Going Blue, Citrus Bowl: College Football Season Is Over

I declared journalism for my major during the fall term of my sophomore year at Grand Valley. I had been thinking about it since the previous spring, the tail end of my freshman year in the cramped Copeland Hall dorm room. I considered other, similar alternatives. An English degree, but that required too much literary analysis and criticism, too much fun taken out of reading. And even as a collegiate sophomore I knew a creative writing degree wouldn’t do my career aspirations any favors. So, in the fall of 2003, journalism with a focus in print it was.

Traditional journalism never did anything for me. The last thing I wanted was to be a cops and courts beat reporter, or a pestering, sniveling little shit trying to pry answers out of politicians polished to a glossy shine. Nah, man. I want to be a rock journalist. Interview bands, review albums, write profiles of up and coming geniuses and past-their-prime elder statesmen still dragging a guitar onstage twenty-five years after their careers started in some dingy garage on the bad side of town. The kind of career that exists in the minds of high schoolers and college underclassmen, and nowhere else.

Because I was all of nineteen years old, my imagined professional path went something like: freelance through college, work for the school paper in the hours I didn’t have class. Get a job with a small or midsized daily after graduation, weasel my way into the A&E section of the paper. Eventually take over that section, get an offer for a larger daily to manage their A&E, and on and on until I would be a full-time staffer with Rolling Stone by the ripe old age of, oh, call it thirty.

I love a sport played by these same idiot nineteen year olds. Never forget this.

The patron saint of college kids with pie in the sky dreams like mine was, and is, Hunter S. Thompson. I stopped short of idolizing the man but as an early hero he was right up my alley. Exactly the kind of irreverent maniac a kid who grew up in the relative middle of nowhere fashioned himself to be. Rock band t-shirts, baggy jeans, jelly bracelets, and a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I was that cliche, too. (I maintain “We were somewhere around Barstow at the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” is a fantastic way to start a book, I don’t care who you are.) If you can look at your early heroes and remain unembarrassed, you’re a better man or woman than me.

Thompson pointed a loaded gun at his head and pulled the trigger in February 2005, right around my twenty-first birthday. We talked about it in my Wednesday evening article writing class, taught by a full-time features writer for theGrand Rapids Press. I was the only person in the class who knew more than Thompson’s name—goddamn philistines!—so we spent no more than ten minutes talking about the man’s work.

Thompson’s suicide note, written to his wife, was titled, “Football Season is Over.” Throughout his life he was a football fan, and in particular a college football fan. In his work, both fiction and nonfiction, I remember he wrote more than once about watching the machine of a Georgia Tech team running the triple option or the wishbone to perfection. (Seem familiar?) With football season over in February, Thompson pulled the trigger. When his family and the police found his body in the room, they also found a sheet of paper in his typewriter, with a single word typed on the page: “counselor.”

***

Around the world and home again, that’s the sailor’s way. Christmas travel does its best to kill me every year. Mom lives in Louisville, Kentucky; dad lives near Medina, Ohio, due south of Cleveland. I lived in lower Michigan and now Chicago. Plot the three locations on a map and it forms a Bermuda Triangle over a large swath of the Midwest—appropriate, since things that go into the wastelands of central Indiana and Ohio never seem to come out.

For a few years I tried to do both parents in the same year over the course of about a week, give or take a few days. In 2008 a series of snowstorms hit Chicago, through which I had connecting flights at Midway, leaving me stranded in the far reaches of the city overnight. 2010 would be the last year of the attempt. Picture this: beat-ass exhausted on Christmas Eve after the start of A Thing, driving about five hours through Ohio from Michigan to Kentucky, tired enough to fall asleep at the wheel south of Dayton (I even remember the song that was playing!). Christmas with mom for a few days, with all of the attendant love and frustration. Then, at your most exhausted, on your very last nerve, packing up your car, driving five and a half hours through Ohio, and starting the whole process again with dad’s side of the family. Then, after a few more days, three and a half more hours on the road to get back to your drafty apartment in a half-dead college town.

I love you, mom and dad. Never again.

Turns out being able to fly direct out of Chicago makes the travel all the more tolerable. In the years since I’ve become acquainted with the airports in Louisville, Cleveland, and Akron-Canton. Cute as a button, all, in contrast to the labyrinthine monstrosities here. Flight delayed? Ain’t a big deal. I’ll cool my heels at the Great Lakes Brewing Co. bar and monitor flight status from my phone.

Since the dad genes express themselves with every gray hair on my head, I tend to get to airports way, way earlier than I need to. I’d rather sit around and wait than be one of those motherfuckers in a rush, all but leaping bodily through the security scanners. Ninety minutes to kill? Time enough for a pint of whatever and to watch whoever in whichever bowl game playing on the overpriced, overcrowded airport bars. (Ah, the timelessness of airports, encouraging beer breakfasts since the Wright Brothers themselves.) On my outbound flight to Louisville, a group of poor bastards trying to get to Atlanta found themselves delayed for something like twelve hours. One of them, a man about dad’s age, put his credit card down and requested production line of Miller Lite from the bar to his gullet.

During one similar delay, after the Christmas tour with dad in 2014, I got the news Michigan fans had been obsessing about for weeks. Jim Harbaugh would be named the head coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines football team. By then I was a couple of pints deep into some Christmas Ale and working on a third—get fucked with your three-hour delays on a day with a clear blue sky, United—when the news hit. Well, hot damn. Michigan hadn’t even the courtesy of a meaningless exhibition bowl to go to, after the bludgeoning at the hands of Ohio State once again. Didn’t matter, not then. That I got the good news about Michigan football when I was stuck in Ohio wasn’t lost on me. Harbaugh New Year, everybody. Now let’s get this plane in the air already. I’m tired and I want to go home.

***

I can count the ghosts of New Years past by whether or not Michigan was playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game. Rose Bowl or Bust. Any game not on New Year’s Day was called the Toilet Bowl in our house, because who cared? Orange Bowl? Great! Outback Bowl? Get the hell outta here. Oh, we watched all the same, all the while lamenting the abject failure, the humiliation, of a four-loss season. Never mind Michigan being blown out by a Pac-8/10/12 team in Pasadena is as strong of a tradition as the Block M, but hey.

New Year’s Day comes in one color in Michigan: gray. Doesn’t matter if the temperature is 3 or 53 degrees F, whether we got dumped by a foot of snow (seemed to happen more often than not) or a light dusting (too cold to snow? January, you’re a real bitch). Chicago’s the same latitude with much the same result. Patches of blue sky like window panes, and that’s all. Back to your bunkers, everybody. False alarm. We blew the All Clear signal too soon.

The last time Michigan played Florida in a January 1 bowl game, I was digging my car out from under more than a foot of snow we got all through New Year’s Eve and overnight. I crashed on the floor of an apartment after the festivities, went out for our traditional hungover breakfast at Denny’s or wherever the hell. The roads remained unplowed, ruts from tires carving a kind of calligraphy into the gray-white Midwestern hellscape. “Don’t you usually watch this?” they asked me, the nether region between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor showing the Capital One Bowl on television. I’d try to catch what I could, I said.

What I made it in time for was the fourth quarter of Lloyd Carr’s last game as head coach. With a healthy roster for the first time since the Appalachian State game, he said to hell with it. Michigan came out on offense in a shotgun spread formation, Chad Henne’s guns a-blazing. Mike Hart ran on draw plays and zone stretches from the ‘gun. Everything Urban Meyer’s Florida could do on offense, Michigan could do better. My god, that game. Hungover, headache well settled behind my eyes, Michigan was beating the pants off of an SEC opponent in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

The more college football changes, the more it stays the same. Eight years to the day later, same schools, same state. This time it was the Citrus Bowl. Two first-year head coaches with better-than-expected first seasons, despite blowout losses to rivals. Older, grayer, a couple more pounds on me than I had in 2008. Such is the way of things. But Michigan, Michigan, you magnificent bastards, you leaders and best, rung in the new year in the best way for your fans. Jake Rudock put on a clinic. The defense stifled. Florida, for its part, looked uninterested after the first half of the first quarter. I didn’t care. More touchdowns. More points. Be on the other end of a bowl game blowout for a change. When things to wrong they go really, really wrong, and when they go right they’re fantastic.

ABC showed the final score on the screen. The sideline reporter tried to get some coherent words out of Rudock at the conclusion of his final collegiate game. Farewells from the broadcast team, bumper music, back to the studio, and on to the next bowl game of the afternoon. It’s here. It’s always here. College football season is over.

Eight months in the wilderness. The space between the last game of the regular season Thanksgiving weekend and the bowl game, should teams be fortunate enough to be invited, a preview of that wilderness. A sense of restlessness on a Saturday afternoon, at least three hours of which had been filled since the beginning of September, suddenly free. Simultaneously the digging and the filling of a hole. Aw, man, no college football on today? Wait, that means I can do . . . anything! Anything else. Go see a movie, go out to eat at two in the afternoon, go away.

And yet. The national championship game, such that it is, looms. The NFL still has another week of regular season play, then the wild card games, then the playoffs proper, then the fucking Super Bowl. I’ll casually pay attention—some football is better than no football—but with curiosity, not passion. What do I care about a potential Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl? Beyond an excuse to make chili and whatever else I might make for the occasion. Tom Brady? I remember watching him at Michigan, remember the calls to bench his ass in favor of Drew Henson. That was, Jesus, fifteen years ago now?

College football season is over. College football season is always ending. My Lakers, seeded sixth in the Division II playoffs, made it all the way to the semifinal game and lost a close on, 34-32, against Shepherdsville, a No. 1 seed. Two losses in the regular seasons against GLIAC opponents avenged, on the road, no less. And Michigan, with its ten wins and its coach who had known what he’d been doing at every place he’d coached before returning to Ann Arbor. God, am I spoiled.

Now. Get off the couch, stretch the legs, get outside for some fresh winter air. Eventually the end of February will come around and the weather will start to turn, little by little, a day at a time, two steps forward, one back. Everything starts to turn blue in February; sky, snow, and lake. And after the championships, after the Super Bowl, after the everybody takes a moment to breathe, start the countdown clock. Oh, there’s a lot to do in the interim. Too much. College football season is over? Only eight more months to go.

Final score: Michigan 41, Florida 7. Final 2015 season record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten).

Originally published January 4, 2016. 

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Going Blue, Week Thirteen: This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Me, Let Alone the Both of Us

Thanksgiving never was my favorite holiday. We always ate the traditional fare, whether mom cooked at home or her mom cooked up in Frankenmuth. A full plate at the outset, a slightly smaller plate later in the day, another plate the next day, and I was done. Problem was the pile of leftovers we had to eat for the next week or two, leftovers from a meal I could take or leave in the first place. There’s only so much stuffing I can cram in my gullet before enough’s enough, you know?

Parts of the holiday I liked. Hanging out and snacking all day, throwing caution about the numbers on the scale to the wind for a weekend. All manner of football playing on network television, whether it was the Lions embarrassing themselves for another year or watching Texas and Texas A&M hatefuck each other again, may the series rest in peace. Other, smaller things: once I was old enough to hold a handheld mixer it was my job to make topping for pumpkin pie. (Heavy whipping cream, some sugar, and a few minutes at low to medium speed.) Hanging out with Papa in the basement when we made the trip up to Thanksgiving. Family togetherness, to a point. I love ’em but after four or five hours of being in a room of people who can hold their liquor I need an equally long break.

So after I moved to Chicago I could quit worrying about it. My first Thanksgiving in the city, with a dwindling bank account, still trying to get my bearings, I made the easiest thing I could think to make with the roommate’s limited kitchen utensils and dirty kitchen space: taco salad. Turned out fine! More than that the other traditions remained the same. Bad football, bloated stomach. I think I planned to make some dessert or other but punted at the last minute. I’m missing a sweet tooth.

