Five years and counting

Five years ago today, I announced on my blog that I was giving up drinking for good. I had only started this blog a few weeks before, and had written just ten posts beforehand. Once I typed out my intention to give up alcohol I knew that this blog–or at least some part of it–would be a testament to this decision. And that’s pretty much what it’s turned out to be. I don’t write about it all the time, but it’s enough of who I am to mention it on occasion. I can now appreciate just how devastating this clip from The Onion is, too.

Our society glorifies drinking, and probably always will. And most people can probably handle alcohol in a responsible manner. But I was not like these people, for twenty-seven years of my life. I didn’t need to drink every day, and told myself over and over that I was most definitely not an alcoholic. Once I started drinking, though, I never wanted to stop. So it has to be cold turkey or nothing for me, and for five years that’s how it has been.

It will still be a few more years before my number of non-drinking years equals the number of my drinking years. Perhaps I’ll get there, and perhaps I won’t. I hope to, but life is a big unknown for all of us, so we’ll see how it winds up in time. I will say that I’m happy I’ve made it this far, and my vital organs probably are, too. Here’s to more posts like this one in the future.

Withstanding an urge

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When I started writing this blog a little more than four years ago, I had no idea what it would become. And looking back at well over 1,000 posts that I’ve written, I’m pretty happy with it. It’s essentially a clearinghouse for some of the words and ideas and images that otherwise would have died inside my brain, unable to escape that dark place in between my ears. So I’m grateful on that front.

One of the earliest posts that I wrote announced to myself–and anyone who may have stumbled upon it–that I was giving up drinking for good. I had made that vow to myself dozens of times before, usually while I was in the throes of a nasty hangover of some sort. But putting it into words that could then be sent out for the world to read made it official. It made it into a type of electronic oath that I dare not violate. And my blog has, over the years, reflected my commitment to sobriety.

But about a week ago, that commitment was severely tested. For the first time since I made the decision to stop drinking, I was gripped by an urge to have a drink. The circumstances behind it don’t really matter, and I’ll suffice it to say that my old habits wanted to get the better of me. There were some nasty old beers that have been sitting in my downstairs fridge for a long time, and they would have done the trick.

There’s a mostly-finished bottle of Jack Daniels in the basement, which I’ve written about before in this space and would have welcomed me back into the fold. It was a fold that I lived in happily for 27 years, in what sometimes feels like another life. It is the fold that most of our society inhabits, in one form or another. It is where we are led to believe, through advertising dollars and a generally unspoken societal norm, that we should be.

Whenever there’s good news, we pop some champagne corks, or buy a round of drinks for our friends, or generally go out and live it up, with alcohol in some form or fashion. And on the flip side, when things don’t go so well, we drown our sorrows and drink until the pain doesn’t seem so bad anymore. I was laid off, with dozens of my colleagues, from a publishing company several years ago and off to the bar some of us went, drinking shots until the uncertain future looked hazy, and so did the uncomfortable present. All that for $20 or so. A bargain, if you want to see it that way.

Giving up drinking wasn’t hard for me. I decided that I didn’t need it anymore, and that was it. It showed me that I never really needed it in the first place, but still I went along with it. But the urge that gripped me for about a half an hour a week ago was the first time in my life that I ever felt a physical pang for something.

Taking one drink–any drink at all–would set off a blaze that I wouldn’t be able to control. Most people have an internal mechanism for “knowing when to say when.” Some beer company genius thought that one up, I’m sure, to reinforce the idea that one or two drinks is all that a person needs. Ten bucks in a bar, depending on where you are and what you’re having. Hand the bartender or the waitress a little bit of cash, or a credit card, and you’re on your way. No worries, mate.

But I’m missing that mechanism. One drink can turn into two, and then five, and then forget about it. I never kept track, because I didn’t care to know. And after four years of living without it, I have no faith that I could somehow find the mechanism that I’ve never had before. The only way to live with booze, at least for me, is to live without it.

So I resisted that urge, and I felt good about it. The scoreboard still reads 27 years to 4, in favor of the liquor manufacturers and distributors and bartenders of the world, but it’s still trending the way I want it to. I doubt that I’ll live the 23 years I still need to even up the score, but life is a big question mark and we’ll just have to see how everything turns out. But I received a test, and I didn’t fail. I feel very good about that.

It’s the thought that counts


My next door neighbors are good people. I think of them every time I hear some people on TV railing about “illegal immigration.” It seem like a bigoted, racist term directed at people that the speaker doesn’t know the first thing about. “If they speak Spanish and have brown skin, get them outta here.” It’s antithetical to what America is, at least in my mind.

One day earlier this summer, as I was grilling up some dinner, my neighbor offered me a beer. I’ve drank more Corona in my life than I want to know about, but gave it up three years ago. But still, it was a thoughtful gesture, and one I didn’t refuse.

I took the cap off and made a pretend show of drinking the beer. I knew that taking a sip was a bad idea, because I’ve harmed my body in ways I’ll never realize by drinking so much through the years. But still, I wanted my neighbor to know I appreciated his offer. I wanted him to see that not every Anglo-speaking person wants him and his family to leave the country. And I wanted him to see that sharing a beer–as old of an American tradition as there is–is something that neighbors do with each other. In many ways, it was the best beer I never had.

The King no more



It was thirty years ago that I had my first beer. And now, all these years later, I wish that it hadn’t happened. While I never really needed it, there was a time in my life that I wanted it, and spent whatever I had to in order to acquire it.

It’s now been more than three years since I last drank a beer, or anything else alcoholic. A quarter of a century of enthusiastic boozing relieved me of more money than I care to think about, and harmed my liver and my health in ways that I will probably never appreciate. But there was another cost, too.

I spent decades under the delusion that alcohol made good times better, and also made bad times better, and even made uneventful times into something pleasant. It was a win-win situation, so long as you owned a brewery or a place that sold their products.

