Almost imperceptible witticisms

Crowdfunding and anxiety
caile

So I've been trying to promote a crowdfunding campaign for a community event. It's not going too well. I mean, it's probably at least as good as a bake sale. But watching the numbers not tick up is driving me bonkers. I can feel my muscles tensing up to the point where I'm basically just a ball of anxiety. I didn't realize how many people were going to look and then not contribute! It does not help that some friends launched a campaign the day before me and raised $4000 in the time it took me to raise $180. I don't know.

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Night thoughts
caile

When you smile for real, you're so beautiful it's like a heart stopping and the zap of electricity that makes it beat again, too.


Week 7: No True Scotsman
caile
You have to understand, in Cape Breton we don’t used hyphenated identities. There are no French-Canadians in Cape Breton. There are plenty of people whose first language is French. They’re just not French-Canadian. That’d mean they were from Quebec. In Cape Breton, they’re just the French. We’ve got the French, the Scottish, the Mi’kmaq, the Dutch, the Irish... what am I missing? Oh, right, the English! We’ve got a couple two or three of them, too. Just a handful. But nobody who calls themself Canadian.

I thought this was completely normal and right, up until I went to university.

So there I was, a sweet little innocent abroad in the world, telling people I’m Scottish. And they’d say:

- What do you mean, you’re Scottish? You don’t say Och Aye. You don’t eat haggis. You’ve never mentioned your sleekit wee beastie. And look, you were born in Canada, right?

- Yes.

- And your parents were born in Canada, right?

- Barbara and Scott, yes, that’s right.

- And were your grandparents born in Canada?

- Yes, Francis and Corrine, Johhny and Jessie, all born in Canada.

- Well, maybe your great-grandparents were born in Scotland and that’s why you say your Scottish?

- Well... no, Rory and Sarah, Veronica and Angus, Mathilda and Angus, Catherine and John Angus, all born in Canada. Keep going, I can go back eight generations until you get to the ones who came from Scotland.

And then we’d just be at an impasse. Staring at each other.

- Well, why in the name of all that’s holy do you think you’re Scottish? You’re not Scottish.

- What do you mean I’m not Scottish?

What am I if not Scottish? Anybody’d have to concede there are some points that suggest I am. Red hair- well, reddish. I own a kilt. I’ve taken bagpipe lessons. I’ve danced a highland fling in my day. I've tasted a deep fried Mars bar. I know the words to Flower of Scotland, when will we see your likes again? That fought against him, proud Edward’s army, and sent him homewards to thiiiiiiink again. I speak Gaelic. I've picked ticks off a sheep. I'm fey and proud and as good as anyone.

I’m a MacDonald. It wasn’t until I travelled outside of Nova Scotia that I realized how much of a joke that was. In Mabou, where I grew up, approximately 20 per cent of my high school class were MacDonalds. Even in Halifax it was a fairly common name. Elsewhere though... I was quite surprised when people faces lit up when I said my name. They’d get this big grin and they’d start to laugh. “MacDonalds!” They’d say. “Like the restaurant!” I realized that from their perspective, I was essentially introducing myself like this: "Hello, how do you do? My name is Joyce Burger-King."

The thing is, we don’t have fast food restaurants in Mabou. It’s a 45 minute drive to the nearest Tim Horton’s, for Christ’s sake, and that’s on the other side of the Causeway. So the restaurant was so remote from my mind. And then I felt ashamed. Thanks, Mcdonalds, for making my name an international laughing stock and synonymous with crap food and crap jobs. That’s just super. Thanks. On the plus side people everywhere can pronounce my name, so there’s that.

Still all that stuff is not evidence that I’m Scottish. It’s just a collection of stereotypes. And here’s the thing - I’m not Scottish. I mean, obviously I’m not a citizen of the nation of Scotland. I'm a Canadian. It says so right on my passport. But ethnically, I'm a Gael. And Gaelic identity is so tied to romantic notions of Scotland that when I talk about my cultural identity I confuse everyone right into thinking that I am Scottish. (It happened a few weeks ago in this very competition.)