Later in the afternoon, right before the sun gets low enough to make it seem like dusk, I grabbed a jacket and scarf and beat it. No reason, just a whim. I hiked to my nearest ‘L’ station, Western on the Brown Line. The Brown Line winds its way through the residential north side neighborhoods, circles the Loop, counterclockwise, and doubles back on the same tracks. And unlike the Blue or Red lines, the Brown’s all above ground. The city skyline grows incrementally larger with each turn toward the Loop, crosses a bridge over the Chicago River and gives you a full view of the canal out to the lake on one side and a view in the valley cutting through some of the tallest buildings in town on the other. I got off at one of the Loop stops, found State Street, and headed south.

Like Midtown or Wall Street in Manhattan, the Loop empties out after normal office hours. A few people live down there, sure, in apartments and penthouses anywhere from fife to ninety-five floors above surface level. (In the John Hancock Building, for instance, there’s a full-service grocery store on Floor 40, meant for use by the building’s residents. There is an other half, Virginia. Welcome to how they live.) For the most part it’s a ghost town during the week after about seven o’clock in the evening. Even moreso on an official holiday. State Street seems to stretch forever from the river on south. Neon lights glowing on old theater facades, bulbs chasing themselves around marquees. I could have walked in the middle of the street without so much as an angry honk from a cab.

Sunset falls early downtown, the price for being at the floor of a valley cut by Chicago’s skyscrapers. So I was down there, more or less alone, dusk gathering by the minute. I made it as far as Van Buren Street before I cut east on it, toward Michigan, avenue and lake. (State, too, if you want to get metaphysical about it.) I had no plan, no direction, no destination. Just a walk in a quiet city prepping for the Christmas shopping season. I turned the corner onto Michigan Avenue. The lights—god, the lights. This was my city. I was home.

***

If you can blame my mother for making me into a Michigan fan, you can equally blame my father for making me a fan of Westerns. And I don’t mean that John Wayne, Bonanza, white hat, black hat, howdy ma’am, just doing my job shit. Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Once Upon a Time in the West. Eastwood’s directorial work with High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven. Even Tombstone, campy as it is with delightfully deranged Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell’s Mustache. Hell, even Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite video game of all time.

Thanks, dad.

Of Leone’s trilogy, For a Few Dollars More is my favorite. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is far and away the best of the three, a masterpiece. Few Dollars More lacks the grandeur, the soundtrack, a je ne sais quois Ugly seems to have, probably in no small part because the latter features Eli Wallach and the former does not. In Few Dollars More, two bounty hunters, played by Clint Eastwood and the late, great Lee Van Cleef, team up to stop a madman outlaw, El Indio, portrayed by European actor Gian Maria Volonté. Lee Van Cleef’s character has a special reason for going after El Indio, the antagonist having killed the bounty hunter’s sister years before.

Every Western trope is there and then some. Eastwood’s poncho and scowl. European actors in supporting roles, overdubbed by questionable sound quality in English. Pistols shot from the hip with ridiculous accuracy. Goofy gunshot sound effects that crash and bang like thunder. Bad guys dying from a single gunshot wound. Closeups of faces in the climactic duel, capped by a single pull of the trigger by, naturally, the good guy. I love it more than is reasonable or sane.

As a kid I was often scolded for daydreaming in school or church. As a grown-ass man, I’ve only gotten better at hiding it. And when you’re alone in a city with a population of 2.7 million, alone but for a couple of tourists who might as well be part of the background, it’s hard not to let your mind wander. Picture the city as a back lot set in California in the 1960s. Hell, go all the way and picture it as a prop built on a hardscrabble patch of Spain, shot on location. Replace the jacket with a poncho, the scarf with a well-worn hat. Take away the keys and cell phone, add a bandolier and a wheel gun. Deconstruct the city skyline, lower the height to no more than three floors, add swinging doors, unpave the streets.

That’s the thing when you take long walks alone like that. Your mind wanders. If you’re anything like me, with your head floating higher than the Sears Tower antenna and mind way out past O’Hare, you catch yourself writing a narrative for yourself, even when none exists. Because of course one doesn’t. It’s like college football that way. There’s no narrative to tie it all together, no overarching story to connect plot points, betrayals, or twists. There’s them, and there’s us, and they’re not us, so fuck them. Doesn’t even matter who’s right or wrong. This has gone on so long that doesn’t matter anymore, either.

***

Oh how I hate Ohio State. The singular pillar of Michigan football after college football outgrew its infancy: those assholes. Blue good, red bad. Ann Arbor is a beacon of light, truth, knowledge, and understanding. Columbus is the City of Dis. Michigan got the Upper Peninsula, Ohio got Toledo. Michigan has Detroit, a has-been of a city; Ohio has Cleveland, a never-was of a city. We’re us, they’re them, they’re not us, and fuck them.

Dad being from, and living in, Ohio only complicates matters.

I made a couple of banners for my mom ahead of the 1993 edition of the game. Signs, really. Misshapen, lopsided block Ms on eight and a half by eleven sheets of printer paper pilfered from Herrick Park Elementary School. Maybe one of them had a three-quarter view of the winged helmet with a million “Go Blue!”s written in the margins. Whatever they were, they worked, as Michigan demolished Ohio State 28-0 that day. And immediately after, when mom flipped to see what was happening in the Notre Dame-Boston College game, she also flipped the signs over, wrote “BC” on the back in huge letters, and what do you know. Number one Notre Dame goes down. I’m surprised mom doesn’t have those signs framed and hanging next to her diploma, if I’m honest.

Ohio State went 2-10-1 against Michigan when I really started paying attention, so I was doomed to a fandom of disappointment when it was time for the series to go the other way. Before kickoff Saturday Michigan was 3-11 against Ohio State since the year 2000. Lloyd Carr lost his touch against Jim Tressel. Rich Rodriguez could never get anything going, and other than one lucky year in 2011, Brady Hoke was outmanned, outgunned, outmatched.

About the only positive for Michigan fans over the last few years is Urban Meyer playing the perfect villain. The narrative running in front of the game this year, embraced by some Michigan fans, rejected by the likes of my cynical ass, was all about how Bo’s Boy was going to restore the Wolverines to prominence against the hated rival. New coach, first year, in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes the defending national champions. It was going to be 1969 all over again! Right. Just make it competitive, will you, Jim? Pull of the upset. Anything to shut those bastards the hell up.

Alas.

After a tense first half, Michigan only being down 14-10 headed into the locker room, I had a feeling they were fucked. The crease in the middle of my forehead was deep enough to carry water to a nearby farm. I had done everything I could reasonably do to prepare myself for the game—get rid of all Great Lakes Brewing Co. beer in the apartment, put on blue everything, shave the little red hairs off of my chin first thing in the morning—but I had a feeling the pain was coming.

And oh, did the pain come down. Ohio State did what they’ve done against Michigan for the last decade, which is blow their fucking doors off in the second half. It was like watching a high school team against a junior varsity team. Rag dolls against professional boxers. Throwing Michigan’s philosophy as a football team back in their faces: Ohio State’s gonna run the ball at you and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

This point in the series feels like the point in a story where the primary antagonist gains the upper hand. The outlaw’s gang capturing the protagonist and beating him to within an inch of his life in a camp. Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Vader cutting off Luke’s hand. The cop on the cusp of retirement critically shot the day before the big bash. Michigan still leads the all-time series, but the margins shrinks every year, and the games that give Michigan the edge in the rivalry not only predate World War I, but the invention of radio and the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

This can’t last forever. 2-10-1, remember. But 3-12 is a hell of a kick in the teeth. As a fan on the losing side this shit ain’t fun anymore. Comeuppance, karma, whatever. For the foreseeable future Ohio State’s gonna be the one galloping into the sunset to rob banks and pillage villages. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan still gonna have to take another year or two of beatings and bloodletting before the natural order of things is restored. And if anybody’s gonna be crazy enough to give the big “this town ain’t big enough” speech, it’s Michigan’s head football coach.

***

We started green three months ago. Blue skies, plenty of sunshine, leaves on the trees, temperatures comfortably warm. Nowadays you walk to work under bare branches and overcast skies, venture out in the middle of the day for late afternoon midday shadows, beat it home in the dark again. Michigan lost a football game; rivalry week is done for another year. For all intents and purposes, college football season, for Michigan, is over.

Last year it was really over. The 2014 team finished with a 5-7 record, Brady Hoke having earned a firing after his fourth season. This year there’s some sort of bowl game on the horizon. Bonus football, far as I’m concerned. One last gasp to see the favorite team play whoever they might play in a place warmer than Ann Arbor. Still a chance at a double-digit win season. (Never mind that there’s an extra game on the schedule that wasn’t there twenty years ago.) Be disappointed with losing to Ohio State and Michigan State, sure, but a 9-3 season under a first year head coach is killer. Ask Nebraska. Ask Oregon State. Quit your bellyaching, Michigan fans. We ain’t got it so bad. We’ve got it pretty goddamned fucking good, far as I can see.

And what I see is: the end. Professional baseball gets 162 games every season. Eighty-two each for the NHL and NBA, playoff games notwithstanding. Even the NFL gets sixteen weeks and the Super Bowl. Twelve games in thirteen weeks for college football fans, plus a bowl game if you’re lucky and the playoffs if you’re good. I don’t know if I could handle any more. Thirteen weeks is plenty. Thirteen weeks is almost too much. Every year it gets harder to find or make time for games. Every year it gets harder to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of a game I love in concept and the health and well-being of the kids who play it. Who knows where college football will be in twenty years. Who knows where it’ll be in ten. Who knows where I’ll be in ten.

The way things end is that they end. No grand pronouncements, no conclusion to a long-wrought story, no big life lessons given or learned. College football season comes and goes like any other season. Soon enough we’ll be buried under a foot of snow. Soon enough we’ll shut the blinds to keep heat and humidity out of the apartment. For now it’s like blowing out a candle before you go to bed. The wick glows for a few more seconds. Smoke curls to the ceiling. In the moment even that small act seems a little sad. But as soon as it happens I remember. I always did like the smell of a snuffed candle. And it’s not that much darker in here, anyway.

Final score: Ohio State 42, Michigan 13. Record: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten).

Originally published November 30, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Twelve: There’s Nothing I Can Do to You to Make You Love Me

At some point Saturday morning I decided I wasn’t ready. Chili parts warming in the slow cooker, to be ready later in the afternoon. Peck on the girlfriend’s cheek to send her out for her Saturday gig. I stood at the window in the front door, blinds raised. Rain hammered the crust of the previous night’s snow. I opened the door and put my palm out to the weather. Small, steady little drops. The kind of miserable rain that would fall all day, and umbrella or not if you went out in it you were going to get wet. The snow would come later. Michigan was scheduled to kick off in about half an hour.

Sooner or later it all catches up. You think you’ve cleared the hurdle once your three or four nonconference games are behind you on the schedule and you can run full steam ahead into conference play. But that bland, mundane boredom? The feeling you’re only going through the motions until “real” football starts? Welcome to the tail end of the conference schedule. No, I don’t give a shit about seeing Michigan play Indiana, despite the fireworks. No, I don’t give a shit about seeing Michigan play Penn State, despite the latter’s insistence of something resembling a rivalry. Even at Grand Valley, playing a hapless Michigan Tech team in November en route to an undefeated season. Dull, dull, dull. But you do it anyway because it’s football, and this is better than the alternative.

Eleven o’clock approached. I wore the usual attire—call it superstition if you want, but really it’s an exercise in laziness. The less I have to think about what to wear for the day, the better. The less I have to think about anything, the better. Hence the slow cooker doing the work for me. Hence college football chewing huge holes through my Saturday afternoons and evenings. Even big, dumb NFL football serves its purpose on Sundays. Better than a shitty cable network movie. Better than the high school routine of avoiding homework with a pit of dread in your stomach and a kernel of teenage rebellion in your head. Who’s responsible for scheduling this shit, anyway?

Other games loomed, too. After Michigan would or would not beat Penn State in Happy Valley—eight wins on the books with two games to go is an unmitigated success in a head coach’s first season no matter how you look at it—Michigan fans would suffer through Michigan State at Ohio State. Boston College at Notre Dame, despite the game being played in Fenway Park and counting as a home game because Notre Dame is college football’s most special and unique snowflake. Never mind the circular firing squad in the Big XII. Never mind the mess in the Pac-12.

