My best friend

As a Christian, I suppose I should say Jesus is my best friend. As a husband, perhaps I should say my wife is my best friend. As a father, I might be expected to say our children are my best friends. And, as a grandfather, some would argue my best friend is our grandson.

I think I’ll dispense with all that, and just say my best friend is Buddy.

buddy-in-carHe’s a mostly black border collie, mixed with another brand. I am hopelessly devoted to him, and I suppose there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. He’s my shadow – I’m his Pied Piper of Hamelin. He tries to follow me everywhere. He’s lying at my feet as I write.

When I get in the house, the first to meet me at the door and pine for human touch is not, as you might expect, my wife Sherry, but Buddy. Until and unless I reach out and pet him, he won’t leave me alone. Once I do, all’s well with his world.

All this gushing, sentimental fluff about my pet got me thinking about a story I read some years ago. It helps set the context as to why man’s – my – best friend really and truly is a canine.

George Graham Vest (1830-1904) was an American lawyer and politician, known for his skills in debate and oration. He is best known for his “man’s best friend” closing arguments from the trial in which damages were sought for the killing of a foxhound named Old Drum on 18 October 1869. Vest was the attorney for the plaintiff.

After the final witness had been examined and the counsel for the defense had given his closing argument to the jury, Vest rose to speak.

“Gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. Even his own son or daughter, that he has reared with loving care, may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith.

“The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall upon their knees to do us honour when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

“Gentlemen of the jury, the one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.

“A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may lie near his master’s side. He will even kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and the sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He will guard the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. And when all other friends desert, he remains.

“When riches take wings and reputation falls into pieces, a man’s dog is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger and to fight against his enemies.

“And when the last scene of all comes and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the grave side will the noble dog be found, his head between his paw, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even after his master’s death.”

The jury deliberated for only a few moments, after which it brought in a verdict for the plaintiff. This legal action became one of the very few instances where the amount awarded was much greater than the sum asked.

One of my early morning delights is perking my first caffeine fix of the day. Then, coffee in hand, while sitting on the chesterfield, I travel the world with a good book. Without fail, I am joined by Buddy, who wants nothing more than to snuggle beside me. He will stay there as long as I do. If I have to leave the house, he accompanies me to the door, where he sits and looks plaintively at me until I pass him the first treat of the day. Since rereading the story of Lawyer Vest, I understand much better the role Buddy plays in my life, and I in his.

A clutch of oxymorons

Please allow me to ask some deep and probing questions.

How many angels can stand or, for that matter, dance, on the head of a pin? Can God create a boulder too big for him to lift? Is he able to create two adjacent mountains, with no valley in between? Can he grab a baldheaded man by the hair of his head? (Please, no jokes about the follicly-challenged!)

There may be those who think I have too much spare time on my hands. Perhaps so. Still, I cannot help wondering about certain things. Oxymorons often grab my attention, creating a moment of levity and bringing a smile to my face.

For those unfamiliar with this term, an oxymoron is a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect. I will illustrate.

There are many brief examples of oxymorons, such as a fine mess, awfully good, baby grand piano, bright shade, calculated risk, conservative liberal, cruel kindness, dark star, dull roar, educated guess, eyes wide shut, fail safe, friendly enemy, genuine imitation, gunboat diplomacy, half empty, honest crook, ill health, inside out, joyful trouble, junior senator, and make haste slowly.

Of late, I’ve been enjoying other, more involved, oxymorons. I beg the reader’s indulgence as I list some of them.

  • Is it good if a vacuum cleaner “really sucks”?
  • Why is the third hand on a watch called the second hand?
  • If a word is misspelled in a dictionary, how would we ever know?
  • If Webster wrote the first dictionary, where did he find the words?
  • Why do we say something is “out of whack”? What is a “whack”?
  • Why do “slow down” and “slow up” mean the same thing?
  • Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
  • Why do tugboats push their barges?
  • Why do we sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when we’re already there?
  • Why are they called “stands” when they’re made for sitting?
  • Why is it called “after dark” when it really is “after light”?
  • Doesn’t expecting the unexpected make the unexpected expected?
  • Why are a “wise man” and a “wise guy” opposites?
  • Why do “overlook” and “oversee” mean opposite things?
  • Why is “phonics” not spelled the way it sounds?
  • If work is so terrific, why do they have to pay us to do it?
  • If all the world’s a stage, where’s the audience sitting?
  • If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?
  • Why is “bra” singular and “panties” plural?
  • Why do you press harder on the buttons of a remote control when you know the batteries are dead?
  • Why do we put suits in garment bags and garments in a suitcase?
  • How come “abbreviated” is such a long word?
  • Why do we wash bath towels? Aren’t we clean when we use them?
  • Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle?
  • Why do they call it a TV “set” when you only have one?
  • Christmas – what other time of the year do we sit in front of a dead tree and eat candy out of our socks?
  • Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

Intriguing questions all.

