Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More Than a Game: Volume II

After a night at the old hometown bar with our childhood friends - all returned to the neighborhood for the holidays from the various places throughout Michigan that they now reside - my buddy Steve and I got up to our usual hijinks and started letting our inner child speak for our brain. Before long, we were on the open road in yet another misguided attempt to recapture the excitement of childhood. We were on our way to Chicago, the place I called home not so long ago.

Returning to Chicago was bittersweet. Going to the Hawks game brought back so many great memories of watching a lot of amazing sports events there and made me miss how great a sports city the Windy City truly is. Returning to my favorite bar just across the street from my old apartment complex brought back a lot of good memories of watching Wings games late into the night last spring. And seeing the bars on every corner of the maize of streets throughout the city brought back memories of nights of limitless opportunities. And, of course, a late-night drunken excursion to the favorite Chinese food place tasted so good.

But it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories, as well. Of lonely nights spent sipping beers by myself while listening to Red Wings broadcasts, feeling homesick for my hometown, homesick for nights with my friends watching Wings games at home, of sitting around my old living room with my dad while a fire crackled in the fireplace and we listened to Mickey Redmond exuberantly announce a goal for the good guys. I thought a lot about those nights in the days that followed that ill-minded yet fun road trip.

For me, listening to those Red Wings broadcasts through my laptop was one of my only connections to my home. Ken Kal, the Red Wings radio broadcaster, was a good friend to me during those Chicago nights. I've never met the man, but he f
elt like family. He brought me back to all those nights in Ann Arbor watching with my college buddies. Back to evenings with my childhood best friends, including Steve, cheering on our beloved Wings. Back to nights when I was young when I would sneak into my garage just to hang out with my dad while he listened on his old radio box to the Red Wings on winter evenings.

In that way, listening to Ken Kal narrate those Red Wings games to me on those lonesome Chicago nights was about far more than sports. It took me back home, albeit virtually, when I needed it most - even if it was only for a couple of hours.
Thanks for everything, Ken Kal

Looking back on my time in America's Second City, it is easy to label that year as a big mistake in my life. But it did maybe the most important thing in my life: it made me realize that I was simply meant to be in Michigan. I think about all of my college friends making lives for themselves in cities with grandiose opportunities throughout the country from Washington D.C. to Cleveland to Seattle, and I realize I'm content with where I am: home in Michigan. Those days in Chicago revealed to me that I am much more a country man than a city-dweller, far more a small-town boy at heart than a aspiring city yuppie.

The other day I was driving aimlessly down the winding, forested trails in Hines Park, and I heard the song "Where I Come From," by Montgomery Gentry:

"Don't you dare go runnin' down my little town where I grew up, And I won't cuss your city lights,
If you ain't ever took a ride through the heart of my town, anything you would say would be a lie".

It echoed much of the sentiment I've felt over the past two years. There's absolutely nothing spectacular about the place I grew up. It's small, a little past it's prime, and void of much in the way of lofty opportunities. But I love it that way. Over the past couple weeks, I've had the pleasure of hanging out at the hole-in-the-wall bars in my town, watching Red Wings games with the guys I grew up with.

As Steve and I drove home from that spur-of-the-moment roadtrip to Chicago, I felt some closure with Chicago. Driving eastward down I-94, the skyscrapers of Chicago growing smaller behind us with each passing mile-marker, I knew this time I wasn't going back. I don't need to listen through my laptop for Ken Cal to take me back home anymore; I'm living in those memories now.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

May the Wind Always Be at Your Back

It's been a tough year for me. A family friend that I really looked up to, and who was genuinely just a good person, died way too young early on in January of this year. I lived in Chicago a hundred miles from anyone I had ever cared about, feeling depressed and alone for a good while, all the while feeling like I had made a really bad decision in going to school there. The girl I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with broke up with me over the summer, after which I had by far the hardest couple months of my life. I live in an apartment that I was supposed to share with that girl, which is a daily reminder of lost promises and disappearing dreams. So for the past couple weeks or so, I've been counting down the days until New Years Eve. I wanted to be done with 2011 forever. Quite frankly I'd erase the entire thing from my life if I could. It felt as if the wind was most certainly not at my back.

Until Yesterday. Yesterday Michigan beat Ohio State in a football game. Call it a game, if you want. But to me it was far more than a game. It was a reason to remember 2011. It was the only reason to remember 2011.

On Friday I read something on that meant a lot to me. I think it really puts in perspective what yesterday's win means for me. I'll try and paraphrase:

The year was 1995. The guy who posted this story was a recent college graduate, not unlike myself, who was living a long way from home in an unfamiliar city, far away from family and friends. He was feeling kind of down, and feeling kind of worried about "those types of things that you worry about when you are a younger man". The kind of worry that isn't really too serious, but you only realize that years later.

As the 1995 Ohio State-Michigan game approached, the #2 Buckeyes were undefeated and heavily favored in the big game. He watched the game, alone, in his apartment. He watched a Michigan running back by the awesome name of Tshimanga Biakabatuka that day. And he yelled "Biakabatuka" at the top of his lungs numerous times throughout that day, as Biakabatuka ran wild for 313(!) yards, perhaps the greatest one-man performance in the history of The Rivalry.

And I'll quote the part that really meant a lot to me: "It's ridiculous, but the way I felt after that beautiful destruction changed a good bit of my outlook. Everything would have turned out fine anwyay, because I would have worked hard to make it all work out. But Tshimanga put the wind at my back".
It's strange, but after yesterday I do feel as if maybe the wind has changed directions a bit. It doesn't feel as if it's blowing directly in my face, and maybe even the wind is at my back now. I'm ready for that. I'm ready to start anew. And maybe, just maybe, a "game" - as some people who don't understand what sports can truly mean sometimes would call it - will provide me that wind at my back. Don't tell me it's just a game.

May the wind always be at your back and the sun upon your face,
And may the wings of destiny carry you aloft to dance with the stars.

Here's to the wind at your back.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Growing Up with The Game

Unbeknownst to the average fan, the spectacle that is Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is not the only Michigan Stadium in the state of Michigan.

In fact, there are undoubtedly many Michigan Stadiums sprinkled throughout the mitten in small towns from Mackinaw to Toledo. The one I know exists in my hometown, a short walk down the street I grew up on, through a patch of woods, and in the middle of a vast grassy field speckled with baseball diamonds. The chalk on the football field reads "Lutheran High School Westland," but not in my mind. To me, that high school football field will always exist as the Big House.

When we were young my little brother and I used to toss our peewee-sized blue and yellow Michigan football around our front yard on brisk, grey fall days after school, waiting for our dad to turn the corner on his way home from work. In the days before the early Michigan winter set in, there was just enough daylight left for some quick outdoor playtime with our dad after the end of the 5 o'clock work day. We waited anxiously for him to get home so he could take us down to Lutheran High School's football field, where he would toss the football around to us. To an outsider, it might not seem any different than tossing the football around our own front yard, but to us, playing at that football field was different in so many ways.

When I was on that field, I wasn't catching passes from my dad; I was Mercury Hayes, wearing the #9 Michigan jersey, catching a pass from Scott Dreisbach or Brian Griese. When I chased my brother down those chalked sidelines, I wasn't tackling my brother; I was Ian Gold, tackling some bully-faced Ohio State Buckeye player. When I stopped to catch my breath, sometimes as it formed a tiny smoke cloud from the frigid air, I didn't see some meager metal bleachers on the sidelines; I saw the endless rows of the Big House, with a hundred thousand fans cheering for me under a cold November sky in Ann Arbor. To my brother and I, at least, that small high school football field was Michigan Stadium. And in all those dozens and dozens of games we played there, we never once played anyone except Ohio State -- and of course we never lost.

I don't think this is a unique experience to my brother, my dad, and I. I'd be willing to bet that thousands of fathers and sons from Westland, Michigan to Grand Rapids, Michigan bonded over playing against Ohio State together, whether it be in a backyard, a high school football field, a farmland field, or a park. In the same way, I bet thousands of fathers and sons in Ohio bonded by playing against imaginary Michigan players in imaginary Horseshoe's on autumnal Ohio evenings.

It always seemed like those evenings spent out on that field were all in preparation for some big event, the event of the fall: the Michigan - Ohio State game. It was almost as if we felt that our play out on Lutheran Field was practice for the big game, that diving for all those passes from Dad would somehow boost Michigan's chances of beating Ohio State that year. That if I dropped one of those passes, I was letting down the Wolverines. And that even if I forgot to wear my Michigan windbreaker out to the field, I wasn't fulfilling my civic duty as a young Michigan fan.

In a way, the fall season actually did culminate with the game. Always occurring on a late November Saturday, family and friends always gathered around the television set for a gathering that rivaled Thanksgiving. The fridge was stocked full of ice cold beers and enough soda to keep me up all night, the smell of chili sifted through the kitchen as it cooked on the stovetop, a log crackled in the fireplace, and maize and blue attired faces sat on the living room sofas in an eerily quiet anticipation of the game.