I tuned the television to Chicago’s ABC affiliate. At the stroke of 11 a.m. the educational programming credits ran and ABC/ESPN’s theme music started. The talking heads talked. I wiped down the kitchen counters, put cooking utensils in the dishwasher, puttered around the floorspace, debated if kickoff was too early to crack the cap off that first beer of the day. (It wasn’t, I concluded.) A whiteout in Happy Valley, apparently. Oh, good. Well, let’s get on with it. This one and the next one and then college football season is effectively over. Michigan kicked off. I kicked back. And the talking heads, well, they kept right on talking.

***

I learned to read the newspaper like any other kid: funny pages first. Forget the endless lines of black newsprint on recycled gray paper. Give me the four-color strips sandwiched between the Sports and Arts & Entertainment sections of the Ann Arbor News. I didn’t care that most of the jokes went over my head. I picked out the familiar strips first—Peanuts, Garfield, B.C. Strips collected in books in our basement, or the animated versions stored on VHS tapes in our closet upstairs. Dilbert never made any sense, not until I was an adult. Calvin and Hobbes confused me more often than not, but it was cool to see a kid who kinda, sorta looked like me bouncing off the panels. He and I even carried our own stuffed animals.

The natural progression carried me from the funny pages to the sports section as puberty put hair in brand new places. I didn’t give a shit about the Lions, not really. An exercise in fandom futility if ever there was one. No, Sunday mornings after church, when mom would stop off somewhere and pick up a box of donuts and the Sunday edition of the Ann Arbor News (when it was still an actual paper and not the bastardized, digital, poor MLive substitution it’s become) stuffed with bursting with college football news.

Mom and dad took first crack, as always, reading the paper more or less in order from start to finish, hitting the national news of the day (something about El Nino) and whatever was going on around campus (dad was once featured on the front page because Ann Arbor had a crow problem and part of his job was to disperse the flocks by shooting flares into trees and nesting grounds). Then, as the phone book-thick paper lay scattered on the living room floor, Michigan Replay blaring on the television, I dove in.

The two sections that interested me the most were the grades handed out to the previous day’s Michigan game and the preview of the opponent for the upcoming Saturday. You know the kind for the former: a B or B- for the offense (missed some throws, couple of costly turnovers), and A for the defense (one of the nation’s best in 1997), grades for special teams and position groups, from the offensive line to the defensive backfield. (Note how little the actual content has changed. Only the medium.) I ate that shit up before flipping to the classifieds and looking for ads offering Ford Mustangs from the 1960s for sale.

One of the previews I remember most clearly was the week before the 1997 Michigan-Penn State game. At the time Penn State was ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, Michigan No. 4. Offensive, defensive analysis, whatever. The beat writers spent an inordinate amount of time comparing and contrasting the uniforms. Penn State in its classic navy shirt, white pants look, with Michigan’s slightly more fancy maize piping around the block letters, and, because reporters and writers are nothing if not predictable, the helmets.

I was in eighth grade, and so easily swayed by as little as a color scheme I liked. I wanted to go to Michigan, obviously, thanks to my parents’ brainwashing. Northwestern’s purple and black color scheme was all the rage in the color-challenged mid-1990s, and I became a secondary fan during their first run to the Rose Bowl. And Penn State’s look was clean, classic. I asked mom and dad; Penn State was a fine school, they said. Out-of-state tuition and academics weren’t a consideration. They looked so cool! And they play football! They’re awesome!

If only that would have lasted. Among my reasons for choosing to attend Grand Valley—its relatively low cost of attendance, its solid education and nascent journalism programs (the latter of which Michigan did not offer), being far enough away from where I grew up that it’d take notice before mom or dad could drop in—yes, I picked it for its school colors (blue and black), and its rising football program. I’m easily swayed. Sue me.

***

I spent the first few years of my post-college literary life with my head completely up my own ass. I only read capital-lLiterature, you see. Hemingway, F. Scott. Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren. Balzac, for fuck’s sake. If it was long, plodding, and plotless, I either read it or tried tracking it down at the library. Gotta do something in the nine months between college football seasons. Call it a combination of hobby and research. Just so long as you don’t come near me with your Harry Potter.

My odometer rolled over to thirty and I finally quit caring. My first venture into the genre I couldn’t say, but noir novels became my Thing. Detective fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. and ’40s. Chrome-covered cars, trillbys, stone-faced cops chewing on toothpicks. Hit me with Ray Chandler stories featuring private investigator Philip Marlowe, the author’s most famous character. (“I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober and I didn’t care who knew it.”) Leave me with an evening of Elmore Leonard books and stories, a man as adept at westerns as he was American crime fiction. That he spent most of his life in Detroit only sweetens my deal. A genre as fun for me to read as it is for me to write, when I sit down and put on my fiction hat.

Of the detective story, hardboiled, urban, neo-noir tropes, my favorite remains the introduction. A hard-assed loner sitting around his office, waiting around for something to happen, something bad. Which invariably does, as the genre demands. Trouble has a way of finding them, is the cliche. Even the Tracer Bullet story arcs in Calvin and Hobbes strips (always my favorite story arcs when I finally understood what was going on) played along. And the thing about that kind of genre fiction is it’s easy to find yourself playing along in the first-person narrative. Take a long walk at dusk in an urban setting and you can almost hear the jazzy soundtrack, if you concentrate. All that’s missing is the voiceover providing a narrative.

***

I should have closed those damn blinds. It was my day off and the last thing I wanted was to be interrupted. Rain tapped against the window, rain that would turn to wintry mix, to snow, icing the sidewalks, silencing the city. Which was fine with me. I was inside with everything I needed: nothing. Nothing much, I should say. Hours to kill and a television against the wall. What could have been better? Other than some of the top-shelf stuff, I mean. Excuse me while I pour one for myself. I’m sure you don’t mind.

Barely into my first buzz she walked in. No announcement, no knock on the door, didn’t bother to ring the doorbell. (Not that it matters. No one ever knows it’s there, and if t hey do, they assume it’s broken. Can’t say I blame them.) I didn’t say anything, not at first. Just looked her up and down, trying to imagine where I might have seen her before. She looked like any other. Face, torso, arms, legs, hair, clothes. The difference came in her color scheme. I’m a maize and blue guy, and blue she had, but a different shade of blue. Not to mention the white. And that haughty air about her, my god. I knew I was in for an earful before she opened her mouth to speak.

“I don’t want to hear it,” I said.

“You don’t even know what I’m going to say.”

I took a drink. “Oh, yes I do. Something about referees. Something about two seconds. Something about a fucking statue, for all I care to hear about that for the hundredth time. Not interested.”

“You seem interested.”

“I assure you I’m faking. I’m a good actor. Anyone ever tell you that? I can pretend with the best of them.” I really had her going now.

“I never liked you, either,” she said. “Despite our history.”

“Uh-huh.” I waited for the big you-done-me-wrong speech, the years of wasted efforts, last-second mistakes, drunken late night phone calls. But she didn’t say any of that. Not this time.

“There’s really nothing you can do to me to make me love you,” was all she said.

“Nothing,” I said. “Not a single goddamned thing. Sure. Now, if you don’t mind.”

I watched her go, watched her shadow trailing a few feet behind. The rain turned to snow, all right. Big, fat flakes first dusting the grass, then burying it completely. Let her throw her tantrum, let her leave. I knew where I remembered her. It’s always once a year for a few hours. But I got bigger problems. We all do. Take a look at the calendar hanging on my wall, for instance. See that date, circled in blue? God forbid I use the color red. No red-letter date, even. It’s a blue letter date. Ohio State’s coming to town. Penn State was just another nuisance I had to live through before the big dance and the bigger payday. Now? Now we’re talking.

Final score: Michigan 28, Penn State 16. Record: 9-2 (6-1 Big Ten).

Originally published November 23, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Eleven: Five O’Clock Shadow, Twelve O’Clock Kick

Who are you going to believe, the lying weatherman or your lying eyes? I know what the forecast says. Mid-50s Fahrenheit, sunny, breezy. A perfectly pleasant day for college football. Hell, a perfectly pleasant day for the time of year as it is. Last year at this time it was, what, 27 degrees F? Sunshine’s great and all but what good is there if you can’t stand to be outside for more than fifteen minutes to enjoy it? Enough to get a daily dose of vitamin D and little else. Bare branches, brown turf. Not much for scenery. Not much for the dead period in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, before the big binge of Christmas.

I ran out for beer in the middle of the day, right around the time Ohio State was strugglefucking Illinois to death in one of the early games. (Apparently Georgia-Auburn wasn’t much better. CBS has been misbehaving for me over the air all of a sudden. Kinda like scrambled cable channels from the 1980s, but over the air. Suffice it to say I didn’t see that SEC game.) Michigan wouldn’t play until 2:30 p.m.—3:30 p.m., I always have to remind myself. I may be in a different time zone now but kickoffs remain he same. There’s no “early” game; there’s a noon game. Noon, three-thirty, eight. A schedule foisted on fans by the networks and ESPN, but a schedule all the same. I grew up with it. Anything different would be blasphemous. So a beer run it was.

And oh, those long shadows of the midday sun. It’ll only get worse until the year on the calendar changes. You walk out of your residence at high noon and get a faceful of late afternoon sunshine, the long shadows that come with it. These are the last, best days for fans of Big Ten college football teams, the kinds of days where we warn ourselves to “get out there and enjoy the weather” (whatever that means) before the thermometer stays below 40 until March. In a matter of days the skies will cloud over, permanently, it seems, and even the colors during the midday kickoffs will seem muted. The perpetually new green of artificial turf staves off the feeling, but only just. Watch any clip of a Michigan game from the 1990s (this is a good example!) and witness the half-dead turf. Witness the color palette running the gamut from brown-green to brown-gray.

Here we are, down the stretch. The last quarter of the college football regular season. Shit matters now. More than those nonconference tuneup games did. More than early season conference games against non-rivals. The old grudges re-emerge. Playing for a shot in the conference title game; playing at the chance to avoid going oh-fer in-conference. There isn’t anything special about the Big Ten, but hey, it’s all I know.

***

Division II football ends early. The regular season, I mean. This past Saturday, my beloved Grand Valley State University Lakers defeated arch-rival Saginaw Valley State University, 24-17. GVSU finished the regular season at 9-2, going 8-2 in GLIAC play. A lone nonconference game marks the schedule, the first game of the season. After that it’s all grudge games. Quit your bitching about how tough it is to play conference opponents every week, SEC. Y’all have that tuneup game in the middle of November the week before you play your biggest rival. Come on up and see us sometime. Bring a coat; lake effect snow hits outta nowhere in November.

All part of the benefit of a playoff at the lower levels. Keep it that way, I say. Give me FBS exhibition bowl games and pointless arguments about who would have beaten whom. (See also: 1997 Nebraska and 1997 Michigan. An argument that’ll live in perpetuity.) College football is nothing if not pointless arguments about that humdinger of a game that ended in a scoreless tie way back in the late 1940s. Peter, a lifer in row thirty-nine, a few ahead of you, was there and still spittles about it. The weather that day, my lord.

But as FBS concludes with its Michigans-Ohio States and Auburns-Alabamas, Division II marches on in its playoffs. For instance, the 2005 championship game (Wooo!) was played on December 10 in Florence, Alabama. If you’re a student, alum, or fan of a school with a good enough team to make it that far, that’s about three and a half months of uninterrupted football, save a bye week during regular conference season, or a first round bye if your team’s having that kind of a year. The playoffs start the week after the conclusion of the regular season, if I’m not mistaken, or the week after. No time to celebrate the defenestration of your rival. You’ve got the stress of single elimination playoff games to prepare for. You might see your rival again in the semifinals anyway.

***

Where, oh where, did I leave my beer? Oh, right, I left it in the kitchen behind me because Indiana returned a punt for a touchdown and I jumped off the couch and started pacing like an inmate in a small county jail cell. Michigan’s defense and special teams unraveled in Bloomington, thanks to Indiana’s pace of offense and ability to run right the fuck through the defensive line. Indiana! The last thread of sanity I might have possessed snapped right around the time the Hoosiers scored late to take the lead. I must have the strands near the half-finished beer.