But I always wear something under my kilt, so I suppose I am no true Scotsman after all.

Week 6: step on a crack
caile
I should have known much earlier. The time he got up after sex and started buffing his nails; I should have known then. Or the day he informed me that he sure missed my breasts. Or the night he told me to leave his house at 2 a.m. because he was tired of me.

Go now, he said. I'm tired. I'm tired of you.

I laughed.

Why are you laughing? It's true.

I know, I said. That's why I'm laughing.

It's a compulsion. I know I'll hate being with him and I'll feel bad afterwards, but I can't stop. I'm thinking of him now: his precisely-parted dark hair that I love to mess up, his snub nose, his brown eyes behind designer lenses, the heart-breaking dimple in his right cheek, his oddly slender wrists, his broad, soft belly. The way he fakes a smile, the way he really smiles. The way he expects me to do what he says as a matter of course, here, drink the rest of this beer, and then, when I don't, diffidently, you don't have to if you don't want to.

I know I don't have to. I don't have to do any of this. Don't have to ask him how his day was, don't have to riffle his hair, don't have to kiss him on the shoulder casually, don't have to put on heels, don't have to write him letters, don't have to let him take me home. Don't have to pretend this could be something good.

It's a compulsion. Like jumping over the cracks in crumbling pavement. Once you start you can't stop doing it, hopping from one asphalt island to another, until the whole ground is a tracery of cracks and there's nowhere safe to step.

If I could just fix this, and I know I can't, but if I could just fix this, if I could make him love me, it would prove I deserve to be loved.

Week 4:Nobody can ride your back if your back's not bent
caile
Whiners. Malcontents. Brain-dead. Hillbillies. Hypocrites. Stuck in the past. Bitter. Stupid. Ridiculous. Nonsensical. Squabblers. Daft. Insular. Paranoid. Petty. Foolish. Complainers. Grumpy buggers. Irrelevant.

I've heard all these words used to describe my people in the past few months. In public places. In comments on local, provincial, national news stories.

Colonization is an insidious process. Outright insults and assumptions of inferiority creep inside your head until you yourself believe that your culture is inferior.

My people are not the Scots, not the Highlanders, not the Celts. We are the Gaels.

It began... well, how it began is for historians to guess at. In 1380 John of Fordun wrote: "The highlanders and people of the islands, on the other hand, are a savage and untamed nation, rude and independent, given to rapine, ease-loving, clever and quick to learn, comely in person, but unsightly in dress, hostile to the English people and language, and, owing to the diversity of speech, even to their own nation, and exceedingly cruel." In 1586 William Camden described my people as wild and barbarous (or possibly vampires): "They drank the bloud out of wounds of the slain: they establish themselves, by drinking one anothers bloud..." In 1609 the government required my people to send their eldest children to far away English-speaking schools, if they were to inherit their fathers' cattle. This was to combat "ignorance and incivilitie". There have been government dictates preventing my people from offering hospitality in their homes, from sheltering our musicians and poets, from wearing our own clothing, from carrying weapons and from speaking our language in schools. There have been government-sponsored efforts to plant English-speaking colonists on our lands.

These things undermine confidence.

In 1884 the Commission of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland found that "The language and lore of the Highlanders being treated with despite has tended to crush their self-respect and repress their self-reliance without which no people can advance. When a man was convinced that his language was a barbarism, his lore as filthy rags, and that the only good thing about him -his land- was, because of his general worthlessness, to go to a man of another race and another tongue, what remained that he fight for?"

And eventually our chiefs became "civilised", and they forgot that the people belong to the land, and we were spun away to colonize other lands. To remake ourselves in the image of our oppressors.

A hundred years ago there were 50,000 Gaelic speakers in my province alone. Now there's scarcely more than 50,000 in the whole world.

