Saturday, April 24, 2010

Here we go again

When you walk past someone in a small village, no matter where you are, you wave, or say "hello" or tip your hat or make some sort of motion of recognition. Here it is no different. In Kangirsujuaq, and I'm assuming other Inuit villages, you say the person's name, followed by the greeting. I usually get one of two greetings: "James-ngai" or "Jaimisia".

So, when I walked by the residence one May morning last year to see one of the students I had taken to Europe two months before, standing on the front steps, I expected her to say one of these two things. She stood there and stared right through me. I said "good morning", and continued walking. I chalked the snub up to early morning cobwebs, and thought nothing else of it.

About an hour later, Neil came into my class and said, "Have you heard? There was a suicide at the residence."

"What?" Immediately, I flashed back to my awkward meeting with one of the residence students. At the time, there were only three students living in the residence. Two of them were my students, and one was in the French sector. Having seen one of my students that morning, I involuntarily prayed to myself that it hadn't been the other.

"Who?" I asked.

Neil confirmed that it had been the student in the French side. I began to feel odd, but I couldn't quite place the emotion. Another teacher, who is normally calm, collected, and polite walked into my class and let out a very uncharacteristic, "Again? What the fuck is going on?" in a shaky voice.

We discussed some of the details, which need not be repeated, and stared out the window at the gathering crowd of teachers, emergency workers, police, and students. It was 8:55. A sombre announcement came over the intercom, "School has been canceled for the day."

I didn't know this student very well. She was from another community, and had come to Kangirsujuaq to finish high school because her village is too small to support a secondary 3/4/5 teacher. However, it's not as if I had never interacted with her. She always wore a smile and was playful and apparently happy. She was a strong student, and seemed to have a positive attitude.

I walked down the stairs and sat down in the staff room. There was a group of Inuit teachers sitting in the lounge in silence. I sat down. We sat there, stewing in our confusion, and said nothing for what seemed like two eternities. All of a sudden, I felt an enormous wave of pressure that started at the floor and slowly rose until it almost forced tears from all of our eyes. For a millisecond, it appeared as if it would boil over, but then everyone got up simultaneously up and went in separate directions. One washed her hands. Another grabbed a coffee. Yet another went to the photocopier, and two disappeared out the door, one wiping her eyes.

I still couldn't place the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach. I realized I had to go home and tell Sophie. I put on my boots and walked outside to see a group of twenty or more people mulling about in what seemed like an organized confusion. I scanned their faces, and for some reason none of them registered. I knew every single one of them, but they seemed to be strangers. My panorama was interrupted when I laid eyes on one of the residence animators. These guys live with the students for one out of every two weeks. They cook them meals, help them with their homework, and try to ensure their safety and happiness.

When I saw this man, I recognized it: the complete and utter desperation that was certainly written across my face when I received the news about Attasi. His face was red, his lips were trembling, and a wrinkled brow that screamed out "why?"

Considering he and I shared a duplex at the time, we weren't very close. Inexplicably and unconsciously however, I walked up to him and embraced him. He exploded. After a few seconds, I let go, said nothing, and continued home to break the news to Sophie. On my way home, I identified the emotion that I had been feeling ever since I had heard the news.

It was a mixture of four things. I felt an enormous amount of relief that it wasn't one of the other two students, who I knew very well. I felt an equal amount of guilt for feeling the sense of relief. I felt good that, in a way, I would get to be part of the grieving process that I had missed a few weeks before. Finally, I felt nauseous that I felt good about something so horrible.

It had been a rough night with Noah, so I found Sophie and Noah in bed. I lied down next to Sophie.

"What is it?"

I told her. She held me. I cried.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My first mansage

I got my first mansage last weekend. I've been massaged by a quack, a physiotherapist, and even once by a massage therapist, but never once by a man. Until this weekend.

Last Friday was Culture Day at the school. Which means we loitered around outside for a few hours and took part in some interesting activities. I had a breakfast of frozen char topped with frozen walrus fat. The last time I ate walrus, it had been fermented, and it was the only time eating country foods that I wasn't able to go for seconds. However, I mustered up enough testosterone to give it another shot. This time, it was just frozen raw, fatty, and delicious. It was a lot like butter. I took generous chunks of it and spread it on my beautiful char steaks and stuffed my face.