I warned people that it had been a few years since the 67-65 triple overtime thriller against Illinois, a game I attended in person. Kevin Wilson, despite his winless conference record this season, kept games close, closer than they should have been. Indiana’s been doing that for a while. See Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan teams against ’em. 42-35 in 2010. 36-33 in 2009. Indiana hasn’t beaten Michigan since I was three years old. Sooner or later something’s gonna give.

Not Saturday. Not after I injected purest heroin directly into my eyes. Not after I left tract marks on the arms of the couch while Jake Rudock was straight dealing. Last time my heart pounded that fast from an activity that wasn’t exercise was in 2010 when Michigan’s horrible, horrible defense stopped Illinois’s two point conversion attempt in the third overtime. Right in front of our section, too. So Michigan, with the lead in the second overtime in 2015, broke up a pass at the goal line to finish the game. I hereby dub that performance the Mad Max: Fury Road game of the week. Now let us never speak of it again.

***

The pattern goes something like this. Sunday morning coffee, Sunday afternoon NFL action. A sterile balm to cool the burn college football left the day before. Nice and easy, nice and predictable, nice and slow. Monday morning columns, hot takes, fingers bashing keyboards to get ahead of the competition, get those coveted clicks and eyeballs before the other guy at another paper or network or blog. The wad shot early, Monday afternoon’s left with the litter of armchair quarterbacking. More sterile NFL football on Monday night.

Nobody remembers Tuesdays, and nobody outside of college football obsessives (read: me) cares about Wednesday night MAC teams going down guns blazing in games ending in scores of 52-49. By now the accumulated sleep debt starts to pile up. Maybe it’s been a few days since you’ve shaved and you’re rocking a nice five o’clock shadow on your way to the office Thursday morning. Have to work that in during the week somewhere, but your skin’s just so sensitive, you know?

Friday brings around game previews, predictions, and pontificating pundits (not to mention alliterative excess). Who are we playing this week, again? Those guys? Hey, fuck those guys. Sorry, in mid-November it’s hard to keep this shit straight anymore. Been plunking down to watch games kicking off at 11 a.m. and going straight through to the closing minutes of god-forsaken Pac-12 games. Three in the morning? Did that in college, thank you very much. These days I gotta get my beauty sleep so I can start all over again on Sunday.

Anyway, shit, Saturday’s here again and the early slate’s about to kick off. Maybe around halftime I’ll jump in the bathroom and scrape the stubble off of my face.

Final score: Michigan 48, Indiana 41 (2OT). Record: 8-2 (5-1 Big Ten).

Originally published November 16, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Ten: Those Dark Circles Under Your Eyes

Raccoon Boy. This was one of the many nicknames my parents had for me growing up. Pencil-neck Geek, due to me being a scrawny little second grader with a neck and adult could damn near encircle with one hand. Spooky and Skippy for reasons unknown. Buddy. Pal. Boy and its definite alternative, The Boy. T.A. Any number of offhand references when my given name wouldn’t do for whatever reason.

But Raccoon Boy, that’s on mom and dad. Blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin. It was bound to happen. Dehydration, fatigue, stress. Any permutation thereof. School nights after the time change and I looked like I had two black eyes. Some days were better than others, and on the really bad days, the days when I didn’t do my homework but lied and said I did, the days when recess went long in the last warm days of the year and I didn’t get enough water, Hi-C, chocolate milk, or Kool-Aid, that’s when Raccoon Boy came out. Eight ounces of fluid every hour on the hour. Early bedtime.

If it was bad when I was eight years old it’s only gotten worse in the years since. I learned to recognize that black mask after a long, bad, or long and bad day. Give me enough time and it’d become my hangover mask in college, too. And it’s more stark every year, it seems. Strands of gray hair at the temples, tiny fault lines at the corners of my eyes starting to reach the surface. And my eyes, damn my eyes, and the little half-moon bruises that never want to go away.

Blame genetics. Blame the weather. Blame the clocks rolling back, sending me home from work in twilight at 5 p.m. and carrying me the rest of the way home in darkness after the ‘L’ emerges from the subway. I see it at the end of the day, the windows of the train turned to mirrors. Deep and dark, smears of charcoal. And I’m not alone. It’s Chicago, and as much as everyone says they’re used to it, nobody is. Every year. In my face, in the face of the woman standing next to me, earbuds plugged into her phone, in the face of the man lucky enough to snag a seat at evening rush. Like cigarette burns in new carpet; like bullet holes in white targets. Everyone looks the same.

Feeling? Well, that’s something else altogether.

***

From The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead:

It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed into the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.

***

An affliction known by any other name. Call it Seasonal Affective Disorder. Call it cabin fever. Call it depressive disorder with seasonal pattern. Hashmarks on the spectrum of mood disorders, from “having a bad day” to “call emergency services.” Maybe all of those descriptors and diagnoses are right. Maybe none of them are. What’s one more armchair psychologist on the internet? I’ve got some notes from my Psych 101 class somewhere, probably. (Who am I kidding? Those pages are filled with doodles.)

I can’t be the only one who gets that caged feeling when the sun sets in the late afternoon. I know I’m not. Pedestrians walk a little faster to and from their destinations and origins. Shorter fuses, hotter tempers in line at the grocery store. More frequent honking from cars. Ruder behavior from CTA commuters. Every time someone inadvertently bumps into me on the train it takes a small measure of mental effort to not get worked up about it. City’s crowded. It’s not so much that everybody’s on their last nerve as all of their nerves are exposed to air, and any slight disturbance is liable to set somebody off sooner or later.

Six more weeks of this. Six more weeks of shortening days, dimming mornings, until the winter solstice. Long, late afternoon shadows at eleven o’clock in the morning. Earlier and earlier sunsets and then it’s pitch black stepping out of the office. You can see into the floors of the other buildings near the Loop. More businesses, some residences. Someone’s staying late, fucking around on a computer. Somebody’s cooking dinner, fussing in the kitchen with maybe a glass of wine. Zip your jacket on the way to and from the train. That wind kicks up out of nowhere and it’s awful cold some evenings.

***

From The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead:

The counterweight, conscripted into service by the accident, rockets into the aerie of the shaft, angry with new velocity.

***

The meat of college football season starts in November, or seems to. A solid month of conference games under a team’s belt. Accumulated injuries, scrapes and bruises. Tires out of alignment and shocks out of whack. And they’re only halfway through, the biggest game of the year remaining on the schedule, circled in red (or blue, or green, or any other school-specific color) for the rivalry played every year around Thanksgiving since your great-grandparents’ day.

Michigan, for its part, has run rampant. Other than the freakish last-play loss to Michigan State—god damn, is that going to live forever—and a hard-fought, lucky (or unlucky) game at Minnesota—the games haven’t been close. Small sample size, to be sure, but when’s the last time that happened in a season? 2006? And even then, one- or two-score victories over other Big Ten teams, strugglefucks against the likes of Northwestern, bad games in worse weather. Rich Rodriguez’s teams fell apart in October and November. Brady Hoke’s teams fell apart year by year, until the November slate seemed all but hopeless.

I don’t know what to make of it. I’ve been a college football fan long enough to know about teams being burned on fluky plays, shit that happens in one season not carrying over to the next. See Brady Hoke’s 2011 team (11-2) versus his 2012 team (8-5). See 2011 Southern Miss (12-2, finishing the season ranked in the AP Poll) and 2012 Southern Miss (0-12), its coach fired after a single season.

And it’s ramming speed until December. Run up the score, impress the shadowy cabal that makes the college football playoff rankings and selections. At two-thirty in the afternoon, laptop sitting on my coffee table, I tuned into Rutgers-Michigan expecting a bloodbath. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan did not disappoint.

***

From The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead:

The falling elevator’s wake is sparks, thousands of them, raking the darkness all the way down.

***

I couldn’t say when the switch of my fandom flipped from “dormant” to “borderline-obsessive.” Gun to my head it must have been 2011. I remember watching most games in 2006, Michigan’s last real shot at a run to the national championship, but even then I missed games because I was going to Frankenmuth, Michigan’s Oktoberfest celebration, or just because the game wasn’t on a channel I could get.

But 2011, when mom took me to every game in Ann Arbor, the season where Michigan went undefeated at home, beat Ohio State for the first time since 2003, went into the exhibition bowl with a double-digit-win season for a first-year head coach. (Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I’ve seen this act before, Jim Harbaugh.) Denard Robinson was about at the height of his powers and performance as a Wolverine, and when the staff pulled their heads out of their asses and ran a kinda of hybrid shotgun spread, he demolished teams. The Illinois and Nebraska games were pasting that season and Michigan put forty on Ohio State for the first time maybe ever.

All three games I watched this past weekend were blowouts of different flavors. In my early game Notre Dame beat Pitt in a way that the final score didn’t reflect the tenor of the game. I haven’t seen Brian Kelly’s offense humming like that since he was my coach at GVSU. The late game I tuned to, LSU-Alabama, was a joyless exercise in Nick Saban’s brand of nigh-unwatchable businessball. It was like going out for happy hour with friends on a Friday evening and instead getting a lecture on the world of finance, complete with PowerPoint presentation on a tablet.

And Michigan, oh, Michigan. I haven’t seen a Michigan coach run up the score like that since . . . maybe ever. It was certainly against Lloyd Carr’s philosophy, the coach preferring to build a ten- or fourteen-point lead and and sitting on it for the entire second half. Rich Rodriguez was never really able to rack up points on tougher conference opponents, the bananas 67-65 triple overtime game against Illinois being an exception. And more often than not Brady Hoke barely seemed to know which team had the ball. Especially after his 2011 season.

But Jim, Jim the Lunatic, Jim the Destroyer, Jim I-Never-Really-Made-It-Out-of-the-Puberty-Hormone-Rage Harbaugh. Dude elected to go for two points after a “substitution with intent to deceive” call, a penalty I never, ever remember seeing. (And it’s still not the strangest call I’ve witnessed.) Call it what you want, Jim, but that was a play out of anger, not strategy. Which I’m totally fucking fine with, after the last eight years of Michigan football.

***

From The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead:

So complete is Number Eleven’s ruin that there’s nothing left but the sound of the crash, rising in the shaft, a fall in opposite: a soul.

***

It’s never the fall that’ll kill you but the sudden cessation of motion. So goes the joke found as easily in summer action films as Looney Tunes shorts. I don’t know about the writers of those episodes but the fall seems to be so, so much worse. You fall and you fall and you want to hit something, anything but you just keep on falling.

I have before. Episodes hitting me with equal ferocity in November as June. You’re fine on either side but somewhere in the midst of it you find you’ve been laying on the couch in the middle of the day for five hours without so much as getting up for a drink of water. And that’s when those dark circles under your eyes are the worst. You’re not awake or asleep. For better or worse you just are.

I’m lucky. Health insurance and a pulse on my own mental health history sends me running to a head doctor at the first sign of trouble. Miracles of modern psychopharmocology—better living through chemistry. It seems so easy. Take one of each of these every morning and poof! it’s a whole new you. Not that that’s how it works. Every time in the past when I was prescribed a new course of medication I found myself staring at the little pill(s) in my palm for a minute. But I took them with my morning coffee, and a month later it was business as usual. Who’s Michigan playing next week? In Ann Arbor or on the road? How ’bout that defense, right?

I see it all the time on the ‘L’. Unfocused thousand yard stares, men and women living so far inside of their own heads they can barely listen to the voice announce upcoming stops through the speakers. I’ve been there too, I want to say. But who am I to say anything? The train speeds forward. This time of year, if I concentrate, I can look past reflections on the darkened windows, see through the glass to the city outside. Count the months to daylight all you want. I’ve got at least three more weeks of college football before I’m going to worry about it.

Final score: Michigan 49, Rutgers 16. Record: 7-2 (4-1 Big Ten).

Originally published November 9, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Nine: Anatomy of a Saturday Night Breakdown

Halloween was never a big deal for my family. Dad was apathetic at best and mom actively dislikes the day. Other houses in our neighborhoods would go all-out in their decorations with fog machines, jack-o’-lanterns lining walkways, front yards made into graveyards. Mom hung maybe a little plastic ghost poster on the window, put up a little pumpkin on the wall for the benefit of my sister and me.

