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.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

June 7, 1997

I've been doing some extensive writing this summer, largely expounding on the original Life and Loss with the Red Wings post from about a year ago. This piece is from a particularly memorable day for me: Saturday, June the 7th, 1997.

Part I

To this day, when I hear the word summer, my mind hearkens back to June nights in Millwood Village. June nights are like a Bruce Springsteen song - there's an intoxicating feeling in the summer air and anything seems possible. Neighbors gather together in a backyard lit by tiki torches, the smell of charcoal cooking hot dogs and hamburgers sifts through the humid air, and a Jimmy Buffett song plays from the stereo. The grown ups sit out on the back patio drinking bottles of beer and sipping cocktails through umbrella straws, talking about things that don't make sense to us kids, while neighborhood boy chases neighborhood girl, and vice versa. We laugh and run and play, stopping to catch fireflies every so often, our energy level never running low thanks to a limitless bucket of soda on ice.

All summer days in the suburbs are magic. In a way, I remember them all. There's the whir of lawn mowers; the pitter patter of sprinklers raining on immaculately groomed front lawns; the yelps of the dogs barking at eachother through the backyards; house-wives in blue bonnets bent over flower gardens; kids meeting in the front street in the early morning sun, the possibilities of the summer day ahead of us truly boundless.

But I remember a particular one of those June nights most of all. And it's funny the way those moments work. There are no voices that call out to savor every second of the night, or that it will be one of those few moments in life that remains forever etched into your memories. The night just goes on, and only later on do you look back and realize how special that moment was.

The neighbors slowly trickle towards my house through the backyards or on the front sidewalks, everyone dressed in festive Red and White, kids wearing Yzerman and Shanahan and McCarty jerseys. The dads congregate around the grill out back, taking turns flipping hot dogs and painting barbecue sauce on slabs of ribs. The moms carry homemade dishes of potato salads and fruit salads and nacho dip into the kitchen. As for us kids, we toss water balloons in spite at Philadelphia Flyers logos plastered onto the front driveway, compete in an egg toss competition, and craft our own Stanley Cup replicas out of plastic tupperware and tin foil. There's a sense of calm that distinguishes the night from other summer barbecues, though. Everyone is tranquilly giddy with the idea that something truly special could happen that night. The dads understand it better than us boys do: having weathered a forty-two year Cup drought, they understand full well the implications on the line in the impending Game Four of these Stanley Cup Finals.

They say men are children sometimes. I know that's the way it was that night. All the adults were children that night. Here were mothers and fathers who had watched with a careful eye over my play in their backyards, who had taken me on trips to the swimming pool in their mini-vans, had lovingly bandaged my scraped knees in their bathrooms, had invited me to dinner and served me spaghetti at their own kitchentables, had tucked me into sleeping bags on weekend sleepovers; here they were, gathered round my living room television like kids for one more time. Gone were the faces I had grown accustomed to in my seven years in Millwood: faces of toil and sweat on dads pushing lawnmowers or peaking from underneath a kitchen sink, faces of weary mothers stirring up yet another batch of Kool-Aid or mopping up muddy footprints from a hasty jaunt through their pristine kitchens; for one night, at least, there eyes were wide as childrens, voices exuberant as the kids they reared.

Just when a lull emerged in the game - people getting up to refill drinks, mothers checking on daughters in the sandbox out back, dads taking cigar breaks to ease their nerves, fingernail gnawing commencing as the game clock couldn't tick fast enough - Darren McCarty broke free to open ice. A Red Wing dug the puck out of the boards and sent it center-wards to open ice, where it found Darren McCarty's stick as he darted from blue line to red line. Only the orange of Jaani Niimina's Flyers jersey stood between the gritty McCarty and Philadelphia goaltender Ron Hextall. The announcers' voices reached fever pitch, in the way that announcers can silence entire sports bars in an instant, like a prophetic gong from the sports gods. Bodies perched up from the living room couches around me, half-standing and half-sitting. McCarty dekes to his backhand, and Niimina stumbles towards the ice. Mano a mano now. The couches in my living room are vacant now, anticipatory 'oh's' mouthing from lips.

And I will never forget that calm before the storm. I know there was no way, in those mere seconds, that Steve and I had time to shoot each other that glance. Yet that's just the way it was: Steve and I sharing that one special moment, the coming on of a smile between best friends at those crucial junctures in life the way they do before your first round of spin the bottle, as you both step onto the stage at high school graduation, or as you nod to your best man in your wedding. Time seemed to stop, giving Steve and I that moment to forever cherish. That's the way I remember it, at least.