In this way, Michigan - Ohio State is far more than a football game. It is its own culture. It's fathers and sons. It's a way of identifying yourself. It's family gatherings. For families in Ohio and Michigan, The Game is a holiday around which the year revolves. As I'm sure it did for kids in Ohio, it felt like part of my genetics; it was just how I was supposed to grow up. I dream of one day being Denard Robinson throwing passes to my own son in our backyard, buying him his first Michigan jersey, and taking him to his first game. I dream of one day being able to tell stories about my days at Michigan to my grandkids.

Over the past few years, I've subconsciously tried to downplay the significance of the meaning of the rivalry, pretty unsuccessfully. Each loss has brought back images of those autumn evenings at Lutheran Field -- our Michigan Stadium -- scoring touchdowns with my brother. Each loss has brought back the images of those family gatherings, making those losses sting even worse. It's no use downplaying the significance of those games. The Game, to me, will always be more than a game. This Saturday, come four o'clock or so, I know I'll be shedding a tear or two remembering those times with my dad and my brother at our own Michigan Stadium -- I just can only hope this year those tears are tears of joy, and that I'm singing "The Victors" at the top of my lungs.

Go Blue.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Goin' Nowhere Blues

"In the corner of the barroom/
Lives the ghost of Langston Hughes/
He's takin' notes and smokin' cigarettes/
Sippin slowly on his booze/
Got them goin' nowhere blues"
- Robert Earl Keen: Got the Goin' Nowhere Blues

This morning, I woke up, slightly hungover from one of those wish-I-was-still-in-college Wednesday nights at the old undergraduate bars, to a text from an old college friend. Essentially, the text said something along the lines of: 'been reading your blog, and feel the same way. My life is in need of a major change.' He said he skipped work today because he just couldn't do it. We texted back and forth for a little while, lamenting about the ruts we were in. I expressed how I missed college, when all of us (college buddies) were all together in one place -- not dispersed all over the country in D.C., N.Y.C., Cleveland, Chicago, and wherever else; I expressed how I missed college days when everything just seemed to make so much more sense.

Not long thereafter, I sat looking out my apartment window as snowflakes started to fall. It hit me that winter was here, and here for the long haul once again. The first snow conjured up images in my mind of months spent hibernating indoors and drowning beer after beer on uneventful weekend nights, of nights locked up inside warm pubs, of the slow monotony of yet another winter -- stuck in a prison of routine.

Maybe it was in part due to the alcohol wearing off, but the whole morning seemed to be overwrought with an oppressive weight, the weight of paralysis.

There used to be an old dirt road in my hometown, unpaved and hidden from suburbia underneath a shield of pine trees. I used to go there nights during the autumn of my senior year -- sometimes I just didn't want to go home. I was tired of my hometown, tired of being trapped in the strictures of high school life, tired of the same old same old. I remember thinking I might bust at the seams if something big didn't happen, soon.

I never thought I would feel that way again. But that text I received from my college buddy still is sitting with me hours later: "I'm ready for a change, in a major way".

Ironically, as I type this, I'm sipping the same beer I always drink, getting ready to go to the same bar me and buddy always go to. Might be a long winter.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Paul Kemp Blues

Late last night I returned to my dark, lonely apartment in the eerily silent midnight hour after a viewing of The Rum Diary. With the cinema-induced images of miniature rum shooters fresh in my mind, I felt a lot like Paul Kemp -- the main character of the film/novel, and a portrait of a young Hunter S. Thompson -- did in the lonesome and crazy world of Puerto Rico.

Like Kemp, I felt stuck in that strange quarter-life stage between the carefree bliss of youth and the contentedness of settling down, the stage in which one struggles to define just what one is doing with his life. Like Kemp, I felt at odds with the career track I had chosen for myself and was left to wonder just how I had arrived at this career juncture. Like Kemp, I felt torn between an ambition to do something that I can't quite put my finger on yet and a lack of ambition in which I am content to half-ass my way through life in a haze of self-indulgent adventure. Like Kemp, I simply wanted a shot of rum -- if for nothing else than to make sense of all those thoughts.

But I was out of rum. Instead, unable to sleep, I picked up my copy of The Rum Diary and re-read the last couple of pages of the novel as I waited for the NyQuil to kick in. The last paragraph of the novel:

"Voices rose and fell in the house next door and the raucous sound of a jukebox came from a bar down the street. Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night."

Thompson's closing lines are simultaneously both nostalgic and foreword-looking. There is a sense of sadness as Kemp looks back on his time on the island. Despite the ups and (mostly) downs he encountered, Kemp seems nostalgic as he realizes how much the island has influenced him and how it will unavoidably play a significant role in wherever he goes next. Nothing can ever change his time there; it will forever be cemented into the footpath of his life.

In the past several weeks and months I've been thinking a lot about the different stones on my own life footpath thus far as well. As an avid walker, I walk a lot in directions of places that occupy a special spot in my past. Over the summer, probably because it was the only thing I could tolerate soberly without hating life, I must have walked every square foot of my hometown. I walked past the Mike Modano Ice Arena, the place where Steve and I learned to skate as little kids. I walked past the post-demolition rubble that remains from the movie theater I used to go to. I walked down the trails alongside the Rouge River for just about as far as my legs would take me. And of course I walked to the old sandlot.

In Ann Arbor I've done a lot of walking by the places I called home during college, namely Mary Markley dormitory hall and the old house on State Street infamously known as the BOX house. So much of my life took shape in that tiny room on the 2nd floor of Mary Markley hall. I met so many people that year: some were fleeting drunken encounters with people now dispersed throughout America; some were historical moments with the people that will be my best friends for the rest of my life. It's weird to look up at my old window, where so many good times and a few bad occurred, and see that some unnamed freshman has the gall to occupy that room. In fact I can't even get in the front door of the building.

The same is true with the old college house. The rooms are now occupied by people not my best friends. It seems wrong in a sense. Those were our bedrooms, that was our front porch, that was our kitchen countertop bar. That was our house -- where relationships bloomed and relationships ended, where we got bad news on a phone call from home, where we rejoiced together over a sporting event, where we laughed and where we cried. So much of my life is ingrained in that house that it feels blasphemous that anyone else should live there, in the seat of our memories.

As Paul Kemp does as he departs Puerto Rico, I look back with nostalgia at those places. And like he did, I recognize that each place you go forms the sort of backbone of your life; each one will be a part of you no matter where you end up.

As Kemp laments in the film, "Life is full of exits". He exits Puerto Rico knowing exactly where he's been, but having no idea where the next stone in the footpath will lead him. And so I, in these times of uncertainty, may have no idea which direction my life might lead me in the coming years. But anytime I want I can take a stroll by Mary Markley dormitory Hall or by the old BOX House and know exactly where I've been.

Indeed, perhaps it's better to know where you've been rather than exactly where you are going. It seemed to work out pretty well for Hunter S. Thompson, after all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hard Times in Ann Arbor

My first experience with the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was with my childhood best friend, Steve. We met when we were about three years old when we both moved into our brand new neighborhood, and we have been friends ever since. In a world where I know all too well that best friends come and go throughout the years, I feel very lucky to say that we've maintained that friendship through everything -- the awkward adolescent years, the clicky high school years, and the college years. And I know it will stay that way forever. Someday he'll be one of my best men at my wedding.

Steve was raised in a Michigan State household, and thus naturally gravitated towards Spartandom. I was raised in a pro-Wolverine household, and began loving Michigan football well before I even began loving my little brother Patrick (poor Pat was on the receiving end in many bouts of brotherly-fights during our youth; sorry Pat). Whether you hung a maize and blue block M flag or a green and white 'S' flag from your porch was sort of a dividing line in our neighborhood. Throughout our childhood's, our green and blue attire contrasted in the backdrop of whatever our playscape was. I'm not a big believer in destiny, but if there ever was a destined path for the both of us, it was that Steve would wind up in East Lansing and I in Ann Arbor, attending our beloved perspective institutions.

During those childhood years, consisting mostly of the 1990's, Michigan gridiron success overshadowed Sparty most of the time. I remember thinking that Steve must be really devout in wearing that Michigan State jersey when it seemed to be the unpopular school of choice in Michigan during the nineties. Being the Spartan fan in those days was the road less travelled, it seemed to me at least. And it took courage to remain resolute in Sparty-fandom during that stretch of history.

I have even more respect for Steve's resolution in those years, nowadays. After this year's Michigan-Michigan State game, in which my Wolverines were defeated for an unprecedented fourth time in a row, I remember (as I was walking back to Steve's house in East Lansing from the beer store, ironically) feeling for the first time in my life that being the resolute Michigan fan was the tough thing to do. I remember feeling like wearing a Michigan jersey around the state of Michigan required more fortitude than wearing an MSU jersey around. I felt a lot like how Steve must have felt after many of those 1990's or early 2000's games.

