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Funny Women

By clairecameron
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tagged: ha ha ha, women, funny
The humour isn't obvious. It builds slowly. You start by cackling softly as you read, but soon enough you are clutching your belly and have happy tears streaming down your cheeks (because you realize you are not alone).
How Should a Person Be?

How Should a Person Be?

also available: eBook Paperback Paperback

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, and selected as a New York Times Notable Book and Huffington Post Best Book

From the internationally acclaimed author of The Middle Stories and Ticknor comes a bold interrogation into the possibility of a beautiful life. How Should a Person Be? is a novel of many identities: an autobiography of the mind, a postmodern self-help book, and a fictionalized portrait of the artist as a young woman — of two such artists, in fact.

For reasons multiple and my …

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On the Outside Looking Indian

On the Outside Looking Indian

How My Second Childhood Changed My Life
also available: Hardcover

"There's a phenomenon in Amish culture called Rumspringa, where Amish adolescents are permitted to break free from their modest and traditional lifestyles to indulge in normally taboo activities. They dress how they want, go out if and when they please, smoke, drink and generally party like it's 1899. At the end they decide if they will return and join the Amish church.

"I am 30 years old. I wore my hair in two braids every day until I was 12. I dressed more conservatively than most Amish, barely …

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There is a phenomenon in Amish culture called Rumspringa, in which Amish adolescents are permitted to break free from their modest traditional lifestyles and indulge in normally taboo activities. They dress however they want, go out if and when they please, smoke, drink, and party like it’s 1899. At the end of their Springa Break they decide whether they will maintain their new lifestyles or return and join the Amish church.

In Indian adolescence you never break free of the rules. You cook, clean, babysit, clean, get good grades, clean, be silent, clean, and don’t challenge your parents in any way – especially while cleaning. This was my life. I grew up in a town whiter than snow, about an hour outside of Toronto. Like most children of immigrants, I was raised by the rules of one culture and looked longingly at those living a distinctly different way. I didn’t have time for a continent-wide census, but from what I know, this is how typical North American kids spend their summer vacations growing up:

July – summer camp, family trip, or cottage. Activities include swimming, canoeing, travelling, laughter, horseplay, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Mother makes glazed ham while father reads Russian classics and smokes a pipe. Kids dance around maypoles.

August – return home and play with friends, have sleepovers, take weekend trips, and shop for fabulous new back-to-school clothes while dreading the inevitable return to academia.

Here is how I spent my summer vacations growing up: July – tv room. Activities include hanging out with my sisters and watching anything and everything on television, including Welcome Back, Kotter, Who’s the Boss?, 227, and various other programs offering canned laughter and some much needed escapism. Brief breaks for housecleaning and being nagged for not cleaning enough.

August – basement tv room (much cooler). Count down the return to school. Find blank vhs tapes on which to tape Days of Our Lives (dying to know if Patch and Kayla will get together!). Fight with parents about their annual two shirts, two pants back-to-school shopping policy. Pray that sideburns spontaneously fall off by Labour Day.

If an Indian version of Rumspringa existed – a Ram-Singha of sorts – I would bet my last rupee that at the end of it, only one out of every hundred kids would return to their traditional Indian upbringing. The rest of us would be hanging out at the mall in acid-washed jeans, schooling the younger members of the group in how to undo their parental shackles and integrate into Western society. Sessions would be set up for courses such as You Are Not Your Cousin Ravi: How to Function in a Culture That Doesn’t Compare You Against Everybody Else’s Kids and Less is More: A Workshop in Applying Men’s Musk Oil Cologne.

Unfortunately no such program existed during my adolescence, so my parents raised us by the standard rules of northern Punjab nunneries. I don’t wholly blame my parents for my lacklustre childhood. Having been to India, I am aware that the majority of kids there don’t spend their summers singing around campfires or learning to play the flute. From a young age you are expected to make a contribution to the house, not simply to hang up your favourite cartoon posters in it.

