A Tale of Two Russel(l)s

Being the 11th in a miscellany of short posts to mark the 12 days of Christmas.

Moving with all the assurance of successful middle age, he walks to the front of the church and sits in the first pew.  The rest of the congregation is well back: as usual on a Sunday morning, the rows have filled from the back forward.  Sunday after Sunday, he and his wife are all by themselves, rows ahead of anyone else.

This Sunday morning in the mid-1940s, though, is different.  The group making its way to the front includes a younger couple: visiting family, which pretty much everyone in this small Southern Alberta community could have guessed, going by the physical resemblance between the two men.  But ‘resembling’ is not ‘being the same as’, and at least one key difference is obvious: the young man seems uncomfortable in the front pew.  As he rustles around, flipping through the bulletin and looking at the hymnal, he looks over his shoulder a few times at the distant fellow-congregants, and then looks over at the man who has put him in this position: his cousin, older by almost a generation.  The young man’s puzzlement at the seating choice is evident, if unspoken.  What? comes the entirely spoken response.  You’d pay good money for these seats anywhere else.  

Ah, the Scots!  Even the watered-down Canadian versions used to have a reputation for, oh, let’s call it ‘thriftiness’.  And what could be thriftier than seeing value in something others actively avoid?  But these days, Scots don’t even rate a mention in the stand-up comedy universe, at least not where cheapness, er, thriftiness, is concerned.

Riffing cleverly on the relative thriftiness of different visible minorities, Russell Peters claims ‘cheapest’ status for his own ethnic group, East Indians.  The Chinese?  Forget it, he says!  Jews?  We’ll give you third spot, just to keep you in the game!  His depiction of a mythical East Indian’s tearful first encounter with the concept of zero—It’s beautiful!—brings his audience, including the East Indian members thereof, to tears of laughter in their own turn.

As a person of colour, Peters gets a pass from the stifling political correctness that afflicts our interactions these days.  He laughs at his own group, he laughs at others, and we laugh along with him.  Rude?  Sometimes.  Funny?  Always.  Malicious?  Never.

Now me, I’m not your typical thrifty Scot, no siree.  Although sometimes, when I stoop to pick up a penny from the sidewalk, or reach for the no-name package of rice crackers just because it’s a few pennies less than the name-brand, I hear the voice of that long-gone first-cousin-once-removed (a one-L Russel, oddly enough) in my head.  You’d pay good money for these seats anywhere else.  If we want a more tolerant world, knowing and laughing at our own foibles is a good place to start.

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9 Comments

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9 Responses to A Tale of Two Russel(l)s

  1. Dave

    That reminds me of my peculiar habit of looking for golf balls. I belong to a private golf course and play at least four times a week. I also love looking for golf balls. My wife says we have enough golf balls to sink a ship and tries to give them away at every opoprtunity. Do other club members look down on this peculiar practice ? You betcha! To some it is comparable to looking for cans and bottles in public places. Am I saving money? Yes but it is more than that. It is hard to explain the satisfaction of finding these little white orbs . It is a challenge. You also have to know where to look. I have to laugh at myself and this peculiar “low life” habit. It must also go back to my teen age years when finding golf balls meant you did not have to buy any. Currently I think it is also related to a hoarding instinct. One would never want to run out of golf balls. Golf balls anyone? Just name your brand. They are free.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Dave – Interesting, eh? I think many of our habits have multiple drivers, which is why they are so hard to resist. Finding golf balls is both a long-standing impulse born originally of necessity, and an intellectual challenge, linked to understanding how shots can go wrong. Never mind that anyone who belongs to a private golf club and golfs four times a week doesn’t need to save money on golf balls by any objective measure – logic don’t enter into it! I say – if it feels good (and it doesn’t hurt anyone else), carry on! Of course, I have more than 100 sand dollars in my basement, so my advice might be a bit suspect.

