Saturday, December 28, 2013

Oh, Canada: Falling in Love with Canada's Game


One of the under-appreciated blessings of a life in Southeastern Michigan is the Saturday night broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. Imported via the Ontario airwaves from just across the icy Detroit River, Canada's illustrious Hockey Night is delivered into kitchen radios and living room television sets in select corners of Michigan. It is not long after my discovery of hockey during the ill-fated '93 Playoffs that I discover this miracle. Thus began what would become a lifelong obsession with Hockey Night in Canada.

It is the early nineties in America. An Arkansas Southerner by the name of Bill Clinton resides in the White House. The music world mourns the suicide of Kurt Cobain. American suburbanites settle into the prosperous nineties as the economy booms and the cocaine-fueled party of the nineteen eighties fades. Forrest Gump becomes a household name over the summer. But I don't know any of that. Second grade at St. Michael's Catholic school and the career of our after school play in the Millwood woods are the sole occupants of my mind.

Life in our corner of Millwood slogs on as an arctic tranquility seizes the woods behind the house. The winter days blend together into a great white void in the way those two-dog nights of February do. The Ford's and Dodge's of the neighborhood gasp and wheeze in metallic agony as their engines reluctantly turn in the glacial temperatures. Over the gas stovetop, Mom stews up chili, clam chowder, broccoli cheddar soup, and anything else that might warm our little bones. We say grace at the dinner table and my little brother Patrick asks us to pray for the endangered dolphins in the ocean; I ask us to say a prayer for the Red Wings players before tonight's impending game, which I spent the majority of the school day doodling and fantasizing of. As Patrick and I skeptically twiddle our forks through our green peas, Mom asks us about our day while Dad tells us to drink our milk.

In the aftermath of supper, routine dictates the order of the house. Armed with yellow rubber gloves, Mom dutifully scrubs our dinner plates with foamy water. Dad sighs, plops himself into his sunken spot on the couch, and flips through never-ending paperwork: taxes, bills, receipts, and all that other stuff foreign to a boy's vocabulary and non-existent to his imagination. Our two cats, Chester and Riley - named for my Father's boyhood baseball heroes - loiter about the house, staring sadly out the sliding glass back door in the same way I look out the classroom window to the playground during the school day - dreaming of warmer days frolicking in the backyard grass; they, too, tire of winter dragging its heavy feet. Blissfully ignorant to the toil sweeping its way through the other rooms of the house, Patrick and I push toy trucks around the family room carpet until I grow bored of the routine and decide to put him in a headlock like Hulk Hogan. My brother chokes out a cry to my Mom and my Mom promptly sends me off to my bedroom to ponder what I've done. I stomp my feet all the way up the stairs, but in typical boyhood fashion my mood dissipates in an instant. I pick up a book about a kid named Tom Sawyer from my bedroom desk and get lost in the first chapter: at last, someone who understands the agony of boyhood. I sympathize with Tom's plight as he begins whitewashing the fence and laments the chore of being a boy. I gaze out my bedroom window to a scene out of one of my Jack London stories - vast woods drooping with icicles - and daydream of sneaking out my window to run wildly with this Huck Finn character. I wonder what Tom Sawyer ever did when the gales of winter came.

Mom yells for me to march downstairs and apologize to my brother. My brother, jaded by previous apologies, does not even glance up from his Gameboy as I mutter, I'm sorry, Patrick, I love you. Dad puts the corded telephone to our ears, whispering for us to wish Grandma a happy birthday. Patrick and I look out the big, frosted front room window, playing 'Who can spot the first thing that moves' in the motionless, snow-capped neighborhood. Our game is short-lived, for the winter sky turns black as soot before the six o'clock news starts. The early darkness confines us all within those insulated walls. We lounge fireside in the living room with a bowl of popcorn watching the Brady Bunch. I wonder what my best friend Steve is up to a couple houses down. During the summer months, Steve's house is but a hop and a skip away through the yards of the neighborhood, but in the middle of winter, his house seems a mile of barren, frozen tundra in the distance. I wonder if Steve eats popcorn and watches The Brady Bunch with his family too, but then I conclude Steve is probably sneaking pickles out of the fridge - he always smells like pickles - or sitting in timeout in his room, too. At any rate, winter soon lures us all into an early slumber. A midwinter night's dream washes over each of us, and we dream the dreams of our own individual lives. Outside, the shutters rattle eerily in the gusts of another winter's night.

As the morning sun peeks its head out of the gray canvas at dawn, a slush-coated school bus puffs to a halt on Millwood Street as Millwood's sons step on, sleepily. Even during the daylight hours of those February days, it seems a drowsy spell is cast over the neighborhood. Not even the squirrels bother to wake from their cozy homes inside the trees.

But something shifts come Saturday evening. On Saturday nights, Jack Frost blows a breath of energy into the air, reviving all into the late hours of the night. And on this one night of the week, the winter sky seems forgiving.

Come Saturday night, Mom and Dad's spirits perk up, and Patrick and I's spirits naturally follow suit. Dad cranks up the living room stereo: John Mellencamp sings and Jack and Diane revitalize the house with young love. Patrick and I run around the living room like banshees, sent into a locomotive frenzy by John Mellencamp's nostalgic rock and roll. Mom wipes down the countertops with Windex and arranges ceramic bowls of potato chips and salsas atop the kitchen table. Pine-scented candles linger in the living room. Upstairs, Mom and Dad dance between their closet and the bathroom mirror, heavy aromas of hairspray and cologne clogging the upstairs air. Patrick and I watch the whole scene unfold with intrigue, wondering what the commotion is about. Finally Dad heads out and brings home boxes of cheese pizza and bottles of Coca Cola - all that is necessary to satisfy Patrick and I for an entire evening.

For as long as I can remember, Mom and Dad, the Racine's, and the Rivard's had been spending those Saturday nights together. My Dad, Jim Racine, and Dave Rivard were childhood buddies and go back even further than my seven-year old self can fathom. They had watched Red Wings games together on wintry Saturday nights for years, and gradually the girlfriends and then wives fell into the routine. We kids are new to it all, though, still learning about the magic of these Saturday nights. The three of our families are like second families, doing everything together throughout the year: New Year's Eve at the Racine's house, renting a single cottage together on the Carolina shores over summer vacation, Fish Fries during Lent at the Knights of Columbus club, Up North on the Racine's pontoon boat, and everything in between. Later on, my brother Patrick, wise beyond his years, would dub our families "God-Friends," as our families were all godparents, godsons, and goddaughters of one another. The term would stick when he pronounced it to all at my god-friend Lindsey Rivard's funeral a couple years later - only seven years old when she lost her long bout with leukemia.

Tonight, all of the parents of the God-friends group are together at my house, in addition to a couple of the other regular tag-alongs - my dad's beer league softball buddies, their wives or girlfriends, and my aunt and uncle. As winter parkas are taken at the door, the house self-segregates like a middle school dance: the women gossiping in the living room over red wine, the men submerged in the basement watching hockey over Molson's like the glory days, and us kids roaming freely about. I naturally am drawn to the basement. I want to know what men do, how to be like them.