Whenever we complained, my parents liked to remind us that they hadn’t grown up like Richie and Joanie Cunningham either. “When I was a kid, we made toys out of mud,” my dad once said. This was the Indian equivalent of the walking-twomiles- to-school tale that white parents used as their trump card. According to my dad, they would fashion mud cars, mud guns, or mud animals and pray it didn’t rain before they finished their game of cops and robbers.

Since their own childhoods were so limited, I understood why they didn’t see value in the things we were missing out on. But what they seemed to miss was that they weren’t living in India anymore. They tried desperately to hold on to their culture. For years the only friends they had were fellow Indians. I took the opposite approach.

Growing up, I had friends, but I didn’t have a single Indian friend. This was due partly to the fact that there were only two other Indians in our primary school, but also because I was not interested in all things Indian. I grew bored of Bollywood films, didn’t listen to Indian music, and ate cereal for dinner so I didn’t have to eat saag. I viewed the fact that I was Indian as the reason I was living my life hanging out in my basement. It was the reason I couldn’t go to dances, go to movies past five p.m., take singing lessons, or be friends with boys, so I wasn’t really interested in embracing any more of the culture than was required.

In high school there were a few other Indian kids at my school. They all hung out together, but I never made it into the fellowship. I didn’t know the first thing about the latest and greatest bhangra tracks and couldn’t roll out samosa dough to save my life.

That left my white friends as my only source of comparison, and it seemed fairly clear that we had very different lives. For starters, they had two distinct eyebrows, while above my eyes I had one hibernating slug. Their parents knew the names of their kids’ friends and welcomed them into their homes. But more important, they had freedom – my version of freedom at least. They had the luxury of indulging their interests. They went to “lessons” and “hung out” on weekends. They went on family trips and actually had stories to tell in September when the teacher asked us what we did on our summer vacations. I wanted that, and didn’t understand why I couldn’t have it.

Suffice it to say, my parents were strict. I was rarely allowed to go out. I wasn’t allowed to take lessons or to talk on the phone with boys, or for extended periods with girls. I was discouraged from being too involved in extracurricular activities. I was expected to get good grades, although cleaning and taking care of the needs of houseguests trumped homework. I was not allowed to attend sleepovers, nor were my friends ever invited into our home.

I was, however, permitted to watch hours upon hours of television, because television kept us quiet and indoors. Unfortunately for my parents, it just exposed us further to the lives that other kids were leading. Those tv kids had even cooler clothes and adventures than the real kids I knew, pushing my sense of injustice into feelings of anger. I wanted to punch the tv every time those smug Cosby kids were on it.

One sunny August weekend not too long ago, my high school friends and I went up to our friend Jessie’s cottage. We were celebrating her and our friend Johanna’s upcoming weddings. As I sat on the dock and watched them swimming in the crystal lclear lake, I felt envious – not for their marriages, but for their ability to swim. I couldn’t swim. I had spent my whole life sitting on the pool deck, standing in the shallow end, or simply avoiding the situation altogether. If we’d been at an ice-skating rink instead of a lake, I wouldn’t have been able to participate there either. Ditto for skiing, tennis, gymnastics, camping, swapping stories about family vacations, and reminiscing about teenage love. I didn’t have any camp friends or photos of me dressed as a bumblebee in a dance recital. Never having been on a team, I didn’t have a shiny Little League trophy.

I had always joked about my boring and uneventful childhood. That day, the reality of it truly hit me. I had lost hundreds of hours of my childhood and missed countless experiences as I sat in front of that television. It may have been that I had just turned thirty, an age that makes you evaluate your life whether you want to or not. It may also have been that I was surrounded by the very friends I had watched have the childhood experiences I wanted.

For years I believed that childhood experiences (or the lack thereof ) were strictly once-in-a-lifetime. I always thought, When I have my own kids, they will do all the things I never did. But that day, as I contemplated risking death for a few minutes of feeling the water lap around me, I didn’t care about those hypothetical future kids. Those jerks weren’t going to put me through eighteen hours of labour and be rewarded for it with clarinet lessons. From a childhood lived in a fun-proof cave had grown an adult who didn’t take chances, who didn’t boldly go anywhere, and who was, well, quite bored with my routinefilled life. I needed to experience for myself what I had missed, or I would forever live a life of sitting on the sidelines.

