My Funeral Suit.

I’m going to write about death now.

Did you know the 1996 hit song “How Bizarre” has an accordion in it? At least I think it does. I’m positive I heard it in there on my way to buy Bubly water instead of beer. I am about to embark on the annual family vacation to Duluth, MN. My first completely dry excursion there. No breweries, no can beer out of a cooler after a long hike, no flights of beer at Grandma’s Saloon while the kids down Mac & Cheese. Bone. Dry. Sober as a judge.

I am positive that was a damn accordion. But who really listens to the song “How Bizarre”? It’s pretty much designed to be unobtrusive, moderately funky elevator music. However, if you think about it long and hard for some odd reason, like I was about to do…”How Bizarre” is a brilliantly crafted piece of bubblegum pop trash. The annoying vocal inflection of OMC’s lead singer is just slightly off kilter…not too much…but just enough to make you listen about 10% closer. It’s odd without being too weird. The disgustingly catchy hook and idiotic storytelling are just icing on the cake and somehow keep you from nodding off completely. If this song was a smile it would be a wry smirk from on overconfident nerd you think you recognize, but cannot place. Fuck it. I gotta google if this has an accordion in it. This is very important to me at this moment. I don’t know why. I need the answer. I find none. I do find out that the lead singer’s name was Pauly (that’s perfect) and that he died in 2010, just eight days before his 41st birthday. How bizarre.

I received an alarming phone call from my father while I was vacationing in Duluth. His tone of voice took on an inflection that I have never heard it take before. I didn’t just listen to him 10% closer, I listened 600% closer. This was something new. This was something really, really bad. Now five days later I am driving south for Winona, MN. My funeral suit hangs frumpily in the back seat of my 2012 Jeep Liberty. It had just been worn a few weeks earlier. It hadn’t even been dry cleaned.

My funeral suit is a dull, unobtrusive grey number that I wear with a simple black dress shirt. No tie. Fuck ties. When you are a boring dad in your 40s you are allowed to become Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice if you like. Nobody gives a fuck. You might as well be invisible. This is my “groutfit”… there are many like it, but this one is mine.

This is the 3rd time I have worn the groutfit in the last year and a half. The first of these 3 times inspired my very first post on this here sober blog. When I was in the foggy mist of the first 30 days sober, the big D word seemed like an important monumental thing to write about. After that, I felt like I had written all I had to say on the subject. I felt like I had sufficiently depressed myself, and now it was ok to soberly move on. Clearly though, when an 88-year-old grandma dies…no matter how poetic you make the details sound…this is the “quaint” version of death. I know this now.

I also know that there will be much darker times ahead. Even more terrible then the other 2 times I wore my groutfit this year. Like when someone extremely close to me dies. I know that just around the corner lies the kind of uncompromising sadness that makes you question your very existence, and I know it’s coming for us all. I also know that Bob Dylan said: “death is not the end” and that it may or may not be true. This is okay though, as long as the living are still there to comfort you.

I bought my first funeral suit in 2009 when my Grandpa Lowell died. Actually, it was the first suit I ever bought that had 2 matching pieces. I was 33 years old. My brother was with me and he got one too. A guy at Men’s Warehouse in Maple Grove, MN sold them to us. This guy must have really had a good laugh when we walked out. My first funeral suit was navy blue with white pinstripes. He set me up with a yellow shirt and a yellow paisley tie as well. Quintessential mourning wear.

My brother had the good sense to go with an all-black with white pinstripe ensemble. It looked like a Harlem zoot suit designed by Johnny Cash. When we got to the church to meet our younger brothers, both of them looked like they had robbed Goodwill of mismatched suits 3 sizes too big for them, then paired it with whatever black accessory they could find at Ragstock. My littlest brother still looks cooler than me in the picture though. There are two reasons for this… the first being that he actually IS cooler than me (he played in a band silly), and two he found a skinny tie that looked like Mr. Pink’s in the movie Reservoir Dogs. I looked like freakin’ Nic Cage in The Family Man when his wife buys him the green Armani suit that is on clearance because it’s 10 years old.

As I drive out of the Twin Cities with my funeral suit, I listen to Spotify. I have found what I think is the unofficial soundtrack lineup for Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming movie ‘Joker‘…lots of depressing heavy music on there. Good. Do your worst. The song “Sweetness Follows” by REM comes on and I drift into hazy highway daydream driving. “Sweetness Follows” is the most epic funeral song ever written. When I drove back and forth from the Twin Cities to Rochester, MN as my Grandpa Joe was dying I played REM’s Automatic for the People repeatedly (yeah the one with ‘Everybody Hurts’…eh…I was a rookie whadya gonna do?). I never cried once in the 3 times I drove down there (my Grandpa Joe practically raised me when my parents got divorced). However, the floodgates finally opened the last time I drove back home. He died that very evening. I wasn’t there. I felt something snap on that ride back. I just knew it was over.

“Sweetness Follows” is one of the most depressing and also one of the most surprisingly uplifting songs I have ever heard in my life. Randomly hearing it at this exact moment in time is like a warm fuzzy blanket. I am deep in thought. I miss my exit. When I come to my senses, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is playing. Where the hell am I?  Hastings, MN? During the last 4 minutes and 22 seconds, I could have been beamed up and prodded by alien life forms or the puppeteer of ALF for that matter. I could have kept driving down the same road for 18 more hours if that song had kept looping. I could have been crushed by an oncoming vehicle like Elliot, my 16-year-old cousin. He too was listening to Spotify.

I had originally wanted to write a blog post about a man named Aaron Klein. Aaron was a fantastic human. He had an earnestness for life that I’ve never seen in anyone else before or since. He was so earnest it actually became downright annoying at times. Aaron worked with me at the network as a director and producer for 14 years, including the last few years in which I was his manager. I still remember the exact moment he told me he had some weird back pain. I told him to go to a chiropractor. A year later I was surprising him with a cake for his “retirement” to stay home with his kids. A year after that I was hugging him and telling him I loved him as he lay on his death bed. 36 years old, with a wife and 3 young children. It was hard to put on the funeral suit a week later. The hardest.

That tragedy coming full circle completely gut-punched us for the last month at work. I just couldn’t write about it. Didn’t have it in me. It was hands down the most devastating thing I had witnessed in 43 years on this planet. Until I got that call in Duluth from my dad. My uncle’s youngest son…my 88-year-old grandmother’s youngest grandchild…one of the two teenagers who pall-beared her casket with me on that frigid North Dakota morning in 2018…was now suddenly and shockingly erased from this earth. That was literally the last time I saw him too. When 4 of us (we didn’t have enough people for the usual 6 man crew) hilariously near-fumbled a casket down a flight of stairs in Carrington, ND (see blog post: “Formaldehyde”). Unbelievable. He’s gone? Just like that? What the fuck???

I am at Elliot’s service. I go through the receiving line (a line which would snake forever I’m told and last more than 2 hours). I am barely able to form words when I see my uncle, his oldest son Ian, and Elliot’s mother. I sit mouth agape for the entire service. Probably looking something like the hordes of teenagers that file through the funeral home, jaws on the floor at the sight of all those flowers and the thought of the supreme finality of death.

I can’t cry. Even though I sit directly behind the bereaved and feel a pit in my stomach the size of a beach ball everytime they start crying. I just can’t possibly comprehend the loss they are feeling, it’s unattainable to my mind’s eye. There are words read from my uncle’s hand about “not enough time” and a speech from the poor vacationer who drove the other vehicle. Beautiful words and profound closure of what happened at the accident scene. It is a vortex of pain. It is a wake-up call that is burned like a brand into everyone who walked through the door that day. Death is not the eternal sleep. Life is the slumber and death is the vicious alarm for which there is no snooze button.

I leave immediately after the ceremony. I feel an unstoppable need to drive two and a half hours home through darkness and the world’s biggest river bugs splattering my windshield in order to hug my kids before they go to bed. Like Nic Cage in Brett Ratner’s cheesy 2000 movie The Family Man, this is my “glimpse”. This is the good Lord sitting me down for some cocoa and saying “you think you have it bad because the network laid off 20% of it’s staff 2 months ago….well…get a load of this raw shit you groutfit-wearing fuckhead.”

