Monday, August 25, 2008

Good Girl - Part III

Her name was Poppy, like the flower, although she wasn’t so named. She was named for the deli where my then girlfriend would wait for me to pick her up after work during the period of time when we (she) got her. The name also makes some reference to a movie about a boy who might have been disabled and that might have starred DeNiro, but as you can see I’m a little unclear on the details. I don’t know that I would have chosen the name, but in the end it worked. It had the requisite two syllables that all dog names should have, so as to make them easy to call out in a sing-song manner when the animal has run off.

On a side note, I once spent New Year’s Day sing-songing the name Biko through the woods of Pound Ridge, New York in a vain search for a friend’s Rhodesian Ridgeback that had run off in pursuit of a deer. It was a terrible experience, but it taught me something about breeding, instinct, and training that it’s wise to keep in mind when selecting a dog. Sight hounds (like Ridgebacks) and scent hounds (like Beagles) will instinctively take off in pursuit of prey, despite years of training, and may never come back. Retrievers, on the other hand, tend to return. It’s in their nature. Of course, if you’ve read Part I you know that I didn’t choose Poppy. She did, however, choose me.

Dogs are pack animals, and as a social order, the pack works because it has a leader. Dogs removed from the pack still look for a leader, and in the absence of one, may assume the role themselves. Spend some time watching the Dog Whisperer to see what I mean. A single dog in a family will usually identify a member of the family as the leader of the pack. It won’t necessarily be the one who feeds the most or walks the most or plays the most. But whoever it is, the dog will focus on that person and respond to his or her motions and emotions above those of everyone else in the family. In our little family, Poppy chose me.

When my girlfriend and I broke up in the winter of ’96, she left Poppy behind. Initially, the stated reason was because she had moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets, but even when she relocated, she left Poppy with me. She knew, as I did, as Poppy did, that in so far as Poppy was concerned, I was the leader of the pack. Still, in leaving behind the dog she had picked out, the companion she had chosen to help her through a difficult time in her life, she had done an extremely unselfish thing, and a thing for which I will always be grateful. I’m sure I never told her that.

So that’s why Poppy and I ended up together in North Carolina in the winter of ’98, heading over to my sister’s house for a holiday visit shortly before Christmas.

It would be the height of understatement to say that my older sister Denise, the eldest of my three siblings, is a bit high-strung. It would be more accurate to say that her life is one prolonged panic attack tempered by brief intervals of high anxiety. What this means is that pretty much any event in her life is potentially disastrous, and the first and best response to anything out of the ordinary is to scream. That is why, when she opened the door in December of 1998 to find me and Poppy on her doorstep, she reacted as if I had a bloody axe in one hand and the head of her older son in the other. Poppy, as even-tempered a dog as I’ve ever seen, was in no way unsettled by my sister’s screams. Obedient as ever, she reacted as she had been trained to, and that was unfortunate.

Once Poppy had mastered all the basic tricks, I had to move on to others to keep her sharp (and me amused). One of my favorites was the dog biscuit balanced on the snout, held there patiently waiting for the snap of the fingers that told her it was OK to flip the biscuit in the air, catch it, and gobble away. I would leave the room, come back, and leave again, and still she waited. I would fake the snapping motion but make no sound, and still she waited, the saliva dripping down in long strands from her jowls. It was a trick I had seen a friend’s dog perform many years before, and I was very proud of Poppy for mastering it. My girlfriend had different ideas.

An avid hockey fan, she wanted to train Poppy to “five hole” people. For those of you unfamiliar with ice hockey, the five hole is the spot between the goalie’s legs, and “five holing” someone is sending an object, any object, through their legs. It was standard practice at that time for us to throw discs, beer cans, and the like through the legs of friends and foes alike. But to “throw” a dog through? That would be brilliant.