When I got back to the city, I vowed I would finally learn to swim. As I researched lessons in my neighbourhood, I started to get excited at the thought of diving into a pool on a hot day, the way they do in diet soda commercials. I also started thinking about all the other lost experiences of youth. There were so many other things I wished I had done as a kid, so whenever I thought of a new one, I would write it down.

Soon I became overly ambitious. As summer gave way to the cool of fall and the fall gave way to the bitter cold of winter, my list grew. I culled some items because I really didn’t think it was that important to learn to tie-dye my own scrunchies or backpack through Europe like Mike Seaver in Growing Pains, and soon I had created a workable list of goals.

It wasn’t until January that I started to take action on the list. It was a new year and I was thirty – it felt like the perfect time for a new start. The items on the list were some of the missing links between the life I had and the one I wanted. A few were life skills, some were just desires, but all of them were important enough that I felt they warranted pursuing. I could have added a million more items, but I started by setting five concrete goals to tackle. The list read as follows, in no particular order:

1. LEARN TO SWIM. Indians don’t swim. They don’t have cottages, they don’t go on cruises, and they are rarely seen basking in the sun at the beach. Indian girls especially don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever. No doubt the Indian women’s swimming team practises in full snowsuits with matching glittery bracelets. This was a life skill I had just assumed I would never have; it was time to change that thinking.

2. TAKE LESSONS. Oh, how I wanted to take lessons when I was a kid. How I wanted to hate my piano teacher and do dance routines in the junior high talent show like all the other girls. What I would have given to say “I can’t – I have karate” or “No, thanks, I have to get to gymnastics,” instead of “I have to go. It is my night to clean the stove!”

3. VISIT DISNEY WORLD. Yes, I know not every kid visited Disney World, but I always dreamed of it. Like many children with boring home lives, my fantasy life was incredibly vivid, and it involved many imaginary characters from the Disney catalogue, children’s stories, and various nonsensical cartoons. We would record Disney specials from tv onto vhs tapes and watch them over and over, fast-forwarding through the commercials for Hypercolor shirts and Mini Pop Kids albums. We never did family trips longer than two days, and even those overnighters would be simply to see family. I didn’t want to see another uncle I had never met – I wanted to see Goofy.

4. GO TO CAMP. I longed to sleep on a fleainfested mattress set on wooden planks, swim amongst leeches, and sing “Kumbaya” while roasting s’mores to perfection. In my seventh grade the junior school offered an end-of-theyear camp trip. Two weeks before the deposit was due, I took the permission slip to my dad and offered him a sales pitch straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross. “Forget it,” he told me. I was always advised to forget whatever I wanted. If only he could have forgotten to say no, just once. As a desperate measure I went to my mom, who simply asked what my father had said. Two days before the application was due, I grew frantic. All my classmates had already committed, and the only people outstanding were ethnic girls and suspected bedwetters. Knowing that both my parents would have left for their jobs by six thirty a.m., I woke up at six and went downstairs for one last effort. At least they were considerate enough to yell “No!” in less than a minute, allowing me to go back to bed and get another hour of sleep before school.

5. OWN A PET. I have wanted a dog my whole life. All my sisters have too. We would take out library books on dog breeds, buy dog magazines, cut pictures of cute pups out of them, and dream of the day that our parents’ tundra hearts would melt. My mom always had the same response: “I have enough animals in this house already!” It was a killer joke in the Indian mothers’ circle. But I was out of her house now, and what could make my house a home more than a furry foot-warmer to sit with me while I watched Seinfeld reruns?

I typed out my list the same way I had typed out hundreds of lists before it. And, as with every list I had ever made, I wondered how in hell I was going to really achieve any of it.

