Sunday, December 28, 2014

And Yet


"Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There'd been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn't even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time."
- Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son. (the eerie applicability of this, my book life, to that of my life as a fan - two worlds that don't often intersect - is something I spent a considerable time pondering after I had read this.)

Internally, I buried the last notion of the Michigan Man that there would ever be in East Lansing this Fall. There, in the throes of yet another in-ring pummeling at the hands of the team we had so conceitedly labeled "Little Brother" those naive years ago, I hung my head in my hands in my seat at Spartan Stadium, surrounded in every direction by masses of enemy colors, each one of them basking at eardrum-shattering decibels in the complete and utter collapse of the university most reviled in that town: my Michigan.

It was not so much the loss that stung; no, those had come in doses far too heavy over the last several seasons to elicit such emotion yet, the pain of each successive loss having gradually become more tolerable than the one before it, until what before had been pain finally evolved into a perpetual numbness, and that which now teetered so critically on the brink of apathy -- the place where sports fans' souls went to die. There had been The Unspeakable Game, that perception-shattering loss to open up that revelatory sophomore season of my college years. There had been Ohio State four times over during my years as a student, too, including the two at The Big House -- that last one finding myself pondering the tragedy of that being my last game in the student section long after all the other fans had emptied the stadium -- and then there had been one more in person at the Horse Shoe just for good measure, as if I needed another dose of poison. There had been another four straight at the hands of our supposedly inferior instate rivals over on the Red Cedar. And there had been countless forgotten others that I had embarked upon deliberately trying to purge from my memory with an onslaught of illicit substances and a sailor's worth of liquor. There had been Minnesota only weeks prior, too: the day that Ann Arbor turned angry, resulting in a discomforting mob mentality atmosphere I had theretofore never before felt in Michigan Stadium -- a feeling I never wanted to feel in Michigan Stadium again.

Down 35-11 to the Spartans late, I tried to fight the tears that were welling up in my eyes; they would have eaten me alive in Sparta. All of the false promises had been washed away. All of the gods I had worshiped as a boy had been unmasked, and all of the churches I prayed at during those crucial years demolished into rubble, one disappointing revelation after another: Lloyd Carr was no longer a god, Michigan Stadium was no longer hallowed grounds, Charles Woodson was an old man, and Michigan Football as I had known it as a boy was nothing but a figment of my mind, existing only in that great void known as the past.

But for once these tears were not for me; like most fans mired in an unhealthy relationship with his team, I always felt Michigan's losses were my trials and tribulations, my great suffering, my life's grand injustice. I watched my girlfriend, clad in enemy clothes -- god bless her soul -- look down on me with sympathetic eyes. You'll never know, I so conceitedly thought, as if no other fan in the world could fathom the depths of my fandom; I had a vision of the inevitable argument that would occur in about an hour's time on the drive home on I-96 East when she would tire of my self-imposed silence and utter those cringeworthy words that other girlfriends before her had uttered before: "it's only a game, you know."

I watched a helpless Brady Hoke pace up and down the sidelines of Spartan grounds for the last time, a dead man walking. I felt bad for the guy. He was, after all, just another guy wearing pants like me.

I thought about my future son -- that little guy existing only in the twinkle of my eye, for now, that little miniature version of me who I hope to bring to The Big House for his first football game, just like my Father did with me on a fateful August day in 1995. I thought about how he'd never know the Michigan I knew as a boy, the Michigan I fell in love with. I saw the legends of Michigan lore that I planned to tell him of disintegrating before my eyes, falling away into the great void of things that might have been. He would never truly hear me tell of Charles Woodson's dash down the sideline on a cold November day in Ann Arbor -- one that eerily resembled the same path that Desmond Howard had taken only years prior -- or of Braylon Edwards' historic comeback against these very Spartans, or of how Denard Robinson's shoelaces flopped so beautifully in the wind as he bolted past Notre Dame defenders on his way to the endzone for the first of oh so many memorable times in a Michigan uniform.

A sea of green blossomed in eruption as the game clock ticked inexorably towards zero, and I not for the first time told myself, quite seriously, that I was done with Michigan once and for all. How had a relationship that had begun as a schoolboy crush become so toxic over the years? It seemed my time had come long ago to terminate such a childish dependence on something so out of my own control for my own well being, but that maybe I had drank my way through those developmental years of college and missed a critical junction somewhere along the way in the process.

I left my sports soul for dead in East Lansing that day, under the red sky of a fading Midwestern Autumn's evening. And I buried that idea known as the Michigan Man right there alongside it. If ever things were to change, it would have to be at the expense of absolutely everything Michigan Football used to be.

And yet. I sit here on the cusp of perhaps the biggest Monday in Michigan Football history, the Old Michigan Football suddenly, unexpectedly seeming not dead after all. Things feel strange almost. Like there are spirits in the air. As if perhaps the ghost of Bo has risen from the graveyard where I used to drunkenly roam as a freshman at Mary Markley Dormitory, risen and issued some prophetic creed to put an end to the disastrous landslide the program had been on seemingly since that very day Bo died, on the eve of the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game in perhaps a century, fittingly. It felt like Bo had come back to issue orders to his former Wolverine quarterback, a man made very much in Bo's image, a man who had hitherto seemed uninterested in returning to take Bo's long vacant place but had heard Bo's voice calling him in his sleep.

What do you when something you buried with your own hands arrives on your doorstep a la The Monkey's Paw? I buried the last Michigan Man I would ever believe in right there in Spartan Stadium, October 25, 2014. And now it's risen from those very grounds and arrived at the gates of Schembechler Hall, a zombie walking. Am I to pretend after all these years, nothing has changed? I should know better.

But here I am: Only some odd weeks removed from the last game of the season, feeling the familiar stirrings of that ever so dangerous idea known as hope. So I couldn't give it up, like I said I would -- it wouldn't be the first time I had been through that.

Because with Jim Harbaugh come home, there may indeed be life, yet - after all those dozens of times I had buried it over the years -life, yet, in the Michigan Football of my boyhood.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Last Thoughts on A Closing Year


I look around for the friends that I used to turn to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
- Jackson Browne, "Running on Empty"

In this most fortunate of years, that in which I finally had the opportunity to live in a house with the guys that I grew up with, it has not eluded me that they, too, are growing older. Growing up, the idea that one day we would be the ones holding down nine to five jobs, that we would be the ones driving into the neighborhood on the way home and interrupting a game of street football in progress, that we would be old, would have been unfathomable to us. Yet Millwood's sons are indeed growing up, and with each passing tick of time's heavy hands it seems that another one of us is taking another great leap into the world of adulthood, be it moving in with a significant other, accepting a new job offer, or just plain old cutting back. I keep them close in mind as another year draws to its close, the lake of our childhood ever fading further into that great void known as the past.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014, A Year in Review

"I buried her a thousand times." 
- Jason Isbell, "Elephant"

Before I started to get too sick on Sundays - sick with withdrawal - Sunday's used to be my day of walking. Walks were my way of battling the depression that inevitably followed heavy drinking binges. As I started in on the road to recovery, my walks became fewer and fewer as I gradually discovered, with awe, the novelty of a Sunday unblemished by booze. Now more than a year sober, they have all but faded into the past. 

An unseasonably warm Sunday today, though, stirred my soul with adventure and nostalgia. I grabbed my car keys and hit the road to Ann Arbor, not thinking much of it. 

In the years following my graduation from Michigan, I walked the streets of Ann Arbor endlessly: sometimes brimming with whiskey on those debaucherous, thinly-veiled attempts to recapture college; sometimes sick with depression in the following days, my heart feeling as if it had been torn open and sewed back in haphazardly, in a way that would never again feel mended. But in the course of these jaunts there was always one street I avoided: Greenwood. Greenwood was the street on which my college girlfriend lived for two years, the place where I slept every single night of my senior year. I couldn't ever bring myself to face it.

When I arrived at my old college house this evening, I paused to look up at the third floor window that I used to inhabit, incredulously thinking about the years that have already passed since that magical time. It was with surprise that I found myself thinking that I wanted to make that walk from my college house to her house on Greenwood one more time. Out of sheer habit I tried to wash my mind of the idea, as in the past my survival instincts would usually kick in at this point and tell me this was a foolish idea; in retrospect it is a testament to my well-being then that for a long time seeing that house would have crippled me. It felt like something I had to do, though: to bury her one final time. 

I walked underneath the tennis shoes strung up on the telephone wires that run along Greenwood Street, feeling like an old man. Inside the windows of those houses were college students who I could no longer identify with, each one of them unaware of the significance of simply walking down that street for the 26 year-old alumni who was walking by on the sidewalk. I paused in front of her house to tie my shoe, as if to double-check - I was supposed to be feeling something. But there was nothing - only the strange realization that a place that once was an integral part of my daily life had been scraped clean of its significance by the sands of time. I walked out of sight of Greenwood's lone streetlight, into the darkness at the end of the street.

