Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Notes From The Big House

Though I had been a fan for years, I finally managed to attend my first University of Michigan football game a few weeks ago. It proved to definitely be a worthwhile experience and I found myself in awe of the spectacle that I had finally been privileged enough to witness. Though I would stop short of calling this a life-changing event, I have a new appreciation for what can draw an otherwise rational human being out of their usual roles as productive, well-heeled professional citizens of society and reduce them to drunken blubbering gridiron hooligans at the sight of anything bearing the school’s colors, maize and blue.

As with most other sports, the game itself is almost an afterthought in fan culture. Though certainly important, I would guess that very few of the 110,000 people who travel to Ann Arbor for every Wolverine home contest go there just for the sole purpose of watching a football game. They could stay at home and have a better grasp of what is happening on the field through their television screens. What they would not get though is the rush of being in the midst of tens of thousands of like-minded Wolverine fanatics and the unbridled joy of socially acceptable binge-drinking at seven in the morning.

Michigan game days start early. Mine started at 5:30am, waking up after spending the previous night indulging my passion for stout beer, nachos, buffalo wings and an end of night compliment of bean burritos from Taco Bell. I hopped into the shower immediately to clear the cobwebs out of my head but was done in mere minutes. Taco Bell burritos and The Big Buck Brewery’s Black River Stout are a volatile combination within one’s digestive tract and by 5:45am, I was dried, dressed and stationed atop a porcelain perch waiting for my ride to Ann Arbor to arrive. He did at 6:15 but by then, both my legs had fallen asleep.

Though wobbly and racked by an intense “pins-and-needles” sensation along every inch of my body below the butt-cheeks, I managed to get into the car for the hour-long journey to Ann Arbor and the event I had been anticipating all week. My partner in this excursion, who I’ll call Werner, was a German ex-patriot I used to work with and was somewhat put out by leaving for a sporting event six hours before it started but was a good trooper about it. He drove fast and we arrived at the golf course next to the stadium in under an hour despite several wrong turns.

My in-laws are devout disciples of the Michigan Wolverines and season ticket holders. They attend every U of M home game and tailgate at the golf course every time. If you ever find yourself at a University of Michigan home game, park at the golf course and look towards the back of the field atop the hill leading to the greens. They are the group with the tallest flag pole on the grounds, topped with the Stars and Stripes and the school ensign. Tell them that Jim sent you. And bring booze. They’re liable to beat you if you don’t. Anyway, we had arranged beforehand to team up with them before departing so that I could ensure Werner would be able to experience the American tradition of the tailgate party as well as his first football game.

It was a good move. It was a brutally frigid morning but by 9am, we had enough beer in us to ward off the chill. At 9:30, the grilling was nearly done and we were rewarded with what could possibly have been the second best hot dog (the best are found on street corners within the Tijuana entertainment district) I had ever tasted in my life. I’m sure it was not the brand or cooking technique that made the dogs so enjoyable, but the fact that by 9:30 we were pretty cold and had not put anything solid into our stomachs since the night before.

Before it was time to make our way to the stadium in time for kick-off, I made a point of walking the grounds. Since Michigan was only playing Indiana, a mediocre team to be complimentary, the golf course was not nearly as full as it would be the following week when the Wolverines would take on (and tragically lose to) Ohio State. Still, there was a carnival-like feel to the place. Besides the standard revelers, there were a few going the extra mile for kicks. I spotted one group of kids lined up with beer cans balanced atop their heads while another tried to knock them off with a thrown football. Flinching was punished by being forced to slam an entire can of beer on the spot. I spotted several beer bongs in use and would have been hard pressed to count the number of beer kegs on display. It was kind of like Woodstock but with a depressing absence of wanton public nudity. It must have been the temperature.

At sometime around eleven, we made our way across the golf course to the stadium. Upon reaching the official stadium parking lot, I saw a dramatic change in the tailgating demographics. The lot closest to the stadium’s entrance is reserved for rather wealthy alumni who, in addition to being season ticket holders, make considerable contributions to the school, probably in the tens of thousands of dollars range. The cars parked there had impressive luxury brand names and the pick-up trucks seemed to always have a very well-equipped fifth-wheel recreational trailer in tow. I spotted one rather obscenely expensive motor home in the lot, custom painted in Michigan colors and insignia complete with a retractable awning and a complete patio set-up beside it that took up three parking places. I didn’t see the owner of the setup but imagined he was inside the RV, in his 60s and sprawled out drunk on the couch while his wife hovered over him in a blue and gold vinyl cheerleading outfit, dripping hot candle wax onto his exposed nipples.

