My brother is a software engineer who considered being a math major in college. I, on the other hand, make my living in words and rejoiced when I learned that I would never actually need calculus. Not long ago, he and I chatted about what sorts of things we randomly puzzle over — usually on days when the commute goes on forever.

I don’t remember what his example was, but it was something like “trying to figure out the square root of eight gazillion by counting by seventeens while holding my breath.” Astonished, I told him that I try to make up coherent 26-word stories using one word for each letter of the alphabet, in order. Astonished, he told me I am nuts. (Actually, that’s not true. He promptly tried it himself, because he likes brain-games of any variety. So do I, but I can’t count by seventeens.)

In case you’re interested, here are the rules I use:

  • It must have exactly 26 words, in alphabetical order.
  • It must be grammatically correct and make a coherent “story.”
  • Standard American spelling; proper nouns are okay.
  • No limit on the number of sentences – punctuate as necessary to make it make sense.
  • No dirty words.
  • Words that starts with “ex” count for “x”. Bonus if the word actually starts with the letter X.

Here’s an example:

Although brightly colored dahlias edge Felicity’s garden, heat in July kills lilies, meaning nearby ordinary plants quickly resume supremacy – the unflaggingly vibrant, wantonly exuberant yellow zinnias.

What usually happens to me is that I quickly come up with the first part, slowly assemble the middle, and then bog down at the end. There just aren’t that many z words that don’t overpower a sentence. Seriously, the minute you throw in “zebra” or “zamboni,” the tail is wagging the dog.)

The other interesting thing about this “game” is that when played while sitting in traffic, it is also a memory and unaided recall exercise. You have to remember the phrases as you string them together, and also run through your vocabulary. It’s hard enough when you are writing it down and have a thesaurus handy.

Often it seems I could make it work with just one other little word slipped in somewhere — a pronoun, an article, a conjunction. Sometimes I come up with things that seem to be going somewhere but then wander off in search of X-Y-Z:

“Ah, beautiful child,” David echoed. Fatherhood gave him indescribable joy — knowing life’s meaning, now obvious. Paternity’s quiet revelation seeped through unnoticed, vanquishing worry, extolling youth’s zeal.

There are, of course, many variant possibilities. Like, use 52 words, doubling each letter: “An absolutely beautiful baby can cry..”  Or, backwards: “Zambonis yield expanding white, virtually unblemished ‘turf’ skaters really quite prefer…”  Or allow phonetic spelling.

And if it sounds like only someone with way too much time on her hands would ever bother with this, you’re right. My 7-mile commute usually takes 45 minutes in evening rush hour.