Fresh off my conquest of raw meaty breakfast, I decided that I was man enough to step into the squared circle with Jacob for a little traditional Inuit wrestling. Inuit wrestling consists of two men putting each other in a semi-headlock, putting both hands on the ground, and then trying to push each other out of a circle drawn in the snow.

As we were about to dig in, one of the Inuk teachers said to me, "Hey James! After, we will do the women's contest. In the old days, we would take off all of our clothes and stand there naked. The one who lasted the longest with no clothes was the strongest." I have no idea if she was just pulling my leg or if she was being serious. Either Inuit ladies are really strong or really funny, but either way it left me with a smile as I entered the ring. Jacob quickly snapped me out of it.

Jacob is the guy who came to replace me while I was on parental leave (after my students had not teacher for a month, but more on that later), and took another position for the remainder of the year. He is about 5' 8", has dirty-blond hair, blue-green eyes, and a beard. We don't really look alike, but to the kids, we're one in the same. Sometimes the students in my classes call me Ben (who is six-feet tall) or Neil (who has all of his hair and is on a leave of absence) or even Thomas (who is apparently 6'4" and weighs in at over 250 lb. and left before I arrived... oh yeah, and he's black). Thus, Jacob has been called James a lot. Our names even have the same root for crying out loud.

I was sitting in the staff room a couple of days ago when Jacob came in and said, "Hey, do you have a shirt that looks like this?"

"Uhh, a little." I replied.

"I've decided to shave," announced Jacob, "we're too similar."

"If you think it will help, go ahead."

Jacob, however, has his aquamarine or raspberry belt or something in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That's the one where two guys try to make each other say "uncle" by dislocating each others' shoulders and twisting their tendons. Unfortunately for me, he and I are very different in this regard. I had made a New Year's resolution this year to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a ninja, but I decided not to go through with it after realizing that since the outlawing of the niqab, I would probably no longer be able to receive public services in Quebec without revealing my secret identity.

So, considering that my wrestling experience consists of giving my sister a DDT in the basement once when I was 13 and thought I could finally take her on after many years of abuse (we've gotten along swimmingly ever since) and watching the 62-year-old Cuban Assassin smack some other has been with a foreign object in the Polish Hall in Edmonton in 1998, I found myself completely outmatched. We dug in for the battle, and it was over before it started. My neck began throbbing almost immediately after Jacob tossed me out of the makeshift ring.

So, a few hours later, I stopped in to see my neighbour, who is a registered massage therapist. I explained the situation, and he told me to wait until Sunday, when he would see what he can do.

At 11:00 on Sunday, I went for my first mansage. I'm pretty comfortable with my sexuality. I'm no homophobe. I've lived with a gay couple for months. Moreover, my manseur isn't even gay. Still, getting touched on roughly 80% of your body by a male, former naturalist is still a bit weird. I didn't really know what to expect.

I lied down on his heated massage table in nothing but my underwear and waited. He touched my neck softly, and I had a George Costanza moment, thinking, "What if it moves?" However, I quickly laughed that off and, as he began to work on my feet, I promptly fell asleep.

My manseur woke me a couple of times to reposition me so he could work on my back, or my neck, or my arms, but really I was completely out of it. Just before I left to get the mansage, a friend was visiting our house, and she remarked, "I'd pay $50 just to go have a nap on that heated massage table." And that's what I did.

I remember the first time I got some sort of reflexology treatment. My girlfriend at the time gave me a gift certificate for what is called a Bowen treatment. It's a homeopathic procedure that follows the spirit of homeopathy pretty well. That is, less is more. I'm not exactly sure how swallowing sugar pills that may or may not contain one or more molecules of whatever is making you sick is supposed to help, but I can tell you something. I went into the place expecting a massage, and was left in a dark room for an hour, periodically being readjusted or cleansed or something. Not having paid for the treatment, I actually asked the Bowen Therapist for my hour back.

This time was not like that. My neighbour is a professional who takes pride in his work. Although I was comatose for the better part of an hour and a half, I awoke to aches and pains and at the same time felt refreshed. My first mansage was a success!

Noah Skis

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My tattoos

Ever since Sophie and I decided to have another baby, I started to dream about getting two tattoos. One on each arm, mid-bicep, simply stating the name of each of my kids, in Inuktitut. In fact, I had had the idea to get Noah's name written in syllabics even before Evie became a twinkle in my eye.