It is hard to not to be impressed once one has entered the University of Michigan’s football stadium, known locally as The Big House (which also happens to be street slang for a prison in the lexicon of the American underworld in years past). It is immense and packed, rarely accommodating less than 100,000 souls during any given game. The place abounds with pageantry and ceremony both on and off of the field and possesses a charged atmosphere that is something between a southern fundamentalist Christian religious revival and one of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies. The crowd possesses a sort of ecclesiastic fraternal solidarity at one with a higher power. The mood is undeniably celebratory but with a dark undercurrent, as if at the drop of a hat its focus and motivations could suddenly take a turn for the worse and send the entire mob rushing out of the stadium on a God given crusade to invade Poland, or at least Hamtramck.

This energy reaches a climax during the band performance of the Michigan fight song “Hail to the Victors” just before the players take the field. Everyone in the stands know the words and it seems that everyone in the stands sings them with heartfelt passion and at the top of their lungs. It is hard to appreciate if you’re not in the middle of it but it is just impossible to describe how moving it can be to hear 110,000 people singing a revered anthem. Then again, 110,000 people singing anything would probably have a similar effect, even if it was just the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle”. I have to admit, I was a little choked up and surprised when the singing of our national anthem a short while later failed to produce the same kinds of feelings. It dawned on me halfway through “The Star Spangled Banner” that it did not elicit as much emotion because there were very few people in the audience that knew all of the words to it. Luckily, 2 fighter jets streaked past at its closing to help give the crowd a little patriotic boost just before the game began.

Unfortunately, the game just could not live up to the hype that preceded it. Don’t get me wrong, Michigan played very well but Indiana just did not show up. It was over by half-time with Michigan in the lead, 41 to 7. Lacking in suspense as to what the eventual outcome of the game was going to be, we left just after halftime when the Wolverines threw their third string players onto the field just to get some practice.

Back at the golf course, we indulged ourselves with a few more hot dogs and a few more beers before taking Werner’s client out for a very good dinner at Weber’s in Ann Arbor. After that, we ended back at my place for a nightcap and a much needed full night’s worth of sleep. The following afternoon, with my head still swimming in the post-bender fog, I watched the Detroit Lions squeeze out a rare win against the Arizona Cardinals. Even though it was a victory, I could not help but wonder why the Detroit Lions, a group of men who are handsomely compensated for what it is they do, can not seem to drum up half of the drive, motivation and enthusiasm than the Michigan Wolverines, who essentially play for free.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Few Thoughts on Thanksgiving (mainly because I didn't have anything better to talk about)

In 1621, the Puritan colonists at Plymouth were facing a bleak winter. As legend has it, the pilgrims’ crops failed dismally and a grisly death by starvation was quickly becoming a certainty. Before winter took hold with a vengeance however, the colonists were saved by a local Indian tribe who gave them enough stores of food to hold them over until spring. In gratitude for this selfless gesture that saved their lives, the colonists invited the Indians to their settlement and repaid them with a magnificent feast known forever afterwards in the annals of American mythology as the nation’s first Thanksgiving. I’m sure that had the natives had the slightest inkling of what those pale and pathetically ill-equipped Europeans had in store for them over the next three hundred years or so, they would have put a little extra effort into finding some hemlock to spike the cranberry sauce with.

Fortunately for me the Wampanoag tribe of what is now Massachusetts, despite all the perceived mysticism often attached to early Native American culture, lacked a competent psychic and the Indians nursed the pilgrims through that winter. Ever since, the Thanksgiving feast has flourished into a revered American holiday showcasing the fraternity and cooperation of two cultures, completely alien to one another, toward a common good (which was mainly saving white-skinned religious fanatics so that my satellite service provider can make sure that the only channel available to me is the Trinity Broadcast Network when I am late paying my television bill). At least, that’s the way it was taught to me in the 1970s. The bit about forced land seizures, broken treaties, smallpox, genocide, wholesale slaughter and discrimination was in a different (and much shorter) chapter in the history book safely removed from the Mayflower episode so that we could enjoy this treasured holiday relatively guilt-free.

And a treasured holiday it is. Personally, Thanksgiving is my third favorite holiday of the year, right behind Independence Day (where people get mind-blowingly intoxicated before going outside to play with things that explode) and St. Patrick’s Day (where people get mind-blowingly intoxicated before going inside to play with things that explode – which, in my pre-marriage years, primarily consisted of nubile young college girls that had a hard time holding their liquor). In the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday steeped in just as much tradition as Christmas, but lasting over three days. In my family, the tradition is unshakeable. Every Thanksgiving is the same and consisting of inviolable ritual that, though almost scripted, remains comfortable and pleasant.