It was only while driving home, the cornfields of those few farms in between Ann Arbor and Canton still untouched by modernity's hand passing by, that I realized maybe I wasn't drawn to Ann Arbor to bury her one last time. This time, I had went to finally bury my old self. 


Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Nights are Getting Longer


- Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son

Life's felt a lot like that lately. Like some opium-induced dream. Feels like the type of weather you might sneak out in late at night to sell your soul to the devil at a delta crossroads.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Clapton



When I was in outpatient rehab they told me I was addicted to "mood-altering" - anything that might transport my mind from the status-quo, be it alcohol, pills, caffeine, tobacco, or even sleep. I guess I should have realized as much long ago but it made a lot of sense when I had heard it. I despised the "mood" of status quo, and I had spent years fleeing from it. Still do quite frequently. Yet these days I pretty much limit myself to the tamer mood-altering substances, the ones that won't get me into too much trouble: namely tobacco and caffeine. I think this insight might help explain, too, why I like books so much. Books can take your mind away to a different place for a little while. 

This past Thursday found me on Westbound I-94, driving through a thick night rain, en route to Chicago's city lights. Stocked up next to me in the passenger seat were my go-to mood-altering supplies: a couple cans of Grizzly wintergreen, a 20 oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi, and a good book. Though I still love the taste, tobacco has long ceased to provide me any sort of buzz. And caffeine is just something that gets me through the day. The book I had next to me, though, wouldn't fail me on this night.

Earlier in the week I had ventured to the local library in search of my second audio book. I had just recently discovered a Jack the Ripper audiobook in my parent's basement and, though I didn't particularly enjoy that book, I found the diversion of the audiobook's words far more intriguing - soothing, even - than the utter spam of morning radio during the commute. Wandering through the bookshelf aisles, I had a couple audiobooks in mind: Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (a lesser known Americana travelogue a la Kerouac's On the Road), Stoker's Dracula (I've been halfway-finished with the paper text for over a year, but put it down sometime only to never pick it back up), maybe Mark Twain's biography if I could find it.

When I saw Eric Clapton's self-titled autobiography Clapton, I felt like I had found something I shouldn't have. Like a mischievous kid who had found Christmas presents hidden in his mom's closet. Because Clapton and I had a history together, and I knew the kinds of places his book would take me back to - maybe places better left in the past. But things I shouldn't do have been a specialty of mine throughout my life, so I knew from the moment I saw that audiobook poking out ever so slightly from the shelf, that Clapton would be coming home with me.  

So with two hundred miles in front of me last Thursday night, I popped in the Disc 1 of Clapton and began the slow descent back to the late Fall of 2008, my Junior year in Ann Arbor. 


That period - late Autumn of 2008 through the Winter of 2009 - was one of infatuation for me, as I had become enchanted with a certain Colombian export of the powdered variety. Those were the Hollywood nights of my lifetime, my chapter of Life in the Fast Lane. It wasn't just the drug that appealed to me (though it very much did). There was sort of an underground party scene to it all. I had been immersed in Ann Arbor's party scene, but this was like discovering this whole new layer to it all. Increasing its allure was the fact that my own roommates, pretty heavy drinkers in their own right, told me not to do it.

I remember vividly a secret basement room at the fraternity I hung out at in those days. I had become close enough friends with two guys from Northern Michigan that I got regular invites to those parties with sororities, but never before had I been trusted enough with access to one of the secret chambers of fraternity lore. It was the type of room just dripping with history: black and white photos of fraternity members from the 1900's, pieces of athletic memorabilia that had been pilfered from the university athletic facilities on a pledge mission, Michiganian yearbooks from the 40's, 50's, and 60's, dusty bottles of scotch that hadn't been touched in over thirty years, a mahogany table in the middle of it all. It felt like a walk through history. The heavy smell of leather and oak: you couldn't help but breathe in the magic down there.

Above us on the main floor of the fraternity you could hear hundreds of footsteps dancing. It was the fraternity's annual blowout weekend, Tahitian-style, and the place was packed with a line out the door leading to the sidewalk. The three of us had snuck down to the basement for a little something extra than the jungle juice being served from the coolers upstairs, and maybe for a little bit better of a drink too.

Lines on the mirror, we each took our turns. Doug pulled some glass tumblers from a drawer in the mahogany desk, and we each poured ourselves a glass of Jack Daniels. Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" and "Layla" blaring from the speakers on loop - the definitive soundtrack to those nights, cliched as it was.

We talked about which sorority girls we had our eyes on upstairs, anxious to get back to the party, but not too anxious. We wanted to soak it all in for a while. For a moment, the moment was all that mattered. We felt like Kings.



"It's funny to think," Doug said, swallowing a mouthful of Jack Daniels. "Guys were sitting in this very room, doing the same thing we are doing right now, back in the seventies." The way he said it sounded pretty profound, and in my elevated state of mind I thought I could see Doug's words slipping away into the annals of fraternity lore, to be stowed away with the yearbooks and the photographs and the dusty bottles of scotch, preserved into history in that secret room: "I wonder where those guys are now."

And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.



I arrived in Chicago, the placed I used to call home, at about 10 p.m. But for a while there I had a nice pitstop in Ann Arbor circa 2008.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Somebody That I Used to Know

"Hate Me" - Blue October

Thinking a lot about the past in this week leading up to the 1 year anniversary of my sobriety, that's all.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Losing My Religion

"I don’t know what it feels like to grow up there now. I want these things to disappear from my consciousness, but they won’t. The place where I grew up is gone, and it’s not coming back."
- Michael Weinreb, "Growing Up Penn State: The End of Everything at State College"



The End of Everything in Ann Arbor 

Millwood Village, the place where I grew up, was constructed in 1990. Surrounded by woods in every direction, the quiet subdivision was carved out of the Hines Park woods on the edges of Tonquish Creek, so named for the Indian chief who was slaughtered by white pioneers in those very woods. My parents were not alone in 1990 when they thought the newly-constructed suburban haven a good place to raise a burgeoning family. In fact, there were about five recently-wed new parents that moved into that neighborhood at the same time, all of them, seemingly, the parents of boys. Naturally those boys became my playmates in time, and later on they became the guys I "grew up with," some of which I now live with.

Those woods surrounding Millwood, it seemed, sheltered us from much of the outside world in more ways than one. I never once saw a police car in Millwood. The neighborhood was brand new, meaning that no old people lived there and nobody ever died there. I remember discovering in middle school and high school that many of my classmates' parents were "divorced" - a theretofore foreign word to my vocabulary. No one's parents in Millwood ever got divorced, you see, and marriage, to us boys who grew up in Millwood's woods, was not only an inevitable prospect of life, but an infallible structure of family.

The thing about growing up sheltered, though, is the tragedy of emerging from that shell. Eventually the reality of the world becomes obvious to all of us, but to those of us raised in neighborhoods of naivety, the process of accepting that shattered reality is all the more painful. To someone who was raised by divorced parents, for instance, the idea of marriage might not sound that appetizing. To someone like me, raised in a neighborhood where divorce simply did not comprise a part of our world, marriage is the only thing, and divorce is, well, unfathomable. It took me two years to get over a relationship in which marriage was the mutually agreed upon destination, and I have my own amateur-psychological conclusions (when it takes you two years to get over something, you pretty much exhaust all theoretical analysis of said something) regarding how my childhood in Millwood affected my inability to accept failed love.

'Tis a sad thing, after all, to watch something that you believed in crumble. But it is sadder, yet, to watch something which you thought was incapable of breaking crumble. Such is the tragedy of the Michigan Football fan.

Michigan Football was a lot like Millwood Village to me growing up: nothing existed outside of it, and if something did, that something didn't matter much. If two-parent households with two-car garages were the one pillar of life I was subconsciously conditioned to believe in as a boy, then the divine mandate of Michigan as a perpetual power atop the Big Ten was the other pillar. In accordance with such a vision, I grew up believing in the infallibility of Michigan's head football coach - a figurehead that seemed to me more mythological deity than man. I believed that the annual rites of Autumn included nine to ten wins, at minimum, and that Midwestern seasonal change was not defined by the first snowfall but by The Game, pitting Michigan against Ohio State in a clash of titanic powers to decide the Big Ten championship. Michigan Football was the only thing. An infallible thing. Over the past several years, though, I've watched all of those tightly-held beliefs from my childhood rupture and split, one by one. 