Our society favors drinking at every turn. Big money is spent on promoting the stuff, and in turn the money flows in like a beer running from a tap. As I was once fond of saying, you can’t buy beer, but you can rent it. And I rented quite a lot of it through the years.

The decision to ban alcohol in this country failed miserably, as it should have. People will drink, and trying to break this up was a fool’s errand. But the realization of what alcohol really costs–both in money and in other, less tangible terms–took decades for me, and probably never comes at all for many people.

I would never begrudge anyone the right to have a beer or two or 20. Freedom’s a great thing, after all. But whoever crumpled up the Budweiser can and threw it on the curb–just as I once did–is paying a higher price for their decision than they might realize. They might even discover some day that they can get along fine without it.

Be the best you can


This morning brought an old favorite from Mellencamp on the radio. I’ve written about “Minutes to Memories” before, but hearing on a cold and rainy morning in Chicago made me scream out the lyrics as loud as I could.

The line that really hit home for me is “You are young and you are the future, so suck it up and tough it out, and be the best you can.” Wise words, indeed.

Four years and a lifetime ago


I remember it well, that New Year’s day in 2010, when Northwestern played the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl. It was the first bowl game of the day, and I was ready for it with a mountain of alcohol. It was rare for me to start drinking before noon, but this was a big game and, well, football. That was all I needed, really.

By the time the game had ended, with Northwestern losing in overtime, I was already hammered, and the day was just getting started. By the time the last game ended late in the evening hours, I had watched a ton of football and consumed a ton of alcohol. The two had a symbiotic relationship with each other, to be honest about it.

I haven’t had a drink on New Year’s day since then. I’ve also just about cut television out of my life since then. New Year’s day this year consisted of two or three plays of the Wisconsin game (whichever bowl game it was) and–much more importantly–no alcohol whatsoever. It’s a decision that I’m comfortable with, because beer and television once had a long run in my life, and now I’m on to something else. Everything changes, after all.

Here’s to another year with little television, and even less liquor. And also to another year of wondering how I ever lived that way. I have no desire to go back to it, that’s for sure.

If ever I want to start drinking again…

…I’ll just watch this instead. It ought to do the trick.

Is there any way that something like this happens without alcohol being involved? I sure hope not. And the gif version of this (shown below) is pretty interesting, because it cuts out all of the post-crash commentary. That by itself is a good reason for having gifs.

…and odd months


Last year I went to see my older daughter onstage in Romeo and Juliet. I was taken in by the story, in a way that I never had been before. There are so many phrases and expressions that we use every day, and yet Shakespeare first put the words together, in a way that sounds good to this day.

A phrase that stuck with me–and it’s far from a well-known one–occurs in Act one, scene three. There is a question of how long it will be until a festival called Lammas-tide, at which point Juliet will be 14 years old and presumably old enough to be married. The answer to the question is “a fortnight and odd days.” I don’t know why it stuck with me, but for some reason it did.

I particularly like the “and odd days” part, because it’s not important how many of them there are. The fortnight–two weeks’ time–is the main thing, and everything else is not so very important.

The thought came to me today as I was walking home. It was a longer walk than I’m used to taking, and at some point I thought about having a beer when I got home. There are a couple of beers in the refrigerator downstairs, for the purpose of offering them to guests.

Here’s where the “odd days” part comes in. It’s been more than two years since I stopped drinking, after many, many years and many, many drinks. I was surprised by the beer thought during my walk, because I have found that not thinking about drinking leads to not wanting to drink. It’s pretty simple, really.

To offset this thought, I started thinking about how long it’s been since I had anything to drink, of an alcoholic nature. I came up with an answer that Shakespeare himself could have written: Fifty two fortnights and odd months. I never thought I could go so long without it, and putting it into terms like that made it seem like a real accomplishment.

For hundreds of fortnights, literally, beer was my friend. And margaritas were my friend. And gimlets, too. It didn’t really matter what I drank, so long as I drank something. Our society approves of this, and encourages it at every step. Turn on a football game and see how long it takes for a beer commercial to come on, if you don’t believe me.

I happily followed this path from the mid-eighties until the summer of 2011. And since then, I’ve gone a different direction. My liver is happier, I hope, and I feel as if I’ve managed to tame something inside.

This is not to say that those who drink are doing a bad thing. People can make these choices for themselves. But as for me, I made the wrong choice for a very long time. And in the years and odd months since realizing that, I’ve been much happier with myself. That’s something I never found inside any bottle.

The day my life changed


Twenty five years ago today, my life changed forever. The Cubs had announced that they would play the first night game ever in Wrigley Field on Monday, August 8, 1988. It was going to be an event, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I had put myself in position by spending the summer of 1988 on the Northwestern campus. It was the first time I had spent any significant time away from my parents’ house (the first two years of college didn’t count, in my mind, because I was supposed to be on campus then). In hindsight, it was the start of moving away from living in their house, and toward living on my own. It was a transitional summer, for me and for the Cubs.

Since there wasn’t an internet back then, the tickets for the first night game were sold by phone. I remember calling and calling and calling, over the course of two hours, to no avail. The high call volume crashed the ticket servers, but somehow all of the tickets were sold, and I didn’t have any.

No problem, though, since there were watch parties set up in Chicago. I was planning to go to one with a friend of mine from the dorms. But, as always in those days, libations had to be procured first. There was a liquor store in Chicago that delivered to campus, and an order was placed with them. As my friend and I awaited the arrival of our dear uncle (as we referred to him back then), she indicated that a sorority sister of hers would be joining us for the evening. That’s fine, I said, the more the merrier.

The liquor delivery never arrived, and the game started but was eventually rained out, and the girl that was my friend’s sorority sister became my girlfriend and then, four years later, my wife. We’ve now been married for 21 years, and have known each other for 25. I tell my two daughters that it was the all-important day that set their existences into motion.

