On Michigan and Michael

Much of my time spent on Twitter — when I’m not making bad Nazi jokes and sharing long-form journalism — involves discussing football with Michigan fans. Some of them are reporters and bloggers, some of them are just obsessed, like me. I look forward to my conversations with these friends in so many ways. I need people in my life for whom having the “in the 2007 game against Penn State, we definitely should have gone for it on that third and two, right?” talk is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I’m insane.

On Monday, some of these friends and I had a long conversation about the most painful games in recent Michigan football history. The Horror. Losing to Toledo at home because we were beyond terrible. The 2007 game against Oregon. (By the way, Dennis Dixon, I still think you would have won the Heisman that year if it weren’t for that pesky ACL tear.) A litany of pain and anguish that I have done my best to forget.

Had I not been bound by both the character limits and rules of decorum expected of Twitter users who don’t suck, I might have described these games as “drive-by shootings” or “like being slowly strangled by large members of an organized crime family bent on destroying my small, family-owned business” because that’s what it felt like to watch Appalachian State rush the field after blocking that field goal, or to see the football team you, for some reason, love more than life itself flail its way to a losing season. It hurt physically and emotionally and spiritually. And if you don’t understand how losing a game can hurt your soul, then you’ve never loved college football.

***
On Sunday, a little boy named Michael, who lived in the house behind mine, disappeared. He was seven-years-old and autistic, last seen in the alley directly behind my back gate, wearing a diaper and a red t-shirt. I’ve probably seen him before. Maybe I saw him last Fourth of July when we set off fireworks in the alley and I dove behind my roommate’s car to avoid losing my eyelashes. Maybe I saw him in the mornings when I walk past the alley on my way to my Metro stop. I have probably seen him dozens of times and barely registered his existence until he was gone.

The neighborhood mobilized to look for him, even when the police seemed to be taking his disappearance in stride. Sex workers who walk the block in the mornings and kids who skateboard to Northeast Market to buy cheap ice cream sandwiches searched every nook and cranny of that alley. Community members looked for Michael, tweeted about Michael, searched out and discussed and argued about every scrap of information about Michael. It’s so hot, and he’s so little, and he just couldn’t have gotten that far — couldn’t have.

He was found at 6 p.m. yesterday. He was dead, lying in an unused Nissan Altima 40 feet away from where he was last seen. Searchers passed the car in which he was found dozens of times. Some people said that they were sure they’d looked in that car, a car I’ve seen parked behind the house next door to Michael’s almost every day.

People were angry, and still are. How did this happen? Was this an accident? How did that car not get searched more thoroughly? Why were there not more “missing child” posters in the neighborhood? Where were DC police? I watched from my kitchen table as homicide detectives and CSI units – the same people I’ve watched on network television shows for the past 15 years – sweep the alley, and I’ve never felt more useless.

I can’t stop thinking about Michael. I can’t stop thinking about the crime scene tape and the news reporters standing behind my back gate and how scared he must have been in that car and how I hope, I desperately hope that he wasn’t in pain when he died, alone, in the trunk of a car barely 10 yards away from his family. I can’t stop thinking about how he was probably dead while I was discussing whether or not I’d rather have a painful win or an exciting loss (painful win, obviously). I can’t stop thinking about how a little boy, born my sophomore year of college, is gone.

***
But eventually, I’ll forget about this. The neighborhood will forget this. The anger will dissipate into community meetings and Twitter arguments. It’ll be a road sign in our rearview mirror – “Remember when Michael disappeared?” – like how we remember 9/11 or the Oklahoma City Bombings or other tragedies that mark a time and place in our memories. Things will change, or nothing will change, because how can you stop a little boy from somehow climbing into a car on a 95-degree day and accidentally locking himself in? People will move into the neighborhood who won’t know about Michael. Life will go on.