The Minnesota game at the Big House was a new low in a relationship already studded with them. Several people close to me could not understand when I told them that watching the Minnesota game live from the bleachers of the Big House was my lowest ever moment in Michigan Stadium. Undoubtedly Appalachian State was worse, they countered. And it's true there are a handful of games I've attended in Ann Arbor that seem unrivaled in agony, on the surface. I was there for Appalachian State, being on the wrong side of the greatest upset in college football history, the day Lloyd Carr lost that aforementioned deity status in my mind. I was present at the Horseshoe in Columbus in 2008 when we lost by 35 to Ohio State, capping my Junior year and the single worst season in Michigan Football history to date. I was there for my final home game as a student in 2009, when we lost once again to Ohio State, when I sat for a long time afterwards in the stadium reflecting sadly on the prospect that I would never again enter Michigan Stadium as a student, but mostly reflecting on the fact that I would forever be saddled with the burden of having never beaten our arch rivals during my four years as a student. 

Yet there was always the glimmer of hope in those days. There was 'Lloyd Carr is past his prime,' to 'Rich Rod will lead us back to glory' to 'Rich Rod was a mistake and we just need a Michigan Man to Lead us back to glory'. Perhaps we Michigan fans, especially those of us raised in the sheltered decades under Bo and Lloyd, were so conditioned to believe in the just righteousness of Michigan Football as a Big Ten power that it would take more than one cycle on the merry-go-round through college football hell to break us.

Sitting in the stadium against Minnesota, I didn't have any preconceptions about "what" that game was, anymore. My team was no different than a myriad of other college programs that had fallen into irrelevance over the years. My stadium was no longer hallowed grounds but now just another giant advertisement with pre-packaged pop songs blaring through the speakers. And the "Michigan Man" walking the sidelines was just another guy wearing long pants who was underqualified to perform his job. Not only that, but the institution that I at one time thought so highly of that I literally devoted my entire high school life towards getting accepted into, was just another bureaucratic institution - one so caught up in its own elitism that it doomed one good football coach before he even started just because he was an "outsider", one too proud to admit that it had made a mistake and played a kid who had clearly suffered a concussion, and one that can't even lure its own alumni from San Fransisco to come coach here.

Michigan Football is Santa Claus to me now. Something that meant something a long time ago. There will always be Christmas, but deep down I know that scientifically-speaking it's nothing more than another goddamn day.

We're 2-4. And I'm running out of things to believe in.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fall


"But when Fall comes, it stays a while like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since he last saw you. 
It stays on through October and, in rare years, on into November. Day after day the skies are a clear, hard blue, and the clouds that float across them, always west to east, are calm white ships with gray keels. The wind begins to blow by the day, and it is never still. It hurries you along as you walk the roads, crunching the leaves that have fallen in mad and variegated drifts. The wind makes you ache in some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul. 
And you can stand on your stoop or in your dooryard at mid afternoon and watch the cloud shadows rush across Griffen's pasture and up on Schoolyard Hill, light and dark, light and dark, like the shutters of the gods being opened and closed. You can see the golden rod, that most tenacious and pernicious and beauteous of all New England flora, bowing away from the wind like a great and silent congregation. And if there are no cars or planes, and no one's Uncle John is out in the wood lot west of town banging away at a quail or pheasant, you can hear another sound, and that is the sound of life winding down to its cyclic close, waiting for the first winter snow to perfrom last rites."

- Stephen King
Salem's Lot

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Personal History of The Horror (or Appalchian State)

An Exercise in Either Self-Loathing or (more optimistically) Catharsis


Since 2007, I've learned that the most painful things in life are often those that are the most unexpected, the ones that hit you like a brick from seemingly out of the blue: deaths, breakups, bad news. But on September 1, 2007, I was but a naive young sophomore, and I didn't know any of that. I was soon about to take my first dose of that bitter pill. To understand the agony the prevailed in the late afternoon and then well into the night September 1, 2007, you have to first understand the bliss I awoke to that morning.

September 1, 2007.
6:30 a.m.  

After celebrating the carefree daze of a welcome week Friday night well into the whiskey hours of the morning (the Greenwood block party is, or was, traditionally held on the Friday of Welcome week), my alarm clock woke me much too early given the previous night's events. Yet thoughts of neither sleep-deprivation nor of a hangover plagued me that morning, as what I anticipated to be a triumphant football season was upon us that day. Hence I stumbled through the fraternity hallway - the semester had yet to start, but it was already filthy from a week's worth of fraternity revelry - to my good friend Andy's room to rouse him as well. We cracked our first beers with unspoken glee, knowing the day we had waited several grueling months for was upon us, and hastily showered and dressed. During our freshman year, our initiation into tailgating culture commenced at a neighboring fraternity, where we came to idolize a certain southern fraternity guy - an unforgettable tailgating hero - who dressed in gameday oxford and tie and generally put on a debaucherous show for passersby from what was known as "The Ledge". Determined to emulate our idol, Andy and I donned our southern gameday dress, performed our ritual pregame superstitions which we had started practicing as roommates in the dorms the previous year, and toasted our beers, downing what would be the last indoor beverages of the day.

7:15 a.m.
And so we waltzed out onto the fraternity porch, a sprawling porch that virtually looked out onto the entire undergraduate campus, and climbed atop our fraternity's ledge. The first tailgate song of the day playing from the speakers - the song selection probably governed by our newfound taste in country music, to round out the fraternity cliche we were living in - we glanced out onto State Street, almost entirely empty in the calm before the storm. Football season was upon us, but the weather was no indication. The sun barely yet overhead, it was already baking down upon a fraternity lawn that in three shorts hours would look unrecognizably decimated. The beautiful September dawn reflected the state of my soul quite aptly. I was immensely happy. Not just that in the moment kind of happy, but truly, genuinely happy: with my environs, my social life, my academic life, my relationship-life (or lack thereof, as the idea was then).

Andy and I prided ourselves on being the first tailgaters awake and governing the fraternity porches that entire season, and I'll never regret the hours of sleep we lost doing so. There was something magical about that pre-pre game, when we were alone in the strange quiet of the early morning, waiting for the other hardcore tailgaters to arrive prior to 8:00 a.m., knowing that in a matter of hours tens of thousands of people would be flooding State Street through a parade of deafening music, red solo cups, and Greek debauchery. But there was never anything like that first game: there's something strangely magical about The Possible on the eve of a brand new college football season. And the 2007 Michigan Football season, make no mistake, was supposed to be a magical one for our Wolverines. Michigan had went 11-0 heading into The Game the previous season during my freshman year, and perhaps but for a bone-headed personal foul call late in the Fourth Quarter, could have been on its way to the National Championship. Michigan returned its stars on offense, including Chad Henne, Mario Manningham, and Mike Hart - who, by the way, appeared on the Sports Illustrated cover of the college football preseason edition only days earlier. In other words, losing on this particular day seemed unfathomable.

9:30 a.m.
 If Southern tailgates are known for their tradition and class, Big Ten tailgates are known for their binge-drinking atmosphere. Especially as the season meanders into late October and early November, the frigid temperatures force Northern schools to play almost exclusively day games throughout much of the college football season. At Michigan and a majority of Big Ten schools, this means a solid portion of the games are noon kickoffs. On Greek Row on Ann Arbor's state street, these noon tailgates are taken as a sort of challenge, if you will, to consume the most amount of alcohol in such a short tailgating time frame.  And that's sort of how most of my tailgating days at Michigan went.

My fraternity that year partnered with the Delta Gamma sorority for tailgates, and I knew many of the girls as me and a couple other buddies worked in the DG kitchen as bus boy's (see: slaves) that year. The sororities are notoriously late-arriving to tailgates, but State Street on a Football Saturday is truly a beautiful thing once the sororities converge en masse to the various fraternity houses. It's then that the party really starts: the drinking games, the speakers blaring into the streets, the dancing on ledges. The entire scene is a remarkable portrait of the joy of late youth - that burdenless, liberated, carefree time that is so fleeting. And those select Saturday's from that Fall were some of the most purely fun days of my life, days that just can never be recreated.

12:00 Noon
Prior to the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Ann Arbor, students were still very much concerned with actually making it to football games, albeit sometimes well after kickoff. Though I hated the prospect of leaving the tailgate, I still prided myself as a devout Michigan fan, and somehow managed to stumble my way over to the Big House every Saturday. I remember feeling very hot as I finally found my seats in the student section, as the last vestiges of a Michigan summer were in full display. I think I remember that moment because it so highlights my disbelief that an actual game - a competitive one - was about to unfold.

It's funny, too, that I remember that pre-kickoff moment, because I don't remember much of the game at all. Whether that is a result of the countless beers and jello shouts I had consumed in the previous four hours or the result of a long, long subconscious purge of the memory from my brain, I am not entirely sure - probably a little of both. But I remember knowing before all of the other students in the student section that we were going to lose. I was, after all, more experienced in this Michigan football thing than most of the other students, many of whom hailed from different states and were not lifelong fans, and as I was a more seasoned Michigan fan, I was naturally a pessimist when it came to my team. And then Appalachian State blocked the field goal, and Michigan Football as I had known it was never the same. I was never really the same.