Night games at Wrigley aren’t uncommon anymore, and those who remember otherwise will one day become a vanishing breed. But that first night game will stay with me the rest of my days, and I’m so very glad that I wasn’t able to get any tickets for it.

With all my thanks to Roger Ebert


Roger Ebert died today, and as a Chicagoan of 25 years’ standing, that affects me a great deal. I watched his television show with Gene Siskel for many years, but it wasn’t until after Siskel had passed away, and the show went on with someone else, that I realized what made that show work. Ebert and Siskel were two passionate, knowledgeable people with their own views and their own opinions. Sometimes they agreed, and sometimes they didn’t, and neither was afraid to tell the other why he was wrong about a movie. In the end, neither man succeeded in changing the other’s opinion, either. There wasn’t a “Ebert wins” or a “Siskel wins” determination made. If you wanted to break that tie, you had to go see the movie and decide for yourself, which is the way that it should be.

But I owe something to Roger Ebert, and it has nothing to do with his film criticism. I still remember how it felt to read a blog post he wrote called “My Name is Roger, and I’m an alcoholic.” When it appeared, back in 2009, I had been a devout drinker of 25 years. I never once considered myself an alcoholic, but after reading Ebert’s piece, I came to realize that I probably was one. The idea of only having a single drink was my problem. And Ebert wrote about this, too. When you take the first drink, he said, the second drink takes itself. And he hit the nail right on the head.

I can’t say that I stopped drinking immediately after I read this piece. It actually took about a year before I finally went all in with the idea. The behaviors that had begun on weekend nights in high school–and had persisted in a thousand ways ever since–weren’t going to just disappear right away. But an important seed had been planted, all the same. And just like a seed that needs time and sunlight and water in order to germinate, Ebert’s suggestion that life without alcohol was not only possible, but even preferable to life with it, needed some time to take root. But take root it did.

I first gave up drinking altogether in November of 2010. I didn’t go to AA, and I didn’t seek any medical or spiritual help. I just decided that life without drinking was how I was going to live. And I made it through the holidays that year, and past the Super Bowl, and all the way up until the NCAA tournament in March. It was only a few months, but I was very proud of myself, just the same.

I went to a sports bar with some friends one night to watch the tournament, and didn’t have the strength to resist having a margarita with them. I had one, and part of a second, and left the bar with a sense of disappointment that I had failed. I drank again in June of that year, having several mojitos and other drinks at a friend’s 40th birthday party. I bought him a 40 ounce malt liquor as a birthday gift, and it seemed hypocritical to do that if I wasn’t also going to drink that night. So I did. And I felt even worse about this than I did about the margaritas in the sports bar.

In between the sports bar margaritas, and the birthday mojitos, I had started this blog that I’m writing on now. I had always liked writing, but never pursued it seriously in all of the years that I was drinking. Now that drinking was being edged out of my life, I wanted to replace it with something that I enjoyed even more. So writing became my new drug of choice, I suppose. And after 900 and some-odd posts, and nearly 400,000 words written, I’m still at it. It simply would not have happened if I was still drinking, though. I can guarantee that.

There was one final coup de grace that had to come before I could be forever turned away from drinking. It happened on Canal Street in New York in the summer of 2011, and a night of drunken revelry with an old and dear friend from grammar school left me convinced that terrible things had happened. It’s a long story, and I’m so grateful that it turned out the way that it did, but at the end of it, I knew that alcohol and I could not coexist together ever again. And nearly two years later, I’ve held to that.

And now I’m writing, and happy, and very grateful that I was able to read Roger Ebert’s essay before my liver decided to give out on me, and before I got behind the wheel of a car when I shouldn’t have, and before I let anger and booze combine to get the better of me and make something happen that I couldn’t take back.

I feel as if I’ll live, for the rest of my time on this earth, without the things that alcohol brought to me from 1984 in Springfield, Illinois until 2011 on Canal Street in New York City. And I will be forever grateful to Rogert Ebert for planting that seed in the first place. By writing as I do–and trying to bring some joy into the world, as he suggested we must–I am doing my best to repay my debt to him.

Thanks very much, Roger.

Drinking, from XXI to XLIV


It’s Super Bowl Sunday today, and once again I have no interest in the game or who wins it. The NFL hasn’t mattered to me in twenty years and yet, with the Super Bowl being the event that it is, I wouldn’t dare miss it, either.

From the first Super Bowl of my college years, back in 1987, the game was an excuse to get together with friends and drink lots of beer. It was the building block around which all else depended.

Is the game on? Check

Do I have beer? Check

And then it went on from there.The wings, pizza, chips and anything and everything else at any Super Bowl parties I ever attended were just extras. The beer was what always mattered most to me.

And so it went, for decades of my life. I remember the last Super Bowl where I drank, Super Bowl XLIV where Drew Brees beat Peyton Manning (and whatever teams they each played for). I drank like a fish, for hours on end. It was nothing out of the ordinary, for what is a Super Bowl if not a premise for an overdone tailgating party? But for the first time in my life, I took note of what it said about life, and the way I had been living it.

I didn’t have an epiphany the next day, where I renounced all my ways and then didn’t touch the stuff ever again. That finally did happen, closer to the end of 2010. So today, using the Super Bowl’s preferred notation, will make III Super Bowls where Diet Coke is the strongest thing I’ll avail myself of. The first one was a challenge, but by now I probably won’t even give it a second thought.

I’m not a sermonizing dry drunk. Any grown-up (which wasn’t yet me back when Super Bowl XXI was played) has the right to put this into their body if they want to. There’s certainly no room for me to suggest otherwise. There are also risks involved, since too many people die from alcohol abuse and drunk driving and fights that can break out where one or both parties have consumed more than a sensible amount. But my experience–earned over the course of XXIV (and that’s 24) Super Bowls–is that the only sensible amount–at least for me–is none at all.

