Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Myth Of Lawrence, Kansas

When my most recent ex-wife and I moved to Lawrence for her job at the University of Kansas I was aware of two facts about the town. First, William Burroughs lived here. I found this intriguing. Second, the university was known for its basketball team. This piece of information was gathered serendipitously when I was watching ESPN and a fascinating segment aired that showed KU students spitting into the river as a sign of loyalty and support to the aforementioned team. I found this worrying.

We had, however, been assured by colleagues who had visited the town that "Lawrence isn't that bad," and with this ringing endorsement, moved here with a mix of trepidation and hope.

A brief aside that will become pertinent later... As I write, the older of my two cats, Zoot, is undergoing an allergy attack. He has hay fever. I wasn't aware that cats were allergic to their environment. This is the sort of useful information one acquires by living in Lawrence.

Zoot just threw up. This is not uncommon when the pollen count reaches... nosebleed territory? We're currently under a wind advisory and the gale that has been blowing all day... Well... I guess it must be like an orgy for the trees. An arboreal porn flick. They are shooting vast quantities of pollen in all directions as their limbs bend back and forth.

The younger of my two cats, Rufus, is now fulfilling his beta role and is washing Zoot's ears.

During the first couple of years here I was enjoying a period in which hypomania trumped depression and had decided I was a novelist. I did, however, have moments of lucidity when I remembered I was an astrophysicist, and taught a few classes at KU.

And, of course, that led to me interacting with members of the Physics faculty.

One of whom told me that "The University of Kansas is the Harvard of the Midwest."

I did my best to laugh at the joke, primarily because the comedian was a full professor. Somewhere between the third and fourth forced chuckle I realized with horror that he was serious.

By which I mean that he believed the statement.

Another aside... When the need to write this blog bubbled up like swamp gas, I had intended to lampoon this laughable statement. And thus, employing a pleasing blend of vitriol and honey, produce one of my rants. Which amuse at least two people. (I have kept the e-mails attesting to this.)

But I just realized that my lampoon would inevitably morph into a harpoon and thence into a torpedo. And there are people for whom I have affection who work at KU or who graduated from the place. People who are about to be sufficiently insulted by the remainder of this piece that further observations about the Youth-Club-Come-Sports-Center of the Midwest would be unkind.

Lawrence features many of the classic "town versus gown" conflicts of cities in which a significant fraction of the population works at or attends the university. (I use the word "city" loosely; Lawrence lacks a cathedral and is more properly described as a suburb without an urb.) The "townies" complain that Lawrence is overrun by boorish, intoxicated frat-boys and their SUV-driving bowhead girlfriends, while the gownies (?) argue that without KU Lawrence would be just one more piss-ant, redneck, right-wing carbuncle on the face of The Great Plains.

Being an expert in ambivalence I subscribe, in part, to both views. And wonder why, in this debate, the presence of Haskell Indian Nations University is rarely cited as contributing to the positive attributes of the city.

Actually, I have a pretty good idea why HINU suffers such neglect, but... well my theory is impossible. Because we all know what a wonderfully liberal, enlightened, culturally diverse place Lawrence is.

And in fact the idea that Lawrence is not that bad (for Kansas) is completely true. And the townies point to the artists and writers and vegetarians and LBGT-friendly residents as being responsible for this muted accolade.

To which I reply: the liberals of Kansas have to live somewhere. And, given that the university system was founded along the traditional Midwestern lines in which the University of Kansas was the school for liberal arts whereas Kansas State University focused on the agricultural, it is hardly surprising that the center of Kansas liberalism is in Lawrence and not Manhattan, 85 miles to the west.

The geography is not irrelevant, by the way. Lawrence sits between Kansas City and the state capital of Topeka. Manhattan sits between... Well... it's on the way to Denver.

The townies of Lawrence, besieged by students whose allowances exceed the average townie income, take great pride in the "community" (i.e., the collection of mutually-beleaguered townies) to which they belong. The community, they say, is an extended self-help group in which we all support each other in the face of a common enemy. It's a bit like Canada in this regard; a collection of disparate individuals drawn together and defining themselves through opposition to a perceived monolith. KU is to townies as the USA is to Canada. (They should put that on the SATs.)