At first I merely listen through the crack of the basement door on those Saturday nights, mesmerized by the curious conversation among lifelong pals and the echoes of masculine laughter periodically booming up the walls of the staircase. As the Saturday's pass, I go further. I tiptoe down the creaky wooden steps, gaining just enough courage in the course of the week to go down one more step each passing Saturday. Tonight, I make it halfway down the staircase, just far enough to sneak a peek around the staircase wall into the scene of boyhood friends who had become men over the years. I had long imagined this scene in my head, the way other kids might dream of what Disney World looks like before first stepping foot in that magical kingdom.

At long last, I muster up every ounce of courage in my body and turn my head around the corner. Eyes wide as saucers, I watch in awe as the scene unfolds before me. The sounds fit together like they had been composed that way: the myserious masculine voices chattering over beers, the nasally but calm tune of Neil Young humming from the stereo, the energetic, rapid-fire call of the Canadian hockey broadcasters, and the happy laughter of friends remembering times I could not comprehend.

What I saw that night would stick with me for years. The beer cans seemed to make the room move. Beer mugs floated around the room, clutched in every hand. Empty Molson's and Labatt's overflowed from the old coffee table. My Dad and Jim Racine take sips of the curious brown substance in between turns tossing darts at a green and red-checkered dartboard, the word "Cheers" scripted above the circular target. Dave Rivard and Joe Treehee sip from their own mugs while staring intently at the ancient black and white television set, antennas sticking out of the box and all.

To my wonder, the faces of the work week are nowhere to be found. Sunken eyes light up. The faces I have come to recognize when my Father trudges home from work, briefcase in hand, transform into genuine smiles. Forced voices I have come to associate with calculating bills at the kitchen table take on a cheerful tone. In that basement, I quickly learn about the magical effects of alcohol. There is something in those glass mugs that makes those grown up boys light up like lightning bugs on the Fourth of July. My Uncle Frank sinks into the hand-me-down sofa worn loose by the years, bemused, allowing the lines around his eyes to relax, while that calm, but happy voice emerges in my Father's speech, as he glides from one conversation to the next as though hoisted by a great wind. The men seem so much happier, less alone. And I wish I could preserve that feeling for them, too, in a mason jar and bring them home aglow.

Suddenly, the men throw their arms up and the basement erupts in cheers. "Stevie Y! Stevie Y!" the Canadian broadcasters shout, sounding astonished. I bolt up the stairs, but not before witnessing the utter joy on those men's faces.

I want to be like those men. I immediately embark on my quest to manhood. Patrick and Jimmy Racine content themselves with games of hide and seek throughout every nook and cranny of the house, tossing Nerf balls in the dining room, climbing up coat racks like monkeys, and other games that would on any other night be forbidden in our household. They can have all that. I seclude myself away in my Mom and Dad's bedroom with the only other television set in the house, desperately flipping through channels by hand, searching for this Hockey Night in Canada show. When I finally, to my own quiet surprise, recognize those familiar Canadian broadcasters' voices - on channel ninety-night - boyhood games with Patrick and Jimmy disappear from my mind. Hockey Night in Canada now holds a monopoly on my imagination.

From inside the television set, Don Cherry, Canada's venerable hero, soon appears as Coach's Corner begins during the first period intermission. In trademark white goatee, baby blue tuxedo, and commanding voice, Don Cherry gives me my first lesson in Canadian culture.

I wonder how this slice of Canada found its way into my house. Later on in life, I would turn to the hockey broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada during some of my darkest days. Grappling with depression brought on by lost love and yet another alcohol binge, I often tried in vain to reconstruct the magic of those boyhood Saturday nights - those simpler times. I thought that somehow Don Cherry, a heartfelt rendition of the Canadian national anthem, and a case of Molson would somehow allow me to recapture the innocence of times long remembered. Try as I might, however, I never quite could manage to recapture those happy faces I had seen in my basement that night. Like it had oft before, hockey became a crutch to lean on during those dark times, sports a means of eluding the real world.

At first, it wasn't the hockey so much that enraptured me. That first night, sitting alone in my parents' bedroom with eyes glued to the Canadian Broadcasting Channel, with my Dad and his childhood friends down in the basement, my Mom and the other women mixing fruity vodka cocktails in the kitchen, and Patrick and Jimmy discreetly trying to glue the pieces of a glass Santa Claus back together, it was the mere idea of Canada that fascinated me.

It seemed to me then a brilliant stroke of luck, a miracle of the invisible airwaves in the star-lit winter skies, that I could get a slice of Canada right there in my own Michigan home, on my own American television set. During that broadcast the camera cut periodically to images of foreign places my teachers failed to mention in Geography class, which only gave them more appeal to me: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Calgary, Quebec - even the names of these cities inspire mystique. Great towns appear on the television screen: bright city lights illuminate hallowed hockey stadiums folded into the makeup of the towns; city streets bustle with frenzied hockey fanatics despite subzero temperatures; frozen lakes stand against mountainous backdrops, on which kids seem to skate freely, endlessly across the glossy surfaces; industrial factories sit at the feet of great rivers; and snow packs every artery of the towns. I remember, quite distinctly, the cameras cutting to the bucolic imagery of a mythical place called Saskatchewan frozen over; for all I know this place sounds as foreign to me as Moscow, which further adds to the mystery spinning in my imagination.

Gradually over the weeks I muster up the courage to ask my Dad about it all. He tells me that it's no mistake of the airwaves after all, which I disregard. He describes how Ontario is only a short drive over the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit away, that actually most of our own Red Wings come from this land Up North, and that in fact I have been to the Racine's schoolhouse up in Canada once or twice over Memorial and Labor Day weekends. I reach my own conclusions after that. After much befuddled, yet awe-inspiring  study of the maps in my Encyclopedia, I conclude it happens like this: somewhere over Lake Huron, the Michigan airwaves get tied up with the Canadian airwaves, tangling up the transmissions in one big, theoretical knot which creates a glitch and causes the Canadian broadcasts to be sent to only a few houses in Michigan, mine of course being one of the lucky few by some miracle from the sports gods. It all seems a marvel of the stars in outer space to me, something straight out of the television show Unsolved Mysteries, a show that I sometimes catch when my Mom is not looking, despite its propensity to give me nightmares.

During our afterschool romps in the great outdoors I brag to Steve about this miracle of the airwaves that I have concocted in my own head. By some struck of luck, I tell him, the tangled airwaves streams Canadian hockey into my television set. It is then that I learn that Steve gets this Hockey Night in Canada thing at his house, too; in fact his Dad watches it all the time. In one of those tragedies of growing up, I learn in time that the other boys at school are aware of this Hockey Night in Canada show, too - Chuck Elstone claims he watched the Canucks game just this past weekend. I sulk in this discovery not unlike the way I will sulk after Red Wings' playoff losses years later. It is not so much this news that discourages me by the end of the week so much as the fact that I appear to be the only one that finds this Hockey Night in Canada spectacle to be of monumental significance. Forget it, Chuck Elstone advises, We gotta get ready for Gym class! and he gallops off to the outer reaches of the school playground as recess concludes.