Something I once enjoyed


By 1984, the year that this baseball card came out, I had moved away from my boyhood interest in baseball cards. I had moved away from baseball toward videogames in the early 80s, and by the middle of the decade I had shifted to drinking beer instead. Of course I was 21 and fully legal when I started. Nobody ever drinks when they aren’t of age, do they?

Anyway, the sight of a baseball player wearing a hat/umbrella made entirely of Budweiser logos would have once struck me as a very cool thing. And the eight and nine year olds pulling this card from of a pack of them might have received the same message. Do with that whatever you will.

I hope Jay Johnstone got a nice holiday card from Budweiser, at least.

The radio is enough


The BCS title game is about to kick off in Miami, and I’m hoping for a competitive game. But the truth is, I won’t be watching it. My cable package doesn’t include ESPN, so I can’t watch it at home. I would feel strange nursing a Diet Coke in a bar, since I’ve committed myself to not drinking any more. So here I am in the car, listening to the game on the radio.

Times change, and people change, too. So TV and beers are out, and radio and writing for my blog are in. It should have happened a decade ago, but better late than not at all.

Here’s to a game worth writing about tomorrow.

UPDATE: It’s 21-0 Alabama right now, and things aren’t looking too good for Notre Dame. So what does the picture have to do with anything? Nothing, really, but it was the coolest thing that I could find on my cellphone as I was typing this out. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

UPDATE 2: Final score was 42-14 Alabama. Not too many saw that coming, I’m sure. Notre Dame is getting pummeled on Twitter, too. Funniest tweet may have come from @KateUpton, who said this: “It’s okay Notre Dame this happened to the Jets every week.” Ouch!

Notre Dame had an amazing season and deserves credit for being a far better team than most people thought. I’m sure that’s cold comfort this evening, though.

The old beer game


To follow up on the last post that I wrote, this is an example of what has replaced the old TORCO sign across from Wrigley Field. For all I know, it’s still up there today, and has been there since the season ended in early October. There’s no reason to change it now, since there are no fresh eyes coming to Wrigley Field. But some marketing people are probably already at work, thinking up witticisms to use when next season begins.

“Last call” inside the ballpark seems to begin in about the 5th inning, to the beer vendors who work the stands. But there’s really no such thing, when it comes to alcohol in our society. If you have money, and you want a drink, somebody will find you and make it available to you. That’s the American way.

Whether that’s right or wrong isn’t for me, or anybody else, to say. People make their own decisions in these matters. And now, as marijuana is legal in two states–with more certainly to follow–the same questions will arise. I’ve already seen pictures of people lighting up beneath the Space Needle, and the term “Rocky Mountain High” is about to take on a whole new meaning.

Will the federal government, which bans marijuana, try to force Washington and Colorado to toe the line? Or will other states decide to take the same path in order to force the government’s hand, one way or the other?

If Prohibition taught us anything, it’s that some people are going to use banned substances, while others will make vast amounts of money by providing these substances. For them, the profit will be worth the risk.

Enforcing laws that people aren’t inclined to follow not only drains away resources, but it also breeds contempt for the law in general. And don’t tell me that tourism to Washington and Colorado isn’t picking up, either. This might be the first Spring Break in recorded history where college kids go chasing after snow peaks instead of palm trees.

Besides, I bet there would be some very interesting billboards going up outside of Wrigley Field if legalization ever came to Illinois. Much more interesting than “Last Call,” anyway.

Here’s what President Romney would do

The Obama campaign, with a week to go before the election, came out with a very effective piece that tackles Willard M. Romney’s claim that he never raised taxes when he was the governor of Massachusetts.

At the end of the piece, there is an opportunity to download the entire list of increased fees during Romney’s governorship. The list runs almost 70 pages, filled with what I would call “nickle and diming” of the people of his state. He wins the election, raises existing fees or creates new ones, sees his approval rate plummet, and decides not to run for a second term as governor, because he knows he cannot win re-election with that kind of a record. And does anyone believe he would be any different as president? I  sure don’t.

I picked just one of the hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of fees that were raised under Romney’s tenure as governor. It is: Increased the fee for permits for salesmen to solicit orders for alcoholic beverages from $15 to $200. [Source: 2003 Massachusetts Budget]   An increase of this magnitude certainly hurt salespeople, but it also doubtlessly got passed on to those who buy the alcoholic beverages in the first place.

Prices went up to offset the tax increase, but the source of that increase–the higher tax–remained hidden from the public’s eye. It’s clever on some level, and devious on another level, but it’s also exactly what would be done to all of us if Romney should somehow prevail next week. This is not the main reason to vote for President Obama, but it is something that we’re all being hereby warned about. Don’t for a second think it won’t happen, either. The precedent is right there, for those who care to see it.

What margarita?

Alcohol used to be one of my favorite things in life. I was, let’s say, a young guy when I started drinking, and it was a constant in my life for a very long time: A beer while watching TV, a glass of wine at dinner, and of course a healthy bar tab at restaurants or social functions. I did it without ever giving it any thought. It was as automatic as drawing breath.

Margaritas were easily one of my favorite drinks. The stronger the drink, and the bigger the glass it came in, the happier I was. Salted rims, lime juice, you name it, I was always up for it. After all, you can’t enjoy Mexican food without it, or so I thought.

So when I was able to resist ordering a margarita in a Mexican restaurant recently, it felt like a small victory. OK, more like a large victory. And it turns out Mexican food is just as good without a side order of lime and booze. Who knew?

At the end of the dinner, I spied a half-finished margarita on the table (and no, I didn’t order it). The urge to pick it up, give it a sniff, and possibly have a taste of what I’ve been missing never entered my mind. I’ve put my liver through enough already, and now I’m hoping that laying off the margaritas, and everything else with alcohol in it, will allow my internal organs to keep on working like they should. That’s the hope, anyway.