“Set one new New Year’s resolution for each year until you are done,” my friend Madeleine suggested.

“You know how that goes,” I said. Madeleine and I met in college. We had created a deep friendship based on a mutual love of eating, complaining about our weight, and each year swapping lists of New Year’s resolutions that we had abandoned like clockwork by January 15. I don’t think I had ever achieved one of my New Year’s resolutions. I never learned to do the worm (1988), alphabetized my vhs movie tapes (1994), read every book on the New York Times fiction list (1998), or lost ten pounds (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006). If I tried to do only one item on the list each year, I would have one foot in a ballet shoe and the other in the grave by the time I got around to them all. There was only one logical solution I could think of – I would have to do them all at once.

This was a bit of a goal-setting stretch for someone who had not achieved the vast majority of goals she set for herself, but if I pulled it off, perhaps I could finally stop looking at the past and move gracefully into the future. Thirty seemed as good an age as any to finish off my youth. And if I had time left at the end, maybe I would learn to do the worm.

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Woefield Poultry Collective

Woefield Poultry Collective

also available: Hardcover Audiobook
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Woefield Farm is a sprawling thirty acres of scrub land,complete with dilapidated buildings and one half-sheared,lonely sheep named Bertie. It’s “run”—in the loosestpossible sense of the word—by Prudence Burns, an energetic,well-intentioned twenty-something New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, but without an iota of related skills or experience.Prudence, who inherited the farm from her uncle, soondiscovers that the bank is about to foreclose on Woefield Farm,which means that Pru …

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Pulpy and Midge

Pulpy and Midge

also available: eBook
tagged : literary

Brian Lembeck – ‘Pulpy’ – takes life slow and steady. He likes his office job, and he likes his gentle, figurine-collecting boss, Al. He even likes the bitter receptionist, though he’s the only one who does. He likes his wife, Midge, too, and their ice-dancing lessons. Midge works as a candle-party hostess – she quit her office job when Al’s dog ate her pet pigeon and Al promised Pulpy a promotion.

But when Al retires and the tyrannical Dan takes over, the promotion vanishes. And th …

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Irma Voth

Irma Voth

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From the award-winning author of A Complicated Kindness comes a heart-wrenching yet wryly funny story about setting out on the road to self-discovery, and finding the strength to survive in the face of immeasurable loss.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, surrounded by desert and both physically and culturally isolated from the surrounding towns and cities. It’s been six years since her family up and left Canada to escape the prying eyes of the go …

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Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
No, I really am, I said.
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
Questions about what? I asked him.
Anything, he said.
But about what? I said.
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
Some people are staring at us, he said.
No they’re not, I said.
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
I think so, I said.
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
So, he said. Why would you want to?
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
I don’t know, I said.
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
I’d rather not.
I was just saying stuff.
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.

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Saints of Big Harbour

Saints of Big Harbour

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Back then it was spring. He had a truck. A girl had given him a picture for his wallet.

1982 starts well for Guy Boucher. But before long he feels the need to move to the town of Big Harbour to get away from his school, family life, and most of all "the supreme and utter retardation of my existence which mostly takes the form of Isadore".

An Acadian adolescent oppressed by boredom and poverty, Guy is made even more miserable by uncle Isadore who lives with Guy and his mother in exchange for use o …

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All sorts of deals being made around here. According to Isadore, everything is working out "beautifully" for "everyone," meaning him. You'd think he'd planned on being arrested all along. So he is paroled to my mother for driving the truck not just drunk but without a driver's license or insurance. My mother pays the insurance now that she's got a job in Big Harbour. I drive the truck all around hell and back, chauffeuring the both of them. My mother into town for her job, Isadore into town (once my mother's gone as if she won't know) to the tavern. And what's Isadore's job in this great deal? Babysitting me, apparently. And Louise, who is seventeen and hardly ever around anyway. The judge was delighted, he said. "I'm just delighted at this prospect. What this man needs is the responsibilities of a home and a family. God bless his dear sister for her generosity."

But it was for the truck. She couldn't have taken the job without it.