I grew up thinking that 10 win seasons were a way of life. Though I didn't know it at the time, Appalachian State taught me a lot about life - about how things change, even things you think are fixed in place.

I don't assume things anymore. Not in football, not in life. 


4:00 p.m. - ?

As any Michigan football fan who came of age in the nineties, I grew up spoiled by gridiron success. And like many of my peers in that demographic, I had grown quite unsatisfied with what was known as "Lloyd-Ball" - characterized by Lloyd Carr's ultraconservative style of play - in the early aughts as The Rise of Jim Tressel was underway in Columbus. September 1, 2007 was the death knell for Lloyd Carr. Needing a primary scapegoat after the game, I drunkenly took to social media to express my disgust with Carr's waning coaching abilities. At some point that year I even changed my Facebook profile pic to a picture of LSU's Les Miles, advocating for Miles - who had Michigan roots - to return home to Ann Arbor and lead us back to glory (I even got a request from the LSU student newspaper for an interview about Miles' potential return to Michigan). But as most Michigan fans learned in the confusing hours after that game, social media was not a place I wanted to be that day; Michigan State fans were brutal as they basked in the schadenfreude, and I soon discovered that other football games would not be a distraction either, as not a one broadcast could be found that wasn't working in an Appalachian State highlight at some point. If the reality of the loss hadn't yet set in, it was in this way - browsing social media, and flipping through the sports networks on television - that the gravity of our loss sunk in. So a full scale media blackout was my only recourse, and I don't think I was alone amongst Michigan fans in being eager to get back to classes that week.

In my efforts to avoid any sort of contact with the world outside of a very depressed Ann Arbor, I ended up on the fraternity lawn drinking whatever leftovers remained from the tailgate - I didn't care what I was drinking, as long as it would kill some brain cells. And the rest is a blur, though I know I ended up at the fraternity next door drinking with some dudes there. Perhaps surprisingly, turning to the bottle that day actually seemed to work, as the rest of that day has melted into a collective blur in my memory.

August 30, 2014
I spent most of August - usually a time of great anticipation for me, as Michigan football looms - decrying the decision to schedule a rematch with Appalachian State. I wanted no part of the replays of that game - replays I had fairly successfully avoided for several years - that would undoubtedly be brought back out of the ESPN archives this Saturday, or the radio talkshow mockery of the game, or of that painful memory of the most embarrassing day in Michigan Football history. I told myself I didn't even have interest in going to the game.

But the funny thing is, as I sit here on this Friday before the game, I find myself feeling very nostalgic for a place that I have now long moved away from, for a time, for those people at those tailgates who have since departed from my life. I find myself wishing I could go back to September 1, 2007.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Ghosts of Millwood

 "It is autumn, as you know, and things are beginning to die. It is so wonderful to be out in the crisp fall air, with the leaves turning gold and the grass turning brown, and the warmth going out of the sunlight and big hot fires in the fireplace while Buddy rakes the lawn. We see a lot of bombs on TV because we watch it a lot more, now that the days get shorter and shorter, and darkness comes so soon, and all the flowers die from freezing."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Elko



Returning to the neighborhood of my youth after an extended absence has always conjured strange feelings for me. In college, it was the shock of two entirely divergent atmospheres that I called home juxtaposed - the debaucherous, collegial world of Ann Arbor on the one hand, and the quiet wilderness of Millwood Village, which suddenly seemed a retirement home community dotted with my childhood friends' parents, comparatively. From Chicago, Millwood opened its welcoming arms to me as I returned home with nowhere else to turn, but those welcoming arms were not the arms I had once known; perplexed, I came to find the boys I had run those yards with were no longer boys at all, maybe not quite old men yet but something different, something forever changed.

A different chapter closing is what has brought me home to Millwood this week. For a few months those aforementioned boys I had run Millwood's yards with and I lived together in a house in suburban Garden City, and as that chapter closes it is with sad clarity I know we will never again all be in the same household like that, for various reasons, be it fallings out or moving in with girlfriends or going separate ways.

The last week of summer in Millwood was always a time of palpable change growing up, and it's no different as I return now. I sat out on the back patio one of these nights, watching the fireflies dancing through the trees in the backwoods and swatting at the thousands of mosquitos birthed in the nearby Rouge River: the mosquitos and the fireflies - the perpetual life forms of summer in Millwood. The shouts of children still at play in the distance, too, foretold that school's early curfew was still a few days away.

Yet you could feel Autumn looming. Neighborhood garage sales seemed to symbolize a feeling of change pervading the neighborhood, and I saw more than one of my neighbor's packing up the family car as the next kid was being shipped out of the neighborhood and off to college. My sister, too, is off, for her sophomore year, which shocked me into the reminder that I was no longer a sophomore in college; sophomore year seems like maybe three years ago, tops, but the fact that I am seven years older than my sister reminded me just how long ago sophomore year was -- strange indeed.

What felt the strangest, though, was watching the kids playing in the Millwood streets, watching the recent high school grads pack the cars for college, and knowing that none of those faces were mine or the guys I grew up with in that neighborhood, anymore. For the first time in my life, it felt, the inaugural class of Millwood's children no longer had any sort of imprint on that neighborhood. The marks we had left in those streets had all been paved over by fresh coats of concrete, the carvings of our initials in the trees in the woods had all faded with fresh layers of bark. Usually, at the very least, you could find one of your old friend's cars parked in their parents' driveway, but not so, this time around. We had all left Millwood, for good, it seemed this time around. And I guess that's when I realized: the Millwood Chapter of my life is permanently over; there's no returning home after college for all of us this time.

And so in more than one way, it feels like this week is at home is a goodbye of sorts: to a house, to the guys I shared that house with, to the times we had in those walls, to another chapter. A farewell, too, to this summer, the summer that will undoubtedly go down as the summer that changed everything, in so many ways. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Back to Chicago

I'm makin' my way back to Chicago
I'm makin' my way come rain or shine
I'm gonna find true love waiting for me
I'm gonna make it all work out for good this time
- Styx

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Windy City



Part I

I had just returned to Chicago from a much smaller pocket of the Midwest - from my cousin's funeral. I had returned to the town of my early years in a way I never could have imagined: to see my cousin Joel laid to rest. Now there would be no way of saying what I was never capable of saying before. Growing up, he had played a crucial character in my story - that of slightly elder kin, the kind you idolize from the get-go. The lasting memories of my late cousin conjured up images of summers past in Northern Michigan at my aunt and uncle's cottage on Burt Lake, those summers growing up that are pivotal in a boy's life. In the untamed wilderness of Petoskey, Joel showed me how to skip stones across a morning lake, taught me how to ask out a girl from class, gave me my first cigarette from out of his sock behind the cottage shed. It seemed tragic but fitting that he died up there.

That Winter I was struggling to keep my head above water. After graduating from Michigan the previous Spring, I moved to the big city after a summer in Petoskey and suddenly found myself living away from my home state for the first time, hundreds of miles from my family and friends and girlfriend. The rigors of a first year law curriculum and a mean streak of a Winter, even by the Windy City's standards, weighed heavy on my shoulders like eight inches of snowfall on a dilapidated rooftop.

Amidst the turmoil that winter, I relied heavily on a combination of the Detroit Red Wings and the bottle. Yet the substance that had provided the answers to all of my problems in my collegiate endeavors suddenly was yielding more equations than solutions. As if set to clockwork upon college commencement, my body was no longer a willing participant in an exceedingly dependent relationship. What had heretofore been a love affair with Jack Daniels of internal unwavering suddenly had reached a domestic crossroads of biblical proportions, and in my twenty-two year old innocence, I hadn't the vaguest of notions as to how to grapple with real world issues, let alone one of this magnitude. But that collective storm disappeared the minute I heard the news about Joel.

As it turned out, I was sucking down whiskey sours in one of the nameless taverns in the gaslight district of Chicago's nightlife when Joel embarked on an ill-fated snowmobile excursion into the Petoskey woods that Friday night. I awoke in a daze early the next morning to a phone call from my Mother. I immediately suspected the worst; it was one of those phone calls too early in the morning to be anything but tragic news. My roommates still sound asleep, I sobbed quietly in that early morning silence before my Mom could finish a sentence. The phone call rocked me to my core. I stared out the tenth floor living room window into the Chicago dawn, the streets eerily empty as a fresh dusting of snow fell from the coalsmoke sky. My emotions crippled, I did the only thing I knew how: I reached into the refrigerator and poured myself a tall glass of whiskey and went to town. I emptied the bottle and didn't bother to sober up until I stepped onto the bus bound for home the following day.