Everybody understands the impromptu

The title for this post comes from a Jimmy Buffett song called “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami” from his Fruitcakes album, from some time in the 1990s before he started opening restaurants and selling beer. If a person can become a brand, Jimmy Buffett’s is about as interesting as it gets.

So this song was stuck in my head today, and the line about “the impromptu” tugged at my imagination a little bit. I supposedly understand it, according to the song’s lyrics, so I may as well figure out what it is. My guess is that sometimes you don’t know what’s coming your way, and when you do you just have to make something up and hope for the best. Like when a quarterback changes the play at the line of scrimmage in football. Sorry about the football analogy, but it seems to work.

Intuition takes over sometimes. The best-laid plans get tossed aside when something unfamiliar comes along. You hope for the best, but it’s really just some improvised crap that might work, and it might not. We all do that everyday of our lives, so if that’s what it is, then yes, I guess I understand it, after all. And now for a lyrical outro:

We got a look, we got a style, we got that old panache

Everybody’s got a cousin in Miami….

Ali Baba and the 40 thieves

I remember what goofy fun the first Beastie Boys album, Licensed to Ill, was when it first appeared in 1987. It wasn’t their first record, but it was the first time that I, a college kid in Chicago, had ever heard of them. And one of the songs from that album, Rhymin’ and Stealin‘, had, apparently for no reason, the line that’s the title to this post repeated over and over again, as a sort of break from their nautical-themed rhymes about Davy Jones’ locker and, of course, alcohol consumption. Lots and lots of alcohol consumption, which was exactly where I was at back in those days.

The Beastie Boys changed a lot since then. Actually, the whole world’s changed a lot since then. As for myself, I’d hardly even know what to say to the person that I was back in 1987, if I were to ever have a chance to see him again. It’s probably better that I won’t, because that guy needed some serious attitude readjustment, and the 2012 version of me wouldn’t have been shy about giving it to him, either.

I bring all this up as a segue into the number 40. I realized this morning that I’ve written 40 posts in this space in July, and this one will be the 41st. The month’s not over yet, and I can add a couple more to that total before August rolls around. (NOTE: I wound up at 45 posts for the month.) It’s fair to say that I’ve been more productive–at least in this space–than I have been for quite some time.

I doubt that I’ll ever top the productive output that I had last October, when I somehow found the time to get 79 of these little word bubbles out into cyberspace. By those standards, I’m just barely halfway to that total with the 41 posts I’ve done this month. It’s all a matter of perspective, as always; More posts have been created in August than in previous months, but how did I ever get any sleep back in October?

And now, it’s off to see if I can’t put on some old Beastie Boys this morning, just to appreciate how much things have changed since then.

All we are is dust in the wind

One of the coolest and most unanticipated things about writing this blog is the sense of engagement it offers with the things that I’ve written about. And this is most evident with songs that I’ve heard, or seen videos for, all my life.

I once wrote about the alternate lyrics for Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner“, and about singing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” in the shower, and even about hearing Lynrd Skynrd’s “Freebird” in a setting that I wasn’t expecting to. Those songs, and many others that have appeared here in some way, are still just as they always have been, but I can now hear these songs on the radio and think “I’ve written about that.” They don’t become my songs, but I have at least attached some of my own words to somebody else’s songs, and that’s something to me, at least.

Last weekend I was with my family at a theme park north of Chicago. There was a karaoke stage set up, and people (mostly kids) could choose a song and then go up on stage and sing it. When adults do karaoke, there’s typically alcohol consumption that precedes this.  Why? Because adults need their inhibitions lowered before they will prove to the world they can’t actually sing, and alcohol is apparently the preferred method of accomplishing this.

I decided that, although I haven’t had a drink for some time now, I also wasn’t yet ready to give up on doing karaoke. I can’t sing very well, as I’m constantly reminded around my house, but I wanted to go ahead and do it, anyway. And alcohol wasn’t going to be needed to pull it off, either.

Driving into work a few days earlier, I had stumbled upon Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and I listened to its lyrics intently. The sense of all things being temporary really appealed to me, as I’ve now entered the stage in life where I pay more attention to the deaths of notable people from my childhood, like Gary Carter and Andy Griffith and Sherman Hemsley. However long my own life lasts, the time will come when I float off into the wind, just like everyone else. And Kansas seemed to grasp this idea when they wrote this song.

So even though there was a big book of songs available, there was only one that I wanted to sing, up on the stage and in front of whatever strangers might be happening by at the moment. Since looking ridiculous didn’t bother me, I didn’t need any chemical assistance in lowering my inhibitions. I only wanted to close my eyes (which is the first line in the song, coincidentally enough) and acknowledge the fact that life is a passing gift to all of us. And that’s just what I did, over the next three minutes.

My voice cracked, and the rest of my family was mortified, but when the song was over, I felt as if I had made some kind of a primordial affirmation about life’s transience. And by writing about it here, this affirmation can live beyond whatever time that I have left on this earth. Or, to paraphrase Kansas a little bit, “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky. Oh, and the internet, too.

A change for the better

Friday night in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The local drive-in theater had switched its weekly double feature to two movies that I had no interest in seeing. That’s really not so hard to do, anymore. I begged off from the drive-in outing that my wife and other relations were planning, and, as a result, I had the summer cabin all to myself. There were two dogs around to keep me company, at least.

Two years ago, the last time I was here on Cape Cod–and every other time that I’ve ever been here in my life–I know exactly what that would have meant. There would have been a trip to the local liquor store to pick up a 12-pack of Corona and a lime. And I would have spent the evening working through as many of those 12 bottles as I could.

