Saturday, May 30, 2009

Kalamazoo Diaries: Monk-y Business

The summers of my youth were spent in what my curmudgeonly but darling friend Bram calls a Jewish cult in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. If indeed Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute was a Jewish cult, it was a benevolent one. We did pray twice a day including on field trips to Farmer Max’s (who was a suspected pervert) and at the Milwaukee Zoo to the stares of various Wisconsin goyim. There was also a lot of sugar saturated juice. But there was also a lot of pot and loosely organized circle jerks.

In the ten years that I attended at the Institute, there were several incidents that as a law-abiding member of civil society, I’m not terribly proud of. I did take 75 campers down the Wisconsin River in an electrical storm while a little high. Actually, a little more than a little high since when our fearless leader, Joe, stood at the front of our canoe convoy and shouted: “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger”, I attributed the quote to Machiavelli and not to Nietzsche. This filled me with much shame and I remember the mistake as if it happened five minutes ago. The taking of 75 campers down the Wisconsin River in an electrical storm was hardly troubling as it was simply de rigeur. My counsellors did it to me and their counsellors did it before them. L’dor v’dor-from generation to generation as my people say.

Nor am I proud of neither correcting my counsellors nor my campers when I caught them engaged in fumbling acts of amateur sex. Had I intervened, I could have saved them much confusion and misery not to mention therapy bills later in life. Instead, I laughed at them. Or worse, I walked away.

None of this though can compare to the incident with the Monk.

The Institute was located on one bank of a small body of water called Lac LaBelle. Every afternoon, we would undergo rigourous swimming lessons in water that at its deepest reached our midriffs. Across from the lake and well within our vision rested a tranquil brown structure known as a monastery. There, in the peace of the corn fields that made us all into allergy medication addicts, monks would retire to their monastery to do whatever it is that monks do.

One of the things that the monks did was take an early afternoon walk around Lac LaBelle.

“Aviva,” I would ask my adorable counsellor. “Why do they time their walks when we are walking around in our bathing suits.”
Aviva would just sigh. What else was she going to do. I mean really, if you had me as a camper, wouldn’t you just sigh?
“They are just going for their walk, Natalie. Don’t bother them. They have taken a vow of silence.”
A VOW OF SILENCE!!! Now that was a challenge.

“Seriously. A vow of silence? What does that mean exactly.”
“It means that they can’t talk. They need to pray and be at one with God.”
“Double dare you to say hello to them. Triple dare you. Infinity Disneyworld dare you!!” I was jumping up and down refusing to let this one go.
“Nat. You can’t disturb them. You have to respect their silence.”
Aviva was a nice girl. She was well-raised and understood human decency. I however did not.
“Respect is overrated!” I declared. And with a toss of my red hair, I approached the monk.
“Natalie...get back here.” I heard the thin high voice of Lincoln Shlensky—one of the male counsellors whom I swear was assigned specifically to deal with me at such moments.
But I was right in front of the monk, and I knew I had about 45 seconds to get this guy to talk before Lincoln went medieval on me.

“Hey, you. Cute guy with the brown dress on. I betcha if I take off my bathing suit right here and right now, you’ll talk, yes?”

I had my hand on my pink bathing suit strap and was all ready to go when Lincoln grabbed and hoisted me over his shoulder. He then delivered a devastating sleeper hold which knocked me out.

When I woke up, I had been hog-tied to the flag pole. The entire camp surrounded me: a sea of red, white, and blue. A ghetto blaster was blasting the lyrics for a song that only Satan himself could have commissioned:

Born down in a dead man's town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
'Til you spend half your life just covering up

I started screaming. Screaming to drown out that infernal chorus, that cacophonous nightmare, that musical malignancy that despite my pleading refused to go into remission:


And not just once. And not twice either. But four fucking times the campers and counsellors of the Institute repeated that line. And that was only the first stanza. I remained tied to the flag pole for what seemed like an eternity but which was really the entire Born in the USA album. The camp turned my suffering into a party: drinking Budweiser and dancing late into the Oconomowoc night as I died a thousand deaths. Voldemort’s Cruciatus Curse would have been a soothing balm compared to this.

And for what? Because I wanted to strip for a monk to get him to talk? Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime.
And yet, it did.

