Wednesday, September 20, 2006

One More Time (Part III)

Saturday morning of the first tournament I've attended since Potlach more than three years ago (has it really been that long?), and who's the first person I see? Parinella. In truth I had actually seen him almost as soon as we got in the car, riding along next to us with his wife and child in the back. At some point he made a right and we went straight. Someone in the car (probably Bliss) suggested I follow him. I said nothing but went straight. Like I would ever follow Parinella.

So we got lost again and tried to call our teammates to no avail. But we did get Mick from Ring on the line, and although he was on a platform in NC waiting to catch a train he did offer some advice to help us get to the fields: "Keep going." Who said those Ring boys were a bunch of dummies? At some point we made a right (as in correct) turn and got to the fields just late enough to miss the pre-game drills but not so late as to cause a stir (in other words, right on time). We played a team in red with a name that might have included the word "tofu" but I can't be sure. Then we played a team in white named Luggage or Attache. They had a couple of guys named Scooter and Biff, and a girl named Brandi or Candi or Mandi or Sandi. They were better than the Tofu team, but we beat them too. And then things started to get weird.

The next team had names on their jerseys. The girls had names like Randy and Chesty and Eager while the guys had names like Grumpy and Flaccid and Incontinent. Before the game their captain asked if he could flip with me, as though it meant something to him. I declined. I think his name was Doofus. Then we started to play the game and they started beating us. At first it was just a little beating, like getting spanked by your dad when his heart isn't really in it. But pretty soon it was more like inmates during a prison riot taking advantage of the table turn by getting a 25 to life's worth of licks in on an especially sadistic prison guard. At some point we called timeout, and I suggested a change in strategy only to be shot down unceremoniously by a guy 20 years my junior. It was an odd feeling, having some know nothing out of nowhere cut me off and dismiss my input as though I had just stepped out of a Chevy Impala with a hamstring injury and no significant wins in the past 12 years. Stranger still was what happened after we stepped back on the field with the time honored admonition to "play harder" still ringing in our years. We got humiliated, with no fewer than eight people, including the Huddle Hun himself, dropping passes that hit them right in the hands. We lost by a bunch which meant we had to wait two hours to play a pre-quarter. Oh joy. So Bliss has the brilliant idea to go get some lunch and coffee and I figure that sounds great so I grab my bag and as I'm walking to the car I watch her back out and pull away.

Is there anything more heinous than a two hour bye on a cold, windy field when you could be having a nice lunch and drinking coffee but instead you're eating a cold sandwich on soggy bread sold to you by a clarinet playing kid with acne raising money for his high school band? And all the while you're asking yourself "What the hell was I thinking?"

So, the pre-quarter is against the Annapolis All-Stars, (as if there were enough quality players in Annapolis that they could actually field a team of all-stars) and by then the wind had really picked up. Our field for this one was upwind/downwind, which had an old, slow guy like me figuring I'd get some minutes because, well, wind tends to make throwing more important than running. Little did I know I'd get almost all my minutes on a single point.

It was early, and the all-stars had already notched one upwinder to give them an early lead, so we were trying to answer back with an upwinder of our own. Trouble is we were flat, and the deer-in-the-headlights look that had accompanied the flurry of pathetic drops in our previous game was popping up all over the place. The prospect of playing for ninth place was starting to look very likely, and I felt certain I'd be getting very drunk very soon. And then we played the point.

An accurate count is not available, but I'll bet there were 24 turnovers PER TEAM. We were looking to throw enough short passes to get a good look deep, and then heaving it into the by now howling wind and hoping for the best, so it wasn't surprising that we were turning it over. I have no idea what the "all-stars" were doing. I mean, they were going downwind for chrissakes. Fortunately for us they couldn't convert any of their two dozen chances, and with most of us ready to start puking or feign injury, Alan Hoyle launched one last prayer that I managed to chase down for the score. And while it's rare in ultimate that you can point to a single goal scored (other than the final one) and say it decided the game, this one surely did. We rode it and the subsequent momentum to a comfortable win, and the fall-stars moved on to dominate the 9th place bracket (or at least I hope so for their sake). But before we file this game away, let me tell you a little story.