If you can teach the people that English is superior, eventually they'll clamour to learn it. To leave behind the stupid insular brain-dead hillbillies.

See how it works?

It began again last October, when the board of our tiny Gaelic educational institution announced that it has received a Royal designation from the Queen.

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut. The Crown and honour don't go together, for us. There is no honour in becoming the English. Being English is all very well for the English, but I've had to struggle to learn my own language. What does the Crown care about that? I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Letters to the editor were sent, petitions were circulated, meetings were called. The people made it clear that they opposed this renaming.

The name change was quietly dropped.

My people fought. Our language is beautiful, our lore is rich and deep.

The only irony is that I am writing this in English.

'S e cànan mo chridhe a tha seo, cànan cho binn ri smeòrach a'seinn air barr nan geug.
(This here is the language of my heart, a language as melodious as a thrush singing on the tip of a branch.)

Week 3: In Another Castle
caile
I don't get the big deal about long hair.

I mean, it's nice, but I have been swimming in the ocean on 27 days in a row, starting on report card day and going up to today, and last night I got sick of my hair looking like coconut husks and wool rovings held together by Elmer's glue, so I chopped it all off with my mom's special scissors over the bathroom sink, and then mom yelled at me for leaving hair in the drain.

And this morning, Mrs. MacPherson looks like she would like to yell at me, too, but she can't 'cause I'm not her kid.

"Short hair is not becoming to a princess, Lizzy," she says, pointing to the black-and-white photo of me in this week's Weekly Log, where I float among the dozen other girls in tiaras and sashes. We all have hair streaming over our shoulders

Mrs. MacPherson runs the annual Gathering Week princess pageant. She has long hair. It rises high and stiff from her forehead and scraggles in a bleached blonde mass down her wide back. She frowns at me now as I riffle a hand through my cropped locks. They're so smooth and light.

"Are you taking this pageant seriously?" snaps Mrs. MacPherson.

"Yes, ma'am," I say, eyeing my reflection in a commemorative tray on the mantelpiece. I like the way my hair stands up now that it's so short. I look like Sonic the Hedgehog, a little bit.

The only reason I am in this pageant is because Ashleigh and Kelsey Dawn, my two best friends, begged me to come in it so we could all ride together on the hood of Ashleigh's older brother Rory's '79 Camaro in the Gathering Week parade. Except then Ashleigh got mad at me because she said I was being flirty with Darren Nickerson, who has the longest, darkest, thickest eyelashes of any boy at our school. Just because I was his lab partner in Biology last year. So now they're not talking to me, and I am definitely off the Camaro, and I don't even want to do this stupid pageant, except mom says I have to because she asked her boss to sponsor me, so now I am stuck being the Stone's Pharmacy Pageant Princess, which means I have to help out by running the fish pond at the Fire Fighter's Fun Day. It's just my bad luck that I have to pick up the prizes from Mrs. MacPherson.

I grab the box of prizes and slam out through the screen door. Late July heat shimmers up from the pavement and I can feel sweat rolling down the small of my back as I haul ass down to the fire hall. Ashleigh and Kelsey Dawn are already there, manning the straw draw. Kelsey Dawn whispers something when I come in and Ashleigh laughs loudly. Maybe they aren't my best friends anymore.

The afternoon passes in a blur of attaching plastic toys to strings so the little kids can pull them over the barrier. They exclaim in delight over popguns and bubble wands. I wish I could be so easily pleased.

At home, I wolf down my mac and cheese, stopping only to ask the question that's burning into my soul.

"Mom," I say, all fake casual, "Did you find anybody today?" I cross my fingers on both hands under the table, in hope.

"Sorry, honey," she says.

"Mooo-om!" I yell. "I have to have a classic car! I can't just walk in the parade!"

"Why not?" she says. "Princess power! You were the one who begged to be in this pageant, Lizzy. I thought it was a wasteful relic of 1950s misogony, but you insisted."