Last Saturday night, as me and a group of my Michigan friends gathered around a television set with drinks in our hands, begrudgingly rooting for Wisconsin to prevail over Michigan State, I felt happy for my friend when Michigan State won in the final moments of the game. Everyone deserves an experience like that every once in a while; those unforgettable moments are what makes sports meaningful, after all. But more so than happy I felt jealous. I thought about Steve and the unbelievable four years he's experienced during his time at Michigan State. And I thought about my own four years when I was at Michigan, and the utter sadness I had to deal with when it came to Michigan football. Why did Steve deserve that ultimate college experience with his beloved Spartans, but not me? It's a selfish thought, no doubt, but it's what I felt at the time (before descending into mind-numbing drunkenness shortly thereafter).

A breakdown of our college years (* note: Steve is still in his fifth year, and thus is likely to see a bunch more wins and possibly even a B1G championship this year):

Steve: 32-14 (likely to be about 38-15)
Me: 28-22 (misleading due to my freshman year 11-2 season)

Record against rivals (much more telling, in my opinion)
Steve (against the block M): 4-0
Me (against OSU and MSU): 1-7 (let me repeat, 1 and fucking 7.... 1 and fucking 7)

Times tried to kill self with alcohol
Steve: not as many as me
Me: More times than necessary

OK, jokes aside, I truly am happy for Steve. Steve's the type of fan that deserves the satisfaction. I know plenty of "Spartan" fans that loved Michigan football for 18 years until that MSU acceptance letter came in the mail and then magically it seemed convenient to become a Spartan fan. Steve isn't that guy. He's one of the fans who deserves what State is getting.

I just wonder how I'm in the group that deserves what Michigan is getting right now. I guess what you have to take from it all -- not only sports, but life in general -- is that the bad times make the good times (when they eventually come around) all that better.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Big Two-Hearted Sandlot

After returning from war, Ernest Hemingway went to the Upper Peninsula to camp and fish for several days in an attempt to heal his physical and emotional scars. It was a special place for him that brought him back to simpler days and made him forget the tragedies that can befall you on this treacherous journey that we call life. I wish I could call up Hemingway's ghost for a good trip up to the Big Two-Hearted River so I could ask him just how he healed those emotional wounds, if he ever did, or how he got over the heartbreaks that are rampant in his books. But since that scenario didn't seem likely (maybe If I had some absinthe), I figured I would settle for a trip to my own special place. For me, that special place is a tiny sandlot baseball field, secretly nestled in the woods of Hines Park and in between bends of the Rouge River.

In my mid-teens my life revolved around that sandlot. The neighborhood guys and I played literally whenever we could -- we sometimes would even wake up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday just to get a game in if someone had obligations that would prevent us from playing later in the day. And we worked tirelessly to upkeep that field, doing everything from mowing it to erecting foul poles to pouring kitty litter in the batter's box when it was soggy from rain. Quite simply, we were in love with the place.

Today I took a walk to the old ballfield. I felt like it was something I needed to do. I felt that if I could just see it again, some of the emptiness that has existed in my soul for the past three months might dissipate. If I could just stand in that old batter's box, maybe I'd be able to feel young and alive again, instead of the desolation that has hung like a cloud over my head for too long now. I knew the sandlot wouldn't disappoint.

It was a beautiful autumn day. The trees in the woods are just changing colors and the seasonal change in the air was palpable. As I walked down memory lane -- the trails we walked hundreds and hundreds of times on the way to the field -- I thought about the people we used to be: young, bright-eyed, naive and innocent kids with the world in front of them. It sounds strange, but it was as if I could almost see the ghosts of us dragging our baseball gloves and bats down the trail to the field, our laughter echoing off the trees. And I thought about the person I've become since I left home and that sandlot. I thought about the people we've all become. I thought about how easy it is to get lost in the world when you leave home, when you're world becomes more than just a sandlot baseball field.

But when I arrived at the field, I didn't think about being lost. I just felt hope again.

Sure, the field is overgrown with tall grass and weeds nowadays; the pitcher's mound is barely even visible through it all. But underneath all the brush, the magic is still there. The magic of a boyhood summer day, baking in the sunlight while rounding the bases. The magic of when a game-winning home run in a friendly match could be the highlight of your whole week. The magic of a grill-cooked hot dog and a soda in between a summer day's doubleheader. The magic of a couple of best friends just having fun.

It felt good to be home again. I just wish I didn't have to leave.

Friday, August 26, 2011

More Than a Game

After the worst summer of my 23 year life, I find myself longing for that first kickoff in Ann Arbor more than ever.

Over the past two and a half years my future started to take shape. I fell in love and found a best friend in the same person. We planned our wedding Up North together. We named my first son. We named our future dog - Bo. We signed a lease to an apartment that we would start the rest of our lives together in. And in a world where 50% of marriages end in divorce, we promised each other time and again that we would defy those numbers. I started to think that the world was a good place, after all.
In a moment, my future crumbled. And I still don't even know why. I just know that it's gone forever. Those 2 and a half years of my life will always just reside in my past as a gigantic lie. And the future that I had planned was just some fantasy land that apparently meant absolutely nothing. Essentially everything that I believed in for the past two and half years, and everything I believed in the future vanished in a moment.

People can't be trusted. The most important people in life have a funny tendency to let you down. That's just the way it is.

There's one thing that means anything to me that still remains, though: Michigan football. Sure, Michigan football has let me down more times than I can count. But upon summer's end, without fail, it's always there waiting for you on that first Saturday in Autumn. Michigan football will never pack up without warning and stop playing, leaving you wondering what the hell happened. Michigan football will be there, good or bad. And it always will. I can count on it to be there through deaths in the family, lost friendships, lost jobs, you name it. And this fall I will be very thankful for that.

People sometimes say sports is just a game. And sometimes that can be true. But this fall, Michigan football will be a hell of a lot more than a game to me. It's that long lost friend that will always be there. It's a crutch to lean on when life is shitty. It's something that I can believe in, when I don't believe in a damn thing in this world anymore.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life is But a Joke

"Now the question on the table is: how drunk is drunk enough?

First the sadness cells go so you smile real big. And then the quiet cells go so you say everything real loud for no reason at all. That's OK, because the stupid cells go next, and everything you say is real smart.

And finally, come the memory cells.

Those are tough sons of bitches to kill."

-The Legend of Bagger Vance

Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Summer Days Were Summer Days

"The happiest day I ever had was any day when I woke in the morning when I was a boy and I did not have to go to school or to work. In the morning I was always hungry when I woke and I could smell the dew in the grass and hear the wind in the high branches of the hemlock trees, if there was a wind, and if there was no wind I could hear the quietness of the forest and the calmness of the lake and I would listen for the noises of the morning. Sometimes the first noise would be a kingfisher flying over the water that was so calm it mirrored his reflection and he made a clattering cry as he flew. Sometimes it would be a squirrel chittering in one of the trees outside the house, his tail jerking each time he made a noise. Often it would be the plover on the hillside. But whenever I woke and heard the first morning noises and felt hungry and knew I would not have to go to school nor have to work, I was happier than I have ever been."

- Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream

What I wouldn't give to be a schoolboy as the last bell of the school year resounds, ringing in the immortality of summertime, again.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A House on State

(The commencement of summer has found me not having to read boatloads of cases every night and thus with some actual free time. I've largely diverted my attention from this blog to a larger work that has been in progress since last summer and hopefully will one day be finished. I thought I'd post the prologue to it here (it was actually originally a post, but grew into much more). If you're interested in more, I'd be happy to get some feedback on the rest of it.)


"We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn't know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found."

- JR Moehringer, The Tender Bar

In the late winter of those collegiate days we lived in a student house nestled in a traditional pine-soaked Midwestern college town that looked across State Street and towards the stadium in the distance. Tucked in amongst a row of other traditional college houses that sidelined that bustling street, about a mile south of the ivy-covered brick towers of academia, our home did not noticably stand out from the others. Like the other two-stories on that street it bore the scars of decades of wear and and looked like it ws slowly withering with age. Its white walls hid beneath sheets of dirt stains. Dead and overgrown weed branches forked through crevices in the porch steps. The crooked fracture in the upper right window never healed. And shards of broken liquor bottle glass speckled the clumps of dead grass and patches of snow that composed the front lawn.

Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning we heard groups of students, returning home after closing time, walking past under the window on the snow-covered sidewalks. While we sat sipping our drinks we heard their voices, accentuated by liquor consumed at the college pubs down the street, through that big living room window. Now and then the passersby would look up at the letters B-O-X that hung, and had hung, however feebly, from above the front porch of our house for decades. We faintly heard them mutter something about the rumors they had heard about those letters that had come to represent our house.

We embraced the outlandish and sometimes degenerate portrait that those rumors painted. To us they provided proof that we existed as more than just tiny fish in a big sea, as more than just faceless students in overcrowded lecture halls. Each time we heard someone wondering aloud about those letters as they passed by we quietly reveled in the prospect that we had stomped out some sort of footprint, no matter how small, to show for our four years spent on that campus. And though we dared not say as much, we each secretly knew that the reputation that preceeded the B-O-X letters provided a convenient excuse to justify our overindulgent lifestyles. The multitude of various rumors theorizing tall-tales about what the B-O-X signified compelled us to try and live up to the rumors. At least that's what we told ourselves.

