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.


  1. Nice. Yeah, memories of t-storms on rivers. Been there, har har.

    Now, was this on my watch? I would have totally missed the the waterfront action since I was probably out at Kilty's getting milkshakes with Uncle Ira. Lincoln Schlensky? I loosely disguised pseudonym?

  2. Oh my G-d! Where was I and how did I miss all this. . . on both ends of the timeline?

    Lincoln, Lincoln lessons. . . (I cringe every time I think of it.)