Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Emotional Wreckage and Actual Wreckage: A Corner Turned...

Like just about anyone that grew up in the 80's, John Hughes "Rite-du-passage" films had a tendency to jam its way onto HBO and the various Ted Turner Networks on an almost endless loop. And if you were watching TV back then, you probably saw what many consider his magnum-opus, Ferris Beuller's Day Off. The title character, played by the immortal Matthew Broderick, had one of the best closing lines of a film ever, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." That never quite resonated with me as it has with many others, I prefer another line from that movie in the deepness and meaning of life areas, but I'll work that in a little later. 

I probably needed to find better role models in those days.
Still, the world is a shittier place without him in it.
Anyway, Ferris' quote is still pretty pertinent especially in regards to the last year and a half or so of my life. Life moves pretty fast, other things move pretty fast too, and if you don't look for it, it'll definitely hit you and hit you hard. I don't think it's any secret that for the better part of the last twenty years, I've kinda dealt with some depression issues. It didn't really manifest itself in anything too typical, like that refusal to get out of bed type of stuff people typically experience. For me it had a little more to do with just plain not caring enough about myself to not engage in pretty self-destructive behavior. During the Dorm Days, it meant I would hammer ALL THE BOOZE, eat ALL THE FOOD, excel at all the things college had to offer that weren't really all that important to actual academic pursuits. Let's just say my studies suffered a bit. Post college, the booze and food were still there, but now I had to keep a roof over my head as well, so I threw myself into work. I did it all to such a degree that well, I didn't leave a ton of time to myself. I had a fun job that I wasn't having any fun doing, my personal relationships kinda suffered. I was miserable. Then I turned 37. 

I discovered that 37 is a magical age. Kids, when you turn 37, every single, solitary bad decision you've ever made arrives on your doorstep to collect its bill. I was always a big guy, but I put on a ton of weight, really fast. I started to forget stuff, probably because of all the brain cells I annihilated back in college. I stopped going to concerts, or even going out at all. Christ, usually the only reason I'd leave my house was to go to work so I would have a house to come home to. I couldn't even sleep longer than an hour at a time, and I'd wake up in places other than where I'd fall asleep. SCARY SHIT! What was I doing? Who knows? I felt like shit all the time and looked even worse. Something had to change. 

It's hard to put a finger on a catalyst. I think the root was when I reconnected with an old friend on that Instagram app. Our lives had gone on vastly divergent paths and something about her creativity and zeal for life hit a button in my brain and got me thinking about the old, better days. That's the type of person I wanted to be again. Right around then, after a particularly shitty night of drinking alone and feeling sorry for myself, I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize the disgusting thing staring back at me. It was time. I decided that I wanted to live instead of die. 

Also a bad idea to get me wet or feed my ass after midnight.
I made a few changes. I got some help. Started getting some counseling to work through the garbage in my head, and the big one, I bit the bullet and got my guts rearranged. SIPS Duodenal Switch it's called. It wasn't cheap, but as the surgeon told me, "No natural method is going to help you and you are going to die. This is the only way to take it off and keep it off." Basically, they cut about 80% of my stomach out, and re-arranged my intestines so I hardly absorb any fat. This is what they call a two-pronged approach to losing weight. You can't eat very much, and what you do eat barely gets absorbed. It works as long as you follow the rules. Cut as many carbs as possible, focus on protein and smearing butter on virtually everything because you need to eat a ton of fat in order to make the giant handfuls of specialty vitamins I have to take every day for the rest of my life to work. Exercise like a fiend and get a gallon of blood drained out for nutrient level testing every six months are just a couple others. Also, stay sober for a year and change or your liver will shut down. 

Not exactly the picture of health. But I'm much better now.
Kind of a pain in the ass, but I've followed the rules so far and seen the results. 250 lbs down and I'm getting pretty close to just getting the rest cut off me. I look like a fucking war-crime naked, but my clothes fit a lot better, hell, I recently raided my closet down home and am fitting back into my old high-school gear! CORDUROY AND SWEATER VESTS FOR MILES! I can run for ten minutes without stopping where I couldn't run ten seconds before. I still can't hit the ball out of my own shadow, but I can play 36 holes without wanting to die for the first time since college. Oh yeah, golf is fun again, work is fun again, life in general is fun again. Actually, I can't really say "again," because I don't think it ever really was for me. 

