2021: In Review

2021 was a year. It existed. In some ways it symbolized an extension of 2020 when it came to the omnipresent influence of COVID, and in others was merely 2016 all over again when it came to politics. Regardless of these factors, life went on. Stupid as it can be participating in American society, working and risking your life so the capitalists can continue laughing to the bank, there are always highlights and low points over the course of a year.

In this article I will discuss what my experience was like. It isn’t very flashy and doesn’t require very much thought or care, but it did happen. My name is Eric Reining, and this is my year in review:

January to March

I kind of liked how I broke this up in seasons last year. It helps out with my memory of things. At this time in 2020 I was celebrating Christmas and the New Year with my girlfriend. I was staying at her apartment and just hanging out while she — working as a dealer at a casino that was severely understaffed — was doing overtime almost every night.

I ushered in the New Year, 2021, by drinking and smoking outside her apartment waiting for her to get off from work. She went in at 2:00 in the afternoon that day, but because they had a shortage of dealers, and because all people want to do is fucking gamble and be out at casinos on holidays, she didn’t leave work until like 2:00 in the morning. I waited, and waited, and waited around some more, and due to the fact that she didn’t have her car I went and picked her up.

We scoured the surrounding area for a fast food restaurant that was open, and found a 24-hour Mexican food place and ordered a bunch of shit. She was just happy to be off of work, excited to go home with me and rest for another work day that was to come. We ordered food, went back to her place and ate, and it was around then that she just fucking snapped at me for seemingly no reason. Maybe I didn’t clean up the living room, maybe I said a sarcastic remark. I don’t know.

What I do know is that is what I remember about the New Year. I worked, she worked, a lot, and by the end of the night the two of us were fighting. Before we fell asleep that night she apologized, and broke down in my arms as we laid in bed. It was probably around 4:00 in the morning. I felt bad for making her feel bad, even though I don’t think whatever I did warranted that much of a reaction. I was just being me. That can be a good thing. Some of the time, though, it’s just unnecessary.

The New Year also presented me with some playoff football. The Chiefs beat the Browns and Bills in the AFC playoffs, and went to the Super Bowl for the second straight year. There, in February, they got fucking annihilated against Tom Brady and the Bucs. I was upset for, like, two hours. I was disappointed that they lost, but I was also disappointed that there would no longer be any football for me to watch.

I turned 31 on March 20th, and I worked that day. I had to look back at my spreadsheet where I log all my tips just to make sure. I made $628, which is random and kind of cool. If you are going to work on your birthday then you might as well make a bit of money.

I started running around that time of the year, too. My girlfriend bought me a pair of Adidas Ultraboost for Christmas, and I thought, fuck it, why have them sit around looking pretty when I could actually get some utility out of them? So I made a route around where she lives. I started out by going for walks, then decided to see if my smoke-filled lungs still had some juice left.

So every night I would go run around the neighborhood. It usually took about an hour walking, but including some jogging I would usually do it in about 40 minutes. I remember the first couple times I was only able to jog for about 30 seconds before my heart started beating out of my chest. Eventually I was doing it for a couple minutes at a time. And by summertime I could jog for roughly 5 minutes — including some incline — before giving up.

I’ve never been a stellar athlete, per se. I’m good at almost everything (throwing a football, shooting a basketball, math), but not great at any one thing. Growing up, running was probably my least favorite physical activity — partly because I was never very fast and partly because it required real work. You really have to want it.

I think that is what most made me interested in getting started with it in the first place. There are many other forms of cardio exercise that accomplish the same thing. The actual force involved, the mechanics of moving your legs, and your arms, and core, takes effort. I won’t lie that I was on the verge of giving up almost as quickly as I got started. But there are times in a man’s life when he wants to prove it to himself, that he can actually still do it.

April to June

The COVID vaccine came out, but I waited around on the sidelines for a while. I have always taken the virus seriously — washing my hands, wearing my mask, etc. — but I figured the people who needed the vaccine most were older and in worse physical shape than I’m in. All of you can do that, I figured, and I’ll just be here hanging out. (I did end up getting fully vaccinated in the summertime.)