"Fine," I say, snatching up my raffia beach bag as I flounce out of the trailer. I run almost all the way down to the beach, stopping only for a stitch in my side. I change into my suit in the outdoor changing stalls and run right into the calm sea. The Atlantic is not warm, exactly, but it's warm enough that I don't gasp like I did at the beginning of July. As soon as the clear brown water is waist deep, I duck-dive under. My hair no longer floats like an anenome or drips down into my eyes when I surface. I love swimming in the evening light but eventually my hands start to get pruney and I have to come out.

I don't want to go home. Instead I stalk down the beach in the opposite direction from the way I would have gone last summer. Ashleigh and Kelsey Dawn will be down at the volleyball net, hoping for Darren Nickerson to pass by.

Instead I head down the long part of the beach, with the red cliffs bulging overhead. This side of the beach is sparsely populated. It's lonely. I blink. Stupid salt stinging in my eyes.

Some stupid kid has built and abandoned a sandcastle, precise bucketfuls of sand forming eroded towers topped by sticks and shells. I kick at one and it slides satisfyingly down. I jump on the castle, kicking it, pulverizing it, destroying it. My breath comes out in unsteady sobs and I have no curtain of hair to hide behind.

"Hey, are you okay?" asks a voice.

If my life were a fairy tale or even a teen novel with "snogging" in the title, the person asking would be velvet-eyed Darren Nickerson. But it isn't. It's Ashleigh's older brother Rory, who is practically actually a grown up at 19. He has a beard and buys his own beer and spends most of his time tinkering with the Camaro which I am not riding on in the parade tomorrow.

"Ashleigh said I can't go on the Camaro," I burst out before I can stop myself.

"Does she?" he says, blinking. "How come, Lizzy -Lizzy, right? I thought you two were thick as thieves."

I shrug, but then somehow as we walk back up the beach I end up telling him the whole embarrassing story, about how I let Darren Nickerson copy my biology homework all year, and how Ashleigh got mad and called me a two-faced queef and how I called her a pin-headed smunt and then we stopped talking to each other.

"Hmmm," says Rory, with a crease forming between his eyes. "I'll fix it. The car thing. Don't worry."

"You will?" I say, gaping.

"Yeah."

"Gee, thanks!" And I race off to get home before dark. The Camaro hums out of the parking lot and passes me in a red flash.

The next morning is a jumble of getting into the green dress I wore to junior prom, the white gloves, sash and tiara that every princess will be wearing. My short dark hair looks super cute under the silver tiara and I'm not surrounded by a cloud of hairspray like everyone.

Around 11 mom drops me off in the Co-op parking lot, where the parade will start. Princesses are crowding into the shade beside fire trucks as balloon-festooned flatbeds manouvre into position. Every so often a classic car pulls up and a girl in a gown rushes over to chat to the driver. I look around anxiously.

When Rory pulls up in the Camaro, Ashleigh and Kelsey Dawn are in the seats. I feel sick. He's probably forgotten. But he flashes me a thumbs-up sign. Ashleigh gets out of the car and slams the door. Rory pulls away, leaving her in a cloud of dust.

I crane my neck. All the other princesses are gone. The cop car that's leading the parade starts up its siren and inches out onto Main Street. Traffic is about to shut down for the duration.

One last car pulls into the parking lot. Or, not just a car, no: a work of art, a thing of beauty. A post-war Rolls Royce in muted green and silver. The driver jumps out, He's an older man who's still kind of hot, with grey hair at his temples.

"Lizzy?" he calls. "Ashleigh? Rory asked me to take the two of you in the parade."

I glare at Ashleigh but there is no way I am not riding on this car. It even matches my outfit. I scramble up on one side of the hood, while Ashleigh does the same on the other side. Neither of us says a word. The car rumbles into place near the end of the parade.

