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 it was the only game he missed as a season ticket holder during the 1987-88 Red Wings season. “It was the best game of the season, though, because it was the night you were born,” he used to tell me on game nights after a couple Labatt's. It was always through sports that he told me he loved me.

            On the surface, 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 in a late season throwaway game, Detroit having already clinched the Norris Division. Russian defector and rookie phenom 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, however, was that underneath the surface, the gears of fate were turning deep within the Motor City hockey machine.

            A few weeks later, before I had even 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. A couple mornings after the Red Wings had been eliminated from the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers, the sports world read the details of what would come to be known infamously in Detroit as “The Goose Loonies Incident” in the morning papers, the press hot with the details of a late night drinking incident involving six Red Wings players. Under normal circumstances 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.

            Three of the ringleaders turned out to be none other than Petr Klima, Joe Kocur, and Bob Probert – a was recovering alcoholic. The newspaper columns accused the three of them of organizing an all-night drinking party at a downtown Edmonton bar 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 beloved 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, but even one drink can be the unraveling of a recovering alcoholic. A Red Wings assistant coach found the hotel rooms of Klima, Kocur, and Probert incredulously empty at curfew check, put on his jacket, and went looking for the six missing players in the city lights of downtown Edmonton.

            Meanwhile Probert and gang were still sucking down Molson’s and shooters in the small 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, the assistant coach showed up at Goose Loonies, a sly 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.

            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 losses. But it was a loss, and a big one at that, so the Goose Loonies Incident would haunt the Red Wings for some time.

            Like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Chicago’s “Black Sox,” the six perpetrators came to be condemned as the infamous “six” that summer, the numeral six stitched permanently 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 the Joe 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 the corn stalks planted in rows behind the schoolhouse we were staying at had barely peaked out of the dormant earth.

            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. I didn’t want them to catch me drinking beers so early in the morning.

            The previous summer Bob Probert had suffered a massive sudden heart attack and died on his boat on Lake St. Clair in the waters between Michigan and Ontario. The lake where he died was only a few dozen miles of waterway south by Lake Huron 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 a local columnist ironically had to ghost write the final pages of Probert’s autobiography. 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.

            As I discovered in the pages of that book, the Goose Loonies incident was only the beginning of a long battle with alcohol and drugs for both Probert and Klima. Probert, Detroit’s beloved but embattled tough guy, was shipped off on a flight to the Betty Ford Center in Minnesota for substance abuse treatment following the end of the season, 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 Probert got himself into much more serious trouble off the ice 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, Detroit police found him slouched over the wheel of his Chevy Corvette not long after the end of the ‘88 season, drunk at the scene of a single car automobile wreck; 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 rookie with the Red Wings.

            I looked up from the pages of my book and gazed out at the cornfield stretched out below the schoolhouse deck, feeling the strange buzz of a liquid breakfast. Stretched out across the horizon was Canadian farmland as far as the eye could see, the fields glowing golden under the early morning sun. Probert’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.