As trainable and eager to please as Poppy was, it didn’t take her long to learn to respond to the command “five hole” by walking through the legs of whoever gave the command. Soon thereafter, she learned to respond by walking through the legs of whichever person was pointed out, much to our delight. So delighted were we, and so pleased was Poppy to experience our delight, that in time the whole trick got a little confused. She began to “five hole” anyone she saw, even complete strangers, hoping to elicit the same delight. Moreover, she would “five hole” them with her whole body wagging back and forth in expression of her happiness at pleasing us. Meanwhile, the person being “five holed” could only awkwardly attempt to maintain his balance while simultaneously wondering why 70 pounds of gyrating dog was passing between his legs.

So there we were, in a charming little cul-de-sac in Raleigh, NC, its tidy houses festooned with festive decorations twinkling their holiday cheer, my sister’s panicked screams piercing the air as she seemed to ride a bucking brown dog backwards around her front porch. Merry Christmas.

Once I convinced my sister that letting Poppy attend the party would not result in her shitting on the carpet, her fleas getting in the carpet, or her eating up the carpet, she somewhat reluctantly let us into her home. What followed is a story I lived more times than I can count. Poppy was perfect. She lay on the floor next to me and didn’t budge unless I told her to. She never begged, no matter how close someone came with food. She never barked, growled, whined, or otherwise made a sound. And when my niece and nephews petted, poked, pulled and prodded, she didn’t flinch, not even when my sister’s toddler climbed onto her back and yanked on her ears.

While the party was in its extended good-bye phase, and we were all variously chatting in small groups and making our ways to our cars laden with Tupperware, my sister confided that despite her calm demeanor (remember, this is her speaking) she was certain that having a dog in her home would result in some calamity. Precisely what calamity she wasn’t sure, but most likely one involving a small child bleeding profusely from the gaping hole where a limb used to be and Poppy running around the house with the bleeding limb in her mouth. Although I didn’t say it at the time, I feel certain that the most upsetting part of my sister’s imaginary calamity was not the prospect of one of her children being permanently disfigured so much as the quandary of how she was ever going to get all of that blood out of the carpet.

Fortunately for everyone, the imagined calamity remained just that, and my sister was left standing on her front porch and marveling at Poppy’s exemplary behavior. In fact, in what was probably the most unexpected praise she ever received in her life, my sister remarked that the only way she could ever see herself getting a dog would be if that dog were Poppy.

At once embarrassed and beaming with pride, I responded by saying the best thing I could ever say about her: “She’s a good girl.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Good Girl - Part II

It is often said that a dog is a practice child. For certain childless couples at least, I believe it’s true. Cooperatively caring for a dog can be a good indication of whether or not a couple might be able to do the same for a child. Like a child, a dog requires its owners to think of another living being before themselves. There’s certainly plenty of help for parents of both children and dogs in the form of books, DVDs, web sites and the like. I doubt, however, that there are many books that suggest you crate train your children, so perhaps the analogy begins to fall apart there. Still, having recently spent a weekend in Massachusetts with several former teammates and their offspring, such a book might have come in handy. Finally, many parents and dog-owners to be pledge to take equal responsibility for the coming burden but wind giving anything but equal effort.

So it was that, having had my girlfriend unilaterally decide that I would be part owner of a dog, I found myself responsible for both the last walk of the night and the first walk of the morning for our sweet little chocolate lab with the not yet well-developed bladder control. Having read all the right books, we knew about crate training, taking the water away shortly after the evening meal, and walking her soon after play and sleep. What we didn’t know was how to explain the elevator.

Most of us have woken up with a strong, perhaps very strong, need to relieve ourselves at one time or another. The stronger the need, the more troubling the delay, be it a long walk down a hallway, or an exasperating wait for a roommate to vacate the facilities. Well imagine if reaching the facilities required a walk down a hall, a long wait for a strange, windowless room whose doors always open onto a different room, and another long walk down another hallway. Oh, and you’ve only recently been potty-trained. Now you’re getting a picture of what it must have been like for our sweet, little Lab puppy as she tried desperately to hold on long enough to get outside before emptying her bladder.

