Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014, A Year in Review

"I buried her a thousand times." 
- Jason Isbell, "Elephant"

Before I started to get too sick on Sundays - sick with withdrawal - Sunday's used to be my day of walking. Walks were my way of battling the depression that inevitably followed heavy drinking binges. As I started in on the road to recovery, my walks became fewer and fewer as I gradually discovered, with awe, the novelty of a Sunday unblemished by booze. Now more than a year sober, they have all but faded into the past. 

An unseasonably warm Sunday today, though, stirred my soul with adventure and nostalgia. I grabbed my car keys and hit the road to Ann Arbor, not thinking much of it. 

In the years following my graduation from Michigan, I walked the streets of Ann Arbor endlessly: sometimes brimming with whiskey on those debaucherous, thinly-veiled attempts to recapture college; sometimes sick with depression in the following days, my heart feeling as if it had been torn open and sewed back in haphazardly, in a way that would never again feel mended. But in the course of these jaunts there was always one street I avoided: Greenwood. Greenwood was the street on which my college girlfriend lived for two years, the place where I slept every single night of my senior year. I couldn't ever bring myself to face it.

When I arrived at my old college house this evening, I paused to look up at the third floor window that I used to inhabit, incredulously thinking about the years that have already passed since that magical time. It was with surprise that I found myself thinking that I wanted to make that walk from my college house to her house on Greenwood one more time. Out of sheer habit I tried to wash my mind of the idea, as in the past my survival instincts would usually kick in at this point and tell me this was a foolish idea; in retrospect it is a testament to my well-being then that for a long time seeing that house would have crippled me. It felt like something I had to do, though: to bury her one final time. 

I walked underneath the tennis shoes strung up on the telephone wires that run along Greenwood Street, feeling like an old man. Inside the windows of those houses were college students who I could no longer identify with, each one of them unaware of the significance of simply walking down that street for the 26 year-old alumni who was walking by on the sidewalk. I paused in front of her house to tie my shoe, as if to double-check - I was supposed to be feeling something. But there was nothing - only the strange realization that a place that once was an integral part of my daily life had been scraped clean of its significance by the sands of time. I walked out of sight of Greenwood's lone streetlight, into the darkness at the end of the street.

It was only while driving home, the cornfields of those few farms in between Ann Arbor and Canton still untouched by modernity's hand passing by, that I realized maybe I wasn't drawn to Ann Arbor to bury her one last time. This time, I had went to finally bury my old self. 


Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Nights are Getting Longer


- Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son

Life's felt a lot like that lately. Like some opium-induced dream. Feels like the type of weather you might sneak out in late at night to sell your soul to the devil at a delta crossroads.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Clapton



When I was in outpatient rehab they told me I was addicted to "mood-altering" - anything that might transport my mind from the status-quo, be it alcohol, pills, caffeine, tobacco, or even sleep. I guess I should have realized as much long ago but it made a lot of sense when I had heard it. I despised the "mood" of status quo, and I had spent years fleeing from it. Still do quite frequently. Yet these days I pretty much limit myself to the tamer mood-altering substances, the ones that won't get me into too much trouble: namely tobacco and caffeine. I think this insight might help explain, too, why I like books so much. Books can take your mind away to a different place for a little while. 

This past Thursday found me on Westbound I-94, driving through a thick night rain, en route to Chicago's city lights. Stocked up next to me in the passenger seat were my go-to mood-altering supplies: a couple cans of Grizzly wintergreen, a 20 oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi, and a good book. Though I still love the taste, tobacco has long ceased to provide me any sort of buzz. And caffeine is just something that gets me through the day. The book I had next to me, though, wouldn't fail me on this night.

Earlier in the week I had ventured to the local library in search of my second audio book. I had just recently discovered a Jack the Ripper audiobook in my parent's basement and, though I didn't particularly enjoy that book, I found the diversion of the audiobook's words far more intriguing - soothing, even - than the utter spam of morning radio during the commute. Wandering through the bookshelf aisles, I had a couple audiobooks in mind: Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (a lesser known Americana travelogue a la Kerouac's On the Road), Stoker's Dracula (I've been halfway-finished with the paper text for over a year, but put it down sometime only to never pick it back up), maybe Mark Twain's biography if I could find it.

When I saw Eric Clapton's self-titled autobiography Clapton, I felt like I had found something I shouldn't have. Like a mischievous kid who had found Christmas presents hidden in his mom's closet. Because Clapton and I had a history together, and I knew the kinds of places his book would take me back to - maybe places better left in the past. But things I shouldn't do have been a specialty of mine throughout my life, so I knew from the moment I saw that audiobook poking out ever so slightly from the shelf, that Clapton would be coming home with me.  