My guess–one based on decades of experience–would be that two (or maybe three) bottles would have made it to the morning unopened. Finishing off all 12 would have been a distinct possibility, too. I wouldn’t have thought twice about doing this, either, because I wasn’t getting behind the wheel of a car. With my apologies for the golf analogy, knocking back the better part of a 12-pack over the course of four or five hours was about par for the course.

But over the past two years, things have been different. I decided that drinking for more than a quarter of a century was finally enough, and that cutting alcohol out of my life was the right thing to do. And, other than a couple of incidents in 2011, I’ve held to that. By the time I leave Cape Cod next weekend, it will be a full year for me without any alcohol. I’m already thinking of it as Y W/O B (or Year Without Booze), part 1. Last night, if not exactly the one year anniversary of my last drink, was certainly the emotional climax of this process.

The last time I went a full twelve months without introducing any booze into my system would have been in the early 1980s. It’s not quite 30 years, but just about that long. I was probably not even seventeen before going out on the weekend meant obtaining, and consuming, any form of alcohol that I could find.

The hard truth is that I never missed a chance to have a drink, all throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of this century. Did it affect my life? I can’t think of anyway to suggest that it didn’t. How could anything that’s done over the course of so many years not have an impact?

A year after giving up drinking, I don’t feel too much different, physically. I don’t even think of this as “sobriety,” to be truthful about it. But psychologically, I feel so much better than I ever have. I’m also setting a positive example, I hope, for my children to follow as they get older.

I’m happier not knowing exactly how much money that I’ve given to various brewers, distillers, bars, restaurants, package good stores, and other social and business organizations for my fleeting bursts of intoxication over the years. Now I’m doing other things with that money, instead. Even if I’m just putting it all into the gas tank, it’s a financial boost, just the same.

This is not, in any way, meant to disparage anyone who decides that drinking is the right thing for them. I’m not a sermonizing dry-drunk, and I don’t want my motivations misunderstood. I loved drinking, for reasons I can’t understand and won’t even begin to explain, but I eventually changed my position on it. I adapted, or evolved, or let the winds of changes blow until they knocked me off my long-established course. It happened, and I’m willing to share that with anyone who happens along into this space.

As for how long this will last, I don’t have any idea. Maybe I’ll start drinking in a responsible manner someday, and maybe my last drink is now behind me. But last night’s absence of drinking–which once would have been unimaginable for me–certainly feels like a move in the right direction.

Someday we’ll go all the way

Being a Cubs fan is very hard. No, baseball is not life and death, and so I won’t pretend that people don’t have it a lot worse than I do. I’m fortunate, in many ways, with how my life has turned out. And yet….

Imagine waiting for something your whole life. Then imagine the sense of dread and disappointment that comes up whenever you have to confront the reminders of that thing you’ve been so patiently waiting for:

Cardinals win the World Series, again? That could be us, somehow.

Red Sox win and break their so-called “Curse of the Bambino”? I can’t wait see that for my team!

White Sox win, and then their fans can’t stop talking about it?  I’d do the same thing if I was in their shoes, but of course I’m not.

And it goes on from there. And I won’t even try to explain what it’s like to watch the Arizona Diamondbacks win a World Series.

That’s what makes this trailer for MLB 12 The Show so oddly spellbinding. It takes the one moment that I, and millions of others, have been waiting our whole lives for, and shows us how we’ll react when it happens. There will undoubtedly be shouting, fireworks, tears, and a whole lot of things that we haven’t yet been allowed to experience. “Crying and covered in beer” is how Eddie Vedder once put it. And the thought of it actually happening is enough to make the guy playing the video game in the commercial cry. And I can’t say that I blame him.

Will I live to see it happen? I sure hope so, but until it does this video game trailer will just have to do. And a month from now, the games on the field will count. It can’t come soon enough for me.

Then and now

After taking my little one to skating practice this morning, lacing up her skates and listening to the details from a sleepover party last night, I went out to the car and found a penny in the parking lot. As I have written about before in this space, I picked it up and looked at the year the penny was minted. And the year I saw–1986–may well have been the most momentous one in my life to this point. In fact, it was the turning point.

The picture above shows me as I was in 1986. I’m in the middle column, at the bottom of the page. The picture was taken by a local photographer, and it appeared in my high school yearbook as well. Seniors had their pictures published in color, while everyone else had to settle for smaller pictures in black and white. Rank has its privileges, both then and now.

The book that this page was taken from appeared in was what we all called the “Freshman facebook.” It’s funny how today everybody knows about Facebook in a different sense. But I, and all the rest of my classmates, were in a facebook of a different sort. And this is helpful for getting at who I was back then.

My name appears along with my nickname and home address. I never actually lived in Springfield, Illinois, but in a small village–a suburb, actually–that bordered Springfield. In hindsight, I wish I had just put Jerome, Illinois as my mailing address, since it did set me apart from nearly everyone else that I knew back then. But setting yourself apart from the herd is not something that the 18-year old version of me wanted to do. Thankfully, I’m more willing to do that now.

Below my address (and somebody lives there today, but not me or my family) are my interests which, if I had been completely honest about it, would have also included drinking beer, but I couldn’t publicly own up to that. The interests that I was willing to share with all of my soon-to-be classmates are kind of funny: basketball (Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, particularly), baseball (anyone who’s ever read this blog knows about that), and rock music (see yesterday’s post about Van Halen’s tour for evidence of that). The basketball interest has faded somewhat, but the other interests are still right up there, a quarter of a century later.

Below my interests are the place I graduated from high school (which no longer exists) and my intended major. I viewed political science as my pre-law major, and even though my school didn’t have a pre-law curriculum, I had every intention at that point in my life of becoming a lawyer some day. Fate had other ideas, as it so often does, but without fate I wouldn’t have been in Northwestern’s freshman facebook to begin with (there’s more about that here).

