The Righteous Brother

When I was in middle school, my father nicknamed me “the righteous brother”.

It was not a compliment.

Nor was he comparing my singing skill to one-half of the famous singing duo of “Unchained Melody” fame. And it was certainly not a way to earn any street cred. It was in direct reference to my annoying and judgmental tendency to preach morality to my two younger sisters. I was also a tattletale. Though I prided myself back then on my high horse of morality, I would be amiss to say that I didn’t have an ulterior motive: getting my little sisters in trouble.

However, my attempts at getting my sisters in trouble more often than not backfired. Therefore, I was teased for being the annoying, prudish brother who had to learn to lighten up. Getting teased by my peers was one thing, But my own family?

Of course, being a “righteous brother” had its benefits: by the time I got to high school, I didn’t have a curfew like other classmates because I was always home early enough not to warrant one (fewer friends = less time for late-night hijinks). In truth, my straight-laced “righteous” behavior had less to do with morality and more to do with being afraid of getting in trouble.

To put it simply, I was a wuss.

My cowardice emerged at a very early age. There is even photographic evidence to prove it.

EXHIBIT A: I was just short of turning one and I’m being held in the arms of a clown at my hometown Memorial Day parade. There was no turning back.

EXHIBIT B: This same look of fear is duplicated over several photos taken on the lap of Santa and the Easter Bunny. Santa is scary enough. The Easter Bunny’s soul-piercing black eyes and inanimate expression is even more frightening. Most kids grow out of this by the time they are five or six. I was still showing fear well beyond that. On a semi-related note, the fact I still believed in Santa at the age of 12 did little to help my cause.

EXHIBIT C: I am just shy of three. My hands are held tightly over my ears as tears stream down my face. The source of such abject terror? … a kite, flown by my dad in the parking lot of the church behind our house. I was scared of the flapping sound it made in the wind.

EXHIBIT D: I firmly believed that fireworks could put a hole in the sky.

EXHIBIT E: I was convinced that Sesame Street characters lived in the vents of our car.

As I got older, my phobias increased, extending to lighting matches, bees, basements, and routine blood tests (of which even the smallest amount has caused me to pass out).

Being the Gemini that I am (and me, too!) there are a few scattered moments where the righteous brother demonstrated signs of unrighteousness. Granted, it was often accidental. Some could write volumes about such rebellious behavior. I just need a few pages. Although these instances are far and few between, it is my hope that sharing them could perhaps earn the slightest modicum of street cred (of which the first step is to probably avoid using such pompous words as “modicum”):

 

Tearing it Up

Lying to cover up a crime is the oldest trick in the book. And it usually begins in childhood. I learned this lesson in the first grade after intentionally stomping all over a classmate’s steno notebook when nobody was looking. I didn’t even know whose notebook it was, yet, for forces beyond my control, I noticed it on the floor and felt compelled to destroy it.

Mutilate it.

Tear it to shreds.

Once the crime was uncovered, the teacher pulled each of us into the hallway one by one in an attempt at coaxing a confession out of them. I feigned ignorance. And though I was relieved to have gotten away with it, the guilt was tearing me up.

This is my confession.

 

Playing in the Street

When I was five, I told my two-year-old sister to stand in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing any better… nor was it a matter of me attempting to kill her (I think I made sure no cars were coming).

My motivation was to get her in trouble. Instead, all it managed was to get me in trouble. Within seconds after she entered the street, my parents burst out the front door and scooped up my sister out of harm’s way.

I received my first grounding: one week without friends, which was not that difficult for somebody with no friends.

 

Hoser

It was a dog day of summer. I was playing in the front yard with a hose, keeping cool, when I spotted our neighbor, ‘Mr. K’, driving down the street. I was suddenly overcome with the impulse to aim the house at his car and directly through the driver side window. It was a direct shot to the face.

I had absolutely zero motive. He was the kindest neighbor you could ever ask for.   Yet, here I was, spraying him through in the face with a hose while he operated a moving vehicle.

Upon impact, he slammed on his brakes and rightfully started scolding me.

“What in the hell did you do that for?!” he said, wiping the water off his face with a handkerchief.

I stood there helplessly mute, dripping hose still in hand.

My mother ran out to see what was going on. She apologized, took me inside, and sent me to my room to think about what I had done.

There wasn’t enough time in the world to make sense of what I had done. But, at least I was sorry. When I later apologized, Mr. K simply smiled and said:

“Apology accepted.”

 

JELL-O

On a similar note, I once decided to fling a spoonful of Jell-O and Cool Whip at my cousin Jimmy’s face. Unprovoked.

 

“Do me, Baby!”

Struggling to gain acceptance from my peers, I decided to tell classmates that my sister’s animatronic Cricket doll said “Do me, baby.” I was in fourth grade. And I did not even know what “do me” means.

Cricket was a female contemporary of Teddy Ruxpin – robotic dolls that play cassette tapes inserted into their ass. As the tapes play, their eyes and mouths are programmed to move along with it. Neither one of them – or anything of their ilk – say “Do me, baby.”

This led to my first and only time that I was punished in school. And it resulted in me getting a stern warning from the cigar-chomping principal.

I also had to write a note for my parents that said: “Today in school, I told my classmates that my sister’s Cricket doll said “’Do me, baby.’” It will not happen again. And I am sorry.”

I kept my promise.

 

High Ball Wrestling

When I was little, I frequently goaded my cousin Tony into wrestling matches at holiday functions at my grandparents’ house. To paint a better picture of this matchup: I was a skinny, weak toothpick and Tony was…husky. Without fail, Tony would agree to wrestle, only to then promptly pummel me. Like clockwork, I would scream for help, at which point Tony would get scolded. The frequency that this scenario played itself out was on par with Charlie Brown, Lucy, and a football. I promised not cry for help, yet sure enough, I did.

Every time.

One time, around the age of 10, I found a new way to get Tony into trouble. This time, it would involve booze. While standing at the drink table, I convinced Tony to let me make him a high ball “just like Grandpa.”  My cousins and I enjoyed “Jr. Highballs” (Squirt and cherry juice), but this time, I added a generous splash of whiskey to Tony’s drink (not mine).

When we were caught, everyone immediately blamed Tony. But eventually, I confessed.

 

Take this Gift and Shove It

When I was seven, I opened up a Christmas gift from my Godmother Jo-Jo. Upon seeing that it was a boring sweater – rather than a toy – I shoved the box containing the sweater immediately onto the floor to demonstrate my disapproval.

 

Hot Popcorn

One way to really piss your parents off is to place a pan of freshly popped popcorn onto their brand new, white Formica countertop.

 

Blowing Chunks

When I was little, I had a track record of puking where one shouldn’t. Take, for example,  the time the time I entered my parents’ bedroom to inform them that I had to puke, only to proceed to puke right on their floor in front of their bed. (Some of which splashed onto the bedspread). I was 10.  And it was a longer walk to their room than it was the bathroom.

Another time, I made into the bathroom on time, but chose to puke into the sink, rather than the toilet, which was directly behind it.

 

No Horseplaying

 

I once accidentally slammed a bedroom door on my baby sister’s index finger. It flattened like a pancake. My parents took her straight to the ER. Fortunately, the bones of children that young are so malleable, they will inflate right back to its normal shape.

 

Sucker Slap

Everybody has a breaking point. And even though I found turning the other cheek to be a convenient way to cope with my bullies, one day I finally decided that I had enough with one in particular. After years of putting up with it, the time had finally come to take a stance – which sadly only consisted of a half-assed, weak slap (or, more specifically, a mild graze) across my bully’s cheek while he was chomping on his bologna sandwich in the cafeteria.

His immediate reaction was to laugh, then continue eating his sandwich as though nothing had happened. The bullying didn’t let up. In fact, it was about to become worse.

 

 

 

 

Snack Size

Seeing Stars

I’ve never been in a fight before. But I have been pushed, shoved, knocked down, dunked under water, tied to a tree, and shoved into dogshit). And then one time, punched in the face.

I was minding my own business, sipping on an Appletini when some asshole approached me from the other side of the patio fencing.

“Hey, bro,” he began. “Give me a sip of that.”

“Sorry, man,” I politely refused.

Without a word, he cold-cocked me right in the eye.

And I was down for the count!

Next thing I knew, I woke up, lying on the ground and surrounded by my wife and friends, a couple of police officers, and a pair of paramedics. When I finally came to, I could still see stars, along with a couple of paramedics staring down at me, and my wife.

Despite the throbbing sensation in my eye, I never felt manlier than I did in that moment. I survived a real punch! And that takes guts.

Last, but not least, the suspect was quickly apprehended by police.

 

Got a Light?

While trudging through a snow-covered parking lot in downtown Detroit after leaving a bar, my friend Patrick and I were approached by a half a dozen or so individuals that we pretended not to feel threatened by.

“Hey!” one of them shouted to us.

We kept walking, hoping they would just leave us alone.

“Hey! You got a light?”

“Sure,” Patrick said.

We were both relieved that we were worried about nothing…despite the guilt for judging them too quickly.

Patrick reached into his pocket, only to be sucker-punched squarely in the jaw. He momentarily lost his balance, but somehow, stayed on his feet.  The perpetrators put up their dukes, seemingly prepared for a brawl. But they couldn’t have picked two gigger pussies. We had no interest in fighting back.

We simply turned our other cheeks and bee-lined it to the car, without further repercussions. What exactly was their motive? Clearly, they didn’t need a lighter. Was it a bet? Some sort of gang initiation? What would have happened if we retaliated? Fortunately, we never found out.

 

My Tarantino Moment

A few years ago, I was staying with a friend in a seedy part of the San Fernando Valley.  While loading up my rental car before heading to the airport, I turned around and spotted three Mexican men walking down the street in my direction.

I wouldn’t have thought much of it, other than the fact that one of them was brandishing an assault rifle. In broad daylight.

I froze in terror, not quite believing what I was seeing. Surely, this was a dream. But it wasn’t. Were they going hunting? I reminded myself I was in the middle of the San Fernando Valley.

As the men drew nearer, I realized that freezing in my tracks wasn’t my best option. I had to hide. But where? Did they even see me? And if they did, was my ass grass? And why was nobody else around?

I turned to head back to my friend’s apartment, however her building was gated and locked behind me. And she had already left for work. I pulled out my phone to dial 911, but I had no signal!

I was shit out of luck.

This was how it would all end.

I scrambled to hide behind a wall. I could still see the men from my hiding spot (which, looking back, didn’t exactly put me out of harm’s way). But they had passed by without incident. I waited until they disappeared out of sight. I then ran fast as lightning to my car and headed to the airport.

Perhaps these things happened all the time in the valley.

 

Free Porn

When I was 14, my family was visiting my cousin and her husband. In their basement was a shrine to Marilyn Monroe. Like any 14-year-old boy, my hormones were naturally raging, so I was especially drawn to a fully nude pic of her snow-white body sprawled out on red sheets in all her glory.

Realizing I was alone, I began snooping around a storage room and stumbled upon a large stack of Penthouse magazines. After much deliberation, I decided to stuff a copy down my pants (“Is that Penthouse in your pocket?”) to sneak home. I kept it  successfully hidden in my desk drawer for years. The only porno magazine I ever “owned.”

 

Dune Climber

 

On the very tip of Cape Cod lies the beautiful resort town of Provincetown – the “San Francisco” of the east coast. Several year ago, my first wife and I took a sunset stroll along the Cape Cod National Seashore on the edge of town.

After walking about a 1/4 mile away from the main beach, we noticed several makeshift tents perched on top of the dunes along the coast. My first thought was that it was perhaps homeless colony.

But upon closer examination, it was a colony of gay men. Dozens sunbathed outside their tents. And several more were fucking both inside and outside their tents. A mere 50 feet away or so. We tried our best to mind our business and continued walking.

The closer we got to the tip of the Cape, the more bizarre things became. Naked men surrounded us, passing us by in either direction, brazenly walking along the shore, strutting their junk for all to see.

Like a car accident, it was hard not to look – more than likely more so for my wife, than me, but honestly, who was keeping track? They seemed to be increasing in number. We approached an inlet pond, where dozens of naked men swam to and fro like giant Sea-Monkeys. Or, Mermen.

A gay man’s paradise.

I have never been much of an exhibitionist. However, something got into me. Not sure if it was the beautiful nature that surrounded us, or the swarm of naked men, but I was suddenly inspired to join in. After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So I did. I removed my t-shirt and swimsuit, and joined the masses. My wife left her clothes on, opting to remain an outcast, as we pushed further toward the tip.

 

Holy Pilgrimage

I briefly dated a girl in college that I had met in the infancy of online dating. Being that I was an English major and she was an actress, we decided to see Shakespeare in Love on our first date, followed by a gourmet meal at … Big Boy. Half way through our meal, following my second run at the soup and salad bar, I came down with a horrible case of pink eye.

Taking a date to Big Boy, combined with a steady stream of ooze running out of your eye is never good. In fact, going to Big Boy on a date PERIOD is probably not the best idea. (This was not the last time, either. A year or so later, there was another Big Boy date involving diarrhea that I will spare the details of).

Despite the puss oozing out of my eye, we still made out afterward. In the parking lot of a church where once upon a time, the house where I spent the first three years of my life once stood. Just a few yards away was the spot where I cried over the sound my kite made flapping in the wind – one of my earliest memories.

 

 

Bringing My Mitt

I fell in love for the first time in the 8th grade. This time, despite my endless, unrequited crushes, it wasn’t with another human being. I fell hopelessly, endlessly, passionately, and head over heels with the great American pastime: baseball. Infatuation quickly morphed into a full-blown love affair, the flames of which have never extinguished.

More specifically, I fell in love with my hometown team: the Detroit Tigers – on the cusp of their lowest point in franchise history. How fitting.

Not only did I quickly develop a kinship with the boys of summer, but I gained both a refuge and a gateway into acceptance. Though I sucked at sports, I convinced myself that being a fan would somehow improve my social standing.

It didn’t. But baseball certainly made my life feel more complete.