In a way, I feel almost as if writing about this is like trying to graft myself onto Michael’s story when I am only tangentially connected to him, and I don’t know if that’s wrong. I saw a documentary once about a woman who claimed to lose her husband in 9/11 (but didn’t), and one of the interviewees said that 9/11 became a moment people wanted to be a part of so that they could feel like parts of a whole, even if that whole was horrific and tragic and terrible. Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now.

They towed the car Michael died in last night. The car had been there for so long that not seeing it in that yard was weirdly jarring. The crime scene tape is still up. Network news outlets were parked at the end of the alley this morning, videographers running across the street to set up their shots. I watched them, and then I walked to work. 

***

My sister visited me this weekend while the hunt for Michael raged. She’s family, obviously. But so is Trinidad, and so is Michigan. I’m bound to these communities by zip code and student loan payments and rent checks and addresses and sweatshirts. I’m bound to these communities by loyalty, and by love. The sense of shared pain my neighborhood is feeling and the hour-long conversations I’ve had with my fellow Michigan fans saying only “WHAT” and “HOW” are bonds that tie me to other people, and to myself. I love Michigan because it was my first real home. I love Trinidad because it’s my first real neighborhood. I love Michigan because it shaped me, and I love Trinidad because it’s challenged me. 

Football doesn’t matter, but community does. And communities are at their best in times of trial. The crime scene tape will come down soon, and we’ll forget about the police cars and the search parties. Children are already going back to running up and down the sidewalk while parents stand on porches and talk. Communities mourn together, and then they move on, whether from the Horror or from a true tragedy.

So we’ll be okay. Not today. Or tomorrow. But we’ll be okay.

I don’t know.

I don’t know why bad things happen.

On April 8, 2007, my sister called me and told me I should probably sit down. I sat on the floor of my dorm room at Michigan. South Quad. I can see West Quad from my window. My roommate was a native of Hong Kong. I’d gotten her shitfaced on vodka our first week living together; since then, she’d sworn off alcohol and began attending Korean evangelical church services. I played rugby and threw up in our trash can from too much jungle juice more than once. Her rice steamer sat on the second shelf of her desk. I stared at that shelf. She had a few photos of family. Her parents were nice. I met them once.

“Mom’s in the hospital.”

You think a lot of things about your parents. You think about calling them or not calling them, or coming home for holidays or asking them for money or telling them something that you saw that only they would understand because your parents read you the same books over and over and over again and when you see a plant on campus that reminds you of a tree that’s in a Redwall book, you call your mom and tell her. You think about things they did, or things they didn’t do, or how fucked up or not fucked up they made or didn’t make you. You think about them alive. You don’t think about them dead. The concept of your parents dying is a Rubicon you do not want to cross.

“They don’t know what’s wrong.”

My sister is staying unusually calm, because she wants me to be calm and believes that her being calm will transmit across the cell phone lines to my shitty Blackberry and make me not panic. I drop the phone. I panic.

I get from the floor of my room to my friend’s apartment. I call my dad. He puts my mom on the phone. She sounds confused and angry because she hates being confused. She’s going into surgery. Surgery for what is unclear. It’s something with her colon. Or something with her appendix. My dad is telling me all of this while I have the phone propped up next to my head, lying prostrate on the floor. My friend and her boyfriend are sitting next to each other on her bed, watching me. My mom is rolled into surgery. The last time she had surgery, she was giving birth to me.

Everything feels tenuous. If I move, my mom will die. If I breathe, my mom will die. I can keep my mom alive by not doing or moving or thinking or being anything. Nothing else matters. Nothing else could matter. The existence of things beyond me and my mom and my family offends me, if I could think about those things. Everything is frozen because it has to be, because there can’t be anything after my mom. There just can’t be.

My dad calls me later. She made it through surgery. It’s touch-and-go. At least, I think that’s what he said. I don’t know. I don’t think I care.

