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.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sunday Blues

Don't get me wrong, I truly hate Sunday's and the hangover feeling that often accompanies Sunday's. But I think I find an odd sense of gratification from the array of emotions induced by such Sunday's, even if the emotions are negative (as they tend to be during the hangover). It's the one day of the week when my emotions are particularly strong; on all the other days I pretty much just try to get through the day, largely apathetic to the routine.

Perhaps it's because it provides me the opportunity to do some soul-searching. I've always been more of a thinker than a talker, and Sunday's are usually a pretty introspective ordeal. I often go for long walks on Sunday's, a practice that I began in college. Long walks provide the ideal settings for some deep thinking. I enjoy looking at my surroundings, thinking about how I got to this precise moment in my life. And I enjoy walking by people, and wondering what kind of battles they are fighting.

I think Crooked Fingers, a band introduced to me in college by a friend probably on one of these Sunday mornings, nailed it in the song "Sunday Morning Coming Down". The story of the song begins with the guy waking up hungover on a Sunday, and then drinking a beer for breakfast ("and one more for dessert"). At that point he ventures outdoors. He then describes:

"I lit my first [cigarette] and watched a small kid/ Cussin' at a can he
was kickin'./ Then I crossed the empty street/ and caught the Sunday smell/
Of someone fryin' chicken/ And it took me back to something/ That I'd lost
somehow/ Somewhere along the way."

He finally ventures back inside, only to hear the tolling of a distant church bell, which "echoed thru the canyon like/ the disappearing dreams of yesterday".

My Sunday walks often occur in much the same way. I think about my past and how I'll never get it back. And, specifically since I've arrived in Chicago, I've often questioned how I ended up here. That is, in such a big city when I've always known that I'm not the city-type; in a city so many miles from the places familiar to me and important to me. I think about the many small decisions I made in my past that all contributed to me being here at this point in my life, and I wonder if maybe I made one of those little decisions wrongly. And I think about how different my life could be had I made just one of those little decisions differently.

And like the narrator in "Sunday Morning Coming Down," I think about what I've lost along the way. I think about my life -- how I'm not really in the place I always thought I would be, and how I'm not really the person I always thought I'd be either.

But I tend to situate myself in the camp that believes there are no wrong decisions, really. I don't think anyone ever finds themselves in the exact position he always thought he'd be in. And I don't think anyone is ever 100% satisfied with the person they are. Life largely consists of the moments when things are a work in progress. And life occurs in the days when we are working towards something better. The trick is then, I suppose, learning to accept that reality. You have to learn to accept that the "dreams of yesterday" will always be disappearing, and all you can do is use the lessons you've learned from those lost dreams to try and get to where you want to be in life.

I'm ready for it to be Monday.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Whiskey-Stained Jersey & a Tear-Filled Beer

A tendency in my life appears to be to either put my entire heart into something or to shrug my shoulders in apathy. And realistically, there are only three things I've come across in this life that I've truly and consistently found worthy of anything more than apathy: sports, liquor, and literature.

Let's begin with sports.

"Rational" folk often question why I invest so much of my emotion into something that's "just a game". They wonder how I can legitimately shed tears over something that "won't matter tomorrow". Or why I am compelled to drink bottomless quantities of bourbon in attempts to console myself over such "trivial" matters. And most wait for me to add, "just kidding," after I tell them that I want to be buried in my maize and blue Michigan jersey. When the "just kidding" doesn't come, thoughts are conjured as to my sanity.

Given my passion for Michigan football, I suppose it's a bit ironic that one of the first images that comes to my mind when I think of defining this aspect of my life stems from a Notre Dame-inspired story, Rudy. Rudy's father was the quintessential Midwestern man. A hard-working factory man, hard-drinking bar patron, hard-praying Irish-Catholic, and above all, a family man. In Rudy's father's house, it was sacrilige to be anywhere other than in front of the black and white television on game day Saturdays, watching the Irish play football.

That household pretty much sums up my childhood. And much in the same way Rudy's dad did when he first set eyes on Notre Dame Stadium, I too believed, "this is the greatest sight these eyes have ever seen," when I first entered Michigan Stadium with my dad in 1994.