Here is Isadore's idea of baby-sitting: he wakes up at seven when he smells the bacon I'm frying for breakfast. He staggers out of - whose bedroom? my bedroom - without even brushing his teeth or picking the crumbs out of his eyes and grabs the plate out of my hands just as I'm sitting down. Then he dumps a bottle of corn syrup all over the bacon so it's inedible for anyone except himself, and when I complain, he tells me to make my own. Make my own, like I hadn't just done it. He reeks. To cover up his bed head, he wears a cap that reads, Wine me, dine me, sixty-nine me!

"Don't forget to come get me at noon," he says when he's done eating, heading back to bed. So I get to take the truck to school, after dropping my mother off in Big Harbour, but so what.

My lunch hour is spent driving him into town. We stop at the bank first and he gives me money for gas. Isadore always has money these days. When he's not working in the tavern kitchen for Leland, he's getting welfare. When he's not getting welfare, he has his disability pension. This is Isadore's other job, according to the judge. Helping keep the truck gassed up. And paying for some groceries. "Contributing to basic household maintenance," said the judge. But I drop him off at the tavern and God knows when we'll see him again. He never arranges for me to pick him up, but he always ends up back at the house somehow. I get some fast food and then burn it back to school and am always late for first period. My history teacher goes insane every time. I haven't bothered explaining to him about my responsibilities, because I like it to look as though I couldn't give a shit. He always makes a big production about me coming in late, and I kind of enjoy it.

"Ah, Monsieur Boucher graces us with his presence at long last. Applause! Fanfare!" The history teacher is English, from Truro or somewhere, and thinks it's hilarious to call everyone Monsieur this and Mademoiselle that when most of us don't even speak any French. Sometimes when I make my entrance a few of the guys will clap and whistle just to be assholes. It's the only time I ever get any attention. Sometimes I bow.

After school I drive back into Big Harbour to get my mother, which is not so bad because I can hang around the arcade or the mall or somewhere while I wait for it to be five. The irony of this situation is my mother's job. My mother's job is being a housekeeper. She looks after someone else's house and someone else's kids all day while I fry bacon for her alcoholic brother. She works in a big old house, and the kids she looks after are very small and very cute. She loves it. She can't believe her luck, how circumstances came together so perfectly for us - that Isadore would drive into a ditch with his uninsured truck one night and be forced to live with us.

So my life is incredibly boring, driving into town and back. Guys at school think I have it made because I've got a truck, and I get to go into Big Harbour all the time by myself. It is a big joke. It feels like a big joke.

I get up some mornings, my English teacher's lying on the floor. He drinks with Isadore, which is enormously stupid because Isadore has been known to break the limbs of some of the guys he's drunk with. The English teacher doesn't know this, or else he's not concerned. Drunks aren't picky about the company they keep, as long as it's other drunks, people who won't make them feel bad about it. The smell of bacon wakes the English teacher up too, but he bolts to the bathroom instead of going for my plate. He always comes out after about a half hour or so, always smiling, his hair wet and combed back.

"Ah!" he says. "Guy!" Like it's a beautiful day and nothing short of having woken up on my kitchen floor could have made him happier. "How about a lift to school?" So I end up having to chauffeur him around as well. It's a stupid, embarrassing life.

The English teacher has a girl's name - Alison Mason - but he likes to be called Al, for obvious reasons. He is from New York, and everybody says he is a draft dodger and a back-to-the-lander because anyone who would come here from the States always is.

"Are you a draft dodger and a back-to-the-lander?" I ask him one morning when I am pissed off at him for stinking up the truck with his booze fumes and the fact that I am going to have to listen to him talk about Flowers for Algernon all third period and the fact that I've just seen him sprawled across the linoleum.

"Back-to-the-lander I would need you to define," replies Alison Mason. "Draft dodger, yes. I answer without hesitation. It was an unjust war."

"I'd love a war," I tell him.

"You wouldn't, Guy."

"Fuckin Hitler!" I yell.