Hextall lunges out from his crease, and McCarty pulls back to his forehand with an open net before him, and that's all she wrote, folks. And before McCarty leaps into the boards - mouth roaring - before Stevie Y and Vladimir Konstantinov and the other Red Wings pile onto McCarty in his corner of the boards, the television screen disappears behind the hands of jubilant fans at the Joe. Hands reach into fists in front of the camera lens, releasing forty-two years of pent up hockey frustration into the rafters of the Joe, where the ghosts of yesteryear seem to be watching on. More than that, the living room about me had swallowed my own television screen hole, as bodies much larger than mine erupted into pandemonium. My father and Steve's father jump up and down gleefully, other bodies are embracing one another, sending beer mugs jostling against one another and drops of beer spilling onto the carpet - but for once the grown ups are the ones who don't care. We were all kids in that moment.

The rest of the game seemed a blur. The anticipatory celebration was already underway in Detroit, my house being no exception. The party forty-two years in the making was on. I remember my dad pulling me tight to his leg and leaning in to whisper in the closing minute, "Watch this," he said, "You'll remember this the rest of your life". Steve's dad did likewise, holding onto Steve's shoulder tightly from behind. I remember the faint glimmer of a tear sparkling in some of the dads' eyes - no doubt thinking back to the games they watched with their own fathers a long time ago, thinking about how dearly they wished in vain to share this moment with their dads, and the long, painful Dead Wings era they had experiences first-hand. I remember we chanted "Stevie! Stevie!" along with the crowd at the Joe, just before our captain showed that toothless smile and took hold of Detroit's long-awaited silver grail.

The night sort of just went on for us kids. We were just happy we were allowed to stay up past midnight as the celebration continued on for the adults. School had let out but a few days prior, and there seemed an electrifying spirit in the newly found summer twilight: fireflies lighting the wooded trails out back like flickering candle lights, the night life - creepy crawlies in the earth, bats buzzing in the branches, other critters rustling in the brush - was refreshed from a long winter's hibernation, and the stars above shimmered with renewed zeal. Even the distant sounds of fireworks exploding into the night toasted the night's victory.

I remember laying in the thick grass of Steve's front lawn, panting and out of breath from a game of flashlight tag. I took a moment to soak it all in, looking at the craters in the silver crescent moon high above me, thinking it all grand. A couple houses down the street, I thought I could make out the faint echo of a song playing through the night:

Late December, back in '63
What a very special time for me

Monday, July 8, 2013

Red Letter Days

Some days, like some people, come and go, not even a scent or sight to remember them by. Other days stick out like a best friend does, forever altering the course of your life.

I found this conversation in an old journal of mine. It's a conversation (from AIM!) between my lifelong best friend Steve and I on the day I received that fateful letter in the mail from the University of Michigan. A law school graduate now, it is a testament to the passage of time. I've never been a big believer in fate or destiny, but looking back on this, it's hard not to think about the stars. Steve and I clashed in colors as youngsters - Steve always moseying through the backyards and hopping for crab apples in his green and white Michigan State sweatshirt, me waiting at the back porch in my navy and yellow sweater with 'Michigan' stitched across. It's hard to not credit destiny to the fact that we are now both graduates of the schools we once dreamed about. Four years in your college town can make it seem routine, but this piece from my old journal is a testament to just how much my destiny was driven for 17 years by the sole desire of receiving that letter from Michigan.

Time changes all things, but it doesn't change memories. I wanted like hell to get out of my hometown at the time of this journal entry, but the years have colored my memories of those days with a tinge of nostalgia. I remember a time, a place. I was living under my father's roof, antsy to the point of rebelliousness to sow my wild oats and find life outside the streets of my neighborhood. It was a time of innocence, even if I didn't think it back then. My journal is chock-full of days of playing baseball at the sandlot with the neighborhood guys, sneaking in a bottle of Jack Daniels to the Friday night football game, puppy love in the way that high school sweethearts play such a role in shaping who you start to be as an adult, high school nights spent driving around aimlessly just because we didn't want to go home, phrases like "carpe diem" scribbled across the pages, and teenage angst brewed over cheeseball lyrics.

Looking back reminds me of my years. Now, a night at a restaurant or watching sitcoms sounds like a good night to me. Drinking has taken on a new, darker meaning to me. The seventeen-year-old self emanating from that high school journal stands in direct opposition to the quarter-century old me: back then I would have yawned at the thought of staying in, and my every night was motivated in some sense to find that next buzz. I was so full of life, and night. And that's a feeling I'll never get back.

ScubaSteve101eml: i heard you are an official wolveriene
BlueDevl34: haha
BlueDevl34: yup
BlueDevl34: i guess so
ScubaSteve101eml: its like the best day of yer life
BlueDevl34: yeah pretty much
ScubaSteve101eml: like ever since u were like 4 you have been waiting to oppen that letter
BlueDevl34: lol
BlueDevl34: i was so nervous tho