Like most things in a boy's life then, the mystique of the airwaves, something once magical, fades under the tight grip of Time's weathered hands. It is not until then that the mystery of the sport - the game within Hockey Night in Canada - takes on greater importance. And as with most important things in my seven-year old world, it would be my Father and his Saturday night gatherings with his friends that lures me in. Somehow, I eventually find myself amongst the men in my basement on those Saturday nights. I listen carefully as Mr. Racine explains the ins and outs of the game to me. I learn which colors belong to which teams: blue and orange to the Oilers of Edmonton, crimson and blue to the villainous Montreal Canadiens, the iconic blue maple leaf to Toronto, dreadful orange and black to the hated Philadelphia Flyers. I learn the intricacies of my hometown team, too: the Russian Five lineup made up of Soviet-style skaters Fedorov, Konstantinov, Larionov, Fetisov, and Koslov; the beloved tough guys on Detroit's roster: Darren McCarty, Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey, and Joey Kocur; and Detroit's heroes, of course: Stevie Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Dino Ciccarelly. I keep one eye on my already-pegged favorite Red Wing, the young netminder Chris Osgood, but I keep this secret to myself. As my hockey education continues, my Dad even offers me a sip of Red Dog beer, and that first rotten taste is enough to keep me away from the stuff for a few years, at least.

Most Saturday nights I was sent to bed before the nightcap games broadcasted from the West Coast. And most of those nights I didn't fall asleep easily, knowing in my head that I was missing out on hockey and the goings-on in the basement amongst my Father and the other men I admired most. I tossed and turned restlessly in bed, periodically getting up to stare out my bedroom window to the dark woods hibernating behind the house. I listened carefully for the far-off cry of the night train, the old iron horse hissing steam into the night. All I could think about was the smiles on those men's faces as they watched hockey. Those happy smiles. And Molson beer.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


I envy those who can say they live with no regrets.
I know I can't.
Whiskey couldn't drown mine out;
in fact, the hangovers only amplified it.
I couldn't swallow it down with happy pills either.
Sobriety has yet to wash it away;
it still haunts me in my sleep
Like waking up on Christmas morning
From a nightmare
Of that one regret you can't get through.
And that, is depression. Dark as Christmas night.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Reflections on Another Year: Twenty-Thirteen

Named after a song that includes the lines "As the year draws to a close, I think about my living" I guess it was only fitting for me to be pensive and retrospective by nature. And so, with the Holidays drawing near yet again, I find myself in the annual act of flipping through the pages of another year gone by - years which are starting to pile up now.

The first thing that popped into my head in regards to the year Twenty-Thirteen was dull. I didn't move to any big cities or any serene countryside locales, nor did I move at all for that matter. I didn't tie the knot, didn't fall in love, didn't even really get any closer to the altar at all. I didn't finish The Great American Novel, though I did try my hand at that, again. I didn't take any great leaps or bounds in the career sector, though I did graduate and work at a law firm for short while.

But then I think a little more deeply, and realize dull fails to accurately describe the year for me. My suspicion is that my reaction to the year - of it seeming dull - largely comes from the stability in my life right now, which has been lacking in years' past before. Dull is probably exactly what I need right now. If things are dull, that probably means things are on the right track for me at the moment.

In reality, the year wasn't dull per se. Some pretty significant life events occurred. I sought treatment for alcohol abuse. I joined a recovery group. I notched together a couple months of sobriety on separate occasions. I dated seriously for the first time since the one that damn near broke me beyond repair, albeit at a time when I self-admittedly probably wasn't ready to date yet. I graduated law school,(!) a fact sometimes eludes me despite taking place only months ago and one that might be the defining moment in many people's lives yet in mine doesn't even warrant year-defining status. That's quite a bit, on paper. I think in my own mind it doesn't seem like a great deal due to the fact that it comes with the disclaimer in that I am still searching for that elusive state of happiness in my life.

Aside from the life-changing events, there were the little things, too: those little moments that years later you look back upon and realize were the big things after all. I started spending more time with my brother. I got to watch Michigan play for a National Title with him. My partner and I in law school won a disability case for a man who suffered from schizophrenia. I went to the zoo and Cedar Point with my then-girlfriend. I read a couple good books, most memorably a biography of Hemingway, a couple drinking memoirs, a Springsteen biography and Darren McCarty's memoir. I got out into the fresh air and did quite a bit of hiking.

Most importantly, 2013 was a year I could look back on without a great deal of pain or regret, something I was incapable of doing in either 2012 or 2011. I don't remember which year it was, but I remember one of my best friend's, Steve, suggesting to me that I should do one of those 'Year in Review' posts for either 2012 or 2011. I remember thinking there was no way in Hell I wanted to do that because the year had been the worst of my life and I just wanted it to be over with forever. It could have been 2012 or 2011, it didn't really matter which. Because those were probably the two worst years of my life to date, full of depression and loss and accentuated by substance abuse. I can look back upon 2013 with a little bit of peace. And that's something, at least.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Darkest Hours

Ever the insomniac (they say sleep gets better after a few months of sobriety?), I found myself reading back on some of my entries from early 2013. It struck me as a bit surprising - although of course it shouldn't - that I had started making real attempts at sobriety somewhere around this time last year. The thing about addiction is, the addiction wants you to forget the past. It's a daily battle for me to remember just how bad things were, the dark places I've been. As addicts are, I'm quite good at convincing myself that the problem was never really that bad, that maybe I could manage things differently this time around. I've been sober only sixty days approximately, but the pain of the latest session of withdrawals seems to me ages ago.

A mere fifty some odd days. Yet I've been giving this a real shot for more than a year now. That's a bit demoralizing.

Yet I think back to the Holidays of the past year and see progress. The Holiday season this past year were probably my darkest hours. My addiction had peaked; it was spiraling downwards faster than I knew how to keep up with it. On Thanksgiving I think I drank a couple heavy whiskey drinks in the early morning hours just to rid myself of withdrawal symptoms just so that I could make it out to the family function, where I continued to drink steadily to keep myself in balance. On Christmas Eve I woke up from a multi-day bender realizing I had intended to be sober by Christmas Eve so that I would be functioning in time for family socializing; I had failed and was going through pretty bad withdrawals. It was one of those mornings where I hung my head and cried. It wasn't the first one of those mornings - there had been countless of those mornings where I woke up and realized I was losing control over this thing. You've reached Hell when you need that drink in the morning. And on Christmas Eve of last year, even my standard Hair of the Dog routine was failing to get me out of the mess I had created.

God-willing, I will be sober for the rest of this Holiday season. So even in the face of my repeated failures dating back to the Holiday season of last year, at least there's the fact that the Holidays will be worlds better this time around to hang my hat on.

And there's the fact that I am actively making changes to my life. I spent close to three hours today, my day off, at my sponsor's house - an angel sent into my life it seems at this point - working on some of my step-work. And afterwards I found myself sitting by myself on the wooden pews at my grade school church, doing some reflection at the suggestion of said sponsor. These are all things that abhorred me at this point of my life last year. But it was incumbent upon me to stop telling myself I would change. Telling myself I would change failed me time and again and then a couple more times after that. To change, you must do.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

BourbonBottleBookends Meets a Legend

Embedded image permalink
Darren McCarty, Hockeytown's # 25

What do you say when you finally meet one of your all-time idols? Darren McCarty caught me by surprise when he walked up to me from behind. I fumbled for words, my eyes wide as saucers, when I turned around to see the Detroit legend in front of me. "Hello, Mr. McCarty," I somehow managed. "Darren, please," he responded as he shook my hand. 