I better get busy living I guess…life begins at 43?

I read a David Lynch quote recently which bluntly and succinctly sums up the last month for me:

“I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable. It seems like religion and myth were invented against that, trying to make sense of it.”

We are all one-hit wonders. We all have hidden accordions in us. We grab onto every distraction we can to remind ourselves that we aren’t animals that decay or die suddenly. Every person on this earth is a one-hit-wonder named Pauly or Sugar Ray or Tommy Tutone trying to milk a decades-long career from one flash-in-the-pan melody. In the end, we all end up playing State Fairs and go to a potluck in a church basement after a funeral. I no longer fear this. It is inevitable.

When I get back home my kids are already asleep, all worn out from their 2nd day of the new school year. I find a card in my pocket. Elliot’s family has given out memory cards to everyone at the service. You’re supposed to write down a memory of him and keep it with you always. I couldn’t think of anything to write at first, but then I remember the North Dakota trip and jot down “4 Man Crew.”  I take a picture of it, text it to my uncle, fold it up gingerly and stick it in my wallet.

Another thought floats through my head, fleeting but relevant…something from the service about remembering Elliot’s family on what would have been his 17th birthday on Oct. 1st. I briefly consider putting a note in my phone to remember to call my uncle that day. How the fuck am I not going to forget to do this? Wait…Oct 1st? I check the funeral home leaflet with Elliot’s obituary on it. Then I remember something…

On October 1st I will be exactly 1 year sober.

How Bizarre.

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I Don’t Know How to Play Basketball Anymore.

I shot some hoops with my daughter recently. I had no clue that she had ever shot a basketball. She’s 8. Did I mention we were using a volleyball instead of a basketball? We were 20 minutes early to volleyball camp and just goofing around. I really sucked. In my mind, it felt like I could do it easily… but it was just a bunch of malfunctioning muscle memory and false dad pride. Like Marsellus Wallace said “This business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like fine wine.”

My basketball skills have gone the way of the dodo, just another “incomplete” on the report card of life for this jack-of-all-trades master of none.  Add this to the list of hobbies I gave up on for no good reason…along with drawing, baseball cards, skateboards, Nintendo, guitar, Stephen King books, Twitter feuds, exercise bike, Elvis movies (but only the ones between 1961 and 1965) and most recently… craft beer. Yep, it is day 300 of no beer for this gato, so I thought I’d post on ye olde booze blog for the first time in 8 months.

This erosion of skill and will for Dr. Naismith’s game wasn’t always like this. From the age of 12 to the age of 16, I practically lived in the basketball gym at the Winona, MN YMCA. It’s literally all I did. Bouncing around the old volleyball on the Chaska High School basketball court reminded me of the fact that I used to do this a hell of a lot the last time I was this sober.

When you reach the ripe old age of 17 and are blessed by social anxiety with the power of 1,000 suns…well….let’s just say beer came along at a very opportune time in my life. But before that, I only lived for pick-up basketball. I’d play with anybody. High school basketball stars, 60-year-old fat hairy guys, 4th and 5th graders who barely knew how to dribble, my dad, Ex-football playing meatheads, hobos, hippies, spastic dorksteins, 60-year-old fat hairy guys who tried to pat me on the ass when I shot a layup, 2 of the 3 black guys who lived in Winona, a gym attendant named “Fearless Earless”…you name it…I didn’t care.

If I was playing ball with guys older than me who continuously swished 3s in my face, I would run at them full speed and pretend to head butt them in the balls. If I was playing with the youngsters I would find the kid who was the biggest ball hog and either stuff the shit out of him (“to teach him a lesson”) or hold onto his jersey while I passed the ball to the kid with the least amount of talent for a wide-open layup. In my teens, the basketball courts of the YMCA and the local rec centers were the only locations on earth where I had a pinch of self-esteem or a tiny crumb of self-confidence.

I read back my first 3 blog posts today. They are finely curated pieces of depression that feel like 40 tons of wet sludge to me now. They are towering monuments to self-immolation that feel like moldy tombstone markers. Maybe it’s the 10 months of sobriety or perhaps it’s just my anti-depressants working properly for the first time in 7 years…but why did things feel so dramatic? Why is everyone around me so dramatic? Has it always been this way? Am I such a swirling tornado of angst that everyone feels like they have to behave this way around me to keep my nuttiness at bay? There are definitely more questions than answers these days since I stopped numbing myself for fun.

Yesterday I had my first “trigger” moment in months. I was filling a giant cooler with ice and beer for a barbeque I was having for a family who had traveled in from jolly old England. I used to have these moments often in the first few months of my “sober journey”, but now they rarely flare up at all. The dreams have even stopped. I used to dream at least once a week about sitting in the hot sun cooling off with a frosty can of beer. Perhaps that is why I had a fleeting moment where I seriously contemplated slamming a can of Old Style yesterday (it was hot as fuck). Then I thought, this might be a neat sensation for the first 10-15 seconds…but it would probably taste like the skunky horse urine that it is. I would buzz for about 6 minutes and then be filled with mounds of angst and regret. I didn’t do it. I chickened out. I know I would have got really fucked up yesterday had I done it.

I guess that last paragraph was kind of dramatic. I’m trying to stop that. One thing I’ve noticed is that the longer I go without booze, the less I seem to want to fight people. Not fisticuffs in the traditional sense, just the neverending urge to debate people until I am blue in the face. Sometimes I even up and leave negative situations without saying a word. I have never felt that way in my life. I’ve always been an unrelenting, unabashed asshole. Like Denis Leary said, I was the guy walking around in the summer saying “how about this heat?”  Look, I’m not saying quitting the booze will fix a career asshole…I have just started subtlety editing myself here and there. I haven’t done this on purpose, it just sort of happens. Everyone needs a good editor. Just like a movie. The gag reel outtakes might be funny as shit, but you don’t leave them all in there if you want to be taken seriously. You pick your spots.

I went to Tarantino’s new film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” the other day. I went with an interesting gang of hardcore cinephile doofuses…including the jolly Englishman and my best friend C.S. My best pal and I exchanged knowing glances when Brad Pitt’s character and Leo DiCaprio’s character go off together for one last “blind drunk” before all hell breaks loose (let’s just say we’ve had that moment together more than a few times in the last 25 years).

A few critics and SJW’s have noted how Tarantino’s film seems to be some sort of last gasp extinction burst for the fabled “misogynist angry middle-aged male” …I disagree. I look at this film the same way I look at my favorite TV show Mad Men. It is QT looking through the lens of the past to show how it wasn’t much different than the present. Yes, in QT’s fantasyland the idealistic upstarts get their comeuppance at the hands of some surly honky conservative types in a vulgar display of power. However, my take is more of the ilk that modern-day conservatives (the Boomers) are so oppressively evil that the younger generation (the Millenials) will have to get their hands dirty in order to take the place of their masters.

QT is predicting a storm coming, just like it did 50 years ago with the Tate murders and the “death of the hippie dream”. QT is not a Boomer. QT is the nihilistic Gen Xer using our own hideous id against us. Think about it, is the “Tarantino Universe” really that much different than our own? What with its cooler than cool characters constantly spouting pop culture soliloquies (Twitter) while waiting for the next ambush of uncompromising violence (Sandy Hook, Vegas, Columbine, The Bataclan, skyrocketing middle-age suicide, white nationalist cuckoos, etc. etc.).

