Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Bailout

Forgive me for saying this, but thank the Lord for the bailout. Finally, after two interminable years, something has pushed the election to the backburner. Just in time, too. I was beginning to run short of incredulity, cynicism, and contempt. But rather than get into any sort of substantive discussion of the bailout, let’s take a moment to examine the term itself.

Depending on your reference, the origins of the term can go back as far as the 14th century. Spellings vary depending on what side of the pond you hail from, but the meanings are similar. Originally derived from the French word for bucket, to bail out (or bale out) is to ladle water, as from a boat. Later meanings include buying a person’s liberty from incarceration, and leaping from an airplane (ideally with a parachute, itself seemingly the bale). According to Webster, it’s not until the 1950s that the term, now consolidated into a single word, is used to describe a financial rescue.

My motivation behind a close examination of the term, besides my desire to establish myself as a would be William Safire, derives from my basic discomfort with its use in the current context.

In my previous life as a teacher, I spent many hours explaining the difference between denotative and connotative definitions. Briefly, a word’s denotative meaning is its actual, dictionary definition. Its connotative meaning encompasses all the subtleties of use, interpretation and, perhaps most importantly in our current political and social climate, spin. As I explained it to my students, in a world where fewer and fewer people actually know the denotative meanings of many of the words they use on a regular basis, the connotative meanings take on added significance. ( By way of example, consider the word ignorant, which denotatively means without knowledge, but whose connotation is so negative as to make the word an insult.)

In the early days of the current economic downturn, there was much discussion, and an equal amount of hand wringing, over whether or not we were actually in a recession. Pundits pontificated on both sides of the debate, and we were treated to a parade of alternate terms that were not quite so depressing: correction, downturn, slowdown, and of course, stagflation. Finally, realizing the time had come for him to face our financial flaccidity head on, our illustrious leader, in a valiant effort to stiffen our economic resolve, proposed a stimulus package. Just listen to it: stimulus. It evokes feelings of activity, stimulation, even virility. It is unquestionably a positive term, and I’m sure the presidential spin doctors had every hope that the positive connotations alone would be the cure for our economic impotence. Sadly it was not to be.

Interestingly enough, like someone who had “never had this happen before,” he kept waiting for the stimulus to work, seemingly saying, “just give it a minute – it’ll come back.” Of course, as we all know, it only got worse (not that I’ve ever had that happen before). Which brings us to our current predicament.

Yes, times are tough, tougher than most anyone alive can remember. Yet with all of Congress, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve on the case, I felt sure somebody would come up with something. Not a solution (because you can’t really solve a problem you don’t understand) but at the very least a proposal, a platform, a word whose connotation would be at least as inspiring as the stimulus. I thought long and hard on our current deficiencies and assumed that at the very least we would be in line for an enhancement. Perhaps, given the dire nature of things, the do or die situation we find ourselves in, it might be serious enough for Paulson to call for an augmentation. But no, faced with the specter of a calamitous collapse, when what he needed to do was choose a word whose connotation would inspire confidence and determination, Paulson gave us the bailout.

Just listen to it: bailout. Not exactly inspirational, is it? No matter which meaning you choose, we’re fucked.

We’re in jail. We’re facing the gallows or worse. Our bail is a paltry 700 billion. But check it out. Lucky US. Our doddering old Uncle Sam comes along to bail us out. But we still have to face the charges, or go on the lam and lose the bail money.

We’re in a plane. The pilots are dead. We’re on autopilot and running out of fuel. We’re going down. Nothing to do but bail out. But even if the chute opens and even if we don’t land in a tree or in shark-infested waters or in a fucking volcano we’re still in the middle of nowhere without a way home.

Finally, the one that I truly think is the most apropos: we’re in a boat in the middle of the ocean. We’re taking on water. There’s only one certainty and it’s that we’re going to sink. What to do? Let’s start bailing out, not because it will save us, but because it beats sitting here doing nothing, and at least gives the illusion of taking meaningful action.

So there you have it, and it ain’t pretty. We’re in a world of hurt, that sound you hear is shit hitting the fan, and the best all the assembled minds of our elected and appointed representatives can come up with is to try to save the sinking ship with a bucket. We’re going down and all we’ve got going for us is the bailout. It’s the financial equivalent of an ultimate team naming itself after an ocean liner that sank in the worst maritime disaster in history.

And we all know how that story ended.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm Not Drunk

Early on in the frenzied reaction to my recent blog post about a person we’ve been calling Tim, I received a phone call from my brother. It might be hard for anyone who does not know me very well to know how much pleasure it gives me to write that simple line. My brother and I have not always been close. There were long stretches of time when our relationship was one of benign neglect, when we might have gone years without seeing each other if not for the regular recurrence of Christmas. I’m pleased to say that we’re probably closer now than we ever have been, and I’m always delighted when he calls. However, on this recent occasion I was also very busy and a bit distracted, which might explain why I can’t quite remember the exact wording of the wisdom he offered by way of commentary on the recent blog post about Tim. It went something like this: People should just get drunk, fall down, and start vomiting.

His point might have been that Tim, by engaging in conversation during that delicate period between drunk and falling down, had brought this on himself. In other words, once you’ve reached a certain level of drunkenness, the things you’re liable to say might be even more embarrassing than lying in a pool of your own vomit. Without revealing too much about the revelry that followed North Carolina State’s upset of Black Tide at College Nationals in Boulder (1999?), my brother knows whereof he speaks. Perhaps if he had been at the Clambake party last weekend he might have been talking to Tim and he could have counseled him. He was not. I was. I did not counsel. I listened, and then I blogged.

As previously mentioned, my post has generated a frenzied reaction, with three times as many visits in a day as I had ever recorded before. Comments to the post currently stand at fourteen, and an RSD thread, spun off by a reader with his own agenda, has had eighteen posts and seven thread title changes as of this writing. As is often the case, much of the reaction doesn’t merit mention. A few responses, however, were both thoughtful and thought-provoking, and it seems that perhaps some amplification of my position is in order.

I have no vendetta against Tim, and I don’t think it was inappropriate for me to blog using the information he revealed while drunk at a Frisbee party. I don’t know if he feels differently, but he has been in touch with me via email and did not indicate that he felt that I had crossed the line. I know that some people disagree on this point, so I think we’ll have to assume that our lines aren’t in the same place and leave it at that.

There were other things Tim said that I will not reveal, including his assessment of the HOF credentials of both the current Sl8 of candidates and his former teammates. To my way of thinking that would be inappropriate, the difference being that I think it’s perfectly acceptable to reveal (and perhaps revel in) Tim’s views on himself but not his views on others. As for why and how I revealed what I revealed, that question requires a more elaborate answer. Let’s start with how.

First of all, I make no claim to being an Oscar Wilde scholar, and if my thematic interpretation of The Picture of Dorian Gray is flawed, you have my apologies. It was really just a device to introduce the possibility that Tim’s revelations were more than drunken blather.

Likewise, the recitation of the falls from grace suffered by Fossella, Edwards, and Spitzer (now that would be a kick-ass law firm) was also a device, one I thought would suggest the likelihood that while there are certainly varying degrees of duplicity, it could be a more common part of the human condition than we might want to admit. I hope that you’ll note that in the politically charged environment we find ourselves in today, I made certain to include members of both major political parties.

As for the transition from device-laden intro to the actual meat of the matter, let’s just say that when Match wrote that I could have done a better job he was probably being kind. I’ve written smoother transitions with a sledgehammer.

