Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Holidays



Christmas Eve at my Aunt Mary and Uncle Paul's in Ann Arbor, the same Christmas Eve with the Cullen's that I remember so fondly from my childhood years, all of my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered to celebrate with presents and food and beer and the warmth of a big Irish Catholic family, the only difference now that there is a new generation of Cullen's tumbling through the house and tearing open presents and that all of us are much older now, wiser and more broken in our own secret individual ways. My cousin Robert is in town, and he tells us stories of his latest adventures to Rio de Janeiro and Thailand and Cape Town; I realize that I have become the other guy -- the one who settles for a job and a dull routine in a nowhere town just so he can buy some groceries -- feel sad. Afterwards I go over to my cousin Frank's condo to watch the game, fantasy football championship on the line -- quality cousin bonding time, the closest kin I have.

Christmas morning at Mom and Dad's in Millwood. Like always, I feel strangely sad returning to Millwood, a sadness that I feel when I look into the woods of our boyhood summers and when I see my dog Rudy getting older and when I see different families in houses I used to know and when I have to leave again. Presents under the tree, John Denver's Christmas album playing on the stereo -- my namesake -- 1st edition Hemingway Death in the Afternoon(!) Get a text from Caitlin: the surprise destination of our trip with her family is to Cuba. Long drive to Clarkston for Christmas dinner with the girlfriend's family, thinking about Christmastime three years ago, when I was going through alcohol withdrawals and I missed Christmas altogether. Seems like a long time ago.

Toronto. Fight in the lobby of Mississauga Hilton. No sleep. Stay up late reading Kerouac in the internet cafe, listen to two young black Canadians discuss their plans to set up a shelter for at risk black youth; listen to three late-twentyish Canadian Muslims discuss the theories of evolution and religion in earnest, and I feel proud to be part of the world for a brief moment in time, proud of diversity and multicultural harmony. Three a.m. wake up call. Pound a red bull, shuttle to airport, in the sky over Buffalo and Pittsburgh and Georgia and Orlando and finally the Keys, over the blue-green waters of the Caribbean and over the red dirt junglelands of Latin America.

Havana. La Floridita -- the bar where my Hemingway began the final draft of "For Whom the Bell Tolls". Eat fried chicken in a backyard restaurant with live chickens walking around the patio picking up scraps, wonder if they're for dinner tonight. Happy to drink two Coca Cola's after sipping on Cuban soda most of the week. Morro Castle, a huge eighteenth century fort where the Cubans used to fight off pirates. Must have found some of Hemingway's muse at La Floridita, spend half the night writing in the poolside bar under the moonlight (forgot to pack my Benadryl). Following morning is day on the catamaran: swim with dolphins, dock at an island for lunch, wade into the clear blue ocean with white sands. Lots of easy time with the girlfriend. I remember the joy in life for the first time in what's felt months, another mini-depression having plagued me for almost all of November and December, it seemed.

New Year's Eve, watching the College Football Playoff in one of the rooms in the resort, surrounded by Spartans: NYE consequently another bust, but it's always been overrated in my book anyways. Last years new years resolution: write one chapter per month. This years new years resolution: write one chapter per month.

Wake up at the crack of dawn on New Year's Day, feeling the old familiar nerves of gameday. Eat breakfast by myself; take a stroll through the resort; swim a few laps in the pool, listening to the fat married couple from Edmonton (Canadians everywhere), smiling deep down because all my life I've loved Canada and Canadians and their mannerisms and non-confrontational worldviews; walk the beach in the early morning hours, getting high off the anticipation of my beloved Michigan Football gamedays. Check the hotel TV: no luck. Find my way to a secret hidden internet cafe to illegally stream the Michigan game on pre-purchased Wifi cards. Chickened out of trying to sneak my dip into Cuba (couldn't decide whether or not I wanted to confide in my girlfriend's parents that I was in fact a tobacco user) and the one tin I carried on was now down to about two heavily recycled pouches, so I snuck into the gift shop that morning to buy a pack of Cuban cigarettes. Five minutes to gametime, head to the huge marble patio in front of the lobby to smoke my pregame cigarette, imagining myself some Cuban drug lord looking off from his plantation veranda over the vibrant green and red dirt farming fields of sun-scorched Cuba.

41-7. Feel guilty for having ever doubted Jake Rudock; excited about the future with Harbaugh.

Reading Kerouac's Visions of Cody by the pool, much of which is direct transcriptions from audio tapes between Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady, the beat hero of On the Road, while they smoke "T," and sitting under the Carribean sun by the pool I get high right there with Neil and Jack, and no one else on that pool deck knows I'm high but me. Whenever I read Kerouac, I wonder how he knows my soul, knows it on a level that is almost spooky; daydream whether I was him in a past life.

Restless nights in my poorly air-conditioned hotel room (shared it with my girlfriend's brother Brendan) (TV is broken(!)(!)) reading more Kerouac, or going down to the poolside bar where I would go back in my head to the year 2005, the last year before I left home for the first time, transcribing memories on notebook paper while somewhere in the distance a Cuban cover band plays Sweet Child of Mine.