So how does all this heady shit tie into a sad sack booze blog? Well, we live in this “have a beer and calm down pussy” society to such a degree that it has not only become completely ingrained in us…but it is now seen as harmless or even “cute”. The thing about our barbeque yesterday that scared me the most wasn’t my split-second “trigger” of want for a silo of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Though the funniest part of the afternoon was the Londoner regaling us with a story of the first time he tried PBR and how he thought it was terrible. He couldn’t understand how the beer that Dennis Hopper loved in Blue Velvet could be bad. We had to explain to him that in the 80s and 90s PBR was the shittiest midwestern beer you could drink this side of Blatz and that was the reason why it was so funny in the movie (Heineken? FUCK THAT SHIT!). It wasn’t until a gaggle of Millenial hipsters made it ironically cool that the beer was anything more than something you drank in a cornfield the summer after senior year. No the scariest thing for me about our little barbeque was my 5-year-old son sitting around with the adults in a circle of folding chairs in the garage. He walked back and forth from the cooler getting LaCroix bubble waters and pretended to drink beer with everyone. A few pointed this out as adorable. After 300 days sober, I found it to be as batshit crazy as the last 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

This post began about basketball, and I feel it should end that way too. Anyone reading this who is newly sober should be left with the cheesetastic refrain of “it gets better”. No, you’re not going to be what you were before, you are still going to suck in a multitude of ways. However, you could have a slightly different perspective on life if you get to 300 days off the sauce. It will probably be very different for each of you. For me, it is the realization that life is nothing more than a pickup basketball game. You don’t always get to choose who you’re playing with, but if you don’t try and make them all better it won’t be any fun at all.

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The Hunger

“I hate myself and I want to die.”

That’s what I woke up to every day in the winter of 1994-95. A massive poster of Kurt Cobain with one of his favorite quotes adorning the lower third of it. It hung on the wall in which my dormitory bed was pushed up against. So every morning for a period of weeks and months, that’s what I saw. It so irritated a girlfriend I had at the time that she made a point to scold me about it. She never scolded me about anything, in fact, I never even thought she liked me that much until I broke up with her that Spring. I found that the poster suited my black sense of humor and my obsessive love of the band Nirvana. She thought it was a dumb cop-out and quite possibly the least inspiring mantra that had ever existed. She was right. This was probably why we spent most of our time in her room.

I had my first craving for booze this weekend. I shouldn’t say booze, I’ve mostly drunk beer the past few years. I hadn’t really wanted a beer since the first few weeks of “Sober October”…it’s Thanksgiving weekend now. I don’t think it was the actual taste that I coveted, but more the camaraderie it brings this time of year. The tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram pics make Thanksgiving weekend seem like this magical paradise where you float back into your hometown the night before and whimsically reminisce with old friends at a tavern. The next day you coyly sip beers during football with your relatives, slosh down a couple glasses of wine with the meal, then top the night off with a return to the tavern for about 4 hours of “nightcaps”.  If that weren’t enough, after reversing your path from grandma’s house back through the woods and over the river you still have 2 more nights (or 2 nights and 1 day if you’re feeling frisky on Sunday) to fade into oblivion before starting the yearly December ritual of happy hours and holiday parties. What a cliche. Just writing that down seems gross to me, but it’s what we all live with…year…after year…after year…after year. Resistance is futile.

I watched a movie last night called The Hunger. It’s Tony Scott’s first movie. You know, Ridley Scott’s brother. One day in 2012, Tony hated himself and wanted to die enough to jump off a bridge in the San Pedro port of Los Angeles. In this 1983 film, however, he seems inspired. More inspired than when he did Days of Thunder anyway. Creative juices and heady doom themes puddling up all over the place. This got me thinking…what if old Tony Scott never met Jerry Bruckheimer and that incorrigible coke head Don Simpson?

A couple of years after The Hunger bombed, Tony was enticed to make a movie called Top Gun and spent the rest of his life making entertaining popcorn films with sassy dialogue and macho, yet sensitive leads. He never made anything remotely like The Hunger again…which is about lesbian vampires and features a sequence in which David Bowie ages 75 years in two days. What if Scott just wanted to keep making weird shit like that? I would argue the world of film would be much better off (considering Scott’s talent and world-building acumen). What if Scott DID make Top Gun and then used his newfound cache & money to start making crazed monuments to cinematic visual excess like Stanley Kubrick? Instead, Tony went and made Beverly Hills Cop II.

How often in our lives do we just “fall into” stuff and just stay there in that prefabricated rut? Maybe that rut is lucrative, maybe it’s easy, or maybe we just “fall into” something and become really, really good at it like Tony Scott did. How many times have you pushed yourself in another direction? The exact opposite direction of the way you’re used to going? I can only count a scant handful of times in my life that I’ve done this.

It is the winter of 1994-95 and I decide to skip the horrible cafeteria dorm dinner and get a start on drinking. I am sure I’ll end up at a keg party somewhere anyway. I am 19 and I have acquired a nasty habit of “pre-partying” before any type of social event I go to. In my mind, I am being prudent…have a few now and then I won’t have to worry about long beer lines or god forbid sobering up once the booze runs dry.

There is a 3/4 full bottle of Root 100 in the room – this is 100 proof Root Beer Schnapps. I don’t know where it came from…maybe it’s my roommate’s, maybe someone left it there last night? I decide to drink it even though I have a mini-fridge full of Busch beer, which I also have no idea how I got as I am nowhere near 21 and have no fake ID. The album I am playing will burn itself into my memory for the rest of my life. In fact, I was unable to bring myself to listen to it again for over a decade after this night. Unbelievably it wasn’t anything by Nirvana, it was Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.

I don’t remember how fast I drank the Root 100, but the ensuing blackout was as fierce and ferocious as any I’ve experienced before or since. I was in and out of coherence during Dancing Days and by No Quarter I was in a full-on “dogs of doom” spiral.

Close the door, put out the light. No, they won’t be home tonight. The snow falls hard and don’t you know? The winds of Thor are blowing cold.”

What a spectacularly awful song. I’m glad I didn’t listen to it again for 10 years.

I black out again and come to for a few minutes. The dorm room is now pitch black and tomb-like quiet while I vomit profusely. Then I am out again. Way out. So out… that I go on a little journey while I sleep and wake up in a strange white room. This room seems to be a hybrid hospital room/prison cell. I have to pee worse than I ever have in my life, and there is no toilet. I gingerly move towards the door, still groggy and unsure if this is a dream or reality. The heavy steel door is locked tight and there is only one tiny rectangular-shaped window.

I am officially freaked out now. I scream bloody murder about my urinary woes until someone comes in and tells me I cannot leave. I am strapped down to a hospital bed by two faceless snarling humans, like something out of a David Lynch movie. They give me a bedpan and I furiously try to get my fly down and pee into a blue plastic kidney bean. “You fucking idiots! How am I supposed to piss in this with my arms strapped down!”, I hiss. I manage to sort of make it work for a few seconds before drunkenly peeing all over myself. “Fuck You!” I yell. Then I flick the half-full kidney bean as hard as a shackled loon can do with drunken, limp wrists. I hear the piss splash on the gleaming white tiled floor. A short time later an elderly janitor comes in with a mop to clean it up. I laugh in his face. He just shakes his head at me, like he’s seen this a million times before and is completely bored with it. In hindsight, this is the absolute nadir of my life.

After what seems like an entire day in solitary confinement (but is probably only a few hours), I talk my way out of the room. I tell them I am sober now and need to get back to the dorm. However, the person at the front desk puts me right back in the room and says “I’ll show you how sober you are.” She gives me a breathalyzer and it reads .15.  “Do you know what time it is?” I have no idea. “It’s 7:30am”, she says in a motherly, yet stern tone. They make me sit for another half hour or so, but I am such a pain in the ass they finally call me a cab. I have no money. They force me to take the cab anyway and won’t let me walk.

Later, after my yellow limo arrives at the dorm, I can’t get into the building. I have no recollection where my keys are. So I sneak in when someone else goes in and make it as far as the 2nd-floor room of an acquaintance. I watch to see how long the cabbie waits until he realizes I am not going up to get money from my room. He squeals out angrily and I laugh like a hyena. Serves them right for not letting me walk home. My parents were never notified of any of this happening by the way, until a $500 ambulance bill appeared in my name at my dad’s house. He didn’t pay it.

Last week I watched Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born in a nearby theater. That morning I saw a video for some unearthed Chris Cornell song starring his son. The son is riding a bike around Cornell’s neighborhood doing Cornell’s old paper route. After the movie ends, all I can think about is what Vicky Cornell would think of that ending. She still thinks the drugs killed her husband though… so then I think about the pivotal scene in which Cooper’s doomed cowboy Jackson Maine pisses himself in a very public and shameful way. I think about the time I pissed all over myself in the Hennipen County Medical Center in the mid-90s. It’s the first time I’ve thought about that moment in years, perhaps even a decade or more. I was once at that level. I hated myself and wanted to die… but only because Kurt Cobain said it was okay.