I have felt guilty about this incident for decades. In the middle of my praying for the Leafs to get into the first round during Yom Kippur services, I would ask God to forgive me for my indiscretion. I begged Him or It or She to give me the opportunity to say sorry to International Monkdom. But how? And where?


“MONKS!!!!” I screamed at Michelle. “There are monks here!!”
“Yes, Natalie. There are monks. The Middle Ages had a lot to do with religion-the rise of Christianity, you know.”
“Can I talk to them? Can I go up to them and speak and they will acknowledge me and listen?”
“Of course.”
“But what about their no-talking rule, their vow of silence?”
“Well, why would they be at a conference if they couldn’t talk?”
“You make a good point.” I spot a monk sampling some of the dark chocolate munch at the Sistine Chapel snack booth and start walking in his direction.” I take a few steps and then feel someone tugging on my LuLu Lemon hoodie.

“What are you doing?” asks Michelle.
“I need to say sorry to the monk.”

Michelle is torn between wanting more details and feeling that ignorance is indeed bliss. She lets go of my hoodie and starts talking to a trim but tall medievalist wearing a pink corduroy jacket with a paisley tie. Perhaps he is going to come out at K-zoo? Realizing I don’t have much time to think about that possibility, I mad dash it to the Sistine Chapel snack booth and come face to face with a very attractive monk.

Oh shit. What do you call a monk? Brother? Father? Saint? Mr.?
I run back to Michelle. Surely she will know this.

“I don’t fucking know.”

I run back to the Sistine Chapel snack booth.

“Father, sir, Mr. Monk. Hi. I’m Natalie. Can I borrow you for a minute. I need to talk to you.”

He is really cute. The fact that he has not had sex in a very long time if ever inspires all sort of lascivious thoughts but I am almost 40 and I suppress them.

“Yes, Natalie. How can I help you.”
“Can I take you for coffee?”
“I don’t drink a lot of coffee. Could we have tea instead. I bring my own. From the monastery, you know.”
“I would love to try some tea from a monastery.”

“We go outside and climb up the hill that I now refer to as Mount Snorelson and sit down on the grass. He pours me some tea from a stainless steel thermos from Eddie Bauer. My husband has the same one.

“I have a confession to make.” I say.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m not a priest. But there are some inside. Shall I get one for you?” He pauses.
“Wait. You are a Jew, no? Why do you need to do confession?”
“How do you know I’m Jewish. My nose isn’t that big is it?”
He points to my necklace.
“Oh yeah right. The Jewish Star around my neck. Dead giveaway, I guess.”
“Indeed. Now what would you like to “confess” about?”
“Well, I have to tell you something that I’m not proud about.”
“Go on.”
“The summers of my youth were spent at a Jewish summer camp in Oco...”
The monk starts to pale visibly.
“nomowoc, Wisconsin. Do you know where that is?”
He puts down the Eddie Bauer thermos.
“Well, it’s on this little lake, Lac LaBelle, not really relevant, but so one day, when I was very young, like 14 years young, I tried to break a monk’s vow of silence by....”
“Taking off your bathing suit!” He jumped up and started walking away from me.
“Come back, come back.” I called to the monk. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. I have learned respect and couth and civility since then. My mother sent me to military school. Look at me. I’m here in Kalamazoo with you and 3500 medievalists. I did good. I am a fine upstanding member of this world!” I stand up and remembering the time I went to a Catholic wedding and Rob pretended he was Catholic to taste the host which he claimed was really a glorified shrimp chip, I got down on my knees. “Bless me Monk, for I have sinned. I will never so help me God offend a member of Your team.”

He reached into the pocket of his brown gown. Oh Fuck. Is he going to pull out one of those necklaces the Christers use. What are they called again? Rosemaries? Rosacea? Wait, what did we chant when we did that Abortion March on D.C. in the late 80s....Keep your something off my overies??