So with two hundred miles in front of me last Thursday night, I popped in the Disc 1 of Clapton and began the slow descent back to the late Fall of 2008, my Junior year in Ann Arbor. 


That period - late Autumn of 2008 through the Winter of 2009 - was one of infatuation for me, as I had become enchanted with a certain Colombian export of the powdered variety. Those were the Hollywood nights of my lifetime, my chapter of Life in the Fast Lane. It wasn't just the drug that appealed to me (though it very much did). There was sort of an underground party scene to it all. I had been immersed in Ann Arbor's party scene, but this was like discovering this whole new layer to it all. Increasing its allure was the fact that my own roommates, pretty heavy drinkers in their own right, told me not to do it.

I remember vividly a secret basement room at the fraternity I hung out at in those days. I had become close enough friends with two guys from Northern Michigan that I got regular invites to those parties with sororities, but never before had I been trusted enough with access to one of the secret chambers of fraternity lore. It was the type of room just dripping with history: black and white photos of fraternity members from the 1900's, pieces of athletic memorabilia that had been pilfered from the university athletic facilities on a pledge mission, Michiganian yearbooks from the 40's, 50's, and 60's, dusty bottles of scotch that hadn't been touched in over thirty years, a mahogany table in the middle of it all. It felt like a walk through history. The heavy smell of leather and oak: you couldn't help but breathe in the magic down there.

Above us on the main floor of the fraternity you could hear hundreds of footsteps dancing. It was the fraternity's annual blowout weekend, Tahitian-style, and the place was packed with a line out the door leading to the sidewalk. The three of us had snuck down to the basement for a little something extra than the jungle juice being served from the coolers upstairs, and maybe for a little bit better of a drink too.

Lines on the mirror, we each took our turns. Doug pulled some glass tumblers from a drawer in the mahogany desk, and we each poured ourselves a glass of Jack Daniels. Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" and "Layla" blaring from the speakers on loop - the definitive soundtrack to those nights, cliched as it was.

We talked about which sorority girls we had our eyes on upstairs, anxious to get back to the party, but not too anxious. We wanted to soak it all in for a while. For a moment, the moment was all that mattered. We felt like Kings.



"It's funny to think," Doug said, swallowing a mouthful of Jack Daniels. "Guys were sitting in this very room, doing the same thing we are doing right now, back in the seventies." The way he said it sounded pretty profound, and in my elevated state of mind I thought I could see Doug's words slipping away into the annals of fraternity lore, to be stowed away with the yearbooks and the photographs and the dusty bottles of scotch, preserved into history in that secret room: "I wonder where those guys are now."

And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.



I arrived in Chicago, the placed I used to call home, at about 10 p.m. But for a while there I had a nice pitstop in Ann Arbor circa 2008.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Somebody That I Used to Know

"Hate Me" - Blue October

Thinking a lot about the past in this week leading up to the 1 year anniversary of my sobriety, that's all.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Losing My Religion

"I don’t know what it feels like to grow up there now. I want these things to disappear from my consciousness, but they won’t. The place where I grew up is gone, and it’s not coming back."
- Michael Weinreb, "Growing Up Penn State: The End of Everything at State College"



The End of Everything in Ann Arbor 

Millwood Village, the place where I grew up, was constructed in 1990. Surrounded by woods in every direction, the quiet subdivision was carved out of the Hines Park woods on the edges of Tonquish Creek, so named for the Indian chief who was slaughtered by white pioneers in those very woods. My parents were not alone in 1990 when they thought the newly-constructed suburban haven a good place to raise a burgeoning family. In fact, there were about five recently-wed new parents that moved into that neighborhood at the same time, all of them, seemingly, the parents of boys. Naturally those boys became my playmates in time, and later on they became the guys I "grew up with," some of which I now live with.

Those woods surrounding Millwood, it seemed, sheltered us from much of the outside world in more ways than one. I never once saw a police car in Millwood. The neighborhood was brand new, meaning that no old people lived there and nobody ever died there. I remember discovering in middle school and high school that many of my classmates' parents were "divorced" - a theretofore foreign word to my vocabulary. No one's parents in Millwood ever got divorced, you see, and marriage, to us boys who grew up in Millwood's woods, was not only an inevitable prospect of life, but an infallible structure of family.