My mom is put into a medically induced coma in order for her to recover from surgery without going into shock from alcohol withdrawal. My dad prefaces telling me this by saying, “well, you know your mom likes to drink.” My mom has been a prodigious alcoholic for at least sixteen years. This phone conversation is the first mention my father has ever made to this fact. I’m standing near the Alumni Center, looking at Rackham. There is a statue in the garden next to Rackham. It’s a man with his head buried in his hands. It seems appropriate.

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shoots and kills 32 people and injures 17 more on the campus of Virginia Tech. Michigan is locked down. CNN shows shaky cell phone videos and my first thought is, “Huh. My phone can’t do video.”  I am watching the news from my dorm room. I am standing facing the television and my desk, with binders and books piled in some pattern that made sense at the time. I don’t remember a fucking thing from the previous eight days. I’m scared, because school shootings are scary, but I’m numb because a school shooting isn’t my mom waking up or dying, and those are the only two events that could possibly matter to me. I go to work every day. I go to class. I write papers. I stare at my phone and wait for someone to tell me that my mom is dead.

My dad saves the newspaper from every day my mom is in a coma so she can read them when she wakes up. I don’t know if he saved the ones about Virginia Tech.

Today is April 15, 2013. Two bombs hit the Boston Marathon. Or three. Or some number. There’s a suspect in custody. Or not. Twitter is awash in rumors and speculation and mourning, but mostly in “why the fuck did this happen?”

I don’t know.

The day my mom was hospitalized was the last time I attended church voluntarily. I went to church that day for Easter Mass. I stood in the balcony. It was crowded, because it was Easter, but the service was pleasant. I remember walking back to my dorm thinking that I’d gotten a lot done that day.  Eight hours later my mom was in a hospital, fighting for her life.

Our lives are created out of bad things not happening. We have stop signs to make bad things not happen. Entire religions are built out of making bad things not happen. You eat well and exercise to make bad things not happen. But drunk drivers blow through intersections, churches get fire-bombed, and the guy who wrote the Complete Book of Running died of a heart attack at 52.

No matter what we do, or say, or believe deep down, things will happen. Terrible things. And there’s not a fucking thing we can do about it. There is no reason. The idea of a reason for things happening implies that life is a series of checks and balances. You worship the right god; your kid makes it to adulthood. You go to the right college; you get a solid job and health insurance. That’s not how it works.

Life is intangible. Life is uncertain. There is no answer, no overall plan. Everything is tenuous, all the time. We build lives on the promise of certainty and look for things that can cement that certainty because otherwise we’d never do anything, but that certainty is barely more than myth.

What’s not intangible or uncertain is that we’re not alone. There are billions of people on this planet who exist in this same completely batshit mortal coil. I don’t know anything. I have absolutely no idea if there is or is not a god or whether or not my belief in one or multiple spiritual entities would make my life better or worse. But I know that being good to people, and people being good to one another, even when it’s hard or doesn’t make sense, makes it easier to exist in uncertainty. Searching for answers to questions for which there are no answers– why terrorism? Why do children die? Why did this happen? – makes no sense. Searching for opportunities to make someone else’s day easier does.

This morning on the Metro, I met a baby and his mother. We were standing next to one another as our train headed to Farragut North. The baby looked at me with curious eyes, because he is a baby and life must be completely overwhelming to babies. I made faces at the baby. The baby smiled at me, and so did his mother.

If making other people happy is what we’re here to do, that’s enough. If existence has no other purpose than to be a container for moments to not be terrible, that’s enough. Chances are, being a kind and decent human being isn’t going to determine my afterlife. But it’ll determine my life. And that’s enough.

Hope

In 2005, when I was a freshman at Michigan, our basketball team went 22-11. Our best player was Daniel Horton. We finished as NIT runner up. I thought that was our ceiling. I thought that was the best we could hope for, because to hope for more was to be punched in the face with the phantom TO and Tractor Traylor and Ed Martin and why our Final Four banners are in Bentley, not in Crisler. I thought that was the best we could hope for, because hope is a good thing (as Andy Dufresne told us), but hope also makes you think things and then the things don’t happen and you feel like you’ve collapsed inside, so it’s easier to stand there with your arms crossed, waiting for Shawn Crable to be charged with a helmet-to-helmet or the Horror or five interceptions or losing to Harvard or losing to Duke.