For a picture of what it was like for me, imagine that it’s a pitch black 5AM in November, you’ve been awakened by a high pitched whining, your last act before going to bed was also a bleary-eyed puppy walk that seems to have happened mere moments ago, and the person who’s responsible for putting you in this predicament is sleeping soundly in a nice cozy bed. And you wonder why I’m single.

Early on it was pretty hopeless. We’d barely make it to the elevator doors before she was squatting. Once we got into the elevator, if she started to squat I’d swoop her up into my arms, and the experience was so surprising that it literally scared the pee right back into her. The downside being that once outside, it usually took a good long while for her to calm down enough to be able to take care of business.

Eventually, the swoop into the air was no longer all that surprising, and I suppose had become almost comforting, so much so that she took to lying in my arms and spraying her urine in a fountainesque stream wherever she happened to be aiming at the time. At first, appalled, I did anything I could think of to stop her. In time, realizing that the hand is not an especially effective mechanism for stopping urine flow, I resigned myself to watching the waterworks.

If anyone reading this happened to reside at 304 E. 20th Street between November of 1994 and February of 1995 you have my apologies. I had every intention of cleaning up when we returned, but somehow the prospect of crawling back into bed was a little too inviting. I’m sure you understand.

In time, she mastered her movements, and we were on to the next level of training.

By any measure, she was a prodigy. At eight weeks she sat on command. By twelve weeks she could sit, lie down, stay, and roll over. Shortly thereafter, she responded to both voice and hand commands, and when she added playing dead to her repertoire, she would do so in response to a silent firing of a finger.

I took her to work with me, where her disposition and intelligence made her a favorite. Our company shipped a lot of packages COD, and every morning the UPS man would bring a cardboard envelope with checks. Our receptionist trained her to carry the UPS envelope to the bookkeeper’s office, where the bookkeeper would take the envelope from her mouth and reward her with a treat. In time, not satisfied with one treat, she would return to the bookkeeper’s office, retrieve the empty UPS envelope from the trash can, slink out of the office quietly, then trot back in with much fanfare and offer the empty envelope to the bookkeeper. Like I said, a prodigy.

Her first tournament was Turkey Bowl ’94, when she was a mere 11 weeks old. We competed under the name Elwood Hound, and won the tourney when, inspired by her presence, I made a layout block and threw the game winning hammer. Her last tournament was Terminus ’99, the only event I ever played with Ring of Fire. Perhaps sensing that this was a one time deal, she made a complete nuisance of herself, slipping her collar and running across several fields mid-point, something she had never done before. In between, she went to many more tournaments, but a couple stand out.

Mother’s Day ’96. She meets Steve Mooney’s pure bred god-knows-what dog and gets into a fight with it. Awesome.

Some random springtime affair where Adam Zagoria, unprepared as usual, secures his dog to my dog’s corkscrew. Having spent the better part of the day being annoyed by Zagoria’s mutt Jasmine, she finally reaches the breaking point and rips off a piece of Jasmine’s ear. Priceless.

A friend of mine once sent his dog to obedience school, and later proudly displayed the certificate he had been awarded for “Longest Down Stay.” What a joke. In the winter of ’97 I took her on a trip to Vermont, and found myself without a place to keep for a snowboarding day trip. I found a doggie day care close by and dropped her off, paying the extra $20 for two outdoor play sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When I returned to pick her up in the evening they refunded me the $20. Despite their efforts, she had simply refused to go out and play. Leaving her that morning I had told her to stay. She wouldn’t leave until I came and released her.

It was the only time I ever put her in a kennel.

She showed similar devotion some years later, when I competed in a tournament at ECU in Greenville, NC. I arrived at the tournament only to discover that dogs were not allowed at the fields. With no way to secure her in the bed of my 1991 Ford F-150 pickup, I simply told her to stay. And stay she did, all day long.