By the time of the funeral three days later, the tears had yet to cease, but I knew I owed half of those tears to the fact that my hands were still shaking from what I was gradually beginning to recognize, undeniably this time, as the first inklings of alcohol withdrawal. When I looked into Joel's casket for the last time, I felt guilty as hell. I held up my trembling hands to his lifeless body, as if to show him; it was a plea for help, I realize now, one that I would be unable to mouth to any of the still breathing relatives gathered in that funeral home for some time to come. Maybe I needed Joel to hear it first. One thing was certain: this thing had become serious at last.

My girlfriend and family bade me a somber goodbye at the bus stop, the expectation of me being that I, like anyone who has ever attended a funeral, would move on. And back under the familiar shadows of the skyscrapers of Chicago, I tried to do just that. As I walked eastbound, however - down Jackson towards the law school building in the Loop - visions of Joel played on in my head with no pause button. As young deaths are wont to do, Joel's funeral had left me with a shocking dose of mortality. He was just a kid, not much older than I was. His funeral served as a stark reminder that even someone as young as he could cease to exist, without warning.

I had spent a good chunk of that bus ride from Ann Arbor to Chicago staring out the window at the passing Michigan countryside, pondering the gravity of my decision to embark upon a career in the legal field. I had succeeded in half-assing my way through my own reservations during the first semester in a haze of self-indulgent adventure in this exciting new place, which temporarily muted the nagging voice over my shoulder whispering premonitions of one grave mistake. With Joel's death in the rearview mirror, it was no longer a question of whether I had taken the wrong trail diverged in the wood, but whether or not I should get back on the trail I had chosen at all. As I entered the business hub of downtown Chicago, I felt tears welling up in my eyes once again. I was in over my head.

The Loop buzzed with Chicagoan energy as I made my way downtown. It felt strange that while my life had come to an utter stop during the previous several days, Chicago's urban motor continued to churn without missing a beat. Round-the-clock coffee brewed through tin pipelines into the cups of drowsy urbanites; underground the red and blue lines rumbled and paused, opening their doors to relinquish subway passengers, only to rumble forth again; at street level an endless brigade of honking taxicabs and police sirens polluted the airwaves unabated; and revolving doors at the feet of great skyscrapers swallowed up and spit out the nine-to-five crowd as if synced to the hands of some omnipotent clock tower. Chicago was ever moving. Yet there was no denying the fundamental change in scenery that had taken place within me: Chicago looked a little bleaker, smokier, darker even.

Thousands of people clogged the arteries of the city streets, cramped together side by side on narrow sidewalks, yet an odd feeling of isolation hung in the air. The roar of the winds and the sirens made the countless cell phone conversations in progress inaudible. Wool scarves wrapped around frost-nipped ears and fur parkas strung tightly against rosy cheeks disguised individual faces into one indistinguishable conglomerate of flesh.  In this mecca of capitalism, I felt disconnected from the city-goers around me - emotionally, spiritually, physically - to a degree I hadn't experienced on any previous foray into the city. As a crosswalk blinked from red to green, I fell into step with the rest of the masses, realizing that not one of these people knew about my personal tragedy, and not one of them cared. We were a community in name only, I'd sadly come to comprehend.

For once, the law school building looked welcoming. I pressed the eleven button on the elevator car and rode upwards with the hope of escaping my own head by means of delving into the great quagmire of contracts law. Still, upon entering the law auditorium, the sight of my fellow students only further plunged me into my own dark rabbit hole. Here congregated bright minds who needed only coffee for their conquests, looking dapper and genuinely enthused for life and law, chatting away within their individual law school cliques. How did they all look like so self-assured?

When my 1L year of law school began that Autumn, I was more stuck on the loss of my college buddies than I was intent on making any new friends; consequently I had managed to become somewhat of a lone wolf in my law school environment. This made the pre-lecture minutes of socializing and gossiping an anxious block of time for me. I resented them in their North Face coats, Ugg boots, immaculately groomed hairstyles, freshly-pressed sport coats, and striped ties, even if I couldn't pinpoint why I resented them. The exuberant chatter, the eagerness to discuss caselaw as the professor strode arrogantly down the aisle, the perfectly-crafted notes spilling out of briefcases - it all seemed to me some unjust conspiracy in my own misery.

Compounding the usual anxiety was the fact that, in my drunken haste to book a ticket home for Joel's funeral, I hadn't bothered to notify my professor's of my circumstances. It simply didn't register as important at the time, but it now triggered the fear of being cold-called during lecture and the corresponding embarrassment of revealing a lack of preparation to a lecture hall full of ever-prepared personalities. My usual routine consisted of riding out the inevitable hangover of Sunday and Monday and then cramming a week's worth of class preparation into a one hour time slot prior to class. In between the binge, the withdrawal, and the grieving, though, I hadn't bothered this time around. Instead I said a silent prayer asking that the professor call on any other unsuspecting victim, and, although this too was a customary part of the usual routine, I prayed with the religious fervor of an inner-city preacher this time time around.

It had been two days since my last drop of alcohol. And while leftover anxiety from the withdrawal still lingered, I thought I had cleared the physical hurdle of digestive torment and the slightly trembling hands. That is, until the nausea collapsed on me in a hot flash.

In my perpetual battle against the symptoms wrought by the come-down stages of weekend binges, I had swallowed a multivitamin prior to departing for class, thinking - inexplicably - that one daily dose of vitamins might compensate wholly for another weekend's worth of bodily abuse. From previous experience I instantly recognized the nausea as my body's rejection of the foreign vitamins to my system. I had scarcely touched any food in the past couple days, and it was not uncommon for vitamins to come back up on an empty stomach. I barely made it to the men's room before I started dry-heaving rancid-tasting particles of vitamins into a toilet.

Literally brought to my knees, I crouched over that toilet bowl feeling rotten with guilt. I thought I could feel the presence of my cousin's ghost in that stall with me at that moment, whispering solemnly but with that reassuring smile: You can hide it from the others, but you can't hide it from me anymore, pal. You need some help. I wanted to apologize to Joel right then, for letting him down at his funeral, for being unable to live the life he could have lived if he was still here. I wanted to tell him about how, when I first heard the news, I broke down in tears and listened to "No More Buffalo" on repeat. I wanted to confide to him how much those summers on Burt Lake truly meant to me. I wanted to explain to him how I wished we had stayed closer over the years, too. I glanced up from the toilet, as if to look over my shoulder for him. But I was painfully and utterly alone. And therein lay the problem.

The plight of an addict is an alleyway lined with gothic gargoyle statues, jagged black tree branches overflowing with barking crows, rusty metal fence posts, and prophesying black cats lurking behind trash cans. That road is lined with moments, too, not unlike the one in which I found myself thrust upon inside that bathroom stall. It is a moment of bitter truth that forces you to come face to face with your demons, demons which appear with maniacal eyes like haunted visages of your latest bender to remind you just how far off the rails things have come, with no hope of ever turning back.

Clutching the side of that cold porcelain toilet in the men's room of my law school complex mere moments prior to class, my eyes watering desperately, and staring into a toilet bowl stewing with recently-projectiled bile and undigested vitamin fragments - that was one of those moments: a moment of brief clarity when there was no denying the face staring back at me from bowels of that toilet bowl. I was an addict. And I would face down my demons. I had to face down those demons. And in that moment I knew, instinctively, that Joel was in that stall with me. And I knew, too, that Joel would be there beside me as I faced such demons.



While those moments of clarity on that treacherous road of addiction are indeed numerous, as any addict knows all too well, they are also fleeting. And it is the fleetingness of such moments that fuel denial, allowing the addict to move on uninhibited for his suffering. Because while I could feel the enormity of the bottle crashing down on me in that moment, and even see, too, the face of my torment staring back at me from the bathroom mirror, only minutes later I could stroll out the bathroom door, aided by eye drops and mouthwash kept on hand for such very occasions, return to my seat in the law school auditorium, and submerge myself into my contracts law text book in fact feeling all the more composed than I had upon first entering the law building. In a matter of minutes the professor commenced the Socratic method and my mind wandered off to the mysterious realm of caselaw. By the end of Hawkins v. McGee, I had nearly washed my mind of the bathroom incident entirely. Further, when it became clear that I had escaped the call of the Socratic method for another day, my anxiety dissipated like the aroma of an apple pie drifting out an open window on a sun-kissed Spring afternoon. Such an escape liberated my soul, and by the end of class I had even begun romanticizing the warm, soothing sensation of a Winter evening's cocktail.

From a disconnected or retrospective vantage point, it is easy to see the insanity of such cyclical thinking. But on the road of addiction it is nigh impossible to see the trees for the forest. The landscape of an addict's mind can change in an instant.