It’s the Michigan way, I guess, to wait for the terrible. To feel as if you are on some conveyor belt towards the worst possible sports moment of your life, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We know that 42 Big Ten titles feel like sand in your hands when someone shows Colorado, ’95. We know that every single game is another moment for Purdue to run a hook-and-ladder because you’re playing the worst Michigan football team ever so why wouldn’t you run a hook-and-ladder. We remember the Horror, referred to as such because it was. In sports, and in life, I guess it’s easier to hold on for bad things to happen, because you know they will. You get a new job, but you’re waiting to get fired. You meet someone new, but you’re waiting for them to dump you. You love your family, but you’re waiting for the phone call to tell you that someone you love more than anything in the world is in a coma and might never wake up.

Trey Burke was 13 in 2005. In fact, he turned 13 in November of 2005; around the time I was realizing that maybe business school wasn’t such a good idea.  He doesn’t see hope as a terrifying precipice on top of impending athletic doom. He doesn’t see Michigan athletics as moments of pleasure forced to live up to lifetimes, generations of grinding, crushing expectations. He sees hope as opportunity. Hope as a ladder, moving ever upwards towards something we can’t even see just yet. Hope is how you get from practice to practice, from losing to Michigan State at Breslin to two steals to beat them at Crisler. Hope is how you lose to Penn State and beat Kansas. Hope is how Jordan Morgan gets in the way of Brandon Triche and gets a charge because obviously, Jordan Morgan gets a charge.

I have never and will probably never meet Trey Burke. Our understandings of what it means to go to Michigan are probably very different, given that he is a basketball player and I was a history and political science double major who worked a lot of jobs and spent way too much time at Espresso Royale. I will probably never get to say hello to Trey, or Mitch, or Nik, or Tim, or Spike, or Jon, or GR3, or Caris, or Jordan, or the seniors. Our paths crossed only tangentially. They attended the university I attended. That’s it. And that’s fine.

But if I could tell them anything, I would tell them thank you. Thank you for making your own expectations, not forcing yourself to live up to those of others. Thank you for embracing hope, not fearing it. Thank you for your work, your dedication, your belief when no one – and I include myself – believed in you because believing is like hoping and hope is hard.

Tonight is the National Championship game. I have no idea what is going to happen. We could get massacred. Dave Brandon could be playing back-up point guard. The Georgia Dome could explode. I don’t know. I never know. Anything I could say or think about what will happen tonight is beyond useless. Sports are predictably unpredictable.

But I hope we win. Despite how badly it could hurt to come up short, or how much I want to gird myself against the psychic pain of losing at a game that does not affect me in any real way. I hope we win. I hope we win.

 

I hope.

 

Go Blue.

Dear Freshmen at the University of Michigan

Dear Michigan freshmen,

As you enter college, you will learn some very important life lessons, lessons that will stay with you forever. Or not. Because it’s college, and the most important thing you learn might be that college itself is not very important. I learned more from the time a bat got trapped in our attic than I did from History 161. But you don’t know that yet. As far as you know, your entire life has built up to this moment (which will contribute to that “quarter-life crisis” you’ll be having in seven years, which none of us want to hear about.) For now, you’ve moved into whatever Soviet armament plant of a dorm you’ve been assigned to, met your roommate and probably decided that he/she is either your new best friend or your worst enemy, and gone to at least one party at which someone asked you what you got on your SATs, because it’s Michigan and we are terrible people.

