Tag Archives: short story

I can crack my tangle

Twenty years ago – almost to the day, in October 2002 – I wrote a silly piece of short fiction purporting to be an investigation by an unnamed scholar of an idiomatic phrase. I never did anything with it. It came back to mind recently and I looked again at it. I still think it’s funny, as a look at the vagaries of phrasal etymology but also at a certain kind of literary scholar. So here it is, unrevised. I hope it amuses.

I Can Crack My Tangle

by James Harbeck

Considerable controversy surrounds the origins and meaning of the phrase “I can crack my tangle.” As everyone knows, this phrase – one of the most commonly used in North America today – means, depending on the person using it, “I am very happy,” “I am quite unhappy,” or “I have no idea whether I’m happy or unhappy, but it must be something.” This triple meaning has caused numerous arguments; the use of the phrase has in fact come to be something of a mischief in certain circles, and yet it persists in being used more than only a few phrases in the English language. Further, there is a significant contingent maintaining that the phrase is incorrectly rendered and should be given as “I can’t crack my tangle,” or “I correct my dangle,” or “Eyes can crack might’s angle,” or “I can croak ‘my angel,’” or any of several other possibilities. Unfortunately, even those advocating a specific usage often differ on which meaning it should have and what its origins are. Given these difficulties, I have taken it as incumbent upon myself, as a scholar of note, to clarify once and for all the sources and suitable usage of this phrase. 

Allow me first to dispose of a few purported origins bruited about by the ignorant and irresponsible. The most common one – and one which I have personally received in forwarded “did you know” emails at least eight times as of this writing – is that in medieval England there was a competition every year, either at Mayday or at Michaelmas, in which young men either were presented with a knot or had to tie one, and the one who untied the knot first or made a knot that couldn’t be untied would win the favours or the hand in marriage of the May queen or the prettiest eligible girl in the village or the town weaver’s daughter. “Crack,” by this account, could mean either the figurative sense of “solve” or a more literal meaning whereby a hardy young man, perhaps inspired by the sword-wielding example of Hercules, used his fist or hammer to crack the knot in two rather than untying it. By way of explanation it is proposed that the knot was shellacked or – and this is an especially amusingly stupid story – drenched in eggs to symbolize fertility, and the unwise ones would try to untie it while wet but the wise one would let it dry and become brittle and thereupon crack it like an egg, within which perhaps was his beauteous reward. 

The principal problem with this story is that weavers’ daughters are anything but great prizes, whatever they may seem when twenty-one years of age. Beyond that is the contradictory nature of the story and the fact that there is no evidence anywhere of any such competition occurring – in fact, the earliest version of this story seems to be in an email sent from a Hotmail account in 1997. As well, it is more than a little unlikely that anyone would wish to view with approbation such an obvious metaphor for the decline of youthful fecundity and an apparent recommendation of waiting until one’s partner is old and hardened before cracking the egg, i.e., having children.

It is also not the case that the phrase comes from the Irish phrase gan craic i mo cheangal, which means “without fun in my ties/connections/weaving.” Aside from the fact that this is an oddly unidiomatic phrase, and an incomplete sentence at that, and aside from the fact that the Irish pronunciation sounds rather more like “gone cracky moe cangle,” which at most might have converted to “gone cracky, my candle,” and even though this origin would explain the dual nature of the expression (since “ceangal” might also suggest marriage or relations, and a person divorced might appreciate the dissolution of the “ceangal” or even experience considerable happiness at the failure of the ex-spouse to have any fun after unjustly and summarily leaving her hard-working husband because he was “too boring”), there is simply no evidence to support this as an origin, amusing as the picture of a lamenting Irish weaver might be.

Other purported derivations of this phrase are, if anything, more risible than the above, and they hardly need addressing at all, except to say that the printed record gives no support whatever to them. Any person with good breeding and an intellect worthy of consideration would never say “I correct my dangle,” let alone imagine that such a mundane problem might be cause for joy or distress; “I can croak, ‘my angel’” is senselessly saccharine, reeking of the inane romanticism that leads naïve young men to marry inappropriate women and, later, to long senselessly for their return when they have wantonly strayed; and “eyes can crack might’s angle” simply sounds like a bad lyric from an unjustifiably popular rock-n-roll group. No, we must turn to the historical record to untangle this knot and crack this problem.