Though Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, it starts on the day before. For me, I always depart my house early on Wednesday afternoon with my wife, three kids, dog and hunting rifle in a futile attempt to beat the holiday rush to the Northern Michigan wilderness where my parents live. I typically find myself stopped cold within five miles of my house, stuck in either a traffic jam of indescribable savagery or the first true winter snow storm of the season. This year it was the storm for me. My brother, who left an hour and a half after me, got both and spent eight hours in the car to complete a trip that usually takes half that. Once he finally pulled into the small town where my parents live (which is made up of two bars, a post office, a liquor store and a restaurant that is open for business once every five years or so), we embarked upon the second of our holiday traditions: the bar hop.

Surprisingly, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest bar night of the year in the Midwestern United States. I would not have believed this had I not once been a bartender. It is true though and neither me, nor my brother, are likely to pass on opportunities to party like that. Like every other year, we started at the town’s Fraternal Order of Eagles aerie. In addition to having cheap (though horridly American and canned) beer, they also raffle three guns away on the Saturday following Thanksgiving and we both needed to get tickets for this lottery. To my amazement, there were only two other people there besides us and the bar tender. I guess that is to be expected though when the weather’s bad, the town is only about 400 people strong, contains a large Amish population and the bar you’re in closes at 10pm if it has less than four patrons inside. Still, the Eagles did pretty good business that night thanks to the alcoholic acumen of the four paying customers it was servicing. We managed to keep it open until 11, but once we lost a soldier that had been in there since noon, the bartender announced last call and asked us for a ride down the road to the competition. We obliged and were rewarded with a round of real beer (Molsen for me) and an order of Buffalo Wings for our trouble. The second bar, though empty when we arrived, was nearly full when we left at closing time with the arrival of holiday travelers delayed by the snow storm and traffic. The highlight of the night was listening to the cook, a homely married overweight woman with openly bisexual tendencies discussing intentions of trying to take home an even more overweight man who was barely conscious and had apparently forgotten to put his dentures in before going out for the evening. I realize that standards of attractiveness vary drastically between cultures but I never would have guessed that this cultural variance could be so extreme that Ernest Borgnine could be a sex symbol a mere three hours drive from my front door. Then again, I guess that while in the midst of an epic tequila bender I could have mistaken Ernest Borgnine for one of the Spice Girls myself.

Thanks to Thanksgiving’s Wednesday traditions, Thursday’s Thanksgiving traditions typically get off to a slow start. After a breakfast of punch-flavored Gatorade and a handful of industrial strength aspirin, I resign myself to the fact that I can’t possibly handle the sound of gunfire by nine in the morning and cancel my deer hunting plans. Around ten in the morning, the dog starts barking incessantly at the various forms of wildlife congregating in my parents’ front yard and I start considering putting that rifle I brought to a different use than I had first intended when I packed it. At 10:30 I took the kids out sledding, an activity that, though excruciating for me, was a blast for them so we stayed out for over an hour, at which point I believed myself able to handle solid food again and took them back inside for lunch. At 12:30, the traditional Thanksgiving Day Detroit Lions football game started, which they lost against the Atlanta Falcons, 27 to 7. We have our Thanksgiving Day traditions, the Detroit Lions have theirs (Sidenote: as I was writing this, I received word that the Detroit Lions fired head coach Steve Mariuchi for the team’s dismal performance last Thursday).

Dinner arrived at the table at five. Along with the turkey, we gorged ourselves on stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, bread, pickles, cole slaw and pasta. Unable to move, my two older kids and I retired to the TV room to catch another football game that I can’t remember since I fell asleep on the couch, with a kid in each arm, before watching five minutes of it. In all, it was as close to a perfect day as I could have possibly hoped for.

The Friday tradition is the part that generally doesn’t concern me much since it involves Christmas shopping, a sport that my wife is equipped for far better than I am. While my wife and mother drove hours back to civilization to find stores, I did more sledding and more eating. We drove back late that night, through yet another snow storm and arrived home just before midnight.

