is the knot.  In order to measure speed at sea, sailors would toss a floating wood chip, attached to a line, overboard.  Knots were spaced on the line and the number of knots that “payed out” in the time for a small hourglass (or before that a verse of a chanty) to empty became the number of knots, or speed, of the boat.  As measurements became more precise, the term “knot” was retained, but was refined to mean the time taken to pass one nautical mile (1.15 mile as we know it in the US).  A nautical mile itself is one “minute” of the distance between meridians of longitude along the globe.  If I have lost you, my point is that sailors grow more precise, but they never forget the heritage that led them there.

One last bit of trivia.  The “bitter end” originally referred to the end of a line that was secured around a bit, such as might secure the end of an anchor rode (notice that it too is not a rope).  It was indeed a bitter end if the anchor was lost because it was not secured to the boat.

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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