I sit with my back very straight and wave to all the little kids as we roll along. I wish I had candy to throw to them. The dads whistle at the Rolls. I can see Mrs. MacPherson in front of the Post Office, beaming fit to burst. I look over at Ashleigh, wondering whether to try to make her laugh with a comment about that, but her whole face is white. She's gripping the car with both hands.

"Hey, are you okay?" I say.

"Too high up," mutters Ashleigh, and then I remember the time she panicked at the top of the big slide on the playground. I had to talk her down. The hood of the Rolls is a lot higher than the hood of the Camaro.

"Look at Mrs. MacPherson over there, " I say, "She's styled her hair with wallpaper paste again, it seems... Oh, there's the Mayor, he's as dressed up as an undertaker.."

I kep up a soft running commentary through the whole snail-paced journey to the arena, at the other end of the parade route. Ashleigh snorts a few times, and then laughs outright.

The Rolls jolts to a stop. I stop, too.

"Liz," says Ashleigh, "I'm sorry about calling you a... you know."

"Me, too," I say. "I'm sorry. Besides, I don't even like that person anymore."

"He has weird long fingers," Ashleigh agrees. "Ben Dwyer is much cuter. He asked me to play volleyball with him on Monday..."

We thank our driver and hoist up our skirts and sweep off to look for Kelsey Dawn. It's all settled. Darren Nickerson can't come between us. Besides, I think I might have a crush on an older guy. Beards are kind of cute.

Week 2: The Missing Stair
caile
It's best not to want anything from the kitchen when my father is cooking. He slams the cupboard doors and clangs the pots and stomps on the brown linoleum flowers underfoot. He fills up the whole room with a fug of irritability. If you go to the sink, it's bound to be just when he needs water. If you open the fridge, he'll trip over you. Wherever you stand, you'll surely be exactly where he's looking for the cheese grater. He'll growl at you as you scurry away.

To be fair, in our house, there's no consensus on where the cheese grater is kept. It might be on the counter by the cookie jar or it might be in the warming oven or in the upper pantry cupboard or in the lower pantry cupboard or in the cupboard under the lazy susan along with the onions and the molasses and the vinegar. Looking for it is irritating. But my father's mood goes beyond that. He's cranky whether or not there's cheese in a recipe.

On this particular night, he's frying haddock, with mashed potatoes and yellow beans on the side. My sister Emily comes into the kitchen just as the food is being dished out onto mismatched plates. I don't feel like fish, she says, I'll make something.

Fine, my father grits out as he slaps down a spoon into the smooth potatoes. Fine, don't eat it.

There's a flash of suppressed rage that lingers like the smell of burning electrical wires that you get when your computer's power cord burns. A spark and an acrid scent. Anger is like that, in our house.

My father storms out of the kitchen and down the stairs, just as the rest of us sit down to supper. My sisters and I look at each other across his abandoned mound of mashed potatoes.

I just wanted a sandwich instead of fish, says Emily.

It's okay, says Joanne, he's always cranky when he's hungry.

Call him back, says my mother.

I say nothing, but I think about how it's always been this way. My father igniting in anger for reasons no one can understand or predict. A misplaced can of corned beef, a toy left on the floor where he'll step on it, a daughter who disagrees: sometimes this rolls off him and sometimes it provokes him to snap and roar and sulk. Anger is an uncertain thing to live with, when you never know the triggers.

If you don't eat the fish, you don't appreciate his work. If you don't appreciate his work, you don't love him.

I think about myself and my sisters, how we struggle with workplace anxiety and abusive exes and social phobias and dreary depressions. None of us function quite right.

As a boy his own father beat him with a leather belt. In anger, not just as a stern disciplinarian following the parenting wisdom of that by-gone age. In anger. In turn he never laid a blow on any of his daughters. Instead he taught us how to snare rabbits and hunt for shed snake skins, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to throw a punch properly, how to count the rings of a tree to tell its age.

He can't teach us how to untangle the mess each generation makes of the next.