Most of my writing is done in my head, with ideas weaving, unraveling and re-weaving themselves over a period of time until the piece feels ready. When I finally sit down to the actual task of writing, the piece is usually about 90% completed. That process doesn’t work well when time is of the essence, and because I wanted to get this quasi-Clambake piece posted soon after the event, I sat right down and wrote it. I’ll be the first to admit that it reeks of mediocrity.

I have written some pieces that I found to be well-crafted and genuinely moving, touching on topics that, while personal in the specific sense, could be seen to have almost universal application in a more general sense. Many of those pieces have been read by fewer than one quarter of the people who read this recent piece in a single day. Am I to assume that, among the ultimate blog reading community, flawed writing of a gossipy nature with dubious value is four times more popular than more cleverly crafted, poignant tales touching on serious issues? I don’t know. More importantly, I don’t care.

I write because I like to. Sometimes I write about life’s little absurdities, and I write in a way that amuses me, that makes me smile. Sometimes I write about more serious topics, and I’m not ashamed to say that sometimes my writing makes me cry. If I write about ultimate I try to do it tangentially. I’m not always successful. I do not write in a vacuum. I post my writing on a blog and I write for an audience, but it may not be the audience you imagine. In most of my posts there are little jokes that can only be understood by small numbers of people, sometimes only one. Most of the time I never know if those jokes find their mark, but I keep writing them. Every once in a while I get an email from someone who has been moved by something I’ve written. That’s the audience I write for.

I have nothing against Tim, but I was making fun of him. Anyone who reads my stuff knows I make as much fun of myself as anyone else. We should all spend a little more time laughing at ourselves. On that note, and to put to rest any suggestion of my lawn being decorated with heads on spikes, I think the Cheap Seats bit is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. In fact, for some time afterward, I changed all my passwords to FRIZBAY! So, in the spirit of self-deprecation, and in fairness to Tim, I’ll share some of the things I might have said that night at the Clambake party.

As a member of the HOF peer review committee, I had a chance to cast ten nominating votes from a selection of eligible candidates. I could only find three people to vote for. Two of those players are on the Sl8. I think that only three members of New York deserve to be in the HOF. I do not believe I was ever the greatest player in the game; I wasn’t even the greatest player on my team.

I am not drunk.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Picture of (Your Name Here)

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, the title character is granted his wish for immortality. Despite the passing years, he does not show any physical signs of aging. Meanwhile, his portrait, which he keeps hidden, ages and becomes increasingly disfigured. But while Dorian Gray does not show physical signs of age, his internal disfigurement becomes increasingly problematic, as he secretly engages in worsening acts of lewdness and depravity. After many years of hidden debauchery, he attacks the now hideous portrait, but succeeds only in turning himself instantly into a withered and unrecognizable corpse, while the portrait returns to its original condition.

The novel’s examination of the question of immoral behavior and its impact on the soul captivated readers, and subsequent film versions of the story have done the same for movie buffs. There is even a condition known as Dorian Gary Syndrome, an excessive preoccupation with one’s physical appearance coupled with a fear of or unwillingness to accept aging. In light of recent developments in the political arena, I think the more compelling theme, in terms of applicability to the world as we know it, is the allure of duplicity, the thrill of leading double lives.

An item in today’s New York Post notes that the leading republican candidate for the congressional seat currently held by Vito Fossella is about to receive a judicial appointment. That appointment, should it come through and be accepted, would open up the door for Fossella to run for re-election, something he vowed not to do back in May. The reason he vowed not to run? After being arrested for DUI he subsequently admitted to having an extra-marital affair and fathering a three-year-old child out of wedlock. As for why Mr. Fossella wouldn’t think that having led a double life is an impediment to re-election to Congress, consider Senator John Edwards.

In early August, squeaky-clean John Edwards finally admitted the truth of rumors that had been swirling around his campaign for months. Namely, that while campaigning for the highest office in the land with his devoted, cancer-stricken wife at his side he had been carrying on an affair with a campaign videographer. Although he denies being the father of her new-born baby, there is at least some reason to doubt his sincerity. So why would anyone with such an unblemished image and reputation risk it all for such tawdry goings on? Perhaps we should ask Elliot Spitzer.

New York Governor Elliot Spitzer (aka Client #9) fell farther faster than either Fossella or Edwards, going from the Governor’s mansion to the political outhouse (and his wife’s doghouse) in a matter of days when details of his indiscretions became public knowledge. Yet his sin, hiring a prostitute, may have been the least distressing. (We don’t call the world’s oldest profession for nothing.) What made Spitzer’s fall worse was the fact that he had made his career as the crime-busting, take no prisoners, prosecutor of just these kinds of transgressions. When word got around that the holier than thou crusader was paying $5,000 a night to sleep with a woman only five years older than his eldest daughter, what he received was more than come-uppance. It was up, over, out and goodbye.

Three highly regarded public servants with everything to lose risk it all to experience the thrill of duplicity, and all of them within a period of six months. Three modern day Dorian Grays, composed, respected, and admired on the outside, while their secret sins eat away at their souls. Three people who were one thing on the outside, and something very different on the inside. If we can assume that for every one caught there are plenty more who get away with it, this is truly just the tip of the iceberg. Furthermore, if we see it in public figures we can readily assume that many average citizens, regular folk if you will, who would never be subject to the scrutiny that brought these scandals to light are probably living similarly duplicitous lives.

So there I was at the Clambake party, a Frisbee party that, with its food, drink, games, bands, diversions and indiscretions, is about as impressive a Frisbee party as there is. It is, however, still a Frisbee party, which is why I was looking to get a ride out of there even as I was swallowing my last bite of lobster. Unfortunately, before I was able to secure that ride and get the hell out of Dodge, I found myself in the company of someone whose name I’ve omitted for his own protection.

Now this person, we’ll call him Tim, is a very recognizable figure in our little game. He has made a name for himself as a very successful player, committed organizer, and even authored an expansive collection of strategies. Along the way he has come to be known as polite, intelligent, soft-spoken, and perhaps even a little bit bland, or so I thought. At a Clambake party, that celebrated 20 years of the event with a theme that harkened back even farther, Tim revealed another side of himself, a side that, a la Dorian Gray, he may have been hiding for some time.

Because this guy, the one we’re calling Tim, has some very detailed knowledge of the Hall of Fame selection process, our conversation began there. We started with the usual innocuous comments and insincere pleasantries, but then things turned quickly. For starters, Tim readily revealed the names of the eight finalists for this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, information that, to my knowledge, is not supposed to be discussed so cavalierly. He then offered his opinions on who should and should not be inducted, again a matter of some sensitivity. Finally, in a boast that might’ve come out of Joe Durso, he declared that he should be a first ballot entry into the Hall of Fame because he was, for period of years, the best player in the game, uncoverable, won six titles in a row, AND he wrote a book. I’m not making this up. In case there were any doubt about how he really felt, when given the opportunity to soften his boast, Tim declined, instead repeating it. Twice.

And I thought I was full of myself.

Having finally secured my much desired ride, I left the party wondering which Tim is the real Tim. Is it the guy I’ve known for years, the quiet, sometimes awkward, intelligent and soft-spoken Tim. Or is it the bombastic, presumptuous, self-inflating egomaniac who holds so many of his peers in contempt?

The following day, Clambake Sunday, I arrived for our quarterfinal game still a little undone from the previous night’s encounter, and was approached by a teammate who asked ,”Did you hear about Tim?” He proceeded to tell me a story that was soon corroborated by several others. As the night wore on and the party continued, Tim had gotten so drunk that he fell on his head, not once but twice. Soon reports started rolling in that he was on his team’s sideline vomiting.