One of the scant handful of times I truly pushed myself in the opposite direction of what felt natural was the Spring of 1995. I started actually going to class, toning down the booze, met a new girl, and completely untethered myself from a whole section of friends I had. This was one of the greatest 3-month spans in my life.  I think I got 3 As and a B that quarter. I only drank light beer instead of hard alcohol. I started playing basketball again, even going as far as playing in some pick-up games with the 300 pound U of M football behemoths on the outdoor dorm courts (they were all much faster than me btw).

When I moved back home and the girl went back to Wisconsin… all hell broke loose. She simply stopped talking to me after school got out. That was it. Never gave a reason and I never talked to her again. I was devastated and returned to drinking harder than ever…even dabbling in hard drugs for the first and only time in my life. By the time the fall rolled around I went right back to the party boy lifestyle I had left behind that spring. Hell, it felt like THAT lifestyle was “slowing down” since I raged so hard the entire summer. There’s a quote that says “Only dead fish go with the flow”…that was me. I met my wife a few years later and the natural progression of marriage, children, and father time kept the dogs of doom at bay.

As I sat in that theater next to my wife watching Brad Cooper’s depress-o-rama, something reignited in me. An old fatalist sensation. I think I actually enjoyed self-sabotage at one point in my life. I never once felt like I wanted to off myself in any way other than swimming in a volcano-sized pool of the finest craft lager, but there is certainly an over-arching fatalism amongst my age group. Perhaps it was a rite of passage, or perhaps it’s the remnants of growing up during the 80s under a mushroom cloud of Russian nuclear war threats and 80s “War on Drugs” excess. I don’t know what it is, but it still persists. And now there is a new crushing burden of raising children in the era of school shootings, Trump, and Khashoggi. For some of my ilk, the path seems pre-ordained. Suicide is at an all-time high, all of the heroes we grew up with have killed themselves in some way. It started with Cobain…then Michael Hutchence from INXS…then Staley (that was a suicide, I don’t care what the coroner report says)…Elliot Smith…Cornell…Chester Bennington…the guy from Emerson, Lake & Palmer… And there are others…Bourdain, Kate Spade, Alexander McQueen, Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace, professional wrestlers, professional football players. Google it. The list is enormous. The druggie list is even worse…Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, Scott Weiland, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley. My point is…the reason A Star is Born is so popular and resonates with so many is not the music or “star-making” in the age of social media…it’s the fatalism of Generation X. Hollywood taps into the zeitgeist and out comes a schlocky version of our inner id.

I heard that Bradley Cooper followed Eddie Vedder around for a week in preparation for his role as Jackson Maine. Perhaps instead of going the way of Cobain & Cornell, his character should have been more like Vedder. What’s it like to see all your friends and contemporaries die all around you? What’s it like to be “washed up” and just be okay with it? What’s it like to be Mick Jagger corpse-dancing with Keith Richards’ skeleton on stage as a septuagenarian? What’s it like to churn out albums on Spotify that nobody listens to? What’s it like to be a 57-year-old female actress that nobody wants to hire anymore because she’s past her prime? What’s it like to be Fred Durst pivoting to movie directing because his music is so rancid and outdated nobody wants to touch it with a 10-foot pole? What’s it like to play the State Fair circuit? What’s it like to drop from 15,000 seat venues to 500 seat venues and be okay with it? What’s that like? Nobody wants that story though. They want noble seppuku.

You know what the best part of Tony Scott’s The Hunger is? Seeing David Bowie act. The man lights up every frame he is in with uber coolness, even though he is under 6 lbs of old man make-up half the time. Remember how good he was in The Man Who Fell to Earth? Remember how electric he was (pardon the pun) as Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige? You probably don’t. That’s too bad. Just like Tony Scott’s lesbian vampire film, this kind of craft deserves to be honored. Imagine if Bowie just said eff it and went into acting for the last 20 years of his life? His best musical stuff happened in the 70s. What would we have missed? The hideous “Dancing in the Streets” video he did with Jagger? The swan song doom of his last album? By the way, his acting in those final music videos outdoes anything he put on wax. Bowie was an enigma, a once in a lifetime Haley’s comet. There was no harnessing him, he did what he wanted on his own terms. We should all be so lucky.

What’s the best thing about life? There are a thousand answers and a thousand doors which lead to more doors and more answers. But the one thing that remains constant is our ability to simply stop, change course and swim in another direction. If you get conked on the head with a coconut and float back to where you were, it doesn’t mean you are destined to stay there.

Keep. f*cking. going.

kurdt

Demon Sweat

It’s last Saturday at approximately 7:54pm. I am standing on the floor of the Palace Theater in St. Paul, MN. I am leaning against a sort of drink rail structure next to the ramp that goes down to the stage. My friend C.S. points out what appears to be a middle-aged man with gray hair and a ballcap hurling his guts out on the concrete wall 5 feet away from us. Judging by the fact that the woman next to us is holding her shirt over her nose for the next 10 minutes, I’m guessing the guy had more than just a 3 martini lunch. I am at a Ween show drinking Coca-Cola. C.S. is slowly slurping Surly beer. This is what middle-aged white guys do at concerts in Minnesota. They slowly slurp the Surly beer.

All rules of engagement for rock concerts are suspended at Ween shows. There are “that guys” everywhere wearing the tee-shirt of the band they are seeing. Nearly all of these shirts look like they were purchased at a Mushroom Festival in Hell sometime around 2004. Standing directly to my right is a man who is wearing what looks like a hard plastic archer’s quiver. It is harnessed to the back of his person like a hiker’s knapsack. This sacred scroll holder is most likely protecting an ultra limited edition poster he bought at the merch table. Probably the one with the cartoon rabbits. You know… one of those tour posters that you want to frame, but your wife threatens to Bobbitt you if you hang it anywhere but the garage? Yeah, that’s this guy. I would have to be 8 Surlys deep and possibly on mushrooms to wear that thing in public.

In order to pass the time until the band hits the stage (this is one of those “Evening with” shows where there is nothing to do but stand around, get bombed and people-watch until showtime), we make purposefully bad dad jokes under our breath about Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings at this man’s expense. C.S. names the poor bastard “Legolas, Prince of Prints”…and we yell it to each other in haughty Renaissance festival voices whenever we see the man for the rest of the night. Ween takes the stage at exactly 8:07pm and proceeds to melt people’s faces for 2 hours.

At 8:08pm sharp, a massive surge of bearded males and B.O. surrounds our prime spot near the railing. C.S. makes it exactly 3.5 songs before wanting out. C.S. is notorious for his Larry David-level fear of brushing up against strangers, and for having mind-crushing claustrophobia. I must admit as much as I love this particular view of the band, I too am a bit annoyed with current circumstances. My butt is not only nearly tipping over a garbage can, but I think it’s actually partially pushed in it now. I’m too old for this shit Riggs. Plus the two cokes I have pummelled have me needing to pee, so I relent and head up the flight of stairs to the bar area to collect myself and find the latrine.

A quick aside here…it is mind blowing how fucking dumb intoxicated concert-going males are. They wait until the last possible second to enter the venue, then all pile on top of each other like they are in a clown car. This train wreck inevitably happens at the first entrance to the venue’s floor that they see.  Nevermind that there is another, perfectly good entrance fifty feet to their right. They also do this with the bar. 40 people line up on the corner of the bar closest to the theater entrance and set up shop for days as bartenders on the far side wave frantically for them to come down to the other side of the bar. But I shouldn’t rip the Ween dudes. They are the most cordial, easy-going fans you will meet. These are gentle Viking giants. Noble and honorable men.

The other side of the venue (where the beardo pile-up isn’t happening) is filled with couples and drunk chicks who came with their friends. It turns out the females are the aggressors in this little tribe. This is interesting and hilarious to me because it’s something I never would have noticed had I been shitfaced at this concert like I normally get. I saw not one issue with dudes being assholes or fighting in the pit…but the women are running up and down the venue ramp handing out forearm shivers to everything in their path. I’m not paying attention for a second and one nearly knocks me completely over. She is 5 foot 2. The guy behind her laughs and I give him a goofy, knowing smirk.