He pulls a device out of his pocket and presses a button.
“Blast it! I hate my Blackberry!” He threw it over Mount Snorelson. “I told Brother Will we should all get iPhones.”
“I have an iPhone.” Is Apple really going to intervene on my behalf against God?
“Natalie. I forgive you. We all forgive you. But I must borrow your iPhone.”
I hand it over to him perplexed. “What for?”
He points it at me, and I hear the familiar sound of a mobile picture being snapped.
“Can you e-mail it to me?”
I e-mail him the picture of my genuflecting outside the Exhibits Hall at the International Medieval Studies Conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
He starts to laugh and takes my hand.
“Natalie. You are a legend back home.”
Huh? Me. A nice Jewish girl from suburban Toronto a legend at a monastery in Wisconsin. I feel mildly flattered.
“I am from that Monastery in Oconomowoc. When new monks come to train, our senior leader, Brother Abe, tells the story about how a red-headed teenager from the camp across the lake tried to get him to talk by taking off her bathing suit. It always gets a big laugh. And now I can tell my Brothers that I met you, and I can show them your picture.”
“OK, but for the record, I didn’t take my bathing suit off. I just said I would. But then Lincoln Shlensky got me in a sleeperhold, and tied me to the flag pole and made me listen to Bruce Springsteen. I felt like Jesus on the Cross.”
“Hey, don’t insult the Boss or you’ll have to apologize all over again.”
And then for the first and only time in my life, I apologized for insulting Bruce Springsteen.

Me and my new friend walked back to the Sistine Chapel snack booth where he offered me some bourbon-infused fudge and honeysuckle mead to wash it down. We shook hands and promised to have tea on Mount Snorelson next year.

“Only 360 days away,” said Stephen J. Rose cheerily as he sampled some fudge.
I went back to the booth feeling peaceful and spiritual.

“Take down,” said Michelle. “Let’s pack up and hit the road.”
And we did, our path home shared by a red and white 1950s Oldsmobile with a sculpture of Elvis carved into the trunk.

Don’t even ask.

Kalamazoo Diaries.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Kalamazoo Diaries: The Pose of Stephen J. Rose

His name was Stephen J. Rose. And had he lived in India, he would have been an untouchable. But, now that I think about it, he was just exactly that from the minute he entered primary school in Green Bay, Wisconsin until he discovered Dungeons and Dragons in Grade 9. But from that moment on, his fantasy world and reality merged and he found true happiness.

Stephen J. Rose’s annual climactic moment began when he drove up in his lime green Pontiac Sedan to the entrance of Goldfinger Hall to register as an Independant Scholar for the international medieval studies conference. From there, he walked to the souvenir stand to purchase the two tags he would wear over his somewhat blossoming left bosom which, and I kid you not, read as follows:

Greek Geek
Latin Lover

Everytime I saw those red labels on the chest of Stephen J., I saw porn magazines. There was absolutely nothing I could do about this vision. Inevitably, Stephen J would make his way to our booth and proceed to buy one of my books. This time, it was a book on medieval gardens.

“I want to plant one at my house”

“What makes a garden medieval?”

He leaned onto my stand, his feet in what we former figure skaters call a spread eagle and starts talking, but I am easily distracted by the the uber perky blonde at the Pearson booth who has started to giggle. As did the uber perky blonde at the Brill booth and the uber perky blonde at the Brepols booth.

OK. I have to digress here. I know its a bit early, but it has to be this way. I suffer from this weird syndrome that Rob has diagnosed as Echoalia. If one suffers from echoalia, they will hear a word and then repeat it constantly often accompanied by hysterical laughter.

Let me give you a few of my favourites:

“Ness” (a street in Winnipeg)

“Lagimodier” (another street in Winnipeg)

“Niedermeyer (as in Joe and if you don’t know who that is, you should feel shame)

“Fufaika” (Russian word meaning warm coat mentioned in a book I read as a child called The Endless Steppe)


“Brepols” is another one. I echoaliad all over that one while I was breastfeeding my daughter because it seemed like the perfect combination of breast and nipples. Whenever I hear Brepols, I see a breast pump. Again, there is nothing I can do about this visual.

I’m not sure why the Perkies are all laughing at Stephen J. Rose. I actually think they are rude. I take Stephen J’s money which, because we are in America is all the same colour and therefore terribly confusing, and bid him a good conference. He tells me he will send me pictures of his garden and I am very gracious. I do wipe my hands with one of Olivia’s baby wipes. I can’t help it.