Was everything Tim said just drunken rambling? Or did the alcohol, whose effects were less obvious when we spoke than when he walked, acting like a truth serum, bringing his real, honest, heartfelt feelings out in the open? Had he been living a double life all these years, pretending to be one thing but knowing he was another, and did that duplicity and its attendant tension finally push him to do something so outlandish he would never be able to go back to old Tim? Is that what happened to Fossella, Edwards and Spitzer? If so, if it can happen to them and Tim, who’s next?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Toad, Dusty, Ray, and the Grammar Police

It has been widely recognized that the New York roster had a remarkable blend of talent and intelligence. What is perhaps less widely known is the intelligence extended well beyond the ultimate field into the minutiae of the English language and its usage. Several members of the team routinely engaged in discussions of proper grammar, as well as parsing the sometimes subtle distinctions among fact, opinion, conjecture, and supposition. One might suggest that had we not been beating teams so handily and therefore had so much time to kill we would never have expended such mental energy on such idle matters. I like to think that even if our games were more hotly contested, we would still have found the time to engage in what was, for us, more than an idle pursuit. Regardless, those of us who were so inclined did discuss such things, even during timeouts, much to the consternation of our less linguistically inclined teammates, a practice which collectively earned us the moniker, the Grammar Police.

I admit with no small degree of embarrassment that we were only volunteer policemen, ersatz grammarians, proudly strutting about in uniform and badge but lacking both the firepower and the training to qualify as official enforcers of the laws of the language. You can be fairly certain that we didn’t even always understand the laws we were attempting to enforce. Nonetheless, like other volunteers the world over, our hearts were in the right place, even if the same could not always be said of our modifiers.

The years passed, our greatness waned, but my love of the language and its many arcane rules did not fade in the least. When a life-altering experience led me to switch careers, I put my volunteer’s uniform in storage and enrolled in the Police Academy. A short time later, I graduated with honors, a full-fledged, Harcourt-Harbrace Handbook trained, sentence diagramming member of the National Order of Grammar Police.

In the movie Training Day, relative rookie Ethan Hawke is acquainted with the hard reality of what real policing is like by veteran Denzel Washington, and it is in no way what he might have expected from reading the manuals at the Academy. The same can be said of my first assignment in the precinct that includes West Johnston High School.

For starters, I soon learned that my partner, who has a master’s degree in journalism from an institution of “higher” learning I won’t name (Kansas State), couldn’t identify a preposition in a sentence. Later that year, when a dispute with my captain landed me in her doghouse, that partner was given my Honors English I beat. The following year, the Chief of the Department caused us to lose the county-wide, departmental spelling competition when she misfired on “connoisseur,” insisting despite my protestations that it only contained a single s.

As the years wore on, my insistence on doing things by the book isolated me from the rest of my fellow officers. On my beat, students were not allowed to get by using the wrong case, make do with sloppy spelling or punctuation, or muddle through with flawed subject/verb agreement. My colleagues, thinking I was trying to make them look bad, resented my adherence to the letter of the law. When my methods were successful, when crimes against the language dropped on my beat, they attributed it to the caliber of my students rather than to my practice of stringent enforcement of the grammarian’s code. I suppose things hit rock bottom when it became known throughout the department that it was standard practice on my beat to have my students mine the school newspaper for errors as part of their weekly assignments. I became an outcast, no longer even called by my first name, but referred to only as “Dobyns,” most often in the context of, “Don’t you hate Dobyns?”

Looking back, I’ve often wondered if I might, just possibly, have gone too far. I mean, I wasn’t just a member of the Grammar Police. I was Grammar Supercop, and I really can’t blame my fellow officers for finding me unbearable. Strict, unabashed, and unwavering adherence to the rules, even rules as sacrosanct as those of English grammar and spelling, can be a little tedious, even when it’s well-meant. Perhaps I should have loosened the reins a little, looked the other way on occasion, let some of the less serious violations slide. After all, everyone else was doing it. I guess it was something about the uniform that made it hard for me loosen up. But now that I’m no longer a member of the force…

Which brings me to Toad -- passionate, linguistically challenged Toad. Yes, his posts, comments to my blog, and probably his grocery lists are rife with spelling errors, but looking through the prism of my former grammar zealotry, so what? Does it really matter? Most of the time I know what he meant to write, and even when I’m a little confused, I can usually gather from context which of the possible meanings he was shooting for. In fact, it’s been shown through an oft-repeated study (that I think originated at Cambridge) that when it comes to matters of comprehension correct spelling is over-rated. Factors like word shape, initial and terminal letter accuracy, and context have more impact on comprehension than accurate spelling. And since the goal of all language use is communication, who cares if he can spell, so long as I can understand him?

Which brings me to Dusty, whose carefully written elucidation of his previous comment seems, for the moment at least, to have adequately quelled Luke’s desire to smash his face in with a baseball bat (Ichiro model, I’m sure). Although Dusty clearly possesses linguistic skills to spare and spelled every word in his initial comment correctly, he fell a tad short on the communication front. I will openly admit that I was totally lost, and on reading Luke’s response I went back and re-read Dusty’s comment, simply because I had missed both the slight of teachers and the general doucheyness that Luke had detected. On a second read I still didn’t understand, but does that mean that if I needed a second read of a manuscript I was submitting I’d send it to Toad before I sent it to Dusty? Not bloody likely.

Which brings me to Ray, who used his comment on my blog to take a swipe at Toad’s spelling before he got around to the really important issue, me. For the record, I have no problem with personal attacks, misdirected aggression, off-topic diatribes, or anything else someone might post under the guise of “comment.” It all qualifies under my liberal definition of discourse; bring it on. But Ray’s related post to Toad’s rsd thread, mired amid the drivel, raises an important point that bears repeating lest it be lost: sometimes what you write isn’t the only thing we’re reading.

Readers have active minds, and even as we’re processing the content, deciphering its meaning, making associations to stored knowledge, and wondering if the person in the next cubicle is going to see us scratch ourselves, we’re making assumptions about the writer. Hence, Toad is ignorant, Dusty is a douche, and Luke has some anger management issues. Any or all of these might have some merit, but none of them was explicitly stated; they were all inferred by readers who were, either consciously or subconsciously, filling in the blanks between the lines.

So, without taking sides, I think Toad should consider the constructive part of Ray’s criticism as just that. There are people who will be more likely to give his candidacy for the UPA board support, or at least consideration, if he takes the time to carefully construct his position statements, and then takes a little more time to proofread them. I might also suggest that, in addition to being a valuable exercise in self-improvement, using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation in written communication might come in handy should the day ever come when Hurricane Francis bears down on the Carolina coast and wipes out his millions. A poorly written cover letter or flawed resume is often the first thing that gets a job seeker disqualified, even if he did once have more money than the person doing the hiring.

I think Dusty might have learned a thing or two about communication from this discussion as well. His recent comment was a joy to read, and was a beautiful illustration of something that is often forgotten. Good writing is hard, but the effort is worth it, because it has always been true that the harder you work at your writing the easier your words are to read. Well done.

To Ray I say that although I have appreciation for the point I think you were trying to make, I detected a note of condescension in your writing that probably made it hard for Toad to accept your criticism, however well-meaning it might have been. I am not, however, suggesting you change your style; I’m a former member of the Grammar Police, not the Tone Patrol.

