Sunday, October 22, 2006

Not Pretty

For those who have never enjoyed the experience, perhaps the most appropriate way I can describe having a catheter inserted is that it gives a whole new meaning to the expression “going in through the out door.” That and it hurts an awful lot. For me the procedure took place in the emergency room of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, with my brother and a former teammate, Kevin Granath, waiting nearby. To hear them tell the story, they were listening to a doctor give them various details of my injury, prognosis, and the immediate plans for my admittance when, from behind a curtain, they heard a terrifying scream in a voice they knew was mine. Instinctively they turned their heads only to have the doctor admonish them. “Don’t look. It isn’t pretty.”

Fast forward two weeks. My blood count has stabilized allowing me to keep my kidney, my stay in the hospital is drawing to a merciful close, and it’s time to have said catheter taken out. Remembering what it had felt like going in, I’m not exactly looking forward to the procedure. Then in walks an angel.

I’m sure you can imagine the number of nurses one is likely to see over the course of a two week stay in a hospital. Considering my stay began in intensive care and I spent the first few days scared out of my wits, it’s certainly plausible that I don’t even remember half the people in whose charge I had been, but I would have remembered this one. She was beautiful, with an easy smile, dark brown eyes, and a soothing voice that, like a warm bath, seemed to melt all my concerns away. She moved with a practiced assurance that was professional without being insensitive, and almost before I knew what was happening she had done what she came to do. All I felt was a brief tingling sensation. She even cleaned me up with a quick sponge bath for good measure. I remember noticing at the time that her eyes had never left mine, a fact I found astonishing considering the task she was engaged in. As I have reflected on the moment, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the catheter removal procedure is not all that challenging, and that, given the occasion, she probably could have done it with her eyes closed. Still, at the time it struck me as remarkable, and only added to her allure. That was 1984, and I still remember her name: Danielle Turri. Imagine that. I can still name and readily describe a woman whose only connection to me was that she pulled a tube out of my penis twenty-two years ago. Men are truly bizarre creatures.

What followed was three months of bed rest, a period when, through the courtesy of the creatively challenged programming geniuses at WPIX-11, I saw every episode of The Odd Couple, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone several times over. It’s also when my father sat at the foot of my bed for a heart-to-heart for the last time.

It was soon after I had come home, and I guess he just wanted to make sure he understood what had happened. Not being one to beat around the bush, he got right to it.
“So that’s it for this Frisbee game, right?” When I replied that it most certainly was not it, and that as soon as I could I expected to be back on the field, he got very quiet. It was the kind of quiet we had all come to recognize over the years, a quiet that was always followed by something that, like my catheter insertion, wouldn’t be pretty. One time in particular such a quiet was followed by him hurling a glass ashtray against the tile wall in the kitchen. You might say my father’s temper is volcanic. On this day, however, his response was quiet, frighteningly so, and all the more effective for it. “Just so you understand, I will never come see you in the hospital again.”

If I had looked at the situation from his perspective, I might not have been so shocked. Although I took the injury in stride, the truth is I could easily have died. In fact, had the tournament taken place farther away from New York or Pat King’s father not been there to diagnose it, I almost certainly would have gotten into a car for the road trip home and bled to death internally on the way. Talk about a buzz kill. Surely somewhere deep inside my father’s emotion concealing titanium shell he had an inkling that he might have lost his youngest child, and it scared him. But there’s more to it than that.

Sent to military school at the age of eight, my father had spent his entire youth being forced to participate in sports for which he had no particular passion or aptitude. His boxing “career” is emblematic of what athletic activity meant to him. He fought 14 times, lost every bout, and was left with a nose that has been broken many times and looks it. It’s hard enough for people who enjoy mainstream sports to understand the mindless dedication of the ultimate athlete. But for my father, a man who sees little point in sports of any kind, it was truly impossible to understand why, having dodged a nearly fatal bullet, I would go back out and chase a piece of plastic around. Looking back now, I can’t really blame him.