So I almost died, managed to bounce back, and then last April, I almost died again! This time, instead of slowly murdering myself over a twenty year span, I almost took the easy way out. BIG OL' CAR CRASH! Driving out to the mighty Rose Park for a little round of golf one morning, I approached an intersection right by my house. I was hanging a left as the light turned yellow. It's a fairly high speed street, but I thought the truck that was approaching was slowing down for the red. I was wrong. Dude gunned it instead and two vehicles can't occupy the same space at once. They estimated he was going sixty but I don't remember much of the actual impact. Just the spin as my Dodge Charger pirouetted a couple times around in the intersection and I got punched by every single airbag in the car. 

All that's left.
I sat there for a moment. The radio was still playing "Problems" by the Sex Pistols. I looked down and wiggled my toes. My fingers were still there too. I tried to shift the car into park, but the knob wouldn't budge. "Shit" I thought, "the transmission is fucked." I was probably a little concussed. There probably wasn't a transmission left. The door was popped open so I unbuckled the belt and swung my legs out. Traffic was piling up and I was so supercharged with adrenaline, I felt like I could've dragged the car off the road myself at least until I saw the front-end or rather the lack of one. Surprised at how uninjured I was (maybe I'm bulletproof), I jogged over to the other guy to make sure he was all right. He was all right, the only damage his truck incurred was a missing bumper. As I went back to my car to start emptying it out and get my paperwork for the cops I realized that I most definitely wasn't bulletproof. My ribs were jacked up and I was in shock. The tow-truck dragged the husk of my beloved Charger off the road, I collected my citation from the police for failure-to-yield and went home. 

My mother came over to take me to the doctor, and as I painfully sat in my easy chair, something weird happened, I just started laughing. My mom and sister looked at me horrified. Maybe I am a little nuts, because that was really the only reaction that felt right at the moment. Despite all my best efforts, both self-inflicted and accidental, I was still here. For reasons I can't even perceive I was still here even though I shouldn't be. For some reason, I found that hilarious. At least until all that laughing tightened up my ribs and tears started pouring out. GODDAMN THAT HURT.

So I'm still alive, and from now on, I take absolutely NOTHING for granted anymore because nobody knows exactly when their ticket is gonna get punched. And I'm bound and determined to live my best life from now on. Whatever that is. I'm going to do it. The problem is, I don't have any idea what that means. For the first time in my life that I can recall, I like myself. I've got confidence that I've never really had. My job is satisfying. I've got great pals and my relationships with my family are as good as ever. As that other main character (and who some have theorized is the actual main character) in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Cameron Frye said, "I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I'm going to take a stand. I'm going to defend it. Right or wrong, I'm going to defend it." 
"And the times have changed my friend
I'll be here to the bitter end
With a guitar in my hand, I stand a little taller
And I've been to hell and back
I ain't falling off this track
From the back to the front page
From the gutter to the stage"

But something is still missing. And I need to figure out what that is.

So, I'm gonna hit the road for awhile. Just me, and my thoughts. Sure, I'm going to be seeing some old friends, revisiting the past and figuring out how I got to this point, along the way. But I have a feeling the next couple weeks and this trip I'm taking might bring a little clarity to my head. I'm going to try to mix in a few dispatches from the road for you folks, and even if I don't find what I'm looking for, at least I'll have some good memories and a few awesome sights to share. Anyway, thanks for indulging my ass on this story. I promise to go back to telling dumbass college stories, inane commentaries and reviews of shitty movies again soon. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sorting Through The Past: Spring Cleaning