A few pieces of advice:

  • If you’re at a party, and you think that maybe drinking 1/3rd of a bottle of Bacardi Gold is a good idea, followed by a trip to Bell’s Pizza and a ride home on the Bursley/Baits bus, STOP IMMEDIATELY.
  • You think you know exactly what you want to do with your life. You tell people you’re going into the business school or medical school or law school or wallaby entertainment school. But you are wrong, and that’s fine. But don’t start taking eight economics classes your freshman year so that you can go work for some hedge fund in four years despite your complete inability to do basic arithmetic.
  • Never, ever, ever say “I don’t think I can be hung over.” The Alcohol Gods are always watching.
  • Don’t take a class in 140 Lorch unless it’s Advanced Napping. It’s like a lecture hall and a tomb all in one.
  • Cereal is not dinner. It is delicious, but it is not dinner. You might notice that eating cereal for every meal contributes to your inability to stay awake for longer than two hours.
  • Someone will tell you to get on as many email lists as possible so that you can go to mass meetings and join organizations and blah blah blah. Don’t do that, because it will be three years after graduation and you’ll STILL be on these fucking email lists.
  • At one time, do things with people you would normally not do things with. I joined a conservative newspaper, which got me a fellowship and two jobs and also a minor anxiety problem. But whatever, jobs brah.
  • You’re probably a moron. You’re not as much as a moron as people who go to San Juan Electric Banjo State, but you’re still a moron. You read the Economist and the New York Times and the Weekly Standard? I’m sorry, I was busy not giving a fuck about you reading the Economist and the New York Times and the Weekly Standard. Somehow, college has become where you go and engage in a four-year-long debate with random people for reasons no one can explain. Maybe you’re right about some shit, but probably not. So recognize that you don’t know anything, ask a lot of questions, and then shut up.
  • People will move in and out of your life at a rate you won’t expect. Friends you had freshman year might be people you barely recognize at graduation. And that’s fine. You are not constitutionally obligated to be friends with anyone. But don’t be an asshole.
  • Your GSIs know some stuff, but they are also people in their mid-twenties, and thus are probably also morons. Respect them, but do not deify them. Or develop really, really weird crushes on them and visit them during their office hours a lot, because they’re probably married or something.
  • You’re not busy. You think you’re busy, but you still somehow have time to get drunk on a Tuesday night. Your earliest class is at, what, ten? And you’ve got Michigan Time? Shut the fuck up.
  • Because it’s Michigan, you will encounter people who are blindingly wealthy and don’t know it. Or maybe you’re blindingly wealthy. Here’s the deal: if you’re rich, just… be rich. It’s fine. But don’t assume other people come from the same socioeconomic background as you, because that’s how incredibly awkward conversations about money happen, and no one wants that.
  • Learn a map of the state of Michigan, so that when someone tells you they’re from Bloomfield Hills and says that that’s a “suburb of Detroit,” you can laugh in their face.
  • Everyone you meet has a bias. That’s how people work: we come from places and develop thoughts and feelings based on those places. Your liberal political science professor who rambles on about Occupy and that dude who wears boat shoes and talks about Ron Paul are two sides of the same fucking coin. One’s not dramatically superior to the other, because they’re both irritating.
  • At some point, Michigan will feel really fucking huge. Then you’ll see that one kid who always wears shorts and sandals, and you’ll think, “How do I always see that one dude? How many people are on this campus, twelve? Jesus.”
  • Go outside sometimes. It can be nice. Unless it’s past November, in which for fuck’s sake, stay indoors so you don’t lose any appendages.
  • A hipster is someone who likes something for the purpose of appearing to like it. They don’t actually like Rusko or Grizzly Bear or post-punk noisecore, but they want to seem like the kind of person who would. Don’t do that.
  • Care about your grades, but at some point, fail something spectacularly. But never do it again.
  • You’ve got four years, but you’ve only really got right now. You could get kicked out, or drop out, or become independently wealthy and decide to move to San Francisco and start a sex club. Whatever. Just do you, and do it now.

Good luck, freshmen. And when walking down the sidewalk, DO NOT WALK FIVE ACROSS.

 

Jane