The thing about growing up sheltered, though, is the tragedy of emerging from that shell. Eventually the reality of the world becomes obvious to all of us, but to those of us raised in neighborhoods of naivety, the process of accepting that shattered reality is all the more painful. To someone who was raised by divorced parents, for instance, the idea of marriage might not sound that appetizing. To someone like me, raised in a neighborhood where divorce simply did not comprise a part of our world, marriage is the only thing, and divorce is, well, unfathomable. It took me two years to get over a relationship in which marriage was the mutually agreed upon destination, and I have my own amateur-psychological conclusions (when it takes you two years to get over something, you pretty much exhaust all theoretical analysis of said something) regarding how my childhood in Millwood affected my inability to accept failed love.

'Tis a sad thing, after all, to watch something that you believed in crumble. But it is sadder, yet, to watch something which you thought was incapable of breaking crumble. Such is the tragedy of the Michigan Football fan.

Michigan Football was a lot like Millwood Village to me growing up: nothing existed outside of it, and if something did, that something didn't matter much. If two-parent households with two-car garages were the one pillar of life I was subconsciously conditioned to believe in as a boy, then the divine mandate of Michigan as a perpetual power atop the Big Ten was the other pillar. In accordance with such a vision, I grew up believing in the infallibility of Michigan's head football coach - a figurehead that seemed to me more mythological deity than man. I believed that the annual rites of Autumn included nine to ten wins, at minimum, and that Midwestern seasonal change was not defined by the first snowfall but by The Game, pitting Michigan against Ohio State in a clash of titanic powers to decide the Big Ten championship. Michigan Football was the only thing. An infallible thing. Over the past several years, though, I've watched all of those tightly-held beliefs from my childhood rupture and split, one by one. 

The Minnesota game at the Big House was a new low in a relationship already studded with them. Several people close to me could not understand when I told them that watching the Minnesota game live from the bleachers of the Big House was my lowest ever moment in Michigan Stadium. Undoubtedly Appalachian State was worse, they countered. And it's true there are a handful of games I've attended in Ann Arbor that seem unrivaled in agony, on the surface. I was there for Appalachian State, being on the wrong side of the greatest upset in college football history, the day Lloyd Carr lost that aforementioned deity status in my mind. I was present at the Horseshoe in Columbus in 2008 when we lost by 35 to Ohio State, capping my Junior year and the single worst season in Michigan Football history to date. I was there for my final home game as a student in 2009, when we lost once again to Ohio State, when I sat for a long time afterwards in the stadium reflecting sadly on the prospect that I would never again enter Michigan Stadium as a student, but mostly reflecting on the fact that I would forever be saddled with the burden of having never beaten our arch rivals during my four years as a student. 

Yet there was always the glimmer of hope in those days. There was 'Lloyd Carr is past his prime,' to 'Rich Rod will lead us back to glory' to 'Rich Rod was a mistake and we just need a Michigan Man to Lead us back to glory'. Perhaps we Michigan fans, especially those of us raised in the sheltered decades under Bo and Lloyd, were so conditioned to believe in the just righteousness of Michigan Football as a Big Ten power that it would take more than one cycle on the merry-go-round through college football hell to break us.

Sitting in the stadium against Minnesota, I didn't have any preconceptions about "what" that game was, anymore. My team was no different than a myriad of other college programs that had fallen into irrelevance over the years. My stadium was no longer hallowed grounds but now just another giant advertisement with pre-packaged pop songs blaring through the speakers. And the "Michigan Man" walking the sidelines was just another guy wearing long pants who was underqualified to perform his job. Not only that, but the institution that I at one time thought so highly of that I literally devoted my entire high school life towards getting accepted into, was just another bureaucratic institution - one so caught up in its own elitism that it doomed one good football coach before he even started just because he was an "outsider", one too proud to admit that it had made a mistake and played a kid who had clearly suffered a concussion, and one that can't even lure its own alumni from San Fransisco to come coach here.

Michigan Football is Santa Claus to me now. Something that meant something a long time ago. There will always be Christmas, but deep down I know that scientifically-speaking it's nothing more than another goddamn day.

We're 2-4. And I'm running out of things to believe in.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fall


"But when Fall comes, it stays a while like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since he last saw you. 
It stays on through October and, in rare years, on into November. Day after day the skies are a clear, hard blue, and the clouds that float across them, always west to east, are calm white ships with gray keels. The wind begins to blow by the day, and it is never still. It hurries you along as you walk the roads, crunching the leaves that have fallen in mad and variegated drifts. The wind makes you ache in some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul. 
And you can stand on your stoop or in your dooryard at mid afternoon and watch the cloud shadows rush across Griffen's pasture and up on Schoolyard Hill, light and dark, light and dark, like the shutters of the gods being opened and closed. You can see the golden rod, that most tenacious and pernicious and beauteous of all New England flora, bowing away from the wind like a great and silent congregation. And if there are no cars or planes, and no one's Uncle John is out in the wood lot west of town banging away at a quail or pheasant, you can hear another sound, and that is the sound of life winding down to its cyclic close, waiting for the first winter snow to perfrom last rites."