Annapolis going upwind and some dude fires a forehand to YoYo streaking (or as close to streaking as she gets while clothed). As a group that includes YoYo, her defender and a few others gathers under the pass that is now floating about midfield, I watch an Annapolis guy sprint from near where I'm standing on the sideline a good 25-30 yards, take a running leap, and hurl himself into the group at close to full speed. The play was utterly reckless, totally dangerous, and sent the two women in the group crashing to the ground. As YoYo calls foul, I hear an Annapolis player (who coincidentally is YoYo's boyfriend) cry out from the sideline, "nice bid!" Can you believe it? Nice bid? Later on the same point, the same guy attempts to get a poach block by laying out into the path of our own Princess Liz Mahanna, clipping her in the side of the knee and sending her limping to the sidelines. Questioned about the wisdom of playing so recklessly, Mr. Nice Bid replied, "I didn't see her," a fact which surprised no one since it was clear he hadn't looked.

As a former club player known for hurling his body around on a regular basis, I make a conscious effort to tone it down when playing mixed gender ultimate. You simply have to. In most instances, men weigh more, run faster, and are stronger than the women we're sharing the field with. It is incumbent upon us to play responsibly and let certain plays go because to do otherwise is to risk causing a potentially serious injury. Ultimate is non-contact, but we all know unintentional collisions happen all the time, and their unintended consequences can be devastating. As a member of the Raleigh Llama at '99 Nationals, I watched a teammate get carted off the finals field in an ambulance unconscious as a result of a play that couldn't have been avoided. It was terrifying, but that shit happens. What shouldn't happen is people who ought to know better putting others at risk making "nice bids" that are anything but.

So, the scare with Princess aside, the day ended well, and for the first time I was actually starting to enjoy my farewell tour. We packed up our bags, and I actually found myself eagerly anticipating spending an hour or two at the fields, drinking free beer and chatting amiably with Jim, the Count, O'Dowd, and the rest of the dozen or so people at the tournament I actually knew. Sadly, it was not to be. In my time away from the game things have really changed. Today's player does precious little partying, and rarely does one get a whiff of kind bud while walking the fields during a bye. While I was ready to treat the tournament as a cocktail party, pressing the flesh while I sipped the suds, my teammates couldn't wait to pile into the cars and get back to the hotel. So, in a moment that suggested that perhaps the world had shifted on its axis, I found myself reluctantly leaving a frisbee party, and lamenting the loss of an opportunity to spend a few more minutes chatting with Alex DeFrondeville. Yes, my farewell tour had finally begun to be enjoyable, and in so doing had taken me into some truly uncharted waters. I left the fields glancing wistfully over my shoulder at the gathering of players huddled around the keg, the Count clearly identifiable among them. Somewhere, Blair O'Connor must have felt a strange and inexplicable stinging sensation.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

One More Time (continued)

At one point in my young life my family moved every couple of years, a natural byproduct of my father's employment in network television news, a field where climbing the ladder generally means being sent from one miserable assignment to the next, ostensibly to hone your skills but more likely to see if you've got the stomach for what is surely one of the harshest careers out there. One such move landed us in Highland Park, Illinois, a place that is, like Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. I don't remember all that much about Highland Park. We lived on Summit Avenue, my best friends were Joey Bernardi and Herman Moriano (both from the wrong side of the tracks town of Highwood), and somewhere across those tracks was an abandoned house that, in my memory, had an inexhaustible supply of windows to break with rocks. Yet even those meager memories, dim and distant as they are, are a heck of a lot more compelling than anything the current town of Napervile has to offer.