Like the Tigers, I also endured a lot of losing during that time – a steady stream of rejections, epitomized by bullying, my dating life, and eventual writing life.

Like any good marriage, I have stuck with my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

And just like I have never given up on my dream, I have remained devoted to my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself somehow loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

I was fueled with consistent optimism that both myself and my team would go all the way. Living life with eternal optimism certainly has its perks, but it also means enduring an endless parade of unmet expectations. And sacrificing the present in exchange for a brighter future.

My first exposure to the game actually took place several years before my passion soared into full-flight when my parents signed me up for recreational tee-ball. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that I would become a much better fan than I ever was going to be a player. The bullying from my opponents and my teammates didn’t help matters. Nor, did being afraid of the ball. Nor, did running to the wrong base (e.g. running from home to third … on a strikeout). Sure, I was only a beginner. But I was still running to third at the end of the season, too. At least I wasn’t running on strikeouts anymore.

Somehow, my failed tee-ball experiment managed to plant a seed deep within my subconscious, years before it would eventually blossom into full fandom, of which there are several different levels: fanatics, moderates, and bandwagon. Overall, I’d say I landed in the moderate category, with a sprinkling of superstitions that occasionally push me into the realm of fanatic. I can certainly never be accused of being a bandwagon fan, which is attested by my unwavering, optimistic devotion to my hometown team, no matter how bad they may be. And for most of my formative years, there was no shortage of bad.

I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that was conducive to becoming a sports fan. My father gave two shits about sports. My mother watched baseball on TV every now and then, as I begged to watch reruns of Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes. Like many other kids, my father didn’t take me

to my first game. Instead, I was taken by my Grandma’s longtime boyfriend., Chuck At the time, my excitement was measured only by hot dogs, nachos, and Cracker Jack, as opposed to base hits, home runs, and stolen bases. Chuck had season tickets to old Tiger Stadium (lower-deck, third base side, a few rows back from the Tigers’ dugout – paradise for a “real” fan) and took me to several games each summer throughout my youth. Beyond that, I never tuned into games at home and never had any idea – or interest – in what their record was (which during that time, was a blessing). In fact, I barely paid attention to the score while watching it live.

But then came 8th grade.

That was when I made a conscious decision to become a devoted follower of the Tigers. The seed had finally taken root, making me a late-bloomer in both sports and puberty. Perhaps subconsciously, I figured if I liked sports, than my peers would like me. But that wasn’t the case. It was also 1990. The Tigers were so bad, I quickly learned that there was nothing cool about being a Tigers fan and therefore, with no friends to play with, I had more time to watch baseball on a regular basis.

There was no turning back. My theory was that I simply saw enough reruns of Facts of Life to last a lifetime. It was time for something new. It was time to become a man.

I remember that first Opening Day as a christened-fan. My school had a half-day. My mom prepared egg salad sandwiches, which I ate while I read the season preview in the Detroit News. With game time less than an hour away, my baseball journey was about to take full flight.

And there was certainly plenty of space left on the bandwagon, which was not only empty – but running on fumes. By the end of the decade, the The Tigers had amassed more losses than any other team. Things didn’t get much better at the turn of the century, either. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, taking jabs from family and friends for my blind devotion, and watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter if – when – they finally did win. And if you are an eternal optimist like myself… life was always a matter of when.

Despite the losing, nothing dampened my enthusiasm for my beloved team – the tell-tale sign of true love. Of course, I wanted them to win more than anything, but I knew that it was only a matter of time.

I just had to be patient – a skill that would later serve me very well in my writing endeavors. Through the years, my patience and optimism never waned, in the face of logic, reason, and Vegas odds.

Despite the endless losing, I became instantly obsessed with absorbing every detail and intricacy of the game: the sights, the smells, the sounds, the box scores, the standings, the endless parade of stats – in short, anything and everything about the American pastime, which was now my pastime, even though I still couldn’t play it worth a lick. It was during that summer that I also got my first big-boy glove, which I promptly oiled up (the warm, nostalgic smell is as vivid now as it was then) and placed under the tires of my parents’ black Dodge van in order to break it in. That fall, it became the subject of an essay I wrote in my 10th grade English class entitled “My Most Prized Possession.” An essay that simultaneously showcased my passion, overshadowed by delusions of grandeur:

“When I look at my mitt, I feel hope that someday, I will be the greatest baseball player ever. It seems to hold a bit of magic that allows me to feel like a real ballplayer.”

I optimistically concluded the essay with:

“One more thing. My mother told me when I entered high school that I would make the baseball team my senior year. I laughed at this comment. But as I look at my mitt, I wonder. And hope…”

Though I never made the baseball team, it was in this very class that my writing dream was born.

And although that seemingly magical glove was de-commissioned a long time ago, I still have it safely packed away in a box full of childhood memories. To this day, it still remains one of my most-prized possessions – a symbol of never giving up. It still smells of oil … from that long ago summer. As I sometimes do with my old security blanket, I often take it out for a dose of instant nostalgia.

Countless summer afternoons were spent adorning my prized glove on one hand and bouncing a tennis ball off of the orange brick of my house with the other, as I waited for the Detroit News to arrive so I could devour the sports section This was often the highlight of my day.

When I got bored of tossing a tennis ball against the wall, I would simply hop on my blue and yellow Huffy and take a bag filled with baseballs to my neighborhood park, proceeding to hit them one after another with my Louisville Slugger, before gathering them all up and doing it all over again from the opposite side of the field. It didn’t matter that I was doing it alone. I was enjoying every second of it.

At family gatherings, I would ask my countless cousins “Did you bring your mitt?” They usually didn’t. But of course, I did. And I never lost hope that someday, they would bring theirs. I still get teased about this till this day. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her funeral was held at the church just down the street from the house. On the grounds of a church was a baseball diamond. While standing in the parking lot with some of my cousins, overlooking the now weed-strewn field and mourning my grandmother’s passing, I asked – in a moment of levity – “Did anyone bring their mitt?” We all laughed. Some things never die. And for the record, I always keep my mitt in my trunk. Just in case.

During my junior year, I somehow found the confidence to try out for the JV team and put my mom’s prediction to the test. By that point, I had found a safe haven in band class. And though band did nothing to improve my athletic ability, it certainly boosted my confidence – socially, at least.  I knew I didn’t have a realistic shot, but I had recently taught myself how to throw a decent side-arm pitch, so, I figured what the hell?

In the end, I failed. Though coaches admire heart, most have no need for a pitcher with zero velocity in combination with the uncanny ability of being able to consistently toss a meatball over the heart of the plate. My years of “training” did little to help – other than preparing me to lose. At least the coach thanked me for trying out. I took that for what it was worth. The fact that the baseball coach acknowledged my existence was a victory in itself. And thus ended my high school athletic career. One thing was clear: I was always going to be a much better fan than I ever was a player. But I could live with that.

Three summers later, I formed a co-ed softball team through my church. The only thing more unlikely than becoming a manager of a sports team would have been becoming a gym teacher. Yet, there I was. In charge of a team that I assembled out of nothing.

It was time to get serious.

I bought a brand new glove, my first pair of cleats, my first cup, and my first non-wood bat. The glove has held up well over the years (despite the invisible hole responsible for all of my errors). The lack of contact of ball into glove is probably the reason why it has lasted so long. As far as the bat, it turned out to be an absolute lemon – taking me from suck to super suck.

Not that it would have really mattered which bat I used; the results would have more than likely been the same. But others attested to the fact that my bat sucked, proving I was even a loser at selecting a bat. Once I switched bats, I actually turned out to be a fairly consistent hitter – certainly, not in terms of power numbers, but I could at least get on base with a steady stream of singles. My above average speed certainly helped. My deficiency as a player was on the defensive side of things. I lacked the ability to judge fly balls. Hence why I was a natural fit for right field, where the balls were least likely to go – unless it was a left-handed hitter … or a crafty right-handed one who knew how to hit the opposite way once they realized I was a weak link (it usually didn’t take much time). Whenever a ball was hit my way, I would either: overrun it, or stop short of it, watching the ball drop right in front of me – or, more often than not, far away from me. My inability to judge even the most routine fly ball renders my decent speed completely useless.

Another hindrance to my speed is the fact that I’m still afraid of the ball … even after all of these years. This includes running out a grounder to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits – once again, neutralizing my speed.

As far as my team itself, it was doomed from the start. Each week, I scrambled to find enough players to field a team – especially female ones. The females that were on my team had little to no interest in playing softball. And I didn’t exactly assemble a Murder’s Row of men. Suffice to say, I guided my team to three straight, pitiful losing seasons. And thanks to my Gold Glove talent, even my Grandmother paid an unfortunate price. It was bad enough my family came to watch such an awful mockery of the game. Making it worse was when the third baseman threw a ball to me, while I was stationed at first base during pre-game warm-ups. In usual fashion, the ball got past me, only to ricochet directly into my Grandma’s leg. What began as a major bruise later required minor surgery.

Three years later, I waved the white flag on my softball experiment, deservingly putting it – and myself – out of its collective misery.

Despite my failings on the field, I could always hang my hat on my one true position – being a mere spectator. Even my dad eventually came around to the fact that his son wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps of being an anti-sports fan. In 1993, he finally acknowledged this fact by taking his me to the holiest of holy days for a baseball fan: Opening Day in Detroit – an unofficial holiday. I remember that day so vividly – the rusted girders of the ballpark giving way to the vivid shades of green grass, the smell of hot dogs, mustard, and spilled beer, the sounds the crowd, the crack of the bat, the ball snapping into gloves, and a glimpse of my first boobies (a drunken fan seated behind us). It has become one of those memories that feels as immediate now as it did then – no matter how much time continues to pass by.

Every game I have gone to since – in some form or another – takes me back to that one, magical day.

We sat in the massive sun and booze-soaked centerfield bleacher section at old Tiger Stadium, which had originally opened in 1912 on the same day the Titanic sunk.

Any true Tigers fan knows that the bleachers – despite their distance from most of the action – were the place to be. As for the game itself, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics 20-4 and went on to have their only winning season in an almost a 20-year span (a short-lived success … the losing resumed the following year … and several years after that).

I’ll always remember Opening Days with my dad. The tradition lasted about six or seven years and I have gone to several other Opening Days since, but none of them have matched – nor, ever will – the memory of the first one. Coming in at a close second was the strike-shortened season of 1994 that wiped out the World Series, irate fans protested by littering the field with magnet schedules – most of which were flung from the bleacher section where we sat.

Another vivid baseball memory involved my entire family and took place at historic Fenway Park, which, like the now long-gone Tiger Stadium, opened its doors in 1912. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. It was rained out. Despite the torrential downpour, I remained determined that the game would be played eventually, forcing my family to endure sitting in the pouring rain for over three hours before the game was finally called. I can still see the falling rain through the hazy lights of the hallowed ballpark. Seared into my memory more than any actual game would have been.

Though I could at least say that I had been inside hollowed Fenway, it just wasn’t the same as actually watching a game played there.

It wouldn’t be until June 2017 that I would finally enter the hallowed ballpark, in celebration of my 40th birthday. Also joining us at Fenway: my Detroit Tigers – at the tail end of a decade of dominance and on the heels of a re-build.

I was also fortunate enough to be at the last game at Tiger Stadium, as well as the first game at Comerica Park the following April. In many ways, the transition between the two stadiums represented, in my mind, the divide between childhood and adulthood. My past and future. And the promise of better days ahead.

I remember that last game so vividly. September 27, 1999. I attended with both my parents – the only game I remember going to with both of them. Though the team was enduring yet another losing season, the magical atmosphere was worthy of the World Series. A fitting end to the beloved, nearly century-old beloved ballpark, Sadly, like so many other structures in Detroit, the stadium would be left to rot.

The people I have attended games with over the years serve as a sort of timeline –  or snapshot – of my social life at the time. Friends and relationships have come and gone, just like the players on the team, or each passing season. One of the joys of the game is the social dimension that the sport provides – more so than other, far more fast-paced sports like football, basketball, or hockey, which demands constant attention. Baseball moves at a leisurely pace, allowing for conversation with friends and family in a way that the other sports simply can’t provide. At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years. They are the timeline to our lives.

Despite all of life’s changes, baseball has remained a constant, steady pulse in my life. The game remained constant. And sadly, so did the losing.

At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years.

It is only fitting that I would have a chance encounter with a Tigers Hall of Fame legend while waiting at the gate before my fateful flight to L.A. in pursuit of my Hollywood dream, that ultimately led to my memoir Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

While waiting at the gate, I spotted an elderly, white-haired man sitting in front of me that struck an uncanny resemblance to a certain Hall of Fame manager. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, so I approached the gate attendant:

“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied with a smile. I debated whether I should leave the old man alone, but couldn’t resist. I approached, struggling to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

I thanked him, before clumsily returning to my seat, where I waited to board. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. He was sitting in first class, already asleep.

Following came several more years of losing – including the rock bottom season in 2003, when the Tigers fell short of setting the all-time loss record by one game (53-119).

And then came 2006. Following years of torture, my beloved Tigers finally turned things around. They not only had their first winning season since 1993, but they somehow put together a dream season that catapulted them all the way to the World Series, where they proceeded to lose in six games. They have been competitive ever since. The bandwagon of which I was once the lone passenger of had begun to overflow.

Incidentally, the Tigers’ turnaround mirrors my own professional and personal turnaround in life in a myriad of ways. Just as the Tigers are no longer losers, I am no longer bullied, nor teased for being such a diehard fan, as I was during all the losing. My loyalty paid off and I am better equipped to handle whatever adversity both the team – and myself – might face down the road.

I often write while a Tigers game plays in the background, finding my own ebbs and flows running concurrently along with the game itself. And much like the Tigers, year after year passed with my writing career seemingly going nowhere. Sure, there may been the occasional winning streak amongst the losing, poking through the gray clouds of my writing life. But it was always fleeting.

Suddenly, once the Tigers figured out how to win, somehow, so did I, as a steady stream of publishing followed. But like the Tigers, I am still searching in vain for the grand prize.