Enforcer. Tough Guy. Goon. Call him what you will; Detroit's fan-favorite fighter and Steve Yzerman's on-ice bodyguard during the pinnacle of the Red Wings dynastic years, Darren McCarty recently released his memoir My Last Fight. The book is written in the same vein as part-hockey, part-coming clean with demons memoir Tough Guy by Bob Probert - the enforcer that preceded McCarty in Hockeytown. McCarty's memoir recounts Number Twenty-Five's highs as a Stanley Cup champion and his lows in the midst of a battle with drugs and alcoholism.

McCarty was supposed to be signing books at my place of employment this week. I was holding out a longshot hope that I might get my copy signed; I certainly did not expect to meet one of my childhood heroes. I was standing in an office performing some unremembered workplace task. I heard the office door creak open and I glanced over my shoulder. And there he was, face and hands worn ragged from years making a living with his fists.

And what can you say to someone you've never met but nonetheless has meant so much more than you could ever express? 

There was no way to convey that March 26th of 1997, the night when McCarty sought vengeance on Colorado's Claude Lemieux and pummeled him into the ice, is one of the few dates I will always remember from my childhood. Or that his breakaway, game-winning, Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Philadelphia in June of that same year is a moment I've sometimes remembered as the defining moment of my childhood. Or that I spent countless college hours rewatching the 1997 Red Wings video in some misguided attempt to recapture that innocence of childhood. Or that his willingness to publicly discuss his substance abuse - My Last Fight is a reference to the biggest fight of his life: the one with his demons - along with several other NHL stars' willingness to do the same (Brian McGrattan - praying for a memoir from him someday, Red Wing Jordin Tootoo, the late and aforementioned Bob Probert, and old-time Bruins bad boy Derek Sanderson, among others) helped me to address my own demons. Or that his candid story provides me a much-needed steady stream of motivation in that ever-trying road of sobriety. 

But realistically, "Hello Mr. McCarty" was all I could say, even if it were premeditated. And it's probably best kept that way. Childhood heroes are best remembered with a hue of mystique. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Holidays

James Joyce, Araby

I read this short story every holiday season. It's magic is in its simplicity - the youthful vigor for life on those cold and quiet wintry evenings. It takes me back to those days when the Millwood boys would meet in the snow-dusted front yards of the neighborhood and play until our cheeks were rosy and snot dripped from our noses; those wintry evenings when the rest of Millwood hibernated indoors, chimneytops puffed steam into the frozen air, and the cries of the coyotes echoed from the backwoods. 

- 41 days sober

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hockey Night in Canada: a Fateful Night on the Road to Recovery

It was a February Saturday night in the dead of winter of 2012. The weather outside my single apartment - the one my girlfriend and I were supposed to share that year - echoed the current state of my soul: dark, cold, tree branches jagged and frozen. I was doing what I did that whole year, drinking beer in some vain attempt to wash away the past from my brain. Half drunk, I grabbed another beer from the fridge as the Hockey Night in Canada game ended and transitioned into the After Hours segment. That segment would change my life forever.

In that After Hours segment, Hockey Night in Canada streamed an interview with Brian McGrattan and Jordin Tootoo. Both recovering alcoholics, McGrattan and Tootoo candidly discussed their battles with alcoholism. As anyone who has dealt with the disease knows, that's exactly what it is: a battle. McGrattan's story hit me hard. It goes something like this: after yet another long bender, McGrattan woke up from a drunk in that depressed, withdrawal state; he knew, in one of those classic alcoholic moments, that things had gotten far off track somehow, that he needed some help; in tears, he called his mom, and said, once and for all, that he desperately needed some help. On some subconscious level, I knew that I was on that road.

Yet I was still in denial of my addiction at the time. I knew things were getting bad, but just not bad enough for me yet. I was transitioning into the alcoholic phase. In that phase when the fun still outweighs the non-fun. But the fun started to fade pretty quickly. Over the next several months, however, my own alcoholism began to spiral out of control into depths I never even imagined possible, quite rapidly.

It's a dark place, alcoholism. In one of his candid interviews, McGrattan states, "staying drunk for four or five days is not fun". By the Fall of 2012, that's where my alcoholism had taken me. Hiding bottles of vodka in my bedroom dresser, taking shots of liquor at 7 a.m. in the dark, skipping work and drinking out of a soda bottle at the park, going through withdrawals, ten-mile long walks in a withdrawal-induced haze, staying drunk for four days at a time: these were all places I encountered. They are dark places indeed. Alcoholics often get glimpses of the spiritual world that a non-addict would never have access to - they catch glimpses of hell itself. If that sounds bad, there are still things I am unable to admit, at least on a blog.

I went through a pretty vicious cycle. Sober for 3-4 weeks, feel better, forget the addiction, drink again, 3-4 day bender, withdrawal. This, I know now, is classic alcoholic behavior. But I was still in denial. Until the biggest bender of my life brought me to my knees. I remember quite distinctly during that bender that I watched the McGrattan-Tootoo Hockey Night in Canada video on repeat. I listened again and again to Brian McGrattan say "I needed to ask for help". I often woke up with earnest intentions of putting down the bottle during those seven days, only to find myself pouring more liquor hours later in an attempt to stave off withdrawal symptoms. I looked to that video for strength to ask for help, which it finally gave me. There was no denying it anymore.

Honesty is critical in recovery. As is evident from the last couple posts from this blog, I don't really care to deny what I've been battling, to anyone, anymore. And to be honest, I haven't been continuously sober since that day I finally asked for help. I went back out into the deep end, a couple times or so, and I learned what is common knowledge for alcoholics - that each relapse gets worse and worse. I had 3 and a half months of sobriety at one point before I threw that away. It brought me straight back to that glimpse of hell that I had witnessed before. I woke up one day and I had been drunk for 3 days: and it's moments like that when you really have no idea how you even got to that point.

 But today I have 30 days of sobriety, again, and I'm doing everything in my power to ensure that I never have to get that brief glimpse of hell ever again.

And I have Brian McGrattan and Hockey Night in Canada to thank for that, in a big way.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Groundhog Day

While watching the Michigan-Michigan State game at my brother's house today, I commented, after yet another pitiful three and out and another poor punt to midfield, "this is like groundhog day". Michigan was outplayed and outcoached by a superior Michigan State team today. I went home and felt the oncoming of the usual depression that is spurred by such a loss, an all too familiar feeling these days. I was OK during the game, I really was. I expected the loss. But afterwards, it felt like a new low in a relationship already studded with lows. Groundhog day indeed.

As always, of course, Michigan football seemed to symbolize my personal life. I'm on day 15 of sobriety, which, like Michigan football, feels like for the hundredth time. At this point I'm damn tired of talking about changing or saying I'm gonna change, it's time for me to do it. I've been to 15 AA meetings in those 15 days, and I'm determined to put this groundhog day to an end once and for all.

Maybe it's time to put the Michigan Football groundhog day to bed, too. For the first time, I really felt that maybe I have too much invested in a game that I cannot control. I'm not that young anymore, and depression induced by a game played by a bunch of college kids is starting to feel really immature. And the funny thing is, maybe sobriety and a more rational relationship with Michigan Football go hand in hand. In sobriety, you learn a lot about serenity - accepting the things you cannot change.