The earliest printed record of this phrase is in fact an instance from 1842, in Aubrey Whitsun-Ellis’s great novel Joan, or the Last Opportunity. In this novel, an essential part of any truly well-read gentleman’s library and much to be recommended for its tale of the fruitlessness of expecting too much from a woman gone to seed (or, perhaps, gone away from it), the hero, Endel Hughes, exclaims to his friends upon reading the letter from his wife, who had run away either in shame or in wantonness, “Well! —I can crack my tangle! —I do say, but there’s a sort— Hah! What say you fellows to this?” Whereupon the famous gust of wind blows the letter into the fire, and his friends can say nothing, not having had the opportunity to read it. Hughes, for his part, then lapses into a silence that lasts the remaining three pages of the book and, presumably, for some time after, although one would hope that he comes out of it as a disappointed man should, relying on the strength of his character. 

This instance, which is the likely source of the phrase’s popularity, has been much debated by English scholars, who, as usual, are entirely out to lunch on the matter, being ignorant of both linguistics and humanity. Did his wife have the child she was ashamed of never having borne him? And if so, was it by him? It is clear enough that she would not have written to him if she were simply going to stay away; a woman who contacts her abandoned husband obviously has some desire for reuniting, even if he no longer wishes to have her. A person who denies this has had no experience of real life. But in the context of the book, the only reason for her writing him would be to bring news of a child either born or miscarried, since she could not possibly go back to him without some resolution of this central issue. 

Thus he is receiving news of a birth of a child, which could be his or someone else’s, and he could never know which (and perhaps she is only contacting him to tell him she desires financial support for this questionable offspring and to claim that she still doesn’t want him in her life, even though he has been the sole stable influence she has ever had), or else the miscarriage of the same, which would be either a loss of his last chance to have a child or revenge on his wife and her unnamed lover. In either case, Hughes clearly cannot know whether he is happy or unhappy, although he knows it must be one or the other. (In the end, if his wife stays away from him, he will know which it must be or may as well be treated as being, as he is depredated of his income and self-respect by this withered crone, once a pretty girl but now, though the book does not say as much, clearly past her prime in every way and thus much at fault in the whole matter, irresponsible woman that she is, claiming boredom with the only man who could raise her from her unspecified humble origins – likely the ill-sown seed of a weaver or some other ignoble tradesman.) Thus the phrase clearly takes on the ambivalent meaning, with a leaning towards unhappiness in the long term, and those who use it to mean they are quite happy are engaging in an entirely unwarranted act of interpretation of a book they are clearly not qualified to comment on.

But whence did Whitsun-Ellis get the phrase? He uses it as though it were already common currency at the time. And indeed it appears commonly enough in the years after the publication of Joan, principally among those literate enough to have read and appreciated the book. The supposition among linguistic scholars has been that it was a local phrase, perhaps from Yorkshire (although its subsequent use appears almost entirely among educated gentlemen of southern England), taken up and first cast in print by the redoubtable, resourceful and erudite Whitsun-Ellis. I have, however, at great expense and personal effort, finally found the original holograph of Joan, from which the typesetters set the book. 

It will be remembered that the book was published posthumously – Whitsun-Ellis died immediately after its completion, perhaps fully happy at having written such a masterpiece, perhaps completely unhappy with the world he portrayed so accurately. The typesetters would thus not have had recourse to Whitsun-Ellis to revise misreadings of his often harried and cryptic handwriting. And on the select page, we find a very interesting scrawl. It could be read as “I can crack my tangle” by an unintelligent typesetter working in a late-night rush. But other more semantically coherent readings are also easily found. A closer look might suggest “Joan carried my child,” as indeed I read it at first glance. But this is too plain and does not challenge the intellect of the reader as Whitsun-Ellis was wont to do. Upon analysis of the letter forms, which are shaky and suggest writing on an unsteady surface, perhaps in a moving coach, I have concluded that it must be “Joan does not trifle.” The following sentence may also be revised: for the incomplete ejaculation “there’s a sort,” read “there’s a tart,” which is a natural first reaction to the news that a man’s wife has born a child after having left him some eight or so months previously.

Naturally, in keeping with the greatness of the author, these readings do not change the moving uncertainty of the work. We are still left hanging: is it that she will return to him, and so is not trifling with his affections, or that she is making unreasonable demands on him, and so not trifling in her brazenness? He seems to be leaning towards the second option by calling her a tart in the next breath. And, of course, human experience shows that he is right, and that as the child grows it will become apparent that it bears no resemblance to him and probably looks suspiciously like her second cousin. But it is the nature of the great to rise above such circumstances.