But alas, as Robert Frost once said, “Nothing gold can stay.” Following a decade of dominance, the team is in deep re-building mode. The circle of life. But I remain a loyal fan.

The ebb and flow of both the game and life were further echoed in the dissolution of my first marriage, which paved the way for a new one, ultimately leading to the unexpected discovery that I was going to be father.

And in perfect synchronization, following years of losing in all its various forms, my one true moment of athletic glory finally arrived.

My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for my work’s recreational softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked late summer night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at-bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment. The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. And if past history was any indication, I was setting my team up to lose, and lose big.

Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with, and I wasn’t expecting it to change now.

But as I stood at the plate, I felt something shift within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I’d watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had the clarity I’d heard about, but never before experienced in sports.

The fear was gone.

And I knew exactly what I had to do.

Nothing was going to stop me.

I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center. The fielders who had come up shallow now had to sprint toward the backfield. The ball continued sailing through the night sky before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this. I should point out that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions.

Once upon a time, I was picked last in gym class.

And now, I was a champion.

If only my bullies could have seen me now. Then again, at that point, I could give two shits what they thought.

That was the real victory.

And even if my big hit didn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget the feeling on that cold, wet summer night. In that singular moment, it meant everything.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, came another one. I became a father. And I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter, mirrored my arrival as a published writer.

In fact, her birth coincided with a 12-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Tigers into the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. She’s been their good luck charm ever since. A year later, they were back in the World Series (only to lose again).

From the time she was born, my daughter has been immersed in Tigers baseball: from the pink pennant that was hung in her room before she was even born, to various onesies and other clothing items and toys bearing the old English ‘D”, it was no surprise that she quickly learned to associate that logo with daddy. She literally called it “Daddy” for the first two years of her life. She got a much earlier jump on the game than her father. In fact, she was indoctrinated with Tigers baseball before she was baptized into the Catholic faith that defines me nearly as much as my faith in the game of baseball. In fact, after seeing me play softball, she believed I played for the Tigers (she also believed that I am Grover from Sesame Street). If only I could have kept both of these illusions alive in her mind forever.

The following season, just following her first birthday, I took her to her first game. My legacy of baseball fandom was officially moving on to the next generation. Taking my child to a baseball game was a moment I had dreamt of for years. And now, the time had finally come. My parents were there, as well, making everything so very “circle of life.” The Tigers lost, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was, my little girl was experiencing her first baseball game – one of which I’m certain will be many. Of course, being only one-year-old meant she had no concept of what was happening on the field. However, I was strongly encouraged by the fact that she sat perfectly patient for nearly the entire game. Two years later, my son was born.  I look forward to all the games I will be taking them to in the future. I look forward to taking them to their first Opening Day. I am so grateful that I will have permanent baseball companions. I think of all players yet to don the old English D – and wonder who the future superstar my children will look up to.

Recently, my son played in his first t-ball game. As I watched him stationed at third base, kicking up gravel, I swelled with a deep pride that only a parent could feel. I couldn’t help but imagine him one day taking the field as a major leaguer. And I laughed when he stopped running just short of home plate to dig in the dirt.

Despite all the changes my life has faced, the one constant has been my love for baseball. That is one of the few things I know will never change. Sure, in any relationship, there are always going to be ups and downs. The relationships that thrive are the ones that realize that even when the ups are outnumbered, they are still far worth it. In fact, getting through the downs make the ups so much sweeter. Baseball is no different, which is why in the baseball diamond of life, I will always bring my mitt.

 

Love & Mozart

It was the cliché post-college, going-off-to-Europe-to-discover-oneself trip. But I would have only two weeks to do so.

The year of the new millennium.

And though traveling alone, I wouldn’t be completely alone. I would be visiting a various scattered friends and distant relatives. Considering I had stayed home for college, this was only fitting and my general lack of risk taking.

The future not only lay ahead of me. It lay ahead for the entire planet. And with the anticlimactic arrival ofY2K safely behind us, it was time to turn a new leaf.

To start anew.

To become the best version of ourselves.

If it wasn’t going to happen in this millennium, it would never happen at all.

I now look back on that trip the way one might think of an indie coming-of-age film that aimlessly drifts from once scene to the next. Not heavy on plot. But deep on character, theme, and resonance. The trip even adhered to conventional plot structure – a Hero’s Journey, complete with a perfectly-placed climax. No explosions or heavy battle scenes … but just as powerful and life-changing.

The exposition of my journey began with my graduation from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the day before I was to depart for my journey. With my newly-minted English degree in hand and a PR job at Ford Motor Company already lined up, my future was bright (at least on the surface. Inside, I knew that until my writing dream came into fruition, I could never be fully content).

In some ways, having a job already waiting in the wings wore off a bit of the free-spirit luster that a trip like this should include.

The sense of being truly “free”.

But for two weeks, I would have to pretend otherwise. Besides, having a job doesn’t mean one can’t keep one eye open for opportunity.

Despite my degree and job, my future was by no means close to clear.

Should I go back to school to earn a teaching degree?

Or, do I go to film school in full pursuit of my Hollywood dream?

I was convinced I could make it without film school and in my home state of Michigan (if there’s anything that comes close to having a regret in my life, it was my decision not to follow my passion directly to Hollywood).

At the very least, it was my hope that this trip would somehow bring my future into better focus – and that I could perhaps have this epiphany while walking the very streets Mozart once called home.

And, maybe if I were lucky (or, better yet, played my cards right), I would find some European romance along the way. But I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself, considering my track record here at home.

I never played my cards right.

Following my graduation ceremony, my family took me out for dinner. Later that evening, I found myself overcome with a strong wave of unexplained melancholy – the depths of which I hadn’t quite felt before. Perhaps it was the steady cold rain (which became a steady motif throughout my trip). But it was more like the realization that a big chapter of my life was over. The end of one of life’s chapters is always a sad occasion, no matter how much we look forward to the next one.

The sudden realization that something was gone. Forever gone. Life is made up of an endless parade of moments such as this.

Every time we say goodbye to something – or someone – we’re really saying goodbye to a piece of ourselves.

Perhaps it was the realization that I was about to embark on what could turn out be the most memorable experience of my life. I have a tendency to get overpowered by the sad reality that any memorable experience is going to end at some point and become just a memory.

A ghost.

The moments that I believe you get to re-live in your afterlife over and over as though it were the first time. So it was only fitting that as I sat on the cusp of one goodbye, I knew another profound would be lurking just around the corner when my trip was all said and done. I tried to channel my energy into the here and now, but it’s never any use. The only way to avoid it to make yourself numb to all experience. In my experience, that is truly the only way to “live in the moment”.

While sitting on the plane before take-off, I realized that this would be this exact moment I would return to the most following my trip. Because it was the exact moment before any of the memories took place.

At the starting gate.

Before any pictures were snapped.

Before any memories were made.

When the magic of the entire trip lay ahead.

Of course, “in the moment”, you never know what those memories will even be. So it’s hard to appreciate something that doesn’t even exist yet. But once it’s all said and done, it’s all you can think about.

It’s the moment that if granted the ability to back in time to re-live the whole experience, you would rewind to that exact moment. When an unwritten adventure awaited me – one that could never be replicated. Nothing in life can be replicated, but this holds especially true for our most cherished, precious memories.

As I waited for take-off, I plugged my headphones into the armrest and tuned into the plane’s radio, stumbling across Samuel Barber’s sorrowful Adagio for Strings, which accompanied my take-off. Literally the most depressing song ever composed. A song that can turn any moment into a funeral.

As the song — mixed with the cacophony of the plane’s ascent — flooded my ears, memories of the last five years of my life all flooded my soul, as I began to wonder what the future had in store as this transitional chapter began. Then I drifted off to sleep, in search of all the answers I was seeking. When I woke up, there was only a blank canvas. The one thing I needed most.

My agenda for the next two weeks was as follows: Frankfurt and Aachen, Germany followed by Salzburg and Vienna, Austria. Arriving in Frankfurt, I was picked up by the daughter of my Grandmother’s first cousin, Ulls. Despite our common language ability (I could speak only ein bissen Deutcsh and she could speak only a little English), she provided a whirlwind tour of downtown Frankfurt (a memory best described as a jet-lagged lucid dream). Through my hazy consciousness, my initial impression was:

This isn’t Germany. It’s any Big City, USA city, filled with modern, glass skyscrapers. Where were the lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches?!

When we got into her car to head, I fell asleep within minutes (with visions of pretzels and wenches dancing in my head). When I woke up, we were driving through the German countryside.

This is the Germany I had imagined.

Ulla and her parents lived a couple of hours outside of Frankfurt. A quaint, quiet little town that one usually only experiences in cinema. But still missing were lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches.

We finally arrived at their countryside home, where I was enthusiastically greeted by my grandma’s cousin Peti and his wife Susan. Once again, neither spoke English, so I tried to utilized the little German I could muster.

And it wasn’t pretty.

Thank God for non-verbal communication – and for language dictionaries. For the most part, the dictionaries did the trick, especially on a day trip when Peti took me on a boat on the River Rhine, punctuated by grey clouds, a light drizzle and mangled language.

That evening, Peti’s son Ehrhardt arranged for me to hang out with his girlfriend’s 17-year-old daughter, Anya. She was not only super cute, but spoke halfway-super English! Anya and her friend, Eva, took me to a discotheque located in a German strip mall.

Here I was, driving around with two cute girls that I didn’t know existed until that night. The kind of night that becomes encased in the museum of your memory, no matter how insignificant the events played out. The kind you hope to carry with you to the great beyond, where it could be re-lived for eternity. It’s even more rare when you are fully aware of the magnitude of a memory such as this that will live in your soul for the remainder of your days as though it had just happened yesterday.

When we arrived at the club, any fantasy I had of cozying up with either one of these girls was quickly dashed when they quickly proceeded to meet up with their boyfriends. Suddenly, I was a fifth wheel in a foreign land – enveloped in German existentialism as I danced by myself to Snoop Dog’s “Smoke Weed Everyday,” as the Germans sang along:

“Dr. Dre, mother fucker!” (enunciating in place of the more accurate “muthafucka”).

Though I much would have preferred to get some sweet strudel from the schoen fraulein, I was totally content just sitting back and just observing this whole new world play out before my eyes. Besides, this was nothing new for me. Third or fifth wheel was my natural habitat. In fact, had things gone to the contrary, my brain might not have been able to handle it. And it certainly did nothing to tarnish the moment. If I were to find romance in Europe, I still had plenty of time for that. And besides, I figured if such a thing were to happen, it wouldn’t have been in Frankfurt visiting relatives in Frankfurt.

After the club, we drove back to the Anya’s mother’s house, where Eva and I were to stay for the night. We looked through photo albums of Anya’s childhood, as jamming to shitty German pop pouring out of a boombox. Eva expressed how she hoped to come visit the U.S. sometime, and taking this as an opportunity, I extended an open invitation to visit me back home. She seemed thrilled by the prospect (not so much of seeing me again, but of being invited to stay in America). I never saw her again after that night – nor did I ever attempt to contact her. A reminder that, some relationships are shooting stars, destined to last only a split second in the wide canvas our life. However brief, it is sometimes in those seconds that make all the other minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years worth living. Nonetheless, I will never forget Anya and Eva. They are firmly embedded into the fabric of my memory – one square of an enormous, beautiful memory quilt devoted entirely to that trip – attached to an even larger canvas of my life in its entirety.

The next morning, it was time to depart for the next leg of my adventure. Peti took me to the train station, where I set off for the northwestern town of Aachen to visit my friend Janet, who I met through a friend back home. We hung out as a group back at home on numerous occasions and I developed a bit of a crush on her. Well, let’s just a say, a big crush. And though I didn’t expect the crush to be anything but one sided, it was enough of a crush to inspire me to purchase her a silver bracelet.

While on the train, I looked at her bracelet, while listening to listening to Moby’s Play album on my Discman – the de facto soundtrack of my trip that I purchased just before my trip, where it was predestined to become the official soundtrack of my trip. To this day, if I want to fully absorb myself into the memories of this trip, all I have to do is put this album on and memories otherwise forgotten become enhanced or unlocked in my mind. In fact, it’s interesting how many different Moby albums have coincided with such key moments from my life. He is my Danny Elfman to my Tim Burton, or the John Williams to my Spielberg, in my soundtrack of life. Two years later, a trip t Ukraine would be accompanied by his 18 album.

Janet greeted mat the train station, then me back to her house to meet her parents and two brothers. After a satisfying meal, then headed out to meet up with some friends at an Irish pub, where we proceeded to drink Guinness like any Germans in an Irish pub should. We all had a good time, save for Janet’s friend Dirk – an odd duck who kept whispering to me in English:

“I’m going to kill myself tonight.”

I really didn’t know how to deal with this. Perhaps he was confusing words and was trying to come on to me. The good news is, I did him again later during my visit and not only was he still alive, but was in jovial spirits. And better yet, no sweet nothings whispered into my ear.

Late that night, when we got back to Janet’s house, we rolled into our respective beds (or, in my case, on an air mattress on the floor next to Janet’s bed like a dog). Though it was late, I was wide awake, in a tipsy state of consciousness. After much internal debate, I decided no time was better than now to give her my gift. So I reached into my bag and located the silver amulet that accompanied me on my journey.

“Janet?” I said, not even entirely sure she were awake.

“Yeah?”

I leaned into her and handed her the box (in hindsight, probably freaking her out in the process).

“What’s this?” she said, clearly half asleep.

“A present! Open it,” I said, realizing that opening a present in the dark probably not the best idea.

Fortunately, as she lifted the silver chain out of its box, it caught a brief sliver of silver moonlight, before she accidentally dropped it back into the darkness. After a fair amount of scrambling, she finally found it amidst her tangled sheets – my gift taking a part in an unassuming lover’s tryst.

“Thank you! But why did you get me such a nice gift?”

I jumped right in:

“Because I like you. A lot.”