At the time of course I had none of the understanding that comes with the wisdom of experience and maturity. I also didn’t believe him. Shows what I know. Just over a year later I blew my ACL in the semis at nationals, and was again admitted to the hospital following a tournament. This time it was Lenox Hill, on the east side of Manhattan, and this being in the dark ages before arthroscopy was widely practiced, an ACL reconstruction required a stay of a few days. True to his word, my father never came by, not even when, as a result of an infection, my stay was extended long enough to include my birthday.

So it came to pass that when I celebrated my 24th birthday in Lenox Hill Hospital my father was not in attendance, although Dan Weiss was. Having helped guide his Flying Circus team to a 21-19 victory over us in the finals, Dan had come to New York to see family. In a move that shows the kind of class Dan has in abundance, he stopped by the hospital to wish me well. My memory of the event is a little hazy thanks to the morphine, but it was the tail end of the party, and I seem to remember Dan hesitating when offered some birthday cake. It was an ice cream cake, and after a short time in a small hospital room filled with people, it had melted into a sweet, gelatinous mass that, like my father’s temper and my catheter insertion, wasn’t pretty.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Be Positive

From my room at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, I could, if I craned my neck, see the lights of George Washington Bridge. Of course, bleeding internally and with a catheter inserted, craning my neck was more than a bit of a challenge. Still, I did it, and even now I'm not sure why.

As bridges go, the GWB is an engineering marvel and probably the most travelled of the Manhattan bridges, but it pales when compared to either the Brooklyn or Queensboro bridges for aesthetic beauty. But on a cool, crisp fall night in September of 1984, the GWB was all I had. Waiting to hear if the freak injury I had suffered earlier that day would cause me to lose a kidney and thereby end my playing days, I think seeing the bridge gave me hope. The twinkling lights seemed to draw my eyes across the Hudson to New Jersey, and though I had never then and still haven't ever thought of reaching New Jersey as an especially significant accomplishment, on this night the idea did seem inspiring. When my doctor visited me later that evening to tell me the news, he chuckled at my bed-ridden calisthenics. Though I returned a half-hearted smile, I was terrified.

As Doctors are wont to do, he said little and committed to nothing, telling me that it was basically a wait and see game. If my internal bleeding slowed by noon the next day, he'd let nature take its course, in essence allowing the kidney to heal itself. If not, he'd remove it surgically. In answer to my query about surgical repair of the organ, he again chuckled, explaining that trying to repair the fibrous tissue of a kidney would be like trying to sew closed the holes in a block of Swiss cheese. Making his way to the door, he made one more mention of my blood count and its need to stabilize. Nervous, alone and scared beyond measure, I asked a question so preposterous that even twenty some years later I cringe in embarrassment at the recollection. I asked him my blood type, explaining that I had never known what it was. He called the answer over his shoulder as he stepped through the door, and the answer seemd to hang in the air long after he was gone. B+ is what he said.

Shortly after that I called home. It was after midnight, and my father answered. I explained the situation, repeating what the doctor had said, and he asked how I was in a groggy, sleepy voice. I lied, saying I was fine. I felt no better after the call. I'm not sure what I expected my father to say to give me comfort the doctor himself hadn't been able to provide, but I lay there thinking that surely there had to be some reason to feel good. That's when I heard the echo of the doctor's last words: B+. B positive. Be positive. Somehow, in that fearful moment in that darkened room in that old hospital with no one there to provide solace, I found what I was looking for in a play on the words associated with my blood type. Such is the desperation of the injured who've been told by the best medical personnel available that there's nothing much they can do but wait and see. Be positive. Follow the lights of the George Washington Bridge to northern New Jersey. Gaze beyond the bridge to see the outline of the cliffs of the Palisades against the dark but sparkling water of the Hudson. Close your eyes and try to sleep, knowing you'll wake to one of two possible futures. I think back to that night and marvel not at how different my life might have been, but at how little I understood the significance of the moment. With the vaguely contented mind of a simpleton who smiles at a joke that is far beyond his powers of perception, I drifted off to a remarkably good night's sleep secure in the comfort provided by the misinterpreted words of a fatalistic physician. Be positive.