Enough saying things are going to change, though. It's just damn time to do. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Battle

Everywhere I look, it seems, people are doing what 25 year olds should be doing. Getting engaged. Buying houses. Graduating grad school. Maybe having kids. My ex girlfriend owns a house.

I can't help but feel left out. I am 25 years old, and the vision my 10 year old self had of me at this age is nowhere to be found.

I don't think anyone expects to be an alcoholic when they're 25. It's not fun. I don't know how I got here. I guess the warning signs had been there all along. I've spent the better part of the past year trying to stop drinking, or control my drinking, or whatever, and it hasn't worked. Because I'm an alcoholic.

It really doesn't seem fair. That my ex girlfriends are getting engaged. That my college roommates are getting promoted and moving into better apartments in Chicago and NYC. That my brother and his girlfriend are thinking about taking out a mortgage to buy a house. And I have to sit in a church basement at an AA meeting. It's not fair, at all. But it's my path in life.

Against everything my head told me to do, I looked at some of my ex girlfriends pictures today. I thought about where I was then. I thought about where she was then. I thought about where we were then. I thought, this must be the lowest point of my life. Then I drank. Again.

Most of my friends would have no idea how bad it's gotten. Alcohol has a grip on me, and it's disgusting how bad it is. I've had many Sundays when I've needed a beer or two just to get moving. I've had a few Mondays where I needed a drink or two before class. It comes with a depression that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. I'm not proud of any of it. I'm an alcoholic. It's not the life I wanted, but it's what I've been dealt.

I'm one relapse away from packing a suitcase and taking a flight to a rehab center. I don't plan on letting that happen. It's time to change my life.

It is a battle with a dark place in hell in front of me. But I plan on winning this battle.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Rainy September Sunday

Oh, September. What a sad month. The leaves are all dying, the school buses rumble outside the front window to pick up kids who are forced to say farewell to a summer they will never get back, and the nights turn darker and darker earlier with each passing evening.

I started a new job this September in downtown Detroit. It's the first Autumn in basically my entire life that I haven't been headed back to school. I went to the season opener at Michigan Stadium. I went to one of my happy places, Plymouth Orchard and Cider Mill, and admired the horses and the roosters while enjoying an apple cider slush. I went to another one of my happy places, the Penn Theater, where I got to see Psycho with my mom, my brother, and his girlfriend. Today, I met my undefined-relationship-girlfriend's sister and her husband over Buddy's pizza at lunch. It all seems like I should be happy. But yet again, for another Fall season, I can't help but feel like I am just going through the motions. Happy has always been elusive for me.

I got up from the couch after a Lions victory hoping to go for a run - which always helps - only to glance out the window at the rain coming down on a Michigan September day. It seemed a very fitting end to this ho-hum September. I hung my head a bit and lay back down on the couch, throwing in probably my fourth wad of chewing tobacco of the day already. Maybe it was the rain. Maybe it was the Michigan bye week throwing my emotions off the rails.

I stared at the football on the television and couldn't help but feel pretty damn old. My first thought - inexplicably - was John Mellencamp and Jack and Diane.

Oh yeah, life goes on,
Long after the thrill, of living is gone. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Songs that She Sang in the Shower

Jason Isbell

And in the car
Headed home
She asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone

With a stake 
Held to my eye
I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye
And another brief chapter without any answers blew by

And the songs that she sang in the shower
Are stuck in my head
Like Bring Out The Dead
Breakfast In Bed

And experience robs me of hope
That she’ll make it back home
So I’m stuck on my own
I’m stuck on my own

In a room
By myself
Looks like I’m here with a guy that I judge worse than anyone else

So I pace
And I pray
And I repeat the mantra’s that might keep me clean for the day

And the songs that she sang in the shower all ring in my ear
Like Wish You Were Here
How I wish you were here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On the Summer of '13 Slipping Away

I've been keeping myself busy with my books and with my tapes
Every day's been much better since I've slowed my drinking pace
There's no swimming in the bottle it's just some place we all drown
I lost myself in sorrow, lost my confidence in doubt

- Gin Blossoms

It's that time of year again. The dog days of summer have set in. The back to school supplies are in at the grocery store and the college football previews are making their rounds before autumnal tailgates. There's a rustling of autumn winds, carrying with it a whispering breath of departed revelry.

I think back now on the summer almost past. I graduated law school. I embarked upon the first real relationship since the one that devastated me two summers ago. I put the past behind me. I read some good books, but no great ones (possibly the Hemingway biography and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel). I visited the schoolhouse in Canada and felt the cool waters of Lake Huron and the sandy beaches of Grand Bend, Ontario. I saw Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Goonies at the old Penn theater in downtown Plymouth. I went to the Toledo Zoo and Cedar Point in Ohio.  I was sober for virtually the entire summer, which is a long way away from where I was just a couple months prior. It was a good summer, but not a great one; not the '97 summer of innocence when the Wings won that first Cup, not the Indian summer in the Petoskey woods of '10, but also not the misery of last summer when memories past and whiskey hangovers haunted me.

I can't help but be nostalgic for the end of something. It's not just the end of summer for me. It's the end of something more. As a nine-to-five job awaits me in the Fall, it's the end of the hectic yet free lifestyle of a student. So I want to savor every moment of it. Make the best of it. The to-do list for the last couple weeks of summer:

  • Tigers game. Hard to believe this one hasn't happened yet this summer, but two games are on the menu for the next week: Wed v. Minnesota and Tues. v. Oakland. Watching Miguel Cabrera alone has been a reason to remember this summer.
  • Listen to a Tigers game on the radio in the backyard under the moonlight and with a bonfire. 
  • Hike to Newburgh Lake. I used to go here on Monday's last summer when I was hungover, oftentimes avoiding work. It feels like something I need to do, go back and retrieve those memories long gone.
  • Walk around Ann Arbor to all the places I lived during college. While depressed, I used to do this what felt like every Sunday while I lived in the apartment that I want to forget forever; it was by far the darkest period of my life. This is something else from my past, though, that I want to go back and retrieve, maybe change the way I remember those walks.
  • Wish my baby sister off to college, at Michigan State no less.
  • Get to Beaver Creek, the restaraunt my buddies and I have gone to over the summer, one last time. Though those dinners don't often seem like much, it's stuff like that you look back on and remember as the good times later on.
  • Michigan football: Michigan Stadium August, 31st.
  • Plymouth HS football v. Churchill, September, 13th. Friday Night Lights watching my cousin play to close out the summer.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Goose Loonies

[Edit: updated as I've been editing the book]



March 24, 1988 – Joe Louis Arena, Detroit, Michigan.
Hartford Whalers 3, Detroit Red Wings 2.

My old man used to say that, as a season ticket holder, it was the only game he did not attend or at least watch during the 1987-88 Red Wings season. “It was the best game of the season, though,” he used to tell me on game nights after a few Labatt’s, “because it was the night you were born”. It was always through sports that he told me he loved me.

Ostensibly it was an unremarkable regular season loss, the box score and newspaper collections in the National Hockey League archives indicating only that Hartford defeated the Red Wings 3-2 at Joe Louis Arena that night; it was a late season throwaway game, Detroit having already clinched the Norris Division. Soviet defector Petr Klima scored a goal for the Wings, bad boy Bob Probert notched an assist, and the ever-scrappy Joey Kocur amassed a whopping seventeen penalty minutes with his fists alone.

