Treasured Friends

I bade a sad farewell to some treasured old friends a little while ago.

I learned that a local bookstore owner would pay me fifty cents a copy for all my old books, which he would then re-sell to his customers to realize a small profit.

Like you, perhaps, I have purchased a large number of books over the years, both hard- and soft-cover varieties.  They’ve all been read once—some much more often—and those I wanted to keep were placed lovingly in one of several bookcases.  But, as we downsized to a smaller home, the day arrived when there was just no more room.

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Being one to whom books are almost living things, I couldn’t bear the thought of packing them away in musty cartons for storage, out of sight and soon forgotten.  Somehow, though, it seemed alright to pass them along to others who would enjoy them as I had.  So, over a number of weeks, I carried out the task of sorting and packing more than three hundred-and-eighty books.

I had acquired the habit years ago of writing my name and the year when the book came into my possession on the inside front cover of each one I read.  How delightful it was to browse them once again, as I sorted, lingering over memories associated with those many years.

There was a boxed set of Tolkien’s epic trilogy, Lord of the Rings, a gift from my brother in 1960; a biography of John Kennedy and a copy of the Warren Commission Report of 1965, when the shooting in Dallas was still a recent shock; several novels in a series about a modern-day knight-errant named Travis McGee—the first purchased in 1966 and its successors as each was subsequently published; a number of biographical works from the late 1970’s about such notables as Churchill, MacArthur, Lee and Jackson, and Trudeau (the elder); a Civil War story, After the Glory, perhaps my favourite novel; and, of course, dozens of others.

There were titles of a more recent vintage, too:  thrillers from such writers as Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Lee Child; more biographies of famous and infamous people—Ghandi, Mandela, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Jimmy Carter, Terry Fox; histories of significant events in my lifetime, dealing with the aftermath of the Great War, the great depression, the fall of Soviet communism, the rise of the Beatles, and the future impacts of technology.

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I had determined to be ruthless in my sorting, adamant about packing everything, unyielding in my determination to move all of them out.  Inevitably, however, there were some I had to keep (including the eight I’ve published, of course).  I’ve never been resolute about being resolute!

Anyway, in due course, I was finished.  Ten cardboard cartons, each the repository of hundreds of hours of private enjoyment, sat waiting for me to take them to the bookstore.  But I, despite my earlier resolve, was plagued by a great sense of loss, a sense of having betrayed a trust, a sense of abandoning something that had become a part of me.

And so, they sat for awhile—those cartons echoing with silent, accusatory voices of so many old friends—awaiting my decision as to their fate.

After several restless nights, plagued by remorse, I hit upon an idea.  An old pal of mine owns a cottage near Parry Sound, one unencumbered by the modern notion that such getaways must have access to the internet, telephones, and television.  Solitary pursuits are the order of the day in his idyllic retreat, and I gave him a call.

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“How’d you like to meet some new friends?” I asked him.  “They’d love to come and stay at the lake, and I know you’ll like them.”

It took some further explaining, naturally, but he came by the next time he was heading north, and we loaded the cartons into his SUV.  As he pulled away, I bowed my head, placed a hand over my heart, and mouthed a sad goodbye to those treasured old friends.  Dramatic, I know, but heartfelt.

However, I was greatly comforted by knowing I’ll be able to say hello to them all again and again each time I visit.  It brought an old ditty to mind—

Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver, and the other gold.

Do You See the Difference?

If you’ve ever been on a long-distance road-trip and had to stop unexpectedly along the freeway at a service station bathroom, and been repulsed by the dirtiness of the facilities, and the smell, did you appreciate the difference between that and the sanitary, well-maintained, odour-free restroom you found elsewhere?

If you’ve ever been stymied by drivers on a crowded freeway who refuse to let you merge from the on-ramp in front of them, did you value the difference between their attitude and that of the gracious driver who did allow you in?  And did you wave your thanks?

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Wherever we go, it seems, and whatever we do, we are constantly encountering a need for services and interactions with people—some of which do not pass muster, others of which surpass our expectations.

If you’ve ever been dining out at what you thought was a good restaurant and then discovered a trace of someone else’s lipstick on your unused wine glass, or found a morsel of baked-on food between the tines of your dinner-fork, did you understand the difference between that and a truly first-class establishment?

If you’ve ever been ready to tumble into a hotel bed at the end of a long day, only to discover stains on the supposedly-clean sheets, or perhaps traces of bedbugs, did you appreciate the difference between that and a four- or five-star hostelry?

Do you see the difference?

If you’ve ever had occasion to return a purchased product to the store where you bought it, only to be greeted by a surly, suspicious returns-clerk, did you welcome the difference between that and the gracious, no-questions-asked manner of the person you dealt with when you returned something to another store?

If you’ve ever found yourself bewildered in front of an airport kiosk that has apparently consumed your passport, and been forced to deal with a sullen, uniformed airline staffer with little apparent interest in helping you, did you value the difference between him and the employee of another airline who pursued you all the way to your boarding gate to return the passport you’d inadvertently left on her desk?

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If you’ve ever rented a vacation villa for a couple of weeks, only to discover upon arrival that the online pictures—so instrumental in making your choice—in no way resembled the ramshackle reality of the place, did you give thanks for the difference between that and the next place you chose, which was clean, bright, and airy, as promised?