Three years ago, pretty much right around this time of the year, I got a call from my Pops. "Mike, I need you and your sister to come down and give me a hand with a project as soon as you've got a free weekend." Well, it just so happened that I had a free weekend, and so did Christa, so down to the hometown we ventured. As soon as we walked in, the old man sprung his project on us. We were going to go through the entire house and more specifically all of our stuff that was still down there, old toys, old clothes, sporting equipment books and what was known as by old friend, former NFL player Chuck Ferraro who owned the legendary Thirdhand Shoppe antique store in Price, Junque. In a word, stuff. We acquired too much of it over the years and a 1600 square foot house chock full of it was too much for one old guy contemplating retirement to have to deal with. Plus, the old homestead needed some work, new carpets, paint, and other assorted projects and our unorganized clutter was definitely in the way and taking up way too much room.
Stately Nickas Manor!
 "Keep what you want, but find a place that makes sense for it, or take it with you," he said. 

Now, granted there's a lot of that nature vs. nurture battle involved, but I firmly believe that there's such thing as a "hoarder gene." And while it never got to the point where she needed a television show to come in and clean up her house, my Grandmother up in Alaska definitely fostered something like it. I can't really blame her though, she grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the Great Depression. When you don't have anything, you don't throw anything that can be of use away. And once her and my Pappy established themselves and had some space, that never really left her. It was a sad occasion, but one of my favorite stories concerns the day right after her funeral ten years ago. My mom, Aunt Amy, Uncle Didier, Aunt LaJuana, quite a few of my cousins, my sister and I were all gathered in her frozen house in Anchorage. On the TV were some old home movies, I believe showcasing my mother's sixth birthday. At that moment, we were also going through my Bamma's beautiful antique buffet cabinet. We found a pack of paper party plates buried deep in one of the drawers. The exact same package of party plates that were sitting on the table in the home movie that was shot 46 years prior! I also found some expired food in the pantry that I'd bought to cook my Bamma a meal the last time I'd been to Alaska to visit, six years previously.
Makin' a mess since 1978!

So yeah, I kind of understand the hoarder gene. And even though I'm fully aware of it now, I carried a lot of those same tendencies over the years. When I finally got my own bedroom in the house at age 7, the organization of my room tended to range from "random piles of stuff with a path to the bed, closet and dresser" to "just pulled the pin, tossed a grenade in and shut the door" with occasional periods of relative organization when buddies or that cute girl would come over to hang out. Those didn't happen very often. Thankfully, the adulthood gene overrode the clutter during the "Dorm Days." And by "adulthood" I mean that I was going to be living with and around strangers now and I don't want them to think I was slovenly in other areas of life as well. But, and you can ask anyone I roomed with in college, I was definitely kind of a packrat, taking basically everything I could with me to school. Only this time, I kept it organized. My dorm room was still the equivalent of cramming twenty pounds of shit into a ten pound bag. But hey, you never knew when you might need that thing. Whatever that thing happened to be even if it happened to be a copy of the Dirty Looks album "Blow My Fuse" on CD.

In 2007, after living in each of Westminster's "Apartment-Style" dorms and several different apartments and houses, I moved into my smallest place yet, a tiny little condo adjacent to the University of Utah campus. It was great to be able to get from bed to work at the UGC in about ten minutes flat, but the size of the place really forced me to downsize my life. A storage unit was my friend! And I either outright shitcanned or donated a metric ton of stuff. It felt pretty good, and I was able to sort of boil things down to the essentials. Which is to say, I still had way too much shit.

Still lost to time...
Anyway, back to my Pop's house, February 2013. We dive in to the old family room, which at one point was converted to a bedroom for the ten minutes my older sister came to live with us years ago, and has since become kind of a storage catch-all. It was an added-on room with no heat which is to say, we were indoors, bundled up, freezing our asses off and hard at work tearing through years of clutter. I had two things that I really wanted to find. One was the only poster I had on my wall when I was a really little kid. My dad was a trucker, along with my grandpa they owned their own trucking company and they'd always get sent these badass promotional posters from Peterbilt. Usually they featured some half-naked lady looking like the apocalypse just hit (picture the KISS, "Lick It Up" video) draped across the engine cover of a semi. But this poster I had just had the front of a truck with Johnny Cash standing next to it and the words "MIDNIGHT SPECIAL" emblazoned across the bottom. OUTLAW COUNTRY! The other, and this is pretty dumb, was a picture of me that my entire second-grade class drew of me and signed on my birthday. I always loved second-grade because that was the first time certain synapses finally clicked together in my brain and I started to learn to think critically. Sadly, the drinking I did during the Dorm Days destroyed the brain cells that helped me to remember names of classmates from that far back and I've often wondered what we've all grown up to be.

