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Bring in the clowns

There always seems to be one in every group, the guy whose mission is to make everyone else laugh. He will spare nothing in his antics. Before you know it, the laughter becomes infectious and people are grinning, joining in. But it takes that one special person to break the ice. Such was Iriniq.

I remember him at the 1965 Special Christmas games to fund-raise for an adult education group, which was intended as a vehicle for older Inuit to learn English. The adults, who are mostly elders now, mainly found their English classes hilarious, listening to each other trying to pronounce bizarre words. So the class really just turned into a chance to get together and clown around. The fund-raising games weren't even necessary; people just enjoyed them. They were held in the school hall at Halloween, Easter and Christmas.

The unofficial master of ceremonies was Iriniq. If it matters, he was cross-eyed, and stunted by a birth defect. In any other society, he would have been the center of dire sobriety, either reviled as an outcast or treated with that spooky kind of PC discomfort exhibited these days around anyone who is different.

Iriniq, who only spoke Inuktitut, was instead the social nexus. A complaint never left his lips, and he was ever ready to spring to the assistance of anyone in need. And he was the town clown, relishing the chance to show off his uproarious antics at any community gathering.

He was a master of physical comedy, never missing the chance to trip over imaginary objects, mess up his hair for a laugh or put a wedge in normal protocol. He was in his element at occasions like these Christmas games, when everybody let their hair down and enjoyed a bit of chaos, improvising crazy activities. The men were lined up, for example, and each given baby bottles full of ice-cold water, racing to see who could down theirs first. As you can imagine, the women howled at this one.

I think one of the reasons Iriniq didn't mind playing the clown was that he had a pretty thick skin. He was the younger of a long line of brothers, and such a sibling gets pretty good at putting up with being picked on.

So who didn't mind hefting a guitar ? without knowing how to play the thing ? and singing a Johnny Horton song in a language he had never spoken? Iriniq. In fact, he made sure to sing it in his special, extra-silly way, cracking himself and everybody else up.

Just about any culture understands the need for clowns. The role is still quite sacred to some aboriginal cultures. The clown doesn't so much fulfill the need for comedy as much as he provides a representation of the liberated figure. He is subject to the trials and tribulations of normal humanity, but always remains emotionally immune. He is plastic, experiencing but never permanently affected by pain, doubt, or fear.

It is a very noble role that Iriniq took on, a great gift he gave others. At some point, he made the conscious or unconscious decision to lighten emotional burdens. Even more importantly, he was able to illustrate the folly of taking life so seriously. By mocking the human condition, Iriniq to some extent transcended it.

Clowns provide us with a glimpse at primal humanity, and their ability to dust themselves off after a prank fall is analogous to humanity's ability to persevere in the face of tragedy. They do a funny dance and we laugh ? not truly at them ? but at the silliness that characterizes something about our species. They crudely poke fun at their bodily functions, and we are less shy about our own. Their message is that it is acceptable to chuckle at life's pitfalls. Life is not something within the realm of human control, so laugh.

Ultimately, Iriniq gave himself to others. It was all he had. And in those hard winters wherein there was too little of everything, he made it seem like it was enough to just be together and laugh. Not a polite, socially acceptable chuckle, but a great big belly-laugh that roars straight out of the soul. I'm talking about seasonal cheer, while dormant all around us, the earth seems to sleep in its blanket of snow and silence.

Silent night. Holy night.