Finally, in case you were wondering what happens when veterans of the force lose their edge, when their previously way honed skills become dull from disuse, consider this:

On a recent weeknight, a couple of friends/former teammates from the great World Champion Red Tide ’98 team were in town, and we found ourselves in Union Hall, a favorite Park Slope hangout. In addition to having indoor bocce ball every night, Union Hall has an occasional grammar and spelling competition. We were cajoled into entering by the jovial emcee, and made our way downstairs looking forward to what we assumed would be a very relaxed event where we would all be reminded, in the nicest way possible, how stupid we are. Instead we experienced an excruciating evening of humiliation at the hands of the formerly jovial emcee who turned quickly into a Grammar Nazi, and were also reminded, in a not especially nice way, how stupid we are.

Through a series of spelling questions (caipirinha, Worcestershire, radicchio) and grammar questions (transitive/intransitive verbs, restrictive/non-restrictive clauses, subjective/nominative cases, past perfect progressive tense) the pool of contestants was whittled down to the final 5. Those five were then brought up on stage where, prior to answering all subsequent questions, they were required to do a shot. That’s when things got really ugly.

For the record, I finished third, eliminating myself after several rounds of shots by misidentifying a verbal and misspelling crustacean, a word that is significantly easier to spell before you do a pineapple upside down cake shot.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nothing Means Anything

On September 11, 2001, I was in a classroom in Poe Hall on the North Carolina State University campus, watching the events unfold on a small television that was rolled in on an A/V cart. As the day wore on, I continued watching in the Caldwell Hall Lounge, and in another classroom in Tompkins Hall. Less than three years removed from the city and with many dear friends in harm’s way, I felt maddeningly distant and utterly impotent. In time I would learn that people watching from rooftops around the five boroughs had remarkably similar feelings, despite their proximity. There was nothing anyone could do but watch.

I was lucky. All my friends escaped physical harm. My friend Arthur was not so lucky. He lost a childhood friend, a friend he called a brother as an expression of their closeness. For him, and for many others like him, life is divided now neatly into two parts: before 9/11 and after 9/11. Their lives will never be the same.

Yesterday was my first September 11th since I returned to New York, and it was therefore my first chance to spend the day with Arthur. It didn’t quite work out the way I planned, for a variety of reasons. The first was work.

Arthur doesn’t work on September 11th, and if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that he never will. I, however, as a partner and managing director of a start-up that is trying to grow, do not yet have the luxury of saying there are any days that I don’t work. So while Arthur spent the day in Bay Ridge, taking his son to visit with the family of his “brother” and attending various memorial services, I took the R train to my Manhattan office.

I’m not sure precisely what I expected working in New York on September 11th would be like, but this wasn’t it. For starters, the New York Times did not have a single mention of the event on the front page. Nothing. The Metro section had a story about the altered skyline, but that was it. Somehow I thought the event, the date, the remembrance would be a more substantial story.

My first meeting of the day was with a woman who moved here two years ago from Brazil, and she was frank in her assessment of the seventh anniversary of the attacks. “Get over it already,” she implored with an insensitivity bordering on callousness. “I mean, it’s too much.” Among the group of people I spend time with in Bay Ridge, where people still fly American flags with the words “Never Forget” embroidered among the stripes, such thoughts would never be uttered. It would be blasphemy. But she said it as though it were a perfectly natural reaction. Since she is a recent transplant, I assumed that her lack of sympathy could be attributed to the fact that she hadn’t been here to experience the event and its aftermath first hand. That or she’s just a stinking foreigner.

My next meeting, over lunch, was with a lifelong New Yorker who lives on the West Side of Manhattan and was in the city, watching from his 45th floor apartment that day. His experience was totally different from the Brazilian woman’s, but his feelings were quite similar.

We were sitting in the back of the restaurant, with no one else near by, but still he spoke in hushed tones. He prefaced his remarks by saying, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but…” and because of my previous meeting I knew right away what was coming. What I could not imagine was how it would arrive.

“I can’t stand it,” he said, his voice betraying a hint of anger. “I’m just sick of it, all the moaning and the violins,” he went on, adding, “It’s just so unseemly.” I was beyond shocked, and I’m pretty sure my lower jaw dropped into my Salade Nicoise. I had been under the assumption that the collective grief that gets broadcast around the country, the world even, every September 11th was a central part of every New Yorker’s life. What I was hearing told a very different story. As the meal went on, he elaborated: “At first I could understand, but it’s been seven years already. I mean, when does it end? Seven? Ten? Twenty? When is it enough?”

Walking back to the office, I sent a quick note to Arthur asking how he was doing, and we began trading texts. He seemed in good spirits, and I found myself writing about business, feeling guilty about it, and then doing it again. I realized then that I was a grief fence-sitter. My closeness to Arthur made it important to me that I recognize and share some of his experience, but I could also understand and relate to some of the things that others had been saying. When is it enough? Will there really be a “9/11 – Seventeen Years Later” television program? Will the names of all the victims still be read aloud in 2018? I began to wonder if the whole process had gone beyond mourning the dead, and instead had become celebrating the grief of the living. And if that were the case, wasn’t it all just a little too self-indulgent?

After finishing a few things in the office, I was on my way back to Brooklyn. I had hoped to leave right after my lunch meeting, around 2PM. Instead, I left smack in the middle of rush hour.

As I mentioned, I’m trying to get a start-up off the ground, so I usually come to work very early and stay very late. At the same time, I am my own boss, so if I feel like going to the gym in the morning or simply hitting the snooze button a dozen times, there’s no one to chew me out when I come in at 10:30. The result is that I very rarely (almost never) take the train at rush hour. After yesterday, I never will.

The New York City subway is a marvel in that it gets so many people to so many places every day almost without fail. It is also a marvel for the smell, grime, stench, filth, and general unpleasantness that await all of those people when they descend into that singularly urban experience. On a slightly humid late summer day at the peak of rush hour, the experience is like something out of Star Trek’s “The Mark of Gideon,” only without the blond hottie, and you’re no Captain Kirk.

By the time I was mercifully belched out of my subterranean misery, I knew that Arthur would be at home, preparing for that evening’s memorial service on the 69th Street Pier, a service at which he would be the keynote speaker. When I arrived at his house, in true Arthur style, he was neither getting dressed nor preparing his speech. He was sitting on the living room floor playing with his son. I joined them, and while Luca played, Arthur and I talked about the day. I shared some of the things I had heard, and some of the things I had thought, in reference to the day and its ongoing memorial significance. Arthur listened quietly, and then spoke without a hint of defensiveness: “You don’t get it,” was all he said. Then he left me to watch his son while he showered and dressed.

The 69th Street Pier, also known as the Veterans Memorial Pier, juts out from 69th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn into New York Harbor. From it you get a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan in one direction, and the Verrazano Narrows bridge in the other. Last night, with the array of flags fluttering in a steady breeze, the twin beams of light shining skyward from Ground Zero, and the outline of the bridge etched in green lights against the night sky, it was truly a beautiful place to be. And when Arthur stepped up to speak, I quickly learned this would be no grief session.

Speaking freely and off-the-cuff, Arthur started with a series of anecdotes about his brother, Crazy Joe, and quickly had us all laughing. He imitated his voice and his mannerisms, and because the only thing funnier than Joe is probably Arthur imitating Joe, we were soon wiping tears of laughter from our eyes. Then, like all good, natural speakers, Arthur changed the tone. He did so by remembering a death, but it wasn’t Crazy Joe’s.

Two weeks ago, the 3 year old daughter of another lifelong neighborhood friend of Arthur’s died in a boating accident. It was one of those senseless, shocking, unexplainable things that sometimes happens in life, and it tore another hole through the fabric of this close-knit community. Arthur described the dinner he had with the father of the little girl two days ago, and told the people huddled together on that pier the one thing that heartbroken father wanted them to know. All the little things we spend our days worrying about, like jobs and money and career, that we think are so important, those things are meaningless. Then Arthur took it a step further.

