Unorthodox Angles/Andrew Gramling

AndrewGramlingColumn

A Decent Start to a New Year

It’s hard for me to say what kind of year 2023 was. For me personally, it was a time when new opportunities for business and service began to present themselves, maybe because I’ve been doing the work necessary to attract those situations into my life and not holding onto a former version of myself that couldn’t do it.

Collectively, I’m not too sure how things have developed. It seems like we were no closer to achieving unity than we were in previous years. Many different groups with different identities and agendas continue to remain polarized, leaving a large space in the middle that a relative few people dare to cross that I can see. Statistically, a lot of information is available regarding larger trends, assuming that such information is accurate. I suppose then that I’m looking for something else. Perhaps something a little less tangible than concrete facts but just as real and important.

Beyond all the numbers and purely logical data, I wonder where people are internally. Happiness comes and goes. It’s an emotional state that changes every hour based on causes like: getting enough sleep, getting proper nutrition, drinking enough water, watching our favorite T.V. show, etc. A lot of things have the potential to make us happy, even things that aren’t necessarily helpful for our development. So I guess my question is not whether people are happy or not, because as I just explained, happiness is never a permanent state, and if it were, I would have to wonder which method someone was using to escape from reality.

Instead, a better question might be if people are living with meaning and purpose. I have to admit, ever since COVID came and passed, though I guess it’s still passing and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future, nothing has quite seemed the same. It feels like something is missing from the air. Many things have left that I’ve noticed throughout my relatively short lifespan so far, but noticeably things have taken a different direction over the last few years. It seems like a lot more has gone recently than over some much longer periods of time previously, including people we care about.

Christmas last year didn’t quite feel like Christmas to me. I enjoyed spending time with my family as always. The biggest problem for me is usually not having enough time to talk to everyone. I was going through all the motions that I usually do, but I didn’t do it from a very inspired place.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish whether I’m feeling a certain way because of personal experiences, or because I’m picking up on something larger out there, or if it’s a matter of both. I suspect that it is indeed both in this case. Life changed very quickly in these last few years for a lot of people compared to the times of relative stability we’ve enjoyed going back decades with the occasional upset or crisis. This one got deep into everyone’s life. There wasn’t anyone who wasn’t affected by this in some way. That previous life is gone. Once things have changed there’s usually no going back. It can then sometimes take a while to get used to the new life that is being created right underneath our feet.

Things also won’t eternally remain in a more ambiguous state. For every death there is also a rebirth. That is what keeps the cycles of existence going, otherwise it all would’ve ended a very long time ago. I started to feel that rebirth in my own life at the very end of 2023.

My father and I both had tickets to go to the African Association’s New Year’s Eve party at The Holiday Inn. I had gone once before years ago, so this was my second time. The difference this time was that I actually knew people this time after volunteering my services for Africa Fest 2023 that summer. The planning committee and also the DJ who did such a good job of mixing it up at Africa Fest were there. There was an entire buffet of delicious food, there were raffles, and there was an MC who was going around from table to table giving people a hard time in a joking way. With so much going on, it was hard to think of what was missing.

As if that all wasn’t enough, the real party started when they opened up the dance floor. At first only a few started dancing, then more, and finally, at least half the place was dancing. I wasn’t going to sit and watch for the rest of the year (about two hours), so I got out as well. Something interesting happened out on the dance floor. With the music, I was so focused on the moment that it was like nothing else existed. I began to feel like I was not only one with the music, but also everyone on the dance floor.

Most people who drink and dance probably know this feeling, but I was completely sober! This would have to be the first time I ever achieved this kind of state without drinking. I suppose everything that drugs bring can be achieved without them, but they require a lot more work and aren’t just given.

One of the guests grabbed the cloth napkins off all the tables and handed one to everyone. We then formed a circle and kept dancing as we walked around in the circle. At midnight, we all rose our glasses in the air and had a cheers. I don’t think anyone was looking close enough to see that I was drinking water and not champagne.

There wouldn’t be much rest for me on this night. I promised my Uncle Steve I would jump into Lake Michigan the next morning with him and his old rugby team.

After getting about four hours of sleep, I woke up, got dressed, and headed out to Milwaukee, making sure to bring an old pair of shoes, swimming shorts, and a towel. Part of me wondered why I agreed to do this, but then I remembered that it would pass soon and become another memory. In order to prepare for the plunge, I kept my windows down on Interstate 94 so that the water would actually feel good in comparison.

At about 9:00, I arrived at Hooligan’s on North Avenue where we were all supposed to meet. There were a few people around, but my uncle wasn’t anywhere. As I walked from my car to the bar, I noticed a restaurant called Ma Fischer’s that I had heard about years ago just in front of where I parked. That got me thinking about breakfast.

“Do you guys serve breakfast?” I asked the bartender.

“No,” he said.

“OK. I’m supposed to meet some people here,” I said.

“No problem.”

As I sat down at the bar, I noticed a couple of people had robes on. I wondered if they were jumping into Lake Michigan as well. Then I heard them start talking about the water temperature and then I really knew. Who would care about that if they’re not going in it?

After several more minutes passed, I had a sudden feeling, and then I saw my uncle come through the front door. I guess I know my family well. The mistake I made was looking at the wrong door, but he indeed came in right as I suspected he had.