I drove home from the skating rink, turning 1986 over in my head, and thinking about how different I am from the person who occupied that space at the bottom of page 52. I wondered what the 2012 me and the 1986 me would say to each other. That sort of thing pops up on Twitter every so often, with a hashtag like “#thingsIwouldtelltheyoungerme.” I have become, in many ways, what the younger me wanted to become, but would never say so publicly.

I’ve lived into my 40s, which I’ve learned that not everybody gets to do. I have a family, with a wife and a dog and two kids I would do anything for. I also own a house in a historic part of a city that I love almost as much as my family. I drive two cars–a hybrid and a minivan–which didn’t exist back in 1986 but serve their purpose very well. I have seen some of the world, which the 18 year me had not yet done. I have a career that has allowed me to do some interesting things, while not also consuming my every waking moment. I drink coffee–which the 18 year old me would have thought impossible–but I don’t drink  alcohol, which the 18 year old me would have though equally as impossible. And I still love rock and roll, and am looking forward to concerts by some of the same performers that I listened to back then. The 18 year old me would have really loved the Loop.

The place I’m at in life today is the result of the course I began charting back in 1986. I was on my own, for the first time in my life, and I enjoyed all of the freedoms that came with this. But I stayed on the path, not knowing where it was going to end up. And this morning–as I’m hearing my older daughter laugh with a friend in the next room while writing down some thoughts to share with the wider world–I must say that I am happy with how things have turned out.

One of my favorite songs back in 1986 was “Foreplay/Long Time” from Boston’s debut album. The lyrics of that song include the lines “I’ve got to keep on chasing a dream/or I may never find it”. I left my parents home in 1986 to chase a dream that I couldn’t define very well back then, but what I’ve found since then fits the bill better than anything I could have imagined. I’m not a millionaire or a celebrity or anything that a typical 18 year-old fancies himself to be one day, but I am a middle-aged, middle class dad who knows what really matters in life, and has everything that he needs to have. And I’ll take that every day of the year.

A big change over the past year

Last fall I went out of town for a few days on a business trip. And one of the things I typically do on the road is go to dinner with some colleagues. For the last night of the trip, I hit Yelp! and started looking for a brewpub. For me, the actual food type was less important than the beverages that came with it. And when I found a place with 23 beers on tap that also happened to serve barbecue, I knew where I was going to dinner.

I bring this story up because it preceded, by a couple of months, my decision to stop drinking alcohol. This led to several months without a drink, and then a couple of relapses for good cause (as I saw it) and then one final relapse earlier in the summer. I won’t go over that again here, but it was the final straw (no pun intended) in my determination that alcohol and I were finished.

My sweetheart of over twenty-five years hadn’t changed her ways since she first seduced me with wine coolers and Budweiser in cans and strawberry schnapps (and not all at the same time). No, she keeps doing what she’s always done. And I went along with with more intensity than I probably should have. Weekends were made for whatever beer happened to be on tap. In college, the weekends all started to run together, and some weekends never ended before the next weekend got started up.

All the while, I told people that I didn’t have a problem with drinking. But every time I told anyone a story about something that had happened to me, there was always drinking involved. If there was a way to have fun without alcohol being involved, I never tried very hard to find it.

Until one day last fall, on the heels of a drinking bender at a football game, I came to the realization that I had lost a large chunk of my life–and probably some part of my liver function–and I didn’t have anything to show for it. I never got convicted of anything I did when I was drunk, never got into a physical altercation when I was drunk, and–most importantly–never caused physical damage to myself or others as a result of my drinking. I spent untold thousands of dollars on alcohol, and probably acted in ways that I wouldn’t have if I had something healthier than booze in my system. But I challenged myself at that moment to make a change for the better, and right now I seem to have done it.

Word has come down that I will likely be going back to the same city this fall. My restaurant choices won’t be shaped by my drinking habits this time around. Some of my colleagues may want to return to the brewpub, since I was quite vocal in praising the beer selection and/or the food. And if asked to go along, I may join them. Or I may not. It’s too premature to speculate just yet. But a change has certainly come to my life in the past 12 months and, other than the birth of my children, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It’s certainly worth devoting a few hundred words to here.

#Cubs are now 34 losses away from the historic #DoubleTriple

The Cubs gave me a week off from doing this by winning seven games in a row, which gave me time to reflect on more important things than losing baseball teams. It may have also saved Jim Hendry’s job for next season. We shall see. But with the loss today, I’m back to the journey through baseball in the 1970s.

1977 Toronto Blue Jays

Expansion team: Yes

Overall record: 55-107

# of win streaks of 3 games or more: Four

Manager(s): Roy Hartsfield

Hall of Famers on roster: None

100 loss seasons since: 1978, 1979

Pennant wins since: 1992 (World Series winner); 1993 (World Series winner)

The 1977 Blue Jays were an expansion team, and that year’s other expansion team, the Seattle Mariners, managed to avoid the 100 loss mark by only losing 98 games. But they are also the first of the expansion teams since 1966 to win a World Series, which took them 16 seasons to accomplish. Not too shabby. The team also set an expansion record by drawing 1.7 million fans in their first season, which is all the more remarkable because their stadium did not serve beer. And the team was owned by the Labatt Brewing Company, too. Go figure.

1977 Atlanta Braves

Expansion team: No

Overall record: 61-101

# of win streaks of 3 games or more: Seven

Manager(s): Dave Bristol, Ted Turner, Vern Benson, Dave Bristol

Hall of Famers on roster: Phil Niekro

100 loss seasons since: 1988

Pennant wins since: 1991; 1992; 1995 (World Series winner); 1996; 1999

The 1977 Braves were owned by Ted Turner, who was ahead of his time in many ways. He bought the team and signed Andy Messersmith to the first million dollar contract, thinking that he could give Messersmith the nickname “Channel” and the number 17 (guess which channel Turner’s WTBS was on?) MLB shot that idea down, along with Turner’s attempt to manage his own team.