Which sounds okay in theory until you discover that the townie community is comprised of the same spectrum of individuals as any other, ranging from the caring to morbidly mean, self-obsessed assholes. And that's just fine. Except that the community fails, for the most part, to recognize and acknowledge just how dysfunctional it is. And when one has been seduced by this myth of a caring, supportive community, and then peeks behind the curtain and sees the rats and the puddles of piss, it's... Well... For historical reasons I have "issues" when I am informed, righteously and indignantly, that a reality is one thing, when it is clearly quite another.

But to question the Utopia of this community is regarded as heresy. And the primary reason that heretics are reviled is that those following the dominant orthodoxy fear (perhaps know) that the heretics are right.

All of which gets me back to Zoot puking.

Several years ago I was in love with a woman who was in love with me. Typically this is a good start to a story, but ours was plagued by multiple problems that included both of us undergoing a transition from booze to prescription medication to even out some of the bumps in our brains.

We were both nuts.

And frequently unpleasant.

Really quite destructive.

And during a period in which She was being particularly vociferous on the topic of how we could never be together, She also mentioned that She drove past my house every day. Because She liked the purple irises that were in full bloom.

Nuts, unpleasant, destructive, and in spectacular denial.

Irises propagate by roots that spread out unseen and underground. This makes them ideal plants for allegory, particularly when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.

And so it was, when She committed to someone who was not me, I dug up the irises from the front of the house and moved them to the back where She couldn't see them. And replaced them with bleeding hearts.

From which I have concluded that my unconscious has a strong horticultural component. I hope to obtain a Federal grant that will help me found the Martinian school of psychoanalysis. I envision it being similar to the Lacanian one but with a greater emphasis on manure.

I really am getting back to Zoot puking.

Last fall I decided that I was going to make the effort to produce a spectacular garden this year. This included feeding all my perennials including my allegorical irises. (With blood meal, sweat and tears, obviously.)

How they thrived! I've never seen them grow so tall nor produce so many blooms on each stem. Blooms which started... well, blooming, just in the last few days.

And the gale that is indirectly responsible for Zoot puking flattened these beautiful irises, snapping the stems and driving the flowers into the dirt.

I saved a few. I've brought them inside, away from the wind, and the eyes of the much-lauded Lawrence community.

And I have locked the door.


  1. Whatever you do, DO NOT give Zoot Benedryl. We had allergy issues with two of our cats when we got to Austin, and discovered the hard way that Benedryl doesn't help cats much, *and* causes them to produce completely terrifying quantities of foaming drool...

  2. I've found a couple of shrimp and a brush work just fine.

  3. Awwies.

    BTW I was frightened to learn that Lawrence, KS is apparently the 7th most educated city in the United States. [You may be flattered that my first thought was that somehow your presence skewed the statistics. :)]

  4. Nah I think wot happens is people get sucked into the vortex of KU classes and eventually cross the event horizon never to be seen outside the city limits again.

  5. Keith,

    Just found your blog from Pete Coles' blog.

    As for allergies, 10 years in Athens, Georgia is enough to give single celled organisms allergies!!

    Adrian Burd

  6. Hello Adrian!

    Man, it's been funny recently how I've been cyber-running into people.

    Yeah I saw the coverage of pollen clouds in the SE. I am convinced the trees are ganging up on us.

    Take care - K

  7. always enjoyed your style, Dr A (perhaps one of the messages raving about your prose came from me?) so i was blissed out to find your blog and dip my toe, once more, into the foaming cesspit of emotions i suffered alongside you, for years, until my demonic/angelic kids came along and ensured i have no time left to indulge in self-analysis...

  8. Thank you, Rob.

    Which Rob are you?

  9. Annnnd now I have the last batch sitting on my mantel.... it's sad how they get gailed down like that but it does make a nice bouquet