If only women were as devoted.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Good Girl - Part I

She came into my life on a cold November morning, from the front seat of a 1994 Acura Integra parked on East 20th St. Her soft brown fur was moist with her own pee, and her little body trembled from fear. Ten years later, on a crisp October afternoon that heralded the coming fall, the rustling of leaves through my garden was broken by the insistent sound of a pickaxe striking North Carolina clay. How can ten years go by so fast? At such times I find the western conception of time as a linear progression, marching along at a steady gait, utterly preposterous. Surely Native Americans have a better handle on time, seeing it as fluid and flowing, like a stream, rushing here, swirling there, a succession of rapids and eddies leading to moments where two events, separated by years, sit side by side.

We grew up with cats, which is probably why I always wanted a dog. My mother, a true cat person, always told us that cats and dogs can’t live together. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized she was lying. So we grew up with cats, a Siamese and a jet black mix, and found them to be worse than useless. They didn’t entertain us, or play, or guard the house, or kill mice or do much except eat, sleep, piss and shit. While we, of course, had to clean the litter box, live on tattered furniture, and on special occasions have our early morning walk to the bathroom punctuated by the indescribable experience of cold cat puke squishing through our toes. On those mornings I understood why the only thing my father ever said about the cats was, “I’m just waiting for them to die.”

And die they did, after many years of waiting. The black one went first, and when the beloved Siamese died, some years later, my father was elated, my mother inconsolable. It was our first experience with the profound anguish of a person who has lost a beloved pet, and we had no idea that in addition to bringing on extreme sadness, it can cause a person to do some pretty outlandish things. So it was that on the day my mother had her precious Willow put down, she went directly to the pet store, and came home with two Siamese kittens. As if that weren’t enough, when my father stepped through the door that evening he found us sitting around the dining room table feeding those kittens filet mignon. He was livid, and probably thought he couldn’t be angrier, but that’s because he didn’t know what was coming.

The following week a package arrived wrapped in brown paper, the kind of packaging that in those days was primarily used for shipping items of “adult entertainment,” and while the contents of this package weren’t pornographic per se, they probably qualified as obscene. Seems my mother had made a stop between the veterinarian and pet store and, her world off kilter from the depths of her sorrow, had somehow thought it reasonable to see a taxidermist. Yes, precious Willow was back from the dead, and my father was back to waiting. His waiting would continue for a very, very long time.

My parents are no longer together for a variety of reasons, but I’m pretty sure the stuffed cat didn’t help.

So like I said, I had always wanted a dog. I even worked as a dog walker while I was in high school, and was absolutely certain that once I was on my own I would get a dog. Of course that was before the Pooper Scooper Law.

On August 1, 1978, the Yankees beat the Texas Rangers to climb to 6 ½ games back of Boston, and New York passed the country’s first Pooper Scooper Law. The Yankees proceeded to lose the next three. That should have told us something right there.

Over the course of the next few years, I watched closely the practices of the dog owners in my neighborhood. Most went with the plastic bag over the hand that they turned inside out after collection, and while this method seemed exceedingly efficient, there was something disconcerting about the thought of grabbing a pile of steaming dog poo, even if you did have a ply or two of plastic protection. Others, who perhaps felt as I did about grabbing the pile, went with the newspaper technique, watching carefully for the dog to assume the position, and then quickly leaning over to thrust a section of the newspaper under its butt just in time to catch the falling feces. When well-executed, the newspaper thrust, catch, fold and dispose is easily the most elegant of the poop scoop methods. Yet one only has to see it go awry once to know it’s not for them. I mean, is there anything more embarrassing, for both parties, than a person bent over at the waist holding a piece of newspaper under a dog’s ass as it skitches awkwardly down the street trying to get the hell away from the lunatic trying to catch its shit with a newspaper?

So I decided not to get a dog after all, at least not until I had moved out of the city. My story was that I wanted a substantial dog, like a Rottweiler, and I couldn’t be so cruel as to confine such an animal to a small, New York City apartment. But it’s closer to the truth to say that, while I did want a substantial dog, I wasn’t all that keen on handling its equally substantial poop.