I have now been to Naperville at least a half dozen times, and I can not name a single distinguishing feature or identifiable landmark. In fact, so indistinguishable is Naperville's seemingly endless succession of strip malls from those encountered in any other sprawlurb I've ever visited that it is entirely possible that, like the Apollo 11 astronauts, I've never actually made the trip. And while the thought of being the victim of such a hoax might be galling to some, when confronted with the possibility that I have never actually seen the real Naperville I can only say, would that it were so. But no, I have been there, not once but twice thrice, and like Native Americans who believed that still pictures took a piece of their souls along with the image, I feel somehow lessened for the experience. And though it's true that the time spent in that vacuous void is a chunk of my life I'll never get back, I can temper the pain of that realization somewhat by vowing never to return. So it is perhaps the first positive development in the farewell tour of glory gone awry that I can safely say that although a poor decision made in haste has forestalled my farewell to ultimate, a wise decision made with certainty has precipitated my farewell to Naperville, and not a moment too soon. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

When last we left off I was lugging Bliss' bag around while she tried in vain to lead us from the Midway Airport reantal counter to our car. To say that Bliss is directionally challenged is putting it mildly, and circumstances are not improved by another of her odd little quirks, an inability (or unwillingness) to listen to, hear, or remember spoken directions when they're given to her. Add to that her refusal to even look at a map, insistence on sitting in the co-pilot's seat, and the delight she takes in pointing out every wrong turn the driver makes, and you begin to get a picture of what I was in for as I settled into the driver's seat of our rented Chevy Impala for the drive to Naperville. Oh yeah, and I wasn't wearing my contacts, which means I couldn't read a sign until I was so close as to render its information useless. Like I said, good times.

Remarkably, finding the hotel was really quite easy, after I had made no fewer than three wrong turns within a mile of the airport, each met with a smugly satisfied "Good job" from my altogether useless co-pilot. We pulled into the Holiday Inn sometime after midnight, and the parking lot was crawling with ulti players tossing the bee. I parked as far away as I possibly could and entered through the side door. Then came the best part about playing coed, and what is at least for now the absolute high point of my farewell tour; I was sharing a room with three women. How cool is that?

Before you let your minds run away with you, let me make it clear that this is not about hooking up. Rooming with women means the room smells nicer, stays cleaner, and every waking moment won't be accompanied by the SportsCenter soundtrack. It also means that someone will probably bring you coffee in the morning, and when you're winding down in the evening by doing some quiet reading, there's a good chance someone will be doing something craftsy across the room. In truth, it's not like being at an ultimate tournament at all, except for two telling factors.

First, there's still a good chance that your restful night's slumber will be all but ruined by snoring so loud you'd swear it came out of a 300 pound longshoreman. Second, you still need to get into the bathroom first or not at all after breakfast. Wives and girlfriends swear their husbands and boyfriends to secrecy on this one, but seeing as how I'm neither I can tell you without equivocation that women lie, and their shit really doesn't smell like flowers.

Friday, September 15, 2006

One More Time

A few years back (probably more than a few, really) I hit upon the idea of having my own farewell tour to ultimate, something like what Kareem did but without the rocking chairs, cars, and thousands of adoring fans. My plan was to hand pick the tournaments and teams, and enjoy a leisurely, long goodbye to the sport to which I have given so much of my life. At the time I think I might have even scratched out a short list of events on the back of an envelope, a list which no doubt included such Northeast classics as Hingham and Clambake, the Mid-summer bash they call Potlach, and perhaps even mentioned Poultry Days. If memory serves, at some point I revealed the most important element of my farewell tour plan to former WSW'er Corey Sanford in an email. That most important element, an element that is critical to all retirements on the planet, is timing. How do you know when it's time to walk away? For me it was easy. I wouldn't leave on top, nor would I leave after dragging my aging carcass around at Open Nationals in one last, vain attempt at recapturing glory. No, I would leave after spending a year trotting around at a series of primarily coed and singularly entertaining events while wearing my age on my jersey. In other words, I would leave at the end of 2006.

Well, that was the plan, and at least a few elements of the plan worked out. First, and most importantly, I lived to see my forty-fourth year. Second, I remain healthy enough to at least play at playing in a somewhat reasonable facsimile of what accomplished players do. Finally, I have taken enough time off recently that I am not so sick of the game that the thought of going to a tournament makes me want to vomit. So what happened? How did my farewell tour of glory turn into my worst nightmare? Well, the truth is I'm still trying to piece together all the details, but I'm pretty sure it was my sister-in-law's fault, that she and my brother were co-conspirators, and that the whole thing was pretty much doomed from the get go.