“Nothing means anything,” he said.

He went on to explain that all that matters is community, the neighborhood, the family, people looking out for each other. He explained that when he thinks about 9/11 and his brother Crazy Joe, he doesn’t actually think about 9/11 at all. He thinks about the 12th, the 13th, the 14th, the 15th. The days when complete strangers took each other by the hand and comforted each other. When strangers became neighbors and neighbors became family. He said that the reason he knows that if something were to happen to him, Luca would be alright, or if something were to happen to Luca, he would be alright, is because every year these same people come to this pier and by their very presence show that no matter what horrible events might occur, all of them will always have people to look out for them.
As Arthur stepped back from the microphone, the emcee of the event asked everyone holding a flag to raise it high, and a choral singer from the local church began singing God Bless America.

I am not what I would call an overtly patriotic person. I love America, but I never put an American flag decal on my car, and I think that much of the post 9/11 flag flying was over the top. But last night, in that context, on that pier, it wasn’t. Those people, family and friends of one victim of the 9/11 attacks, live in the community of Bay Ridge, but they represented the greater borough of Brooklyn, stood for the larger city of New York, and in some strange way, when they raised those flags, were emblematic of something even larger. By standing together on that day, and all the other days like that to come, they take the memory of a tragic event and turn it into a feeling of belonging and community from which they can draw strength and comfort on every other day of the year. Being a part of it was incredibly powerful, totally unexpected, and completely enlightening.

Arthur was right. I didn’t get it. But now I do.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hypocrites, Subversives, and Public Education

I was first exposed to the hypocrisy of public education during my teacher certification program at NCSU. In a class called Schools and Society, I was assigned the task of researching and reporting on recent ballot initiatives on the use of vouchers in public school systems. At the time, the two most recent initiatives had taken place in Florida and Michigan.

For the uninitiated, a simplified explanation of voucher programs follows:

Voucher programs allow parents of children in failing schools to move their children to an alternate school of their choice. The voucher has a dollar value that is roughly equal to the cost of educating a child in the public school system, but the parents can choose to apply that value to the cost of attending a school outside the public school system. Critics of voucher programs argue that they take precious resources out of the public schools. Proponents argue that giving parents choices will force failing schools to improve in order to “compete” in the education marketplace.

What I found when I looked into the Florida and Michigan ballot initiatives was that in both cases, right up until a month before the election, polls indicated a comfortable majority of voters favored the idea, at least on a limited, experimental basis. Then the two largest teacher’s unions, the NEA and the AFT, came in and over the next 30 days spent millions of dollars on advertising designed to discredit and defeat the initiatives. In both cases they were successful.

It is quite possible that the voucher proposals would have failed without the unions’ involvement, but we’ll never know. It is also possible that the Florida and Michigan voucher experiments would have been unsuccessful. That’s another thing we’ll never know. What we do know is teacher certification programs tell prospective teachers to experiment, be creative, be willing to try anything to educate your students, because you never know what might work. Yet while teachers experiment, the teacher’s unions spend teacher dues by the millions to squelch experimentation. There’s a word for that, and the word is hypocrisy.

I never gave a dime to a teacher’s union.

During my year-end review at the end of my fifth and last year teaching, my principal went through the standard evaluation form, on which I was rated well above standard in every category except one: communicates well with colleagues (imagine that). Then she got personal. “I don’t trust you,” she admitted. “I think you’re a subversive.” I felt like I had been transported back in time.

As a student, I was called to the principal’s office more times than I could ever count. Most often it was for general misbehavior, but in my time I was called disruptive, offensive, a ne’er-do-well, and on one celebrated occasion in France, a “danger publique.” But it wasn’t until I was a forty-six year old teacher with five years experience that a principal ever called me a subversive.

Thing is, she was right.

One of the joys of teaching comes when you recognize a special quality in a student and, like a seed gardener with a young seedling, feed that quality and watch it grow. On rare occasions, that growth leads to something truly special, the kind of experience that makes teaching quite simply the greatest job in the world. Such was the case with a student of mine, a student we’ll call Jim.

Jim was gifted, and I knew from the start I’d have to work to keep him challenged, since he mastered the 9th grade English curriculum almost without trying. Much of the time I didn’t even bother having him do the class assignment, but instead gave him a NY Times crossword puzzle, or a section from a practice SAT test. He loved and rose to the challenges I presented him with, and eventually he was helping me write quizzes, tests, and brain teasers for the rest of the class. The following year he quickly realized that Honors 10th grade English, taught by a National Board Certified teacher who was also perhaps the laziest, worst teacher in the school, would not be quite so rewarding. He again came to me looking for a challenge.

Out of respect for my colleague (respect she didn’t deserve) I decided to give him something extra-curricular, so as not to undermine her classroom authority. And because I was once a smart, bored kid just like him, I made it something fun. I encouraged him to start an underground newsletter (like she said, subversive).

To give me plausible deniability, we never spoke openly about the project. He involved several classmates he could trust, but never told me who they were. Although I didn’t approve topics or proofread articles, I did, through cryptic conversations in the hallways or after school, gently nudge them in certain directions.

“Hey Mr. Dobyns, what do you think of the new dress code?”

“All students hate the dress code. There’s nothing new there.”

The first issue appeared out of nowhere, strategically placed in the bathrooms shortly before lunch. I am proud to say it was very well-written, and carefully examined the questions it posed from multiple sides. In fact, there was almost nothing written in it that I would have called objectionable. There was, however, a rather unflattering caricature of the principal wearing a swastika.

Within minutes, a team of administrators swooped through the bathrooms en masse, collecting and destroying all the copies.

For the second issue, they stayed away from cartoons and widened their distribution. The primary question they examined was just how nutritious are school lunches, and not surprisingly the answer they arrived at was not very. They examined the data, and it was disturbing: Of 6 lunch lines in the cafeteria, only one served a “healthy” lunch; the rest served pizza and French fries. They conducted interviews, and they were alarming: The cafeteria manager pointed out that they had to have the healthy alternative to provide free/reduced lunches, but speculated how much more money they would make if they didn’t. I was ecstatic. In a state where the rate of obesity among high school age children is well above the national average, this was an issue that needed to be addressed. Of course, the administration felt otherwise, and all the copies were again gathered up and destroyed.

Frustrated by the administration but still determined to be heard, they changed their tactics. Rather than publish a newsletter, they emailed, texted, MySpaced, and Facebooked their next initiative, and it was a doozy. The following Thursday, in an inspired act of civil disobedience that had me practically busting with pride and joy, they staged a lunch-out, opting to bring lunch rather than buy what the school offered. In a school cafeteria that normally serves 2000 lunches a day, fewer than 300 were purchased.

Anyone who has taught the current cell phone, I Pod, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister generation knows that they really don’t seem to care about much of anything that doesn’t carry a brand. But here they were engaged in underground organizing for a common cause, and it was a just cause. I was blown away. Of course, yet again, the administration saw it differently.

Shortly before the end of the day, the principal came on the school intercom system and announced that if the lunch-out were to be repeated, several members of the cafeteria staff would be fired. Here was an educator, charged with the difficult task of educating and inspiring a largely disaffected crowd of young people. Suddenly, they became energized and inspired on their own, and all she had to do was engage them in the process, channel their energy, encourage them to promote their cause through existing and accepted channels within the system, and instead she told them their actions were going to put innocent people out of work. It was as if the collective spirit of the student body was suddenly smothered with a wet blanket. I’d say she’s a hypocrite, but really she’s just a dumb-ass.