"Well - that was before my time..."

"Fuckin Commies!"

"Please don't yell," says Alison. "I had moral objections."

Yes, you strike me as an extremely moral person, I'm thinking. I would one day like to have the balls to say all the great things I think.

But Alison Mason didn't get where he is today by being dense. He sees me smirk at him and grins wide, like a guilty kid. It's a weird expression to see on the face of an English teacher, and I don't like it. He thinks now we are friends.

A lot of the girls at school think Alison Mason is incredibly hot. It's just because he's American. I should take a picture of him some morning at our house.

Girls are insane and for the most part I can't stand the thought of them. The ones at my school anyway. The girls in town are better, obviously. Last year I went to a dance at the vocational school in Big Harbour and it was like going to Disneyland. I didn't know anyone there, except the guys I came with. There was one girl who kept looking at me, and I danced with her three times. She kept yelling in my ear, "You're not from around here, are you? You're not from around here, are you?" because I think saying it made her feel sophisticated but it also made me feel pretty cool, because I realized I could've been from anywhere, instead of just out in the sticks, out in Frog-town. That's what she was thinking too. I could've been from New York for all she knew. Since the music was blasting, she probably never noticed my accent. She went to the bathroom with her gaggle of friends and after that I lost track of her.

They say in a year or so our school is going to be shut down, and we'll all be bussed into Big Harbour every day. I wish it would happen now.

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Come, Thou Tortoise

Come, Thou Tortoise

also available: Paperback

A delightfully offbeat story that features an opinionated tortoise and an IQ-challenged narrator who find themselves in the middle of a life-changing mystery.

Audrey (a.k.a. Oddly) Flowers is living quietly in Oregon with Winnifred, her tortoise, when she finds out her dear father has been knocked into a coma back in Newfoundland. Despite her fear of flying, she goes to him, but not before she reluctantly dumps Winnifred with her unreliable friends. Poor Winnifred.

When Audrey disarms an Air Mars …

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The plane is a row of gold circles and a cockpit. One of those circles will carry my head halfway home. I count back fourteen. That circle. In the cockpit the pilots are having a good time. Boy are they. Coffee cups have to be put down. They are really laughing. One puts a hand on the other’s shoulder. Then the one with the hand leans over and kisses the other’s cheek. A quick impulsive happy peck.

A fellow passenger joins me at the terminal window. Hey, I tell her. Our pilots just kissed.

No response.

I’m thinking that kiss bodes well for our safety.

She pretends she has a cup to throw away.

That is my plane. With the word nap resolving on its tail. How do I feel about that acronym. Not great.

My phone rings and it’s Linda.

What’s up.

Winnifred isn’t moving.

Never assume a tortoise is dead. Rule Number One of Tortoise Ownership. What’s the temperature in your apartment. Remember it’s winter. It’s still dark. She ’s not nocturnal. These and other environmental factors have likely caused her to withdraw into her shell. Her heart beats maybe once an hour. Be patient. Wait an hour.

Still, I crouch down next to the window. Feel the heat coming up from the vent. Is my tortoise dead. Should I go back.

My own heart is all apatter. This is being alive. Can you feel the body worry before every beat. I can. Will this be the last. No. Will this be the last. No.

Should I go back.

I look up at the pilots who are possibly in love and I don’t want to catch any other plane but this one. This is my plane.

Yesterday I peered down into her castle and she was beside the pool making the same journey I’d seen her start two days ago. I knocked on her shell. Excuse me, Winnifred.

No legs emerged. No little ancient head.

I picked her up and held her under my armpit. This usually worked. I did have a heat lamp, but paper castles tend to be flammable.

Finally she woke up.

There, I said. I put her in the pool.

I knelt down beside the castle with windows that look out onto my kitchen. Many times I have seen Winnifred poke her head wistfully through one of those windows. Many times I have seen her drop a piece of lettuce like a note.

She climbed out of the pool and creaked over to the window.

I have to go home for a while, I said.