My uncle had played rugby for decades with the Milwaukee Rugby Football Club. He introduced me to a few of his teammates and I had met at least one of them years ago. They didn’t seem surprised at all when he introduced me as his nephew, despite differences in our appearance. I guess they were just like, “This is Steve’s nephew,” and considered me part of the group.

According to Uncle Steve, we were to jump in at exactly 10:00, so we left the bar at about 9:40 and it was a short drive down to the lakefront. After crossing Lincoln Memorial Drive on foot, we made it to the sand. One small group had a fire going, and there were at least a few dozen others. I was told the Polar Bears would go in at noon after us.

I was surprised to see a young lady probably in her early 20’s getting ready to go in. I can’t really say much, though, because I first went when I was 11 years old. My father said my mother wasn’t too happy about it, but I don’t remember that part. I just remember wearing my grandfather’s cowboy hat and playing pinball games at the bar afterward.

I wasn’t sure what the exact time was, but my uncle and one of his guys stripped down to their shorts and went in. I was mentally like, “Wait for me!” and went in after them. I didn’t hesitate and dove right in. I was expecting it to be so cold that I would run back to my towel, but instead, I walked back thinking, “This isn’t so bad.” The air actually felt warm compared to the water for at least five minutes.

The guys who brought robes found it a little easier to change while avoiding ending up in someone else’s photos, but I think I managed. Uncle Steve told me if I went two years in a row I would get a robe, so I agreed to it. I’ll just have to see how cold the temperature is next year. I got lucky with a mild cold season this time.

My Uncle Steve just went through chemotherapy and is already jumping into Lake Michigan on January First. He’s always been a person of true grit and has pushed me athletically more than any of my other relatives. I still owe him a half marathon.

On the way back to my car after leaving Hooligan’s and saying goodbye to my uncle, I stopped at Ma Fischer’s to have that breakfast I couldn’t stop thinking about. They were completely full. It looked just like any diner you’d expect to see in a movie. After a few minutes they offered me a seat at the front counter because some man was just leaving. The waitress was a slightly tattooed young woman also in her early 20’s. She had a pleasant genuine smile. I don’t know if she put a rush on my order or what, but my meal came out in five minutes, despite the place being crammed! Eggs, potatoes, and pancakes, not just a bologna sandwich! That’s the fastest I’ve ever been served anywhere! I left them a “Best service ever” tip on the payment screen, because truly, in a way it was.

The trip back to Madison was not easy despite becoming fully awakened by the lake and having a cup of coffee at Ma Fischer’s. The lack of sleep and long monotonous drive that I’ve made hundreds of times was catching up to me.

Meanwhile, a man named Marlon was at the Arboretum in Madison, enjoying some quiet time but thinking about how he didn’t have any friends. He had spent the past couple of decades improving his position as a businessman that he had perhaps neglected his social life. A couple of days later, he received a text message out of nowhere from…me.

Marlon and I worked together for a few months back in 2001 at North Farm Food Co-op in the warehouse department. We had many “interesting” times there. Back in about 2012, while I was working for Pasqual’s for the fourth time, he made a delivery there and we saw each other again. He gave me his phone number, but I lost it. At the end of 2023, I was doing some cleaning and found his number on the small piece of paper he wrote it on as though it hadn’t been touched even 12 years later. He was very surprised to hear from me, and we both decided to meet up at The Pancake House several days later.

That morning, it had just snowed the biggest snow of that season so far. I didn’t receive any message from him about canceling, so I assumed we were still meeting. On University Avenue, on a hill just before the Pancake House, there was a little red hatchback sitting in the right lane with its emergency lights on. I parked at the Kwik Trip up the hill and ran back to help. By this time there was a young man dressed for winter jogging who was talking to the driver.

“Whenever I try to push I just slide,” he said.

I stepped onto the road behind the car. There was slush on the ground, but it was an icy kind of slush. It was impossible to push the car without sliding back, especially on this hill. Then some of my martial arts training came back to me. During stance practice, my master would tell us to sink our weight to remain rooted so it would be hard to get knocked off balance. The driver pushed the petal and the car began to move forward up the hill. The jogger, thinking that the driver had it, stopped a couple of times, but I kept pushing because I didn’t want to lose any momentum and end up worse than we started.

“Is this all you?” he asked the second time he came back.

“I don’t know. That’s why I don’t wanna stop,” I said.

We both then continued on until the car made it up the hill in what first seemed like an impossible situation.

I showed up at The Pancake House and explained to Marlon why I was late.

“Man, you run out of breath faster than you would think pushing cars,” I said.

“You gotta remember…we’re getting old too,” Marlon said.

Marlon didn’t look a whole lot different. Back when we used to work together he was a big weightlifter and had arms the size of my torso at the time. He stopped lifting because his business took up most of his time, so he wasn’t fully pumped-up anymore. He was also a bit gray, but being about 10-15 years older than me, it wasn’t much.

Marlon and I had a long conversation while eating breakfast, having the fast-forward catch-up about what has happened over the last couple of decades. It was good to reconnect with an old friend.

Every year, a new disease and a new war seem to be part of the program. It can make things seem bleak at times, like everything is headed towards despair with no way out, but I’m starting to see things take a different turn. The people who survive the harsh lessons of the past and recover from them will come out as an advanced version of their former selves. The process of rebuilding takes time, but with the right team, anything is possible.