I’m also getting a ton of butt bumps (not the good kind) and elbows to the midsection from these determined little Ween warrior goddesses. They are all stupendously drunk, holding hands with their girlfriends, and some are even wearing fairy wings. I suppose if I had to navigate a forest of 6 foot 4 bearded Viking giants as a small female, I imagine I’d probably be hosing people down with Mace by now. Who am I to judge? I can’t see over these fuckers either and I’m nearly 6 feet tall. I see my opening and start following some of these miniature ass kickers down the ramp. I sidle and inch my way back up towards the stage. I am sans C.S., who is standing behind the bar next to an oversized AC vent airing out his sweat ass. Papa Gener is destroying the solo to “I Don’t Want it” and I have a brief, crystal clear sightline between two oafs that look like 1970s-era Bill Walton.

It is 1995. I am in St. Paul at a place called Roy Wilkins Auditorium. This is the first time I ever see anyone try to crowd surf. These jolly fools are attempting to crowd surf to the Goo Goo Dolls. Nope, not making that up. One of these doofuses is my friend Pat, his blonde hair looks like a curly Cobain wig. The 17-year-olds get him almost 3/4 of the way up only to ceremoniously dump him sideways. He lands on his feet and smiles that toothy Pat smile.

Hold on…did I forget to mention my first ever concert in the Twin Cities was Gavin Rossdale’s Bush? I am not one of those cool kids who came in from the suburbs every weekend and saw all the best 90s bands before they were famous at 7th Street Entry. Oh hell no. I get to tell people my motherfucking first concert was BUSH, the Monkees of grunge. To make matters worse, the Goo Goo Dolls were there. If not for Nickelback and Creed coming along a few years later to save their asses, they would most certainly be known as the worst band of the 20th century. To compound my misery with this virgin concert-going experience is the fact that the only notable thing about this shit sandwich is the fact that this is the infamous tour in which Gavin and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani met and fell madly in love (until years later when he fucked their nanny and she fucked Blake Shelton on the set of The Voice). That’s kind of cool nugget to tell people right? Wrong. No Doubt was a no-show for some reason, so I can’t even say that I got to see Gwen at the peak of her Gwenness, or even make up some excuse like “my girlfriend made me go.”

I am standing at the far side of the bar at the Palace. The drunks have figured out they can actually use all bartender stations at this humongous theater bar now. I am waiting in line for my 3rd Coca-Cola. I see a small refrigerator filled with Red Bull. “Maybe I should drink that instead?”, I think to myself. But then I will get real twitchy, my heart will start racing, I will crash and have to drink more Red Bull in roughly 17 minutes. Then I think…Jesus Christ I don’t want to go back on that fucking floor. C.S. was already trying to drunkenly barter our way to the upper deck with a rando we met the last time we went outside for a heater. What if I just had a couple Red Bull/Vodkas right now? Nobody would see or know. I need it to calm my nerves and tolerate all manner of bullshit in the sweaty mess below.

I imagine myself as Popeye ripping the top off one of the ice cold Red Bull cans, pounding half of it, then biting the cap off a Grey Goose bottle. I spit the cap off the barkeep’s face, then take all it’s goosey awfulness in my mouth, swishing it around and spitting it back into the Red Bull can. I then theatrically sniff the nose like a sommelier before shoving the whole mess down my gullet. The supernatural burst of energy and drunk strength blows gentle, yet forceful winds up my tooter… thus allowing me to storm all the way to the front of the Palace stage. I wave “hi” and give devil horns to Deaner as his solo during “Fluffy” goes off like a grenade in my face.

Yeah I could do that…that would be fun. However, I am now behind two men getting Bill Bratzke-sized Windsor cokes and it smells like Unpainted Huffhines and rubbing alcohol. Seriously that shit is the worst type of spirit known to man. My brother and I used to call it “Hairspray” and dare each other to take shots of it while watching Vikings games in our 20s. After gagging silently, I take my unleaded Cola and head back to the floor. This time I meander farther up the side wall towards the stage on a solo mission to get at least 10 good minutes of Ween trance.

It’s hot as fuck in the pit at the Monkees of Grunge show. Now I’m not saying this is Pantera in here by any means, but these skinny teenage peers of mine are attempting a pitiful Yacht club Slamdance up in this shit and I can’t breathe. When people start to pogo up and down during “Machinehead”, I do too…not because I am supercharged by the hard-driving rock…but because I can get a sweet gulp of unsweaty B.O.-free air. I am 19 and I hate being around people. I have violently oppressive social anxiety, and this is the most miserable situation I could possibly be in. Little did I know, that this issue would go undiagnosed for over 15 years and the only way I would know how to treat it on my own is to get blind drunk and bull my way through it.

I slither forward weaving through the joyful teenage American idiots until I find another cool pocket of air. I can’t push any farther because I am hitting something made of metal. Shit, I burrowed my way up to the rail! I slowly look up and standing directly above me is one Gavin Rossdale, Esq. I have never been this close to a “celebrity” in my life. Of course, he’s not really that famous yet, just a mop-haired British dude with 3-4 milquetoast grunge songs in heavy rotation on 93.7 “The Edge”.  I grew up in Winona, MN, there were no local bands or even a place to see concerts…unless you count the bandshell by Lake Winona where the Municipal Brass Band played.

Naturally, the first thing I want to know is if Gavin is fucked up. I inspect him closely, his eyes seem intense, but also slightly glazed over. I suspect he has had a few drinks. I look behind him and there are 4-5 Heineken bottles on the drum riser. I wish I could afford exotic beer like Heineken. Instead I will spend another 4 years drinking vile swill like “Milwaukee’s Best Ice”.

Gavin is singing a song called Glycerine. I know this one. I have recently attempted to pick up a guitar, and it’s four chords have been an easy way to try and woo girls with my friend Dallas (who is the only person I know with a “single” dorm room). I can only play 3.5 songs on guitar at this time in my life. Knocking on Heaven’s Door, About a Girl, the riff from Come as you Are, and this Glycerine business that has recently been tearing up “The Edge’s” airwaves.

Holy shit was I not cool in the 90s. Hilariously, I never even went to First Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis until I was like 28. Mostly due to poverty…but still, that’s pathetic. When I was in Winona I had no idea how to even go to concerts. I remember seeing a blurb in the Winona Daily News about Nirvana coming to the St. Paul Civic center on their 1993 In Utero tour. I wanted to go, BADLY. Yet I had not the foggiest inclination on how to make this happen. Later, I was to find out people waited in line at Dayton’s in a mall and had an operator place their order with something called Ticketmaster. When I moved to the cities I might as well have been a teenage Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, dunder-headedly roaming this new earth looking for beer, tunes, and shelter.

Gavin says he is going to cover a Prince song. What in the blue hairy fuck? Is Gavin going to sing “When Doves Cry”? Maybe a grungified “Purple Rain?” …no, he plays a song I’ve never heard of. I kind of like it though. Something about a cross. The Cross? Later this would become my favorite Prince song, which is funny because the first time I heard my favorite Prince song it was being sung by Gavin Rossdale the Nanny fucker.

“The Cross” is one of the only “religious” songs I can tolerate. The other is “I Believe in You” by Bob Dylan off one of his much-derided “born again” albums. These songs are earnest, yet somewhat dark. Lyrically heavy, yet simple in structure musically. Hell, “The Cross” is only 2 chords…this is probably why the Heineken-fueled Gavin is able to pander to the locals so effortlessly and off the cuff.

I’ve always felt like rock n’ roll concerts are one of the only true “communal” experiences humanity has left. You sing. You absolve yourselves of your daily sorrows. You go home. Since hardly anyone under the age of 75 goes to church anymore, concerts are one of the last vestiges of this ancient custom we have. And I am definitely not one of those douchebags that believes concerts are only good in tiny clubs either. The bigger the venue, the harder this type of communal transcendence is to pull off for the artist. I fucking love that bands need to tour and get in front of large groups to make money now. This is the best medicine for a world of disconnected humans.