In closing, Thanksgiving really is as close to a perfect holiday as one can get in my opinion. Though national in nature, it really is a celebration of family instead of such vague concepts as patriotism or religion and gives one a reason to look within and take stock of things that to truly be thankful for. As for myself, I forced myself to pause and recognize what I have to be thankful for. I am thankful for my family, for through all my faults, they seem to love me no matter what I do (my kids and dog anyway, my wife is still pissed that I got so drunk Wednesday night). I am thankful that at least once every year we can get together and afford to put enough food on our dinner table to feed Ecuador. I am thankful that despite all the hardships my family faces, they are mostly trivial in the big scheme of things and no one is facing homelessness or some life-threatening illness. And I am thankful that the Wampanoag tribe of Indians did not have a psychic worth a damn to dissuade them from saving a group of Puritan lunatics with a tragic lack of agricultural skills and ending a truly awesome tradition before it even got started.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Toasting the Veterans

So, last Friday we were sitting at the Big Buck Brewery in Auburn Hills Michigan, several servings of high octane, micro-brewed suds in the bag, when the subject of Veterans Day came up. Scott, a former colleague of mine from Canada asked me, since I had started working on the other side of the border, if I had taken to wearing the little red poppy on my jacket yet on the days leading up to the holiday known as “Remembrance Day” in the land of the maple leaf. I said that I had not and asked him what the story was behind the poppy, which has been all over the place in Windsor over the past couple of weeks. He informed me that it went back to a World War I battle in France, where the Canadian army had suffered tremendous losses in an area that was overgrown with these little red poppies. The suffering there inspired a poem about the poppies that became quite popular and since then, this little poppy had become the symbol of Veteran’s Day in Canada.

As he finished up his explanation, another former colleague of mine, an American who is significantly older than the two of us said, “It was ‘Flanders Fields’.” He then went on to recite it:

“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

‘We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

‘Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

I had to admit, I found it rather touching and asked him where he had learned it.

“We were taught it in elementary school back in the early 1960s.” he answered. “It’s strange how something you learned when you were just nine or ten years old makes such an impression on you that, almost half a century later, you can still recall it almost half a century later just as vividly as the day you heard it for the very first time.”

I know where he’s coming from. I first heard the disco anthem “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey when I was eight years old and, twenty-seven years later, I can still sing it all the way through though, thank God, I don’t think I have ever heard it again since.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Motor City Aftermath

With the polls now closed and yesterday’s election finally over, Detroit’s “Hip-Hop” mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was swept back into office in an action that glaringly broadcasts that the Motor City’s illicit drug problem must be far more severe than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Almost from the very first moment that the Kilpatrick regime took control, the administration has been besieged by scandal after scandal. It started with allegations of a monster party held at Manoogian Mansion that was alleged to have involved strippers (or prostitutes depending upon who is recounting the story), drunk police officers wrecking city vehicles and mayhem on a scale that would have had Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee ducking for cover. Shortly afterwards, an upscale call girl who was alleged to have worked this party was murdered in a manner that suggested a gangland hit and allegations surfaced that the homicide investigation into her death was complicated by interference from the highest levels of city government. When the head of the Detroit Police Department’s internal affairs unit ordered an investigation into the events, he was immediately dismissed from his responsibilities.

More recently, it has come to light that the mayor ran up $200,000 in charges on his city credit card, used city funds to appropriate a luxury SUV to chauffer his wife around and used his influence to secure lucrative jobs with extravagant salaries for his acquaintances that would probably have been unemployable as fast food cashiers in the private sector. This one-man bid to reduce unemployment among Kilpatrick’s close circle of political cronies is affectionately known among the locals as “Kwame’s Friends and Family Plan”. There is much more, but I will refrain from going into detail. I’m sure you get the point.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would love to party with Kwame Kilpatrick. Then again, I would have also loved to party with the late Hunter S. Thompson. That does not mean that I would have hired him to run my hunting lodge since I am sure that if I actually owned one it would be heavily stocked with an over-abundance of mind altering substances, high caliber weaponry and plenty of ammunition. Combining Dr. Thompson with an unlimited supply of such volatile resources may make for some compelling reading but in practice would probably result in more high adventure and insurance premiums than my blood pressure or bank account could possibly have handled. Putting Kwame in charge of the resources of a major metropolitan city is sure to produce similar results. Granted, I doubt we’ll ever have the opportunity to literally see Mayor Kilpatrick running down Jefferson Avenue armed and clad only in a pair of leopard-skinned velvet boxer shorts taking pot shots at horrid hallucinations of happily homicidal hamster hordes, but figuratively speaking I would expect nothing less over the next four years. This election should do nothing more than convince Kilpatrick that he is absolutely invincible and I predict that his behavior in office will only grow more brazenly outrageous than it already is.

