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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Irish Humor

I usually blog about whatever is on my mind, and so far it hasn't been hard to come up with a subject approximately once per week. But this morning, knowing I would be getting my snippet of writing time for this week, I had a paralyzing thought: I should try to be more funny.

I know humor can't be forced. It's just that my posts have been so serious lately. Anyone stumbling onto this blog might not realize that I have a good sense of humor and funny children. They might think I write about death and racism all the time, and not with the wit of Frank McCourt or Chris Rock. Days ago I began a blog post about whether we should ever let our kids win at chess, but it was way too serious and self-important. So I started trying to recall what has happened lately that's been funny, probably for my own mental health as much as for the blog.

First, I asked the kids, my primary source of humorous material. "Yesterday when you were talking on the phone and we kept picking up the other phone," said Megan. "That was funny." Well, maybe to them.

Sometimes their antics seem funnier a few days later, like the moment during Monday's double playdate when Megan yelled out the window, "Uh, Mom, I hate to tell you this, but..." I was out back with the two boys, who were pretending to set dynamite in the ally. The girls were up in the office/tv room, applying nail polish, which I had foolishly assumed was safer than setting dynamite. I raced up the steps and found nail polish spilt on the couch and piles of half red cotton balls circling Megan's friend, who was still sitting on the floor doing her toes. The girls had changed their minds about what colors they wanted, so the air was toxic with the smell of nail polish remover, especially after Megan's friend knocked the open bottle over on the wood floor.

Sometimes the news is a good source of humor, though there's been too much about terrorism lately, which is hard to joke about without offending people. I got offended myself a few weeks ago when I told another parent about the Arabic cultural camp one of Luke's friends was attending, and the parent responded, "Oh, is it a little al-Qaeda training camp?" I got unnecessarily huffy and said, "No, I think this camp is about promoting peace and cultural understanding." The joke was on me a few days later when I dropped Megan off for her first day of Irish Cultural Camp and found each child's packet included the words to a song with the lyrics "Soldiers are we whose lives are pledged to Ireland..." There was also something about guns and the coming fight, though this was the week the IRA was all over the news for finally giving up their guns.

The Irish camp was actually pretty funny, aside from the image of all these little freckled faced girls singing "A Soldier's Song" at their end-of-camp performance. The children wrote their own plays (Megan played an Irish girl whose dog was stolen by Leprechauns.), learned some new dances, and did a lot of art projects involving green glitter. The glitter nearly gave me heart failure the first night of camp when I sat down to comb though Megan's hair. Although we haven't seen any lice in months, I still do a spot check about once a week, just to be completely paranoid about it. When I discovered that Megan's hair was suddenly full of dark specks, I couldn't breathe for several seconds. It was a huge relief to realize that my daughter and my whole house were just infested with green glitter.

I'm glad Megan has taken an interest in Irish culture, especially music and dance. I'm aware of how being the grandchild of Irish immigrants has affected me. Although I left the Catholic church and became a Quaker, I've been told that I have "a Catholic sense of humor," which I suspect has more to do with my Irish family than with the nuns I had at school. The Irish, I think, have a special gift for finding humor in death and tragedy. (See the movie Waking Ned Divine if you want to see how many laughs can be gotten out of a corpse.) One of my favorite stories about my grandfather was that when he died he left six envelopes with ten dollars for each of his pall bearers to play poker at his wake. I remember my own father's funeral and my Uncle John keeping us in stitches with his wild funeral stories, including one about a young man who was having his mother cremated and didn't think he should have to buy an expensive coffin just for the viewing. According to Uncle John, the man put his dead mother seated in the front row of the funeral parlor, to the horror of her friends who chided him for being a disrespectful cheapskate.

I supposed it's the Irish desire to laugh at death that has me looking for humor now, as my mother is dying. My mom has been talking and joking about her own death since I was sixteen when she first told me that she didn't want a viewing, just a pine box with a sheet wrapped around her. Since then she's changed her tune a bit, though she still wants things as simple as possible. Now she says we should only have an open casket if the embalming fluid takes away her wrinkles. Recalling her brother, a blacksmith who died a few years ago, she said yesterday, "Joe is the only person I know who actually looked better in the coffin, I guess because he always looked so bad when he was alive." (His funeral was probably the only time anyone had ever seen him in a clean suit.)

People deal with death differently, and not everyone makes jokes. Two days ago a friend called to tell me that she had to put her very old, very sick dog to sleep. My friend was heartbroken about it and worried about telling my mother, who for over ten years stayed with the dog whenever my friend went away. I knew my mom would be sad, but I also knew that she'd be glad that the dog was finished suffering. I said to my friend, "I'll bet you twenty dollars my mother says, 'I wish someone would put me out of my misery.'" Sure enough, when I told my mother about the dog she said, "Maybe I should go to a veterinarian."

Maybe no one else does, but I think that's funny, and I'm grateful my mother still has her slightly warped Irish sense of humor.


Anonymous Phil J said...

It never would have occurred to me to conclude from reading your blog that you had had your sense of humor surgically removed by events. I guess I read your blog as a F(f)riend who wants to hear whatever you have to say, and I don't really expect that every third time you'll make me laugh. As I look back over your posts I can find a number of places where you made me laugh (or at least smile), not necessarily because you were trying to. So DON'T BE SO SERIOUS ABOUT BEING FUNNY!

6:19 AM  
Anonymous Sabrina said...

Hello Eileen. Sorry this comment is late (I just discovered your blog and am in the process of reading it all in one gulp... it's that good). Interesting how a post about humor should end up paired with death. Reminds me of Freud and how laughter is a mechanism of release in uncomfortable situations... A few years back, I attended a Catholic funeral service, and the priest (whose father was the deceased) had the whole church laughing to tears during his sermon, as he recounted the endless hilarious catastrophes his father used to get into (losing his dentures in the ocean, getting hit on the head by a golf cart...!). It was a beautiful moment, reminding all that death was a passage in which we find joy.

8:04 AM  

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