I Tried and I Failed

It started with a gif.

The girl in the clip lies flat on the floor with her hands clasped behind her, a long white pole looped between her arms and her lower back. Slowly she pulls her knees forward and then gracefully comes to a standing position with a big smile and a visible six-pack. The heading on this gif was “EVEN HARDER THAN IT LOOKS.”

I watched it, rewatched it, and then with an arrogance borne of pure ignorance thought, “Well it doesn’t look that hard.”

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Exhibit A: The Challenging Gif

I watched the gif again. I read over the comments explaining that to do this correctly, the head, shoulders and pole must stay off the ground. I nodded to myself. Challenge accepted, I thought, nodding confidently, even though nobody had challenged me.

On a mission of my own making, I marched through the apartment with singular focus. I found the mop and pulled off the head with a satisfying THWUNK. I carried the pole to the area in front of the fireplace and lay down on my front.

So far, so good.

I placed the mop handle on my lower back. I locked my fingers together, clasping it in place. I like to think that in this moment my face was a mask of grim determination, but in reality I was probably just facing the wall with the blank resignation of a beached porpoise.

Alright, I thought. Right knee first.

I pulled my right knee up, and then attempted to move my left. This movement shifted my centre of gravity, and in slow-motion I tilted forward, coming to rest on my chin. I looked down my nose at the floorboards and huffed out a sigh of foiled ambition. I put my left knee back down. I moved it up a couple of millimeters and again, my chin came down on the ground. I growled with frustration, and wiggled myself back to the starting position.

The third time, I shifted my left knee and managed to tilt my pelvis up in the air. For a brief moment I felt like I might be getting somewhere; my shoulders weren’t touching the floor and neither was my chin or my pelvis or the mop handle. Unfortunately, I had reached as far as I was going to get.

I was stuck.

I tried to keep going, but I couldn’t move without starting a slow, creaking descent to the floor. I stared blankly at the floor for a moment, and then I started to giggle. There, on the floor, with one knee up around my waist and a mop handle lying across my back, I started to giggle to myself and then I just couldn’t stop. The giggles turned to laughter and I lost the little strength I had in my midsection. My body slumped and the side of my face came to rest against the floor. That made me laugh harder, and soon there were tears streaming from my eyes. I imagined someone walking in and stumbling across my misshapen form, and my laughter turned into hysterical howls.

I spotted movement at the door and shifted my head to meet he worried gaze of my cat, Oscar. He was puffed up defensively and crouching low to the ground, tiptoeing towards me with a face of grave concern. His eyes, wide as saucers, were the only thing countering his sudden and startling resemblance to a fat raccoon trying to steal some food.

The sight of Oscar creeping towards me stole the last bit of breath from my lungs. My laughter turned into choking, wheezy gasps. Oscar carefully and reluctantly picked his way over my knee and under the pole until he was right in front of my face. He stared intently at me, his nose against mine, and then, after a few seconds, apparently decided that there was no danger present other than my own stupidity. He depuffed himself with a shake and trotted over to the side of the room, where he sat at a safe distance to supervise my moronic behaviour. I watched him through a watery haze, laughing to myself on the floor with my mop handle and no upper body strength.

By the time my laughter died away, I was done. I unclasped my hands. I wiped my cheeks and threw the mop handle onto the couch. I picked up Oscar and gave him a hug for coming to check on me, and then went back to work.

It is, indeed, harder than it looks.

“Traditional”

It’s almost October.

You know what that means. It means damp, russet leaves underfoot and a chill in the air like a whisper telling you to make vegetable soup. It means zipping up jackets and debating whether or not you need to wear a beanie. It means gratefully pulling on your Uggs on the way out the door because they have once again become borderline acceptable, like they do every year around the time Starbucks brings out the pumpkin spice latte. It means cold fingers and early dusk and thick, knitted jumpers that feel like inanimate hugs.

I like Autumn, and I particularly like October. There is something magical about Halloween; I love that the tradition has lasted to the present day. I love the pumpkin-carving and the skeletons and the ghosts and the fireworks. I love the idea of a holiday that involves death in such a harmless way, a traditional, cultural celebration that’s a little macabre but ultimately unthreatening.

A couple of years ago, I visited family in Spain and brought with me some cartoon Halloween stickers for the kids. They were packs with the usual cast of characters – an arched cat, a laughing witch, a cheery pumpkin – and I gave them out to the younger children because it was about this same time of year, and in my experience all little kids love stickers.

Quick as a flash their dad was right there, taking them back from the children and shuffling them into a neat pile as if he were taking cards from gambling addicts about to play a game of poker. I stared at him, wondering if he intended to save them for later. Maybe he was afraid they would stick them on the dashboard of his car?

Instead, he turned, held them out to me, and stiffly said, “Thank you, but we don’t celebrate pagan holidays.”