As I exited the law school building into the snow-packed terrain of The Loop, the epicenter of Chicago's business district, a weight appeared to have been lifted from the cityscape. Over the course of my Conracts Law lecture, the five o'clock rush hour had come and gone unnoticed. The city's business men and women had all retreated to the comfort of their townhouses on the North Side or their condominiums in the suburbs, leaving a barren landscape in the dark of the city night that looked less burdened, free even. It was in that post-supper dusk period that Chicago's streets opened up, paving the way for the underbelly of Chicago's alter-identity - it's nightlife. The possibilities waiting down each and every empty avenue seemed endless.

Traveling on foot, I bypassed the subway entrance leading a flight of stairs underground, as I often did when the weather relented, foregoing the squalid, cramped atmosphere of mass transit for the cleansing solitude provided by the mile-long walk back to my apartment in Greektown. In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle I had encountered only hours earlier, Chicago's streets now resembled an urban wasteland, void of life in the dead of an arctic Winter. Momentarily the scene brought me back to the Millwood woods of my youth, where we used to drag our toboggans across trails hidden beneath heavy snow, our adolescent bodies laboring under a canvas of treetops drooping with icicles after a recent snowstorm.

Chicago stared back at me from its shops and alleys alongside the Jackson street sidewalk: some Italian immigrant looked up from a pizzeria window as he sprinkled red pepper flakes over the grease topping a freshly baked pizza pie; two vagrants in tattered clothing huddled over a trashcan fire in an alley, one of them swigging from a plastic bottle enclosed in a brown paper bag and then handing it off to his partner. Friends and Seinfeld and Law and Order episodes glowed blue from television sets high up in apartment lofts, the distance that prevented any diagnosis of which shows played from which windows being of inconsequential significance. If this was the American dream, it certainly looked lonely.

Onward I walked over the bridge that rose above the Chicago River. Just beyond the river, the golden clock tower of my apartment building rose into sight from the West, shining like a Draculean full moon guiding me home. I paused along the bridge to look down into the river. The Chicago River dissected the cityscape like a fault line ruptured from an earthquake, but frozen over it looked tame and impotent. Underneath the bridge, miniature cyclones of dusted snow spun aimlessly atop the frozen river surface. The icy waters stood still, as directionless as my life felt in the eerie calm of that winter night.

I couldn't make sense of it all. Only a year ago, everything seemed to make sense. In Ann Arbor back then, my girlfriend, my best friends, and my school were all within a fifteen minute walking distance of my college house, that cozy place on State Street that never failed to feel like home on a cold winter's evening during my senior year. Now, a hundred miles from anything that I had ever cared about, I couldn't seem to relocate that feeling of home in Chicago.

I hastened my pace, knowing that serenity awaited me at the corner liquor store outside my apartment building. I walked onward to the West, bought a bottle of gin, and went searching for that feeling of home in the bottom of a bottle.

o

Joel and I would face down those demons, but it would be another day. The road I was traveling may have been treacherous, with a number of twists and bends up ahead, but it would be many exits before I would reach any sort of impasse. Until I got there, I like to think that Joel was watching over me all the while, keeping an eye on every mile marker along the way.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Letter to a Friend


I've been there, my friend. And I hope someday you'll be able to look back and know that even the gates of Hell serve a purpose.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Moon Cycle of World Cups


"The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills"
- Charles Bukowski


Where were you that summer of 2010? I was a 22 year old college graduate, a boy on the precipice of a man's world, though I didn't know it then. As the sporting world's eyes turn to Brazil - an enchanting land that seems at once both ancient and modern - on the eve of another World Cup, it's with wonder that I realize it really has been four years since that last one. I guess sometimes you get so caught up in the feeling that nothing ever happens in those monotonous days, weeks, and months, that the years begin to stack up like old beer cans quicker than you'd ever realized.

I remember the last one quite well. The soccer took place in South Africa, yet it was the World Cup of Petoskey for me. My college buddy Doug and I's paths crossed in Petoskey that summer, and its with him that I best remember the 2010 World Cup. While Doug and I found ourselves similarly situated not only geographically but also in life trajectory that summer, we had taken very different paths to get there.

Doug could have risen straight from the pages of The Nick Adam's Stories. Like Hemingway's autobiographical protagonist, Doug was the son of a Petoskey doctor and was raised with all the benefits of a life in the upper crust of Up North society, namely its sporting culture and its illustrious bodies of water. Where Nick Adams had the privacy of Walloon Lake, Doug was raised in a pillared Victorian home that literally looked down upon Little Traverse Bay - the enormity of Lake Michigan seeming visually an extension of his immaculately manicured back yard. From Petoskey's harbors he left home for the University of Michigan, where our paths first crossed, and where he fittingly rushed the same conservatively-attired fraternity that President Ford rushed during his own time in Ann Arbor.

At Michigan we shared the irrevocable bond of those late nights in fraternity basements fueled by Adderall and Jim Beam, jamming out to Widespread Panic and discussing campus lore long after the other party-goers had fizzled out. Now, both freshly-minted college graduates overflowing with the sort of false self-confidence produced by modern collegiate lifestyles and fraternity culture, we had both converged on Petoskey for the summer with no intentions of seriously facing the real world or leaving the party behind. He had returned that summer to idle leisurely at his parents' country club and invite the fraternity brothers up for weekends of revelry. I had moved up there with my college sweetheart into her parents' empty cabin of a home in the woods in some half-hearted plan to take the next step in life and spent most of my days reading Hemingway and taking strolls to Walloon Lake, thinking I might come across Nick Adams' ghost in the woods or that I might find Hemingway's muse. And while Doug and I's summers were very different in that way, we shared an aimlessness in our wanderings in that neither of us seemed to really know what we were doing. At any rate, our directionless paths seemed to converge for a week or two as a result of that summer's World Cup.

A soccer-enthusiast, Doug invited me into town to watch the World Cup at his house, and, with no other pressing obligations to fill my days, I naturally made my way out of the woods down the gravel roads towards the bluffs of Little Traverse Bay where Doug's house was nestled, despite my heretofore lack of interest in the sport whatsoever. We sat around in luxurious leather sofas eating cheese slices and drinking cheap beer on weekday afternoons. In between games we soaked up the Northern rays by the poolside, grilling burgers, sipping margaritas, throwing back beers, acting not unlike the way we did on our State Street front lawns the previous years in Ann Arbor. We were kings, it seemed, feeling atop Jay Gatsby's metaphorical mountain for a moment.

Four years later, those idyllic Petoskey days seem but a dream to me now. In the four years since, life has happened. If Petoskey that summer was my glimpse of the King's side of life, the four years since have been a crash course in the peasant's side of it all, chalk full of failures and loss and struggle. I can count the number of times I've seen Doug in the four years since the last World Cup on one hand, and that is a testament to how oblivious we were to the changes awaiting us like a brick wall around the next bend in life; I didn't even think to say goodbye to Doug that summer. The last I heard he was enrolled in golf school in some sun-kissed Florida town, and somehow I know that he too saw his fair share of bumps in the road in the years since.

Yet as the 2014 World Cup commences, it seems those days, too - the most difficult ones- have passed. I've gained a lot in the four years since the Petoskey summer: a law degree, sobriety, the wisdom of the road of excess. I've lost things, too: a cousin, my innocence, first love, grand plans laid out for life. When I think about the 2010 World Cup I don't just think about the matches played by the United States or about the Spaniards' dominance. I think about college friends and time's inexorable march and the people and places that get tossed aside in its wake. Time moves so fast, I've learned, that the years slip away, like falling leaves.

I think about what I didn't know then. How I failed to grasp that the mirage of Jay Gatsby's world was only a mask to his only real ambition in life: love. About how I took it for granted then. And how it feels to find it again. And it's crazy to think how cyclical the world is: the sun always falling back to the horizon at the end of the day, the crescent moon always filling out into its full golden self, the ocean breakers ever being sucked back into the surf, children always moving out of the neighborhood eventually, the leaves falling in Autumn, finding yourself back into the place you are supposed to be four years later. And for all the nooks and crannies I've found myself lost in during the past four years, wisdom teaches me that it's better the second time around.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Garden City





"Hunter and John [Belushi] both shared a sense of possibility, and they seemed to have no limits. There was no Governor of the night. It was like being off on adventures with Huck and Tom - everything was possible."
- Gonzo: a Hunter S. Thompson Biography

There are the books that change your life - Kerouac's On the Road, Krakauer's Into the Wild, Dylan's Chronicles Volume I, and Christopher Kennedy's Moments of Clarity notably come to mind as the game-changers. And there are people who change your life - friends and lovers, brothers and cousins, Springsteen and Hemingway. And I guess Gonzo: a Hunter S. Thompson Biography yields a pinch of each of those ingredients.