Shortly thereafter, one of the newsletter writers, a senior, was discovered. He was a former student of mine, an excellent writer, and top 5 in his class. During his interrogation, the administration threatened to withhold his scholarships if he didn’t turn in his collaborators. He refused. They threatened him with expulsion, and still he refused. Eventually, they settled on him reading a mea culpa, written by the administration, over the intercom, and followed that with a three day suspension. In an egregious violation of his rights, they did not contact his parents until after the interrogation was completed and his mea culpa had been read.

I listened to that student’s forced humiliation, in which he castigated his fellow students for following him in a misguided, dangerous, and disruptive activity, and I wanted to cry. I listened to the principal’s “I hope you learned your lesson” afterward, and I wanted to smash something.

I taught for another year and a half, but a big piece of what made me want to be a teacher died that day.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Call from The Hall

I suspect that in the days before email, getting “The Call” might have actually meant getting a phone call from a highly-placed representative who, with appropriate fanfare befitting the occasion, would inform you that you had finally made it, your day had come. Or at least you were closer to making it than you had previously been, and your day to begin the process of determining if your day had come had come, or something like that. Sadly, in our modern, all-wired-all-the-time, have you checked your inbox in the last thirty seconds times, there was no Call from The Hall at all.

What I received was an email from a guy who has sent me no fewer than two dozen emails since May of this year, an email whose subject heading was “Ult HOF calling?” Truth be told, I was so certain that this was another admonishment for another failure to adhere to another deadline for submitting my evaluation of another form that I hadn’t reviewed that I deleted the email off my Blackberry without reading it. It was only after I returned to the office and checked my email from my desktop that I found that yes, indeed, I had gotten “The Call.” As you might imagine, I wasn’t quite so thrilled by the honor as I never really thought I would be.

Thus began the vetting process, but unlike Sarah Palin, I can’t say it was like a visit from the IRS and the proctologist at the same time. In fact, it really wasn’t much of a visit at all. It was more like a prize announcement from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse, but without the magazine subscriptions. Greetings! You may have already been named to the Hall of Fame. At the very least, you have been selected to the “Slate of 8,” (their term, not mine) and you should consider yourself honored to be among the eight finalists who have been chosen to be under consideration for the honor of possibly being inducted into the Hall of Fame. All you have to do is fill out the attached seven page self-aggrandizement form and have each of three friends/teammates/acquaintances fill out the attached suck-up form and get all these supporting materials returned to us with a photograph no later than five days from now.

There is nothing the UPA loves like a deadline.

When the inductees from the Class of 2008 were announced and I realized I was not among them, I asked via email why I had been snubbed. What I was told is that no one had realized I was old enough until the voting had already been done. I was also told that while it was an “embarrassment” that I hadn’t been inducted in the first year of my eligibility I was not alone. Other prominent and potentially deserving players had also been overlooked. What I couldn’t help thinking at the time was, if this is such an embarrassment, if so many deserving players were overlooked, why don’t you just extend the deadline? I mean, how hard would it be to re-open the voting?

Now don’t get me wrong. I mean, I’m all for strict adherence to deadlines, and I have no problem with not letting that slacker from Ambush (it was Ambush, right?) play because all the other teams did play by the rules and did get their rosters in on time and did deserve the right to pound the shit out of Ambush even worse than they would have if the rules had been bent a little. Besides, if you make an exception for them where do you stop? It’s the principle of the thing. What I’m not so sure is how the same principle applies to the Hall.

By that I mean, if our fledgling shrine to the glory of the past achievements of the legends of our little game decided to extend the deadline or even re-open the voting to right an obvious wrong, who would be hurt? Would all the other marginal sports with fledgling shrines rise up in protest because they, too, through some unfortunate oversight, overlooked the eligibility of Weasel McNulty, a true god of the game, but they didn’t re-open their voting or extend their deadline? That seems just a tad unlikely. But perhaps a more salient question is just how important are Hall of Fame deadlines anyway?

On the UPA site Hall of Fame page we can learn that the selection process is an extremely complicated, multi-layered affair with a series of periodic deadlines running from March to August. But the one that really sticks out in my mind is the one at the bottom that says that once the voting has been completed, a press release will be issued on the fourth Monday in August with the names of that year’s class of inductees. Click on the “Press Releases” link at the top of the page and what do you find out?

Of the four press releases announcing HOF inductions, not one was released on the fourth Monday in August. The earliest release date was for the inaugural class, and it was dated November 1, 2004. On average, UPA Hall of Fame press releases can be expected to be issued about three and a half months late.

Which once again sets me to wondering just how important HOF deadlines are.

But I’m letting that nagging question get in the way of my immeasurable joy at making the Sl8 (better, don’t you think?). Although to be truthful I was not nearly so pleased to receive the honor of the candidacy as I was to be given an excuse to fill out an lengthy form detailing the myriad impressive accomplishments of my most favorite player, me. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what a wonderful read the self-aggrandizement form of an accomplished egotistical blowhard such as myself must be, and I might even share some of the tastier tidbits if not for the fact that to do so would in some way tarnish the solemn significance of the process. Nonetheless, I will share a few of the achievements that didn’t quite make the cut.

Fall of some year at some tournament someplace: Pat King cutting downfield catches a lead pass near the endzone when some douche bag covering him makes a gratuitous layout bid, threatening to take out (and possibly break) his ankles. I’m in the end zone and make my classic near corner break for the goal, but Pat, desperately trying to keep his legs away from the defender who is now attempting to roll both of his ankles simultaneously, doesn’t see me. We (Pat and I) arrive at the front corner of the end zone almost simultaneously, at which point I express my concern for his safety by saying “how about a little less dancing and a little more looking.” Now that’s a teammate.

Nationals of some year someplace: looking through the program to help calm his pre-game nerves, rookie Mike Palmer-Poroner reads the line describing KABOOM! as an enigma. He sheepishly asks, “What does enigma mean?” Taking the poor, frightened soul under my wing, I reply “It means you’re a fucking idiot.” Now that’s leadership.

Some place at some time somewhere: I’m covering Phil “Guido” Adams in the end zone when he breaks to the corner and the pass is thrown. I’m in perfect position for the layout block, but somehow, while we’re both diving, he reaches around me (Yes, I’ve heard the rumors about Guido, too.) to make an astonishing grab. I land on his arm in such a way as to obscure the outcome of the play from everyone but me, and then rip the disc from his hand. He rightly calls strip, and I contest the call. Now that’s spirit.

My point here is that those of you playing the game now are playing at a time when the Hall of Fame is a reality. My generation played not only when it wasn’t a reality, but when it wasn’t even deemed necessary, possible, reasonable, called for, insert your own phrase indicating how ludicrous the idea would have been to all of us running around in our short shorts way back when. Today’s player has the benefit of knowing that some day he or she will be judged by the HOF selection committee, and they will place a high premium on spirit, fair play, and the image the player presented for the sport. We judged ourselves on only two questions: how hard did you party, and could you still win? So it is that, somewhat ruefully, I submitted my application to the Hall. I am deeply sorry for my past transgressions, and wish I could go back and right some wrongs. I’m hopeful that my numerous spirit violations won’t keep me out of the most hallowed institution our sport can claim, but I am prepared to suffer the consequences of my actions humbly and without recrimination.

Oh, and one more thing: I’m NOT sorry!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Good Girl - Postscript

Poppy’s story is one I’ve needed to tell for years, and it was not easy. Still, having finally completed it, and based on some of the reactions, I feel confident that I did succeed in sharing some of what made her special. Still, I’m a storyteller, and in telling Poppy’s story I had to leave out certain elements because they are, strictly speaking, not part of Poppy’s story. Some of those elements are important. One of them is Fennel.