Back to reality. Want to shoot myself in the face within a half hour of being back at the office. Time to write -- escape this two-horse world for a while.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

2015, A Year in Review

There's an old rustic cabin way out where the woods get heavy, somewhere in the untamed North Country. Miles from the nearest town, moss-covered and in varying states of disrepair, it stands at the end of a narrow dirt road that winds through the pines, with blackberry and raspberry and thimbleberry bushes along the roadside that on summer days we pick and put in baskets and make pies and jam out of. Out back there is a sprawling wooden veranda of a porch where we sit around the fire and wait for the magical lights of the aurora borealis, and even farther back beyond the cattails is a wooden dock that goes right out over the water. In the daytime the lake is blue and cold, but at night when I write it is black and it reflects the yellow glow of the moon.

Inside, the fireplace is cackling, making grotesque shadows on the walls in the candle light. In the main room in the back, the walls are lined with bookshelves. There is a ratty but comfortable old couch, an end table, a small radio, and my desk looking out over the lake, where I stay up writing until sunrise. The pots and pans are hanging in the kitchen and there is a small hallway that leads to the little bathroom that smells like Irish Spring soap and well water and then the bedroom, where the bed is draped with brilliant Indian blankets.


I often go there nights, after the workday is dead and over. And slowly the noises of this place -- the alarm clock ringing, the car engine turning, the printer printing, the copier copying, the telephone ringing, sirens blaring and horns honking, the sounds of voices speaking colorless, unnatural speech -- it all starts to fade away.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Penn State

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed
By the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said
"The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sounds of silence


- Disturbed, "The Sound of Silence" 
(originally written by Paul Simon)


Monday, October 19, 2015

Two Years Sober




Today marks two years since I've had a sip of alcohol.

It's bittersweet.

Somewhere in my college town on Saturday evening, just as a brilliant pink dusk was setting over an Ann Arbor that was painted with the brick reds, the pumpkin oranges, and the rust browns of Autumn, I stormed out of my childhood friend Eric's apartment and into the stairwell. Visions of football players in Michigan State uniforms taking a botched punt into the Michigan student section endzone dancing in my head, I tried to understand what had just happened. It was over. Our long-anticipated victory over our instate rivals -- the victory that was supposed to end eight years of humiliation at the hands of the team we had so arrogantly labeled "little brother" -- had vanished quite literally into thin air only moments ago. It wasn't long after I sat down on the stairs that I broke down into tears.

There's not a State fan alive that can say they deserved that game more than I did after the last three or four years. It took me more than a year of trying to put down the bottle -- often managing to stay sober for three or four weeks at a time before I would wind up face down at the tail end of another bender, going through withdrawals with my tail between my legs, a process which repeated itself until it became a vicious cycle -- before I started to accumulate any serious sobriety time. Even after I went to outpatient rehab in the Spring of 2013 I relapsed after ninety days sober for a stretch that lasted well into the '13 Michigan football season. All the while during those dark years I had to watch my Michigan football team flounder in their own identity crisis when I needed them most. I could only jealously watch my Sparty friends bask in unprecedented success for their football program, taking little satisfaction in the knowledge that I was earning my badge of loyalty.

This season felt like my year. Bo's prodigal son had returned to Schembechler Hall in the form of one Jim Harbaugh, and the date of the Michigan State game happened to fall two days shy of my two year sober date. This was the first Fall that I felt comfortable enough with my sobriety that I returned to tailgating, and seeing my college buddies throwing back beers at Maryland and in Ann Arbor on Saturday, and them being okay with me not drinking, it all felt pretty damn good. I've been through a lot with those guys, in and out of Michigan Stadium, and it felt like we had earned one.

Watching all that get ripped from my hands as Michigan State took a fumbled punt to the house while the game clock expired didn't only feel like an injustice, it felt like a big fuck you from life.

And you know what, fuck you too life. Two or three years ago, back when I was drinking, I would have wallowed in liquor and my own self-loathing after one of these types of losses, but that's not who I am anymore; that person is dead. "We have to have resolve, put steel in our spine and move forward," Harbaugh said Saturday night after the loss. I don't need luck. And I don't need any of life's help. You move forward and you embrace the pain, because it makes you stronger.

Minnesota in two weeks. Fuck em. And fuck you too, life, because I'm only going to work harder.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Michigan State


And it's been a while
Since I could hold my head up high
And it's been a while
Since I first saw you
And it's been a while
Since I could stand on my own two feet again.

And everything I can't remember
as fucked up as it all may seem
The consequences that I've rendered

And it's been a while
Since I could say that I wasn't addicted
And it's been a while
Since I could love myself as well
And it's been a while
Since I've gone and fucked things up just like I always do.

I cannot blame this on my Father,
he did the best he could for me.

Staind - "It's Been a While"