Still, we did the yearly thing. Dad took us to pick out pumpkins to carve, always doing the most dad thing imaginable by refusing to leave until he found a pumpkin that looked like a bare ass so he could giggle at it like a fifth grader. So the night before Halloween, or the day of, dad would do most of the work and little sister and I would hack into them until we made something resembling faces.

Costumes were the normal kid stuff. I remember dressing variously as a construction worker (two years in a row!), a pirate, a ninja, a Ninja Turtle, a Ghostbuster. My sister went as a clown when she was three years old. Dad took us trick-or-treating, waiting on the sidewalk while we minded our Ps and Qs at front doors. Once in a while dad would come up to the house with us, a parent handing him a cold can of Bud on the sly with a wry smile and a wish for good luck with two young kids. How he juggled a couple of those with our plastic bags full of candy I have no idea. Mom, for her part, stayed at home and handed out candy, keeping a tally of how many people came to our house in the two-hour window allotted by the town. Six to eight in the evening, if I remember. A siren blared at the start and finish.

I outgrew trick-or-treating, never got into the whole costume party scene in college and immediately after. I half-assed costumes so I could hang out with my friends, friends who were more toward the fog machine and graveyard end of the spectrum. This year, with Halloween on a Saturday, I stayed home with a bag of mini peanut butter cups in the freezer and college football on the television. I wore a couple of gloves with hand an arm bones along with my navy blue Michigan t-shirt. I got exactly three trick-or-treaters, kids I knew were coming because my landlord and her eleven-year-old daughter live upstairs. I couldn’t tell you what the dressed as. I was preoccupied with the importance of Maryland playing at Iowa, wondering how in the world the Hawkeyes were, and are, undefeated. I have to hate it. Papa was a Cyclone, and by extension, so am I.

***

I went to my first burlesque show at the R Bar in Manhattan. I was in New York City for a few days because I had never been, and because I was in the midst of an all-timer of a mistake. (Of course it involved a woman. I am incredibly, comprehensibly lame.) I remember the bar’s interior lighting being almost entirely red (the R Bar! Do you get it?!) with framed rock and roll posters and prints hanging on the walls. New York City, and Manhattan especially, was four days of sensory overload. On my fourth day I felt like the city was closing in on top of me and there was nowhere to go. And a burlesque show in a gimmick bar with a woman I was fucking? Shove me in a hot box and toss the key in the sand.

Ten bucks a head for a cover, show for sixty or ninety minutes. Manhattan prices for beer, seven or eight bucks for a pink of middle-of-the-road shit. The good seats were already taken by the capital-f fans, so we kind of stood awkwardly in the middle of the floor for the duration. Others around us did the same.

The emcee’s stage name was something like Alex or Adam Cadabra, which threw me into giggling fits. Still does. But that he’s what I remember most strongly about the show ain’t exactly a ringing endorsement. It was hot, sure, but after the first few performers I figured out the template. Big band music, jazzy shit from the 1920s or Motown hits from the ’60s. Stockings, garters, corsets, pasties. Not quite a cabaret, but close. And the women for that show, at least, were cut from the same cloth. Same body types, same ethnicity. I later learned one of the performers traveled the country with the likes of Dita Von Teese, which was entirely lost on me. If I took anyone in attendance to a college football game I’m sure the confusion would have been inverted.

The show did set some kind of wheels in motion. I listened about New York City’s burlesque scene and its fucked up, ne’er-do-well cousin boylesque, which is exactly what it sounds like. Fun to think about. Despite my natural introversion I never had an issue with speaking or performing in public. I even have my stage name picked out (Johnny Crash, and fuck you if you’re using it, I called it first) and my signature song (Honky’s Ladder for the opening line alone: “Got you where I want you, motherfucker.”) for any variety of numbers. But performing like that—naked, for all intents and purposes, with every mark and blemish illuminated under stage lights burning hotter than the fucking sun—takes a measure of confidence I don’t have. My balls just ain’t that big.

***

Chili in the crock pot, cold beer in hand, half-cocked at dark. The heart of the Big Ten season and the battle for the Little Brown Jug. Last season’s edition infamous for what happened to Michigan quarterback Shane Morris, and the biggest, brightest bullet point in then-head coach Brady Hoke’s list of “Why I Deserve To Be Fired.” I watched every minute of the 2014 Michigan football season because I am not a smart man. But watch it I did, and the 2015 team is so far removed from the 2014 version it’s astonishing, even with a lot of the same players.

My irrationality may start when toe meets leather and end after the final whistle, but during the game I can bring the crazy with the rest of them. “They can’t hear you, you know,” my teenage sister said, eyes rolling into the back of her head, when mom and I watched away games at home and yelled at the television. I try to keep it bottled, more or less, and while I’m the portrait of a stoic Michigan fan on the outside, inside my head the scene’s something like T.V. static in a snowstorm.

At some point in the second half, I think—I don’t remember exactly when, Michigan being down 16-14 at halftime having shorted a few mental connections—Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock went out with an injury after a nasty hit from a Minnesota defender. Which meant a backup quarterback, on the road, in a conference game. Flashbacks to Michigan playing at Nebraska in 2012, or Michigan playing at Iowa in 2009.

If the scene in my living room were a cartoon, this would have been the point where the main character hears a loud, sudden crack.

I lost it. Yelling, jumping. Shouting every foul word in my vocabulary, going so far as to make up new and colorful portmanteaus. (Try to imagine what a “cockdicking fuckfucker” is. Or better, don’t.) Just shameful, as my Twitter feed from the game can attest. Cursing former Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Cursing MGoBlog’s Brian Cook and prominent Michigan writer John U. Bacon. Cursing Michigan’s seeming inability to have a viable backup quarterback ready to go at any time while the likes of Baylor and Ohio State—it’s always, always, always Ohio State—have plug-and-plays ready to go.

Woe unto the Michigan football fan, the program with the most wins in college football, the second-highest winning percentage behind those bastards in South Bend (the two alternating for first and second every few years, seemingly), a program whose lowest point would register as fair-to-middling for other schools and all-time great seasons for the likes of your Iowa States. Michigan fans still reeling from the terrible officiating during the Michigan State game? Talk to Texas. Talk to Duke. We don’t have it so bad. We have it pretty damned good, all things considered. If you would have told me Michigan would be 6-2 at this point in the season, even going so far to show me the final scores, if not how the games ended, I’d first have laughed and called you crazy, then would have taken it faster than a jacked-up heartbeat.

Michigan won the game, somehow. On a goal line stand no less. When’s the last time that happened? Minnesota looked the best they’d looked all season—I sat through their 38-0 pasting at the hands of Northwestern in Evanston, with a diehard Golden Gophers fan, and the Gophers looked hopeless. After a minute of bewilderment and a few more of celebratory nonsense (“Jug! Jug Jug! Jug! Jug! Jug! Jug!”) my irrationality evaporated as quickly as it gathered. I checked the time; time to get out of the Michigan getup, put on normal walking-around clothes, pretty myself up for a Saturday night in public. It was Halloween night and I had a burlesque show to attend.

***

Her stage name comes from a one-off line in Chabon’s novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It’s one of those in-jokes couples develop, a reference so saccharine I’m surprised my teeth don’t fall out of my skull every time I describe it. Fantastic stage name Dainty Lexicon is, though. Fits in with the burlesque scene’s penchant for the vaudeville (“Evelyn Tensions”) and the outright ridiculous (“Emma Glitterbomb”).

I paid for a ride down to the theater. Dealing with midnight drunks on the CTA during Halloween was about as far down on my list of desires as I could get. Flip a coin and you have about the same odds of getting a silent driver versus someone who wanted to be chatty. I tossed and lost, getting the talkative driver. He asked about my plans, how my night was going, asking if each turn he took was acceptable to his fare. Friendly enough but damn, dude, pedal to metal. City lights went by in a blur. I’m not used to staying out so late anymore. Midnight’s about the time my nights finish anymore, not start.

I saw her performance a couple of weeks prior, a Sunday night show in the basement of a little shitbox punk rock bar in Lakeview. A support column fronted the stage dead center so spectators had to gather on one side or the other for an unobstructed view. But this theater, Gorilla Tango, I had been to before. Lived around the corner as recently as a couple of months ago, and she used to stage manage shows there herself. And she comped me in for this go-around, and I’m not going to turn down a free ticket to a skin show.

I arrived a couple of minutes before the house opened, gave my name to the man working behind the counter, took chair near the windows to people-watch. At some point he commented on how carefree I looked. Girlfriend’s performing, I told him, and I’d seen this all before. He seemed to have remembered me in some capacity. I hoped he wouldn’t.

Soon enough we took our seats in the house. The lights went down, more went up, and bang, on with the show. God, she looked terrific. Black cat getup to Stevie Wonder’s Supersition. Flaunting bad luck on a spooky night. Opening an umbrella indoors; presenting a cracked mirror to the audience. And a ladder! All the winking theatricality and knowing nods to us as we hooted, hollered, and applauded at the appropriate moments. At intermission, when a performer passed a hat around for tips (better than any collection plate from my youth), I thought back to Halloweens past. If they all had been like this year, I would have put more time and effort into a costume. There’s always next year. Depends on Michigan’s football schedule.

Final score: Michigan 29, Minnesota 26. Record: 6-2 (3-1 Big Ten).

Originally published November 2, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Eight: The Importance of Being Idle (A Love Letter to a Bye Week)

Of all the names in all of the books in the 1980s, she had to have one of the most common. Call out her first name in a room full of her peers and more than a handful of women would turn their heads. Think Heather. Think Jenny. Think, “This person was born in the Midwestern United States in a specific period of time, and I know this based on her first name alone.” But it’s a family name, at least to my understanding. And what she goes by in her walking-around life, the diminutive, isn’t short for what you think it is. I sure as hell didn’t.

Date night was Friday; she was scheduled to work all day Saturday. Friday we went out, she in a dress and calf-high boots, me in a sweater, collared shirt, and necktie. Something of an occasion for us. Saturday morning I sent her off, loaded with coffee and held over for the day with a peck on the cheek. After she left I counted off a safe time, enough time where she wouldn’t have returned because she forgot her phone or an extra set of keys, and when I knew I was in the clear I set my plans into motion. I’m sentimental like that. I’ll get to that in a few minutes.

For the day I was left to my own devices. Normally time enough for me to get in character for a Michigan game but Michigan had a bye after all of that. For one Saturday in the fall I wouldn’t have to give a shit about college football. Not that anybody pointed a gun to my head in my youth, but a bye week for your team during the season feels like school was canceled for the day. What to do with these free hours? I checked the slate of games again; nothing requiring appointment viewing. Not for me. I get ABC over the air the best, so ABC I would keep on in the background throughout the day while I fucked around. Call it a waste if you want, but a day of neutral college football games and other hobbies, during the best days of the year, no less? Keep your summer vacations. Late October’s where you want to be.

***

The early game: Clemson at Miami (FL). I got into homebrewing because, apparently, I am trying to become one of the most obnoxious people in the city of Chicago. For Christmas last year my mom got me one of those Mr. Beer kits, unprompted. A lark, a laugh. The kind of shit you see on QVC at two o’clock in the morning when you’re drunk or stoned. (Notably, the kits are sold at Sears, among other places.) Brew your own beer in two weeks! Become the envy of your family and friends! Play with the adult equivalent of an E-Z-Bake Oven!

I screwed around with a couple of kits. Shockingly, neither turned out well. The end product certainly resembled something like beer—fizzy, brown, had alcohol in it—but the end product tasted kind of like soap. (Or cilantro, if you’re one of those people.) Still, I thought the process, even if it was simplified, was cool. Lit a fire, too. I was looking for something to do in January and February, a little indoor project that didn’t involve me staring at my laptop screen, trying to vomit up words, or unload on motherfuckers in the afternoons and evenings. So I made the leap and plunked down the cash for a starter kit from a place in Ann Arbor (shop local!) and went to town.