Fennel was abandoned, found by my brother on the side of the road in early October of ’98, two months before Poppy and I moved down to NC. Brian sent me two Polaroids (back when people still did such things) of his wife, Bliss, sitting on the couch with this adorable, pudgy, black and white pup. In the first, looking about 8 weeks old and slightly bewildered, he sits in that awkward, tilting, puppy way, next to but not touching Bliss. In the second, clearly startled by the flash of the first, his eyes are huge, his look terrified, and he is pressing himself into Bliss in an effort to hide. Needless to say, I was smitten.

Fennel is a sweet dog, with a bull terrier chest and head, lab tail and paws, and pointer markings. He has enough love for the whole world twice over, and not an aggressive bone in his body. He and Poppy got along beautifully. Still, there was little doubt that Poppy was number one, Fennel was always fighting for attention, and that neediness tended to make him a little annoying.

As a puppy, he was a chewer (which Poppy had never really been) and he went through remotes, shoes, table and chair legs, and the like, before he finally grew out of it. That was a little exasperating. He also reacted to being left alone for long periods of time by climbing on counters and generally getting into mischief. Poppy would never have done that.

When it came time to train/discipline Fennel I used my best, stern voice (what I called “beating him with my words”), but he seemed to hardly notice. Poppy, on the other hand, would drop her ears and slink over to her bed, as though she had displeased me terribly. Eventually I learned to separate them before I did any training or discipline. In other words, my dogs trained me.

I note with some amusement that for years I assumed that any mischief created while my attention was diverted or I was away was always attributable to Fennel, and he always received whatever meager discipline I meted out. That is, until the Day of the Flour.

I love to bake, and when I was a teacher I would periodically bake cookies for my classes. Because I taught three blocks with average class sizes in the low 30s, that meant baking a bunch of cookies. One day, while preparing to bake, I realized I didn’t have enough butter. I ran to the store, leaving a 5 pound bag of flour on the shelf, thinking “Fennel won’t have any interest in that.” When I returned, I was not all that surprised to find flour all over the house. But I did find something surprising.

Picture a dark, hardwood floor, and white powder everywhere. Off to the side, looking a little startled, sits Fennel. Smack in the middle of the greatest concentration of white powder sits a figure that might be a dog. She is completely covered in white powder. Some of it, especially around her snout, seems caked on, and in that sea of white the only things that stand out are her two brown eyes, sheepishly blinking her guilt.

I never blamed Fennel again.

After Poppy’s death, Fennel went through an amazing transformation. No longer preoccupied with trying to get attention, he mellowed. Being more relaxed, he behaved better, obeyed commands, and generally turned into a wonderful dog. He still is, but I have now relocated to New York. For a while, my aunt lived in my house and took care of him, but that was only a temporary fix while I determined if I would be in New York long-term. Recently I determined that I will be, and the decision was made to send Fennel to live with my brother, his two young sons, and his two, lumbering, two-year-old female lab mixes.

On my last visit down south I packed up Fennel’s things, bundled up his bed, and moved him to my brother’s. When I came back to my North Carolina house that night, for the first time in almost 14 years, I walked into my home to find no dog waiting for me. No home has ever felt so empty. That was when I learned the answer to the questions I asked when Poppy died.

Our lives, no matter how full we make them, are equally full of little spaces that can only be filled by something special. For some people that special thing is another person, a child, or maybe fire-bellied toad. For me, that special thing is a dog. As much as the emptiness that Poppy left behind broke my heart, all the tiny little spaces she filled for all those years went almost unnoticed. Now, with her long gone, Fennel moved away, and me living in New York, I am once again noticing those little spaces.

I live now in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My next door neighbor has a Jack Russell Terrier named Sammy who holds court on the front lawn all day long. Recently, when leaving for work in the morning or coming home at night, I’ve taken to stopping and spending a little time with Sammy. I scratch his ears and rub his belly, and he nuzzles his silly little snout against my leg. I doubt I would ever choose a Jack, but when I spend time with Sammy I can feel those little spaces filling up again, and it feels very good.

I’m thinking maybe it’s time.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Good Girl - Part IV

Every summer, in the Italian town of Siena, they run a horse race called the Palio. They don’t run it at an established horse racing venue, or even at a local dirt oval that is pressed into service for the occasion. No, they run it in the Piazza del Campo, the cobble-stoned town square.

Shaped like a semi-circle, the Piazza is covered with a deep layer of dirt, and mattresses are positioned against the exterior walls of the buildings at the corners, to protect the horses and jockeys. The interior is cordoned off and packed with race fans, much like the infield at Churchill Downs or Pimlico. But this is neither the Kentucky Derby nor the Preakness. It’s the Palio, and it’s a much bigger deal.

The town of Siena is divided into districts, called Contradas, and each district enters a horse in the race, so the outcome is a matter of civic pride. During the days leading up to the race, every district brings its representative horse and jockey into their local church for a benediction, an event so important to the community that the seats for it are sold out a year in advance. At night, the local restaurants and bars are filled with partisan citizens arguing the relative strengths of their district’s horse, and boasting of their impending victory. By day, parades and pageantry turn the town into a giant festival, Mardi Gras and Carnival with horses. In fact, it is safe to say that the horses, trainers, jockeys and citizens of Siena spend the entire year preparing for and building up to this race. And how long does the race last? The winning horse generally completes three laps around the Piazza in less than a minute and a half. A whole year of preparation for 90 seconds of action. That’s what it was like for Poppy.

Poppy loved to eat. Throughout her life, nothing other than Eukanuba Lamb and Rice ever filled her bowl, but she truly loved that kibble. She wolfed it down so fast, that I used to say that she spent 23 hours and 59 minutes every day thinking about eating, and one minute eating. For Poppy, every meal was the Palio.

That’s why I should have known something was wrong when she stopped finishing her food .

My first thought was that after ten years of eating the same kibble she had simply grown tired of it, so I tried an alternate. Then I considered the possibility that, as a function of her aging, her mouth had gotten a little tender, and maybe I simply needed to soak her food in warm water to make it softer. Any change I made seemed to solve the problem for a while, but soon afterward she was leaving food in her bowl again. Then, I was looking for a simple answer, because I didn’t want to consider the possibility that it was something serious. We never want to imagine the worst. Now, years later, I wonder how I could have been so stupid.

Pretty soon, I started to notice the weight loss, and then it occurred to me that she seemed to be drinking more water than usual. But there was nothing in the way she was behaving that suggested anything serious. She was as playful as ever, and seemed healthy enough. But when the loss of appetite continued, I decided to take her to the vet.

Poppy had always hated the vet, and this visit was no different. She tensed up and spread her paws wide, dropping her belly to the floor and refusing to walk on the slick tile. I had to lift her onto the scale and the examination table, and when her blood was drawn, she looked at me sadly with her big brown eyes and whimpered. The vet asked me a few questions, nodded knowingly at my answers, and evinced a somber manner that was more than a little troubling. But when the assistant cracked open a can of wet food, a delicacy which Poppy had never tasted before, she ate enthusiastically, and my spirits were buoyed. On the way out, the vet asked me if I had recently changed the radiator fluid in my car. I had. He nodded knowingly, and told me he’d call the following day with the results of the blood work.

On the way home from the vet I stopped and bought all sorts of wet food, some in cans and some in pouches. I bought it with the awe and wonder that might be felt by an immigrant from a less affluent country who suddenly steps into an American market and sees all the bounty to be found there. I simply had no idea that so much variety existed. I bought beef and fish and chicken with rice and peas and carrots, some with gravy and some without. I bought it giddy with excitement at the thought of solving Poppy’s problems with something so simple as a change of food. But truthfully, I bought it with a combination of a vague unease and a profound understanding of the futility of the endeavor.