Oxymorons are especially useful to writers, in order to direct the reader’s attention to an apparent contradiction. At times, oxymorons, the more unusual the better, make effective literary tools. In other words, the idea being relayed by the writer is more vividly described when such a figure of speech is used. In addition, oxymorons can add depth, interest and creativity to a piece, resulting in a rhetorical effect by paradoxical means.

So what’s up with a grammar lesson on oxymorons?

Both life and language are serious business. Many people react to oxymorons by shrugging them off as humourous or inconsequential. In a world in which bad news is the order of the day, perhaps there are times when we should take a breather from the demands of life, sit back, and reflect on something as simple as the pleasurable aspects of language.

We all need lighthearted moments, to counterbalance the more solemn realities we face daily. If we can draw a moment of levity from figures of speech such as oxymorons, then so much the better.

Carpe diem. Enjoy the present.

An awfully good idea, don’t you think?

From a Good Home: A St. John’s Family Saga

There are only so many hours in a day. I have time to read only a limited number of books.

My reading interests are eclectic. As a former clergyman, I enjoy books with a theological flair. As a historian, with a graduate degree in Newfoundland and Labrador history, I read a lot of books in this category. Biographies are a perennial favourite. Fiction is near the top of my reading list, especially when I need a break from more academic treatises. But, with the large number of novels being published, where does one draw the line? My pile of to-read books is about to collapse.

I recently read Trudi Johnson’s From a Good Home. Actually, I should say Dr. Johnson, from-a-good-homeas her doctorate, from Memorial University of Newfoundland, is in NL history.

So, I asked her, how does one go from being a Ph.d. in history to being a novelist.

“The two roles are very much intertwined,” she responds.

Two events influenced the direction of her first novel.

First, her mother and many of her female relatives and friends worked in service.

Growing up in the capital city, listening to many of their stories, she was fascinated by their courage and commitment.

Second, after a decade of teaching high school, she went back to MUN and earned her doctorate. Her specialty: matrimonial law and inheritance practices.

“There, I was drawn once again to the narrative of people’s lives, how each one of us perceives the world around us.”

While writing her dissertation, she “wrote fiction as a distraction from academic writing,” not unlike my reason for reading fiction, as a respite from theology, history and biography.

Using the characters she had known most of her life, she crafted a family saga.

Rather than write narratives for academic journals – as important as they are – she writes in the genre of fiction.

“Narratives may be recognized as valid historical accounts to some extent,” she explains, “but the academic world continues to place higher value on quantitative research.” Fiction gives her a broader readership.

The story she tells in From a Good Home revolves around Hannah Parsons, who leaves her home in Bonavista Bay in 1935, to work in service for Charles and Virginia Sinclair, a wealthy St. John’s family. Hannah catches the eye of the household patriarch, after which her life takes an unexpected turn.

Trudi has specific hopes for her readers.

Obviously, she wants them to enjoy the stories, “to simply finish the book with a smile, feeling that they have just spent some time with interesting people.”

Then, she wants them to appreciate how much we are influenced by our past.

“People come into our lives and leave them,” she says, “but some make lasting impressions.” The characters are complex. And all of us need to “present a particular face to others, and even to ourselves, as we respond to life’s events.”

Finally, she wants them to “appreciate the untold stories of themselves and their family members.”

Trudi is only on the cusp of what she has in mind. Books 2 and 3 are yet to come. All Good Intentions and Share and Share Alike are bound to appeal to a wide audience, as well. In From a Good Home, I found a couple or three people I know. I wonder who else will show up in her series.

From a Good Home resonates with me on a very personal level. My late mother, born on 15 November 1914, left Cutwell Arm (now Beaumont South) at around thirteen years of age and went in service for a family in Bishop’s Falls in 1930.

It’s obvious that Trudi enjoys writing fiction.

“Writing is both challenging and enjoyable for me.”

She has whetted the reading appetite of many. As she rises to the challenge of continuing to put her pen to paper, or her fingers to her laptop, undoubtedly our imagination will race in many directions. “They want to know what happens next!” she exclaims. “And so do I….”