- Stephen King
Salem's Lot

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Personal History of The Horror (or Appalchian State)

An Exercise in Either Self-Loathing or (more optimistically) Catharsis


Since 2007, I've learned that the most painful things in life are often those that are the most unexpected, the ones that hit you like a brick from seemingly out of the blue: deaths, breakups, bad news. But on September 1, 2007, I was but a naive young sophomore, and I didn't know any of that. I was soon about to take my first dose of that bitter pill. To understand the agony the prevailed in the late afternoon and then well into the night September 1, 2007, you have to first understand the bliss I awoke to that morning.

September 1, 2007.
6:30 a.m.  

After celebrating the carefree daze of a welcome week Friday night well into the whiskey hours of the morning (the Greenwood block party is, or was, traditionally held on the Friday of Welcome week), my alarm clock woke me much too early given the previous night's events. Yet thoughts of neither sleep-deprivation nor of a hangover plagued me that morning, as what I anticipated to be a triumphant football season was upon us that day. Hence I stumbled through the fraternity hallway - the semester had yet to start, but it was already filthy from a week's worth of fraternity revelry - to my good friend Andy's room to rouse him as well. We cracked our first beers with unspoken glee, knowing the day we had waited several grueling months for was upon us, and hastily showered and dressed. During our freshman year, our initiation into tailgating culture commenced at a neighboring fraternity, where we came to idolize a certain southern fraternity guy - an unforgettable tailgating hero - who dressed in gameday oxford and tie and generally put on a debaucherous show for passersby from what was known as "The Ledge". Determined to emulate our idol, Andy and I donned our southern gameday dress, performed our ritual pregame superstitions which we had started practicing as roommates in the dorms the previous year, and toasted our beers, downing what would be the last indoor beverages of the day.

7:15 a.m.
And so we waltzed out onto the fraternity porch, a sprawling porch that virtually looked out onto the entire undergraduate campus, and climbed atop our fraternity's ledge. The first tailgate song of the day playing from the speakers - the song selection probably governed by our newfound taste in country music, to round out the fraternity cliche we were living in - we glanced out onto State Street, almost entirely empty in the calm before the storm. Football season was upon us, but the weather was no indication. The sun barely yet overhead, it was already baking down upon a fraternity lawn that in three shorts hours would look unrecognizably decimated. The beautiful September dawn reflected the state of my soul quite aptly. I was immensely happy. Not just that in the moment kind of happy, but truly, genuinely happy: with my environs, my social life, my academic life, my relationship-life (or lack thereof, as the idea was then).

Andy and I prided ourselves on being the first tailgaters awake and governing the fraternity porches that entire season, and I'll never regret the hours of sleep we lost doing so. There was something magical about that pre-pre game, when we were alone in the strange quiet of the early morning, waiting for the other hardcore tailgaters to arrive prior to 8:00 a.m., knowing that in a matter of hours tens of thousands of people would be flooding State Street through a parade of deafening music, red solo cups, and Greek debauchery. But there was never anything like that first game: there's something strangely magical about The Possible on the eve of a brand new college football season. And the 2007 Michigan Football season, make no mistake, was supposed to be a magical one for our Wolverines. Michigan had went 11-0 heading into The Game the previous season during my freshman year, and perhaps but for a bone-headed personal foul call late in the Fourth Quarter, could have been on its way to the National Championship. Michigan returned its stars on offense, including Chad Henne, Mario Manningham, and Mike Hart - who, by the way, appeared on the Sports Illustrated cover of the college football preseason edition only days earlier. In other words, losing on this particular day seemed unfathomable.

9:30 a.m.
 If Southern tailgates are known for their tradition and class, Big Ten tailgates are known for their binge-drinking atmosphere. Especially as the season meanders into late October and early November, the frigid temperatures force Northern schools to play almost exclusively day games throughout much of the college football season. At Michigan and a majority of Big Ten schools, this means a solid portion of the games are noon kickoffs. On Greek Row on Ann Arbor's state street, these noon tailgates are taken as a sort of challenge, if you will, to consume the most amount of alcohol in such a short tailgating time frame.  And that's sort of how most of my tailgating days at Michigan went.