And I was.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Three Stitches in Time, Then Nine

The first true game of ultimate, with seven players to a side, that I ever played took place on the Sheep Meadow in New York's Central Park in the late 70's. Prior to that day my experience with the game was confined to three on three affairs played on a patch of Central Park dirt near West 93rd Street, the "field" defined by a an asphalt path on one side, a stand of trees on the other, and imaginary lines between lampposts at the ends. It was there that I first learned the thrill of out-jumping a taller player for a goal, or sprinting the length of the field to haul in another of my brother's beautiful throws. So when he announced one day that we were going to the Meadow to play a real game on a full size field, I was thrilled.

I realize now that what we were going to was a pick-up game, the kind of loosely organized, all are welcome event that I wouldn't bother with now on a bet. But back then, to me at least, it couldn't have been more exciting if it were being played between nationally ranked teams in a stadium packed with fans. Such is the folly of youthful exuberance.

It has been close to thirty years, so the details are hazy at best. In fact, all I really remember is that Andy Borinstein was there, and the first point I played was on offense. I use the term point rather liberally, because in truth I only "played" for about fifteen seconds, a period of time I spent sprinting around aimlessly at full speed. The field was unimaginably huge, and with no asphalt, lampposts or trees to guide me, I had no idea where to run. But run I did, as fast as I could and with no discernible purpose, right up until the point when I ran headlong into another player.

I note with some amusement that to this day I not only have no idea who the other player was, I don't even know if we were on the same team. I might have figured it out once I got my wits about me, but by then a crimson runnel was already flowing from my face. I made my way off the field awkwardly, bent at the waist and cupping handfuls of blood away from me so as to keep from staining my shirt. Once on the sideline I was relieved to see Brian coming off the field to check on me, knowing full well that my older brother would take care of me. In all fairness, he did place a reassuring hand on my shoulder as he examined the gash I had bitten through the left side of my upper lip on impact, but I'll never forget what he said next: "It's not too bad. You can make it home on your own, can't you?" Before I could answer, he was back in the game.

That was the day I learned the two most fundamental truths about ultimate. First, once you've learned the game, it doesn't take long for you to place it above family in order of importance. Second, it is a non-contact sport in name only.

Brian was right; I was able to make it home on my own. After cleaning up at a water fountain and being given some tissues by a kind stranger, I rode the M10 bus twenty blocks up Central Park West to our apartment building, then stopped in at the 14th floor office of Doctor Nora Gottschalk, a kind old German doctor whose family practice was located two floors below our family's apartment. She put three stitches in my upper lip and sent me home with the first of many scars I would receive over a nearly thirty-year career in the game.

In a strange twist of fate, Dr. Gottschalk would die senselessly some years later, run down by an M10 bus while crossing the street.

Over the years I would continue to bleed for the game, both internally and externally. In the fall of '84, I split my kidney colliding with Paul Sayles(?) after making a layout block on a Kevin Cande hammer at yet another meaningless Purchase tournament. The incident earned Paul the moniker "Trog-Buster" from his Static Disc teammates, and it earned me a trip to the emergency room of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where I might well have died from internal bleeding if not for the intervention of one Dr. Thomas King, famous father to the even more famous ultimate legend, Pat.

An amusing side note: Pat's father loved the game and often went to tournaments, both big and small. At '86 Nationals in Houston, Matt Jefferson suffered a dislocated shoulder. Accompanied by Dr. King to the nearest emergency room, Matty J was seen by a physician who had stopped reading Dr. King's book to attend to him.

Yet another amusing side note: While many believed that Matty J had suffered the injury while playing, he had actually suffered it the night before in an elevator at the hotel when a drunk and belligerent Nob Rauch, angry because Matty was wearing an opponent's t-shirt, grabbed him by the arm and threw him to the floor. Those truly were the days.

We played the following nationals without Matty (can you blame him?), but Nob still drank and I still bled. In a pool play game against Windy City, I ran down and caught a lead pass from Dan Weiss just before Ironman, on a futile poach block attempt, crashed into me head first. Fortunately for me, I had enough time to turn my head slightly. Unfortunately for Iron, he didn't. He came up from the ground with blood pouring from a gash that was rumored to take more than a hundred stitches to close (hence why he's not called Ironhead). I stayed in the game, threw a score, then walked off the field with a strange feeling of moist warmth running down my neck. Seems I had completed the point oblivious to the fact that my ear had been torn, an injury whose nine stitch remedy was, like me, paltry compared to Ironman.