Yes ladies, I'm single!
I came across some great stuff. My very first paycheck stub in the golf business (a career now going on 22 years!) for $54.19 pre-tax! Thank god I make more now. Wait, what is that? Inflation? Shit. An unusually large collection of old mixtapes. If only I still had something to play them on. And what the hell am I doing putting Ministry and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on the same mixtape anyway? At least they weren't 8-tracks. Those were in my dad's box.

I also found several boxes full of old notebooks from high school and college classes. I flipped through them and found all of my old class notes, and quite a bit of my old writing. While perusing these tomes, the only thing I could think of was, "Jesus Christ Nickas, if any of your teachers and professors ever saw an example of your note-taking, there's no chance any of them would have ever passed you." Goddamn, you could even see exactly the spots where I'd doze off (probably hungover) in class because suddenly my already shitty handwriting would get smaller and smaller and just end up with a line. My writing projects weren't much better! Hell, you're reading this right now, imagine how bad it was before I ever developed a style and a voice?! I barely have that now! I would've killed it though for my heavy metal band, Superman, Chicago Bears and New York Yankees logo drawing talents. I had that shit on lockdown. It was all garbage, and I couldn't believe I had saved any of it. Into the back of my Pop's Dodge truck they went.

1st Place in the 3-Legged Race: John Holmes
For all the laughs I was having, my sister was having a tough time with this. I had a pretty good idea that we were going to be doing this before we left Salt Lake. All this going through old shit. And I guess she kind of felt blindsided. She wasn't ready to do this yet, but she did it anyway, and I knew it was bothering her. In my dad's always gentle way, he explained that it would be "best to do this now and not after he was gone. If for no other reason that at least there's three of us." I didn't really want to hear that either, but it makes sense and it had to be done. We eventually finished the weekend putting a pretty sizeable dent in that storage room and the basement. I was proud of her. As Christa and I drove back up to Salt Lake, I got a call from our landlord. This was never a good sign, bad news was afoot, because for the third place we'd lived in a row, they had decided to sell the place. We were going to have to move again.

Lawrence Taylor obviously took a run at
Quarterback He-Man's Knees
A week later, we still had snow on the ground out at Rose Park (JUST LIKE NOW!) so I trekked solo back down to Price to finish the job, or come close to it. More un-needed treasure ventured back into my life in a flood. Old toys, ribbons and awards from as far back as my elementary school days, broken model cars, board games missing pieces, more shitty writing, bags of clothes and shoes. Memories of times past, good and bad, optomism and wasted potential passed across the table. And almost all of it ended up in the trash or donate pile. Ebay would've been an option if any of it was in any kind of decent condition, but years of neglect had taken its toll. At least some of the toys could still be of use to kids, and since that ship has clearly sailed in my case we donated them to the Children's Justice Center. Hopefully some of my old shit gave them some enjoyment, god knows, they needed it a lot more than I did. I hope it did some good.

I never did find either of my "holy grails." Those were lost to either time, my folk's divorce, or a forgotten previous attempt to do the very thing we had just done. But by the end of the weekend, my dad finally had a handle on things around his house and I had downsized most of my old stuff in a major way. As weird as it sounds, it was totally cathartic. The whole process was liberating. You'd find something, hold it in your hands, think a little about a memory of it, have a little flashback, and finally say goodbye. Driving back up "over the hill" to Salt Lick that Sunday night, I actually felt great. Like I'd finally cut the cord to the type person that I used to be and ready to embrace whatever the future was going to throw at me and be adaptable to whatever curve-ball life could throw at me.

Epilogue: We decided that last move was going to be the last one for awhile. So we bought a house. Now I've got a ton of space that I can't wait to fill with stuff!

Epilogue II: Only kidding.

Epilogue III: Mostly, I guess...