My fraternity that year partnered with the Delta Gamma sorority for tailgates, and I knew many of the girls as me and a couple other buddies worked in the DG kitchen as bus boy's (see: slaves) that year. The sororities are notoriously late-arriving to tailgates, but State Street on a Football Saturday is truly a beautiful thing once the sororities converge en masse to the various fraternity houses. It's then that the party really starts: the drinking games, the speakers blaring into the streets, the dancing on ledges. The entire scene is a remarkable portrait of the joy of late youth - that burdenless, liberated, carefree time that is so fleeting. And those select Saturday's from that Fall were some of the most purely fun days of my life, days that just can never be recreated.

12:00 Noon
Prior to the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Ann Arbor, students were still very much concerned with actually making it to football games, albeit sometimes well after kickoff. Though I hated the prospect of leaving the tailgate, I still prided myself as a devout Michigan fan, and somehow managed to stumble my way over to the Big House every Saturday. I remember feeling very hot as I finally found my seats in the student section, as the last vestiges of a Michigan summer were in full display. I think I remember that moment because it so highlights my disbelief that an actual game - a competitive one - was about to unfold.

It's funny, too, that I remember that pre-kickoff moment, because I don't remember much of the game at all. Whether that is a result of the countless beers and jello shouts I had consumed in the previous four hours or the result of a long, long subconscious purge of the memory from my brain, I am not entirely sure - probably a little of both. But I remember knowing before all of the other students in the student section that we were going to lose. I was, after all, more experienced in this Michigan football thing than most of the other students, many of whom hailed from different states and were not lifelong fans, and as I was a more seasoned Michigan fan, I was naturally a pessimist when it came to my team. And then Appalachian State blocked the field goal, and Michigan Football as I had known it was never the same. I was never really the same.

I grew up thinking that 10 win seasons were a way of life. Though I didn't know it at the time, Appalachian State taught me a lot about life - about how things change, even things you think are fixed in place.

I don't assume things anymore. Not in football, not in life. 


4:00 p.m. - ?

As any Michigan football fan who came of age in the nineties, I grew up spoiled by gridiron success. And like many of my peers in that demographic, I had grown quite unsatisfied with what was known as "Lloyd-Ball" - characterized by Lloyd Carr's ultraconservative style of play - in the early aughts as The Rise of Jim Tressel was underway in Columbus. September 1, 2007 was the death knell for Lloyd Carr. Needing a primary scapegoat after the game, I drunkenly took to social media to express my disgust with Carr's waning coaching abilities. At some point that year I even changed my Facebook profile pic to a picture of LSU's Les Miles, advocating for Miles - who had Michigan roots - to return home to Ann Arbor and lead us back to glory (I even got a request from the LSU student newspaper for an interview about Miles' potential return to Michigan). But as most Michigan fans learned in the confusing hours after that game, social media was not a place I wanted to be that day; Michigan State fans were brutal as they basked in the schadenfreude, and I soon discovered that other football games would not be a distraction either, as not a one broadcast could be found that wasn't working in an Appalachian State highlight at some point. If the reality of the loss hadn't yet set in, it was in this way - browsing social media, and flipping through the sports networks on television - that the gravity of our loss sunk in. So a full scale media blackout was my only recourse, and I don't think I was alone amongst Michigan fans in being eager to get back to classes that week.

In my efforts to avoid any sort of contact with the world outside of a very depressed Ann Arbor, I ended up on the fraternity lawn drinking whatever leftovers remained from the tailgate - I didn't care what I was drinking, as long as it would kill some brain cells. And the rest is a blur, though I know I ended up at the fraternity next door drinking with some dudes there. Perhaps surprisingly, turning to the bottle that day actually seemed to work, as the rest of that day has melted into a collective blur in my memory.

August 30, 2014
I spent most of August - usually a time of great anticipation for me, as Michigan football looms - decrying the decision to schedule a rematch with Appalachian State. I wanted no part of the replays of that game - replays I had fairly successfully avoided for several years - that would undoubtedly be brought back out of the ESPN archives this Saturday, or the radio talkshow mockery of the game, or of that painful memory of the most embarrassing day in Michigan Football history. I told myself I didn't even have interest in going to the game.

But the funny thing is, as I sit here on this Friday before the game, I find myself feeling very nostalgic for a place that I have now long moved away from, for a time, for those people at those tailgates who have since departed from my life. I find myself wishing I could go back to September 1, 2007.