For the Love of a Dog

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As a heathen, I don’t put my faith in Master Plans or the ‘will’ of invisible, sky-dwelling deities. But I must admit that sometimes, through whatever circumstance you choose to call it, we find exactly who we need in this life.

She was a lost little dog, running the streets collarless and dirty, taken in temporarily by one of my wife’s co-workers. You should understand – my wife, Julie, having been raised a ‘cat’ person, was never really at ease around canines. She says she always felt as if they were eyeing her jugular vein. But when that co-worker brought this piss-and-vinegar-laden Jack Russell into the office, it promptly plopped down under my wife’s desk, looked up at her with those mischievous brown eyes, and just like that we had us a dog.

rileyFast-forward ten years and we are sitting in a veterinarian’s exam room, being told that kidney failure is the reason for this somewhat sudden onset of lethargy and lack of appetite. No whining, no complaints, even as her body was poisoning itself. But at 16, there was probably no hope of effective treatment, either. And just like that, we are discussing euthanasia.

In the interim, however, we all lived the life of Riley.

That we become so attached to these beasts is an odd thing. In our case, she was the one who held sway over our decision regarding the biggest purchase of our lives. When we moved to Colorado seven years ago, we were under a tight deadline and so were rushing all over town with the realtor looking at properties. Nothing had appealed to us until we stepped through the door of the house we eventually bought. Julie turned to the side, admired the expansive window seat in the front room and simply said, “Riley would love that.” Where do we sign?

Dogs can be demanding, loud, messy and even destructive. As for Riley, she routinely engaged the vacuum cleaner in mortal combat (at least when she was younger) despite our howled protestations. And Julie’s prediction about the window seat couldn’t have been more accurate. It offered the perfect view of her domain – like Mufasa, she ruled over everything the light touched, or at least she thought she did. Interlopers were not tolerated, to be sent on their way with a fusillade of frenzied canine invectives, so living next door to a dog groomer meant plenty of interrupted phone conversations and TV shows.

And she shed like nothing I have ever beheld in all my days. If you came to my house, it was a given that you would leave coated in white hair. No matter how many times I vacuum-jousted or how many lint rollers I burned through, she always won that battle. How she had any fur left on her body was a complete mystery.

buddiesMy son was another convert. Like Julie, he was also wary around dogs as he was growing up. But in Riley he found what was for him most likely the perfect pet – a young man’s best friend if ever there was one.

And yet, the circle of life plays no favorites. And the inevitable end we know is coming still sucks the wind from us when it arrives. There is a scene in the movie As Good as it Gets, where Jack Nicholson chides himself for getting emotional “over a dog.” It does seem foolish, with all that’s going on in the world at the moment, to let such an insignificant thing as the passing of an animal affect us so deeply. But with me working from the house for the last several years, she had been my constant companion. So it only seemed right to repay her unflagging loyalty in kind, to stay with her as she breathed her last and the light drained from those cloudy but still mischievous eyes, to see that she not die among strangers.

It has only been a few days, so I still look for her on her perch in the window seat or curled in her bed in the TV room, snoring softly. And in that moment when I realize she’s gone, the sadness is quickly pushed aside by the memories of that lost little dog that found her way to us.

It is the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: goodbye. – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

 

 

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Smile For the Camera

I recently took a picture of my driver’s license as part of an ill-fated attempt to register myself on airbnb. I wound up canceling the application, but the picture is a testament to my photogenically-challenged status. Granted, the zombies operating the camera at the DMV seem to have an innate ability to snap us at our worst, but in my case the fault isn’t entirely theirs.

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To their credit, they did perfectly capture my sunken-eyed ‘just coming off a three-day crack bender’ face. But while not all my mug shots are quite so striking, it’s a given that, as a subject, I am incapable of taking a good picture. Usually I’m just caught in mid-gesture, with a weird look on my face, like I’m about to say something.

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Even as a kid I was always squinting and grimacing uncomfortably in family photos.

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Some Native Americans held the belief that when you took their picture, you were taking a piece of their soul. I can relate. So I’ve always done my best to try and avoid cameras.

Then Newsweek Magazine came knocking. A few years ago the publication decided to print one of my articles. This was huge. Until that point my writing efforts had been met with little interest – a few columns printed in a local paper and hardly anything more. Now one of the biggest periodicals in the country (with claims of 19 million readers) was going to publish my stuff. Sweet! I did a little dance right there in front of the computer as I read the email.