“Can I get a copy of your book on Snorri Snorelson and his Edda?”

“I’m sorry, what are you looking for?”

“Can I please get a copy of your book on Snorri Snorelson and his Edda?”

There is a mass of grey bangs in my face that smells like Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific and large blue glasses with a tint in them that keeps shifting.

Snorri Snorelson. The manic laughter begins at the base of my throat. I need to leave. Michelle knows I need a time out. She tells me to go take a break. I dash out the back door and run up the hill behind the Exhibits Hall like Jamie Somers on crack and collapse on the grass, tears pouring out of my eyes.

Snorri Snorelson. Snorri Snorelson. Snorri Snorelson.

After about 2 hours, I can finally think of something other than Snorri Snorelson. I collect myself and go back down the hill. Tess and Michelle are tidying up the booth.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah, are you OK?” Tess asks. She’s never been in Hell with me and looks a little concerned.

“I have to tell you guys something really important. I was just reading in the Kalamazoo Gazette that there is a serial killer on the loose.”

Michelle rolls her eyes. She knows exactly what’s coming.

“Seriously, a serial killer.” Tess is concerned. “And it’s so deserted around here.”

“You know what his name is?”


“SNORRI SNORELSON!!!!!” Michelle just points to the door again.

I take a long walk and wonder yet again if I need to be put on some sort of medication. I type this exact question into the Notes application of my iPhone so that I can bring it up with my shrink when I get home.

“Can I fix your hair?”

“I’m sorry. Can you do what?”

“Can I please fix your hair.”

The Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific medievalist is back in my face. She is a short medievalist and she needs to stand on her turquoise painted toes to reach my head.

“You have such beautiful long red hair and its a little wild. I would like to tame it with an Alice.”

My hockey stick reappears magically into my left hand. I proceed to slash her gracefully like Hannibal Lecter did to the Brandenburg Concertos when he sliced open a prison guard. However, I must confess that I do prefer Brahms Requiem at such times.

She proceeds to take out one of those fuzzy pink elastic band type things and starts to wind the first quarters of my hair on either side.

“Oh, you want to pull it back into a Woogy”

“Yes, I want to tame it with an Alice.”

“Oh, you want to pull it back into a Woogy.” I say a little more forcefully.

“Yes, I want to tame it with an Alice.” She says a little louder.

“Do you know what a gogoplata is? I ask sweetly.

“Yes, its a mixed martial art chokehold that was invented in 13th century Gaul.”

“No shit. Are you serious.”

“Totally serious. Do you watch MMA?”

“Nah, I’m old-school. I watch WWF.”

“WWF is for pussies and panty waists. Let me show you on my iPhone.”

Me and my Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific medievalist grab a Starbucks and go hang out by the fountains and the Canadian storks, I mean pelicans, I mean geese. She proceeds to show me some MMA on You Tube. I counter by showing her how The Undertaker took down 5000 lb Big Daddy V with the gogoplata. She is smitten. We watch a bunch of Undertaker matches and then I show her the greatest 5 minutes in Sports Entertainment History: the entrance of the Undertaker. Actually, I don’t show her in as much as I perform it for her since I have been practicing it daily when I walk Raffi into his Jewish day school every morning.

“Natalie. You need to come back to the booth. Stephen J. is looking for you.” Michelle is motioning to me.
My medievalist looks at me with a touch of melancholy. “Come back soon.” I think I’m in love.

Stephen J. Rose is indeed back at my booth.

“Did you know that your name means Thimble in German?”

Yes, you dipshit. Of course I know that. It was one of the more polite terms of reference that I heard growing up-the others being the obvious Pizza Hut, Fingerslut, Fingernut and the highly creative but kind of gross Finger Up Her Butt.

“I had no idea. You learn something new every day.”
“Oh yes. Well. It’s because..well, you know. A house on a finger is what a seamstress might have used in Carolingian times when she was sewing. A thimble if you will.”

I won’t actually...and who the fuck is Caroline. Michelle kicks the back of my knee.

“Would you mind selling me your last copy of....Snorri Snorelson and his Edda?”

I have grown up in the last half a day and I calmly procure the last copy and hand it to him. I bid Stephen J. Rose goodbye as he leaves the booth. But the Perkies are giggling again and even though I am not perky and will never be so, I am tired of being left out of this joke.

