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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal: On Haley 
28th-Mar-2010 11:40 pm
Haley Tongue 2009
For some reason, my favourite person in the universe this weekend was my niece Haley. Going on six and getting near the end of her year of kindergarten, Haley had discovered the pleasures of scientific exactness by last weekend, taking great pleasure in correcting mistaken comments on the glorious "spring" weather of Wednesday and Thursday with precise reminders that no, spring didn't actually start until Saturday. This desire for precision was then turned on me with devastating effect in the car as I was talking with Leslie about needing to work out a bit more as I had put on a little extra weight during the prolonged sitting of my dissertation-writing year.
Haley [suddenly joining the conversation from the rear seat of the car]: So you're fat?
Mike [looking at Leslie, who is trying to keep a straight face]: Well, I think it's more a matter of just a few extra pounds –
Haley: [with no-nonsense exactitude] You mean you're fat.
[Leslie chokes on her own laughter]
Despite how many times I've described the dynamic elsewhere, I also just realized during the visit the other week that Haley was getting on her Irish: demonstrating that classic Irish or Irish-American expression of affection through verbal abuse. In this case, the fact that she loves (for reasons known only to herself) to call me a "rotten potato." This has morphed over several months from "You're a rotten potato" (which initially sent her and Grace into shrieks of little girl laughter) to now sounding more like a nickname: just addressing me as, "Rotten Potato." The persistence of this actually started to make me wonder a little bit after a little bit of whether my presence was actually bothering her in some way. She also had been consistently shy about talking to me on the phone or being in pictures, and I wondered if that was also a hint.

It wasn't until Leslie mentioned to me that Haley had been asking her (probably purposefully not in front of me) if I could stay longer that I finally realized that Haley was just already acting according to the classic pattern, even if "Rotten Potato" wasn't quite yet at Oscar Wilde heights of Irish wit. (I entered into that, though, saying, "Well, that makes you 'Niece of Rotten Potato,' doesn't it?" That seemed to give her some pause, and she chewed on those implications and appeared to be wondering whether the risk of that name was too great to take.) Later on, when she took to asking me directly if I would stay longer, as I lengthened my stay for an extra four days, I could see that she was just shy of expressing affection straightforwardly, at least with me. And if that's anything, that's human.

Maybe that's a sad thing for the Irish, to resort so much to teasing and wit in order to show their affection, like a more flamboyant parallel to classic English stiffness, but it can be really funny. Every time I thought of these incidents this weekend, I still found myself laughing over the grief that this cute, funny five year-old chose to gift me with, and loving her all the more for it. (Which, now that I think of it, is the classic male Irish response to the verbally abusive female. And the cultural cycle goes on....)
Comments 
29th-Mar-2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, is that an Irish thing? I didn't know. My German/Swedish evangelical family inherited it in spades -- although I think mostly from my dad's family, the German + English mutt side.

It is particularly strong in young girls, I think... from ages 3 to 14. ;) I teased (or attempted to tease) my younger uncles, and other guys that were around at camp while I was growing up, incessantly. It is definitely a sign of tamped-down, maybe confused, affection and is especially present between the sexes, I think. hahaha
30th-Mar-2010 04:27 am (UTC)
Oh, I don't claim that it's unique to Irish culture, but it certainly seems characteristic in many ways. I don't know about verbal play, really, in English culture, but my experience of friends raised in German-American households has always been one of utter incomprehension that this is a way that an Irish family expresses affection – that it looks to them like horrible personal attacks, while the Irish-American family understands some sort of difference between verbal play (no matter how much in the form of teasing or abuse) and an actual verbal attack intended to hurt the feelings of another, which results in shock all around.

That reading (of both the Irish culture, and the German cultural reaction to it) has been confirmed for me by a number of friends and acquaintances from both parties. I hadn't given a second's thought to any of this, myself, until I went to Ireland for the first time and stayed with Irish families for some weeks. I had always assumed that – being the American mutt, too: 50% Irish, 25% Czech Jew, 25% Polish – none of these genetic inheritances had any actual effect on me. It wasn't until being among Irish families that I saw how textbook my family's behaviours were, and we were very much raised under my Mother's Irish-American dynamic. When I was growing up, I had always just thought the differences between my family and my friends' families were just individual family dynamics: it wasn't until I traveled and stayed in people's homes that I saw how truly cultural the influence was. Only then did I begin to read and study some in this direction, and to see how much more Irish my Irish-American side of the family still was. (My maternal grandfather, who died when I was one, had been an immigrant himself, whereas my maternal grandmother's family had immigrated from Ireland in the 1830s or 1840s.)

To the extent that this might be a purely gendered kind of reaction or style – that I couldn't say.
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