I took them from him wordlessly and stared in disbelief as he got into the car and they drove away, a huddle of forlorn faces looking longingly out the back window at the contraband stickers in my hand.

I think about that quite a bit around this time of year, especially as the houses in my area start to get creative with their front garden decor. Some put motion-activated sensors at their gates so that anyone passing through hears rattling chains and ghoulish moans. Plastic ravens are twist-tied to trees, and small stuffed ghosties made from ping-pong balls and tissue paper dangle from invisible string. There are candles and cobwebs and paper decorations in the windows. It’s like a creepy Christmas. I LOVE it, and so do the kids. I would hate to see the tradition of trick-or-treating die away.

Last year in Spain there was a lot of controversy, because some of the traditional Three Wise Men parades that happen every January were… modified. They were adapted; secularised slightly in an professed attempt to make it more inclusive. The staunch Catholics were, of course, up in arms about it. They complained about there being a lack of respect for tradition and how it shouldn’t matter that it’s a Catholic tradition, because it’s part of the culture, and it’s for the children after all, and why can’t people just enjoy it?

Personally, I agree that traditions are important. They’re cultural touchstones. Even if the root of the tradition is something to give pause (I’m not sure American Thanksgiving is as wholesome as the name suggests, and Valentine’s Day celebrates the execution of a saint), the traditions themselves bring people together. I remember the magic of the Three Wise Men when I was a child. I remember them throwing fistfuls of sweets into the crowds, I remember the jeweled robes and the pageboys and the music and the sparkling lights. I LOVED it. I certainly didn’t stop to think about the religious undertones, in much the same way as I was largely oblivious to the pagan history of Samhain when I dressed up for Halloween.

As I listened to the Catholics on the television banging on about how people needed to think of the children and respect the beauty of tradition, I thought about the Halloween stickers. I thought about how intolerant that man had been with what amounted to a silly symbol of a strange and wonderful tradition. I wondered why people feel so threatened by beliefs other than their own, and why sometimes we can’t just allow ourselves to enjoy things that aren’t hurting anyone.

It would be nice for people to respect the beauty of tradition, but I would happily settle for people just learning to respect each other.

“Irish People, Am I Right?”

-Irish People, Am I Right--

I daydreamed as I stood in line for the till, cradling my carton of milk and loaf of bread like precious cargo. The shop is usually pretty quiet mid-morning, with only freelancers and frazzled parents usually stopping in for essentials. The man in front of me was taking his time, and slowly my attention drifted back down to earth and settled on his lanky figure. His clothes were ill-fitting and dirty. His hair hadn’t been washed in any version of the recent past, and his cheeks were hollow. He was buying cigarettes and a six-pack of beer.

“I just lost a hundred on a horse,” he said to the young guy working the till. He sounded both apologetic and desperate, as if this grocery shop employee could hear his confession and grant him forgiveness as part of the transaction. “I lost a hundred on a horse,” he muttered again, his eyes wide and panicked. “That was me last hundred, you know?”

The guy on the till – a good-looking twenty year old with West Asian features – raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded in the universal expression for ‘Ooookay then!’

He rang up the beer in silence.

“I just need a drink to take the edge off, you know. Like, that was me last hundred.” The man gulped and his fingers fluttered nervously on the edge of the conveyer belt. “It was a good tip. It was a good tip I got about the horse, but it just… These things happen, you know.”

The words just poured out of him. He kept repeating himself. He was fixated on the horse and how it had run the race and what had happened to keep him from winning. The conditions weren’t favourable. The horse started wrong. The jockey didn’t make the right calls. All the time he was talking his fingers danced along the metal edge of the till and his eyes darted nervously across the back wall.

“That was me last hundred. I can’t believe it, you know?”

I watched him, and my heart hurt for him. I’ve been there. Maybe I haven’t been buying-a-six-pack-and-a-carton-of-smokes-at-11am-after-losing-my-last-hundred-on-a-horse kind of there, but I’ve definitely experienced that feeling of having Messed Up that hits like an avalanche and robs you of reason. I’ve felt that horrible, unrelenting anxiety close over me. I’ve had moments that made me want to vomit because in the panic of the moment I feared I’d dug myself a hole that felt like it might be a grave.

The man’s gaze flicked blindly over his cans and his packet of cigarettes. It bounced across the plants stacked next to the door, ricocheted off the bottles of Jack Daniels behind the till, and finally came to rest on the cashier, who stared at him with ill-concealed disdain.

“That’ll be €21.90,” the twenty-year old said cooly. His eyes met mine for a moment and the faintest flash of a smirk crossed his face.

