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.