My passion for sports was passed down to me by men like Rudy's father. Granted, the men I grew up around were all automotive men of Detroit, but you get the picture: hard-working Midwestern men, Irish-Catholics, beer-lovers, good fathers. My fondest childhood memories are of family gatherings watching Michigan football, neighborhood gatherings watching the Red Wings playoff games. Ingrained in these memories are the men surrounding me as I watched those sporting events in awe and wonder. Particularly entrenched in those memories, are the expressions on those men's faces as they watched the Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in four decades. Or the smiles on their faces as they watched Charles Woodson recreate Desmond Howard's path to the endzone on a cold day in November.

The expressions of my father, my uncles, and my best friend's fathers, hugging and clanging beers together in fits of emotions I had never seen from them before, are expressions that will never leave my memories. I'll always subconsciously be trying to live up to those expressions. Spoiled as a kid by one of the best Michigan football team's ever to step foot on the Michigan Stadium grass and by unprecedented hockey success by the Red Wings, my own adult experiences haven't always met the standard I set in my mind as a kid -- the standard of grins and hugging. Given Michigan's unheard of failures in recent years, particulary during my college years, I guess in some subconscious way part of me feels like I haven't lived up to my previous generation's standard.

When people wonder how I can cry almost inevitably every year after Michigan loses to Ohio State, I guess what those people don't understand is that I interpret that loss to be a failure on my own behalf. That in some way, I feel like the losses equate to the downward progression of my life. No, I don't have any say in what happens in that game. But so many of my memories are directly related to Michigan football that it was just inevitable that it's become a huge part of my life. And they don't see that when the Red Wing's lost game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2009, I felt like my own experiences never measured up to the smiles of the men I grew up watching rejoice in victory. Not only this, but that I interpret, perhaps drunkenly, that my life outside of sports isn't measuring up to the standards of the men I grew up watching. And at that point, the bottle seems like the only way to try and recreate that unique high of childhood; that, or it's the only way to try and reconcile the failure of my own sports teams in comparison to the successes of my father's sports teams.

Granted, I'm no psychologist; these are just my own conjectures. But I think there's precedent to suggest that my conjectures are not that far-fetch'd. Frederick Exley, the son of a New York Giants football legend, wrote one of my favorite novels, "A Fan's Notes," based entirely on how his failure to live up to the sports glories of his father subconsciously triggered a life of alcoholism and a genuine addiction to New York Giants football, and a good combination of the two. The book ends, essentially, with Exley wishing he could tell the reader that thing's have changed. That he's made straight the path. But when you love a team like that, it sticks with you for the long haul.

Ultimately, though, my past only explains a portion of it all. I think, in the end, my sports addiction stems partly from the same reasons any average Joe in middle America lives and dies with his sports team: the distant hope of recreating those memories of glory. For me, it's the possibility of experiencing the utter jubilation that I felt as a child, watching Michigan beat Ohio State to earn a shot at the National Championship. Or that feeling of watching grown men cry in happiness as I half-watched Steve Yzerman hoist the Cup and half-watched the men around me celebrating like children. The thought of experiencing anything remotely close to those feelings is enough to get me through the lowest of lows as a sports fan -- and trust me, I've been to hell as a sports fan (*see note below). Deep down, I anticipate what the feeling might be once we do return to glory: a high better than any drug can provide you, a high like the innocence of childhood, a high like you're floating on airs. And the anitcipation of that is enough to get me through anything -- and not just the bad years in sports, but the down times in life in general.

Until then, I'll keep spilling whiskey on my jersey and crying tears into my beer. Because those rare, rare, magical years when your team wins, the journey is worth every tear and every spill.

* I'm pretty sure hell as a sports fan is sitting in the Big House for your last game as a student after all the other 100,000 fans have left, freezing in the November cold, with your head in your hands, wondering how it could be that Michigan never beat Ohio State during your tenure in Ann Arbor. Wondering how it could be that the worst 4 year stretch in Michigan football history miracurously coincided with your college years. No amount of whiskey, not even a barrel of moonshine, can cure that hell.