We thus see a notable etymological tangle decisively cracked, and we learn that the great Whitsun-Ellis does not trifle with us. And although I do not expect that the ordinary man in the street will forever eschew inane linguistic fantasies, I feel confident that the acute, mature and well-bred intellect will feel at last satisfied and amply corrected and will know “Joan does not trifle.”


This is a little different as word tastings go. But then I often veer more into fantasia than simple sniff, swirl, and spit. This is a short story on annunciation – on the idea of The Annunciation, that point of departure in the Christmas story where the angel tells Mary she’s going to be the mother of the saviour. But this isn’t a story about Mary. She’s just the springboard. It’s a more modern and personal idea – fiction, but with a seed in my life. This is a short story I wrote 14 years ago, and I think it’s about the best I can do on this theme.

Incidentally, today is the twelfth anniversary of my wedding to the woman who helped give me the resolution to the inspiration for this story.


The Annunciation
by James Harbeck

Dark, rich, loving asphalt, comfort me. Dark, rich, loving asphalt, heal me. Pavement of the wounded souls, reach up through my feet-hearts and caress my unwanting being. In your stillness there is confirmation. And the echoes of my hard heels on your flat and gum-speckled surface are the sound of chants in cathedrals. With you flowing through me like a river, I am not alone.

*  *  *

It starts with an idea that angels could be dirty little children, or stones, or spires of cement, or thickets of nettly shrubs, or cats and dogs. Or the lady standing on a sidewalk in minus five doing her makeup in a palm-sized mirror. What is special, what makes an angel an angel, is the grinning joy of reality, the peeking underskirt hem-edge of the universe’s delight, the spirit-tickle of sanctity, showing through like a delightful joke. And not the person’s joke, not the stone’s or the tree’s or the dog’s or the child’s or the woman’s, but rather the universe’s itself, in such a delightfully unselfconscious way that the only way one can be an angel is first of all not to be in the slightest bit conscious of the fact that one is an angel.

And so it was. This idea, you see, did not show up internally first, as they tend to do. This idea came in the back way. It was a physical entity first. It was five grinning children in white cotton nightshirts, standing barefoot in the snowy ground and lifting their arms in what might have been an imitation of wings. Five grinning children, not singing glory to God in the highest but physically manifesting it. Not some stern glory, either, but a rather wobbly and sometimes distracted one. For unto us a child is born: I knew the meaning. A new spirit enters the world, an action waiting to be seen through to its completion. Some of it for me, some of it for others. And those five silly grinning kids in the snow, just waiting for God the almighty to call a juice and cookie break.

*  *  *

I took my leave of Carrie in the bus station. We sat staring across steaming coffees at each other, each speaking not a word, wondering what the other was thinking, thinking that it were best to say little. How much can be said? Once there was something between us; now there are thousands of miles between us. She left to make a new life in another city with another job, and I was left in a Toronto now wiped clean for me, empty of family, my rarely-seen acquaintances stale past date. The aftertaste of yearnings and attachments has an aging sweetness, but the promise of a fresh slate, a city sparkling in the frozen air like new-fallen powder, is another sweetness, and this one flashed of a history to be found in the future. As Carrie blew on her coffee, an angel walked behind her, muddy-hemmed white dress sweeping the loose papers on the floor. Oh, what a city! And then I looked at Carrie and her smudging lipstick coffee-flavoured and I saw—in her hopefulness and her slightly-used floppiness, in her blue hat and the air about her that suggested that things and persons would be parted with regretfully but hopefully like an outgrown favourite shirt deposited into a basement box—I saw the same angel. The angel of the muddy skirts and of the blue hats and of the coffee that was proud of getting to be $1.35 a cup. It was just in that breath, I think, that I realized that they’re all the same angel, there is only one angel, just as there is only one primary blue, only one 440-hertz A, and every time you see the one or hear the other, it is the same as always but also its own instance.

And so there are angels and angels, and angel and angel.

My angel. My fresh, new, empty city. And Carrie’s angel, in her wet Vancouver.

I began to walk. I have always walked; I began to walk even more. Motion was my holy spirit.

*  *  *

My sense was that the angels were—even always are—heralding the advent of some new spirit, some saving light; they were, as I watched them, the forerunners or fingertips of a miracle, of a divine sneeze. I was a shepherd, watching my flocks by night. As I stood in the front of the subway train, seeing through the window the blackening walls flow toward me and past me, every concrete tie whirring beneath me another beat in the anticipatory drum roll, I felt as though I were being sucked into the future. Bursting into the light of the platform at Bloor, it was as though I had made it through the after-death tunnel into the other world, and the down-coated muesli of transit passengers edging the yellow line were heavenly hosts. I would step through the door and it would be Christmas morning, and the truth would be made known after all our living.