In truth, though, those letters were no different than neon lights advertising the local watering hole: The Thirsty Elk or Mitch's Place or The Diamondback Saloon. Of course we would never admit as much, but there was nothing spectacular about the letter on our house; they merely represented what lie inside the house. And indeed it was a bar.

The rooms upstairs where the six of us slept were mere attachments of the bar, but an afterthought of the scene. We spent virtually all of our waking hours on the ground level, the heart of it all. The ground floor was not spacious nor was it pretty. It was really just one large room covered in cracked, dirt-stained white tiles, the kitchen countertop serving as the only divider between the kitchen and living room. The patrons of our bar, consisting of about a dozen of us, flocked to and fro from that countertop religiously, retrieving various assortments of alcohol without pause. Because our bar lacked bartenders and barmaids, the empty bottles never seemed to disappear and the whiskey spills never got wiped up. Yet it seemed some ghostly bartender, straight out of a prohibition era speakeasy, was always at work, as the stock of liquor available for all to drink never seemed to diminish.

On those bitter cold Michigan February nights we hibernated in the living room, the seating area of the bar, sitting on beer-stained couches worn to the bone from a couple generations worth of college students' use. The Northern winter permeated the paper thin walls and provided a constant reminder of the freezing temperatures outdoors. We shivered in our sweaters and sipped our rums and whiskeys and bourbons to warm us. Our arms lifted drinks to and from our lips mechanically. We drank and stared at hours upon hours of whatever happened to be that evening's sporting event glowing from the television set. Sitting and sipping and watching, we felt content. But sometimes if a sip of whiskey hit me the wrong way I looked around the room skeptically. Sometimes I would even get up and stand in front of the mirror and wonder if I myself was content. I wondered if it was truly content that we were feeling or rather if the room had been subsumed in a paralysis-inducing fog, in the way the Joycean drinkers of Dublin unconsciously suffered from. Some nights I concluded the former, some the latter. On the nights I came to the Joycean conclusion, I resolved it by walking to the countertop bar, fixing myself a particularly strong whiskey, taking a mean sip, and waiting for the whiskey to kill the images of Joyce's Dubliner's dancing drunkenly in my mind.

Like any American corner bar, once dusk had fell and the February skies turned black as soot -- which was early on those reluctant winter evenings -- our house emanated a lively mood. As the warm spirits loosened our nerves and as our faces grew rosy from libation, joyful voices began to overcome the droning voices of the broadcasters on the television set. Spring in the step emerged as someone got up from a seat to refill a mug. As the hours grew older the room began to resemble that mythical pub in Ireland: a tiny brick tavern surrounded by green clover fields, packed full of wide-eyed men and women brimming with whiskey and good cheer, the songs of Celtic lore echoing from the tavern through the cobblestone streets.

The mood of the corner bar peaks as dusk falls, but no one seeks the mood of a bar just opened in the morning hours. For better or for worse, though, the mood of our house resonated with bar's at all hours of the day. Staggering down the staircase, dry-mouthed and hungover in the morning, entering the living room felt a lot like walking in on the depressing scene of a lone drunk sitting at the bar at sunrise, desperately slurping down his vodka with a shaky hand. Dozens of empty beer bottles, some marinating with tobacco spit and some with cigarette butts, emitted the gag-inducing stench of used tobacco and stale beer. Beer spills and broken glass shards peppered the tiled flooring, creating a sticky and perilous walking path to the kitchen. Yet the scene impeded us not. We sat out the hangover sitting in our own beer-spills from the previous night, watching sportscenter highlights of the games we had forgotten from the previous night. On the occasional days when the scene was simply too much too grapple with soberly, we embraced the image of the lonesome drunk at the bar at sunrise, refilled our mugs with whatever straggling liquors and sodas remained from the previous evening, and resumed our buzz and our position on the beer-stained couches as if nothing had changed, waiting for the sunlight to disappear once again.

On a campus overflowing with more than 30,000 students, everyone has their niche. Everyone has somewhere to turn to to feel closer to God, truth, peace, or whatever it is that helps them feel relevant. The athletes -- the football player's who are worshipped as gods, to the women's softball team, even to the swimming team -- had the multi-million dollar athletic facilities, the gyms, and the escape offered by the playing field. The asians reserved the mathematics floor of the graduate library and maintained a monopoly on the bubble tea shop on the corner of Main Street. The Silverstein's and Greenberg's occupying the spotless sorority mansions flocked to the Jewish section of fraternity row to drink wine and martinis. The stoner's hid in small corners of the university arboretum, puffing smoke amidst the tree branches and wandering aimlessly down the trails. For better of for worse, our place was the countertop bar at the house where the letters B-O-X hung hung crookedly from above the porch.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cabin Fever

When I was in high school my greatest fear was growing complacent and settling down without having ever pursued my dreams of taking an adventure on the open American highway. I longed to see everything Jack Kerouac described in On the Road half a century ago: the fresh apple pie at the highway diner at every town in the Heartland, the secluded farm life of the Dakotan and Nebraskan corn fields and plains, the reds and oranges of the Southwestern desert, and foggy California nights looking out at the vast Pacific.

An inevitable part of growing up in American society, though, involves giving up "fantasies" -- as most would certainly describe them -- and embracing the 9 to 5 reality wholeheartedly. Indeed, these dreams or fantasies, whichever they may be, have dwindled in my mind as I've grown older and experienced the real world more and more. Lately, however, the lure of the open road and the prospect of a good old camping trip or road trip has re-emerged with vigor.

Perhaps the allure of adventure has grown in part due to this past year, which has largely been a realization that a career is more something you try not to truly hate than something you try to enjoy. Graduate school stands in stark contrast to college; it functions as much as anything else as a blunt reminder that the easy-going nature of college was but a four-year illusion and that the complacency of the working class world looms a lot closer than you think.

Perhaps its the lingering bitterness I feel towards the decision I made to move to Chicago a year ago, a decision that is becoming apparent to me that can only be described as a mistake as much as I don't want to call it a mistake. And maybe because I feel guilty for making that decision, I feel the need to wash myself of it by hitting the open road or secluding myself in nature for a couple days. A good old fashioned adventure would be a sort of cleansing, if you will. It worked for my Hemingway after all; after serving in World War I Hemingway ventured up north and secluded himself in the Northern Michigan woods to heal both his physical and pyschological scars, (though you can imagine those pyschological wounds never heal) as the short story "Big Two-Hearted River" goes.

Or perhaps the city landscape is just wearing on my country-oritented psyche. Last summer I had a forest at my back doorstep, a labyrinth of trails within a few short steps, and a country road leading to a lake a mere mile or two away. In other words, my own personal heaven. Over the past few months the closest I've been to nature is the artificially planted trees on the city streets and the pages that adorn my Hemingway bookshelf, with the latter being far more comforting.

No matter the reason, though, the dreams of boyhood are alive and well. This time, though, the materialization of an adventure seems more likely, as this time I'm mature enough to know that the Arizona desert and the California vineyards are realistically out of grasp. A camping trip or a week-long winter road trip doing a combination Ontario Hockey League venue tour and tour of the finest dive bars Ontario has to offer, which I've been contemplating as of late, will do just fine.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

In Pursuit of Lord Stanley: 2011 Final Edition

After last evening's debacle I resolved that I was done with hockey for the year (besides casually watching the rest of the playoff's). My mind would no longer be invested in the thought of a Cup. So I didn't expect that I'd be writing any more of these types of posts; it would be too difficult to rehash the agony of defeat.

Another instance of eerie irony befell me today, though, prompting this post. You might recall from my last post that as I was trying to elude any hockey-related thoughts last Saturday after the Game 1 defeat, a random scene featuring the Stanley Cup popped up in a completely non-sports related movie I was watching (One Week is the name of it). It was as if the sports gods were adamant about rubbing it in.

Today, the sports gods were really rubbing it in. While on an excursion to the grocery store, I couldn't believe what song I was hearing at the grocery store: Frankie Valli - December, 1963 (What a Night).

This is the exact song that they blared at Joe Louis Arena during the Joe-Vision I was in attendance for after the Wings beat the Capitals in Game 4 of the 1998 Stanley Cup. I'll remember that song playing as confetti fell from the rafters and Detroiters jubilantly rejoiced for the rest of my life. Again, an eerie event that triggered thoughts of Lord Stanley when I least wanted to think about Lord Stanley.

Yet another example of the cruel sense of hujmor of the sports gods.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Pursuit of Lord Stanley: Chronicles Volume II

The subtitle of this blog reads: "The triumphs and travails of sports, liquor, and literature." Today I'm experiencing the travails.