“Whazzup?” I go over to the Brepols booth.

“Oh my God,” says the representative who bears a wonderful resemblance to my favourite of all my gay male loves, the late Douglas Laird Robinson. “Have you not seen it?”

“Seen what exactly?”

“It. Look, he is leaning over the Palgrave counter. See it now? On his...his....derriere, his hindquarters, his...”

“Plumber Butt....oh Dear God. I am looking at the barest skin, a portion of nakedness, on the lower side of Stephen J. Rose. His Wrangler jeans having deserted him by 5 cm. And there it was in red for all eternity:

K-Zoo 4-Ever

OK. That’s it. I have had absolutely enough. Nowhere does it say in my contract that I need to bear witness to this madness. I start to hyperventilate. Michelle grabs the EpiPen and there before 3500 medievalists, she expertly jabs me into the fleshy side of my left thigh.

“I’ll be back.” She sighs to Tess whose mouth is wide open. She won’t be accompanying us next year. This I already know for certain.

“Michelle bundles me into the backseat of the white car, and drives me back to the spaceship. The epinephran turns the world into double vision and instead of 10 medievalists crossing the street into Goldfinger on a red light, there are 20. Instead of 1 Happy Spa, there are 2. Instead of 90 Starbucks, there are 180. You get the idea. But maybe you do not. Maybe you need me to sing you the song that I sang to Michelle on the way home. Maybe only then, you can start to appreciate my pain.

“On the first day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me: a book about Snorri Snorelson.”
“On the second day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me: two purple Alices, and book about Snorri Snorelson.”
“On the third day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me: 3 pairs of Wrangler jeans, two purple Alices, and a book about Snorri Snorelson.
“On the fourth day of K-zoo, my Michelle gave to me...”

Michelle has cranked up the music. Her husband and she have this radio program called the Mich Vish Interracial Morning show. You should listen to it. CFRU 93.3—Wednesday at 7:00 am. They play music that I have never heard of because it was created post 1991. Neither have ever heard of Carole Pope. But I have, and now I am singing High School Confidential. And the windows are all open. And I’m just about to get to that know the line I’m talking about, when we arrive at the spaceship.

“Go up to the room and relax. I’ll be back later.”

I do what I’m told. I’ve exhausted her and more importantly, myself.

I go up to our room, pull out the emergency stash of Absolute that I keep in a little pink girl flask that Rob gave me for such occasions and take a delicate sip because that is all one can with such a device. I take 422 such sips and then pass out to everyone’s great relief.

Kalamazoo Diaries.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kalamazoo Diaries

The Journey Begins...

It’s 7:45 am. I am bidding good bye to civilization. Good-bye to espresso. Good bye to fresh bread. Good bye to my listeria that is growing in my garden. Or is it wisteria. Who can possibly know the difference.

I have a bus to catch. The bus that will take me to Guelph, Ontario and from there into a white rental car that will carry Michelle and I to the 44th meeting of international medievalists held annually in a medieval garden in Rome close to arugala salad, homemade pasta and passion fruit gelato.

“OK, Nat. Can you map out our route to Sarnia on your Iphone.”

Sarnia, Ontario. And from there to Flint. And from Flint to Battleship or Battleford and then to the hotbead of international medievaldom: Kalamazoo. To the pros: K-zoo. And to the amateurs: The Zoo. But to me, the annual piligrimage to summer camp for medievalists can simply be referred to as Hell.

We stop at the Subway in Sarnia like we did last year, the year before, and the year before that. I order a tuna sub and something that is called soup but isn’t. My iPhone is losing battery life and with that loss goes my only connection to the 21st c. I need to do something. There is no outlet in Subway nor in the bathroom at Subway. We go the pet store and ask them to charge my iPhone. This they do. I look at the chameleons changing colours in their holding tanks and wonder if someone is going to pitch me a book idea on Medieval reptiles. Michelle says it has been done already by 231 different publishers. I breathe a sigh of relief.

On the road again. We go over the border where we are not stopped and therefore not given respite. Faster than a Michael Phelps lap, we are confronted with the worst roads in the entire galaxy complete with dead deer and discarded pieces of tire.
What’s that you ask? Discarded pieces of tire? Yes. Lots of it. I know, I don’t get it either. How does the truck keep driving if it has lost pieces of tire.