Watching video of the collision later, I was struck not by the blow but by the sound it made, a hard, hollow, and sickeningly wet sound, like two coconuts colliding at high speed with a thick raw steak between them. Exquisite.

I played semis and finals the next day with a bandage wrapped around my head, looking like the fife player from the Archibald M. Willard painting, The Spirit of '76. Pat, in sympathy, wrapped his head in an (almost) equally bizarre manner. We won nationals for the first time that day, but for many years before and many years since, I've been bleeding.

Saturday, October 07, 2006


I've had a piece percolating for days now, and I had expected it to be ready this weekend. It was only a matter of sitting down and pouring it out. In my mind, it had everything: pathos, ethos and logos. It would cover my most recent experiences at regionals and how an inadvertent collision had resulted in a gash to my upper lip, a gash so reminiscent of one I suffered the first time I ever played that it bookended my career perfectly. That piece will have to wait. Curtis Wagner died, and a piece of me died too.

I can't say I knew Curtis well, because I didn't. We were teammates only briefly, and I expect we actually lined up on opposite sides of the field more than we did on the same side. I knew precious little about him personally, although I knew enough to think that his girlfriend and he were a perfect fit. Little surprise that they remained together all these years.

Of all of us on New York, Dave Mathison knew him best. He has written a marvelous memory that you may wish to peruse, although you do so at your own peril. It is that memory that has sparked the fires of my melancholia, and has me wondering what the hell happened. I'm sure my feelings are so familiar that they exceed even the most stereotypical crises of middle age in banality, and yet, because they're my own and unfamiliar to me, they sting deeply. Curtis Wagner died. He has been absent from my life for close to twenty years, so his loss is not one I should feel so deeply, and I suppose in truth I don't. What I feel, what cuts me so is what his death means. I look at a picture of us after our first nationals victory. We were so young, so bold, so confident. We believed in ourselves, in our greatness, in our invincibility. Over the years, whenever I've seen that picture, I still believed. But today, with Curtis gone, I saw it differently. Like a man who looks in a mirror and for the first time sees what he truly is and not what he used to be, I feel old. More to the point, I feel lost.

Several years ago, I embarked on an extensive renovation of my three-bedroom ranch house here in Garner, NC. Renovation doesn't even describe it. I completely gutted the place down to the frame and rebuilt it. The task compelled me to learn an entirely new set of skills and took far longer than I ever imagined it could, but eventually I managed to (almost) finish it. So now I live in a home that is light years removed from my old one. The differences are too many to recount, but the one that strikes me today is the loss of memories. Gone are the photos of old friends from New York. Gone is the picture of Pat, Blair and Crib from the post-game celebration of that first title in Miami, glowing with the satisfaction of accomplishment. Gone is the photo of Davey-Dave Mathison and me arm in arm, smiling broadly, standing in front of the scoreboard from the semifinals of Worlds the following summer, when our late game blocks had brought us back from the brink of disastrous defeat. Our smiles suggest we had it all along. We were young. We were bold. We were confident. We were full of ourselves, and something else to boot. But what ties those photos and all the others from that time together is the very thing that made us, makes all great teams, successful. We were one. No, we weren't best friends and we didn't always know each other that well off the field, but we were one between the lines.

Oneness. That oneness is what prompted me to put those photos up the day I moved into this house in December of 1998, even though the events they depicted were ten years gone by. Although I didn't know it then, the loss of that oneness is what allowed me to so easily take them down and pack them away when I began the renovation some years later. They remain in that box, in storage in my attic. Physically, they are a few yards away. Figuratively, the distance is considerably greater. Dave Mathison posted the group photo from nationals with his poignant memory of Curtis. I hadn't seen it in years. We were so young, so confident, so bold. We were one. Now one of us is gone. Some day, perhaps some day soon, there will be another. What will I feel that day? Will I be able to feel at all? Tomorrow is promised to no one. Nor is oneness.

Dave Mathison wrote that Curtis' passing makes him feel like going out and playing again. I have no such feelings. Instead, I want to go up into my attic and open up a box. I know I'll find some old pictures in there. I'm hoping to find something else as well.