What that box score couldn’t suggest was that, underneath the surface, the gears of fate were turning deep within the Motor City hockey machine. Objectively, as opposed to my father’s biased perspective, the best game of the season would have been the night the Wings clinched that Norris Division title, as it was Detroit’s first division title in twenty-three years. Along with the squeaky-clean Steve Yzerman, who had been named by new head coach Jacques Demers in 1986 training camp the youngest captain in Red Wings history, Petr Klima and Bob Probert were pivotal cogs in the hockey revolution that brought Detroit out of the depths of “Dead Wings” era dormancy and into serious contention in the late eighties, but the pair, who had been drafted together in the 1983 draft, had already developed a reputation for themselves as hard-drinking troublemakers. Three years removed from Soviet Russia, now sporting a diamond earring and blond streaks in his hair to the chagrin of Demers, Klima notched a career high 37 goals during the Norris Division-winning ‘87-88 campaign; Probert, fresh out of his third addiction treatment facility the previous offseason and now on antabuse, a drug prescribed to alcoholics to cause a violent reaction to alcohol, made the All Star team en route to posting his own career highs that season with 29 goals and 33 assists. Jacques Demers, himself the son of an alcoholic, understood that while in Yzerman he had Detroit’s next great leader, his other young talent – especially in Klima and Probert – were of a different breed, rebels. “When you strart winning with a bunch of kids,” Demers recalls of coaching the wild young Wings of the eighties, “you start playing father and you start playing doctor. They were just troubled kids. We knew we were always in a [ticking] time bomb with a couple of those guys.”

A few weeks later, just after I had left the hospital – an incision stitched halfway across my belly, I was a hospital baby in my first couple months in this world – rumors of a scandal scorched the hockey world. On May 12, the morning after the Red Wings had been eliminated from the Western Conference Finals by the Edmonton Oilers for the second consecutive year, the sports world read the details of what would come to be known infamously in Detroit as “The Goose Loonies Incident” in the sports pages of the morning papers, the press hot with the details of a late night drinking incident involving six Red Wings players. A young Mitch Albom, whose sports column I would grow up reading in the Detroit Free Press, detailed the night in a Free Press column titled “Wings Lost Much More than a Game”. Under normal circumstances, perhaps – it being the late eighties – it wouldn’t have merited news, but the six perpetrators happened to pull this stunt on the eve of the biggest Red Wings game of the season and perhaps even their biggest game of the nineteen eighties to date – an elimination game in the conference finals against the juggernaut Edmonton Oilers. It was more who than what, perhaps, too.

Three of the ringleaders turned out to be none other than Petr Klima, Joe Kocur, and Bob Probert – the was recovering alcoholic; Probert had been swapping ibuprofen for his antabuse pills under his coaches’ noses. The rumors were that the three of them of had organized an all-night drinking party at a downtown Edmonton establishment called “Goose Loonies.” The Red Wings fan base, starving for a winning team, took the Goose Loonies incident personally, feeling a few bad apples had jeopardized the franchise’s best shot at a Stanley Cup in years. It was a big story in the newspapers in Stanley Cup-deprived Detroit that summer, and Goose Loonies became a household name in my neighborhood in the following days, weeks, and months. Even now, twenty-seven years later, I still come across references to the infamous Goose Loonies Incident in the sports section of the Detroit newspapers every now and then.

The oft-troubled Probert must have lost control at some point that night; I of all people should be sympathetic of an alcoholic relapse. No stranger to trouble with the law, Detroit’s notorious tough guy had famously cleaned up his act the previous offseason, and it seemed he had managed to pin down his demons for most of that 1987-88 regular season – 87-88 was Probert’s lone all star game appearance – but even one drink can be the unraveling of a recovering alcoholic. Red Wings assistant coach Colin Campbell incredulously found the hotel rooms of Klima and Probert empty at curfew check, put on his jacket, and went looking for the missing players in the city lights of downtown Edmonton. Enlisted to aid in the search was front office assistant Neil Smith, who recalled: “Probert had alcohol issues and Klima had a track record of runnng wild. So Colin and I went out to try and find them.”

Meanwhile Probert and gang were still sucking down Molson’s in the whiskey hours of the Alberta night, undoubtedly under the hazy spell of Jack Daniels and Canadian women. What a buzzkill it must have been for the six of them, when, to their great infamy, assistant coach Colin Campbell showed up at Goose Loonies, a sardonic grin on his face as he imagined what head coach Jacques DeMers would have to say about his discovery. Six Red Wings caught red-handed.

I waited outside and Colin went in and found not only Klima and Probert but four or five others,” Smith remembered of the fateful night. Detroit’s third goalie Darren Eliot, who eventually would become a Red Wings commenter for Fox Sports Detroit in the aughts, recalled of being one of the six caught that night: “Neil Smith and Colin Campbell were looking for Probert. In a hockey town like Edmonton, the word was out that Probert was on the streets and going crazy.”

A surely hungover Probert dressed in the following evening’s Game 5 against Edmonton anyways – the Wings couldn’t afford to sit him. He accumulated a tell-tale minus three rating in a lopsided 8-4 loss to that loaded Edmonton team. Wayne Gretzky, Canada’s soon to be departed hero, scored a goal and added two assists for the hometown Oilers. Had it been a victory for Detroit, the details of the previous night might have fallen away into the great chasm of forgettable sports stories. But it was a loss, and a big one at that; the Goose Loonies Incident would haunt the Red Wings for some time.

A la Shoeless Joe Jackson and Chicago’s “Black Sox,” the six perpetrators were condemned on the sports radio airwaves in Detroit that summer, the words “Goose Loonies” forever more stitched onto their jerseys like damning scarlet letters, The proverbial last straw broken, the Red Wings then-coach Jacques DeMers stood shame-facedly at a podium in front of news cameras back at Joe Louis Arena and issued a heartfelt public apology to Detroit fans, calling the incident a “blemish on the entire organization” and “a black cloud on the season”. Fighting back tears, DeMers apologized profusely, looking like a broken man.

DeMers’ public apology, while dramatic, masked much more volatile currents running through Detroit’s front offices. There, hot-blooded internal discussions raged behind closed curtains, Detroit’s management team discussing rehab facilities for Probert and debating the termination of some of the other perpetrators’ contracts. The fault lines beneath Hockeytown were shifting, and some of its big names from the eighties would crumble in the aftermath. The turn of the decade fast-approaching, Detroit’s brain trust wanted to put an end to the “Dead Wings” era, for good.

Years later, while vacationing Up North in Ontario with some of the guys I grew up with, I would read Probert’s own version of the Goose Loonies incident in his autobiography, Tough Guy: My Life on the Edge, over a 24 ounce breakfast beer. It was springtime, the year 2012, and we were visiting my lifelong friend Jim Racine’s schoolhouse cottage on Lake Huron. The corn stalks planted in rows behind the schoolhouse had barely peaked out of the dormant earth, the North Country air still crisp as morning dawned.

Hungover and jittery – unable to sleep – I retrieved my copy of Probert’s book from my duffel bag and tried not to wake my buddies as I snuck a handful of beer bottles out of the refrigerator. Although I drank in the morning all the time with my college buddies back in Ann Arbor, these were the guys I grew up with, and they were much less further gone than I was at the time. As the eldest of our friend group, a role model to those guys, I didn’t want them to catch me drinking so early in the morning.