She was very touched, but sensing my intention, she quickly made it abundantly clear that we were “just friends” – the universal language of rejection. A language I understood fully well.

I immediately regretted giving her this present – but not because of the money I spent on it. Why didn’t I at least wait until right before I left so I could avoid spending the rest of our time together in a state of awkwardness? After all, I should have seen this coming. Then again, if I waited until the end, it might have been too late. So I took a gamble. And lost. Fortunately, there was nothing awkward between us. And at least the pressure was off now. In fact, it made us closer – just no closer to romance. I still had plenty of time to find that. It just wasn’t going to be in Aachen.

The next day, Janet arranged for us to go to Köln (aka Cologne) for a couple of days, to visit some of her university friends. More specifically, I would be sleeping in an apartment filled with six college girls – European college girls. Since I stayed home for college, it felt like I was being granted an opportunity to make up for lost time. The only action to be gotten, however, would come in the form of sex acts with Bert and Ernie puppets (clarification: between the puppets – not me and the puppets).

The first night in Köln turned out to be a night of drunken revelry highlighted by bar hopping, dancing, and literally chasing after the last trolley at 3 a.m. down a cobble-stoned street, singing a huge European hit that never quite made it across the pond: Tom Jone’s “Sex Bomb”, which Janet and her friends enjoyed translating into “Sex Bob”. For the record, he U.S. truly missed out on this gem.

Upon our return to Aachen, where the first of two defining moments of my journey took place. I was lying on my air mattress, once again listening to Moby (as I am doing while writing this, 18 years later) while Janet getting dressed in the adjoining bathroom. While listening to the aptly-titled track “Why Does my Heart Feel So Bad,” I was overcome with a torrential downpour of emotion I never felt before that day and haven’t felt since. Although no amount of descriptive prose could ever fully describe what I felt that night, I can at least attempt to. It felt as though every fiber of my being was ripped open and flushed out with tears from the deepest recesses of my heart, mind and soul, while at the same time, absorbing my every tear like a sponge, before releasing them in a soul-cleaning downpour of emotion, as my entire life played out before my eyes, allowing me to see through a brief window of clarity of my past, present, and future. I cried so hard, it hurt. It was, perhaps, the most utterly human I have ever felt. I have never felt this way again.

Looking back, the experience feels paradoxically detached from real life – much in the manner that a good film might tough the deepest recesses of our soul, even though we are simultaneously aware that it isn’t real. I often think back to that moment with a tinge of embarrassment, wondering what was going through Janet’s mind as I wept like a baby on her bedroom floor. Though I tried to hide it from her, it was impossible to hide a soul ripped wide open like that. She discovered me halfway through my jag and held me close to her like a mother comforting a child.

Without a single hint of judgment.

And I never wanted that moment to end.

And it hasn’t.

And much like the earlier bracelet incident, this episode didn’t put an awkward strain on our friendship, either. Once again, it only strengthened it. In the larger context of my life, I look back at that moment now as not only one of the most profound, powerful experiences of my life, but a key turning point – the dawn of an new chapter – a transition into a vast unknown that would only reveal itself in time. I was also aware in that small window of clarity that one day, even that chapter would close. Like all chapters do, in their own unique way.

On my final day with Janet, we headed to the Netherlands, a hop, skip, and a jump away. In fact, it was literally in such close proximity to Aachen, that I sometimes forget to include that country on my list of travels. It didn’t look any different from Germany, with the exception of the cannabis paraphernalia on display in storefronts.

Once again, experience turned cinematic:

A man and a woman.

A quaint town, lined with cobble-stoned streets.

Sidewalk cafes.

Light rain.

Again, right out of a movie.

We stopped for a drink in a café across from a small church. It felt like being inside Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night

She had a coffee.

I had a cocktail.

And we just talked.

And sipped.

As the rain fell.

It couldn’t have been more perfect.

And then suddenly, it was time to move on. It was time to flip the page to the next chapter, as life forces us to whether we want to or not.

I never saw Janet again.

As the years pass, the odds are, I will never see her again. It’s hard to grasp in the midst of moments such as that that there was no ellipses. No next time.

The memory is nothing more than a relic from my collective past – not a forgotten one. But buried.

 

Like so many people we encounter in life, there is tomorrow. There is only the present. And yet that present lives longer in our memories than the more permanent fixtures in our lives.

Janet and I are at least connected on FB, but she doesn’t have much of a presence, but just enough to know she is now living in Australia.

The next day, it was time to depart Aachen and prepare for the next leg of my journey:

Berlin.

In the spirit of a young romantic drifting aimlessly in Europe, I purposely didn’t book any hotels ahead of time. So even though I always knew where I was heading next, not having hotels booked at least created the illusion I was drifting my way across Europe. After all, it’s not in my character to take a risk without some form of training wheels.

I knew no one in Berlin, so it was the first time on my trip I would be totally alone. I attempted to persuade Janet to join me, but she had to go back to work.

Thus began my experiment in isolation. But following my breakdown/epiphany in Aachen, perhaps being alone was exactly what I needed.

If one truly wants to feel alone, than a city as vast and strange as Berlin is the place to be.

It was there that I came to realize that traveling alone is something I cannot recommend enough. You never feel more connected to yourself. This is especially true when you are surrounded by a foreign language, making you feel even more disconnected from the outside world and more in tune with yourself. It also lets you really focus in on every experience, free from distractions that cloud moments spend with others. It is a deeply spiritual experience that cannot be replicated with traveling with companions.

With Moby’s melancholy symphonies filling my ears once again, I was overcome with a wave of existential loneliness I had never felt before. So utterly small. And insignificant. Yet somehow, in that loneliness, I never felt more…alive.

After all, most of life is spent in a numb, zombie – or robotic – state of mind. We are drones, living without feeling. We’re just there. And when and if we feel something, as much as we want it to last forever, we know deep down it’s only temporary. We know that we eventually have to return to our emotional cubicles that make up the days of this thing we call life.

Despite this alienation I felt in Berlin, I knew I was feeling something real. And raw. In fact, Berlin was the perfect city for such a lost state of mind. But that was precisely the problem. I wanted to crawl into my shell. Perhaps a smaller city might have helped matters. But looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Having spent my entire life up until that point playing by the rules, it felt good to be lost for once.

My original plan for my stay in Berlin was to scope out the city’s famous nightlife. Being an avid techno fan, I was quite aware of the role Berlin played during the origins of Detroit techno. Largely ignored in Detroit, the DJs from there made their names known in Berlin and elsewhere throughout Europe. Regretfully, my plan to scout out the clubs where techno was put on the map quickly fizzled out when I realized I would be forced to navigate through Berlin’s underground metro system. Subways were something I had zero experience with. And it stayed that way as fear and loneliness won out. Being directionally impotent is especially challenging when you find yourself in a foreign city. Although, if I learned anything on this trip, it’s that I could actually read a map if I truly put my mind to it.

The navigational equivalent of having a gun held to my head.

In attempt to cure the empty loneliness and general sense of homesickness Berlin was instilling in me, I treated myself to the comfort and familiarity of McDonald’s. It didn’t necessarily make me feel less lonely, but I did discover that their apple pies were still fried like they used to be back home, before they became baked.

The highlight of my anticlimactic trip to Berlin was the surreal experience of staying in a hostel for the first time in my life. It was located in what used to be East Berlin, not far from the largest existing portion of the Berlin Wall. And although I had never been to the former Soviet Union (little did I know lay in store for me a little over a year later), the drab, gray architecture certainly gave me the impression that I had been.

The hostel wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, lacking an elevator, I had to drag my heavy suitcase up several flights of steps. And since I couldn’t figure out how to use the shower, I ended up spraining my foot trying to wash myself under a faucet.

So in lieu of the Berlin nightlife I had hoped to experience, I got a taste of Berlin youth hostel life. From the mentally challenged German rapper in the courtyard, to the underground bunker bar, the cinematic feel to my trip suddenly became overtly Lynchian.

Accessing the bunker bar required one to climb down a rusty ladder through jagged concrete, which dumped you into the bar, which was roughly the size of a closet in width, and a crawl space in height. Although climbing down was challenging enough, the climb back up after a few German brews is a challenge of a different sort. Unless, of course, you are an Irish lothario who left the bunker repeatedly through the night to bang a different foreign chicks, only to return fifteen minutes for his next conquest. Meanwhile, I remained in my natural state – a wallflower and soaked in my surroundings until I could no longer stay awake, temporarily living my life vicariously through the Irish Don Juan the Leprechaun.

The next day, I took a walking tour of the city, which was fascinating from a historical standpoint, passing the site where Hitler’s bunker once stood, as well as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning.

Looking back, my days in Berlin reminded me of my brief tour of Frankfurt upon my arrival – an impressionistic blur of dreams standing in for reality.

The next leg of my journey was one-day stay in the southern Germany town of Passau, where I was to meet Katrin – a friend of my German co-worker Mark, who was doing an internship in the U.S.

This was the same town that my grandmother passed through during the war. It was here where my grandmother, her sister and mother ducked beneath a bridge as a train carrying ammunition exploded just yards away from them. And just yards away from that very bridge was my hostel. It was impossible to fathom what my grandmother endured.

I had a chance to correspond with Katrin a couple of times prior to my trip (handwritten letters at that!) so we could get to know one another a little bit – at least, on the surface.

And perhaps, if I played my cards right, I would be leaving my heart in Passau? After all, as Mark so eloquently described her, “she will suck you both day and night.” It sure sounded tempting, but I quickly ruled out any prospects of this happening when she all but blew me off in an entirely different way.

After Katrina helped check me into a hostel, she escorted me to a beer garden, where I was left to my own devices for the next several hours – something about having to attend a dance class, if I understood correctly. While she was gone, I consumed the two largest beers I ever had in my life, still holding out hope for Das Suck. At some point after my first beer, I got up to use the restroom and nearly toppled over from the numbing buzz I was feeling.

When Katrin returned, she retrieved me and literally had to help me out of the garden. She then explained that she had a bad headache and that she would be unable to entertain me that evening. We said goodbye and that was the last I ever saw or heard of her. I then took myself to an empty dance club, where I sat alone in a corner, munching on pretzels and feeling sorry for myself. At least nothing exploded yards away from me. The only discomfort I was forced to deal with was the claustrophobia of my hostel room, which literally consisted of nothing more than a bed tightly wedged in between the walls. If the bed were half an inch larger, it wouldn’t have fit. Hell, if it were a millimeter larger it wouldn’t have fit.

The next day, I boarded a train and left Germany behind for Austria. With my trip now past the halfway mark, I began to wonder if my trip reached a premature climax in Aachen, completely throwing conventional plot structure out of whack, while still desperately hoping that a truly magical experience was waiting for me around a cobblestone corner that would match the intensity of the earlier experiences. Perhaps a new country would bring better luck.

My next destination was Salzburg, Austria.

From the moment I stepped off the train, I fell in love with the town at first sight before any memories were actually formed there It was pure magic. Quaint, narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. A medieval fortress hovering above the whole city from up above, which was somehow always in view.

And the music.

Music everywhere.

Street musicians, mostly. Add it all up, and it was like a something out of a fairy tale or Disney movie!

Whereas most of my fellow Americans equated Salzburg with Julie Andrews and her brood of happy, singing children, I had always equated Salzburg as the hometown of Mozart.

This was my Graceland!

After my hostel experience in Berlin, I decided I would treat myself to a halfway decent hotel. In other words, a place that left at least two inches of space between the bed and walls. And preferably with a private shower. Of course, in Europe, there were no guarantees.

I stumbled upon a hotel called Hotel am Dom, tucked inside one of Salzburg’s famed cobblestone streets, just outside the city square — the centerpiece of which is the horse head fountain Julie Andrews pranced around in The Sound of Music.

The lobby had a cozy, welcoming feel to it, featuring a desk with carved, dark brown oak lending to a warm and inviting atmosphere. My room was narrow with two twin beds running along side a wall, but in comparison to the hostel in Passau, it was the lap of luxury! Even so, the beds were so small, an elf would barely fit. Then again, I was in a fairy tale world, so it only made sense. I opened up the windows, and instantly, a soothing breeze poured in, along with soothing mash-up of classical music, punctuated by the enormous Glockenspiel overlooking the square. Then came the bagpipes playing “Scotland the Brave”, a played during the procession at my graduation just a couple of weeks prior. On one hand, it was a small and insignificant coincidence. On the other hand, I smiled back at fate and soaked it all in, lying peacefully in my dwarf-sized bed.

After a short nap, I headed out to explore the town. First on the list were Mozart’s cribs: Mozart Gerburstshaus (birth house) and Mozartwohnhaus (the house he lived in as an infantile adult). Although heavily renovated over the years, especially from the damage inflicted by the ravages of World War II, it was still awe-inspiring to be in the same geographic space that Mozart himself not only lived in, loved in, laughed in, cried in, shit in, but most importantly – composed his wonderful art in.

In the middle of the main room of his the Wohnhaus, there were several listening booths. I sat at one and listened to my favorite Mozart composition: “Concert No. 21 in C Major.” This composition perfectly captures every aspect of Mozart’s personality, shifting from playful and light to sadly reflective.

The absolute embodiment of bittersweet.

As its soothing melody washed over my entire being, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was perhaps composed in this very same space. It was a truly spiritual experience – not wholly unlike my previous Moby moment, but more spiritually cleansing, rather than the existential crisis that was.

 

those rare instances where you feel truly at peace. At that exact moment, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Just me and the music.

At that moment, nothing else existed.

Nothing else mattered.

The song ended.

And I was part of the world again.

When I finished the tour, I passed through a gift shop and bought a myself a little bust of Mozart, of which I made the cut clerk crack up when I approached the register with my souvenir butchered the German language with “Ich wolle einem kleine Mozart Kopf, bitte.” (A butchered attempt at “I would like a little Mozart head, please.”).

Well rested, I headed up the funicular train to the top of the medieval castle to take in a spectacular view of the city and beyond. Out in the distance, dotting the were charming little Bavarian homes with flowerpots lining each window peppered the countryside, set against a backdrop that gave one little choice but to belt out “The hills are alive!”