Laying in bed, suffering from a wretched hangover induced by a fifth of 75 South whiskey, listening to Robert Earl Keen sing about depressing stuff, drastically overreacting to one game of hockey, I've been thinking about missed opportunities in sports throughout my life. I've been thinking about the NCAA hockey championship that Michigan lost in overtime this year, the game I thought would finally bring me that elusive national championship I've been wanting so desperately since 1997, when I was too young and naive to fully appreciate the value of one. I've been thinking about the 2009 Stanley Cup, when the Red Wings lost in game 7 and I spent hours at a Chicago bar by myself with my head in my hands because I was old enough to fully appreciate the value of those moments in a lifetime. I've been thinking about the 2006 Michigan Ohio State game, when the teams were ranked 1 and 2 respectively, and how I left my dorm that Friday when I heard Bo had died and then went for a walk through the graveyard next to Mary Markley dormitory and cried about Bo, and I didn't really know why I cried because he had been the coach before my time, but it didn't matter. And I've been thinking about this Red Wings team, a team that has really gotten me through a difficult year of my life in Chicago, away from all of my friends and family, and how they've been the one constant in my life that makes me feel like home, about how I love when I get texts from my father during every game, about how I forget about everything else in the world when the puck drops, and I feel like crying over one damn game because I can't even stand the thought of this team being eliminated.

So when I turned on a movie, a non-sports movie mind you, in an attempt to get away from these thoughts, of course one scene featured the Stanley Cup. I was back to square one. This scene featured one of the more interesting stories I've heard about the Stanley Cup. Apparently back in 1996 when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup Mike Ricci had brought the grail to a party. At the party, a woman who had been trying to have a baby with her husband but had recently been informed that she could not in fact concieve kissed the Cup. That night she concieved and 9 months later a baby named Stanley C. (after the Cup) was born.

And of course that just made me think about the magic of the Cup some more and made me want it that much more. The days after a loss can be some of the worst days ever. Let's hope I'm not feeling this way come Monday morning.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Pursuit of Lord Stanley: Chronicles Volume I

In the past I've encountered some really great moments amidst Stanley Cup runs. From some of the epic celebrations we had at my college house during the '08 run, to when my buddy jinxed the hell out of the Wings when he bought champagne with minutes left in the potential Cup-winner in game 6 of that same year, to the personal bar crawl I went on in Chicago after the game 7 Cup Finals loss in '09, playoff runs have produced some memorable nights for me. Hence I thought I'd track some of this year's run, which hopefully lasts as long as it can.

Usually when you go to a bar by yourself on a Monday night, wind up talking to a random old man, and the two of you are the last stragglers at the bar when they call for closing time, you're going through some rough times. But the Stanley Cup Playoff's aren't "usually".

Indeed, this past Monday night found me sitting with a stranger I had just met at a bar. But I wasn't in a rough spot. In fact, it was the best night I've had at a bar in quite some time.

Last Monday morning was the best Monday morning I've had in a while. Promptly upon waking up I threw my Wings jersey on, confident that the thought of that night's game would propel me through a long day of class and study. Better yet, the prospect of the Wings taking a 3-0 series lead seemed very attainable, as the Winged-Wheelers had played their best hockey of the year in the first two games of the series (without one half of the Euro-twin connection, no less). And let's be honest, the appeal of a Monday night trip to the bar didn't hurt my enthusiasm for the day.

Originally I had intended to stay at the library until 8:45 p.m., leaving me just enough time to get home and to a bar before the 9:30 puck drop. However, circa 8:00 p.m. my youthful excitement had gotten the best of me and my library stay had devolved into a youtube session of the 1997 Wings - Avalanche brawl, among other classic Red Wings clips. So I soon departed for home, but not before picking up a tall boy of Icehouse which I subsequently consumed with rapidity despite immediately being reminded of its poor taste all whilst listening to my ritual pregame playlist (Crooked Fingers - The River is a staple, gets me going every time).

Half of the reason I had planned to go to a bar for the game was because there happened to be a Chicago Bulls playoff game that evening as well, and I stand as a distinct minority in my apartment being it that two of the four are Chicago born and bred. But sometimes a good trip to the bar by yourself is just in order. Certainly it's not for everyone, but for someone like myself the solitude and the atmosphere can be really enjoyable, as long as you pick the right watering hole (hole-in-the-wall to mediocre quality only).

Low and behold as I arrived at the bar to request the hockey game on one of the televisions, the bartender directed me to a corner of the bar where one lonely Wings fan already was seated. In our own small corner of the bar, like the cast-off's of the bar social structure, we immediately shared a common status. And we shared a common plight, our plight being the difficult predicament of being an out of town fan in enemy territory, a long way from the friendly confines of your home team's town. A few pints of Wisconsin's cheapest lager later, the lonesome gentleman and I were clanging our beers together celebrating goal after goal.

By games end it felt as if I had known this stranger for years. And that's one of the miraculous things about sports: its ability to unite complete and utter strangers in pursuit of a common goal. In this particular instance, fond memories of winters long ago spent playing pond hockey, pining visions of Joe Louis Arena, and above all, a dream of a Stanley Cup for our beloved Wings, united us.

The game continued after the bar had shut down and all the other patrons were given the boot. But a sympathetic manager fortunately allowed us to remain in our small corner of the bar until the last second had expired, when we celebrated a win and rejoiced with the last sips of our beers. Some people complain about the hassle of late night games on the west coast, but without them when else would I be closing down a bar with a complete stranger at 1 in the morning with an alarm clock set to wake me up in six hours?

Go Wings.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thoughts On Boyhood Summer Days

"Every day in the summer [the gas station owner] filled the cooler with big blocks of ice and the bottles of pop just floated there in the melting ice, making it the coldest and best-tasting pop in the world. That cooler of pop was a mecca for kids on a hot day". - Richard Brautigan, So the Wind Won't Blow it All Away.

Decades of good old American greed may have destroyed the days when a gas station owner would dare lose out on a buck and put out a cooler of soda's for kids wandering aimlessly on a summer day, but time has not destroyed the essence of that passage -- the limitless bounds of a child's summer day.

I can picture the scene now, picking out nickels from dad's change jar on top of the dresser, slamming shut the back porch screen door, sprinting through neighbors' backyards (and not thinking twice about it) with a pocketful of pennies and nickels jangling with each stride, darting between sprinklers and finally arriving to the street corner where you and your buddies had promised the night before to meet bright and early. We began our trek to purchase slushees and candy bars from the gas station just as the last of the neighborhood vehicles departed for work and as the sun slowly ascented, getting hotter with each passing minute. Though the distance was only a mile or so, it seemed like a grand expedition to us, as any trip outside the world that is your neighborhood seems to a kid.

The distractions along the way were endless: an ant parade down the sidewalk, an empty coke can to kick, an errant potato chip laying in the sidewalk that someone would undoubtedly be dared to eat, a fence to climb, a stretch of "lava" on the sidewalk that needed to be avoided at all costs, conversations about things that seem important when you're young -- baseball card collections, how to beat the next level of Mario, ways to earn money to buy that next video game. Each distraction presented a journey in and of itself, but at last we arrived at our destination.

As we slurped our slurpees on the journey back we pondered the possibilities of the day. What shall we do? One of us suggested building a bridge over the river out of logs found in the woods. Another wanted to play capture the flag in the neighborhood yards. One was hell-bent on the idea of a all-day basement quest to finally beat the video game that had been eluding us for so long. The only conclusion we could come to was that we couldn't decide on what to do.

Yet the point is not what we would do that day, but what couldn't we do? We had full authority over the streets of the neighborhood, save for an occasional invading car. We had full roam over the yards of the neighborhood, as we treated them as if they didn't belong to anyone but us, not to mention a vast expanse of forest at the edge of the neighborhood. And we had an array of basement hangout's to choose from, with limitless supplies of fruit snacks and kool-aid to top it off. No two days were the same.

As I'm buttoning my shirt, tying my tie, and brushing my teeth day after day in a monotonous routine this summer, those days will be lurking somewhere in the back of my mind.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Where Were You in 1986?" (or 1997?) (or 2008?)

One of the best sports clips I've ever watched. If you do one thing today, watch it.

The above Master's video begins with a deep Mississipian voice asking "where were you in 1986?" He answers, "I was a nine year old boy..." In 1986 I was only a distant thought in the back of my parents' minds -- a glimmer of hope in my mom's and a speckle of skepitcal fear in my father's, most likely. And before this past weekend, I probably couldn't even have told you that Jack Nicklaus won one of the most memorable Master's tournaments ever that year.

These minor facts mattered not in my watching of the video, though. For my mind didn't hear "where were you in 1986?". Rather, my mind heard "where were you on August 26, 1995? -- the day my dad took me to my first game at the Big House. My mind heard "where were you on that Saturday night in December, 1997?" -- the night my brother and I jumped up and down like hooligans on our living room sofa in our Michigan sweatshirts when they announced Charles Woodson's name on the television set. My mind heard, "where were you that June night in 2008?" -- one of the most memorable nights of college for me, as my buddies and I sprayed champagne off of our front porch and spray-painted 'Red Wings Stanley Cup' on Ann Arbor streets. My mind heard these things just as I'm certain many others who watched that video heard other moments particularly special to them.