If you’ve ever waited in line for service at a bank, for example, or a supermarket checkout, and had the teller or cashier close the desk just as you reached the front, did you appreciate the difference between that and the person who waved you forward, despite the fact his or her shift was supposed to be finished?

Do you see the difference?

I draw these comparisons to illustrate a realization I came to when I listened recently to a televised address by the forty-fourth president of the United States (who left office two years ago), in front of an audience of mostly college-age folks.  Despite the great difference between their ages and mine, I believe we shared an appreciation of the man and his message.  His remarks were relevant, coherent, humourous, and structured—full of a clarity and insight so absent from the national scene now.

On a newscast shortly after that speech, I heard his successor, the forty-fifth president, speaking to a group of supporters at one of the rallies he frequently attends.  His remarks, by contrast (and in my opinion), were self-centred, random, mean, and spontaneous—possessed of neither lucidity nor prescience.

I was struck by the enormous intellectual gap between these two men, their understanding of duty and honour, and their vision for their country.

Do you see the difference?

Misericordia mea patria tarn infelici.

Grandpa’s Grammar

Your per-nunky-ayshun is her-ibble!

So spake my grandfather once upon a time, admonishing me—perhaps five years old at the time—when I mispronounced a word while talking with him.  I remember dissolving in laughter, delighted by the strange words coming from his mouth.

Language, and its proper usage, were important to him.  An accomplished calligrapher, a voracious reader, and an avocational writer, he was forever dwelling on the importance of speaking and writing correctly.

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Years later, as a young teacher, I carried on that same tradition by including grammar lessons in my pupils’ daily curriculum.  When I became a father, I continued the practice in conversations with our daughters.

Neither my wife nor I favoured the inane baby-talk that was so prevalent among parents back then as they communicated with their children.  Right from the beginning, we resolved to speak to the girls in proper sentences, expressing complete thoughts, using correct terminology, pronouncing words properly.  Most of it probably went over their heads in the beginning, of course, but we definitely set an expectation in their minds that effective communication was important.

Along the way, I made time to tell them of the various quirks and anomalies of the English language.  Making a game of it, or including it in story-times, helped, I think, to convey the lessons.

I’d explain to them about adverbs and adjectives, and how they’re used.  “Adverbs usually, but not always, end in ‘ly’,” I’d say.  “So, you don’t run quick or slow, you run quickly or slowly.  You don’t dress nice, you dress nicely.  Get it?”

“Huh?” their quizzical expressions would seem to say.

“You can feel good,” I might continue, “but you’re never doing good.  You’re doing well.  And, you’re never doing poor, but you could be doing poorly.”

“But, you’re always saying I eat too fast,” the eldest once said.  “Does that mean I’m eating too fastly?”

At that point, I launched into an apology for all the exceptions to the rules in English exposition.

Spelling and vowel-sounds were often challenging, as well, when I’d lead them through the pronunciation of such lookalike words as: through (long u sound), tough (short u sound), although (long o sound), cough (short o sound), and plough (sounds like ow).

For a long time, we enjoyed playing a silly-sounds game, asking each other to correct the mispronounced words in sentences like this: ‘Althoo my meat was toe, I got thruff most of it.’

To many of our friends, parents themselves, my emphasis on grammar and spelling likely seemed fetishist, even obsessive.

“I could care less about that stuff,” they often said to me.

“No,” I’d reply, “I think what you mean is that you couldn’t care less.  If you could care less, it would mean you consider it important.”

Most of them would roll their eyes and drop the subject.

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Pronunciation was always the main issue, though.  In time, the girls would recognize and laugh at obvious mistakes they’d hear on the radio or television, from speakers who ought to have known better.

“That guy said Nagra Falls, Daddy,” one might say.  “It should be Ni-a-ga-ra, right?”

Her sister might pipe up, “I heard someone talk about the nu-cu-lar bomb, instead of nu-cle-ar!”

“How about this one?” the first might say.  “We don’t eye-urn our clothes, we i-ron them.”

“Yeah, and there are no taggers in the zoo; they’re ti-gers.”

I suppose it was Grandpa’s grammar lessons that imprinted on me, and led me to become so insistent on proper language usage.

But, what about the situation today, I wonder, when so much of our verbal and written communication is made up of verbal shortcuts?

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Is the proper usage of language still important?

So many times now, I hear people say something like this in conversation: “So, she goes, ‘I like your dress.’  And I go, ‘Thanks!’  Then, she goes, ‘It’s nice.’”

Can they not use the correct word, as in ‘She said…’ and ‘I said…’?

It’s common anymore to hear someone say ‘What?’, not ‘Pardon?’ when they haven’t heard me; ‘Fer Shurr!’, not ‘For sure!’ when they’re certain of something; or, ‘It don’t matter!’, not ‘It doesn’t matter!’ when asked if everything is okay.

To me, it does matter.

Still, in the grand scheme of life, perhaps it no longer counts if our language continues to be used correctly and in its purest form.  It is a living thing, after all, and should, therefore, be expected to evolve over time, adapting to technology and 5G capabilities.

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But, so much of the first impression we convey to others about ourselves is wrapped up in how we speak, and in how we sound to others.  So much about our intellect and learning is tied up in how we write.  I have trouble accepting that grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, and pronunciation may no longer be valuable in our human discourse.

My grandfather told me over and over that our language should always be held in respect, and used in its highest form.  And I, a child at his knee, believed him.

“Otherwise,” he’d say, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “it will be a true cattas-troffy!