It was a good season for me at work. That is pretty much all I can remember doing at that time of the year. Thanks to calling off for a couple football games, being late to work because of traffic, and calling off on Chinese New Year (which I had no idea was a double-points day), I had somehow accrued 8 points at work. When you reach 10 you are up for termination.

So I had to be a really, really good boy between February and November — which is when my first points fell off. I started leaving earlier for work, given my hour-long drive to and from, and it put me in a better head space. No longer was I dealing with the anxiety of rushing. I could simply cruise and get there with a half-hour to spare, or whatever. So that’s nice.

My girlfriend and I reached a decent little routine. I would usually stay with her for two or three days every week, and the two of us started gambling together consistently. I wouldn’t call us “hardcore” in the same way my best friend and I used to be, but there’s a good chance that at least once out of every week the two of us would go get a couple drinks, play some blackjack or craps, and get some food compensated to us.

There was this one night — I don’t know how or why it happened — where the two of us combined to lose like $4,500. We just kind of got going, had a little too much to drink, and before we knew it we were each betting $500 per hand on a single deck blackjack table. She was perhaps a little too faded, so I was the gatekeeper of the money, but then she ended up getting an 11 against a dealer “6,” and the money I said we weren’t going to dip into got bet. The hand lost, obviously.

There was a point where we climbed out of the $4,000-plus hole we were in, but because the money was coming so fast and we were having so much fun we didn’t get an opportunity to realize we were something like $800 ahead. Alcohol and gambling go hand-in-hand so much that it’s really hard to describe if you haven’t been there. But it was dumb. We were dumb that night.

The following day I had a massive hangover and went to work. One of the dealers who works at the casino my girlfriend and I were gambling at stopped by to play at my table, because in this industry if a dealer takes care of you, you go back to return the favor. He was a good buddy of mine from when I worked with him about eight years ago, and I just had to ask: “You don’t have to tell me, but I’m curious… how did you end up doing last night?”

“$1,900,” he told me. Out of the drunk mess my girlfriend and I participated in my dealing buddy ended up making almost $2,000 from us. When you are betting $25 or $50 per hand for the dealer it adds up pretty quick. So that, at least, made me feel good.

These aren’t all happy stories, but they did happen. I know my girlfriend and I felt really shitty the following morning, knowing how stupid it all was. She blamed me — naturally — for not being more responsible. And I’m sure I blamed her to some degree because she was there in the trenches with me. I don’t think either of us were terribly upset about the $4,500 (even though that aspect of the night certainly sucked), it was more the idea that we lacked the self control when every day we see people like that. We were supposed to be smarter.

July to September

I’ll spare you the details — mainly because I want to spare myself the details, and having to rehash everything — but my girlfriend and I broke up at the end of July. After two and a half years together, our time came. To some that’s not a very long time; to me, it’s the longest relationship I’ve ever been in… by more than double. It’s a reminder that I am not an easy person to be with, and even harder to stay with.

But it was nice. It probably sounds stupid now, after the fact, but I always said that I never wanted to be in a relationship again until I felt the same way about another person as I did my first love — which arrived and departed more than a decade ago. My most recent relationship taught me that I have it in me. Love is still there. It’s accessible.

I think it’s just in my nature to be alone. As much of a team player as I am in public settings, like with work, or in private settings, like with family, my bare-bones form is as a loner. Even though I look forward to the days when I own a home that’s within spitting distance of my place of employment, I really appreciate my hour-long drives to and from work. And as much as I enjoy being alive and experiencing things, at the end of the day I would rather be in front of a computer writing words that mean very little to anyone other than he who is on the opposite side of the screen.