Operational from 1898-1969, the nineteenth-century style schoolhouse was situated just off the Bluewater Highway along the eastern coast of Lake Huron, where magnificent red pines bent from waves and wind lined the shores, north of the beach town of Grand Bend and into the bucolic farming country of St. Joseph township, on Black Bush Line. Maintained in its original layout and decoration, the interior of the school house was a de facto historical site with its one room classroom on the main floor, a kitchen and bathroom on one end and a chalkboard and wood stove on the opposite, a separate entrance hallway at the front where the rope to school bell dangled temptingly; we rang it as frequently as we had as children, its magnificent gong-like chimes echoing into the Ontario days and nights – we must have annoyed the neighboring farm houses to no end.

A metal spiral staircase led upstairs to an overhead wood-floor balcony lined with bookshelves that held old classics and elementary school readers on the second floor; a doorway from the balcony led to the sleeping quarters. The school house had doubled as a boarding house when operational, and its second floor featured a school master’s bedroom and a separate, open sleeping room that featured an old billiards table that squeaked with the floorboards. A small ladder in the open boarding room led to a small loft area that looked out of crow’s nest window above the school bell tower, where I preferred to sleep when it was not inhabited by bats or bees.

Despite many family vacations with the Rivard’s and the Racine’s, who were more like aunts, uncles, and cousins in practice and in spirit than close family friends, trips to Hilton Head, South Carolina, Outer Banks, North Carolina, Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Mr. Rivard was stationed at a naval base, Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, the school house remained my favorite vacation spot throughout my adolescent years and into the young adult ones. A relic of a forgotten time, its old photographs and teaching artifacts encased in the first half of the twentieth century in rural Canada, its wide farm fields and stagnant creek waters moving at a slower pace of life, a trip to the school house on the Ontario shores of Neil Young lore offered more than a mere escape in destination; it was an escape to the past.

Two summers prior, Bob Probert had suffered a massive sudden heart attack on his boat on Lake St. Clair in the waters between Michigan and Ontario while boating with his children and in-laws. He was pronounced dead later that afternoon at Windsor Regional Hospital. The lake where he died was only a few dozen miles south, by waterway, down the coast of Lake Huron and up the St. Clair River, from that Canadian schoolhouse where I read his book. The loss of one of the great tough guys of all time devastated the hockey community, if it didn’t surprise them. Probert died just a couple chapters shy of finishing his autobiography, and Helene St. James, a local hockey columnist, ironically had to ghost write the final pages of the book. Only a year had passed since his death, and the wound of his passing was reopened as I voraciously consumed his roller coaster of a life story, sipping morning beers.

As I discovered in the pages of that book and in subsequent research, the Goose Loonies incident was neither the beginning nor the end of a long battle with alcohol and drugs for both Probert and Klima. The Red Wings put Probert on a flight to the Betty Ford Center in Minnesota for substance abuse treatment following the end of the ‘88 season – Probert channels Jeff Spicoli in his autobiography in recalling the summer following the Goose Loonies incident: “after the Goose Loonies incident, the team was telling me I had to go into rehab again. I told them, ‘No way. I just got a boat and a new car and I’ve been in rehab three summers in a row!’” – but he was unable to maintain any long term sobriety throughout the remainder of his playing career; the Goose Loonies incident must have seemed like small potatoes to him the very next season, when United States customs officials found a hefty bag of cocaine in Probert’s SUV at the Windsor border. To his credit, Probert served his time in federal prison and would go on to find a successful career with the Chicago Black Hawks, but his personal demons would forever be linked to his name, fairly or unfairly. Probert had been sober for some time at the time of his death, but it was hard not to speculate that his early demise was somehow loosely connected to that fateful night at Goose Loonies in 1988.

As for Petr Klima, he had been busted for drinking and driving in May of 1987 and would go on to acquire two more of those cases subsequent to the Goose Loonies incident before his welcome in Detroit was permanently severed. It is hard to imagine that sort of consistent troublemaking would be tolerated in today’s media-driven sports world (see: Johnny Manziel, Steve Sarkisian).

The bad boy duo of he and Probert actually struck again before the ‘88-89 season could even begin, if you could believe it. Such is the rapid descent of addiction. In Tough Guy, Probert confesses to having found his way into the white grasp of cocaine that summer. In it, he recalls he and Klima’s inauspicious start to the season: “In September 1988, Petr Klima, who was a pretty good buddy, and I got suspended. I’d been sent down to Adirondack and fined $200 a couple days before because we had missed a team bus and a flight from Chicago to Detroit for a game. Petr and I were at my house the night before, and we were supposed to report the next day by 11 A.M. We stayed up late, so we called up and postponed our flight. It was time to leave for the second one, but we postponed it again. We headed out to catch the [third one], but got held up at the titty bar near the airport. We finally got on the last plane, but didn’t get in until about 12:30 A.M., so the team left us a message on our phones, saying, “Don’t bother staying. You’re suspended.” According to the team’s account, both Klima and Probert skipped practice before missing that flights to Glen Falls, New York, where they were supposed to report to the Adirondack Red Wings.

Klima’s whirlwind year didn’t end there. With Probert at the Betty Ford Center, Royal Oak police arrested for Klima for drunk driving on Sunday, October 9, 1988, after he backed his car into a parked vehicle outside of The Jukebox, a Royal Oak bar, a violation of his probation terms for his previous drunk driving violation. In late May of the following Spring, he was again arrested for driving under the influence of liquor, this time in Bloomfield Hills, this time for the last time with Detroit. Between Detroit, the minors, and several other NHL franchises, Klima would bounce around from team to team throughout the remainder of his career, even winning a Stanley Cup in 1993 with the Edmonton Oilers – perhaps fitting that he won back in Edmonton – but he never quite lived up to the hype he generated during his first three seasons in the league with Detroit.

Setting down the book, I grabbed my beer and gazed out at the cornfield stretched out below the schoolhouse deck, feeling the strange buzz of a liquid breakfast. Rolled out across the shell-pink horizon was Canadian farmland as far as the eye could see, the fields glowing golden under the early morning sun, hawks circling the fields from high above, blackbirds watching from the telephone wires. Probert and Klima’s struggles with cocaine and booze captivated me. I was reading a lot of books about the dark side of alcohol at the time, memoirs of battles with the bottle, probably on some subconscious level knowing that my own toe to toe battle with the bottle was looming right around the bend.

But all that was still in the stars.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Dark Side of Hemingway's Drinking

There is a fine line between hard-drinking and alcoholic. I should know. I spent the better part of the last decade flirting with that line, at times swaying into both camps. When it comes to pop culture, the hard-drinking writer is something of a folk hero, often a legendary figure of mythical proportions (see: Hunter S. Thompson, Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, Hemingway). The hard-drinker is to be admired. Step over that fine line into the alcoholic territory, though, and you've suddenly found yourself in taboo waters.

The popular conception of Hemingway is that he was a hard-drinking, hard-living portrait of masculinity, surely a drinker to be admired. A quick google search will reveal a plethora of sites encouraging you to "Drink like Hemingway". Kenny Chesney even recently released an album entitled "Hemingway's Whiskey," glorifying the writer's life-long infatuation with the bottle.