I wanted to get Noah's name tattooed in Inuktitut on the back of my shoulder, thinking I would get our second baby's name on the other side. However, there was one small problem with that: my old tattoo. When I was eighteen, I went to Edmonton with a friend, determined to get a tattoo. Neither of us knew what we wanted, but we knew we wanted something. So, I sat down at "Raptors" tattoos shop, and flipped through a book. I didn't really see anything that was super inspiring. Clearly, the artists at the shop had talent, but their drawings meant very little to me. They didn't reflect who I was. Nevertheless, sitting in the shop, having told everyone I was going to get a a tattoo, I happened upon a simple sun which now situates itself in the middle of my back.

It hurt. A lot. I remember the tattoo artist saying, "If it hurts, wiggle your toes."

He touched me with his pen, and immediately, my toes started wiggling. Every time he crossed over my spine, the pain was almost intolerable. For the rest of the time, it was just interesting. 60 minutes later, I walked out in pain and $100 lighter. To add insult to injury, fifteen minutes after having been tattooed, I wondered,"now why the hell did I do that?" and "Well, at least it's on my back. I don't have to see it."

I spent years trying to explain why I got a tattoo. I made stuff up for a while. I began studying Latin American history, and tried out a story that it was a Mayan thing. That sounded pretty lame, so I ran through a few other possible significations, and settled eventually settled on the truth. When someone would ask, "What is that?" I would say, "my tattoo."

"Why did you get it?"

"I don't know."

"But what does it mean?"



Awkward silence.

Thus, I couldn't put my new tattoos, the ones that mean so much to me, anywhere near my old one. I needed a clean break, and this time I wanted to enjoy them. So, when we found out Sophie was pregnant, I thought of getting them on my arms. For each and every baby name that we thought of, I almost immediately consulted my syllabary to see what kind of tattoo it would make.

After Evie was born, I went to Pointe St. Charles tattoo shop on Centre, and explained what I wanted to one of the tattoo artists, named William. He told me to bring him the symbols so he could draw them. We discussed the style. Sophie suggested that each symbol be composed of small dots, resembling traditional Inuit tattoos, and William said he could make them look like rocks. I mulled it over, for weeks, and finally decided to get simple, bold, black lines. I rang up William and asked him if he could still do it before we came back to Kangirsujuaq.

Unfortunately, he was going on holidays the next day, but found a compromise. He could get Tony to do my tattoo. I asked, "does Tony know what he's doing?"

"He's been doing it for more than 50 years."

So, I went into the shop and waited while William took the syllabary and drew the tattoo. Apparently, Tony wasn't into that part, and William said he was honored to tag team with Tony.
As he was drawing the tattoo he looked up at me and said, "Ce n'est pas juste n'importe qui qui te tattoo. Tu peut dire que il est un l├ęgend." (ie Tony is important).

So, I sat down and watched the old man tattoo me. He said almost nothing. I just watched as the knife/pen thing jabbed into my arm thousands and thousands of times. Tattoos are really violent, but the pain is moderate and somewhat enjoyable. I got up, and stood there awkwardly waiting for instructions on payment and care.

"Oh, you want to pay me." We discussed the price, and I walked out pleased.

I went home with William's words ringing in my head. I googled Tony, and found out that he is indeed a legend. He had a tattoo shop in New York in the '60s where he tattooed gangsters and the who's who. There are articles about Tony in tattoo magazines in which he laments the lack of traditional tattooing. Other artists emulate his work, and it appears that there was some truth to what William had said.

I love my tattoos. However, there's just one hitch. I was teaching last week and one of my students noticed my tattoo. He asked me to show it to him. "Ivi?" he said, confused. Another student got up, looked at me with disgust and shook her head, walked over to me, and drew a little circle over the first syllable. My mind drifted back to a conversation with Sophie which centred around this little circle, which would put the emphasis on the first syllable. I didn't think it was necessary.

I decided to write to Evie's saunik (namesake) to find out what I should do. She wrote back.

"You should change that soon. Otherwise, she'll be Ivi, which means "dirty hands and mouth." After you've eaten food, there is left over food on your face, usually blood, you say ivi. She is Iivi."

I'm debating what looks more ridiculous: a stupid qallunaat with "dirty hands" written on his arm, or a stupid qallunaat with a tattoo that says "dirty hands" and a little circle made with a black permanent marker above the first syllable.

I wonder what Tony will say when I tell him the story. Probably nothing. But at least this time I have a story.