After changing my underwear I called the editor, who told me they would be running my essay some time in the next four to five weeks, just as soon as they could schedule a photo shoot.

Pictures? Of me?

“We like to include a portrait of the author with the column,” she explained.

Damn. But there was no point in arguing. It was Newsweek, after all.

“And we need to think about props, too. Something that ties in with the piece.”

This was turning uglier by the minute. “The piece” dealt with my conflicted feelings over ethnic diversity, manifested through a new tattoo that called out my Scottish ancestry.

“Do you have a kilt, or maybe some bagpipes?”

“Afraid not,” I answered (while briefly imagining my face superimposed on Fat Bastard’s body). That was the point of the article – that I rarely even acknowledge my heritage, much less make a show of it. And then I caved. “I might be able to get my hands on a Scottish flag, though.” One was stored in a box somewhere, thanks to my late aunt. As the clan matriarch and repository of our amassed history, she was my complete opposite. The woman reveled in the thought that we had descended from proud Celtic stock, all bearing a striking resemblance to Mel Gibson, only taller. Despite being separated by an ocean and several centuries of haphazard cross-breeding, we were still noble moor dwellers and God help the half-wit who didn’t know better or the family member who strayed from the fold. Anyone foolhardy enough to hand her a green hat or four-leaf clover to wear on St. Patrick’s Day might very well draw back a bloody stump.

“That would work. I’m going to pass your name on to our photo editor, who will contact you shortly to set something up.”

Several more phone calls and emails ensue before I’m on my way to meet Fabrizio, the photographer who will be doing the shoot. It was his idea to hold it in a tattoo parlor as a way to further set the mood. He also reassures me that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to capture what he’s looking for. Christ, it’s just the family badge on my upper arm – I could have snapped a picture of it with the camera on my phone and been done with it. I’m having second thoughts about all of this, especially that flag.

After some discreet inquiries, we are cleared to shoot a few photos around a “tat” in progress. It seems other people want to be in this picture more than I do. So the three of us (did I mention Fabrizio’s assistant?) squeeze into a tiny booth where a young woman is having something etched on her shoulder blade. In order to get everything in the shot, I’m instructed to stand uncomfortably close to her. Fabrizio is also telling me to shift my weight around, try some different emotional looks, do whatever comes “natural.” At that particular moment the most “natural” thing I can think of is to run screaming from the building.

“Let’s try a few with the flag, now.”

Double damn – I was hoping he’d forgotten about it.

Now, this isn’t one of those tiny flags stapled to a wooden stick, like the kind kids wave around at a Fourth of July parade. This is a thing of substance, the size of a beach towel – what soccer hooligans drape themselves in as they’re squaring off with police in the stands at the World Cup finals. And to clarify, it’s not the “official” Scottish flag, a white X (the cross of St. Andrew) on a blue background, but rather what’s known as the Lion Rampant, the banner of the royal monarchy. Bright yellow and red, it has much more visual impact, in a garish sort of way.

Before long I’m draped with it, the assistant throwing it around my neck and carefully arranging the folds of material across my chest. Bunched up the way it is, though, it simply looks like a gaily colored scarf, a really big one. The shot is a test of all my new-found modeling skills, as I try desperately to conjure up a facial expression that conveys something other than ‘Kill Me Now.’ But, of course, things could always be worse.

“What if you took your shirt off and then we go with the flag?”

There’s a momentary silence while everyone in the room considers that scenario.

19 million readers. And me needing a wax.

“I don’t see any reason to drag my nipples into this,” I parry.

Fabrizio accepts defeat with a terse sniff and moves on, having me try several nuanced versions of the classic bicep-flexing “muscleman” pose. I’m pretty sure the tattooist, who looks like he should be rearranging someone’s features with a crowbar on Sons of Anarchy, chuckled audibly at that point. Finally, mercifully, the artist in Fabrizio can sense the energy in the room evaporating, so we head to the lobby for another excruciating session of stilted posing in front of the “samples” rack, sans flag and extras. After two hours of torture, this was deemed the best of the bunch…

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courtesy Fabrizio Costantini

I don’t think Annie Leibovitz has anything to worry about. And yes, I’m still looking for my soul.

Much of this first appeared under the title “Why I’ll Never be America’s Next Top Model.”