It's memories like those that make me wonder if I put too much stock into the actual outcomes of the games I live and die for. Perhaps it's true, as some people say, that it's just a game, and that the moments spent with the people we care about while watching those events are the things that really matter. And of course it's true that watching sporting events with those people is just as meaningful, if not more meaningful, than the outcomes themselves.

But then I think about 1995. I couldn't pick out any other single date besides August 26 that I remember so vividly. And I think about 1997, and how I couldn't tell you one thing that happened that December other than the night Charles Woodson took college football's great prize. Do I remember any night from December 1997 if Peyton Manning takes that trophy? Nope. And I think about that June night when the Wings won the Cup. Any other day that summer? I've got nothing except generalizations; but that night I remember distinctly.

Without sports, those dates probably fall into obscurity, much like any other normal day where nothing significant ever really seems to happen. Can you even pick out a date from this month that you really remember that vividly?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stanley Cup Fever

Around this time each April I grow antsy in anticipation of the best sports stretch of the calendar year: the NHL Playoffs. Stockpiles of Labatt's Blue and Molson Canadian beverages accumulate in my refrigerator. My Red Wings jersey emerges from my closet on a regular basis. And the above video plays on repeat in the nights leading up to the onset of playoff action, with the 25th viewing being just as magical as the first.

The NHL Playoffs get my vote for best period in sports because of its ability to consume everyday life. I first experienced the phenomenon of playoff fever consuming everyday life in 1997, the pinnacle age of Hockeytown. My memory probably exaggerates the figures a bit, but I remember a sea of red engulfing the streets surrounding Motown, as at least 1 in 3 vehicles flew Red Wings flags from its windows, and every other person walking the sidewalks seemed to don an Yzerman, Fedorov, or Shanahan jersey.

Over the years I've fallen into some traditions of my own suggestive of the playoffs ability to engross everyday life. In 2008, perhaps my personal favorite playoff season, I began wearing an old Red Wings jersey as the playoffs began. It seemed only natural that I had to continue wearing the jersey without washing it as long as the Wings kept winning. Mind you this was the beginning of summer post-sophomore year of college. Needless to say, a few weeks later when the Wings were hoisting the Cup, that jersey stank to high hell and looked like someone had drug it through the mud, as bourbon spills and celebratory beer-pours found their way onto that jersey on many a night that spring (although the jersey probably got off easy compared to the walls of my college house's living room, which got doused in champagne the night the Wings won it all). The following year, in 2009, I began the excellent tradition of getting good and liquored up in the hour leading up to the game whilst watching the 1997 Red Wings Stanley Cup VHS video. I must have watched that video, at least the beginning of it, 40 times that spring (I suppose that tradition never really ended, as I have a tendency to throw in that video whenever I'm inebriated).

The far-reaching influence of the playoff spirit is not limited to outward manifestations, though; it can exert a firm grip on the psyche, as well. If you're an avid fan like I am, the every-other-night format of the playoffs requires you literally to schedule your own work life around the games. Early 6 o'clock start times (here in the central time zone) mean waking up at the crack of dawn to get that homework done early so you can watch the game in the evening. Games on the West Coast mean late nights biting your fingernails until 1 a.m. Sudden death overtime means intensely hanging on each shift in the wee hours of the morning until a hero is born (in Yzerman's case, a legend; he scored that game 7 winner over 4 hours into the game). A goal scored by the bad guys in one of those sudden-death nailbiters that drawls well into the night means a wretched hangover the following day; a sudden-death goal by your team on one of those nights means a hangover as well, but a much more tolerable and even enjoyable one, as the memory of a heroic goal monopolizes your thoughts.

Swallow a dosage of that routine on a bi-nightly basis for 2, 3, 4, or if you're lucky, well over a month, and the drill starts to consume you. As the vicious cycle wears on you, your team's journey becomes your journey as well. It's an experience unlike any other in sports, when you as a fan begin to feel as if you've transcended the barrier between player and fan. While you might not truly feel like you're playoff beard measures up to the Kris Draper's or Johan Franzen's of the world, and while you might not feel like you're taking the physical beating that your team is in the form of black eyes and missing teeth, you certainly feel the emotional grind of the journey. And you certainly feel the ecstasy of another win and the steadily-increasing tension that accompanies each new series. And you certainly feel the agony of a defeat and the utter fear of elimination and a very long baseball season. It's that distinct emotional grind, unique to the NHL Playoffs, that seperates hockey's postseason from the rest.

If you are not: a.) an avid hockey enthusiast; b.) a die-hard Red Wings fan; c.) a Canadian or d.) crazy like me, then you probably can't really relate to what you just read (if you made it this far) and you most likely think I'm a bit off my rocker to top it all off. Fair enough. In truth, I spent a good deal of time thinking about how anyone possibly could describe the wondrous mystique of the playoff spirit. I figured I would give it a shot, but ultimately I concluded that no words could possibly do justice to the awe-inspiring feeling that accompanies the journey of watching your team all the way to the hoisting of a Stanley Cup. So I leave you with this, which will undoubtedly do a much better job than I've done in a few paragraphs:

Friday, April 1, 2011

All My Rowdy Friends are Moving On

"I bought a small bottle of beer for fifteen cents and sat on a bench in the clearing, feeling like an old man. The scene I had just witnessed brought back a lot of memories -- not of things I had done but of things I had failed to do, wasted hours and frustrated moments and opportunities forever lost because time had eaten so much of my life and I would never get it back."

- Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary

In my college days I taped that quote to a "Blow" movie poster which hung in my room. I wanted to put it somewhere I would see it everyday, so that I would remember each day to experience college life to the fullest, because I knew that someday college would be over. And I knew, pursuant to all the cliched advice they give at orientation, that I would never remember the petty assignments, the yawn-inducing lectures, or the hours spent boxed up in a library cubicle. Rather, it would be random Tuesday night trips to the bar, spur-of-the-moment choices to skip class and drink all day on the lawn, and spontaneous Friday-morning-hangover decisions to make a weekend road trip to Dayton, Ohio, that I would remember down the road.

Despite my best efforts -- looking at that quote everyday and legitimately modeling my decisions off of it -- that quote haunts me in my post-grad life. It does not haunt me in the sense that I wasted my time in college, but rather just in the sense that time has eaten so much of my life and that I will never get that time back.

Not until this past weekend, when I returned to Ann Arbor during my Spring Break, did I truly feel that I would never get college back. It hit me like a revelation, and it hit me pretty hard. Upon graduation day, I knew that I was done with the classes forever. And when I departed for Petoskey last summer, I knew I would never again be living in the college home I loved so much. Even this fall, when I returned to Ann Arbor for football games, I knew that I wasn't one of the students tailgating. I knew these things, but I never felt them. I guess I always felt that I was just on some sort of college hiatus, and that someday soon my buddies and I would be back at our favorite bar drinking 2 dollar pitchers on Wednesday nights.

As I walked on campus amongst the undergrads last week, though, I felt for the first time that the students looked younger than me. And as I looked out my tiny window from the sixth floor of the grad library stacks, I felt for the first time that the town outside the window wasn't my home. Most distinctively, as I lay in bed the morning after a long night out drinking at my old watering holes, I felt that I couldn't keep up with the hard-drinking lifestyle I had adhered to from weekend to weekend throughout college.

Perhaps the revelation occurred because my remaining college pals will be graduating in a couple of weeks, thereby effectively exterminating my lingering ties to college. Add to the equation the fact that my best friend from college just moved to Virginia to begin a new job, and it all really hits home: College is over forever.

What makes the whole thing difficult is the transitional phase. When I threw up my cap in the Big House during graduation I knew that college was over, but no lightbulb went off in my head instructing me to act any differently. In the previous year the real world has been thrust upon me, but I don't feel quite mature enough to call myself a true adult. I always had just assumed that I would become a responsible adult upon graduation, but no one in college ever tells you that it just doesn't happen that way.

Hank Williams Jr. painted an accurate picture of my college buddies and I when he wrote the song "All My Rowdy Friends (Are Comin' Over Tonight)". Later on, he sorrowfully depicted the aging process when he wrote "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)," lamenting that "no one wants to get high on the town. . . and cornbread and iced tea took the place of pills and ninety-proof." I wish Hank had written a song about the in-between. Maybe then I would know how to feel as all my rowdy friends are seperating but not quite settling down. Maybe then the transition from nightly ninety-proof to the occasional iced tea would be a bit smoother.

Knowing that "All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)" suggests the ultimate destination is a sobering thought; in fact the forecast can appear quite dreary in these transitional times. Still, when I think about the finality of college, my mind reminds me of the annual camping trip my father and his college buddies take to a remote cabin. I've never seen any photos from those trips, and I've never actually heard any stories about those trips (probably for good reason). But I know from the cautionary looks my mom gives my father whenever he starts counting down towards the trip that college is revived during that one weekend. Those cautionary looks provide hope that college never dies, but rather it just appears less often as we grow older.