  2. Dave

    That reminds me of my peculiar habit of looking for golf balls. I belong to a private golf course and play at least four times a week. I also love looking for golf balls. My wife says we have enough golf balls to sink a ship and tries to give them away at every opportunity. Do other club members look down on this peculiar practice? You betcha! To some it is comparable to looking for cans and bottles in public places. Am I saving money? Yes, but it is more than that. It is hard to explain the satisfaction of finding these little white orbs. It is a challenge. You also have to know where to look. I have to laugh at myself and this peculiar “low life” habit. It must also go back to my teenage years when finding golf balls meant you did not have to buy any. Currently I think it is also related to a hoarding instinct. One would never want to run out of golf balls. Golf balls anyone? Just name your brand. They are free.

  3. You wrote, “If we want a more tolerant world, knowing and laughing at our own foibles is a good place to start.”

    John says deprecatingly of himself & only half in jest, “I’m self-obsessed without being self-aware.” It is by hard attention that we can see what’s right in front of us, including ourselves, and usually only if surrounded by teasing relatives & honest (if you are lucky) friends. What chance do public figures, politicians, celebrities have?

    When one of John’s splendid etchings of Ottawa sets (each set in a linen presentation box) was presented to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia by a Prime Minister du jour, John was chuffed as hell. I told him, “Wow — your etchings are going to be in one of the finest drawers in the world.” He laughed and repeated the line whenever he could.

    John says the money to make a work of art is negligible. It’s all the millions spent afterwards just to move it from one room to another.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Both/and thinking, again, I suspect. Good to be chuffed at a compliment; good to see it in perspective. Jim Taylor writes this week on a similar vein about seeing the good & bad in events – and worrying a bit that this trait (increasing in him as he ages) will lead to everything being a ‘uniform grey mush’. I figure the perspective matters more than the ability to celebrate unreservedly – and it gives us the ability to temper our inevitable disappointments so that they don’t sink into despair.

      • I don’t think Jim’s experiences will lead to a grey mush. Even if they do, a grey mush has nuances beyond comprehension. It’s the black of the bad, and our reaction to it that is the stressor, making us incapable of seeing beyond its jarring flash. As for the good things, there is no unalloyed joy — usually ironic and laughable co-events — so seeing the good as nuanced is just as necessary.

        After our first shiny diplomatic dinner, in new clothes, we were floating on air, even driven home in a leather-seated, limo-like car — only to find that our elevators weren’t working. We had to climb 19 floors (in heels, soon removed) on the hottest night of the year. That the gloriously fun evening ended as it did only made the memory better! And reminded us how life is a mess, really, and to enjoy it all. The best stories of a trip are always the hard bits and getting lost… and …well, you know.

        • Isabel Gibson

          Barbara – I like that viewpoint: Life is a mess, really. Indeed – a great, jumbled mess. For someone who likes to tidy things, it’s a good reminder not to try to tidy life itself. And what a wonderful story – although thinking about John in heels is a bit much!

          • Not that night, but I have seen John in heels — during our drag queen project and eventual 69-piece portrait show. He wanted the experience, so during one of our glam parties when 3 women were getting glammed-up (or “in face” as it is called), John shaved his beard, was put in face by Walter (“Bella”) and into corset, wig, false eyelashes and…heels.

            He tottered around as best he could and I took dozens of photographs of him (in a series of wigs) so he could do his own portrait. He saw the photos and laughed, “I’m on the hideous side of butt ugly.” (Indeed, some are quite horrific — next time you are over I’ll show you. But some are quite sweet & cute.)

            These drag queens are artists. The women they glammed dropped 20 years from their faces and demeanor. Some left still in their stage make-up and one called to say she was walking down the street and a man saw her & drove his car right up on the curb. She was thrilled!

          • Isabel Gibson

            Barbara – I’ve seen a few glam portraits – hair in improbable, blown back states like a model – and wondered why people bother. I mean, to look so different from your normal self for a portrait seems kinda odd. But maybe it’s liberating in a way, to be one of the people you have inside and rarely let out.