In Search of the Great Pumpkin (Patch)

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Image credit: blog.sandiego.org

I’m a Michigan boy who relocated to Colorado a few years ago. Don’t let Tim Allen fool you – the Great Lake State is a tough sell. The weather was my biggest gripe. Winters are long and dreary, when most hunker down with their Snuggies and Seasonal Affective Disorder lamps. Spring is usually a few days around the end of April when the glaciers finally recede on their way back to the Canadian ice shield. Then it’s straight into summer, a steam-bath rife with road construction and mosquitoes capable of carrying off small dogs.

But autumn is the pay-off – dry, sunny days and cool nights as the trees go all Norman Rockwell in improbable shades of yellow, red and orange. And while Colorado has some impressive fall colors as well, there’s one fall ritual that my adopted state just can’t get right – the pumpkin patch.

This time of year they sprout like mushrooms across the Midwest, mystical places with the power to separate us from our assets more deftly than Bernie Madoff, where even the most suburban among us are suddenly willing to pay good money to pick apples, a job we normally wouldn’t consider even for a CEO’s salary. Where rosy-cheeked farm hands in flannel shirts and overalls happily charge us 12 bucks for half a gallon of watered-down apple juice and a sack of stale doughnuts. And we pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it’s money we have and cider we lack. For an additional fee, you can take a bumpy ride around the orchard while having your ass molested by a bale of hay, or risk losing a finger trying to feed one of the devil-eyed goats. The yellow-jackets attempting to bathe in any unattended beverage come free of charge.

Around here it appears a lot of folks just buy their pumpkins at the nearest grocery store and that’s the end of it. But in Michigan it’s all about the “harvest” experience. Some operations are low-key, with things like pig races or maybe an old tractor to play on, while others have more of a carnival atmosphere, where the gourd-selection process is not for sissies.

Simply scoring a parking space can be a challenge at the more popular patches. No lines, no rows, just a field full of jumbled cars and an 11-year old in a day-glow vest motioning you out to the back forty. Screw that. The savvy move is to fall in behind the woman in the LL Bean Barn Jacket who’s pushing a stroller and herding three crying kids back from the petting zoo while trying to scrape llama turds off her shoe – she looks like she’s had enough. This is the point at which you also need to send someone to brave the throngs and fight their way up to the cashier in order to purchase the group’s color-coded wrist bands. After a brief stop at the row of fermenting porta-potties for a game of “how long can you hold your breath,” it’s into the fray.

Various wagon rides pull in and out of a crowded staging area with the precision of flights at La Guardia. Two are rotating passengers out to the apple orchards, two others to the pumpkin field, while the “Cinderella Express” – giant pumpkin-shaped coaches pulled by horses suffering from over-active bowels – travels to parts unknown. If you’re looking for more action, there’s always the corn maze, a.k.a. Thunderdome. It’s where parents banish their kids in the hope they’ll burn off that doughnut sugar buzz before the drive home.

The pony rides are perhaps the tamest attraction, the animals appearing listless as they plod around in circles. Not surprising, considering their lot in life, or maybe it’s just that they’ve been rendered deaf by the roar of the nearby generator supplying power to the fan for the inflatable castle. It’s actually one of those trampolines-in-disguise meant to finish off what was started at the corn maze. Careful as you pass so as not to walk under the plumes of regurgitated caramel apple and cotton candy.

And then there’s the elephant. Yes, at least one legendary pumpkin patch in West Michigan had an elephant on the premises. How a pachyderm ties in with the season is beyond me but to the proprietors’ credit, at least they didn’t paint it orange. For ten bucks a head, anyone who hasn’t seen the footage of circus animals gone berserk is welcome to climb aboard.

So c’mon, Colorado, time to step up your game. As you can see, I’m used to a little “pizzazz” with my pumpkin.

Of Pigs and Patriots

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Image credit: porchdrinking.com

I’m busy weaving a tapestry of obscenities while trimming out the new doors in the house, so I’m re-running my Independence Day post for my legion of new followers.