While wandering through the fortress, I fancied myself a medieval minstrel. And then lo and behold, a voice screamed: “Help!” from somewhere up above. But this was no damsel in distress. It was a man about my age just happened to be a fellow metro Detroiter. Apparently, he wandered into a tower and a door locked behind him. I told him not to fear and searched for help. He was released from the tower by a custodian-in-shining-armor and I headed back to my hotel, where I booked a tour for the following day, setting in motion the magic I was desperately seeking.

Her name was Julia.

She was my tour guide, but also a college student who had lived in Salzburg her whole life. She was cute, in the plain-Jane sort of way that I was generally attracted to. She greeted me in the lobby of my hotel, leading me to her empty tour van with a Salzburg Sightseeing Tour decal affixed to it.

“Hop in,” she said.

“Will it just be me?” I asked.

“If you’re lucky,” she said with a wry smile.

Turned out, I was only her first pick-up, but ultimately not her only customer. She was impressed that I was one of the few Americans who opted not to take the Sound of Music too. She was also impressed by our mutual adoration for Mozart. Soon, the entire van was filled and we headed off to see the sights. When it was over, I thanked her, shook her hand and headed back to my room to get ready for the dinner-concert I was attending, which consisted of a fancy dinner by candlelight, accompanied by opera performers singing Mozart. The whole time, I wished I had someone to share this experience with.

Somebody like Julia.

When it was over, I drifted out for the Salzburgian nightlife, in a Holden Caulfield frame of mind.

I crossed one of the many bridges over the Salzach River over to the left bank, where a tidy row of pubs, clubs and sidewalk cafes overlook the river. I wandered into a couple of establishments, was dressed up and confident I would work up the courage to converse with a stranger from the opposite sex. Of course, it wasn’t long before I remembered who I was and reverted to my usual shy self.

My final stop was yet another Irish pub, which turned out to be less low-key than I would have guessed, as evident by the packed house and live raucous Irish music.

I made my way through the crowded pub toward the bar and grabbed a Guinness, scanning the room for a spot to sit among the wooden tables with wooden stools made of tree stumps. (Once again, fit for an elf). Unfortunately, all the stumps were taken, so I had to stand against a wooden post, forced to endure the heavy foot traffic walking back and forth in the tight space I was able to position myself.

I was giving serious thought to quickly downing my beer, then heading back to my hotel to watch The Simpsons auf Deutsch.

And then I spotted her.

Julia.

Sitting on a stump with a group of friends, wearing a blue sundress and make-up, instantly elevating her from plain cute to very cute. She was alternating cautious sips of Guinness with long drags of a cigarette, with a resigned sadness on her face. Or perhaps, it was only boredom. In any event, I couldn’t help but ponder the sheer coincidence of what was taking place before me.

As I stood against my post, nervously nursing my beer, I tried to muster the courage to approach her. I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, but in typical Bobby fashion, I was frozen in terror at the mere thought of approaching a female — even one who I already met. Fortunately, she hadn’t spotted me yet. Nor, did I necessarily expect her to recognize me.

This afforded me more time to hatch a plan.

Write out my dialogue.

Choreograph my every move.

Or, just plain escape

And there was always the possibility that before I could do any of those things, she could have spotted me. And then hopefully approach me. It would have certainly made things easier. That would save me a lot of agony, especially with the nagging thought playing in the back of my mind that she wouldn’t recognize me if I approached her. Perhaps that’s why she hadn’t noticed me yet.

After a long and protracted debate in my mind —combined with the half pint of Guinness flowing through my veins — I decided that the time had come. I would take the plunge. I didn’t come this far to be my usual self. Not after my Moby epiphany back in Aachen.

This was a new chapter.

A new life.

I was born again.

And with that in mind, I headed toward her table, awkwardly standing next to her for several minutes, unnoticed. I finally tapped her on the shoulder. Startled, she turned around. Instant recognition washed over her face in the form of an inviting smile and a friendly “Hello.”

“Hi,” I responded back. Or, at least a guttural sound that closely resembled “hi”.

So what next? Smoothly, I offered my hand. She shook it.

“Bob, right?”

She remembered my name!

“Yeah. Julia, right?”

She nodded, then invited me to sit down, then introduced me to her friends – a group of three other girls. They asked me questions about America. We played movie charades. They laughed at my lame attempts at German. I admired their mastery of the English language.

And at about 1:30, it was time to part.

Outside the pub, Julia said goodbye to her friends and then headed over to her bicycle, locked to a rack. It was one of those old-fashioned bikes, complete with basket and bell. All that was missing was a puppy! Like right out of a foreign film.

I naturally assumed that this was where we would part. But then:

“Would you like to take a walk?” she offered.

I didn’t hesitate. Nor did I care that I had an early morning train to catch to Vienna.

As we wandered across the Mozart Bridge over the Salzach River, walking her bike by her side, we talked.

And talked.

And talked.

Like old pals — not new acquaintances – separated by a lifetime across the Atlantic.

We talked about life in Salzburg.

And life in Michigan.

And of dreams and aspirations, disappointments and triumphs, as the ancient cobblestones beneath our feet welcomed us every step of the way. And before we knew it, we were in the city square. And we were completely alone. We were on a stage, built entirely for us — a stage upon which a love story would be performed.

And the church bells chimed two.

Like me, Julia was at a crossroads in her life, not sure what her next step would be. She felt stuck in her job as a tour guide (taking people around, but never going anywhere herself) and stuck in Salzburg as a whole. I asked her how anyone could grow sick of a place as magical as this. And that’s when I realized that no matter where you grow up, home is home and away is away. Apparently even if home is a place as magical as Salzburg! And sometimes, we all have to go away to remind us of what there is to appreciate about home. Sometimes, we never return home at all. We move on. We outgrow. We spread our wings. And fly. While those we leave behind bid us adieu out of the window where our next chapter awaits.

We entered the empty square – like a movie set built for just us. She lead me to the horse-head fountain’s ledge in the center of the square, saying nothing, but speaking volumes as we stared up into the starry sky instead. Every star in the universe was on full display – a sky that normally only exists in an artist’s imagination. We played a game to see how who could locate the most constellations. She won. The only one I could recognize was Orion.

I told her about my Austrian-born grandmother. She laughed in astonishment when I told her one of my grandmother’s stock phrases was: “Gehen hund sei arse.” Translation: “Go up a dog’s butt.” Something she would say when something was said didn’t like or agree with. Usually in jest. But not always. And she would say this to us as children. I never thought about how utterly strange this was until that moment. And Julia continued to laugh, as did I.

I suddenly found myself acting upon a compulsion to take Julia’s bike for a spin around the fountain, ringing the bell like a sugar-rich toddler. And she watched. And she laughed, as I went around and around and around. And she laughed when I wiped out on the gravel, scraping my legs a bit. But it was worth it just to make someone laugh like that.

Voices echoed somewhere in the distance. How dare somebody intrude upon our performance? A drunk couple entered, stage right, staggering across our proscenium until they disappeared down an empty, cozy street.

And we were alone once again.

But then again, we weren’t entirely alone. Waiting for us across the square was our mutual friend Mozart, standing guard over the city square. Making sure we utilized every prop on our stage, we headed across the square across to pay him a visit. By then, an evening chill demanded us to take notice, so I took this as my cue to put my arm around her.

There was no thinking about it.

I just did it.

Of course, the chilly night temperature certainly helped make it easier for me to make my move.

We remained that way in a comfortable silence, soaking it all in until next thing I knew, our lips were locked. It was one of those kisses that came out of nowhere and no matter how many times your mind tries to replay it, you never can quite replicate it in the recesses of your memory.

The magical, fairy-tale setting surrounding us only deepened the magic of the moment, tarnished only by the cold, faint taste of a stale cigarette.

How as this real life? My life?

 

I was convinced that it was one of those dreams you wake up from and feel instant regret that it was only a dream. But there was no waking up from this. In fact, I had never been more awake and in tune with life than I was in that moment. Looking back at it, all these years later, it feels more like the memory of well-made romantic drama than a memory I actually experienced in reality.

We continued to kiss and as I leaned into her in the throes of passion, this budding romantic drama turned into a romantic comedy as my body pressing into hers caused her to slip off the two-foot tall railing and into the landscaping beneath Mozart’s statue.

Mozart, the merry prankster, certainly appreciated it, smiling down at us with approval. However, before I could appreciate the humor of the moment, I had to first make sure Julia’s skull wasn’t cracked open, spilling blood onto the flowers below, turning our romantic drama-turned comedy into a murder mystery.

Fortunately, the only victims were the flowers, crushed beneath her body as she quivered with hysterical, uncontrollable laughter over what just transpired. In fact, she was laughing so hard, she struggled to get up, despite my best efforts to help her up. When she finally regained her composure, I lifted her off the ground, then brushed the foliage off her dress, before we resumed kissing.

And kissed some more.

And more.

And more.

And when the clock struck three, she said these dreaded words:

“I should really get going.”

I tried to play it cool.

“It is pretty late,” I said.

“But don’t think it’s because I want to,” she said, sensing my sadness. “I just have to work tomorrow.”

“I totally understand.”

I had the sudden urge to invite her back to my room, but didn’t want to get too overzealous and risk ruining the magic and beauty of this night.

She kissed me, as though to reassure me not to worry.

Before she left, we exchanged contact info, then snapped a picture of each other in front of Mozart’s likeness, preserving the moment in a happily ever after.

We kissed again, fully aware that it was the last time. That we would likely never cross paths again, making the moment even more perfectly bittersweet. And then she hopped onto her bike, smiled and rode away stage left down a faintly lit cobbled-stoned street. And then, she was gone, leaving me alone on stage with Mozart, who offered me a congratulatory nod and wink.

I decided to keep Mozart company for a little while longer, soaking in the tranquil stillness of the empty square, realizing that I was living a moment that could never be replicated, yet would be carried forever in the scrapbook of my mind.

As I sat alone, beneath the likeness of Herr Mozart, I saw through his eyes exactly what he sees day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year and decade after each passing decade. Sitting there, I pondered just how truly alone I was at that moment and the moments that just preceded it. How many people before me shared a similar experience as I just had in that same spot? How many have yet to experience it, having no idea as to what magical fate awaited them? I wanted to tell each and every one of them to cherish that they have not yet shared in my experience and to appreciate every moment leading up to it. Because at some undetermined point in the future, the moment would be over. And in its place, a faded memory, a yellowed photograph torn at the edges.

A former reality turned into memory.

Trapped in time.

The actual, physical moment forever out of reach.

Resigned to live on forever in abstract memory.

And it was upon that realization that I floated back to my hotel, never more awake and alive – yet so utterly exhausted – and starry-eyed. Never more free. And so full of potential and hopes and dreams.

I snuggled into my fairy-tale bed, in a fairy-tale hotel in a fairy-tale city, regretting that I didn’t ask her to come back with me, but also glad I didn’t.

What if?

Unable to sleep, so I flipped on the television. And lo and behold was The Sound of Music, just as Julie Andrews skipped around the horse fountain singing “Do-Re-Mi.”

The next morning, I headed to the train station for the final leg of my journey. Vienna – Mozart’s place of death. As I made my final pass through the square, I grew hopeful that I would see her one last time, perhaps leading a group of Americans on a Sound of Music tour, with one eye looking out for me. I kept searching all the way to the train station. But it wasn’t meant to be. And as much I was hoping to spot her one last time, I knew deep down that it was better off this way. That somehow, seeing her again – in the light of day – would have taken away some of the magic of the night before, weakening the memory as it was preserved. No doubt, it would have been awkward. What would I say? What would she say? Besides, she would be working, so the moment would have felt awkward and detached.

Besides, I had a train to catch to Vienna.

But what if I didn’t catch the train? What if I decided to remain in Salzburg, if not for the remainder of my trip, but forever? What did I have to lose? Farfetched, sure. But possible. Anything’s possible. Life has not tied me down yet. I did not have to let life tie me down.

I became suddenly aware of how easy it is to alter the entire course of your life with just one decision. And how much easier it is to simply stay the course.

But then I remembered who I was. And as I looked behind me, I saw that the training wheels were still on after all.

As we wander through life, people come in and out of our lives, like characters in a play, protagonists and antagonists alike. Some stay for a scene. Some stay for an act. And some stay forever after. But they all have a purpose. Sometimes, it’s the minor characters we remember the most and that have far more lasting impact than the characters in our everyday lives.

Shooting stars. Brief encounters that are not only as deep and impactful as the ones we have with the leading characters in our lives, but at times – even more so. An isolated memory oasis, free from the constraints and strains of lasting relationships. As I’ve grown older, I no longer look back and wonder “what if.” I simply regard moments such as these as “what was.” And it was at that moment that I first began to realize this.

Content with this realization, I boarded my train, not taking my eye off the window, until Salzburg was behind me.

Six years later, I returned to Salzburg with my (now ex) wife, Olya – also from a land far-far-away and also somebody I met through magical fate – a chance meeting that turned out to be much more than one magical night in a fairy-tale world. Not to mention the subject of my first book.

We traveled in reverse order from my previous trip to Vienna and then Salzburg, before heading to Ukraine to visit her family. And six years later, nothing had changed. It was then, just as it was six years before and just like it was when Mozart roamed the cobble stoned streets and his ancestors before him. The only thing that had changed since my previous trip was me.

Gone was the free-spirited, what-do-I-do-next-with-my-life version of myself. In its place was a far more grounded, secure and content self. And, in perhaps a fitting symbolic tribute to how utterly full and complete my life was in that moment, the once empty square was filled with bleachers, tents, and thousands of soccer fans watching the World Cup championship game between Italy vs. Germany on an enormous projection screen. And even then, just as I had done six years earlier, I kept an eye out, wondering … hoping … but then realizing that once the doors to the past are closed, we can never re-enter them no matter how hard we try.

And as crowded as that square was, there he stood.

The maestro.

Alone.

With both eyes open.

Quietly taking it all in, as always.