Week 1: Jayus
caile
The thing about jokes is, they're context dependent. Like, there's this story I tell that goes like this: A certain fellow, let's call him Donald, went to a dance one night, in the summer presumably, when the night is warm and big black junebugs clack through the air like flying prunes, as unloved but not as high in fibre, and fireflies and drags on roll-your-own cigarettes and the stars overhead all flicker in the dark.

And Donald brought a bottle; this was in the days before beers in the trunk of the car, but anyway maybe he went in and got heated up dancing some sets or maybe he stood outside and drank straight from a 40 of Johnny Walker with his back against the rough whitewashed shingles on the hall. And by the time the dance was over he had a pretty good sgleo on. And he decided he'd take a shortcut home, rather than going by the road, so he walked through the graveyard.

As it happened, there had been a death in the community recently, and just that afternoon men had come down with their shovels and made a place to lay the corpse. This too is part of grief and dealing with grief: shirtsleeves rolled up and sweating on a summer afternoon, the scent of clay, dirty hands and the knowledge that you've done all you can to provide a final resting place for your friend, your wife, your father, your neighbour. There was an open grave.

Donald, being drunk, fell into the hole, and, being drunk, passed out in the hole.

In the morning he woke, cold seeping into his bones and a taste like ashes and sweat in his mouth. He pulled himself up and looked around. It was just at the break of day, with the sun lapping the horizon with a pinkish glow, but not yet risen. Mist that would later burn off in the sun's heat still wreathed the only thing Donald could see: headstones.

He said to himself, "If this is the Day of Judgement, I must be the first one up!"

I told this joke to a crowd of tourists once, and got only the sort of tension-breaking laughter you get when no one understands why you appear to think you've arrived at the punchline of the joke, because this is the nature of jokes: tension building tension building punchline release of tension laughter. And if the punchline, which in this case depends on the audience having a familiarity with biblical end of the world theories of bodily resurrection, which you just might not have top-of-mind at the exact moment when I am telling this joke, if the punchline falls flat then people will laugh anyway. Because that in itself is a joke. The punchline is there is no punchline.

Week 0: Introduction
caile
I have just come home after 3 days of teaching at a March Break camp for kids. I am tired and sleep-deprived to the point of silliness but my heart is full. I was also part of the organizing team, so my day began whenever I came down for breakfast and ended when the kids went to bed at 10, leaving me time to slip off for some socializing with the other instructors.

Most of the tears this weekend were tears of laughter. I was teaching Gaelic language, storytelling and drama. My students worked up skits on how Chucuillin got his name and the horse with the yellow blaze and the man who trapped death in a sack. They got round-eyed at a story about a corspe rising and stumbling through the wake-house calling, "I'm coming after you! I'm coming after you!" which turned out to be the right level of scary: not so much that anyone got the screaming heebie jeebies but enough that nobody used the four letter l word that I don't allow in my classes. They learned to count to ten: aon dha tri ceithir coig sia seachd ochd naoi deich.

Outside of classes, they danced the macarena a lot. Did you know the macarena would stand the test of time? I mean, these kids weren't even born when it was originally a craze. They played ninja and practiced their stepdancing and got homesick on the second night and then didn't want to go home the next day. They became best friends in 24 hours or less.

The instructors played a number in the variety concert where everyone got on an instrument they don't play: the fiddle teachers on the guitar and the piano, the piano teachers on the chanter and the small pipes, the piping teacher and the guitar teacher on the fiddles, and me on the harp just for fun. The we sloped off to play catchphrase, at some point deciding that the losing team would have to wear their clothes inside out to breakfast the next morning, which they did like troupers with pockets like flags flying. But not me, because my team won. This event amazed the kids. Adults play games, too.

I love to spend time with people who love the things I love.

Want to hear a joke?
Okay.
Ask me if I'm a grapefruit.
Are you a grapefruit?
Nope!

The real LJ Idol, accept no substitutes
caile
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