I am sure that a day will come where I yearn for a serious connection with the opposite sex, where I do the wife and kids thing and learn to start living life through their eyes. At present time, however, I maintain some tiny morsel of my child-like selfishness. It isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as it may have appeared 10 or 15 years ago, but the fact that it’s still there clearly signifies — to me, anyway — that I’m not yet ready. I am not ready to shut it down and be somebody other than the guy I have always been.

To be fair, I do already envy that future version of myself. To go out and do things, creating memories for my kids that will last a lifetime. I think that’s the dream, honestly. It didn’t work out with my ex-girlfriend, and for all I know it won’t work with anyone. But I did love her very much. I did care about her, and I tried my best. That’s all I really have to say about it.

Summertime is always such a blur. I live in the nice weather part of Southern California — where it’s in the 90’s for most of the summer — and I work in the desert — where it’s between 110 and 120 degrees every day between July and October. So for about four months out of every year all anyone does is bitch about the weather being hot as fucking shit, and I just look forward to the holiday months so I don’t have to hear about it anymore.

Before my girlfriend and I broke up I quit going on my runs, because it’s really hard to go running in 115 degree temperatures. Since I go through various bouts with anxiety I just put the idea in my head that I’m going to have a heat stroke and that’s the end of it. But after her and I split up, the first thing I did was buy a treadmill. It arrived towards the beginning of August — after I tried and failed the Keto Diet — and I have been consistent with it since then. Whereas I used to be able to go about five minutes running on the streets, I can now do 20 minutes (or more).

It’s a real gut-check breaking up with someone (or getting broken up with). I truly miss having someone there, for me, and doing all the cute shit that comes with it. Going out. Eating dinner together. Going gambling together. Watching movies and falling asleep together. Just having someone to share your life with. I miss it.

I am also somebody who tries to draw motivation from every situation. I’ll never forget the feeling of being with her, and how good it was. But over the course of my life I have come to realize that it’s always these times — the low points — that get the best out of me. Adversity is never something you seek when you wake up in the morning, but down the road you tend to look back and see clearly how necessary it was to get you where you are.

October to December

My grandmother died in October. I wrote something then, but I didn’t post it probably because it wasn’t happy and I didn’t feel all that good about it. But I try to be transparent, and this is what I wrote:

I feel guilty. Not the crippling kind of guilt when you make a promise to someone and can’t get it back after you ultimately let them down. Rather it’s the small and brief pangs you experience in the moment, the ones that keep coming back to revisit you. This guilt doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis. It just arrives in the quiet times, when I have nothing but myself and my thoughts to consider.

I thought about dedicating an article to my grandmother who passed away last month, but I didn’t. It’s just… what can I say that doesn’t make me look like a terrible guy? She lived to be 88 years old — a nice and long life by any standard — and she happened to be the woman who first introduced me to cards when she babysat me as a little boy. These were the days when my dad was between jobs and my family was hurting for money. (I didn’t know it as a 4- or 5 year-old, but still.) Every day my mom would drop me off at my grandparents’ house, and invariably my grandma would play games like Tiddlywinks and Chutes and Ladders with my older brother and I.

This was in, like, 1995. That seems like forever ago at this point. Eventually, when I got old enough to understand, my grandma introduced me to a card game called Skip-Bo. I don’t remember a goddamn thing about it now, how to play it anyway, but what I do remember is that my grandma never took it easy on me. There wasn’t a time when she would do that thing that older people do when playing with young kids — knowing they can win at any time they wanted — and simply surrender the victory to make it seem like I had actually defeated her. Like me, my grandma was always out for blood.

And she usually beat me, probably like 9 out of 10 matches. It became a running joke all the way until I was an adult, that almost every time I lost a game of Skip-Bo to my grandma I would end up throwing the cards all over the place and have a tantrum. I didn’t think much of it as a five year-old (because I was a fucking child), but some of my most vivid and intense competitive memories originated from playing that silly card game. I always wanted to win, and she rarely allowed me the satisfaction.