For starters, the tour began at Winter League, when Bliss' half-baked plan to get me on her team instead landed me on the GeeWhizMan's roster. For a brief snippet of the special brand of misery that experience entailed look no further than the story of Sausage Boy and the Travel Callers. I suppose I should have known then that things would get worse before they got better, but what could I do? Cut and Run?

The next stop on the tour was Cape Fear Spring League (like I said, from bad to worse). Although things looked promising when I was picked by the legendary Tully Beatty, I soon realized that every other captain at the draft must have been on crack. Beatty managed to get a team that included me, Mike and Amy Gerics, Leah Rehill, Kevin Rhodes, and about 27 other people. Which meant that my two hour drive to games usually netted me about 8 points of a blowout victory over a bunch of guys who drink better than they play (and don't do either particularly well). I would call the whole thing a complete washout if it weren't for a blast from the past, Ben Baldwin.

I had the opportunity to coach Ben when he played for the SUNY Purchase Atomic Dogs in '89-90. Ben was a hard runner and very enthusiastic, but his forehand lacked touch. Still, he is most remembered for having to sit out a big spring break tourney in Wilmington because he had his flick finger smashed in a hotel room door by a teammate who took exception to Ben peeping in on him and his girlfriend. Sixteen years later, Ben's flick still lacks touch. I did not, however, ask about his hotel habits.

So there I was, two tourneys into the farewell tour of glory, and what did I have to show for it? GeeWhiz and Peeping Ben. How the mighty had fallen. Undaunted, I signed on to play next with a newly formed and as yet unnamed coed team in the Carolina Kudzu Classic (an event which employs a rather liberal definition of the term classic). We matched up in the semis with a combination Backhoe/Ring squad that was certain to pummel us, an outcome made all the more enticing by the delightful weather and the bottle of Maker's in my cooler. Just when it seemed the farewell tour was about to hit stride, one of my many turnovers was greeted by the overzealous heckling of one TJ Cawley. I say overzealous not because he was loud, obnoxious, or even funny. No, I say overzealous because he violated the prime directive of heckling; he was serious. Later, after the game, he confided that the reason he finds my turnovers so appalling is that he came into the game looking up to me but he can't abide the sheer volume of turnovers I produce. He earnestly explained that I could give so much back to the game if I would just play a more conservative game, the kind of game he plays. Did I mention his name is TJ? 'Nuff said.

Three events, three disasters, and with no money in the bank to sport a ticket to Potlach or the gas for Poultry Days, no reasonable expectation for things to get better. And with Bliss cajoling me to sign on for the fall, and that little voice inside my head saying, "You must be out of your effing mind," I made the fatal mistake. I signed on for the fall.

Which brings me to the second Friday in September at Midway Airport in Chicago where earnest, young ultimate athletes are tossing the bee at baggage claim and I am fighting a profound urge to launch my lunch. It's nearing midnight, we're waiting on bags, teammates, and a rental car. We have a room somewhere but no directions to it, and my sister-in-law, who is to blame for it all, has a bag the size of a small car packed to bursting with beads and jewelry making apparatus, the better to pass the time between games with. What am I doing here? I'm forty-four years old. More to the point, I'm old enough to know better. What the hell am I doing here?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

So I lied. So sue me.

Yes, I lied. I said I would post during the summer, but I didn't. And now the summer is gone, school is back in session, and I'm back to working like a dog. (Although truthfully, my dog never seems to do much other than sleep and eat. In fact, he's sleeping at my feet right now.)