I have weaseled my way down the concrete wall of the Palace theater. I am at the last tiny staircase which leads down to the smaller floor section right in front of the stage. I am right at the top of the stairs with only a shorter man in a beanie in front of me. I have a perfect view of the stage. Ween lifers surround me. One yells “Captain Fantasy!”…the guy in the beanie bellows “Laura!”

What is with the old school Ween fans always clinging to “The Pod” album? It’s like a little Ween cult within the Ween cult. A tiny niche inside a smaller, thimble-sized niche in rock history. I’d honestly rather listen to anything off Quebec, but at this moment I’d strangle a small goat to hear “Dr. Rock”. I think about ironically yelling it (Dr. Rock is probably the least weird song on The Pod), but then I’d risk getting 1,000 “fuck you poser” eyes from everyone in front of me.

It’s hot down here, I feel the anxiety building inside me. I feel like I am watching the show in a fur-lined snowmobile suit and just stepped into a sauna. A beardo next to me yells “DEMON SWEAT!” at the top of his lungs, and as if on cue, Deaner invites Gener to go to a small keyboard on the opposite side of the stage. A reverent hush falls over the raucous inner circle of Ween fanatics. This is the equivalent of the Pope giving a blessing at the Vatican in some quarters of this establishment. I’ve never really thought that much of the song, but other than Gener’s “I Don’t Want It” solo, this is THE transcendent moment of the show.

A few minutes earlier the guy in the beanie  (most likely under the influence of a few different recreational drugs) had asked me to plug my ears as he was plugging his ears. I plug one ear…humoring him. “No man! Do BOTH ears!”  I do as I’m told, this guy could be tripping balls for all I know and I sure as hell am not going to be the one to tempt fate and screw with his journey. I plug both ears, high on Coca-Cola. “You feel that man!?? IT’S SWEET!”  I do feel something. I feel the ground vibrating from the sound below my feet… I put my hand on the wall and it is vibrating as well. I look up and we are under a giant speaker. He turns around again and we are all lost in the music, everyone within 100 feet of me. I hear a harmonica. The song somehow sounds 3-dimensional. What the fuck?  I don’t remember there being a DEMON SWEAT harmonica solo?  I look down and the guy in the beanie is leaning waaaay back with his eyes closed. He is playing a goddamn harmonica along with the music.

DEMON SWEAT ends as quickly as it begins and the beanied stoner invites me to his spot – “Here.” he seems to say, “Enjoy the best seat in the house, you need it more than I do.”

C.S. and I have been fucked up together more times than I can possibly count. He took me to my first high school keg party when I was 17. He kicked me out of his “like-new” 1989 Mustang at Kwik Trip after I puked all over the seat. He had to use one of those gas station squeegees to clean it out. I only had to walk 4 blocks to get home, so no biggie.

C.S. and I used to get into all sorts of shit. His parents live all the way out in a small valley beyond the ridge on a beef farm. We’d get fucked up and hang out in the parking lot by the Hardee’s in town, then have to drive like 30 miles down treacherous winding dirt roads to get to his parents’ house.

One time we hit a deer going full speed. We hit is so hard that it shit on the windshield. We stopped for the briefest of moments and deliberated what our story would be to his parents when they saw the bashed in Mustang. Then we sped off cackling as we tried to run the windshield wipers on the shit. The next day we went looking for the deer and were astonished at how far into a cornfield it flew. It lay there still and silent, it’s hind leg wrapped around its head.

C.S. doesn’t try to get me drunk at all. He knows when I set my mind to something it cannot be changed. We don’t speak much about it, just enjoy the show. I hate talking about not drinking. It’s annoying to me. I am not going to prance around saying “my sobriety this” or “my sobriety” that….people that do that sound like they are taking their fancy French poodle for a walk or some shit. Now I just say I’ve “stopped having the beers” or that I’m 38 days “Grondahl” (after a former co-worker and ace drinker who went to AA, got clean and moved to Seattle).

Sometimes I just feel like stopping. I’ve done it a few times before. Once was quite humorous….C.S. and I went to the “Americanarama” festival featuring Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Bob Dylan. This is the only time I have actually seen Dylan. But I didn’t actually SEE him, because I was on the side of the stage watching C.S. puke by a row of Port-O-Sans (to be fair…it was extremely hot that day, and C.S. was much larger than he is now…not to mention violently wasted and stoned).  I could only hear Dylan because he was somewhere near the back of the stage behind his piano. The side of the portable stage was blocking my view. He sounded like shit. We left early.

The second time I “stopped having the beers” was right after my 40th birthday. I quit for nearly 6 months. Then D. Lu and one of my best friends from college got married on back to back days one fine May weekend. A couple of beers turned into a nearly 3-year craft beer guzzling odyssey. Here’s a word to the wise, if you have an anxiety disorder and you are taking anti-depressants for it, it’s probably not the greatest idea to go to a brewery and slam copious amounts of a DEPRESSANT every other weekend. Kind of defeats the purpose.

After having a smoke with C.S. I make my final descent into Weentown from the back of the Palace Theater bar. The encore is starting and I am determined to try and get back to where I was before. I don’t get that far before Ween starts blasting a cover of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”… the snowmobile suit is on me again but I don’t care.  I fumble for my phone to try and record some of this momentous occasion. As I hold my phone up wildly and devil horns from the other revelers bat it back and forth, I see a text pop up on my phone from C.S., “Holy Fuck” is all it says.

I am glad I am back in the sauna. After blowing the doors off the place as a three-piece with Dave the bass player singing lead, Gener pops back on stage. “How you gonna fucking follow Ace of Spades?” Deaner chuckles. Gene knows how… by closing down the night with an epic version of “Poop Ship Destroyer.”

All 2500 of us in our snowmobile suits are gently swaying in unison (or wobbling like gentlemen in some cases). POOP. SHIP. DESTROYER. POOP. SHIP. DESTROYER. It feels like the room is 48.5% more stoned, but also happier than they ever could be outside these walls. Tuesday is election day, and a shit veil of horridness has descended upon the national news cycle. I’d rather sing about Poop. I’d rather start my own church in an old basketball arena like Joel Osteen. We’ll do nothing but sing “The Cross” and “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” for hours on end. Krist Novelselic will be contractually obligated to play accordion at every mass.

I am sitting in a church basement. My daughter and her friends are playing “Simon Sez” and learning about the Ten Commandments. C.S. left early this morning, long before I woke up…even the kids weren’t up yet. We are sitting around a long table with other parents. There is another table next to us which houses the coffee, big black urns the size of flower vases. We are now going around the room and saying “hi my name is”…Christ, this might as well be an AA meeting. I think about my response. I should say: “Hi, my name is Andy, my wife made me get married here in 2003 and I sometimes attend sporadically on holidays. I don’t really believe in organized religion, but I do feel spiritual at times when singing about Demons and Poop.”

I don’t say any of those things. My wife fields the question and talks about how she was baptized here when she was little. My kids were baptized here too, and come here to make crafts on Sunday mornings sometimes just like their mother did before them. They will never have to know about their father’s odd upbringing in a hardcore Polish Catholic enclave in southern Minnesota. They will probably never have to explain what a Catholic mass feels like as a 10-year-old altar boy (picture Tom Cruise meeting Red Cloak in the film Eyes Wide Shut). They will never experience a “polka mass” or get sprayed with holy water. They will never be shown anti-abortion movies on a ratty projector once a year. And they will never, ever pass out from holding their breath while kneeling next to a coffin getting peppered by an insense orb. Not unless their grandparents force them to altar boy weekday morning funerals once a week that is!

I watch my daughter slowly slather paste all over a candle and glue some paper mache shit all over it. I hork down my slimy brown church coffee. I see my daughter’s fingernails are still painted jet black from Halloween. A slow, evil grin spreads across my sober, yet tired old man face. She’ll be just fine.

As I wait for C.S. outside the Palace Theater, a busker is playing the Pee Wee Herman song “Tequila” on a sax and there is a dwarf making laps around the gathering crowd. I am standing next to a stone tablet emblazoned with the Hamm’s Beer Bear on it, our planned rendezvous point. The marker/statue is about 7 feet tall and looks like a large cartoon tombstone. “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters”, it says. It might as well be a gravesite marker for my beer drinking career….or a gravesite marker for when I inevitably fall off the wagon again. Works either way! The perfectly awful, multifunctional life metaphor!