This brings me to the fall of ’94, my girlfriend who had recently moved to New York from Boston, her desire to get a dog, and our discussion of the relative merits of such a move. I made a convincing case. My lease would be up in February, and we had already decided to move to Westchester. Buying just any old dog from an unscrupulous breeder or worse, a pet store, can bring on all sorts of complications. It’s better to go to a trusted breeder, wait for a new litter, and have your pick of it. She, for her part, had given up her life, including an apartment she loved, a car she loved, and a city she loved, and come down here to live in my apartment, hang out with my friends, and listen to my convincing arguments. She didn’t say it at the time, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking the whole thing had been one big mistake, and maybe, just maybe, a dog could save it. But in the face of my overwhelming logic, she relented. We would get a dog in 3 months when we moved out of the city.

The following morning she went to a doctor’s appointment, in my car, and called me from the road on her way back. “I bought a puppy,” was all she said. “I’ll go to the pet store,” was my reply.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


On a cold, drizzly, November morning in 1984, I woke to the sound of helicopter rotors and the vibrating sheet rock walls of the Pilot House Motel in Santa Barbara, California. In my memory, the sound was so loud, the rotor wash so pervasive, I would have sworn the motel was actually on the tarmac, but across the room Pat King slept right through it. Who could blame him? Getting up would only mean the beginning of another exhausting day dragging our marginally talented team on his back in vain pursuit of our impossible quest, a national title. Another day of playing every point, touching the disc every other pass, drawing the other team’s best defender, and knowing that no matter how well he played it probably wouldn’t be enough. I’d have stayed in bed too.

Pat’s team, KABOOM!, was a dog and pony show whose bulldog was lost for the season to a freak kidney injury. That left the rest of the team riding the pony, Pat, as far as he could carry them. In the past I may have slighted some of my former teammates by suggesting that we weren’t a very good team, but we really weren’t. We were tough and fearless, and we played a slogging, plodding, northeast style that was brutal on the eyes. When we won, we won ugly. Come to think of it, when we lost it was pretty ugly too.

KABOOM! was a ragtag hodgepodge of players who weren’t especially fast, couldn’t throw especially well, and were named after a toasted oat cereal with marshmallow stars. But we had two legitimate star players, and when they were in form we could play with anybody. Alas, when one of them went down with an injury, it was a different story, or so it looked from the sideline where I was standing in November of 1984. I have no idea what it looked like from where Pat was standing. I never found myself in that position because Pat never got injured. Except for that one time…

Back in the day, my brother had an urban landscaping business and he got a job putting a backyard garden in behind an upper west side brownstone. He hired Pat and me, and then told us that our fist job was to remove a sidewalk that ran the perimeter of the yard and was four inches thick. Oh, and we had to do the whole job with a pickaxe and sledgehammer, then haul the pieces out by hand in milk crates. By the time we finished the job Pat had sustained nerve damage in his right wrist from hitting a concrete sidewalk with a pickaxe several thousand times. Being Pat, he didn’t let the cast keep him from playing, although he did play with a tennis ball nestled in the fingers of his right hand to keep him from involuntarily lunging for the disc and causing further damage. It surprised no one that within days Pat could throw better lefty than most of the guys on the team, but I digress.

The average annual rainfall in Santa Barbara is about 15 inches, but on the last day of pool play in 1984 they got about half of that. The wind whipped, the rain came in sheets, and we wrapped ourselves in plastic to stave off hypothermia. But with the game to go to semis being a matchup of the high flying Condors against slogging KABOOM!, the rain was our best friend. With Pat leading the way and me wrapped in plastic, we were leading at half. Sadly, all good things, even miserably cold, driving southern California monsoons, must come to an end. When the sun came out for the second half the Condors came to life, and despite Pat’s efforts, for the second straight year KABOOM!’s season ended one game short of the semi’s.

1985 saw the return of the bulldog, and with the dog and pony show in full swing, KABOOM! finally made it to the semifinals. A hard-fought victory over Windy City earned us a trip to the finals, and earned Pat another brutal job. Having blown my ACL on game point, I was reduced to a sideshow in the finals. It again fell to Pat to carry the team on his back, and did he ever.