The following day, a Friday in late October, the vet called and gave me the news: Poppy had kidney failure, the kind of condition that is often brought on by consuming even a small amount of ethylene-glycol, the chemical component found in anti-freeze. He asked again about me changing my radiator fluid, but I assured him that Poppy’s appetite had started to wane a good month before I had done so. No matter, he said, and suggested I bring her back in right away for a complete flush of her fluids, a process he said would require a three day stay in the animal hospital. When I pressed him he admitted that at most it would buy her an additional six months. Poppy was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do about that.

I called a colleague and asked him to cover my fourth block class, then drove home in a daze. I started to question my memory of the time line of her illness. Had she stopped eating that long ago? Could I be responsible for killing her? The thought was too awful to bear, so I set it aside and started considering the alternatives. How miserable would a three day stay in an animal hospital be for Poppy when she couldn’t stand a fifteen minute visit to the vet? What would those six months (at most) be like? And finally, sadly, pitifully, what would it all cost? As a third year teacher working two side jobs to make ends meet, I had only recently decided to replace a blown head gasket in my Pathfinder myself because I couldn’t afford to pay my mechanic to do it. I simply didn’t have the money to cover an expensive vet bill, particularly one that would only buy her another six months of dying. I called the vet and told him we wouldn’t be coming back. Then I called another vet, a close family friend who made house calls, and asked her to come by the following Monday afternoon.

That weekend, my cousin’s husband Lewis helped me fix the Pathfinder. We broke it down to the engine block and replaced the head gasket. We took the opportunity to replace the timing belt, water pump, thermostat, starter and distributor cap as well. It took the better part of two days, and whenever we were working Poppy was lying in the back of the car. I would pop back periodically to check on her, make sure her blankets were keeping her warm, and give her a hug. When Lewis went to get lunch and brought back Arby’s, I fed her roast beef and curly fries, an event so unheard of that it probably tipped her off that something was up (that and the fact that her kidneys were failing). At meal times, I fed her from the cornucopia of wet food options I had picked up, and generally spoiled her in every way possible, even letting her sleep on my bed.

Sunday night I had a horrible dream. I think it was brought on in some way by a photograph I have on my refrigerator of Poppy lounging on an inflatable blue raft in the middle of the pool at Mike Nevins’ family home in Montclair, NJ. She looks altogether natural, even comfortable, a contented mass of chocolate brown surrounded by a deep, cool blue, and her expression seems to say, “What? You still think dogs don’t belong in the pool?” It’s a photo that has always made me happy, but the dream was anything but. We were in a pool, but Poppy was on the bottom, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t bring her to the surface. Eventually, running out of air, I had to choose between trying to save her and saving myself. I woke in anguish, thinking not of cool blue but of bright, iridescent green.

I went in to school and taught my first two classes, though I can’t imagine it was much of a lesson. Then, with the same obliging colleague covering my fourth block, I left school around 11AM and headed home. I had asked the vet to be there at 3, which I figured would give me enough time to prepare. On the way home I called my aunt, Aunt T, who dearly loved Poppy, told her the dream and asked if she wanted to come over and say good bye.

Whenever I needed someone to watch Poppy, Aunt T, volunteered. Over the years she had come to love her, and I knew she would miss her deeply. She is, like me, a dog person. She is also the world’s most prolific note writer, and whenever she watched Poppy I would return to find my refrigerator stocked with Tupperware containers with post-it notes saying utterly superfluous things like “soup,” and “vegetables.” Sometimes I’d find one on Poppy’s food bin saying “need food,” as though it weren’t obvious enough. And always, always on the green plastic 1997 WSL beer cup cut down to just the right size to measure Poppy’s food, “fed dinner.” I used to make fun of her for her notes. In fact, I still do. But on this day, there was no making fun.

When she arrived she stepped through the door purposefully, clutching her date book in her hand. She went straight to the kitchen counter, flipped the book open, and pointed. There in the same hand that had written so many useless things over the years, was a single line: “P didn’t finish dinner – need to tell K.” The date was almost three weeks before I had begun working on the car. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Just let her go.”

I left her with Poppy and went outside. The air was crisp, and fall rode on the steady eastward wind that blew leaves across the yard. I walked down to a corner of the garden and, in an open patch of grass where Poppy used to lie in the sun and watch me tend the plants, I started to dig.

To say that the soil in my yard is unforgiving is putting it mildly. I’ve been ameliorating the planting beds in my garden for seven years, but in the area I’d chosen for Poppy the composition is still about two inches of grass roots in topsoil on top of a bed of Carolina clay. After clearing off the top layer with a square blade shovel, I got to work with the pick axe.

I had imagined the exercise would be both nostalgic and therapeutic, with all the wonderful memories of her life running through my head like a slide show, dulling my grief while I prepared her final resting place, but it wasn’t. It was mindless, my head empty, the steady rasping of the pickaxe and random rustling of leaves undercut by my labored breathing. Periodically I’d lay the pickaxe aside, grab a small shovel, and add to the growing pile of dirt beside the deepening hole. At those times, without the steady rhythm of the pickaxe to build on, the rest of the sounds seemed to disappear. Those were the times when I felt the worst, when the enormity of what I was doing was inescapable. I grabbed the pickaxe again quickly.

I have no idea how long I was digging, but because I wanted her to fit comfortably, I made sure the hole was wide, and because I wanted her to be safe, I made sure it was deep. Looking back, it must have taken hours and by the time I was done my shirt was wet with perspiration, and Aunt T, her eyes red with tears, was ready to go. She gave me a hug at the door, Poppy pulled herself out of bed, and in the most heart-rending moment of the day, gave her last five holes.

When the vet arrived I was lying next to Poppy’s bed. The door was unlocked, and I called to her to come on in while I stayed with Poppy. She did, and got right to work, unpacking her bag quietly. The whole process was incredibly quick and, I hope, painless. I held Poppy in my arms while she gave her the first shot, the one that put her to sleep. Unlike at the vet’s, she never got agitated, and didn’t make a sound. The second shot, following soon after, stopped her heart. Though I still held her in my arms, just like that, she was gone.

Being a family friend she refused payment, and though I knew it was the right thing to do it felt positively bizarre to thank her. She drove away and I took a walk in the woods alone, on the same paths we had walked together thousands of times. I thought of the life she had led. For seven of her ten years she had lived on this property, running through the woods chasing animals or their smells, bounding through the creek, rolling in the mud. She would never run off, so she never had to wear a collar or a leash. She lived a good life, was universally loved, and on this day those thoughts should have brought me comfort, but they didn’t.

They say the most unnatural thing is a parent burying a child. By contrast, even those of us who treat our animals almost like children know from the very day we get them that we will probably live to see them die. So why does it hurt so much? More to the point, why do we do it? Why do we tie our hearts to these creatures knowing full well that someday we’ll live to see them at the bottom of a hole, waiting for us to cover them with dirt? Why do we knowingly let our pets occupy huge places in our lives when we can just as knowingly anticipate the day when that same place will be hopelessly, irretrievably empty?

Returning from my walk, I pulled my black Cojones shirt out of a drawer, and a rawhide bone off a shelf, then went outside and placed them in her grave. Back inside, I found her collar and clipped it on. Then I wrapped her in her favorite blanket, and just as I had all those years ago on the very first day I saw her, I held her in my arms and carried her home.