Maybe it was the flowers or the bonsai bushes in the underground mall, or perhaps it was the empty fountain that begged me to be its water. Perhaps it was the thrusting, punching, humping music following me from the HMV, asking me to live it, to be its avatar. All I know is that somewhere in the Holt Renfrew Centre, as I walked between the four-foot-high poster heads and headless lingerie mannequins, I became aware that the one who was to give birth was I. Me. The entire world had turned into an annunciation for the beauty of God, and I was the one who was going to have to bring it forth.

Quite naturally, I panicked.

*  *  *

What did Mary feel? Alone in that room on a bed of straw, only twelve years old, her life neatly arranged for her, nothing to have to worry about or think about, what did she feel when an angel appeared? And how did it appear? Did she roll over and realize the light of God was emanating from a piece of straw near her eye? Did her vision suddenly become so acute that every atom, every whirring electron, in the glistening walls was visible, could she hear it hum the music of the spheres?

Mary gasps as she sits bolt upright, dropping sleep like an iron pot. Something is stirring inside her. He own body, her own soul-manifested flesh, is creating God, and it presses the understanding into her mind. Wherever she looks, she sees angel. Door-shaped angel, ant-shaped angel, shoe-shaped angel, dog-shaped angel, straw-shaped angel, air-shaped angel. And she knows what the angel’s going to say even before the angel says it, so the angel doesn’t have to say it.

The angel tells Mary—Mary knows the angel is telling her—not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid: that’s a bad sign right from the start. Like when a person begins with “Don’t get angry, but . . .”

So she’s pregnant. Bad enough for her. But how can the small, insignificant girl that she is, engaged to a carpenter at that, how can she be the mother of the great saviour of Israel? It’s not a small responsibility.

Either she’s losing her mind, or it’s true. Trouble no matter what. How can she be comfortable, insignificant Mary? How could she ever stand having her name invoked by hundreds of millions every day, as though she were some rock star?

I understand Mary now, or so I imagine it. Her predicament. Glad tidings of great joy? What a crock! Doesn’t God know my eating habits?

Depression is my delicacy. I feast on it raw like sushi or ever so lightly sautéed. That sweet taste of “I can’t,” the relaxing reassurance that I’m not worth anything. And when I want some zip, I pour on liberal dashes of anxiety. Nothing makes me feel more real than questioning my own existence, attempting negation of everything that’s important to me. I can moan in weakness: “To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To you do we send up our sighs, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, your ears of mercy towards us, and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O pious, o clement, o sweet virgin Mary!”

Only she’s on my side of the fence. How could she go to the other side of the equation without losing herself entirely?

Now I walk like a madman up and down my beloved streets, my face twisting with my inner dialogue. I pound on walls at the slightest noise. I am unbearable. And I am alone: all my loved ones are in other cities. I have left them all behind, chasing after the rescue from God like a dog chases a car. I leave behind me a trail of unfinished friendships. Now I have caught, or I have been caught.

Help me.

*  *  *

Your arrival is the death of my comfort. I hide when I smell your beauty approaching, I tremble like a dog fearing its master, for you dare me to be someone worthy, you dare me to live up to potential I kept buried, slumbering, unacknowledged, safe. I will have to burn my mediocre works, and this self-absorbed story will burn first.

*  *  *

In the evening pool I float, eyes to the ceiling, ears tuned to the clotted sounds of the water. It’s still in this room, and the water is warm. The lifeguard shuffles and kicks, walks this way and that, nothing to do. I flip over and, expelling air, strive for the tiled bottom, for the amniotic comfort of a watery womb. But I don’t stay down. I can hardly even touch the bottom, though it’s only four feet beneath the surface. I float back up and spew my remaining breath into the air.

My angel is here. I know it. Somewhere between the tiles, somewhere in the spaces between echoes, in the gap between inhale and exhale, the tentacle of God slips and sneaks. This calmness is resounding with the portentous peace. The air, by its very leanness, is fat with blessing waiting to be grasped. Me, I would hide from my joy. If I were to let it in I would burst.

My life is a balloon full of blood and the angel is a razor.