“It just sheds the tire, Natalie. The tire is still there.” Michelle sighs and keeps staring into the tree-lined highways that remind me of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. People tend to forget about Belzec and I feel personally responsible for always including it.

“I think if someone wanted to create a death camp, they should do it here. It really is quite perfect. You have railway lines and lots of trees and areas for mass graves.”

“Can we listen to Flight of the Conchords now.” Michelle has done this trip with me before. I don’t know why she volunteered to go again. Perhaps it is because no one else will go with me anymore.

At 3:30, we get the call.

“Hi Natalie. It’s Suzie. Suzie from the warehouse. Your books aren’t there Natalie. They aren’t there.” Suzie is our hot, young, frequently breathless Distribution coordinator. Her job it to ensure that books arrive from the warehouse to Kalamazoo. This is what she is paid to do.

“Why aren’t they there?” I ask mildly concerned but not panicked.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“I don’t know is not an answer.”
“I know. I don’t know. I just don’t. Know.”
“Let us know when you know.” I hang up.
“This is going to suck.” I said to Michelle.
“I feel you.” Said Michelle.

We drive into Kalamazoo. There is a sign for the airport that says Air Zoo. I need to leave.
“We can’t leave. We just got here.”

I see a tall roadside ad for a massage parlour called the Happy Spa. “Personalized massage available.”
“You know what that means dontcha? Says Michelle who is far hipper than I will ever be.
“Ummm. That you can design your own massage?” I respond. A true naïf.
“It means “to completion.”
“Completion of what? The massage? One would hope so. I pay serious coin for a massage. They better finish it.”
“Oh my fucking God. Do I have to explain everything to you.”
I take a minute to think about “to completion.” Nah. That’s can be it. Why would someone want that from a complete stranger.
“I don’t think you have that right. I wouldn’t want some grody guy touching me like that.”
We are at a red light. Michelle has her head on the steering wheel.
‘You have been married wayyyy too long.” She pronounces.

We drive in silence past the football stadium that is the size of Toronto, past the pond where the pelicans and storks frolic (“They’re Canadian Geese, you moron. Please write that they are Canadian Geese. Natalie, I’m going to proof this before you post it on your blog.”) and into Valley 3 of the Goldfinger Dorms at Western Michigan University.

“No books.” Tess arrived yesterday and is sitting at our empty booth in the Exhibits Hall where 4000 other publishers are busy setting up their medieval wares that include numismatists, coffee, fudge and munch made by monks, and an entire wall bedecked in amber jewellery from the former Soviet Union with uneven quality. And books. Lots and Lots of books.

“We heard.” Said Michelle.
“They’ll be here tomorrow.” Said Tess.
“Lets go to the mall.”

We leave our booth empty;the sounds of other publishers’ boxes being ripped open a reminder of how bad we are going to look tomorrow at 8:00 when the medievalists storm the Hall looking for books on lapidary formation in the 12th c and we have none. But, we are living in the moment and it is 6:00. We have an hour at the mall.

The Gap in Kalamazoo is the last place one would find a medievalist and so I treasure my time there. Michelle tries on a beautiful dress. We are blissfully transported to any Gap anywhere and for a minute, I forget where I am.

“If you buy a membership card, you can get 10% off all future purchases.”
“I don’t live here.”
“Oh, are you from out of town. Grand Rapids? Flint?
“From Toronto.”
“What state’s that in?”
And then I remember exactly where I am.

We leave the Mall and drive to the Radisson hotel which looks exactly like a spaceship.
“Fingerhut. Ha Ha. That’s a funny name.” Says the perky hotel person at the check-in desk.
I find that ironic coming from a woman named Buffy Duberman.
“Are you with that medieval conference?”
“You medievalists are some of the nicest people that we get here at the Rad. So much better than those management consultant types.
She has a point you know. I’ve worked with management consultants and they are almost without exception assholes. In fact there is an inverse relationship in management consultants between how dumb they are and their asshole quotient. But I digress. But then again, I’m at a medievalist conference. Digression is de riguer.