Whether others care to join him or not.

 

A Penny for 50 Cent’s Thoughts

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Some things in life can’t be predicted. Take, for instance, a chance encounter with 50 Cent.

After my first book Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine was published, I tried to think out of the box as much as possible in (usually failed) attempts at getting word out about my book. So if something caught my eye that I felt had any remote connection to my book whatsoever, I would jump on it immediately, leaving no stone unturned.

I realize now that many of these were misguided efforts to “bank” on my sudden “success” as a published author. Realize that “success” in this context simply the act of getting published – making a single cent was a whole other issue (let alone 50 cents).

My book doesn’t have a whole to do with vodka to be honest. I mean, there are certainly ample amounts, but the focus of the book is on my travel adventures in Ukraine, rather than a history of vodka…or love for that matter (though I devote a couple paragraphs to the history of vodka…and several chapters to love itself).

So I decided to milk the vodka angle for what it was worth. One event in particular caught my eye – an enormous vodka tasting festival called Vodka Vodka! inside the historic Royal Oak Music Theater just outside Detroit. Dozens of vodka vendors would be on hand, as well as models, a DJ, and miscellaneous other modes of entertainment.

But mostly vodka.

I figured I would fill a niche. I mean, who isn’t looking for a book when they come to a vodka-tasting event? Get people drunk enough and they will do anything.

On a whim, I contacted to the festival organizers to inquire about getting a both to peddle my wares.

“So what kind of vodka is this?”

“No, it’s not vodka. It’s a book. About vodka. Well, not really about vodka. Vodka’s in the title.”

In response to my jabbering, I was finally given a quote of $500.

Let me make this clear: I can’t even do the math required to determine how many books would be required to even break even. Let’s just say it would require a delivery truck and a forklift.

I couldn’t even sell that many copies at a book convention where the only book available was mine.

Suddenly, I found myself thrust into unfamiliar territory: the art of negotiation. Somehow, I managed to talk my way down to $250 when I essentially explained the pitiful reality of how much money there was to be made in this for me. Even at that rate, I would still be in the red, but I managed to convince myself that the exposure would make it all worth it in the end. Besides, I was also hoping to partner with a local vodka distillery with the hope of some sort of cross-promotional partnership (it never happened).

As the event drew nearer, I started having serious doubts as to why I was willing to shell out so much money just so I could sit awkwardly at a table with a stack of my books that would never sell. Hell, if I wanted to go for the eye candy alone, I could have just bought a ticket and attended the event as a spectator.

Just when I was about to inquire about getting a refund, I received an e-mail announcing a special guest celebrity who would be in attendance.

And just who might be gracing us with his/her presence? None other than:

The man.

The myth.

The legend.

50 Cent.

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But why?

On the surface, it made little sense.

But I came to realize that he was there to promote Effen Vodka, which he was somehow involved with.

And just like that, I had a singular focus: get my book into 50’s hands. At all costs. And it would be worth every last cent (it no longer mattered that I was unlikely to make the equivalent of his monetary moniker).

So why this irrational excitement for a washed up rapper who was never that great to begin with? It wasn’t like I was a huge 50 Cent fan even back when he was a thing. (Who was?) I mean, a casual fan, yes. (Who wasn’t?) And it wasn’t like rappers were a coveted demographic for my book. Not to say they wouldn’t like it. Point is, the idea of getting 50 Cent a copy of my book quickly became my latest obsession just for the randomness of it. I didn’t care if I didn’t actually meet him. But one way or another, my book would.

The event finally arrived – a cold, Michigan January night. My publisher, Jon, and I headed to the venue, hauling a couple of boxes of books inside, found our booth, nestled between Tito’s Handmade Vodka and a stairwell, which at least ensure maximum visibility. Attendees were sure to at least notice the book. The bright yellow cover drew people like moths to light.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As it turned out, most people didn’t so much as glanced in our general direction, their internal GPS wired to take them directly en route to the next vodka booth. A small handful glanced our way, but nothing more than a precursory one. And often seemed annoyed by the books’ very presence.

After we settled in, we cashed in a couple of drink tickets to sample some vodka, but otherwise remained stationed at our booth. Jon made noble attempts to pass out post cards promoting the book – most of which were either ignored, or dropped to the ground seconds later, where they would be trampled on by the increasingly drunken attendees.

And an hour into the event, there was no sign of 50 Cent.

Where was the motherfucker?

Maybe it was all a ruse. Maybe he changed his plans. Then again, what else would 50 Cent possibly have on his agenda?

The Effen Vodka booth, which was located about four booths or so away from mine was certainly far more elaborate than everyone else’s.

For one thing, it included a VIP lounge.

And in the middle of the lounge was none other than a dancer pole.

Certainly seemed tailor-made for the 50-cent king himself!

At one point, Jon decided to make the rounds, and I remained behind to man the booth. We weren’t exactly staying busy.

As I sat there twiddling my thumbs, peering over two evenly stacked piles of books, I observed a clearly intoxicated woman in her late making it a point to make out with just a bout any random guy she could get her hands on. Particularly, random guys under 30. Most went along with it, as it was safe to assume that they were probably intoxicated, too.

Then she headed my way. The first one to actually pay a modicum of attention to us.

And she was drunk as fuck.

“What is this?” she asked, pointing at my table.

Though I sort of assumed she was getting at my books, I still wasn’t entirely sure. My guess is that she was wondering where the fucking vodka was (not to be confused with Effen Vodka).

“What are these,” the woman asked, as though discovering books for the first time.

“Books!” I said with feigned enthusiasm. By that point, I was feeling pretty down about this $250 decision – even with the promise of 50 Cent looming.

“What kind of books?”

“A memoir. Love & Vodka.”

“Oh, does it have vodka recipes?”

“No. It’s about my experiences traveling in Ukraine.”

“Oh. So you are some kind of author?”

“Yes. Some kind for sure.”

“Ohhh, I’ve never been with an author before”, she said, rubbing her finger alongside my cheek.

“Oh, well, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, utterly flabbergasted.

“I can’t remember the last time I read a book,” she said with a hearty chuckle.

“Well, then you should read this one!”

“Yeah. Right,” she said with a sarcastic laugh.

And with that, she walked away. Better than nothing!

Within seconds, she was making out with a douchebag in a faux hawk.

I suddenly found myself asking: is a vodka festival such a good idea to begin with? It just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Anyway, I wasn’t there to judge.

I was there to sell books.

And meet 50 Cent.

Almost another hour passed by with 1.) no sales and 2.) no sign of 50 Cent.

What was more likely to happen? Sell a book? Or, 50’s arrival?

Probably 50 Cent.

A duo of attractive and presumably highly-intoxicated (but not anywhere as obnoxious) women approached.

Perhaps I would work my nerdy charm and sell a fucking book.

“Hello!” one of them said – the clearly far more sober one. Her friend was really struggling to stand on her own two feet and seemed mostly oblivious to everything.

“Hi there!” I said, hoping for the best. But expecting the worst.

“So is this your book?”

“Yes, it is!”

“How cool! You wrote it?”

“Yep. Every word. And edited by this guy right here,” I said, pointing to Jon, still eagerly attempting to hand out postcards to anyone who passed by.

The less-drunk woman grabbed a copy and started thumbing through it. Despite reading the back cover, she still felt compelled asked:

“What’s it about?”

“My travel experiences in Ukraine.”

“So it’s fiction?”

“No. Non-fiction. Memoir.”

“So you went to Russia?”

“No. Ukraine.”

She continued to analyze the book like a scientist unique specimen. Unlike my previous customer, she seemed to at least understand what a book was.

“I’ll buy it!”

“Great, thanks!”

“Will you sign it?”

“Of course! Who should I make it out to?”

“Maria.”

“With one ‘M’?” I joked.

“What?”

“Nevermind.” I got to work signing her book, which I wrapped up by with my signature fox, which looked more like a rat.

As I continued writing, she asked me:

“So are you excited about 50 Cent?”

“Yeah! Very excited.”

“I hope to get his autograph, too! And maybe a little something more, if you know what I mean.”

“That would be awesome!” I responded, handing my book over to her.

“$15.00.”

“Do you accept credit card?”

“Sadly, not. I don’t have one of those card reader things.”

“Let me ask my friend. Britney, do you have cash?”

What Britney seemed to have was an extremely high blood-alcohol level, as she continued to struggle to find her balance.

“What?” Britney asked.

“Cash. I need cash.”

“How much?”

“$15.00.”

“I don’t think so. Let me check.”

She clumsily dug through her wallet. All she could produce were seven singles.

“I’m so sorry,” Maria said.

Now under ordinary circumstances, this would mean no sale. But since the book was personalized, I would either have to wait for another Maria to buy my book…or, sell it to her for a deep discount, which would mean I would lost $3.00 on the book when it was all said and done (now that math, I could handle).

“Are you sure?” Maria asked.

“Yes. For me, the satisfaction comes from knowing that somebody read my book. Enjoy!”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“Don’t worry.”

“No, I will. Are you on Facebook?”

“Yes! Feel free to add me!”

She never did. But at least I was going home with one less book.

That was as close to a sale as I would get that night. The question remained, however: would I be able to hand deliver a copy to the 50 Cent? I was beginning to hope that he would show up, let alone get my book to him.

As Maria and Britney made their way down the steps to the next booth, Britney tumbled, spilling the entire contents of her purse. Lying on the ground were what appeared to be several bills. Even if they were only singles, they certainly would have covered the balance of what they owed me.

And then:

“Ladies and gentleman!” said the emcee’s booming voice, as 50 Cent’s 2002 smash hit “In Da Club” started blasting throughout the theater. The crowd went nuts. Because everyone knew what this meant, even before the announcement was made:

“The moment we’ve all been waiting for! Put your hands together for 50….Cent!”

Louder cheers. A mob of people rushed toward the Effen Vodka booth as an entourage entered to a medley of 50’s Greatest Hits (all of which were said and done by 2005).

The hits included snippets of such golden chestnuts as: “Candy Shop”, “P.I.M.P.”., “21 Questions”, “Just a Lil Bit”, “Disco Inferno” and “Wanksta”.

The half-dollar king had entered the building! And the world couldn’t be a better place…for “just a lil bit”.

Though I couldn’t make get a visual on 50 himself, it was a safe bet that he was insulated by his posse, as he made his way toward his booth, which now showcased a half-naked dancer twirling on the pole.

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Throngs of women (liquored up enough to believe that it was 2002 and that thongs were still in fashion) rushed the booth, hoping to get a piece of 50. I even spotted Maria, pulling a hapless Britney along by the hand, determined to get an autograph… and the full 50 Cent piece.

After a few minutes, as a crowd gathered around the V.I.P. booth five rows thick, it became apparent that 50 had no desire to drink vodka – or Bicardi for that matter – with the masses. Didn’t matter if was anyone’s birthday as far as 50 Cent was concerned.

I would need to find a way to penetrate through 50 Cent’s remaining, rabid female fan base.

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I was less concerned about my ability to do so and more concerned how others might assume I was that desperate to get a piece of the magic stick. But I wasn’t going to let judgments from the masses deter me. Not after I got this far! Without a moment to lose, I grabbed a copy of my book and personalized it as follows:

           

Dear 50 Cent,

Hope you enjoy my book. Always and forever a fan.

Regards,

R.J. Fox

Of course, I included my patented fox drawing and put my contact info in there for good measure. Because doing so at least magnified my chance of hearing directly from him, than if I didn’t include it at all.

I realized that if my plan didn’t work out, then I would be forever stuck with it. And unlike “Maria”, I would have a much lesser chance of finding another 50 Cent. Signing it was a calculated risk I had to take. Somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that my destiny was sealed.

I took a deep breath and headed toward the two-quarter hip hop legend – or, at least the crowd of people surrounding him – all clamoring for the same thing, I realized that having a tangible item to deliver to him might actually improve my chances.

I stopped just short of shouting “Special delivery for 50 Cent!”

I strategized to find my best point of entry. After several attempts at getting nowhere fast, I decided I was going to have to be more aggressive. Nobody was going to politely allow me to push past them. I would just have to plow through, looking like the biggest dick in the process. Clearly, nobody was giving up on the hope that 50 would actually interact with them, which would have made my life so much easier if they had. I just had to work my way through, one female fan at a time.

And next thing I know, I was standing on the outer edge of his 50’s lair, smack dab in front of the pole and dancer. And then, I spotted him…sittin’ on a couch, watching the same dancer I was, and sipping on a drink.

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I felt a kinship to him like no other for that one moment.

I even managed to snap a few pics.

But now what?

I noticed a couple of sentries guarding the VIP lair’s entrance. That was my golden ticket! But it required muscling my way past more women eager to do the same. But I already got this far. Now, I just had to move laterally about 15 feet.

But my biggest challenge lay ahead.

The first few feet were a cinch.

But standing a half dollar between me and fifty were three large black women who did not want a scrawny white boy taking a piece of the birthday cake.

“Oh, hell no!”

“Who the fuck this boy think he is?”

And next thing I knew, I was flat on my ass, knocked down in what I think was an accident, despite not being fully sure.

I sat back up and from my vantage point, watched the women attempt to bust through security, but they were promptly turned away.

“Fuck this shit,” the one who “accidentally” knocked me down said. “Let’s go get some motherfuckin’ Goose.”

And there was my opening.

On the precipice of a dream!

I walked right on up to security, who braced themselves for a ruckus.

“So, I’m the author of this book here. And was wondering if I could some how, um, get this book to Mr. 50 Cent.”

They looked at me, then the book, then me again.”

“You wrote this?” one of them asked.

“Sure did! The whole thing! Since he’s into vodka, thought he might like to read this.”

“Okay, sure. We’ll get it to him.”

I handed my book over. And then watched my book pass not through just one channel of security. Not two channels. Or, even three. But four. And then, through a small opening, I saw 50 Cent himself receive my book. And it required someone having to stand between 50 Cent…and the 50-cent dancer was he was ogling over with quasi-indifference. He stared down at my book, then produced an expression that seemed to suggest “What da fuck?”