Then I think about next fall's Michigan v. Notre Dame game, the first night game in the history of Michigan football, which is serving as sort of an unofficial reunion for all of my college buddies just because no one wants to miss an event of that enormity. And I know that when all my college buddies converge upon Ann Arbor for that weekend, college will live again.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Joy of Opening Day

Part of the tragedy of getting older is that places, events, and activities lose their luster. The magic of Christmas morning slowly fades. A Saturday night spent watching late-night movies, eating delivery pizza, and drinking soda by the liter, once the highlight of the kid week, starts to seem dull. Playgrounds start to look smaller and smaller until you don't notice them at all. And digging up worms starts to sound gross like a gross way to spend a summer day.

Those rare things that retain the luster through the years, then, become that much more special. Exhibit A: The start of baseball season.

Every year, without fail, Spring Fever sets in while March tries to make up its mind whether it wants to be a winter month or a spring month. The sun peaks its way through the gray skies, the last remnants of snow melt into muddy streets, buds start to appear on the once barren tree branches, and soon enough, you can smell the aroma of freshly cut grass and hear the sound of a baseball plopping into a glove. Baseball season is around the corner.

Opening Day offers hope for new beginnings each year after a long cold winter. Monotonous months spent hibernating indoors take a toll on the pysche. The outlook from your window is not the only thing clouded in bleak shades of blue, as your own outlook gets cloudy once your mind starts to ponder an endless winter routine. With Opening Day everything immediately seems more colorful and more cheerful.

Whether you actually are blessed with the opportunity to get out to the ballpark or just watch at home is irrelevant. Because even from the couch at home, you can sense the buzz coming from the fans on the television, you can see the pep in the players' step, you can see how grand the American flag looks waving above the perfectly cut grass, you can almost smell the sizzling hot dogs, and you can almost feel the peanut shells crackling beneath your feet. Whether you're enjoying a beer at the game or from your couch, that first glorious sip tastes like the first beer you've had in months, even though you've been averaging a case a weekend all winter, solely because of the glory of Opening Day. Everything seems to have a meaning for the first time in a couple of months.

Sure, I will always miss the days when I was younger and had the opportunity to get out and play myself. In fact, my picture of heaven would probably be the sandlot where my friends and I would go to play ball almost every summer day, eating hot dogs and sipping coca-cola's in between games as the sun beat down on us.

But the magic of baseball season never fades. Last summer, I remember sitting out on the deck in Petoskey with a few beers as I prepared for a rather uneventful night by myself. A couple hours later, a relatively unknown pitcher for the Detroit Tigers threw a should-have-been perfect game; what would have been a quiet night turned into a night I will remember forever, a night I will tell my grandkids about, because of the magic of baseball.

More importantly, though, even the games where nothing happens are special. It's enough for me to sit down with a couple of beers and listen to the calm story-telling tone of the announcers, to the crack of the bat, the thump of the ball in the catcher's mitt, the roar of the crowd. It's enough for me to watch the relaxed pace of the player's leisurely chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds. Baseball's deliberate pace provides a pleasant counter to the fast-paced world of everyday life; it provides a sense of peaceful satisfaction that's pretty rare once you're grown up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Imported from Detroit

One could say I am a son of the Motor City. As a Michigan native, the automobile industry affected every aspect of my life during my youth. I grew up in Westland, Michigan, a suburb of "The Motor City". My father spent nearly his entire life working at Daimler-Chrysler, one of "the big three" of the industry. My father's father spent nearly his entire life laboring at the plants of the Ford Motor Company. I decorated my bedroom with winged wheels. And some of my fondest childhood memories stem from summer days spent alongside the banks of the Rouge River, a river infamous for being contaminated with pollutants from automobile companies.

It seemed logical, then, that I, like so many other Detroit suburbanites of my generation, felt an overwhelming sense of pride when the Chrysler commercial featuring Eminem aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial spoke for Southeastern Michigan's previously unspoken for automotive culture, a culture entirely unique to the greater Detroit area, and I felt proud to be a part of that culture. Yet things weren't always this way for me. In fact, I felt quite the opposite of pride for my hometown during one point of my life, particularly when it seemed the automobile culture was ripping at the seams.

During the autumn of my senior year of high school, I frequently went for walks alongside the Rouge River and bemoaned what that river symbolized -- the failing automobile culture I was born into. Sometimes I would drink whiskey by that river and wallow in self-loathing for being born into the stale world of the Midwest, or commiserate over being trapped in a world of middle-class mediocrity. I felt like my hometown, and the Midwest in general, catered only to simple-minded folk. Moreover, having recently discovered Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" album in my parents' music collection, I pretentiously clung to the notion that small town's like mine throughout the Midwest created death-traps for young people like myself; in Bruce's own words, I felt I had to "get out while [I was] young".

Five years removed from the day I first left my hometown, I realize that those conjectures were the product of a very young and very naive mind. Looking back nowadays, it's a little difficult to recognize that kid who walked along that river; I have done a complete 180 in terms of the perspective I maintain as to my hometown and to the Midwest. Where I once saw the men in the automobile factories as Simple Simons, I now see hard-working fathers who have a firm grip on reality and who put their families ahead of themselves. Where I once saw the Midwest as a dead-end road, I now see it as a region where traditional family values survive. And while I once thought I couldn't spend another day in my hometown, I now cannot imagine starting a career or a family in any place unlike it.

Time has a funny sense of irony. I'm now aspiring to be what I thought I despised as a high-schooler: a simple man in a simple town. Perhaps it's not unlike what Lynyrd Skynyrd said, "You can take a boy out of old Dixie Land/ But you'll never take old Dixie from a boy". You can take a boy out of the Motor City suburbs, but you'll never take the Motor City from a boy. Cheesy? Absolutely. But I've found it to be true, at least in my own personal experience.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hockey Night in Canada, Eh?


Near the top of my sports bucket list is watching a hockey game from any of the Canadian hockey stadiums. Heck, I'd even accept watching a game in a bar in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, or Vancouver amidst some passionate Canadians hopped up on Molson and Labatt's. There's just a certain mystique about Canadians and their hockey in middle of the Northern winter that's intrigued me since I was young. That song (see above) almost eerily adds to that mystique, but in a captivating way.

Perhaps that mystique stems from hazy images of my basement I have stowed away in my memory from when I was little. I remember creeping down my wooden basement steps, peering into the makeshift living room that had been set up in my then unfinished basement, where my dad and his buddies created a scene similar to a hole-in-the-wall Canadian bar. Smoke sifted through the air, beer flowed from Red Dog and Budweiser cans, darts flew through the air at a Cheers dart board, and laughter echoed off the concrete walls. Most distinctively, though, I remember that Hockey Night in Canada song resounding from a staticky old television set. To this day, that image remains the portrait of an ideal Saturday night in my mind.

Although many years have since passed from those nights, the mystique and the intrigue still remains. I still get excited to sit down with a beer and turn on CBC to hear that song and listen to those announcers; it's even one of the little things I miss most in Chicago.

This is probably because through the years essentially nothing has changed about Hockey Night in Canada. Although they did recently change the song (in one of the worst executive decisions in sports history), the production value remains the same, it seems. I don't think there will ever be a clear picture of the puck from CBC, and I love it that way. And Don Cherry still does "Coaches Corner" during the second intermission. Though he's lost a couple of his marbles since the early 90's, he and the other announcers show more passion than any other announcers in sports, because as Canadians they have a mysterious attachment to the game. It's a show that can take me back to the glory days of the 1990's unlike anything else.

Whenever the Wings bow out early or are playing another team, I always root for the Canadian teams in the playoffs. Because there's simply nothing quite like sitting in a comfortable chair on a Saturday night, cracking open a bottle of Labatt's, and hearing that song come on.

(FYI: March 26th is Maple Leafs @ Red Wings, 7:00, which I'll be home for.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why You Watch the Game

I've had people ask me why I put myself through what I put myself through over one sports team. And over the past couple of years, I've asked myself that after some particularly devastating moments.

This Friday afternoon, my roommate and I paced up and down our apartment for over a half an hour as we watched Illinois essentially manhandle the Michigan basketball squad for 30 minutes. I threw my hat at the wall about a half-dozen times. I shouted obscenities that might keep me out of heaven. I put whatever tobacco I could find around the apartment into my mouth in a futile attempt to calm my nerves. I thought about punching my door, which already has three holes in it from football season (literally). I sat watching the game, wondering if this team, a team that had worked so hard to rejuvenate itself, could honestly end up missing the tournament. I wondered how such a hard-working team could end up doing all that work for naught. I wondered if I had, once again, invested so much heart into yet another lost cause.

And then the comeback.