We drop our items off in our room and head down to the hotel bar which is capable of seating the Western Michigan football team, their coaches, groupies, cheerleaders, and water boys; the Western Michigan wrestling team, local personalities like Ben who was a finalist in American Idol and who sometimes plays the piano at the hotel bar, and 3500 medievalists.

“I’ll have a Kalamapolitan.” Says Michelle. Last year, we drank about 6 of them and then proceeded to sing the entire soundtrack of Les Miserables.
“I’ll join her.” I said.

At some point, we order dinner which like most things in the US is super sized. (The obesity problem in the US is easily understood if you spend half an hour in any American city). A little drunk and a little full, we go up to bed and watch a bit of James Bond, but just as Pussy Galore enters the room, we are already asleep.

Kalamazoo Diaries

Friday, May 1, 2009

Killing my Inner Figure Skater

Every morning THEY made me wear a purple satin skating dress with green flowers
Every evening, I fished the sports pages out of the garbage can and read the Leafs game notes.
Every morning THEY made me practice moves with names like salchow, axel, and camel spins.
And every evening, I curled up to watch the Leafs or if they weren’t on, to watch news about the Leafs.

In the wilds of suburban Jewish Toronto, the girls did not play hockey. The girls figure skated. We wore white figure skates with purple guards. We wore little skirts with panties sewn into them. We did not eat because if you were thin, it was easier to jump. We got yelled at by Yasha Shmushkin for not doing enough strength training. We got yelled at by Diana Williams for not being graceful. We got yelled at by our parents for not practicing enough. And then finally, I turned 14, began smoking and drinking, and discovered punk rock, and that was the graceless ending of my figure skating career.

But it was not the end of my love for hockey.

Hockey has been a constant theme in a life that has seen periods of studying genocide, dressing up as a HeartSmart chicken in Brandon, Manitoba, writing computer manuals, and postering as a management consultant. It saw me though the early death of my father, my mother’s breast cancer, the birth of my kids (I credit surviving the labour of my daughter on being able to distract myself through a wild Leafs game against the Islanders), and the raising of my kids.

About five years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Hayley Wickenheiser, arguably the greatest hockey player to ever wear a Jill. During the course of speaking with her and appreciating what she had done for women’s hockey, I began the slow process of killing my inner figure skater. I watched Hayley and the girls win gold for Canada. I watched women practice slapshots at the local rink. And I said, “ I can do this.”

At the tender age of 39.5, I figured it was time to lace ‘em up.

I was the first one signed up for the Dufferin Grove Learn to Play shinny Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. I showed up at 9:30 There was a scrappy game of women’s shinny already ongoing. I just stood there in the freezing cold watching them and wondering if I would ever be able to play with them.

When coach Dan arrived, he asked me if I needed a stick. I said: Oh my God, are you really going to let me have a STICK!! My own STICK!!
“Well, you really can’t play hockey without one.”
“No, you don’t get it. Holding a stick for me is like holding a Torah.”
“A whah...OK, never mind. What side do you shoot from.” He held out a stick.” I grabbed it with my right hand and put it on my left side holding it the way I had seen Salming and Sittler do it a million times.

“Looks good. Time to hit the ice.”

I gingerly got on the ice and took a few baby steps. “Oh spare me,” I thought to myself. “I can skate better than this.” And so I did. Long graceful strides, picking up speed, head up, knees bent. All of those thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of figure skating finally paying off.

“Grab a puck and try skating with it.”
There I was flying around the ice, stick handling as though I had been doing it for years.

“OK. Now stop.”
What do you mean stop. How do you stop. When you figure skate, you use your pick. But hockey skates don’t have picks. I thought I killed my inner figure skater but it is pulling a Lazarus.
“ do you.....CRASH.”
My father’s voice in my head: “Get up or you’re going to get cold.”
“You OK?”
“Yup. Fine.”
Dan looked at me and winked: “Good for you. When you fall, it means that you are trying something new.”

For two days, my left knee is one big bruise; my right elbow is a mess and I have checked the weather forecast obsessively to make sure that the weather will be OK for Sunday night’s drop-in class.

One of the last things Hayley Wickenheiser said to me was: “You have the right to play the game.”

Thanks Hayley. I will.