And then I walked away.

Triumphant.

I often wonder whatever happened to that copy of my book.

For all I know, 50 tossed it into the first trashcan he found. Or, pawned it off onto a member of his entourage. Or, perhaps he left it in his V.I.P. booth, leaving it totally up for grabs (which more than likely meant trash).

Of course, it was also possible he kept it, but never read it, nor has any intention to. I also acknowledge the possibility that just maybe 50 Cent has read my book. Stranger things have happened!

At the very least, I take great pleasure in knowing the possibility that – if only for one fleeting moments – there existed a copy of my book addressed to fucking 50 Cent. How many writers can take claim of that fact?

I could hold my head up high, no longer a wanksta…but much more gloriously, a gangsta.

The bottom line is this: I went in with a goal. And left with the goal accomplished.

And in this business, success in measured in small increments. One cent at a time.

 

 

NPR Review of LOVE & VODKA by Zinta Aistars

“Worthy of Several Toasts”(***** out of 5)

by Zinta Aistars

Love, science reveals, is really just another form of madness. The brain undergoes similar changes, from the rational into the irrational, and the resulting pheromone chemical soup tastes like insanity.

Dearborn-native (Michigan) and author R.J. Fox would probably not debate any of that. It took all of twenty minutes for him to fall in love with a foreign exchange student he spotted in a line for an amusement park ride. When she returned to her native Ukraine, he followed her, engagement ring in his pocket. And more madness ensued.

In his memoir, Love and Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine (Fish Out of Water Books, October 2015), Fox recounts that initial meeting with Katya and the trip he took to Ukraine a year later to bring her back to the States again—as his wife. His adventures on foreign soil as he works up the nerve toward a marriage proposal and earn the blessing of Katya’s family are both outrageous and hilarious.

Babushka-wearing old women curse him, snarl and chase him, threaten to splatter him with bleach. Well-meaning hosts force vodka on him in toast after toast that he finds he cannot deny, resulting in drunken stupors, cold outdoor showers, and barefoot walks across sharp-edged rocks in his underwear. And so the story unfolds as Fox learns about a culture and a world far different than his own. Within its traditions and people, he finds himself in comical situations, but he also learns lessons about himself, love, and home.

What has remained with him from that mad and maddening journey these many years later, Fox says, “is the immersive experience of being in a whole other world than the one I know. Out in general public, people had a distrust toward me because I was not from Ukraine. This was in 2001, so not too far removed from the Soviet years when Ukraine was the center of missile-building during the Cold War. The distrust—it was the closest to feeling discriminated against that I’d ever known in my lifetime.”

In inner circles of what would increasingly become family, however, Fox found warmth, love, and family connection, not unlike what one would find in any family anywhere, and all liberally christened with yet more vodka. Although the resulting marriage would last only eight years—Fox is now remarried and has two children—he holds his memories of his Ukraine adventure close to his heart.

The memoir is the first publication of a new Ann Arbor-based publisher, Fish Out of Water, run by Jon and Laurie Wilson.

Pipe Dream

The genesis of my writing dream began in a hospital room the summer of 1992, just before my 10th grade “growth-spurt” year. My grandfather was hospitalized yet again, as he had been a significant portion of the last third of his life. One night, after coming home from the hospital, my mom told me that she met the daughter of my grandpa’s “roommate” – a 10th grade English teacher at my school.

“Maybe she’ll be your teacher,” my mom said.

“Yeah, maybe,” I replied.

Not only did Ms. Gautreau become my teacher… she became my lifelong mentor, guiding me through a dream that would culminate with the publication of my first book 23 years later. She is to whom that book is dedicated. And she deserves more than just a dedication page. She is worthy of an entire essay.

The seeds of my future were undeniably sowed in that 10th grade classroom at Edsel Ford High School in my hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. From that point on, every decision, thought, and sacrifice made was built around my writing dream. And thanks to Ms. Gautreau, it was a dream that I never, ever gave up on. Even when everyone else seemed to try and convince me otherwise.

Up until my 10th great year, I really had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. My grandmother was my biggest influence at the time, but she was determined that her first grandchild was destined for Harvard. As a not-so-subtle hint, she bought me a Harvard sweatshirt when I was 10 – a not-so-subtle hint. (Allow me to point out another family connection to Ms. Gautreau: my grandmother’s long-term boyfriend Chuck’s ex-wife was married to Ms. Gautreaus’s brother. But I digress). Though I wasn’t remotely close to being the smartest kid in class, I was at least smart enough to know that I wasn’t Harvard material. Not by a long shot. But my grandmother never wavered. By the time I got to high school, my GPA (hindered mostly by poor math and science skills) obliterated any outside chance that I could get into Harvard – or any Ivy League school for that matter. I was only slightly above average in the other subjects (but God-awful in math) and I wasn’t exactly a language arts genius in the making (as far as GPA was concerned). In fact, when I took my English placement test for college, I was placed in two remedial classes (math, which was expected…and composition class…not expected!) Surely, there was some kind of mistake, so I begged and clawed my way into the general freshman comp class. And, aced it. (As I did all of my English and lit classes along the way). The only plausible theory as to why I failed my placement test to begin with was my horrendous handwriting. (Then again, I was rejected from my high school’s literary magazine, as well and my submissions were typed.) Though the rejection letter was signed by a student, it was clearly written under the gentle guidance of Ms. Gautreau: “You and the others who submitted are among a special folk that carry with them the guts to take a chance and put your talents to the test…we have to sigh and set some pieces aside. Unfortunately, your work was among these. However, don’t stew over this minor pitfall. Writing is an art that can provide inner sanctum for a lifetime. It is a personal experience and sometimes is meant to reward you and not to satisfy others.”

Fortunately, due to encouraging words of wisdom such as this, these early setbacks did nothing to rattle my resolve. My thick skin was forming.

Meanwhile, my grandmother, who had spent her entire career (50 years!) as a Ford Motor Company secretary, had a grandiose vision that her grandson would not only be an engineer at her beloved company, but would one day take over the reigns (side note: my hometown of Dearborn was not only home to Ford, but was the birthplace of none other than Henry himself). In her defense, it wasn’t like I had a back-up plan. The last time I thought I knew was in the 2nd grade, when I wrote in a report that I wanted to be a doctor. Even though I realized early on that I didn’t have what it took to be a doctor, my grandmother’s influence was so deeply felt, it appeared that my fate was sealed: I was going to be an engineer, despite my disinterest and – more importantly – lackluster skill in all areas remotely related to that particular field.

“It’s just a matter of mind over matter,” my Grandma always told me. “If you put your mind to it, you can excel in math, science, an anything else you put your mind to.” She was right about only one part of that – putting my mind to something against all odds no doubt contributed to my eventual “success” as a writer.

To further prepare me for a career as an engineer, my grandmother signed me up for high school engineering workshops at Ford, which required me to wake up bright and early on several Saturday mornings. For a teenager, there’s nothing worse. Not even a potential scholarship waiting for me at the end of the rainbow made up for that fact. Because I knew I had no legitimate shot at them. In fact, these workshops did nothing to inspire me (unless you count being inspired to do anything but engineering). In fact, I was completely bored, disinterested … and confused.

Mind over matter.

And my mind was made up. Engineering did not matter to me.

Yet, despite this minor detail, my grandmother continued to believe that somehow, against all scientific reason, I could train my mind to both like and excel in math and science. If this were the case, it wouldn’t have been a matter of science. It would be magic.

My experiment in engineering coincided with my 10th grade year, which paved the way for Ms. Gautreau to come to the rescue and teach me the true meaning of following a dream with every ounce of your heart, mind, and soul. Her unbridled faith in my ability to succeed as a writer and filmmaker has kept me focused on my dream every step away and through every pitfall along my path. Despite a cavalcade of wholesale life changes I have encountered in my life, there has always been one constant: my dream…and the teacher who made it all possible.

Following years of elementary and middle school misery, there are actually two teacher heroes that came to the rescue, one of which I had the year before and through the entirety of high school: my band teacher, Mr. Otto (affectionately referred to as “Uncle Otto”). From that time on, I no longer felt ostracized by my peers. It didn’t take long for my entire social circle to be made up entirely of fellow band geeks. I had found a home. As I wrote in an article for the school newspaper: “Whenever I need to seek comfort or help, all I have to do is walk through the band room, and someone will be there for me. There is a back hall with couches, where band and vocal members meet in the morning, for lunch, and after school. When I enter the back hall, I feel a sense of relief, like the way I feel when I walk into my home.”

Mr. Otto is quoted in that article as follows: “Band has a special unity. They look out for each other, get the job done. Teamwork and family describe best what it’s like to be in band.”

So even though I found a safe haven and refuge in the band room, I found my soul in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom. I not only felt at home there…but at home with myself. And that truly made all the difference.

Along with Mr. Otto, I had Ms. Gautreau for the remainder of my high school years, which included 10th grade English, creative writing courses, and film studies. In fact, it was in her creative writing class that I began writing my first screenplay – an adaptation of Robert Newton Peck’s Soup on Ice; a gift from my grandma when I was a little boy.

To put it succinctly, Ms. Gautreau epitomized everything that a teacher should be. From an instructional standpoint, her lessons were always engaging and inspiring. However, far more important than any lesson she ever taught me was the fact that she helped me discover myself…and never stopped believing in me. By extension, I have never stopped believing in myself. I should point out that she was the only teacher who recorded any notes on my progress report: Progress report: “Contributes to class./Is a pleasure to have in class./Shows interest and desire to improve./Assumes responsibility/shows initiative.” I hope she realizes how much of an impact such a small gesture had on me. So teaching often goes.

Ms. Gautreau not only inspired me to pursue my dream, but has greatly influenced my teaching “day job”. Though I can never come even close to reaching her level of greatness (my dream ironically prohibits me from the being the selfless teacher she was), I strive to do everything in my power to emulate her teaching style, with the sole mission of encouraging my own students to latch on to dreams of their own…and never let go.

Aside from the constant encouragement to pursue my dream, Ms. Gautreau went above and beyond her job duties. When I was her student, she would frequently give me press clippings from various magazines and newspapers (New York Times and The New Yorker in particular) that pertained to writing, film, or baseball. I have saved every single one of them. Now, yellowed and tattered, they comfort me like a tattered security blanket. The clippings extended well beyond the walls of my high school. I still get them till this day, twenty years later! The epitome of life-long learning.

At least once a year, Ms. Gautreau and I get together to watch an Oscar contending film and to chat. And with each visit, my creative juices are recharged and I walk away feeling like I can conquer the world. When we get together (usually around the holidays), she usually hands me over a giant manila envelope filled with accumulated clippings. Sometimes, she sends them in the mail. Or e-mail. Recently, she joined Facebook, so now “clippings” get directly posted to my wall. Her presence in my life is greater than ever before.

Though Ms. Gautreau is now happily “retired”, she certainly hasn’t quit teaching. She currently teaches writing courses for senior citizens who realize that it’s never too late to discover their voice. And of course, there is no doubt her influence will continue to live on in the hearts of every student she has ever inspired. I hope that in my own small way, her legacy lives on through my own teaching (despite the limitations my dream puts on it). I remember how disappointed I was when she retired the year before I did my student teaching. Initially, I felt like I missed out on a golden opportunity to truly become the young Padawan to her Yoda. But I later realized, the power of her force everything was already buried deep within my soul. As it always will be. There was nothing left to learn.

I can pinpoint the precise moment when my dream truly set sail. And it all comes down to a blue notebook. My holy grail. Like most English teachers, Ms. Gautreau required students to keep a journal. Several times a week, we would either have to respond to a specific prompt, or write wherever our pubescent muse took us. Our notebooks would be turned at the end of each quarter for feedback. I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, I probably wasn’t even consciously thinking about it. But when I got my notebook back the first go around, the margins were filled with numerous brief, witty comments that outweighed any letter grade (which was an A+, by the way). Even though many of her comments were usually one or two words, this written “conversation” provided the spark of inspiration I so desperately needed. And it made me feel excited about writing in a way that I had never felt before.

Suddenly, life was full of possibility.

And my dream was born, as this passage indicates:

“By wanting desperately to become a successful Hollywood filmmaker, I put myself at great risk. I believe in myself, however. I know I can do it, but it will be no easy road. While pursuing my dream, I look for inspiration wherever I go. I get most of my inspiration from Ms. Gautreau…I have never been told that I can’t make it, but I have been told that it is just a pipedream and that I have no big chance (not because of lack of talent, but because of the odds). Well, I’ll show them. Somebody has to make movies, right? Why can’t I be one of them? Life is all about taking risks. It is those risks that happiness is most commonly found.”

It didn’t take me long to realize that “I love to write because it allows me to escape the chaos of everyday life and relax. I take pride in my writing and if someone else doesn’t like it, I don’t get mad. I just work to improve it until it is as good as I can get it. I prefer to write light hearted comedy-dramas that make people good. I find that combining tears with laughter works good in any film. To me, making a person feel good about life is the best cure for anything. To me, literature is the best way to relax, whether you’re reading it, or writing it.”

The true impetus and value of this notebook came to light after Ms. Gautreau’s father passed mid-way through the year. While attending a viewing at the funeral home, she introduced me to her family with great enthusiasm:

“So you’re the one with the journal!,” one of her family members proclaimed. I felt like a supertar! As it turned out, Ms. Gautreau had shared my notebook with her family in the hospital’s waiting room. It was a tremendous feeling and it was at that moment that I knew right then where my destiny lay.

As Ms. Gautreau told my hometown paper, The Dearborn Press & Guide in an article that came out after I published my first book, “His journal was magic to read…I can still remember the delight and the wonderful quirky observations he would make about life and the wonderful, unique ways of articulating his ideas.

“He had this dead-on, droll sense of humor,” she continued. “He would always spot the absurdity of life. He was always the guy who was willing to go out there and take a chance, take a risk. But at the same time I think he was very honest in his own heart.”