If you can stand watching grainy footage of guys wearing short shorts, making a bunch of turnovers, and sliding around on a brutally bad field, get a hold of the 1985 Finals. You will be treated to two delightful treasures.

The first is the commentary of the Condors’ Keay Nakae, a great player who happened to also be a colorful commentator. Late in the second half, with KABOOM! in the midst of an improbable comeback against the Flying Circus, he offers up this gem: “Circus looked like they had this game in the refrigerator, but they left the door open and KABOOM!’s been snacking.”

The second is the play of Pat King. He literally takes over the game. With everybody knowing he has to touch the disc every other pass, he still gets open at will. Point after point he throws a 30 yarder, catches a dump from the receiver, throws another 30 yarder, catches the next dump, and throws a goal. He goes up in a crowd and gets a block, throws a bomb to the goal line, then sprints downfield and catches the goal from the receiver he threw the bomb to. He plays every single point and never seems to tire. And when the game is over and Circus has won, he reacts not with resignation but fury, because he fully expected to win.

So why am I telling this story, and why now? Well, I told it once before, to the UPA Hall of Fame selection committee, several years ago when Pat was first eligible. I added in the details of Pat’s importance to New York, as well as the plain truth that he is quite simply the greatest player I ever played with and absolutely deserving of election into the Hall. I’ll save you the trouble of looking and tell you that the selection committee didn’t see it that way. Not that year, nor in any of the subsequent years when his application for admittance was still eligible for consideration. Initially I was dumbfounded. Now I think I understand. Sadly, my understanding is significantly more troubling than my dumbfoundation (not a word, but should be).

If you do some looking around on the HOF section of the UPA web site you’ll learn a few things. One is that the HOF vetting subcommittee has a distinctly Boston flavor. In 2005, three of the five members were former Boston players. In subsequent years that number drops all the way down to two. Another thing you’ll learn is that five of the past ten players voted into the Hall played all or some of their careers in Boston. A little more pointing and clicking and you’ll learn that of the 18 championships awarded in the Open and Women’s divisions from 1979 to 1988, 3 were won by Boston teams. Imagine that. Half of the players who make it past a committee that is 40-60% Boston players come from….Boston. And yet only one sixth (roughly 17%) of the championships from the early era were won by Boston teams.

By contrast consider that 7 of those early titles were won by California teams (about 40%) and three of the past ten players voted in played in California. Hard to argue with those numbers. But then you see that during those early years Windy City won two titles and lost in the finals twice, but no one from those great teams has been named to the Hall. Is it possible that certain members of the selection process are treating the Hall like their private, restricted club?

Which brings us back to Pat King. On page 70 of the Ultimate History book there’s a full page picture of Pat holding a disc aloft above Brent Russell of the San Diego/LA Iguanas. The caption tells you that Pat spiked the disc wrathfully. For the record, he didn’t. He flicked it backwards away from Brent, and it fell softly to the ground. Did this image and its attendant misinformation hurt Pat’s candidacy? How about the fact that several of the members of the vetting subcommittee had their seasons ended by Pat’s team year after year? Did they let that cloud their judgment? Who knows? What I do know is that Pat had all the skills, played both ways all day long, was a leader on and off the field, and played with great success at the pinnacle of the sport for over a decade. Sounds like a hall of famer to me.

So my question is, What the fuck?

In the interests of journalistic integrity, I should probably point out that although I was eligible for election to the HOF this year I was not selected. Seems the committee didn’t know I was old enough, which serves as a nice reminder that, pretensions to the contrary, we’re still a marginal hobby sport run by a bunch of erstwhile stoners who struggle to get their acts together. By way of explanation cum defense, Jim Parinella said I shouldn’t be offended because they also overlooked Paul Greff. Sadly, the admission didn’t have the desired effect. Pat King has been eligible for years, has applied, and has been rejected. But I’m supposed to feel better because they failed to consider Paul Greff? Sorry.

But I can allay Jim’s concerns about the matter. After all, who would want to belong to any club that doesn’t want somebody like Pat King as a member?