There was a strained silence as the man nodded to himself and pulled change out of his pockets, counting out the exact amount. He handed it to the boy, and picked up his things. He stood for a moment, as if waiting for something more – help, maybe, or absolution – then nodded once last time and dragged himself out of the shop. The cashier and I watched him leave in silence, then I placed my items on the belt and gave the guy a small smile.

He started to scan my items and shook his head. “Not even 12pm,” he said to me in a half-amused, half-disgusted tone of voice.

“Irish people, huh?”

He caught me so off-guard that I simply stared at him. I tapped my card against the machine, picked up my stuff and walked out without saying a word.

Afterwards, I kicked myself for not having said anything, but I was so surprised at the number of assumptions he made in that moment that I was struck mute. Consider for a moment that to make that throwaway comment he had to have thought:

  • That all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
  • That I am not Irish
  • That I agree that all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
  • That I feel justified in judging strangers based on two-minute interactions

I mean… None of those things are true.

I’ve touched on the fact that I don’t look Irish before, but I think that’s the first time somebody has felt comfortable enough assigning me a background that they’ve dragged me into a conspiratorial bit of casual racism against Irish people. It would be more understandable if this had happened abroad, but we’re in Ireland! Not a huge leap to think I might be Irish despite not looking the part.

Anyway.

I haven’t seen the gambler since.

The cashier still smiles conspiratorially at me anytime I go to the shop.

How should I have handled this? Have you ever had anything like this happen? I’d like to somehow slip my Irishness into conversation next time I get caught at his till, but I now actively avoid him if I see him working. The whole thing just makes my skin crawl.

I hope the gambler is okay. I hope his panic passed. I hope he’s backed off from backing horses.

 

 

St. Patrick’s Day from an Irish Perspective

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Once more from the top.

St. Patrick’s Day is either referred to as St. Patrick’s Day or Paddy’s Day. Those are the only acceptable terms. St. Pat’s Day, St. Patty’s Day, any and all of the other variations… they make Irish people feel so unclean they need to scour with wire brushes just to scrape off the horror. Please don’t use them. Please. PLEASE.

In addition, it’s shamrock we use, not clover. These are same, same, but different. Shamrock has three leaves, clover has four. Shamrock is what we use on St. Patrick’s Day because legend has it that St. Patrick used the plant to explain the holy Trinity to the pagans of Ireland. He used the one stalk and three leaves to demonstrate how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were all one.

You see now why clover doesn’t quite fit the bill; that pesky extra leaf really gets in the way of the story.

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Not this one.

St. Patrick’s Day is a day when the world seems to almost become more Irish than the Irish themselves. Little leprechaun hats, and Kiss Me I’m Irish t-shirts, and green-tinted sunglasses, and shamrock badges, and face paint, and all sorts appear on the streets of Dublin city, and all of these things are almost exclusively draped on tourists. Here’s the thing; the only Irish people you tend to see in Dublin city centre on St. Patrick’s Day are either parents with small children, or small children. The rest of the population has scattered, bunkered down in their homes to survive the touristocalypse. Usually this is done with a decent amount of alcohol and some friends. I myself can’t remember the last time I went into town on St. Patrick’s Day. At most, I’ll wear green eyeliner on the day and listen to some U2 and Sinead O’Connor.

When you’re a wee thing, the St. Patrick’s Day parade is a great day out. Usually raining, you drag your parents out to stand in the cold. You watch smiling American baton-twirlers in woefully weather-inappropriate clothing file past while clenching their teeth to stop them from chattering. There are giant floats, and someone usually presses some Cadbury’s Roses into your hand, and you can usually expect to find a tatty cowboy hat and some green beads in the gutter. Afterwards, you go home beaming.

Your parents usually trail behind in a noticeably less enthusiastic fashion, holding all the junk you’ve collected off the ground. This is later disposed of surreptitiously while you’re turned the other way.

After a while though, you realise that actually the parade is not worth leaving your house for, especially since they televise the whole thing. You get a much better view from your comfortable couch at home than five people deep in a crowd full of soaked, screaming children. The day is a national holiday, and we definitely take good advantage of that fact, but we like to leave Temple Bar to the tourists who arrive in droves every year to drink pints on the cobblestones.

It’s nice to see people from all over celebrating our tiny island. When you zoom out a bit, it’s pretty incredible that today, people all over are enjoying our culture, or at least their idea of it. I mean, we don’t have a day of the year when we all celebrate Portugal, for example, or the state of Indiana. Both of these are roughly the same size as Ireland. It’s lovely that Irish people have traveled enough and made enough of an impact globally to have this day of green-hued shenanigans. It makes me feel quite proud, actually, when I think about it that way.

So happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! In uncharacteristically cheesy fashion I’ll add a little  old Irish blessing here for you:

May your neighbors respect you,
Trouble neglect you,
The angels protect you,
And heaven accept you.

…Now where’s my green eyeliner?