I hear a goddamned Harmonica. Am I going insane tonight?  I peer slyly around the Beer tombstone, it’s the beanie guy going to town on his harp right behind me.

Maybe he’ll follow me wherever I go now, my stoned guardian angel.

 

lenny

 

 

Formaldehyde

I am standing next to a newish, extremely sleek, jet black hearse. It is negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit and I am hungover. Not the kind of hungover where I am incapacitated or violently regurgitating whatever concoction I ingested at 2am last night. Nope…just enough to be mildly irritable. I’m kind of caught in the nebulous grey zone between slightly nauseated and a touch “hangry” for corn beef hash.

I am waiting for the young heir apparent to the Carrington, North Dakota (pop. 2,014) undertaking business to roll out a silver coffin from his gleam-mobile. In it rests the remains of my grandmother. We have traveled nearly six hours from Minnesota to bring her back to a place she hasn’t lived since 1978.

I am a pall bearing expert by now, having carried all 4 of my grandparents to their final rites. This one is different though. It’s a 4 man job. Myself, my older cousin Davy (who used to be in the Navy) and two skinny teenagers who are my Uncle Ed’s kids. As the casket is slowly wheeled into our arms, I think “this isn’t so bad,” I just gotta get this thing up that steep icy staircase and just past the lobby for the viewing. Then the entire weight of the thing seems to drop out of the clouds and onto my forearms. “Jesus Christ!”, I think to myself …wait… did I just say that out loud? I hope not.  Why is this thing so fucking heavy?  Oh yeah…all the other times I’ve done this there have been 6 people. Not 4.  I remember carrying her husband out to his hearse and thinking…wow, this is nowhere near as heavy as I thought it would be. It was the same for the other two grandparents I’ve carried as well. I just figured it was due to the fact that they were all so frail and old when they passed.

Last night was one of the greatest nights I’ve ever had in a strange town. We got in about 1:30pm. My uncles, my cousin Davy, and a few others were there. It has just snowed about 6 inches and had literally stopped only about 15 minutes before we got there. Around 3pm, my Dad and his brothers were already contacting all the shirttail cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family and preparing to go have beers. That’s what you do in small towns in the middle of nowhere. You go have the beers. We pull up to “The Shamrock”, a legendary local saloon. It is a Sunday. The whole town seems to be shut down like it’s 1955 and everyone is at church.

Kitty corner from the bar is a tiny police station. A female cop yells to us from across the way in a cartoon Marge Gunderson voice: “OOOH you must be looking for so & so, he closed up late last night and may not be in to open up until 5 or soooo. Head down the block to Finch’s Five Spot if you want some beer.”  We all stand ankle deep in the new fallen snow…jaws agape to the permafrost below…speechless. My dad’s brother finally breaks the silence – “Ok! Thanks!” he says merrily.

We see a Ford Truck with a giant plow attached to the front of it furiously pushing powder all over the place. The guy yells at us from the driver side window. “Oh it’s my cousin Scotty!” my Dad says. My dad is pumped. They exchange pleasantries…their voices boomeranging off the decrepit downtown Carrington brick buildings. Something about making sure we stay there and wait for him?  I don’t know…I don’t care… I just want to jump into my escape hatch of Coors Banquet Beer and swim around until this becomes fun. And it will. It always does.

I am sitting in a 2nd-row pew in the Carrington Federated Church. I think this town is so small they just mashed all the religions together into one church and called it good. The casket is pushed down from the back by the undertaker heir. “Damn.”, I think. “That casket spray is pungent.” The smell gets stronger… and stronger…until I am suffocated by it. Then I remember. This is the 4th time I’ve thought there were “too many flowers” on the casket. This isn’t the fucking flowers. It’s the embalming fluid or maybe some disinfectant they have used to clean the body. I hate that smell. It’s like rotting plants mixed with Windex and vinegar. This seems worse than normal. Is the hangover worse than I thought?  Am I just being a wuss? BE STRONG. BE A MAN GODDAMNIT. YOU ARE 42 FOR FUCKS SAKE. No…this is an insane amount. I am smelling it from 15 feet away. Usually, you just get a slight whiff of it when you are carrying the casket. Holy hell. This shit is intense. Like that one dude, the doofus you knew in high school who doused himself repeatedly with the bottle of Drakkar Noir that he kept stashed in his locker. You know, the dude you can smell coming from three counties away? Or the lady who stinks up the elevator with her overpowering old person perfume. Did they give grandma a double dose because they have to store her in an igloo for 4 months until the ground is thawed out enough to bury her this spring? Did she get a full body chemical bath like Vladimir Lenin gets every year? The undertaker heir is not taking any chances.

The eulogies are given by my dad, my Uncle Ed, and cousin Davy (formerly of the Navy).  Dave is standing in for my other Uncle who lives in Atlanta. He is a retired Naval Commander of some distinction. He cannot travel because his wife just had some pretty hardcore spinal surgery. I bring this up because I am a bit disappointed that he couldn’t make it. 9 years ago when my Grandfather passed he gave the single most inspirational eulogy I had ever heard. The entire thing was about not being afraid to “participate in life” and to not be a spectator on the sidelines or some shit. Real Knute Rockne type stuff. I remember feeling bad because my dad’s eulogy (a quieter, more abstract tome comparing his father to the prairie wind of North Dakota) was seemingly lost in the shuffle. I still remember it vividly though, I remember being mildly impressed because I’d never seen my Dad speak in public before.

My Uncle Ed goes last. Batting clean up. He is holding a whistle and talks about all the shit he got into when he was a kid when they lived across the street from the Carrington Federated Church. Ed is, and always has been the black sheep of the family… and usually the drunkest. Not this time though…not with the skinny teens tagging along. Don’t get me wrong, I still texted him last night after cousin Scotty said the teens could go to his house and play video games with Scotty’s teens (while we drank 7,000 liters of cheap beer).  Eddie came to The Shamrock and polished off his fair share, but the mythical “Fast Eddie” never came out. This seemed like a different Eddie. A somewhat fatherly Eddie.

Eddie is now blowing the whistle around his neck and telling his mother to come home, not unlike she used to for him. The casket sits stoically beneath him. Not a dry eye in the house. My Dad is once again overshadowed in the parent eulogy sweepstakes…this despite giving a surprisingly heartfelt, earnest speech about how he was shy around girls at his high school parties and she taught him to foxtrot.

As the Pallbearers gather at the back of the church, Davy reminds me he needs to be on a certain side of the coffin on account of his missing finger from a Naval accident. I am suddenly uneasy about our descent down the steep, frozen staircase. I am now lined up next to the youngest teen, and let’s just say he is providing very little lifting power.  Holy shit we might actually drop this thing! I hear a feeble “lift, lift, LIFT!” coming out of the other teen in the back. This gives me a tiny surge of adrenaline and we make it back to the hearse with chemical-coffin and my grandmother in one piece (though I suspect all the real lifting power was coming from 9 finger Davy).

Less than 12 hours earlier I was sitting in The Shamrock next to a crane arcade game. One of those kids games in which they operate a giant mechanical claw and try to use it to pick up stuffed animals and drop them into a hole. I look closer at the machine. Mixed in with the various cheap children’s toys is a metric fuck ton of sex toys. Full-sized dildos, Porn DVDs, and other assorted deviant delights. Fucking North Dakota man.

I hear a story that night about a man who rode through the Shamrock buck naked on a horse during the “streaker craze” of the 1970s. I hear a story about my Uncle Ed stealing a bird from a pet store when he was on a field trip to Winnipeg in high school. This being the 70s, he named it “Free Blatz” (after his favorite Skynyrd song and favorite beer) and then brought it home as a pet. Eventually, my grandfather stepped on it and accidentally killed it. Fast Eddie buried it in the yard under a tree, cut out the Blatz logo from an old beer can and hung it as a gravesite marker. 40 years later during an “all class” reunion, the brothers took a stroll to their old yard and found the Blatz can gravestone still hanging from the tree in all its faded glory. Do they even make Blatz anymore?