My mom has three sisters, but none of them are as close to their dad — my grandpa — as she is. That led our family to go and visit my grandparents every month or so from the time I was 9 or 10 all the way until I graduated high school. We were a close unit, all things considered. Both of my grandparents had their fingerprints all over my childhood, and always kept an open mind to what my generation was thinking and doing.

As a 23 year-old I started working in the casino industry, way the fuck out in Coachella — a solid hour and 30 minutes away from where I lived in San Bernardino. One day I came to the realization that I could cut down on my drive if I stayed the night at my grandparents’ house in Hemet, which is roughly at the midway point. Obviously I asked my grandma and grandpa if that was all right, but what do you expect your grandparents to say? Of course it was all right. Of course I could.

So for about four months — before I got a new dealing job (at the same casino I am currently at in Rancho Mirage) — I would go stay with them two or three nights a week. It was really great. The three of us would usually spend an hour or so outside drinking and smoking while I told them stories about the casino. They would inquire about my brothers and family situation. We would also talk a lot about how I felt about my mom and dad, since this was before my mom inevitably divorced him. It was family. I could be honest with them, and they could be honest with me.

After that we would go inside and play a card game. It was called Shanghai. Again, I don’t remember the exact rules, but I do remember it being a lot of fun. My grandma and grandpa probably won about 90% of the time, and I would occasionally sneak out a win here and there. It felt very normal at the time, but in retrospect — now that my grandmother is gone — it turned into the full circle of her relationship to me, from our first game of Skip-Bo to our last game of Shanghai.

About a year and a half ago she got diagnosed with cancer, and it was a late stage and a bad form. She went to get chemotherapy a handful of times before they decided it was a lost cause, so she ended up spending the last year or so just waiting around to die. She lost most of her faculties, lacked the energy to do much of anything, and before long she lost her appetite and just wanted to be in bed all day.

I don’t know, somewhere along the way I figured I would go out and see her. Just to tell her I loved her one last time. I mean, she was only in Hemet. 45 minutes away. I just assumed one night after work I would stop by and visit. Or that on my weekend I would stop by. Or something. Anything, really.

But I never did. For a while there was the whole COVID thing and I just didn’t really find it wise to get out of my house and do a bunch of extra shit, particularly given that I work in a casino where I’m handling a bunch of dirty chips and money and my grandparents are highly at risk. They got vaccinated, and I got vaccinated, and still I kept coming up with these little excuses in my head.

At a certain point, I began to feel guilty that it had been so long without seeing her. Like, the fact that it had been so long was the reason why I kept being so immobile. Because I couldn’t stomach the idea that she had been feeling so ill, for so long, and I didn’t do anything about it. This is my grandma, for crying out loud. She was there when I was making my first memories. And I found myself stuck in quicksand over the guilt of feeling so guilty.

This is an incredibly shitty way to be. My grandma’s body and brain had failed her over the last year; there is a good chance she wouldn’t have recognized me or known my name if I did see her. But that doesn’t give me a Get Out Of Jail Free Card for not doing the necessary, right, thing. I loved that woman. And I know she always loved me, too, very much. She deserved better out of me.

All I really wanted to do, er, needed to do, was see her one last time. Give her a big hug and a kiss. Tell her that I loved her. Show some kind of appreciation that she had a legitimate impact on my life. I’ll never be able to do that now, and it sucks. It’s just not the way I want to be.

The funeral was nice. Afterwards we went to my grandpa’s house and I drank and hung out with the family. I drove home that night listening to the Houston Astros clinch the American League Championship Series (which I should have just written as the ALCS) against my little brother’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox.

Thanksgiving came and went, as did Christmas. I bought my mom a Travis Kelce jersey, got my little brother some airpods, and got my older brother a bong. If that isn’t love I don’t know what is. Of all the presents I received I have to tip my cap to my little brother, who bought me a Kansas City Chiefs Starter jacket. I feel almost obligated now to go to a jewelry store and drop like two thousand dollars on a big ass gold chain, because I feel like a hip hop artist every time I wear the jacket. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever owned.