*  *  *

Days go by. Sometimes I feel that I am back to normal living, that everything is as it used to be and my panic was a passing illusion. Underneath it, most of the time, is the side-glimpsed sense, like an itch you can feel but can’t find, that the “normal” is the illusion, and reality awaits through the next door, smoke gently curling from its green nostrils, its squamous tail coiled, tip tapping. And at moments I am like one drifting to sleep who suddenly jerks awake as though sparked by a plug, my gradually accreting sense of existence scattered as a film on stirred water. I work and bury myself in yes, no, and projects that I must do. Then I walk and I am alone, alone with my thoughts and fears, and from the bricks behind me in the after-work alleyway I think I hear again the angel breath.

*  *  *

The glow of the dirty brick walls, the rust on the bumper of the 1970s Impala, the transcendent shimmer of the kneaded and crumbled pavement, the wan but hopeful halogen glow from the light in the concave corner, it is all new, new like I am new. I left something behind, I left somebody behind; I can’t find myself now. This alleyway is empty. I am empty. I’ve tried on all the definitions and in frustration I’ve shredded my persona, crumpled it, left it in a corner or on a pile of perceptions somewhere. I’m like the patch of land where a building was, is not. If these walls up and down this alley were to evanesce, what would I see? If the brick structures were gone, or if I reversed the clock to before they were built, what would come next? Must something be built at all?

I feel that I will have to build myself a new living space. Right now I’m like a squatter in my body, taking cover in the most ramshackle hut in a barely sheltered corner of my head, a refrigerator box and a few blankets perhaps. Has there been a hurricane? Or did I blow the walls down myself? Were they ever there?

If I turn around and go back, will the alley look the way it used to?

*  *  *

Mary is the angel, projecting her angel-ness on the whole world. Before she even knew it, she had manifested God, she had become the miracle in order to bring forth the miracle. Everything she eats now, all her blood, her breath, her body, all feeds into this child. The child is made of Mary just so the child can be apart from her and give back to her the miracle. Or draw the miracle out from her.

Lightning does not come down from the clouds. It comes up from the ground. The clouds wait; the earth gives.

*  *  *

It’s like waking up.

I haven’t had a coffee in months and still I’ve been a nervous wreck. I’ve cut my sugar intake down to near nil and the walls of my mind are furrowed with fingernail marks. Finally, finally, after tearing around the palace of my potential being, I found a familiar sofa to sit on and feel like myself again. I wasn’t lost, I’m not lost.

And now this.

Like someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned and opened my eyes and realized that I had been dreaming and was now in the world I had forgotten. Back in Kansas with Toto. And you, Auntie Em. You, my omnipresent angel. You, my firstborn.

It’s like that moment in Tolkien when they realize the password to Moria was, had always been, right before their eyes, wasn’t even intended to be concealed. Not “speak, friend, and enter,” but “speak ‘friend’ and enter.” And you, angels, are my friend.

When I first knew the birth was going to happen, it had already happened. The angels: they’re the miracle. The angel is everything. Everything is the miracle.

But I already knew that.

*  *  *

Dark, rich, loving asphalt, you are my city. On you I walk, in you I curl. On my way home I pick up a bunch of flowers, limply dripping with the first mists of artificial hothouse spring. I am the bee. I find the honey where I flit, or I come home to the honeycomb. What will it be? It will be a table already set, steam rising from pots. It will be a kiss in the doorway. It will be a comfort I left behind in search of the comfort I had left behind. It will be a failed sojourn in another truth, an abandoned voyage. It will be my return as well as hers.

And yet my comfort is in searching, my place is in walking. I can only know where I am when I am moving.

The kids are there again, only this time they’re five superannuated t’ai chi practitioners swimming their molasses arcs into the air. The ground is covered with mud and the black slip-on dollar-forty-nine shoes of the air painters are already tempura-battered with it. They dance their impossibly slow and smooth abstractions and the mud eats them gradually; they sink further and further into it, to knees and to waists, their motions not slowing, and they become golden black-and-white-topped windbreaker- or track-suit-clad flowers, waving in their insouciantly oblivious spirals a goodbye from the angels.

I want to look at my bible: did Mary see the angel again afterwards? Having made the messiah out of her flesh, did she even need to? And having become separate from her miraculous child, having parted from her night-tickling angel, did she not spend the rest of eternity dining on the sorrows and cares of others, becoming in her angel-consciousness the mirror in which all the other, unconscious angels could look and see the divine fingertips reflected? What things did she, does she, see and feel?

I am at the door, quivering flowers in hand, lips prepared. I hold the key, and she is on the inside. And?