Hunter S. Thompson was one of those rare individuals who outlived and will continue to outlive his own death. People gravitated towards Thompson, whether they had read his work or knew his fame or not. His larger-than-life personality rubbed off on those around him. He trail-blazed through the literary world to the extent that his writing established an entirely new literary genre known today as "gonzo journalism," the premise of which puts the writer in front of the actual journalistic subject in terms of storyline. Such "gonzo" journalism elicited countless imitators but no equals, to date. Hunter frequently walked into the offices of Rolling Stone magazine - his place of employment for years - and breathed life into rooms long bogged down by coffee and the tedium of work days, leaving the office inhabitants speechless, terrified, and above all never soon to forget the wake of Hunter S. Thompson.

The Gonzo biography recounts how the actor Bill Murray, after playing the role of Thompson in the 1980 film Where the Buffalo Roam, couldn't shake Thompson's character and mechanisms for well after the cameras had stopped rolling and the film crew had shut down. It is said that Murray often fell back into Thompson's character for years afterwards, and that if you look closely enough you can see Hunter re-emerging in Murray's acting during particular Saturday Night Live broadcasts and even during filmings of other movies, most identifiably in Scrooged.

The same is true of Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the novel-to-film undertakings of both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary. Like Murray, Depp was unable to leave Thompson's character behind him, and Thompson and Depp would go on to be such good friends that Thompson personally requested for Depp to dispose of his ashes via cannon (while Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" blare from loudspeakers) after his suicide (yes, his suicide note is reason enough to idolize the man).

In similar fashion I find that Hunter's words are producing the same effect on me. On more than one occasion I've found my mind drifting to Thompson's visions of Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, and Aspen long after I've laid down my book and attempted to return to the obligations of another day. The voracity with which Thompson approached life will really make you stop your sputtering feet and reevaluate the way you're living. It's sort of a carpe diem effect. Whether or not I'm happy with the question of whether or not I'm living up to the bar set by Thompson is a notion that has caused me some distress over recent weeks.

When I was young, sure, I aspired to never let a night pass that wasn't eventful, to never leave an ounce of the night unsqueezed from its fleeting tube, but as the years stack up it becomes more demanding and quite frankly less appealing to meet such standards. Between two jobs, too, it's simply hard to put things on pause for a minute and remember you're not in any hurry, after all. What gets lost in the monotony of it all sometimes is my ambition, my thirst for life, and my writing pad and pencil, all things I wanted to put at the forefront as a sort of New Year's resolution back in January. But that is besides the point; the point is that I find my life palpably affected by Hunter S. Thompson's life and words as I slowly eat my way through his (rather thick) biography - which in my book is the definition of good literature, and life, for that matter.

The thing about biographies, too, is you really see the forests for the trees. When a life is laid out chronologically you can glimpse the crossroads from high above and the importance of certain decisions at such crossroads. Sometimes in the whir and commotion of life it's hard to even recognize when one is at such a crossroads even if it is staring you dead in the face, let alone the gravity of the choice in the diverging roads. Yet I feel as though I am creeping up on a crossroads in my own life - and maybe it's because I'm deep into the life of Hunter S. Thompson's life that I can recognize it. At any rate, if there's anything learned from Hunter Thompson's life it's that I don't want leave the stone of opportunity unturned or fail to take the risk knocking at my door only to regret it years later. As Hunter always (and famously) mumbled in that distinct Gonzo voice, "Buy the ticket. Take the ride".

Saturday, May 3, 2014

On Living

Somewhere in the foggy hours in between two jobs this week I found myself caught up in the formative years of Hunter S. Thompson's life, flipping through the pages of Gonzo, a Thompson biography I incredulously snatched up up at a used book sale this past weekend. Hunter S. Thompson was a man who played life by his own rules and made no apologies for it. He was one of those rare souls who grasped the brevity of life and had the courage to do something about it. For those of us who struggle to come to terms with the latter, he was an icon. Here, I thought, was a man who was alive.

Not just alive, but truly alive. And as I exhaustedly sunk into the couch, my mind sapped of any meaningful thought by the working man's blues, I wondered how long it had been since I truly felt alive. The work week has a way of prying me from those things that make me feel alive, and I realized it had been some time since I had done any writing or hiking or anything really that I was proud of. Living with friends again, too, can discourage me from going out and making something of the day. As it was in college, it can become all too easy to forego that hike or the trip to the used book store or grabbing a notebook for some writing in lieu of another evening spent watching mindless television when the roommates are already beckoning from the sofa.

Feeling truly alive:

-  Bob Seger coming over the radio during a drive down a country road
- An Ernest Hemingway sentence inked across the page of a book
- the mangled sheet of ice during double overtime of sudden-death, playoff hockey
- The crisp, cool shade of the trees draped over the Rouge River
- homemade chili in the Fall
- new romance
- conserving memories by putting them on paper
- the sandlot where we played baseball as kids
- watching the landscape change - farmlands, pine forests, Northern sky - when driving North in Michigan
- hot dogs and baked beans roasted over embers in a campfire on a camping trip

I've never been of the type to feel fulfilled by a job alone. I've worked plenty of them, and have yet to find one that leaves me feeling satisfied with the way I've spent another day that I will never get back. I need to find time to seize the day in between the hours spent on the clock. Time to make a concerted effort at that this weekend, and this summer too.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The F.R.I.E.N.D.S Age

Growing up, I pictured adulthood much differently. I envisioned college and then marriage and a family as a seamless transition, one pivotal life event immediately succeeding the other. No one in elementary school bothers to tell you about the difficulties of post-grad life and the bumps in the road that accompany such a path. No joke, I thought the life depicted in the legendary Friends television show was a non-existent reality - a stage of life that only existed in Hollywood studios.

Despite my lack of awareness to this twenty-something world, I have found myself thrust upon it. A little over a month ago I packed my bags and left home for the second time, destined for a suburban house with a hint of rustic in it that I would soon occupy with the very friends I grew up with. I can't speak for them, but when we were just tots playing in the backyard woods behind our houses I certainly never anticipated a time when we would all be living together after college.

Yet I'm happy to be here. The five of us all fresh out of school, we hit the sack before midnight and awaken to alarm clocks foretelling of nine-to-five jobs. There are vegetables in our refrigerator. There is an ironing table in the laundry room that gets regular use. College, this is most definitely not.

Today while listening to some music the Barenaked Ladies song "The Old Apartment" came on, and I found myself feeling nostalgic for something that isn't even yet over. A decade from now when we've all overcame the struggles of mid-twenty life - the dating, the financial insecurity, the career turbulence in the ascension stages, the uncertainty of youth - I know someday I'll drive by this old house and remember the times we had within these walls. I'll remember what it felt like to come home from a long day at work and sit back on the couch with the guys to catch a Tigers game. I'll remember winding down with everyone once Friday rolled around, the weekends unburdened by serious responsibilities like wives and kids and Bed Bath & Beyond trips.

This is, after all, the defining stage of our lives. What college was to our parents' generation has been pushed back to the post-grad stage. And for now, I'm pretty content to just sit back and watch it all unfold. Sometimes life is what happens while we're waiting for our grand plans to acquiesce before our eyes.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Spring



Sometimes what we perceive as periods ending sentences and even chapters to our lives are not periods at all but merely commas. As Spring breaks, it feels as though I'm not only shutting the door on this brutal winter but on a heavy chapter to my life. The green horizon knows no bounds. All that is left to do is to walk, into the wild. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Leaving Home: Volume II



When I first left home for Ann Arbor during the autumn of '06, it felt like a biological imperative. I was young. Eighteen years old and stubborn. Wild and rebellious. In my eyes then my parents were not people with stories like the rest of us - their own flaws and daily dramas - but authoritarians I was at a crossroads with. The troublemaker of the family, I was ever getting grounded, banned from sleepovers, and given stern warnings after increasingly erratic behavior. I came home drunk not infrequently, the cops called home one night after they caught me and a couple other high school guys toking it up in the Levagood parking lot, and I had acquired somewhat of a bad boy reputation amongst the uptight Bible-thumping moms of my Catholic school community. Yet I maintained a stellar academic resume and was very active in sports and extracurricular activities - baffling those Bible-thumpers when I, for all intents and purposes, out-achieved their own flawless teens - which perplexed my parents enough that they couldn't keep me in trouble for very long.

I had one foot out the door of Westland as soon as that letter from the University of Michigan came in the mail. From my perspective my Catholic school community and the town I lived in was a dead-end lot, a perpetual prison of monotony and tedium for Simple-Simons and those who let life pass them by during the nine-to-five day. I wanted no part of their lifestyles or their low-ceiling ambitions, convinced I would surpass them all. I clung to my Dylan and Springsteen records pretentiously, convinced by their lyrics that I had to get out of Dodge lest I be sucked into its clutches before it was too late.