On its face the process is easy. Stand around with a few gallons of water on the stovetop. Put stuff in it once in a while. Stand around some more and wait for the wort to boil. Boil the shit out of it for an hour, adding more stuff once in a while. Cool it down in the sink. Dump it in a bucket with more water, stir, drop in some yeast, and leave it in a closet for a month. This is what I did while I watched Clemson grind the Hurricanes into a fine paste, listening to the dulcet tones of Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman, the best broadcasting duo in college football. (Put your hand down, Todd McShay.) I got the wort to a full boil right around the time Clemson went up 28-0. Crack the cap off another beer, laugh at one team’s failings and marvel because the other’s not ranked higher in the AP Poll than it is.

The stuff I brewed should be ready to bottle sometime around Thanksgiving—the day after, and the day before Ohio State goes to Ann Arbor to play Michigan—and should be ready to drink by Christmas. Which was the point. Sorry, family, hope you like booze. (And come on, now. I know you.) It’s kind of like pizza. Sure, the professionals can do it a whole lot better, but why not take the chance to make my house smell good? And it’s like a chemistry set, and the results will (safely) get you a nice buzz. And hey, mom and dad, it could be worse. I could be making prison wine.

***

The afternoon games: Tennessee at Alabama; Indiana at Michigan State. I couldn’t stand to watch the latter. Not for the runup to the game. Not after Saturday last. And listening to Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson bloviate over the marching band performing its pregame show shouldn’t be high on the list of anybody’s priorities. So, beer fermenting in a plastic bucket in a closet, kitchen cleaned up (more or less), and pizza to be delivered in an hour, I went on a beer run.

Sun shining, breeze blowing, leaves dropping off branches like big fat flakes of packing snow. Gosh, it was pretty. It rained earlier in the day. Water runoff flowed in the gutters, colored with tannin from the leaves on the streets. Like the smell of ozone after a heavy thunderstorm, the air had something different in it. Leathery, woody. I kicked through piles of leaves and the scent kicked up stronger. (First thing in the morning my girlfriend and I ran to the grocery store for gallons of water and a couple ice bags. You bet your ass I rode the cart through the parking lot like an eight year old.) Not quite peak color, but that’ll happen in a few days. A few of the trees are already bare. Blink and you’ll miss it. Blink and it’ll be the middle of November, two weeks out from Thanksgiving when everything is brown and you’re wondering what the hell to do about your waistline for the coming stretch of terrible diet choices.

On the way back to my apartment I picked up a bouquet of flowers. Nothing ostentatious, nothing garish. Aside from a sunflower and a couple of unblossomed lilies I couldn’t say what was in it. But they looked nice. They looked like fall. And they weren’t for me, anyway.

I lounged on the couch, fat and happy, flipped back and forth from CBS to ABC. Tennessee-Alabama was something of a game. Indiana did what Indiana always does—hang around for three quarters in then get its doors blown off by a team tired of Big Ten kid brother Indiana following everyone everywhere. Smack! Not that I wasn’t half-heartedly rooting for them—anything to knock Michigan State down a notch—but there’s an upset in the making and then there’s futility.

I closed my eyes in the middle of the second quarter. When I opened them again it was getting dark. An hour and a half of my Saturday, gone. Sleep debt is a hell of a thing. If only I could pay it off in scheduled installments like my student loans and not in all-or-nothing collapses on the couch. Or at least let me wait a day. That’s what Sundays and the NFL season is for.

***

The evening games: Ohio State at Rutgers; Florida State at Georgia Tech. Two of college football’s biggest villains playing at the same time, Alabama having escaped with a win over the Volunteers earlier. I’ve never been fond of Florida State—bastards beat the Virginia Tech Hokies for a national championship when I was in high school and going through an infatuation phase with secondary Hokie fandom—and Ohio State, well, they’re Ohio State. Fuck ’em.

I put lights on, sniffed around the apartment like a puppy investigating its new surroundings. I couldn’t sit still. Not enough physical activity during the day, maybe. Too dark too soon, definitely. (Repent! The end of Daylight Saving Time for the year is nigh!) I had a list of shit I could have been doing but it was my Saturday, a fall Saturday, a college football Saturday, and I’d be damned if my Midwestern sense of, “You need to be doing something productive right now” would get the better of me.

Laziness won. I was on the couch in front of the television, Ohio State up on Rutgers Shut the Hell Up to Who Cares, when she returned. After having spent the previous eleven hours working. Nice. I turned the volume way down, offered her a hard cider or a glass of wine after her day. She found the flowers and the other thing I left for her on the dining room table and came to sit with me.

The end of Ohio State-Rutgers predetermined from the get-go, I put the ending of Florida State-Georgia Tech on my laptop. Should have watched the entire time. It was a much better game, or looked to be. Tied 16-16 late in the fourth quarter, Florida State lined up for a game-winning field goal. I watched, curious, upped the volume on my little laptop’s tinny speakers.

Blocked.

“Uh oh,” I said.

A Georgia Tech player scooped up the ball.

“Uh oh!” I said.

This was all I could say as the play unfolded, like a fucking toddler. “Uh oh! Uh oh! Uh oh!” The Yellow Jacket neared the endzone. I reflexively put my hands over my head, the universal signal for a good play, irrespective of sport. I could root for Georgia Tech, my sister’s alma mater, a team with which I have at least the vaguest of connections. (As if that matters. How many non-alumni Notre Dame fans are there on the coasts?) They took down a team that hadn’t lost a conference game since 2012. A crazy play to end a game the second week in a row. Sorry, Seminole fans. I know how it feels. But at least the spotlight’s off Michigan’s poor punter for a couple of days.

“I love college football,” I probably said.

***

I was always a Timothy who went by Tim, except for my college years where all of my friends—all of them—called me Timmy without my having asked them or wanted them to. (High school went about how you’d expect.) Her? She’s a Kathleen who goes by Katie. I always liked that. When my schemes and antics needle her she’ll bust out the first name-middle name “You’re in trouble now!” voice. “Timothy Alan!” Yeah, but I can return fire, Kathleen Elizabeth. Come at me.

Two years. I put it in a note on a fresh sheet of twenty pound bond I stole from my office, used the typewriter that sat idle on top of the bookshelf since the move. And after I typed, after I put the Olivetti away, after I signed my name in ink, folded the note in an envelope, and put it with the flowers, I realized I never addressed her by name. I don’t need to. After two years I know her too well.

Final score: Vanderbilt 10, Mizzou 3. Record: 4-4 (1-4 SEC).

Michigan: BYE. Record: 5-2 (2-1 Big Ten).

Originally published October 26, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Seven: The Very Real Death of Fun

I only remember the Michigan-Michigan State game in 2011 because I didn’t get to see most of it. I had been working at the university in Ann Arbor for a little more than thirteen months, dug into a bland rut. At the time I still had cable—Comcast, for its innumerable sins, ran good deals for new customers in college towns—and flipped around the ESPN networks, trying to find the game. I must have flipped past two or three times before circling back. Michigan State wore green, black, and bronze; Michigan wore hideous all-white alternates (even more obnoxious than their current duds). This is what the game has come to, I thought. Everything and everyone looks like shit.

A prominent Michigan blog would refer to the event as the Trash Tornado Game, so named because of the plastic bags and shreds of paper swirling in and around Spartan Stadium. Tumbleweeds from campus life. The wind howled outside of my apartment in Ypsilanti. The panes of glass in the ancient windows rattled. Power lines whistled. My landlord had yet to turn the heat on (during the day, anyway) and the drafts blew through the poorly insulated rooms. I spiked hot tea with bourbon. I can’t remember if it was a noon game or a 3:30 p.m. game; the drinking clock is nonexistent during college football season. (Five o’clock somewhere? Drink a beer in the shower and get back to me, undergraduates.) The game matched the scenery, weather, and uniforms: ugly. Missed deep throws and runs up the gut for little or no gain. Bullshit Big Ten Brady Hoke football. I had a bad feeling about the end result. I had seen this play out before.

Sometime in the middle of the second or third quarter—those doses of tea warmed me up, among other effects—the noise started. A slow crack followed by larger cracks, then a ripping, rushing racket. All at once the power went out. My neighbors and I ran out back at the same time to see. A large tree in a neighboring yard lay on top of our cars parked near the garage. The felled tree crashed so hard and so suddenly it ripped the electrical box clean off the house’s exterior.

We called our landlord and waited. He showed up eventually, angry in all directions, but what the fuck could we do about it? He brought a chainsaw with him, started hacking away at branches. Meanwhile, my neighbors and I were stuck. Unlike a larger outage because of an exploded squirrel in a transformer, we had no timeline about when the crooks at DTE could come replace the box. That was a homeowner issue, they said. Meanwhile, a live wire lay across the roofs of our cars. None of us wanted to volunteer to see what would happen.

I walked to a corner liquor store for a couple of bags and ice and cheap beer. No use in even attempting to give the pretense now. Did I have anywhere I could go? No, I realized, not really. I was in a strange in-between place after the dissolution of one social circle and before the forming of another. I had a couple of options, could call or text and ask, sure. But I was an imposition, and anyway, those days I was doing my best to erase myself from the memories of others. Major depressive episodes do funny things to your thinking.

I lit candles, piled blankets on my couch and bed, attempted to start another novel with what juice my laptop had left in it. It got dark fast. That’s what I remember most. It was as if the daylight collapsed on itself, too tired to make it through to the end of the day. Candlelight flickered inside. Romantic, tragic. I was alone in the quiet. I can’t remember a time I felt more alone in my life.

Michigan lost 28 to 14.

***

One of the first differences I noticed when I moved to Chicago, other than the obvious, was how damn early it gets dark. I thought I knew it would be, moving from the western end of the Eastern time zone to the far east edge of Central time. Nothing prepared me. I moved on October 4, 2012, a month before most of the nation would set its clocks back. The days were getting noticeably shorter but not depressingly so. My second night in my new-to-me apartment, with lamplight, beer, and pizza, I looked the windows and thought, Jesus shit. What the hell happened?

It’s brutal in the winter. On the winter solstice, and for a couple of weeks on either side, it starts to get dark at about 3:45 in the afternoon, if not earlier. Get out of the office at 5 for that last little sliver of daylight. By the time the ‘L’ emerges from the subway it’s as dark as midnight. Only five more hours of this before bed! Rush home and turn on every light in the apartment to try to stave off that fever, that feeling you’re trapped. It always gets better but the first two weeks after the autumn time change are a doozy.

My dad used to take walks in the evenings after dinner. My sister and I were young, very young. I might have been four or five years old, which meant dad wasn’t even thirty yet. (Hang on, give me a minute to breathe into this little paper bag.) He occasionally grew a beard. For most of my young life he at least had a mustache. When it was dark in mid-October in Michigan, he’d load a pipe with loose tobacco and put his jacket on. I went with him sometimes, had my own little plastic bubble pipe. One of them was blue. So we walked around the winding streets in our little neighborhood. I’m sure I peppered him with the normal questions a kid that age has. We walked and he puffed. Little curls of blueish tobacco smoke curled into the bluer-black nighttime.

When I was feeling rotten in Michigan I’d sit on the back porch with a jacket and a finger or two of whiskey, let myself get chilly and watched leaves rustle and fall. In Chicago it’s much the same. Cut the lights and kill the music, listen to tires on pavement, the rattle and roar of an ‘L’ train half a mile away. Hell, take a walk and jump on the ‘L’ for a bit. Catch the last, best part of the day at dusk. Church steeples still the tallest structures of outlying neighborhoods, guiding parishioners and nonbelievers alike. Dead leaves blow on the city streets. If it doesn’t make me feel terrific, it makes me feel less bad.

***

Fourth down, ten seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Michigan up on Michigan State 23 to 21 in Ann Arbor. We know how this ends. It will live forever in highlight (or lowlight) reels, be included in every hype video in the days ahead of the annual game. Michigan’s ridiculous comeback thanks to Braylon Edwards in 2004. The Spartan Bob game in 2001. Uncalled pass interference on Desmond Howard in 1990. Go on back, go on back.

