Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Sins of Kalamazoo

Some of you have commented on a lack of posts in the past couple of months. My excuse is that I’ve been writing. Ivan’s excuse is that she lives in California, which always explains everything. (Actually she beat me to it, so I have to take that back.) Anyway, here is one of the things I meant to post about...

Way back in May I went to Kalamazoo. My first encounter with Kalamazoo-as-a-concept was several years ago in Washington, D.C., where I met a girl named Emily. Emily told me this joke.

Emily: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?
Me: I don’t know, why?
Emily: It was dead.

Emily was from Kalamazoo and had clearly developed her sense of humor as a survival instinct. I have been to Kalamazoo twice now. It looks like Western New York, but scrubbier. As far as I could tell, it has only one thing to recommend it, and that is a sub shop on, I think, Old Michigan Ave. Last year I walked two miles in heels for that sub, and it was absolutely worth it even considering that that particular adventure resulted in my supergluing myself to a desk eighteen months later – but that’s another story. If you are thinking of visiting Kalamazoo, I recommend that you sit down with Carl Sandburg’s poem on the subject (see the title of this post), consider yourself to have been there, and go to Paris instead. Or even Cleveland.

Fearing that the city would have the same effect on me as it did on the macabre little Emily, I would not have gone there voluntarily. When I found myself there eight years after hearing that joke, it was as an exhibitor at the Medieval Institute’s annual medieval conference. Exhibiting at the conference is exhausting and it doesn’t help that getting there is exhausting, too. Kalamazoo is one of those places you can never get to from wherever you currently are. Nobody wanted to drive twelve hours this year, so we flew into Chicago, stayed overnight, and drove a couple of hours around the bottom of Lake Michigan to Kalamazoo the next morning.

Taking off.

I had never been to Chicago before. I have still hardly been there, since I only stayed about twelve hours. However, in those twelve hours I formed the opinion that Chicago is clean and shiny, and the people there seem very friendly. For example, there was a positively effusive fellow on the train who was “the nicest guy you could meet” in spite of the fact that he worked for a loan shark and was at that moment on his way into the city to break some knuckles. I was comforted to know that “if anything happened” he would protect me. Since he was probably the most dangerous person on the train, and he was reading a Dean Koontz novel, I figured my chances of making it out alive were fair to middling. Fortunately by the time he got off I had put him “in such a good mood” that maybe he’d break fewer knuckles. I guess my silence and sullen expression really cheered him up. Thank goodness I was there to serve that cosmically vital purpose.

We arrived at Kalamazoo on Wednesday morning. Any academic bloggers who have been there will back up all the seemingly ludicrous claims I make about this conference. The first year I went, I wasn’t there two hours before I was drinking beer out of the back of a station wagon with a crowd of hairy medievalists. It’s the same sort of thing as when when all the moths converge in, you know, that place, in South America or the Mediterranean or wherever, to mate or something else to do with survival (you can tell I'm really informed on the subject of moths, or was it butterflies), except in this case it’s medievalists, and they go to Michigan, and they seem to be there mainly to drink. It certainly isn’t the luxury that draws them: Sir John Mandeville compares the dormatory accomodations to a Turkish prison, and although I’ve never been to a Turkish prison, I did put in nine months at Goodricke A Block and I can tell you anything that can’t meet to those low standards really isn’t fit for human habitation. Putting a door on the toilet stalls would just be a start.

Even the conference hall is hideous.

I’ve been told it’s supposed to resemble a forest, with the pillars disguised as trees, rivers running through the carpet, and grates representing sunshine hanging from the ceiling. I have never been able to see it, myself.

The conference goes for three and a half days, and they are long, long days. Between sessions we were mobbed by eager book-buyers, but during sessions, it was so boring I started reading our books. Fortunately we just published one on leprosy, which I sincerely and enthusiastically recommended to everyone who came by, and even talked a couple of skeptics into buying it. They won’t be sorry.

The leprosy book opens with magnificently grisly descriptions which, as my longstanding fondness for the plague and more recently schistosomiasis would rightly suggest, were simply delightful to me, and not only that, but useful. There were two of us manning the booth, and the other one, when she was not singing “K-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O-O what a gal! in Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo . . .” was singing the lyrics to a song she learned when she was little:

There goes my eyeball
Into your highball
Oh my god I’ve got leprosy

I had never had the pleasure of hearing this song before, and I suspect she received a much higher-class education than I did, because I didn’t know what a highball was until I read The Great Gatsby in high school. The truth is I think the song is genius artistically-speaking, but I was forced to inform my colleague that according to the leprosy book, the disease may cause you to go blind, but it will never make your eyes fall out. And later, when her foot was giving her great pain, I was able to assure her that whatever else it might be, the diagnosis could not possibly be leprosy, unless she had been born under the wrong star or was egregiously promiscuous. She was very grateful for my medical advice. I’m not sure why that pony she promised me hasn’t shown up yet.

At the end of the conference we drove back to Chicago and spent several hours at the airport wishing we were dead because we were so tired we might as well have been. I took my mind off my suffering by reading one of the books I picked up, J. J. Saunders’s The History of the Mongol Conquests, from which I learned that horses had to be specially bred to have a spine strong enough to hold a rider. I always thought they’d evolved that way. Amazing.

Ever since reading that sentence about horses in a random lounge in Chicago O’Hare, my brain has forged a connection between Kalamazoo, airports, and medieval Mongolia. While airports and Mongolia are almost universally agreed upon to be two very unpleasant places, maybe just below Limbo and Siberia, the association has actually improved my opinion of Kalamazoo. Really, don’t ever go there. Unless you go for the conference. They serve the wine at five.


Ivan said...

1) I have not been blogging because my "boss" is a semi-tyrannical misogynist masquerading as a "writer" who refuses to speak to me when I give an opinion. All my efforts have been diverted to work. And I live in California.

2) You superglued yourself to a desk? How very Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Do elaborate.

3) Emily sounds like a ray of sunshine. We should set her up with my writer.

4) Does Sir John Mandeville always write like that? Is there a whole group of people in America that write like that? How do they spellcheck?

4) There goes my eyeball. In to my highball. tra lalalalala. Already stuck in my head. Instant classic.

5) I'm so happy you posted. You're hilarious

Simon said...

1) Oh dear.
2) I glued myself. To a desk. It's not a thing you elaborate on publicly.
3) She made her wallet out of duct tape. Actually, I quite liked her and I still think her joke is funny, I just wonder why she picked that one to tell a perfect stranger.
4) Yes. Maybe. I don't know.
4) No kidding.
5) Just because you said that, if I see anyone outside of your family walking your dog, I'll take them down with water balloons from my window on your behalf.

Ivan said...

friends help you move, real friends bomb your family with water baloons.

Maeve said...

Simon, you are too funny: in the hilarity, I lost control, and sent a link to my parents. Hi, Mom and Dad.

Christi said...

Every time I hear / read the name "Kalamazoo" my mind goes through two seperate recognition phases.

Number one is that of Simon's father's rendition of how the name should be pronounced... quite like "Kalama-ZOOOOOOOOOO!" which makes me giggle every time I think of it.

Number two, I somehow always want to burst out into Zoobalee Zoo's theme song from WXXI, only replacing "Zoobalee" with "Kalama!"