In pop culture, it's not hard to see why the hard-drinking days of such writers are glorified. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous book? The Great Gatsby. Jack Kerouac? On the Road. Jack London? The Call of the Wild. The literary realm remembers the glory days of such writers, not the darker counterparts to the heroic drinking days. In the midst of the recent release of Gatsby the movie, most of American society would probably picture Fitzgerald a colorful, hard-partying figure of the roaring twenties. Lost in popular culture, however, is the fact that Scott Fitzgerald had such a problem with morning drinking - drinking away alcohol withdrawals from the night before - that Hemingway(!) of all people often cringed at his friend's embarassing public antics, to the point where Fitzgerald had to be avoided during some of the worst drinking spells. Few people know that Kerouac wrote perhaps the quintessential novel on delirium tremens - the final, dark stages of alcoholism - in Big Sur, or that Kerouac spent his finals years walking around his hometown in New England, bloated by alcohol, in a stupor that earned him town-wide pity. Fewer would probably know that Jack London wrote an account of his own alcoholism in John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs. As for Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, these folk heroes are lauded as the testament to towing the line between hard-drinking and alcoholism successfully, perhaps the most laudable drinkers in literary pop culture. What we don't see is the final years of Thompson and Hemingway's drinking, when the ravages of liquor began to gnaw away at their brains and their livers, leading both ominously down a path of fate involving a shotgun and their own hands.

And this is unfortunate. I've always sought after the darker tales of battles with the bottle. Any hack writer can put heavy-drinking tales to paper, but it takes true literary genius to account for those harrowing dark days when you come face to face with the devil himself in the midst of delirium tremens, as Kerouac did in Big Sur, or to account for a losing battle with the bottle when you can't put down the mescal despite your best intentions, as Malcolm Lowry achieved in Under the Volcano.

I'm somewhat of a self-proclaimed Hemingway afficionado. The deeper I delve into the Hemingway catalogue, the deeper my primary critique of his work gets - that he was unable to ever account for his experiences with alcoholism. This summer I read one of Hemingway's final novels in Across the River and Into the Trees, which is in essence a retrospective piece on his life as he approached the half-century mark of his life. Given the retrospective quality of the novel, it had the potential to be a masterpiece of nostalgia and regret - and Hemingway indeed thought it would earn masterpiece status in the way that The Old Man and the Sea would turn out to be years later. From booze to war to lost love (three failed marriages at this point in his life), Hemingway had a breadth of life experiences from which he could have worked. Instead, we get tidbits of war flashbacks that do not come close to achieving the war-ravaged emotions of "Big Two-Hearted River". Unfortunately, this novel aims low rather than reaching for the stars. In part, I blame this on Hemingway's unwillingness to address the role of alcohol in his life, which he continuously refused to do in any honest way throughout the course of his life.

Hemingway deserves as much blame as pop culture for his image as a hard-drinking folk hero rather than an alcoholic, though. For as much as pop culture perpetuated the myth of Hemingway the hard-drinking, hard-living icon, Hemingway himself was never capable of recognizing his drinking for what it ultimately became: a dark problem. While Hemingway had no problem calling out Fitzgerald for his drinking and recognizing that for Fitzgerald, pouring out the liquor cabinet was essential, he had quite the problem admitting his own demons. This denial, of course, is one of the underlying symptoms of addiction.

I'm currently about 500 pages deep into the 600 page tell-all Hemingway biography, written by Carlos Baker. This means I am starting to get into the dark side of Hemingway's drinking years, when the act of drinking was no longer a social outlet amongst expatriates in Paris or a military coping mechanism amongst his comrades in arms. In reality, alcohol had destroyed a lot in his life. The latter two of his first three wives both left him in part due to his reluctance to accept a sense of domesticity, opting instead to retain the late-night drinking sprees of his twenties well after he had grown old. Moreover, Hemingway suffered a number of injuries from automobile acts resulting from drinking and driving, some leaving him with concussions that further inhibited his alcohol-deteriorated brain. Further revealing is the fact that, after being wounded in the first great war, Hemingway's nurses were perturbed to find hidden bottles of cognac stashed away in his hospital room. But perhaps most revealing is that, when suffering from kidney problems and told by doctors to abstain from drinking, and finally in his late years when family and friends pleaded with him to put down the bottle, Hemingway was either unwilling or unable to follow doctors' or friends' orders.

Whether or not Hemingway suffered from alcohol dependence - the crucial turning point in any story of alcoholism - is disputed. In his later years, Hemingway is said to have drank a quart of whiskey per day. Though he set rules for himself to try and limit his drinking, he often was unable to abstain from the elixir past lunchtime. Ultimately, the alcohol began to rot Hemingway's brain - as it has been wont to do for so many illustrious writers. Self-medicating with alcohol in his final years led to a deep-seated depression, climactically resulting in that tragic day with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho. Though he called his own father a coward for committing suicide, Ernest was unable to escape the same fate, the terrors of alcohol and depression weighing like a black cloud over his soul.

I don't mean to critique Hemingway for his drinking. Someone in my shoes is certainly in no place to do so. Rather, I can only lament that the tragic story of the dark side of the bottle never found its way into Hemingway's writing. As is evident from Kerouac's Big Sur and Lowry's Under the Volcano, these types of tragic tales can result in some truly meaningful literature. It's a tragedy in itself that we never got to see what the master of American literature could do with similar material. All that's left is the mistaken perception in popular culture of a hard-drinking, hard-living man, an entirely incomplete portrait of the legendary Hemingway, and the wonder of what could have been.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Under Blue Canadian Skies

Hidden in rural Ontario amongst miles and miles of cornfields, there is an old schoolhouse that holds a special spot in my heart. Tucked in on a stretch of dirt road, on the banks of a winding creek, it exists in a realm of the past. It's a simpler place where things move slower and life is easier.

In my youth, a Memorial Day trip up to the schoolhouse offered us the first glimpse of summer to come. We would run for ages through the corn stalks, stopping every so often to catch crawfish in the creek bed and hiding in the tall grass in an endless game of hide and seek. In our unbridled spirit, we weren't so much different from the kids who played in the fields of the schoolhouse dozens of years prior. The grown ups weren't so much different from the small-town Canadians living in rural Ontario those years ago, either. They sit out on the deck, drinking bottles of beer, watching out over their little ones - wondering at once where the time went and where it might lead.

At dusk we used to sit out and look up at the stars and exploding fireworks in the vast country sky. In the quiet solitude of the Canadian night, we looked up into the vastness and wondered to what extent the universe went on, while at the same time feeling safer than ever in the confines of that wood-stove schoolhouse. We live simply, the way life once was in the past. And we spend our time the way it was meant to be spent, embracing every moment of the day. And for a weekend, that's all that mattered in the world.

I remember wondering as a child if we'd ever grow up to be like the grown ups, drinking bottles of the beer on the back deck and watching the sun over Lake Huron in the distance. A couple of weekends ago, my childhood buddies and I drove up to the schoolhouse for our annual summer trip to the schoolhouse. As we sat out on the deck in the falling Friday dusk, I thought about the passage of time. We were no longer the kids who spent their days in the fields and rows of corn fields up there. Rather, we were the ones drinking the beer on the deck - thinking about where the time went and where it might lead.