While I’m lucky enough (smart enough, on my very best days) to be able to maintain perspective before kickoff and after the final whistle, I’m a passionate fan. Pick your favorite sports cliche: a nailbiter; edge-of-your-seat action; a tense, hard-fought game to the end; throw the records out in a rivalry. Toward the end of the fourth quarter I about ground my molars to powder. Every time Michigan State’s Connor Cook dropped back to pass I stood and yelled “No, no, no!” over and over and over. For every Spartan first down a quiet, “shit.” For every Michigan defensive stop on third or fourth down, a fist pump and pantomiming the motions for Temptation. I hate it, but god help me, I love it, too.

After the final series of “No, no, no!” I allowed myself half an hour of disbelief or so. No Twitter, no postgame recaps or commentary, no fan message boards on either side. What the fuck just happened? Of course it would have to be against fucking Michigan State. Of course it happened like it did. Football makes no sense, at any time, ever, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you snake oil. Run his ass out of your town on a rail, preferably tarred and feathered. Peddle your wares elsewhere.

The rush and adrenaline subsided. I did what I usually do after games. Cracked a new beer open, started to clean up the kitchen. Flipped back and forth from USC-Notre Dame to Penn State-Ohio State, eventually settling on the former because it was a more interesting game. I fired off a few texts, gallows humor. “We deserved this.”-type shit. Jim Harbaugh has Michigan far ahead of where any reasonable fan expected them to be halfway through his first season. Sometimes you just get beat, as they say, whoever “they” are. And the same chorus sung by all fans, in every sport sooner or later: There’s always next year.

It’s still fun. I take my college football fandom as seriously as I take a lot of other things in my life, which is often, “not very.” Work? We’re all just shuffling paper around so a handful of people can make obscene amounts of money. I’m out at 5. Have a good weekend, y’all. College football? Go Blue, Go Lakers, beat those bastards in green and white or scarlet and gray. The Detroit Lions? All the best, but I can’t spend the time and energy. Never could. Michigan games are the best kind of distraction, anyway. Even if it means I have to sit for a minute and let the rest of October in.

Final score: Michigan State 27, Michigan 23. Record: 5-2 (2-1 Big Ten).

Originally published October 19, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Six: You Can’t Go Home Again, and Other Lies

The showdown started at a car rental company at high noon in Lincoln Square. I took the number 50 CTA bus as close as it could take me where I needed to go and hoofed it the rest of the way. Using public transportation to pick up a rental car. Ah, Chicago. Armed with a pocket full of vacation days and packing an iPod, I ducked in to the entrance as the sky drizzled in fits and spurts. The door didn’t jingle or chime. For some reason that disappointed me.

I booked a Ford Focus, “or similar,” in the rental company’s nebulous fuck-you-we’re-covering-our-asses speak. The rep, a manager-in-training by the placard on the front desk, processed my paperwork. I was getting nervous. The fleet of cars parked out front featured not a Focus in it. Maybe they had a few more in the back? I’ve rented elsewhere in this city before and they stash cars in places you wouldn’t believe. Like they materialize out of nowhere.

The rep drew a Mazda key from below the desk. A good sign. If I got to test drive a Mazda3 on a road trip, all the better. I signed the paperwork, declined the extra rental coverage in case I plowed into a school bus full of adorable children on their way to volunteer to sing to the elderly, promised to return the car with seven-eighths of a tank of fuel, lest I be charged nine bucks per gallon. He led me outside to check the car for scuffs and scrapes before it was mine for the weekend.

This car was not what I paid for.

A white Mazda2. In no universe is a Mazda2 the equivalent of a Ford Focus. A Toyota Corolla, a Honda Civic, a Mazda3, a Chevrolet Cruze, a Volkswagen Golf, sure! Four cylinders under the hood and enough get-up-and-go to merge into highway traffic at speed safely. But a Mazda2 is a go-kart. I’d get my ass kicked on the 150 cc difficulty in the Mario Kart universe. Traffic would blow my doors off so badly I’d need a blue shell to keep from being flattened by semis on either side of me on I-94. A Mazda2—for fucking real?

He handed me the keys and told me I was good to go. I slid into the driver’s seat and plugged my iPod into the auxiliary jack, took stock of my modern conveniences. Tilt steering wheel? Nope. Center console and/or armrest? Nope. Cruise control? Nope. That last one really got me. That car was designed for someone half a foot shorter and forty pounds lighter than me (and I’m dead in the middle of the bell curve for height and weight for my sex and ethnicity), but now I’d be stuck with nothing but a brick (my foot) for speed control for five hours. Terrific. I fired the engine; the 100 horses under the hood sounded like an angry beehive. You brought this on yourselves, rental car company that will go unnamed. A rental car is already the fastest car on the road. Let’s put this little bastard through its paces. It’s been three years without my own car and I’ve got an itch to scratch.

***

She had never been to Ann Arbor and admitted, after we crossed the border, she wasn’t sure if she had ever been in Michigan at all. Central Missouri to Southeast Michigan’s a hell of a hike. Chicago to my stomping grounds isn’t exactly a hop, skip, and jump. I wanted her to come to a Michigan game like I wanted her to travel to New Orleans with me. For fun, for sport, because we could, because she would love it.

We got in late Friday night, crashed with one of my best friends from high school in nearby Belleville. After breakfast Saturday morning at a local Coney Island (god, how I missed those), we had a couple of hours in Ann Arbor to kill before kickoff. Mom would meet us in front of the office where I used to work, all of half a block north of Michigan Stadium. What to do in the meantime? First things first: find an ATM to grab some cash for parking and concessions.

Thus started an odyssey.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. Mid-60s, sunny, breezy. Peak fall color was still a couple of weeks away, but Ann Arbor showed color enough. I pointed out landmarks and personal locations on the drive from Belleville. Here’s where I used to live in Ypsilanti! There’s the big dick! This is the exit I used to take to get to the office every morning! There’s the mall where I slacked off after cutting class this time of year! Ann Arbor’s size, liability when I left three years ago, became an asset. After the alpha and omega that is Chicago rush hour traffic, Ann Arbor on a football Saturday ain’t nothing but a sneeze.

I looped the little Mazda around the parking lot of the University of Michigan Credit Union. (Sign up today! Mention my name and receive a free UMCU key ring!) In all my years as a member, and my parents’ years, they never fucked me, never so much as inconvenienced me. A paper sign taped to the front of the drive-through ATM crushed me. A freak power outage struck the building at about 2:30 in the morning; the branch would be closed for the day, until DTE could restore power. Sure enough, a DTE cherry picker tinkered with power lines on the building. Plan B. There’s gotta be another ATM in shouting distance, right?

Finding an ATM in a small city is like trying to find parking in Chicago. If you manage to find a place you fall to your knees in thanksgiving and pledge to tithe ten percent of your income to a charity for a month. The fancy liquor store on south State Street, the one that let you build your own six-packs? ATM out of business, hombre. The Bank of America branch accessed through a series of connected parking lots on Briarwood Mall’s property? No drive-though ATM. What the fuck, man. Not only is this America, this is Michigan, the Ur-state for car-accessible amenities. All we needed were drive-through liquor stores, and even then I’m pretty sure those used to exist in far greater numbers in my parents’ day around AA.

She managed to snag a wad of bills from the interior ATM in that BOA branch. While she did so I parked and cursed and counted all of the reasons I left in the first fucking place. No matter. Onward. We’ve still got about an hour before we needed to meet anyone. Time enough to park the car at the Thompson Street garage and walk to South Campus. Let’s fight through a sea of maize and blue flags attached to cars and hope we get a little lucky.

***

A proud Michigan boy, born and raised, would be remiss without giving at least a cursory review of a car he drove for the first time, especially when the car was driven in Michigan. (Even if it was one o’ them fur-in cars.) So here we go:

That little white Mazda2, dubbed The Egg (“Someday it will grow up to be a REAL car!”) was a fucking blast to drive in city traffic. Darting in and out of lanes, taking corners at speeds that would put an SUV on its roof, pulling U-turns with a radius closer to a motorcycle than a four-door car. Zero to thirty from a red light took no effort at all. The little engine and transmission revved and shifted happily when I put my foot through the floor.

On the highway, it held its own. Better than I thought it would. Getting up to speed took a while, but with a long enough runway the little car got there eventually. And the car cruised at 80 miles per with little complaint. Road and wind noise invaded the cabin, the suspension let you know you felt every bump, and the speakers were too heavy on the bass and muddied the mix of the songs, but for a car that sells for about $15,000 new off the lot, hey. If someone gifted me a new Mazda2 for a year, no strings, and offered me the chance to buy after the first year, I’d seriously think about it. Assuming it came with cruise control.

I mean, my god. It’s like drum brakes. I know it’s cheaper, but my god, at this point why even bother? Might as well offer a “radio delete” option. Get at me, Mazda. I’ve got ideas.

***

Oh, to be young again. Different ages of young, too. I was eleven years old, walking with mom from one of the parking garages to Michigan Stadium, merging and separating from the herds of fans crossing Packard and getting honked at by impatient drivers. I was seventeen, much the same, older and shot through with hormones, layered with maize and blue on my way to my first Ohio State game in 2001. I was twenty-seven, barely keeping my shit together, trying to concentrate on small things, like the color of leaves on the trees or the smell and cost of a polish sausage from one of the countless vendors on Hoover Street.

I was home.

Undergrads partied in their ramshackle houses in the student ghetto. Whatever was hot on top forty radio pumped through speakers dragged out from bedrooms or propped in windows facing the outside. Cases of Bud Light (“or similar”—thanks, rental company!) littered lawns. Beer pong, blue plastic solo cups (red is a sin in Ann Arbor), fresh-faced kids getting drunk off their asses for the first 3:30 p.m. game of the season. They’d been drinking for hours, as I did when I was that age. (Kickoff at 7 p.m. is a wonder, I tell you.) At least the students, fueled by cheap booze, promised to be vocal during the game.

The crowd grew thicker the closer we walked to the stadium. We stopped to watch the Michigan Marching Band drumline practice in front of Revelli Hall. What little of what we could see, anyway—it was homecoming, and all of the Michigan Men and Women from years past descended on Ann Arbor from the far-flung corners of the country and the globe. It was familiar enough to me, but for my girlfriend it was all brand new. She compared and contrasted with her own experiences as a member of Marching Mizzou. We hadn’t even made it into the stadium and she was already loving it. How I got so lucky with her, I have no idea.

***

“Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Michigan Marching Band. Band, take the field!” The crowd clapped in time with the band’s 220 bpm marching cadence as they high-stepped onto the field in lines, then in formation of the solid M. The M fanfare. The drum major’s backbend. The march toward the north endzone and the drum major’s attempt to twirl his baton up and over the uprights crossbar. The band forming the hollow M for a rousing chorus of The Victors. Fist pumps. Hail, hail to Michigan.

The sun would be in our faces for most of the game, as it was for all afternoon games since she first had season tickets in 1990. We crowded in our seats as the minutes counted down to kick, fans trickling in little by little. Whether being crushed into the seats prepared me for life on the ‘L’ or daily commuting on the ‘L’ prepared me for the homecoming game, I have no idea. Probably both. Kneecaps grazing my back, my kneecaps in someone else’s sitting just at an angle with my shoulders turned so I had enough room to breathe. Girlfriend on my left, mom on my right. Let’s get this show on the road.

Jehu Chesson took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. Extra point good. Michigan was up 7-0 with 14:47 remaining in the first quarter and it only got worse for Northwestern from there. Several three-and-outs. A missed field goal. Michigan went up 21-0 before the end of the first quarter and it wasn’t even that close. Temptation, Let’s Go Blue, The Victors. Honoring Big Ten champions and national champions from twenty, thirty, sixty years ago. Beach balls and band dances during breaks in the action. Standing and shouting on defensive third downs until our voices gave out. A kiss for every score. Selfies with mom during commercial breaks. The accessories may have changed, the technology evolved, the stadium renovated. But my god, that kind of Michigan football, with a kick-ass defense and competent offense bulldozing a ranked opponent. No Michigan fan could have asked for more.