Winnifred is old. She might be three hundred. She came with the apartment. The previous tenant, a rock climber named Cliff, was about to embark on a rock climbing adventure that would not have been much fun for Winnifred. Back then her name was Iris. Cliff had inherited Iris from the tenant before him. Nobody knew how old Iris was or where she had come from originally. Now Cliff was moving out. He said, Would you like a tortoise.

I would not say no to a tortoise, I said.

I was alone in Portland and the trees were giant. I picked her up and she blinked at me with her upside- down eyelids. I felt instantly calm. Her eyes were soft brown. Her skin felt like an old elbow. I will build you a castle, I whispered. With a pool. And I was true to my word.

Hold her under your armpit, I tell Linda.


Trust me.

And I hang up.

That was rude, but I am not myself. I am unslept. I am on automatic pilot. This image brought to mind by the pilots who clearly aren’t. What does automatic pilot mean. I picture an inflatable pilot, but that is from a movie. Automatic pilot is just a computer. It is what flies the plane when the pilots take a nap or make out. It is what kicks in metaphorically when your dad is in a comma, sorry coma, and you are summoned home and you must make arrangements for your tortoise.

Last night I stepped outside carrying Winnifred in her castle and the sky was busy with stars.

Look, Win, I said. The past. Because the past is what you are looking at when you look at the stars.

Winnifred looked up.

That’s where I’m going tomorrow, I said.

We drove out to Oregon City where the streets are all named after presidents in the order they were elected, so you can’t get lost if you are American and know your presidents. Linda and Chuck live on Taft. When I pulled up, Chuck was outside smoking with his actor friends.

Evening, Chuck.


As I climbed the steps, one of the actor friends said, Am I hallucinating or is she carrying a castle.

Yes, a castle.

Four people at my gate are knitting. Knitting needles are allowed on planes again. At security there was a new and definitive list of Objects You Cannot Take in Your Carrion Carry- on Luggage. All the usual weapons from the game of Clue were there, minus knitting needles, and with the addition of snow globes.

I patted my pockets and said, Where’s that snow globe.

The security woman in blue pinched the bridge of her nose like I was causing her pain right there.

Move on, please.

In the little kiosk inside security there were knitting needles and wool for sale. Christmas colours. So knitting is enjoying a revival.

I limped on to my gate.

Earlier, in the apartment, I had tripped over my carry- on bag in the dark. I had lain in the dark and thought, I won’t go, I’ve been hurt. I lay there and looked up at the sloped ceiling, still bumpy with Cliff ’s climbing holds. Cliff liked to refer to the ceiling as an overhang.

I had sent him an email saying, My dad is in a comma and waiting for me to open his eyes. Must depart. Apartment available for your use. Tortoise with Linda and Chuck.

No reply.

I sent him a second email: I meant coma.

I lay on the floor. My cab with its little Napoleon hat was puffing in the street.

Get up. Go.

When the right person arrives at the bedside of the comatose person, the comatose person opens his eyes. Everyone knows this. This is Rule Number One of Comatoseness.

Yesterday Uncle Thoby called and said, Oddly. There’s been an accident.

Which word made me sit down on the kitchen floor. Accident, I said.

Your dad received a severe blow to the medulla oblongata as he was walking home. From, this is unbelievable, a Christmas tree. Hanging sideways out of a pickup truck.

Uncle Thoby’s voice was okay until he got to pickup truck. Then it broke down. I didn’t understand. Hit by a Christmas tree. Or walking home from a Christmas tree. Or what.

Hit by. On his way home.

I thought about this. Finally I said, I have a question. Are you ready.


Here it is. I’ve got it. What is a medulla oblongata.

A brain stem.

Oh. Right. So a Christmas tree stem had collided with my dad’s brain stem. And now he was in a coma. I put my hand on the back of my neck. I had forgotten that the brain has geography. The human brain is 1,400 cubic centimetres of geography. Our heads fit inside airplane windows for Chrissakes. We are small and we can be pitched out of our geography.

I’ll come home, I said.

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