Meanwhile on the homefront, my dream wasn’t exactly a greeted with open arms. The general consensus of my family toward my dream fell along the lines of: “It’s just a hobby,” (Bobby’s Hobby!) or “it’s only a pipe-dream.” It wasn’t so much that they didn’t support me. They just didn’t encourage me. Or is there any difference? But let me get one thing straight: I couldn’t ask more loving, generous parents and am extremely grateful for all they have done for me and all they continue to do (you know, like keeping me despite being an oopsie daisy and staying together to raise three children, despite my dad being just days out of high school upon my birth). In some ways, their ambivalence toward my dream only added more fuel to the fire. And made me want to prove them wrong.

In the meantime, I just had to accept that “Bobby’s Hobby” was never going to be taken seriously. And with Ms. Gautreau’s guiding light, I was determined to prove their doubts wrongs (and for over 20 years, they were right). Even though it took that long, I never once doubted that it was only a matter of time. Just how much time was a whole other matter. Sometimes, I wonder how long I would have stuck with it if I knew how long it would actually take. I certainly never would guessed it would take as long as it did. The longer it took, the harder it was going to be to turn back. You don’t put that much time into something, only to turn around with your tail between your legs. Fortunately, there were always enough clues (contests, optioned scripts, publication of short stories, etc.) along the way that I was at least on the right track. That I wasn’t time on something I had no business trying to get involved with. As long as I kept trying, there was always going to be a chance – or at least more of a chance than somebody who never tried at all. In essence, it came down to one basic principle: my dream was never a matter of if…it was always a matter of when. No matter how many setbacks. It was this mindset that allowed me to freely sacrifice so much of my free time and social life over the years. My dream always lay ahead like a lighthouse beacon surrounded by a dark, stormy sea. I just had to follow one simple rule: “Never give up.” It’s no surprise that my daughter learned to say “Daddy doesn’t give up” at the age of two. My dream is that my children will follow their own dreams just as daddy did, despite the frustration that is bound to result.

From the time my dream was hatched in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom, I have done everything in my power protect it at all costs. I have directed most of my prayers toward it. In fact, every major decision has revolved around my dream, including my decision to become a teacher. After toiling around in the media business after college, I couldn’t resist the allure of summers off and frequent breaks. I even spend my planning period writing, rather than grading or making copies because it is when I know I will be at my creative peak for the day.

Though I never once considered throwing in the towel, I would often wonder if I was doing enough. Or I would ask myself why was I still in Michigan, rather than Hollywood? A decision I still regret from time to time, until I remember that had I moved out there, I wouldn’t have my two beautiful children (though I would possibly have two different children, so I thereby lament the fact that I never got to meet the two children I would have had if I had moved west. Or perhaps I would have none at all?). The best outlook to assume is that I am right where I am supposed to be.

Before I got married, whenever I felt the urge to follow my heart to Hollywood, I convinced myself that I could still make my dream come true…from the comfort of my parents’ couch. And since I stayed home for college, my parents had grave concerns that I would spend his weekend nights sitting at home on the couch writing. Not only were they were worried I would be single forever, they were worried I would be single and sitting on their couch forever.

Writing my life away…

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends (this wasn’t elementary school after all!). It was just that I was under the spell of my dream. Though I could certainly see understand their concern, it was ultimately through writing that I fell in love (which in turn, ultimately made my dream come true).

Flashforward to Y2K: I was on the cusp of receiving my English degree and working part time at Ford Motor Company (thanks to my grandma’s connections) – but not as an engineer as she had envisioned: I was working in public relations, writing promotional materials for the Ford Research Laboratory. Although I had fallen short of Harvard, at least I fulfilled her other wish: working for old man Henry.

However, with graduation looming, I was at a crossroads in my life. Since it was clear that Ford would not be offering full time employment anytime soon, it was time to get serious about my future. So I decided to apply to the top graduate film programs and cast my fate to the wind. If, by some miracle, I got into one of the top programs, my decision would be made for me.

But life had other plans.

For my final spring break, I headed to Hollywood to take some film workshops, including Robert Mckee’s famous Story seminar. Little did I know my own personal Hollywood story was in the making.

My trip began with a fateful encounter with one of my childhood heroes while waiting at the gate for my flight. I spotted a man sitting across from me whom I was pretty sure was legendary Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.

“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I stuttered to the gate attendant.

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied. Now that I knew for sure, I headed over to my boyhood idol, trying to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

He shook my hand and I returned to my seat, where I waited to board. I might as well have been on Cloud 9. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. Sparky was seated in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.

When I finally located my seat, I scribbled in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.” How little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.

The workshops I was attending were on opposing weekends, leaving me with plenty of time to be a tourist and ponder whether I should roll the dice and move out west, or remain in my comfort zone back in Michigan.

And then came March 7, 2000.

The rain-soaked day (in fact, almost my entire trip was rain-soaked. I quickly learned that L.A. had a rainy season) began with a dream tour of The Price is Right, which had been arranged through a family friend of Ms. Gautreau (even though I would have much preferred if this contact was able to place my scripts in the right hands, this was a close second).

I should probably point out that I had a rather unhealthy obsession with this show … due in part to the fact that I had come to associate this show with being unhealthy, accompanied by chicken soup with crackers, chamomile tea and gag-inducing cold and cough syrup. And standing there, on the set, it was as though I walked right through my television set, just as I dreamed of in a fever-induced daydream. As I wrote in my journal, it was as though “I had stepped foot on sacred ground.”

I was taken aback by how small the studio was. It was as though I was standing on a miniature replica of the set – not the actual set itself. There was no way it could possibly be this small. But it was. Even the Holy Grail itself – the Plinko! board seemed too small to be real, not to mention the Showcase Showdown wheel. I asked her if I could give the wheel a test drive, but was told that CBS has a strict policy against spinning the wheel unless it was during game time. Beggars can’t be choosers. Years later, I got to attend a taping of the show – just a couple of years before Bob Barker retired. Since I was in attendance as a guest of a CBS employee, I would not be permitted to have a chance to “Come on down!,” but both experiences were the next best thing.

As magical as my Price is Right encounter was, it would pale in comparison to what happened next. After the tour, I debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios on the account off the damp weather, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.

After wandering the park for awhile in a melancholy daze, I spotted an attractive woman who also appeared to be by her lonesome on the Terminator ride. I lost sight of her and then later spotted her entering the E.T. ride. We were both eating peanut M & M’s. So I followed her in (making me a quasi-stalker). As fate would have it, we would ride together. We struck up a conversation and I learned she was an exchange student from Ukraine, living in Mississippi. Twenty minutes later, we were going our separate ways, with contact info in hand.

We became pen pals. At first, we started writing one another. First monthly. Then weekly. Then daily. E-mails soon became instant messages. Perhaps most importantly, she had read all of my scripts, showing more interest in my writing than anyone ever had in my life with the exception of one special teacher. Before we knew what hit us, we had fallen in love…through writing. Before long, our love blossomed until it was too big for even distance to contain us. Just over a year later, I headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in my pocket.

Following the most amazing, magically surreal experience of my life, in which every moment felt like the coolest independent film ever made, I immediately got to work on a semi-autobiographical screenplay based on this experience, in the cold, dark shadow of 9/11.

A few years later, I optioned the script to a producer (for a whopping $1.00). My dream was finally coming true!

But then it didn’t.

Following extensive, excruciating re-writes, the script became more and more fictionalized, but I was willing to go along with whatever changes the producer suggested. But then the producer suggested that the location of the script get changed to Asia, on the account of potential Asian investors that he had waiting in the wings (somehow, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive cowboy comes to mind). Fortunately and unfortunately, the producer abandoned the project and the option expired. My script was an orphan again. And I was devastated. The rug had been completely pulled out from under me. Though I had fallen to my lowest point, I wasn’t willing to give up the ghost. Drawing upon the wisdom of the bestselling self-help book Who Moved My Cheese, I … moved my cheese and set screenwriting aside and try my hand at prose. At first, I felt like I was abandoning my dream. But then I realized, my end goal remained the same. I was just seeking an alternate route; I would have to enter Hollywood through the backdoor.

No longer bound by the constraints of screenplay structure, writing prose was an incredibly liberating experience. I was therefore able to go back to the original draft of my script and resurrect previously cut scenes. Furthermore, the script was essentially a skeleton outline, so all I had to do was add meat to the bones. The biggest challenge was to learn how to write prose that didn’t read like the sparse choppiness of a script. By the same token, the brevity of screenwriting also came in handy. It was just a matter of finding the proper balance. Over time, I got into the groove. And thus a book was born.

Sadly, around the time I was completing my book, my marriage had begun to unravel. And I would be in denial if I didn’t admit that my writing had a lot to do with it. If you marry a writer, know that writing will be your spouse’s mistress. Perhaps, the best advice I could give any writer is not to marry. It only ends up hurting people.

During the last couple of years of my marriage, there was a lot of pressure to stop writing. To abandon a dream that clearly wasn’t ever going to happen And at one point, I did. For the sake of my marriage. And I had never been more miserable in my life. I never felt more incomplete. I felt like an addict without a fix. When I’m writing, I never feel more alive. A literal high. In fact, I usually feel more awake and full of energy on the heels of a late night writing session than I do on a full night’s sleep. So once I lost that lifeline, I unraveled. Dear God, did I unravel.

Asking somebody to give up on something you put in so many years and sacrifice into is just about the most selfish thing you can ask someone to do for them. Quitting would mean everything was all for naught. It would have been one thing if I lost all faith in myself. But my faith never wavered. Yet, I wanted to do what I could to spare my marriage. Consequentially, it destroyed it. It is perhaps no coincidence that for most of this period, communication with Ms. Gautreau was at it lowest peak, short of an annual Christmas card. In fact, it was the longest stretch I had gone without seeing her. I wasn’t even conscious of it at the time. But looking back, it is no coincidence that it paralleled at this point in my life.

Though broken, I wasn’t completely beaten. And then I started writing again, but did so secretly. I was a closeted writer. A painful, daily reminder that the person who once shared in my dream – who I fell in love because of her support of my dream – had forsaken me. So after trying to hold on as long as I could, I pulled the plug after eight years of marriage. And just like that, I was left with an unpublished book about a love story that no longer existed in reality.

The craziest thing about this was the fact that my divorce – as tragic and painful as it was – wasn’t my lowest point. It was the period when I had stopped writing.

When I first fell in love, I wondered if my Hollywood dream was only a ruse by fate to lead me to my soul mate on that fateful, rainy day at Universal Studios. I now realize that falling in love was actually part of fate’s grand plan that would lead to the book that would later make my dream finally come true. With no shortage of sacrifice, pain, and tears from two people, who once upon a time promised live happily ever after.

Five years later, my book was published. And as exhilarating and magical the experienced has been, I would be remiss to ignore the bittersweet melancholy that has accompanied me on this journey. On one hand, with every revision, I got to re-live my life’s most amazing experience over and over again. It is as close to time travel as the human mind can get. At the same time, these memories are soaked in regret when I think about how it all ended. And though I take comfort in the knowledge that this life-altering experience will live on forever in the pages of my book, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the regret of not sharing in this experience with her by my side. No matter how many book signings I have done and no matter how many copies I will ultimately sell, there will always be a deep, melancholy hole in my heart.

When the time came to write a dedication, the choice was simple: I knew I couldn’t dedicate it to my ex-wife. And I certainly wasn’t going to dedicate a book about my ex to my second wife. So it was only fitting I would dedicate it to Ms. Gautreau – the person who most made this publication possible. In an e-mail to her, I wrote:

 

“I never even had to deliberate my decision to dedicate the book to you. And seeing your name on the dedication page was almost equal to the feeling of holding the book itself for the first time.”

I sent her the first copy of my book along with the invite to my book launch (which fell on the eve of her 70th birthday). And here is what she wrote:

Dear Bob,

 

Who knew that that shared room with your grandfather and my father in residence at Oakwood Hospital would lead to such connections?

To find your book in the mail after returning from Japan was pure delight.

The dedication gave me a thrill shiver and goose bumps.

I never anticipated such an experience.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

This old gal is very touched and pleased!

Looking forward to seeing you soon.

 

All the very best to you and yours,

Anne

 

Consequentially, one of the most joyous moments of my life was being able to introduce Ms. Gautreau to the packed house at my book’s launch party at Literati Bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. That very moment was the culmination of every ounce of sweat, blood, and tears shed over the past 20 years, going all the way back to the moment that an awkward, directionless boy first entered that 10th grade classroom, only to exit with laser beam focus.

The next day, Ms. Gautreau wrote this on a Facebook post:

“Bob, you were surrounded by autograph seekers after our launch; so I want to let you know how touched I was by your remarks. I felt as though I were going to burst into tears when you offered your kind remarks to me. Your reading was the best. I have attended a helluva lot of readings over the years. Yours hit all the right notes. The audience was enchanted and enthralled, tickled and touched. If I had ever had a song I would have wanted him to be exactly like you. I marvel at your keen-quirky mind, your self-discipline, your willingness to be a risk taker, and your sheer determination. BRAVO! Also, it thrilled me to be inside a NEW independent bookstore. It tickled me to see a younger couple risk starting a new publishing company. It delighted me to see people scrambling to find copies of your book down on the first floor. Finally, I hope lots and lots and lots and lots of people realize that your novel would make great Christmas gifts. ALL THE VERY BEST TO YOU FOR A GREAT SUCCESS!”

As the above comments demonstrate, as long as I live, her influence will always be felt through the deepest reaches of my soul every time I put pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard. No matter how much further my success carries me and no matter how many setbacks I must endure, every brick of my future will be built upon the foundation that Ms. Gautreau laid down for me.

I will conclude this essay dedication with a Christmas card from 2004 that encapsulates everything that is great about this guiding light in my life. On the envelope to the card were two rubber stamped Shakespeare quotes: “This above all; this thine own self be true.” Along with “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Inside the card, in her own magical handwriting:

 

“Continue to create. It’s significant energy, important to counterbalance the forces devoted to destruction on the planet. The creative process is necessary, meritorious and precious.

All the best, Anne.”

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