Detroit is a city with a lot of serious issues. To be fair, few of them were caused by Kwame Kilpatrick but are rather the legacy of three decades’ worth of mind-boggling mismanagement. Still, I would think that Kilpatrick’s constituency would demand more out of their mayor than scandals involving fiscal irresponsibility, luxury sport utility vehicles, blatant cronyism and brutally barbaric bashes at the mayor’s crib that result in drunk cops, smashed police cars and dead hookers. Apparently though, I was thinking wrong. This seems to be exactly what Detroiters want, and this is exactly what they got. As far as I’m concerned at this point, they are getting exactly what they deserve.

So, am I bitter about the election’s outcome? Actually, I’m not at all. I think Kilpatrick’s opponent in the race, Freeman Hendricks, would have tried his hardest to reverse the city’s descent into bankruptcy and receivership but I doubt that he would have been successful in the end. The momentum of Detroit’s decline is just moving too fast for any one person to be able to halt it. At least with Kwame Kilpatrick at the helm of this sinking ship, Detroit will be able to go out in style. Struggling futilely in the face of a terminal diagnosis, though respectable and heroic, more often than not results in an undignified demise that no one wishes to ever revisit again. Going out with a bang, riding head-first into the face of obliteration and taking the ride for everything it is worth is the stuff that legends are made of and is far more entertaining. For a quick, wild and exciting ride into certain death, I can think of no one better suited for the trip than Kwame Kilpatrick.

Personally I’m going to pull up a chair, throw some popcorn in the microwave, crack a beer and enjoy the show. I just hope that when it is all said and done, there’s enough of the city left for an encore.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Random Thoughts (A Post Just to Post)

Last week I got hit with a quality issue at work. For five straight days, I worked from 6:00am to 10:00pm, got gratuitous gobs of juicy booty gnawed off of my backside, practically ripped the skin off of my hands sorting thousands of parts and nearly killed myself twice trying to figure out how to drive 80 miles home and catch up on some desperately needed sleep at the same time. Help finally arrived last Friday in the guise of a nineteen-year-old kid we hired to help with the sorting. Upon introducing myself to him as the engineer in charge of the products he was tasked with sorting, he looked at me in awe and said, “Engineer? That must be an awesome job!” Apparently, some people’s jobs are so bad that they think I am living the dream. He was a nice kid and an incredibly hard worker, but if he thinks getting yelled at for ten hours a day while sitting behind a computer screen trying to do weird mathematical things to brutally boring pieces of data is glamour work, I suspect that he must be taste testing monkey feces as a side job.

So, what else has happened around here? Let’s see:


The Lions have knocked quarterback Joey Harrington out of his starting position with the Detroit Lions and replaced him with Jeff Garcia. The results since have been somewhat less than spectacular. The Lions have scored 13 points in both games that Garcia has played in, which was enough to beat the first mediocre team they went up against, but not against the other mediocre team. They play a dismal team next week, a team that has won only one game all season, and they are favored to win by 1.5 points. My gut tells me though that they will lose by 3 and embark upon a biblical quest to capture last place.

On the hockey front, the Detroit Red Wings are the mirror image of the Lions, unable to do anything wrong. Last night I watched my first hockey game of the season from start to finish and loved every minute of it. They looked better than Marilyn Monroe in a Victoria’s Secret cheerleading outfit (when she was alive, not now).


I took the kids out this year with a buddy of mine and was astounded by the number of teenaged girls out trick-or-treating in skimpy nursing uniforms. Being a person who is inexplicably prone to an overabundance of energy and a spectacular lack of judgment when drinking heavily, I have been in many hospitals. I have never been attended to by nurses that dressed like that. That’s probably a good thing though since I doubt my insurance covers multiple trips to the emergency room for recreational purposes. The only time I ever saw nurses dressed like that were on the covers of those movies rented in windowless stores that check your ID before letting you enter. Personally, I was appalled. Teenaged girls were just not built like that when I was in high school. “That’s not true…” a guy sitting next to me at Sharkey’s Bar commented after the Halloween festivities had subsided. “The styles were just different when we were in school. Remember? The girls all wore baggy, loose fitting clothes with Day-Glo colored sweatshirts all the time.” After uttering this statement, he downed his drink and slammed the glass down on the bar. “WE WERE FUCKING ROBBED! ROBBED< GODDAMMIT!” He then turned around on the bar stool, took a long hard look at a young lady bent over the pool table in a very tight, form-fitting Bat Girl costume, and stormed out of the pub. My guess is that he went home to beat hi binky like it had just insulted his mother.

Well, that’s pretty much it. I’m hoping things quiet down a little around here soon. I need to get back to writing Acid Pulaski.
The JEP Report Store Reader Sites
  • Inflammable Hamster
  • Right Michigan
  • Great Writing