In the meantime, since my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, we have maintained regular contact. I don’t know if it’s the smartest idea in the world — it probably isn’t — but I just look back at how it felt to get my own heart broken, and I didn’t have any sort of lifeline to communicate with me when the world was falling apart.

Chuck Klosterman once wrote that every relationship is a power struggle, and the person in control is the one who loves the other one less. I’m not as sure as I once was if that’s a fair way of classifying things, but what I do know is that my ex still needs me. Aside from our breakup she’s been dealing with a lot of shit, shit that neither of us can control, and she doesn’t have the family support or sphere of influence (whether friends or coworkers) to do it on her own.

I never had my first love there for me when I was a young wolf crying out in the wilderness. One day she was there, and the next she broke up with me and seemingly moved on with her life. I was alone. Many nights I spent outside, crestfallen, imploring to my mom that I would never make the same mistake again. But I was 19 and stupid as fuck. I would have made the same mistake again, and in fact I did… eventually. I was nowhere close to being ready for all the smoke adults have to deal with.

Twelve years later, and fate has it that I’m on the other side of the equation. I’m not the one with a broken heart; I am the one responsible for it. It is probably counterproductive for me to be in any sort of communication with my ex-girlfriend, knowing the likelihood that I am thwarting her healing process. You just kick the can down the road. Then you kick it a little more. And sometime later you realize that there is no can. It’s simply you. Down the road.

But it’s out of such experience that I didn’t want another person to feel as alone as I felt in the most forgettable, depressing, empty year of my life. I am and always have been upfront about the nature of being “friends,” and not leading on my ex, but I figure that one day she will no longer need me. And that will be the best day of her life. Or right up there, anyway.

I still remember it like it was yesterday, the seminal moment that divorced me from whatever it was that was ailing me. Like so much of life it didn’t occur with a bang, or any action whatsoever, really. It was one thought that came to me, almost like a dream, and afterwards I decided that everything was going to be okay.

From there, I told myself that I was going to live the rest of my days out of spite. I kept with me no hatred or negative feelings about anybody or thing. I merely wanted, or perhaps had to, constantly create these imaginary enemies that I could continuously prove wrong. It’s all just a game I play within my head. Life, to me, is a competition.

Part of being so lonely, and so self-loathsome, is needing a challenge worthy of getting out of bed everyday. The worst part of being depressed is losing that motivation. It can get really fucking hard waking up and going through the motions when inside all you want is to not feel that way anymore. So you end up playing the self-pity game ad nauseam. You begin to ask yourself what the world would look like without you in it. Everything is crumbling around you, and there is no way out.

But then you begin the process of coming to. One day, suddenly, the grass appears to be greener. The smells you forgot were there become normal once again. Your thoughts shift from everything being about you to wondering how you could be so selfish and oblivious. It’s a great day once this transformation occurs. You just have to trust that it’s coming. Because once it arrives life is never the same again.

I went through that struggle in 2009, as a 19 year-old. It happens a lot earlier for some people, and with others that day never comes. They simply live their lives never having to deal with life-changing sorts of pain. Looking back I feel blessed for having gone through it as a teenager, knowing it’s made me mentally tough for the journey ahead. But I will never again shit on someone else’s problems — even if I think in reality they are pretty small potatoes — because most people are forced to go through it. And I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.

2021 was far from my favorite year. I had the best year of my life, professionally, and I had one of the worst years of my life personally. I don’t like that I caused pain for another person, and if truth be told, if it’s between my ex and I, I would have much preferred being the one with a broken heart. Not because I like the feeling or am some glutton for pain. Only that I feel like at this stage of my life I have better tools in my arsenal to be able to deal with it.

I maintain all the hopes and dreams and goals that I plan to accomplish from previous years. Not a lot has changed in that department. I’m just here, waiting for COVID to take a fucking break so I can buy a house that isn’t unbelievably overpriced at the moment.

Other than that, it’s all good. As long as my family is healthy, and as long as I still have a job that supports me (and us), what else is there to say?


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