From the vantage of retrospect, I can see now what I was: a naive, somewhat arrogant, and rather sheltered product of suburbia in desperate need of sowing my wild oats. I hadn't the vaguest notion of the world I was living in, what it could do with you, the pain it could inflict.

I returned home a five and a half years later a shell of the man I was when I first left home. Like a Vietnam veteran who departs America a baby-faced kid and returns nine months later grizzled by war with scars that penetrate much deeper than skin, I had returned home with my tail between my legs, jaded and broken by Life out there in the world. Returning home, I thought that if I could just stay awhile in the house of my childhood memories that some of the brokenness inside me would heal.

I had never intended to return home, nor did I particularly want to, but in the end it was the biological imperative that leaving home for the first time those years ago was. The past two years at home proved critical to emotional healing and taking stock of my life. I rebuilt my life from the ruins of trauma and lay the stepping stones of my sobriety upon my childhood home's sturdy foundation. Without home, I don't know if I would have survived. About a month prior to making the ultimate decision to desert my apartment in Ann Arbor and return home I had driven across the state to Lake Michigan with a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of pills thinking about swallowing everything and jumping into the frigid waters - it was the lowest point of my life.

Two years and some odd months later, I'm leaving home again. My childhood buddies and I are moving into a nice little house in Garden City a few miles down the road. While living at home has long tormented me - the thought of my college roommates making their way in various cityscapes across the country while I remain in the limbo of living with my parents is psychologically demoralizing at times - leaving home this time feels much different than it did at eighteen. It was with skepticism and reluctance that I finally made the decision to leave home, knowing that it jeopardizes my sobriety and puts me at risk of falling back into my old habits; certainly there was no pressing necessity of soul to move out as their was post-high school. In fact I had grown quite comfortable living back at home, a prospect that ultimately influenced my decision to leave because I know how terrifying a thought that is to the eighteen year old version of me. Leaving home this time feels less like a mitzfah than something that simply that had come to pass.

I leave home this time wiser, more cautious, experienced in pain and life and love, nearly - gasp - a half year of sobriety under my belt. Responsibility is in my vocabulary now, even at the forefront, and settling down is what I am seeking rather than fleeing this time around. I have two jobs and bills to pay, which is okay in my book, and don't think it's in my wherewithal to storm right out of a job because I was better than it, as I did the month before leaving for college. Perhaps most tellingly, Dylan and Springsteen's middle-aged albums resonate with me more so than their debut albums nowadays, Born to Run seeming a distant chapter in my life. I'll still eat frozen pizzas on a regular basis, but I might mix in some vegetable dinners in there too.

If nothing else it's a new chapter, a chance to begin a new on a fresh canvas. And that's what I've been seeking for a long time now. I have no preconceptions that the road will be without heartache as I pack my suitcase this time around, but I know there are new memories to make out there in the world, too. So here's to blank pages.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Visions of Belleville Lake

I often return to this passage for one reason or another. Like Seger's "Night Moves," its imagery has the power to take me back to a different time and place. The time is aught five, that Spring of my Junior year in high school. The place is Belleville Lake. I was young, full of life and night. Some nights I just wasn't ready to go home. Unleashed with a brand new driver's license, I drove the back roads of my hometown aimlessly looking for something I couldn't explain.

I used to drive out to her house alongside Belleville Lake, parking along the ditch at the end of her winding driveway. I killed the headlights and waited. Once her parents had drifted off to the great campground behind the moon she would climb out her bedroom window, suddenly appearing at the passenger side door in her pajama sweats with that innocent smile and beckoning red hair. She would kiss me and we would think we were in love the way you do at that age, then we would drive out and park alongside the lake where the yellow moon spilled onto the cat tails and the placid water.

The windows fogged up, she cuddled into my arms and we promised each other we'd be together forever; it was the kind of promise that could only come from the hearts of the very young. Naive as we were, we believed it all. For a moment the world went silent. And the seaweeds rise and fall at night in Belleville Lake.

"Ginny Cupper took me in her car out to the spread fields of Indiana. Parking near the edge of woods and walking out into the sunny rows of corn, waving seeds to a yellow horizon. She wore a white blouse and a gray patch of sweat under her arms and the shadow of her nipples was gray. We were rich. So rich we could never die. Ginny laughed and laughed, white saliva on her teeth lighting up the deep red of her mouth, fed the finest food in the world. Ginny was afraid of nothing. She was young and old. Her brown arms swinging in wild optimism, beautiful in all their parts. She danced on the long hood of her crimson Cadillac, and watching her, I thought that God must be female. She leaped into my arms and knocked me to the ground and screamed into my mouth. Heads pressed into the hot Indiana soil and pinned me in a cross. A crow cawed into the wide sun. Ginny had driven her long Cadillac through the guard rails of a St. Louis bridge and her car shone like a clot of blood in the mud and murk of the Mississippi. We were all there in the summer silence of Suffolk, Virginia, when the copper casket was gently placed in the cool marble vault. I smoked a cigarette and crushed it out on the black and white squares of the tomb. In the stagnant emptiness of the train station after the cars were gone, I walked into the women's toilet and saw the phallic obscenities on the wooden doors and gray walls. Ginny had gardenias in her lovely brown hair. I hear the train. The world's silent. Crops have stopped growing. Now they grow again."

J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

One Hundred and Twenty Days

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

So I pace
and I pray
And I repeat the mantras that might keep me clean for the day.

- Jason Isbell

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The College Town Revisited

There are places I remember
Though some have changed

All these places have their moments
Of lovers and friends I still can recall






Sweet Ann Arbor. How you've shaped my life. 

This week, which annually must be one of the most forgettable chunks of time on the calendar nationwide, found me back in Ann Arbor. My aunt and uncle, both University of Michigan employees, are paying for me to house-sit at their place on the outskirts of Ann Arbor this week, though unbeknownst to them I probably would've done it for free because of what this city means to me.

I took a stroll through the old stomping grounds this evening. Through the diag and under the collegial ivory towers where I sat through poetry discussions and environmental science seminars. Down South University past the pubs looking like warm respites from the winter air, the very pubs that we went to when we were looking to celebrate, looking to get lucky, looking to forget a loss, looking to pass the time for lack of an alternative, or looking for nothing in particular at all. Into the student housing district, where select houses remind me of particular faces, particularly memorable parties, particular bedrooms of girlfriends I used to know.

As I took tally on the years that had passed since I called Ann Arbor home, something profoundly scary occurred to me: nearly four years have passed since I graduated in Michigan Stadium that spring of aught ten. In even more frightening terms, that means that I would be a senior preparing to graduate had I started all over again after graduation. Yikes. 

But I've finally come to peace with that fact. In the four years since graduating, I had a much more difficult time letting go of Ann Arbor and college than most of the people I graduated with did. When I went to law school the Fall after graduating, I was more stuck on the loss of old friends than I was intent on making any new ones. I took the eastbound Amtrak train from Chicago to Ann Arbor on a monthly basis, to visit the girlfriend, to see a football game, to go pretend I was still in college with old roommates who were in fact still in college. Rather than embracing Chicago, I spent a lot of time living in the past, living in the Ann Arbor of yesteryear.

When I moved back to Ann Arbor the following Fall, the monthly attempts to recreate college became an everyday way of life. Devastated by heartbreak, I hung out with a lot of kids who were still in college and took on the drinking habits of a college student accordingly. Try as I might, rekindling college never quite materialized. In retrospect, it was kind of pathetic. While my old roommates from college had all taken the next step, I was drinking cheap vodka with college students, hanging out at college parties, and hitting on sorority girls who were in high school during my own college years. The third post-college year was perhaps the worst of them all; I would often drive to Ann Arbor, physically and mentally decimated from another bout with the booze, just to walk around and wallow in my own self-pity and a serious case of unhealthy nostalgia.

Over the past year I've largely avoided Ann Arbor entirely. I guess it's the same as an ex-girlfriend: in order to get over it you need a clean break. I had to rebuild my life without the prospect of Ann Arbor.

For the first twenty-two years of my life Ann Arbor was the driving force behind my entire existence. The only real goal I had ever had in life was to get into the University of Michigan and earn a degree from the institution from which my beloved sports teams hailed. They say that recently retired professional athletes often have incredibly difficult times adjusting to life after sports, their dreams having been realized and suddenly distant memories. It was much the same way for me. After graduating from Michigan, what was there to do? I didn't have any discernible goals after that. My life's dream had been accomplished. As a result, my life seemed utterly directionless.

As I walked around Ann Arbor tonight, though, it wasn't the past that haunted me. Rather, it was the present and future that primarily occupied my mind. Those college years will always hold a special spot in my heart of memories. But tonight, for the first time, that's all they were: memories. Ann Arbor and the collegiate years I associate with it have finally become a part of my past, and nothing more.