It occurs to me as I traipse down a frigid University Avenue that my participation in the Kuviasungnerk Kangeiko winter festival will be the perfect climax of my four years at the University of Chicago. It will involve terrible, terrible cold, irregular sleep patterns, weird ritualistic activity with perverse and decrepit students, and, probably at the end of it all, a nasty head cold for my trouble. But never mind all that. My editor batted his red eyelashes at me and convinced me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning everyday for the coldest week of the year to do calisthenics. Plus I’ve always been a sucker for a novelty T-shirt.
The girl who is checking my Student ID seems to not want to let me proceed beyond the foyer of Henry Crown. “What house are you with?” she demands.
“Oh, I don’t live in housing.”
“No house?” she stares at me with a mix of incredulity and pity.
What can I say? Is this activity some kind of bizarre reward for remaining in the dorms? Grudgingly, she swipes my ID through her little scanner and lets me through.
Once I have reached the upstairs indoor track, I realize that the door girl was trying to protect me. The atmosphere is one of tribal war mongering. A denizen of Shorey House waves a large flag with a picture of a lone ram and the words, “Shorey: always on top” emblazoned on it. Chants of “ALPER! ALPER!” pound through the gym. This is entirely different from what I had envisioned; instead of the nerdy, feeble kids I expected to encounter, the place is crawling with pumped up jocks (although I don’t suspect any of them were varsity athletesit was too early in the morning).
I sit down on a mound of fluffy mats and watch a group take a house picture, and feel suddenly lonely. I wish I were wearing the same T-shirt as 12 other people. None of my friends are here. Five-thirty is a fine time to turn in for the night, but no one I know would ever work out before the sun came up. In fact, I’m not telling a few of my friends about my participation in Kuvia until after it is over, lest they worry about this personality shift. A boy and a girl behind me exchange snipes about the people in the picture – how tired and haggard they all look, how ugly and lame everyone from Pierce is compared with kids from Max Palevsky.
A plaintive wail distracts me from their conversation. A distressed baby is held aloft in the arms of her RH father. The kid looks exhausted. Is this payback for all the nights and early mornings she woke her parents up? Under the orange lights of Henry Crown, the baby looks bleary-eyed, as though she has a hangover. She’s probably the only other person who understands how I feel right now. But I lose sight of this comrade-in-confusion because it’s time to begin the dash twice around the track.
The crowd is different today. The shirts with tough guy slogans like “University of Chicago . . . if it were easy it would be your MOM,” have been traded in for apparel that invites me to “Join a Proud Minority: Read!” It’s just as well because I’m wearing jeans rather than sweatpants this morning, like one of those weirdos who has clearly never set foot in a gym.
After the jog and the salute to the sun, I head downstairs for my bangra lesson. I am partnered with the sweet and lovely Roger Fierro. We shimmy around each other, horribly out of time with the music. At my insistence, we perform a good eighth of the dance facing the wrong direction. But when walk out and bid each other adieu, Roger pays me the highest of compliments, calling after me: “You dance better than a gay man,” which is surely the most delightful lie a virtual stranger has ever told me.
I woke up with a terrible case of nausea this morning, and the creepy ovenish lighting in Crown is making me feel even sicker. My mood is terrible. I know a couple of people here, but they will not associate with me because I am not even an associate member of a house. The pile of mats is the refugee camp for Kuvia undesirables like me. I join the liter of bodies on the heap, and enter their collective catatonic, opium den-esque state.
I scowl all through the morning stretches. One of the martial-arts clubs is leading the group, and I feel cheated. I had imagined myself partnered with Don Randel in a wheel-barrel race, not holding the same yoga posture for ten minutes. Salute the sun, my ass. Why are we saluting something that isn’t even there? Existential questions for our times, indeed.
I refuse to salute the sun, but instead lie on my belly and watch everyone else go from cobra to downward dog to standing. I am husbanding my energies for women’s rugby. The team has showed up every morning and cheerfully participated in all the activities. Those girls are strong and healthy, brimming with vim and vitality, whereas I am pale, scrawny, and cynical at 6 a.m.
The rugby clinic is led by Jen Higa, a tiny dynamo who barely clears my sternum, but who commands a large group of rugby virgins. I am surprised at how much fun it is to simply toss that oblong ball on a backwards diagonal while running around the gym. The team then shows us the classic rugby move, “the scrum.” Hmmm. I can see where rugby got its slightly kinky reputation. The girls knit themselves into a tight mass of backs and legs, looping arms over one another’s groins, to create a “tunnel” under which the struggle for possession of the ball will take place. They’re like a fierce pack of hyenas, snarling and clawing at a carcass. I’m actually sad when the workshop is over.
Today is the day. I’ll go to The Point, do some half-assed salutes to the sun and claim my prize. Fourth-year in the College Ethan Cooper has done it for the past three years, and will finally round out his collection of Kuvia shirts.
The gym is packed again. The Shorey flag is back, but Alper has answered with a homemade flag of its own. I follow the Shorey ram east on 56th Street to the frozen waters of Lake Michigan. When the group arrives, and the salutations begin, a tall blond boy, by the name of Ian Huisken strips off his coat and shirt and lies face down in the snow. “Clothes are prisons!” he cries, and becomes for me a combination of William Wallace and Karl Marx.
We then storm the Shoreland for frozen juice boxes and bagels. There, gleaming like a silver moonbeam, is my T-shirt. I snatch it up and stare at it lovingly. And it’s not even a size XXL.
The Polar Bear Run:
Oh, but I’m not quite done yet. There’s still the infamous polar bear run. Frankly I’m not that impressed by this tradition. Every college has a naked race. I suppose the U of C’s is more noteworthy due to our frosty temperatures and the lumpy physiques that populate the campus. I stand in the middle of the Quads and wait for a mass of swinging, bouncing, quivering flesh to come hurtling towards me. It does and I’m immediately disappointed. No, not because of that. But come on, streakers. A naked sprint should not permit sneakers and hats, and it should certainly prohibit jock straps. But I didn’t have the balls (so to speak) to run, so I shouldn’t cast stones.
A week after my initial foray into the University’s shadowy world Kuviasungnerk, I’m just a little the worse for wear. I managed to make all but three of my classes last week, and threw up only once. And now, clad in my new T-shirt, I can sleep snugly in my very own bed that is the property of no dorm.