We are drinking Kona Longboard Lager from a tap behind the bar. This is treated as a fine delicacy and all the town’s folk talk it up like it was hand delivered from Mars by a space alien. Hey, it beats the canned Coors they serve at Finch’s down the street I guess. Our small impromptu family reunion drains the entire keg.

It is roughly 4 months later. June. I make the trek back to Carrington for the burial. The ground has been deemed sufficiently thawed for our grandmother to finally be laid to rest next to my grandfather. This time, since school just got out, I bring my 7-year old with. We have never been on a road trip together. It is glorious. We stop to see the albino buffalo in Jamestown, ND (pop. 15,387) and do all sorts of fun touristy stuff. She gets to see her cousins from Georgia and we are able to visit the old stomping grounds of our ancestors in Grace City, ND (pop. 63). I marvel at the fact that 2 families in the middle of nowhere somehow came together and shot out spawn all over the United States. We visit the abandoned gas station my Great Grandfather (and namesake) used to run in Grace City. A ghost town. Nothing there.

I am standing in a cemetery with my daughter and my brother. It is windy as fuck and unseasonably cool for June. One of the locals sneers, “It ain’t windy in North Dakota unless the potholes have whitecaps!” That’s a good one I think, I am going to use that on my Facebook check-in. I am wearing a short-sleeved polo with little sailboats all over it in a cheeky tribute to my grandparents who loved sailing. Yeah…there are actually places you can sail in North Dakota (they also sailed in many other places of course). It is too cold to be in short sleeves and the wind is howling across the barren plains like some two-bit 19th-century novel.  The Naval Commander gives me one of his old beige coats, I think it is probably a boy’s small. I look like a supreme douchebag from hell who was dressed by Cosmo Kramer. My hair is a windswept Picasso.

We are waiting for everyone to get there from town…it is a bit of a hike into this no man’s land. My daughter is having the time of her life chasing her cousins around. I scan the cemetery and realize that there are probably more dead people buried here than the entire living population of Grace City, ND.  I see my Great Grandfather’s tombstone. I’ll admit that it is a bit odd seeing a tombstone with your name on it (even if the middle name is different). I have 2 sets of Great Grandparents buried here, and now both Grandparents as well. I see my father’s and uncle’s names on their tombstone. My father has told me he wants to be buried here too…but only as some sort of dark joke to be played on the rest of his family. He shows me the plot he has bought for himself (he is currently unmarried, thrice divorced). “I just want to make everyone drive all the way out here again, heh heh heh.”

I begin to smell something vile behind me and I immediately know the casket is near. Fucking formaldehyde. I stand next to the casket with my daughter moments before they lower it into the ground. The wind is whipping the putrid, wilted-flower Windex stink directly into my nostrils. I am not hungover. Not even close. I had a few beers with lunch yesterday, but just mostly chilled with my daughter that night. Maybe 2 beers with dinner…I can’t remember. We stand silently as some of the women lay roses on the coffin. It lowers. Everyone is solemn. I think about how I am going to explain what is going on to my daughter on the way back to Carrington. But she seems oblivious, just happy to be on an exotic adventure in a foreign land.

That night I knew every damn relative I had within a 20-mile vicinity was going to rage all night at the local Carrington watering holes. There were even more relatives in town than the last go around. We all drink light beer in the hotel bar while the kids run around after the service. After a few hours, everyone goes back to their rooms to ready themselves for the big night out. Uncle Ed has a big shit-eating grin on his face. No kids this time. I feebly attempt to get my cousin from Georgia to let my daughter hang out with her kids for a spell that night. No dice. They are going to bed early while her southern gentleman husband gets treated to a proper North Dakota shellacking. Waves of jealousy pour over me…but at the same time, some sort of animalistic instinct to protect my daughter overpowers my wants and needs. Funny how that works.

Later, just before my daughter’s bedtime, I decide to try and have the best of both worlds. I drive over the hill to the edge of town to the world’s tiniest liquor store. They have the worst beer selection I’ve ever seen. I am very particular about beer. I am a snob. I ask them if they carry Drekker, the hippest new brewery in the midwest. They only deliver to the Twin Cities twice a month and beer dorks wait impatiently outside liquor stores for the beer truck to pull in around 3pm every other Thursday. Drekker is building a giant new beer hall called “Valhalla” this summer and hopefully upping their deliveries to Minnesota. I am obsessed with this beer like I was obsessed with finding an Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card in 1989. I need a goddamn Brain Freeze Raspberry Lime Smoothie Sour, or at least an Ectogasm IPA. I’ve been drinking shit beer for two days.

“You don’t have Drekker?” I ask incredulously. Fucking heathens. How is this possible? It’s made in Fargo, a mere 2 hours away! I find some shitty New Belgium raspberry summer beer and a six-pack of Voodoo Ranger. Later I text a picture of the haul to my next door neighbor back home…a beer connoisseur of the highest order. “Look!” I mock…”The best beer I can find within a 150-mile radius!”  “Yuk,” he responds. This is his standard response to just about any beer that isn’t meticulously crafted in small batches by humble independent local beer artisans.

I am awoken around midnight to loud mumbling outside the motel window. Ed is back. Yep, we are sharing a room with him tonight. My daughter is in a dead slumber next to me. Ed comes barrelling in hammered to the nines and still bellowing at bar level volume. Every other word is a swear. He is yammering on about some “younger bar sluts”…I think that he thinks they were actually hitting on him.  I gently remind him that there is a 7-year-old sleeping in the room. He gets marginally quieter but is still stumbling around loudly in the dark. Uncle Ed is in his 60s now, he’s reached the “oh he’s just a funny old man” stage. I look at my daughter…she is still sound asleep. Probably dreaming about buffaloes and horses and running around with her cousins.

“Where the fuck’s my machine?!”, Ed warbles in a wry self-deprecating way. It’s still kind of dark, I think only the far bathroom light is on. I have no idea what the fuck he is doing. He is pulling out a giant box and fumbling with knobs and cords. Oh wait…is that a CPAP machine?  Am I watching a drunk guy try to hook up his CPAP machine in the dark?  This is amazing. I am giggling silently. He finally gets the apparatus running and it sounds like a fucking spaceship is taking off. My daughter sleeps through it all.

When Fast Eddie was my age we would hang out sometimes and drink beer. I remember going over to his little-rented house and watching the OJ chase the summer after my senior year of High school. Ed introduced me to Neil Young, The Who, and other classics in a time when I only cared about Grunge and Gangsta Rap. He was the first person I ever knew who tried to make his own beer, back in the early 90s. He had a friend named Slug who tried to get me to smoke weed out of a Mountain Dew can when I turned 18. Jesus, there was so much fucking paneling in that little shithole house. His beer turned out awful. All sediment on the bottom like gravel and pure alcohol on top. I drank some anyway.

In the morning we wake and eat breakfast. Everyone goes their separate ways, a few of us start the long journey back to Minnesota…a few more stay behind for a couple more days. On the way home I talk my uncles and my Dad into stopping in Fargo for lunch. I take my daughter to a record store and I stop at Drekker. After eating lunch in a hip remodeled old building, now turned restaurant/bar, and named “The Boiler Room” …we say our goodbyes. My uncle and my Dad heading back to the Twin Cities…and my Dad eventually having to drive another 2.5 hours (8.5 hours total) back to his home in Winona, MN (pop. 26,928).

As I cross over the river from Fargo, ND (pop. 120,356) to Moorhead, MN (pop. 43,122) the sun is beating down. It is a perfect June day. Summer is here. For real this time. No more overcast, windstrewn North Dakota cemetery weather. I look back at my daughter. She is happily playing with her iPad, faux Beats headphones emblazoned with characters from the movie Frozen rest upon her ears. She looks like a cute little Dr. Dre. As I drive I see a billboard that just says “Smile.” I smile at the Smile billboard.  My Jeep is filled to the brim with scrumptious 16 oz. silos of Drekker beer, Drekker pins, Drekker hats, and even a Drekker Brewery sticker that I will proudly place on the back window of the Jeep when I get home.

I am dumb and happy, like an American.

That was 143 days ago. The last 25 of those days, I have been sober.

Smile