At some point somewhere back in the distance, someone (is that vague enough for you?) mentioned that I should write more about my experiences as a teacher. In fact, I have done so on many occasions for the Raleigh News and Observer. One of them can be found here, and by clicking on the offerings in the right margin you can see a few more. If you prefer to listen to similar pieces I've done for our local NPR affiliate, you can find them here. I'm rather partial to the Mule Days piece, and the one on the Dress Code has a certain quality, but in truth they all pale in comparison to the real thing. I don't mean Coca-Cola, of course, but classroom teaching. If you've never done it, you can't possibly know what it's like. During my only ultimate podcast (which was lost as the result of severe technical incompetence) a fellow podcaster suggested I should be coaching ultimate. When I replied that I prefer to focus all my energies and talents on teaching, it was suggested that pretty much anybody can do that, but I am "uniquely qualified" to coach ultimate. I still smile when I think about the comment. The truth is that just about any bozo with a PE degree can take the UPA's coaching package and turn two dozen marginally skilled teenagers into a passable high school ultimate team in a fortnight of practices. Classroom teaching is another animal altogether, and I have little doubt that when it comes time for my fellow podcaster's little ones to begin their formal education, he will come to realize the folly of his comment.

I am now 6 days into my fifth year as a high school English teacher at West Johnston High School in Johnston County, North Carolina. While teaching is my primary responsibility (and the only one I am paid for by Johnston County Schools) , I am also the Director of our Freshman Academy, which means that I am in no small way responsible for everything that happens with (or to) our incoming class of freshmen, the class of 2010. As of Friday, that group numbered over 660, and was growing every day. I have learned more about public education in four years than I could ever share, but if there is one, all-important thing I have learned it is this: in public schools, the difference between a great education and a virtually worthless one can be as simple as who is standing in the front of the room. The dearth of available teachers coupled with the phenomenal population growth in our area means that we're pretty much looking for any warm bodies we can find to put in our classrooms. When you add tenure to that equation, you get the regrettable reality that any classroom you walk into might present a marginally qualified long-term substitute, a painfully jaded veteran counting the days to retirement, a wet-behind-the-ears but earnestly eager first year teacher barely staying afloat, or someone like me. If you think that the students in those classrooms are getting the same education, you must be on crack.

So, why do you care? Well, you may not, but those of you who have been patiently waiting for me to begin posting again can blame public education (and my unwavering devotion to it) for my prolonged silence. When I wasn't working full-time in the NCSU Forent Entomology lab over the summer, I was putting in volunteer time at WJHS, trying to get things in order for the upcoming year, a year which is now fully upon us in all its chaotic glory. Now that we're in session, I work 12 hours a day, five days a week, while continuing to put in 30 hours a week at NCSU on nights and weekends. It's a grueling schedule, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I love what I do, and it never feels like work. In fact, I believe it's what I was meant to do. I bring the same passion, intensity, and indomitable spirit that I brought to ultimate into my classroom, although I rarely spike my textbook. Still, when my students look into my eyes I have little doubt that they see the same thing my teammates once did, and what they see helps them to believe in themselves. The funny thing is, for four years they had no idea about my ultimate past, that I was once as passionate about a piece of plastic as I now am about their futures. Of course, that was before ESPN classic.

I first heard about the program from a fellow teacher who called my cell phone. That night a friend called while watching it. Do I need to tell you she was in hysterics? Soon my email inbox was overflowing, and the furor has still not died down. Copies on DVD now regularly make the rounds at school, and hardly a day goes by without someone in the hallway whispering with mock curiosity, "Whatever happened to Kenny Dobyns?" Although several people have promised me a copy, I have yet to see it (I don't have cable), but I expect I'll have a good laugh at my own expense when I do. I deserve to be ridiculed. I was over the top, out of hand, and preposterously self-obsessed. Still, I don't shy away from it. It is an accurate depiction of what I was, of what I felt I had to be in order to be successful. I may have been wrong, but we were successful. And now, all these years later, I'm just as over the top, just as out of hand, and just as obsessed. Thankfully, though, the focus of my efforts is no longer self-aggrandizement nor ultimately hollow victories. Now my opponents are apathy, indifference and ignorance, and while their names might lack the cachet of Windy City, Tsunami, or Titanic, they are significantly more formidable. And although I'll never again hoist a trophy in victory, there are days (quite a few of them actually) when I feel similarly elated, and significantly prouder for the accomplishment.

So, the question stands: Whatever happened to Kenny Dobyns?

He grew up. Finally.