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My rookie year at the SLA.

As the rather small passenger plane approached Arcata airport in the summer of 2000, I could feel my sense of apprehension and nervousness increasing alarmingly. What kind of conference would this SLA one be? How aggressive its speakers? How would they react to such an outsider as a British-born, naturalized Icelander who had the temerity to think he knew something about American sports and literature--and was still a little alarmed and confused to contemplate being among aficianados of sports in which shotgun positions, blitzes, and Hail Mary's were needed, and flies, apparently, could be "shagged." Would I end up being grilled at the promised beach barbecue? This SLA conference was only my second in the United States in fifteen years, and I was afraid it was going to be as terrifying an experience as my first one, way back in Chicago at the now ominously echoic MMLA gathering ...

This had been in November 1986 when I had attended the Mid-West MLA to give a paper on the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown and the Old Norse Sagas at a session of "Scandinavian Influences on British and American Literature." As this was my first ever trip to the United States, I was very impressed, if not overawed, by the opulence of the venue (Chicago Hilton) and the extremely efficient, busy-looking, determined MMLA participants (several hundred of them) who strutted around at break-neck speed between sessions with their briefcases and folders; they were all very smartly dressed and clearly had no time for such trivialities as casual conversation. I had indeed heard that American conferences could be very serious business.

There were to be three papers in my session, of which mine was the third, and there was a respondent to each one, who had already received the paper and would briefly critique it before the Q&As afterwards. I cannot remember the first one, but I do recall that the respondent had given the speaker a bit of a rough time. I was wearing a suit and tie, of course, and began to sweat unduly under my collar. Things did not improve with the second paper, delivered by a rather obese, chain-smoking woman (amazing to think of that in these strict anti-smoking days!), who, between puffs and wheezes (she seemed asthmatic too), breathlessly discussed a screenplay by the famous Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. I was relieved when she finished, mostly as ! was afraid she would collapse midway through her oration. Her respondent, a very slim, hard-looking blonde Valkyrie from some mid-West university stood up briskly, and with a thin harsh smile began her critique.

'Talar du svenska?'

No, the speaker couldn't speak Swedish.

Laser, eller forstar du svenska?' No, regrettably the speaker could not even read Swedish, her paper was based on a specific English translation of Bergman's screenplay. 'Precis!' snapped the respondent, who then, with great relish, returned to English and proceeded to demonstrate that this particular translation was a botched one with several key words badly interpreted and translated; had the speaker known this she would have realized that the gist of her argument, based on this and that specific concept, the wrongly translated ones, of course, was thus totally, embarassingly, and irredeemably wrong. Complete nonsense, in fact. It was an awesome, but vicious performance. The previous speaker had clearly made a terrible academic gaffe (always check your sources!), but she didn't deserve such a public and humiliating hatchet job ... and I was up next.

I could literally feel my knees shaking as 1 stood up to give my paper. Why in God's name had I ever agreed to come to this country of academic savages? I swore to God I'd write papers only on Shakespeare and Chaucer and go on a pilgrimage to Oxford or Cambridge annually for the rest of my life, if only I'd be spared today. For once, God seemed to be on hand (perhaps for the Bears' football game that weekend?) and heard my prayer. My respondent did have a couple of critical points, but they were positive and constructive and his delivery was firm but mild and amicable; compared to the others, I had gotten off very lightly. (God bless and thank you Professor Sean Hughes, wherever you are now!). Nonetheless, as I sat down, I vowed I would NEVER, EVER go to an American conference again ...

But here I was, fourteen years later doing just that. My growing interest in American Sport Literature had finally overcome my reservations and abject fears of American academia, or at least partly so, as you can now fully imagine why I was filled with trepidation as the plane glided down towards Arcata airport. Would these SLA types be as merciless as the MMLA ones? Would my credentials in this field pass muster? I did now know what a shotgun formation and a blitz were, but I still wasn't quite clear on the relative virtues of a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Would they snort in contempt at this? And how do Americans shag flies, for Heaven's sake? I'd packed my best suit, to be sure, for if there was going to be any blood on the carpet at least I'd go down wearing a jacket and tie as well as clean underwear. As the plane taxied in, I became increasingly nervous as the conference director himself was going to meet me at the airport and I was anxious to make a good impression on him, especially as he had the very impressive name of Professor Richard Arlin Stull.

When I disembarked and looked around, I couldn't see anyone remotely academic looking, nor indeed anyone likely to bear the middle name of Arlin. Arlo, perhaps ... but not Arlin. Finally, I noticed a man of medium build leaning casually against the wall near the terminal entrance. He was of a swarthy-looking complexion wearing sneakers, a pair of old jeans cut short at the thighs, a tee-shirt which had clearly seen better days, and a baseball hat which vigorously disputed the possession of his head with a mass of black, curly and very unruly hair. This didn't look promising. I looked around further but no American professor was visible. I returned to the man by the entrance and noted that above his thick, drooping Zapata moustache was a large pair of rather intimidating sunglasses. I was a little surprised, rather idly thinking that the mafia had surely never made it to the west coast, when he suddenly moved towards me. He'd clearly spotted the only uptight interloper amongst all the local Californians. I get a lot of this in Reykjavik. After thirty years there, I only have to walk into a store and, before I even open my mouth, I'm addressed with "Can I help you?" in English with a slightly bored, foreigner-tolerant expression. Is the British stiff upper lip visible at fifty paces or something? Anyways, Professor Stull seized my hand and shook it vigorously while asking, "Are you Jullian?" in a very deep gruff voice. (I spell my name with a double el here to intimate the depth of his vowel sound.) "Ye-es," I replied a little unsure and bewildered. "Welcome to Arcata. I'm Dick!" He took my suitcase and we walked through the small terminal. Now, admittedly, I hadn't expected a Professor Richard Arlin Stull, now astonishingly transformed into a very Californian Dick, to drive me to Humboldt State University in a limo but, then again, I hadn't reckoned on a Ford pick-up either. After dumping my case in the back, a little unceremoniously, I thought, we got into the vehicle. He turned on the engine and was just about to drive off, when he turned to me with a big infectious grin and asked, "Wanna beer?" I couldn't help but smile back, hoping he couldn't hear the raucous, self-deprecating laughter in my head get louder and louder, as I finally realized, with tremendous relief and joy, that this American conference, this SLA one, was sure as hell going to be ALL RIGHT!
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Title Annotation:Reflections From 25 Years of the Sport Literature Association
Author:D'Arcy, Julian Meldon
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Words:1336
Previous Article:Tunney, he reads books.
Next Article:"They've organized, Mrs. Tweedy": the genesis of SLA.
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