After the clock struck zero and Michigan had won, securing their bid to the NCAA tournament, I immediately thought, 'justice'. I thought justice had finally been delivered after Michigan lost in the Big Ten Tournament on a buzzer-beater last year. I screamed out the window overlooking Chicago's skyline for what seemed to be more than a minute, letting out at least a couple years worth of frustration.

When the calm finally set in, my roommate and I both instinctively went to the fridge and grabbed a celebratory beer.

Silence ensued. No words needed to be said. We both held our beers up and clanged them together in a cheers, smiles on our faces. That moment, drinking that first sip of a celebratory beverage with your buddy you've spent all season going through the ups and down with: that is why you watch the game.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hemingway Knew the Score

" 'Ah,' Anselmo took the cup, put his head back and let [the whiskey] run down his throat. He looked at Maria standing holding the bottle and winked at her, tears coming down from both eyes. 'That,' he said. 'That.' Then he licked his lips. 'That is what kills the worm that haunts us.'"

- Ernest Hemingway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

(emphasis added by me). I could go ahead and analyze that quote, but I don't think any more words are necessary in defense of a man who drinks. Hemingway nailed it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Man Far From Home

Imagine if Tom Sawyer was plucked from the banks of the mighty Mississippi and placed in the confines of any major U.S. city. That's how I'm feeling these days.

Sometimes when I think about my life in Chicago it sickens me. I sleep on the tenth floor of a ten-story skyscraper overlooking hundreds of brick buildings -- concrete as far as I can see. I spend my days confined in one of those brick buildings, which aren't easily distinguishable from one another: a fourteen-story skyscraper. I travel to and fro between those buildings on an underground train (when it's too unbearably cold to walk).

Skyscrapers and trains - that's a large chunk of my life in Chicago. Skyscrapers and trains are two of the defining symbols of the American industrial age, symbols of modernity. Skyscrapers moved Americans upwards and trains moved us westward; both ushered in a new era of mass production and unprecedented capitalism. In my mind, though, they're more important symbolically for what they destroyed: the golden age of American agrarianism, Tom Sawyer's kingdom.

And then I think about how I spend my time in this concrete world, Chicago, largely rotating back and forth between a laptop and television set - two more American symbols, representing the dawn of 20th century technology and the boom of the computer age, respectively. I think about it and I realize how little my life equates to my own grandfather, or my own father's (!) life and it disappoints me to no end. I feel like if I walked into a bar and met Tom Sawyer, we wouldn't have a lot to talk about, and that's plain depressing. Sure, modernity has it's perks, but I'll take a fishing pole and miles of open field over reality television and fancy buildings any day. As Ronnie van Zandt lamented, "I can see the concrete a' creepin'/ Lord take me in mind before that comes". Well I'm living in the world Ronnie reluctantly foresaw.

This past weekend found me driving into Petoskey, the flagship setting of Up North, Michigan. As I gazed into the pine-soaked countryside, I felt in touch with reality for the first time in a long time. Peering out the car window at hunting cabins tucked in amidst the evergreens and at roadside hole-in-the-wall bars, you could feel that you were entering into a realm of the past, a simpler place. And I could envision the men lurking in those cabins and seated at those barstools; you knew that they had a grip on reality, that they didn't know what the popular reality shows were or what the next Apple product was -- and they didn't give a damn.

Up in Petoskey I love to sit on the back porch staring out into the woods. It's a place where a man can sit with a glass of bourbon and listen to nature without hearing a honking car or a police siren; a place where you can sit at a rustic bar where Hemingway once frequented or walk the trails he traversed and feel like the world you live in isn't so different from the one he described in all those stories.

I've been a day back in Chicago, now. And I feel lightyears away from Tom Sawyer and Ernest Hemingway.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Every Season has its Poison"

When I started this blog I intended for it to be (in part) an avenue for me to post some of the good quotes I come across in books I'm reading. In 2007 I started keeping an old notebook of the quotes I liked from books, so I might drag some quotes out of the depths of that notebook from time to time. The apparent, but misleading, changing of the seasons this past week got me to thinking about this one:

"He told me that I was an 'autumn type,' as was he, and good British gin, ice cold, tastes like autumn. Hence I would drink gin. 'Every season has its poison,' he said, explaining that vodka tastes like summer, scotch tastes like winter, and bourbon tastes like spring."

- J.R. Moehringer, "The Tender Bar"

Given the recent warm spell we've gotten in the Midwest, I'm longing for some bourbon right now. In my own mind, spring doesn't officially start until I've taken that first glorious sip from the first batch of mint juleps of the year -- truly the nectar of the gods.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sports gods be Damned

The sports gods have a very cruel sense of humor.

If you've known me for the past four years, you've undoubtedly heard me utter the aforementioned phrase. Probably more than once. In all reality, I probably spent more time spilling tears into my beers whining about the state of Michigan sports than I did in class during my college career.

Sure, while I was in college I acquired a valuable perspective on sports. Watching Michigan football fall to the bottom of the Big Ten rankings for the first time in ever tried my sports heart like the Valley Forge winter tried the Revolutionary troops. There were times I wanted to quit, times I wondered why, times that I threw empty bottles against my basement's concrete walls for over an hour at a time, and times where I quite simply didn't know what to do. Ultimately, though, I became a better fan -- if I can go through that, I know that literally nothing else will ever put my fandom in jeopardy.

It wasn't until just last week that I realized how funny the joke on me was, though: As I was preparing to watch the Michigan-Ohio State hockey game last Friday evening, I was appalled to see that the Big 10 Network decided to air last year's Michigan-Ohio State Big Ten Basketball Tournament Game. I don't know how this hadn't dawned on me before; only then did I fully understand how seriously the sports gods had it in for me during my tenure in college.

I don't know how I didn't realize it in college, I really don't. But I guess when your vision is tainted by alcohol and a strong desire to avoid the true state of sports at all costs, it's not so hard to miss reality.

The last three games in the three major Michigan sports, during my senior year of college (a glorious farewell, if you will):

Football: I can't believe I'm typing this, but this one might actually be the most tolerable of the three -- only because we came into this game as extreme underdogs, and, for all intents and purposes, knowing that we would not win this game (although there's always a slim slice of hope residing in the back of your mind for the OSU game, no matter how big an underdog your team is).

That said, if someone had told me that Michigan would have never beat Ohio State in football during my tenure at the university, I probably would have sat down and cried. That scenario basically played out at the Big House after we lost that game my senior year. I literally walked two very slow, very deliberate laps around the Big House, literally crying and not caring one bit who saw me, wondering at once how this could happen to me and also how four years had gone by so fast.

Let me summarize: Walking around the Big House in tears was the best conclusion of the three major Michigan sports during my senior year of college.

Basketball: I have the distinct memory of sitting around BOX on a Thursday morning (around noon) watching this game, thinking that, finally, some justice would prevail in my college sports experience. Michigan basketball, an underachieving and extremely disappointing team throughout the year, looked like they were about to send me out of college on a positive note by beating our arch-rivals, the Buckeyes, in a Big Ten tournament game in which the opposition was heavily favored.

About 3 seconds remained on the game clock. And I don't think the feeling will ever leave me -- the feeling of being ready to go buy 40's and get wildly drunk at about 1 o'clock and celebrate true justice -- true justice in that I would have been sent out on the right note.

With one second left, Ohio State's Evan Turner throws up a prayer from half court. . . The ball seemed to hang in the air for minutes. In those minutes I knew what was about to happen. I felt my heart drop. I felt myself wondering, can this really happen to me? Again!? You know the rest. I would've feared for my life if I was a bottle of bourbon around my house that night.

Hockey: Given the insufficient opportunities my college buddies and I were granted to actually celebrate good teams, the Michigan hockey team's late-season surge during the final months of my college career excited us to no end. After a very mediocre regular season for their standards, Michigan found something within themselves late in the season to catapault themselves to the CCHA championship game. My buddies and I ventured down to Detroit early (the championship was at Joe Louis Arena) to hit the bars and pregame. It was truly a joy watching that team win that game.

It seemed like perhaps something magical was brewing, and maybe justice would be served after all -- maybe Michigan could pull out the NCAA championship we had long waited for. In the regional final, we took the top team in the country, Miami of Ohio -- a Miami we had beaten just weeks before thoroughly -- to overtime. Destiny seemed to be falling into place when a yellow jersey poked the puck into the net in that overtime. Finally, finally this would be the sports moment in college that I'll tell my kids about. I wouldn't have to explain to my grandkids that I was part of the one generation of Michigan students that didn't really have any good stories to tell them.

The sports gods thought otherwise. The sports gods could care less about me or the stories I tell my grandkids. The referees -- cited as the worst referees ever to officiate a college hockey game by many sources -- blew the whistle thinking that the Miami goalie had the puck covered in the crease, which Miami fans would even admit that it wasn't. It wound up being perhaps the most controversial call in college hockey history, of course: No goal.

Surely enough, Miami scored in double overtime, ending my college sports career forever.


You may believe in God and you may not. But I defy you to claim that there are no sports gods (or should I say devils?) after pondering that sequence of sports conclusions.