After an 8-21 start, Turner fired manager Dave Bristol and took over the team himself. He lost the only game he managed, and after a one-game tenure by Bristol’s assistant Vern Benson, Turner hired Bristol back for the remainder of the season. But the season had pretty much already been lost by then.

Turner marketed his team as “America’s team” and, with a run of five pennants in the 1990s, it’s hard to argue with him. But Turner Field (a/k/a “The Ted”) was still a long way from being built back in 1977.

The next stop will be 1978, and another epic season in baseball history.

Life, Death, Alcohol and New Jersey

I met up with a friend recently when I was visiting New York. It was the day after Clarence Clemons had died, and since my friend lives in New Jersey I offered him my condolences. He told me that if you don’t live in New Jersey, you can’t appreciate how much Springsteen and his band mean to the people who do. And I take him at his word on that.

As I often do when I consider matters of life and death, I shared with him a bit of wisdom taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet says that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” I wish I could say that I’m well-versed on Shakespeare, but unfortunately I’m not. I only learned of the quote because it was often cited by both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These two men represent, in my mind, the truism that overarching brilliance can take a person far beyond their original station in life. If Shakespeare’s words had an impact on these two great men, who am I to question it?

I’m not a religious person, in the least. All of those many years of Catholic school just didn’t take root with me. But the beauty of Shakespeare’s words is that I don’t have to be religious in order to believe them. If a person falls out of an open window, and an awning breaks that person’s fall and they walk away without a scratch, well it just wasn’t their time yet. But if somebody else gets run over by a sightseeing bus, as recently happened in the city where I live, it just meant that that person’s time had come around. And there’s nothing that either person could have done to change that. I believe that as much as I believe anything in life.

Since my friend and I hadn’t seen each other in 25 years, we had a lot of catching up to do. And with all that catching up came lots of drinks. Pitcher after pitcher of beer, topped off by a concoction of Hawaiian Punch and too many types of hard alcohol added in (makes the karaoke sound better, I was told). So when we left the bar at 2 AM, the story here began to take shape.

I had stopped drinking, by and large, late last year. I hadn’t had a beer in almost seven months, which probably hasn’t happened since about 1983. I had grown tired of battering my liver, and decided on my own to see if I could live without it. And it turns out I could. But being out with a friend–and one who I hadn’t seen in so long, at that–made everything else go out the window. I reverted to my old habits, and drank with reckless abandon. By all rights, I should have been falling down drunk, due to a lowered tolerance for alcohol. But, as it turned out, the opposite was true.

I found myself on Canal Street in New York with my drunken friend, and realized that I had to take control of the situation. With just a few dollars in my pocket, and no idea where I was, I knew this was not the time to be staggering about. I told my friend I was going to get him home, no matter what it took, and that was the end of it. The problem was that he lives in God-knows-where, New Jersey. Which it might actually be called, because I had no idea what the town’s name was, let alone what the street address in this unknown town might be. And good luck getting into a cab with that.

I made the decision to get my friend back the hotel I was staying in, which was a few blocks away on Canal. Maybe I could stash him in the hotel lobby (they would love that one, I’m sure) or maybe I could get him into the fitness center or the laundry room or something. Anyplace would be better than where we were.

We made it down one block on Canal, and he’s alternating between calling me a dick and threatening to fight me. Thanks for nothing, right?  But he was my charge, and I had a mission to get him off the street safely, so he could say whatever he wanted to.

At the first intersection, my friend stepped off the curb and into the street. That was when his knees gave way, and he fell down and hit his head. But he didn’t just hit his head, he cut it open, too. So now there’s blood everywhere, and I’m really thinking that something needs to happen, and fast. Cabs wouldn’t pick us up because of the blood, and I wouldn’t know where to have them take us if they did.

Fortunately, I had my friend’s cellphone, and so I called 911. The ambulance came after what seemed like a very long time (magnified by the situation, I’m sure) and they loaded my friend in and sped away. I saw a spot of his blood in the street, and realized that he might not come out of this alive. Shakespeare’s words weren’t quite so comforting to me then.

After an extended cry–thinking that I had let my friend down and failed in my self-appointed mission–I got up and walked back to the hotel. As I walked,  I began hoping that Shakespeare had been wrong. Maybe, if my friend was in the hands of paramedics and doctors and technicians who all knew what they were doing, my friend would still be OK. I wouldn’t call what I was doing prayer, but I’m sure that more religious people than me would call it just that. I was hoping against hope, and pleading with the ‘divinity” that Shakespeare spoke of to give my friend a break. It was all I could do at that moment, and if I had really believed Shakespeare’s words I would have thought it was a waste of time. So my faith in the wisdom of  Shakespeare/Lincoln/Douglass was tested that night.

The next morning, I got a text  from my friend saying that all was well. But in the meantime, I learned about what had happened to Ryan Dunn of Jackass and his friend. (FWIW, I’m completely of the thinking that Ebert said what needed to be said, and Bam Margera should STFU about it). No Porsches were involved with my friend and I, fortunately, but a night of drinking had turned out bad for them, and I went back to worrying that maybe something bad had happened to my friend. It wasn’t until I got a Facebook message from him the next day that I knew everything would be OK. And I can’t describe how grateful I am for that.

It was a harrowing night, and one which I probably won’t forget anytime soon. For one thing, I am going to cut out drinking for good. I don’t need it, and if nothing else I realized that drinking can have some bad consequences, even where no driving is involved. But, more importantly, I realized that life can be subject to tragic turns at any moment. We can’t be afraid of them, but we can’t pretend that they don’t exist, either. Every day is a gift, meant to be enjoyed to the fullest extent possible. Plan for the future, yes, but don’t be fooled into thinking that life will last forever. It never has, and it never will.