The sun finally disappeared behind the west suites and press box, throwing the playing field and most of the stands into shadow. At the start of the fourth quarter the maize and blue faithful started heading for the exits. Sinners and blasphemers, all. Once, and only once, when I was a kid, I asked mom if we could leave early when Michigan was routing a MAC school. Absolutely not. You stay in the stands until the clock hits 0:00 in the fourth quarter. So I stayed. I stayed in college when we were beating the doors off GLIAC foes, stayed in 2008 when Michigan went down to Northwestern in miserable weather. We stayed, chanted “DEFENSE” with the rest of the 100,000-plus crowd, demanding the third straight shutout.

I watched every minute of Michigan’s 2014 season. After that exercise in comedy, my god did this game feel good. This, this is the college football I remembered.

***

We ended our stay back in Belleville, eating Detroit-style pizza and drinking Michigan beer. The girls knocked off earlier. My best friend and I stayed up late, played the new Smash Bros. game on the Wii U. We haven’t changed since we did the same thing at sixteen. At thirty-one his beard has some gray in the muzzle; at thirty-one I have a little gray in my temples. He’s not much of a college football fan, and I was too spent from the in-game experience to care about the rest of the slate. Scores would be easy enough to find in the morning. I wanted to feel like I was home again.

Was I? I never really lived in Ann Arbor, not that I remember, though I was born there. My parents moved us to Tecumseh when I was all of nine months old. I worked for UMich but lived in Ypsilanti. I went to Michigan games but attended Grand Valley. In some ways being in Ann Arbor felt like a lie and I was an imposter, wearing clothes that weren’t mine in a stranger’s house I only used to see from across the street. But I walked the streets I walked over the years, sat in the same seats in Michigan Stadium with the same view of the field, drove the same roads and ate the same food I grew up with.

I couldn’t hit everything I wanted. We didn’t have enough time. Next trip we can do Corner Brewery. Next trip we can fuck around in Kerrytown, away from campus into weirder, more adult Ann Arbor. Next time I’ll be in a rental car I actually wanted. Next time I’ll still feel like I’m at home.

Miles driven: 600.1. Fuel economy: 31.4 mpg, city/highway mixed.

Final score: Michigan 38, Northwestern 0 (Homecoming). Record: 5-1 (2-0 Big Ten).

Originally published October 12, 2015. 

Going Blue, Week Five: Three Years and a Cloud of Dust

A Georgia fan convinced me to jump in the end.

At the turn of the new year from 2011 to 2012, right about when Brady Hoke was horseshoeing his way to a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech, I decided I needed to be gone. Ann Arbor was making me miserable. My job at the university was as dead of an end as dead ends come. Most of my colleagues had been in their positions for fifteen years or more and had no plans to leave, so I had nowhere to go but sideways. Not only was I among the lowest-paid people in the office, I was the lowest-paid person with my job title at Michigan. (Never, ever look up your salary in comparison with your peers of the records are public, folks.) They paid me enough to keep me nominally healthy. I didn’t even make enough to be able to afford to split a house or apartment in Ann Arbor, so I lived across the way in Ypsilanti. That was one of dad’s chief complaints when I was growing up—that Michigan considers the prestige of working at the university to be part of your salary. He was always only half-kidding.

There were other factors. I wanted to ditch my money pit of a car. I wanted anonymity. I wanted the smug satisfaction of knowing I was one of the ones who ran away from home to live in the big, bad city. I wanted out any way I could take it. New York City was a pipe dream; I visited for a few days the year prior and loved it, but by day four the city closed in on top of me, and anyway the city was poison thanks to my own stupid mistakes as a fuckup of a twenty-seven year old. I needed to go the opposite direction.

So that put me at Hopleaf on a Sunday evening in early April 2012. I burned a few days of vacation, booked a round trip on Amtrak, crashed in a hostel in Lincoln Park, my bunk one of eight in a big room, like sleepaway camp, if at camp you were allowed to get drunk every day. That Sunday I took myself on a solo bar tour of the city. I kept a list of popular neighborhood places on my phone, got lost on the ‘L’ and the bus system (I took the wrong way more than once), and chatted up the bartenders and regulars about where they lived. Map Room in Bucktown, Revolution Brewing in Logan Square, Huettenbar in Lincoln Square, and Hopleaf in Uptown. (Shut up, if it’s south of Foster it’s Uptown, not Andersonville.)

By the time I made it to Hopleaf I wasn’t quite half in the bag. Tired and buzzy but steady on my feet. A big bouncer with a long gray beard checked my ID at the door. He didn’t flinch at the Michigan driver’s license—he saw a lot of them, he said. I asked if I could just sit at the bar. He said sure, if I could find a place. He was right, of course. Fresh out of Ypsilanti, where Corner Brewery at its busiest still wasn’t super crowded, I had never seen a place so busy on a Sunday evening as Hopleaf. Luck was on my side. After a few seconds a couple reached for the jackets. I took mine off and slung my backpack over my head as soon as the bartender cleared their glasses away.

I ordered something or other. Hopleaf’s big on Belgian beer, so probably a wit. One of the bartenders was wet under the arms. He hustled the length to keep everybody happy, danced around his colleague. An old-style mechanical cash register sat front and center behind the bar, and every few minutes one of the staff punched some keys, pulled a lever, and ka-ching! After a while it became predictable, the same rhythm and structure as a three-minute pop song.

“Is anyone sitting here?”

I looked over my shoulder. The customer to my right vacated his space, either to drink elsewhere or because his table was ready in the back. I said no, not that I knew, and she slipped her jacket off her shoulders and lost herself in the laminated beer menu.

“Are you a local, or are you a tourist like me?” I said. For some reason I felt social. It was why I was there, after all. Half vacation, half scouting mission. I didn’t do this in Michigan. Hardly ever. Already the gears in my head turned.

Local, she told me. She seemed perfectly willing to chat, pass the time with a stranger. She told me she was recently back after spending four years at the University of Georgia in Athens. I laughed, razzed her, told her my sister was an alumna of Georgia Tech and gave her a friendly “To hell with Georgia!” out of sibling obligation. She didn’t seem to mind. She told me her name, which I forgot the minute it left her lips. Instead I peppered her with questions. Do you live around here? How do you like it? She returned fire. I’m from Michigan, taking a hard look at moving here. No, I’m only bringing my car to carry my shit, then kicking the fucking thing to the curb for whatever I could get.

Into her second and my third a man about our age appeared to her right and tapped her on the shoulder. I panicked for an instant. I had no untoward intentions. The thought never crossed my mind or my crotch. She introduced us and he and I shook hands. Their table was ready. I bid them a good night. She collected her purse and jacket, grabbed her mostly full glass off the bar. Don’t think about it for too long, she said by way of parting. Otherwise you’ll never do it.

I was officially a Chicago citizen six months later.

***

A Michigan fan, a Northwestern fan, and a Minnesota fan walked into Ryan Field to see a college football game. In the second half a Notre Dame fan joined in for the fun. There’s no punchline here, other than I didn’t watch a minute of the Michigan-Maryland game as it happened, and could not have cared less.

I’ve missed plenty of games before. In college, certainly. But for plenty of other occasions. Halloween parties when I lived in Ypsilanti. My sister’s wedding the first Saturday of October. Because the game was on a cable channel I didn’t get. Because I wanted to go see friends who lived in another city. Because I never wanted to be lumped in with the kind of people who flat refuse to schedule or attend social events on Saturdays in September, October, and November. College football ain’t a religion, despite what anyone south of the Mason-Dixon tells you.

They came in from Minneapolis. We hosted. They bought me a ticket for Minnesota-Northwestern that day in exchange for room and board for a couple of days. I had every intention of catching the Michigan game that evening, originally scheduled for 7 p.m. Central. But the powers that be moved the game to an 11 a.m. kick in an effort to reduce the game experience from potentially dangerous to miserable to merely uncomfortable. Hell with it. I wasn’t going to try to avoid the game and news at all costs. It’s not like you could record the game on your VCR, avoid television and the radio, and watch the tape without knowing the outcome. It’s not the 1990s, despite what the music on my iPod tells me. And anyway, given the choice between a traditional Big Ten game and a game against an opponent Michigan has zero history against, I will take the former almost every time.

Northwestern’s game experience made me appreciate Michigan Stadium. The Wildcats go all-in for chintz. Fireworks! Rock and roll! An overenthusiastic public address announcer who yelled “MOVE. THOSE. CHAINS!” after every Northwestern first down! I’m surprised Pat Fitzgerald didn’t use “Cult of Personality” as his entrance music like a professional fucking wrestler. (I got you, Jim Harbaugh.)

I watched the game with a mild curiosity, kind of like being at the zoo. I took in all of Northwestern’s goofy-ass gameday traditions. The students yelling “Go Cats!” after every big play and repeating “Justin Jackson the ball carrier” every time the PA guy fell all over himself. (I missed the stoic intonations of Carl Grapentine.) Playing rock standards to get the crowd fired up for the defense sure as shit isn’t Temptation after a third down stop. (And because you can’t have one without the other . . . .) Though it did take me right back to my own days in the student section at Grand Valley. “Put your fucking keys away!” to my fellow idiot undergrads. Rowing for every point after a score, and when our offense regularly put up sixty, rowing took a while. (Calm down, P.J. Fleck.) No matter which college campus you’re on, at a certain time of year it hits you right in the center of the chest and takes you back to twenty-two.

Minnesota got their asses kicked 27-0. We got a preview for the coming November weather. Blustery with a high in the mid-50s. Cloudy and gray without the blanket of overcast. My hands disappeared into my sweatshirt’s sleeves. Somehow I wound up with a red face and neck, likely the result of ultraviolet, windburn, and nips from the hip flask I stuffed in my pocket. I checked my phone periodically, glad I didn’t sit down to watch Michigan. Four turnovers in the first quarter between both teams and a score of 6-0 at halftime. Ugly Big Ten football. After the final whistle at Ryan Field I stood to take it all in before I bolted back to my apartment. Despite my scraping and clawing to get out from the shadow of Michigan Stadium, I wanted to go back.

***

The train from Union Station pulled into the Ann Arbor depot very, very late. Two-something in the goddamn morning. An hour spent waiting for a freight train to pass outside of Chicago and construction between Kalamazoo and Jackson slowed our progress to a crawl. I lugged my suitcase back to my car, right where I left it in the Amtrak-owned gravel parking lot adjacent to the Huron River. It was nice to be home but I had scheming and planning to do.

I wound my way out of Ann Arbor, winding through the streets after a few days on Chicago’s rigid grid. Ann Arbor was a ghost town that kind of night. Stoplights flashed yellow at intersections normally clogged with traffic. Instead of taking I-94 back to Ypsilanti I beat it eastbound on Washtenaw Ave. No point in going out of the way when nobody was on the road. I approached the intersection of Washtenaw and Carpenter, the casual, unofficial boundary between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the no man’s land of Pittsfield Township. The stale green light showed yellow, then red. So I sat.

And sat.

And fucking sat.

The in-dash clock showed 2:37. I listened to the engine idle. Between half and a quarter tank of gas at a time when the price per gallon sat right around $3.899. I’d had to cut back on other expenses to be able to afford to drive to work. (Never mind that I just blew a bunch of cash on vacation. Like I said, twentysomething fuckup.) No headlights approached from either direction on Carpenter. I cracked the window and couldn’t even hear traffic scream past on nearby US-23. I could have put the hammer down and accelerated through the red, but with my luck a cop would have been waiting for me. I knew then and there. Fuck this town, and fuck everything and everyone in it. Take my shit, people of Craigslist. I have too much of it anyway.

It took a while for the air to clear. Almost three years to the day from when I parked my car in front of my first apartment on Argyle St. to when I sat in the stands in Evanston. I burned rubber when I left Michigan, left little but a dust cloud and sour memories behind. Perspective’s a hell of a hammer when you start to know better. I’ve only been back twice, and even then only for a couple of hours each. That’ll change. I’ll see you for the second time in as many weeks, Northwestern. And Michigan, no hard feelings. It wasn’t you. It was me.

Final score: Michigan 28, Maryland 0. Record: 4-1 (1-0 Big Ten).

Originally published October 5, 2015.