This 4th of July has me feeling a little nostalgic. Here in my adopted state of Colorado, the neighborhood kids will light off the requisite array of bottle-rockets and cherry-bombs that leave my dog panting and pacing in the laundry room, and the city of Fort Collins will put on a perfectly lovely fireworks display. But it’s nothing like what we used to serve up back in Michigan. There we made a yearly pilgrimage to my friend Dave’s lakefront home in a small town about an hour north of Grand Rapids, where roast pig and DIY pyrotechnics ruled, and the holiday proceeded something like this:

July 3rd, late afternoon
Dave and I grab his pick-up truck and head off to see the hog guy, whose actual title is something like “meat processor” or “livestock evisceration technician.” He lives even further out in the country, down a dirt road with only a small hand-painted sign next to the mailbox advertising his business. We chit-chat amidst the dangling carcasses in a room that could double as the set for any number of slasher movies involving mutated lunatics, comely teens, chainsaws and haphazard limb removal.

Yep, it has been dry, everyone agrees, but it’s probably too soon to know if the soybeans are in trouble just yet (out here, all conversations revolve around the weather or the crops – take your pick).

No, that’s alright, we’ll pass on the antler pen lights and deer hoof key fobs (the hog guy, you see, also dabbles in taxidermy and is always test marketing new products made from sundry spare parts).

Tomorrow’s meal, a 125 pound beauty, is eventually wheeled to the tailgate on the overhead trolley, unhooked and lovingly packed in ice for the ride home. I feel bad for the pig, of course, but better him than me. At some point I realize I’m humming The Circle of Life.

July 4th, first light
An ethereal mist rises off the lake as Dave, with coffee in hand, starts the fire in the converted fuel drum that now serves as our altar. It’s his show, so we give him a wide berth. Besides, it’s really early.

Everything needs to be just so – you’re looking for a nice, even burn that doesn’t get too hot. Maybe 250 degrees, give or take. Like Dave says, “We want to roast it, not toast it.” Nods all around. The first commandment of pig roasting – Thou shalt not hurry.

Some early-risers like to inspect the hog before it hits the coals, to pay respects, offer thanks, or call dibs on a particular cut. I usually forgo this ritual since my keen forensic skills have already determined that (1) it’s a member of the swine family and (2) it is in fact deceased. But now my younger son, a kid who normally gets queasy just picking a scab, wants to pour over the carcass with the rest of the locals. Ever since he dissected a frog back in middle school he thinks he’s the M. E. from Bones.

July 4th, mid-morning
Members of the supervisory staff begin to arrive with lawn chairs and beer coolers in tow. They set up in a semi-circle in front of the roaster to continue yesterday’s discussion about the soy bean yield while monitoring the cooking temperature. Should it fall below a predetermined level, the call goes out to Dave (who is located with either a hearty bellow or urgent message passed on to random passers-by to ensure that no one has to actually get up from their chair) that the flames require stoking. Like I said, it’s his show. Besides, this keeps the supervisory staff focused on the equally important task of turning the hose on the dogs should they get too close.

July 4th, mid-afternoon
After numerous high-level consultations to analyze the latest readings on the meat thermometer, Dave makes the call. “Let there be pig.” This marks the transition from the “cooking” phase to the “carving” phase. Several volunteers deemed skillful with the blade are summoned and suited up. Meanwhile, a growing crowd gathers around the still-simmering carcass, armed with forks, tongs, even sharp sticks, anything that will increase the odds of securing an errant piece of steaming pork. As the process of removing flesh from bone begins, the carvers vie for position with members of the unruly mob (which now includes the dogs) overcome with hunger after hours of olfactory stimulation.

This also signals the unveiling of the rest of the meal, when the Saran Wrap is removed from countless platters and baking dishes spread across every inch of table and counter top. The feast is a glutton’s dream: salads, breads, potatoes (mashed, baked and every other permutation), corn on the cob, great steaming vats of baked beans, fresh fruit and, finally, an entire wing of the kitchen devoted solely to desserts. Grown men are openly weeping.

July 4th, various
Just a few miles west of town is Burley Park, normally nothing more than an open field but a teeming collection of trinket and trash purveyors every Independence Day. Excursions depart for the flea market on a regular schedule. Not that anyone needs a combination calculator/nose hair trimmer or a hubcap for a ’72 AMC Gremlin, mind you, but on this most red, white and blue of days it serves as a reminder that we Americans have the freedom to squander our hard-earned cash on either one. Typically, I can be found fondling old Hot Wheels toys and even older Volkswagen memorabilia.

July 4th, late afternoon
As people begin to shake their post-meal stupors, the strains of a discordant melody can be heard wafting across the lawn. The “Boon Dockers,” one of mid-Michigan’s hottest garage bands (which simply means they sweat a lot), is preparing to perform crimes against the music industry. Selections range from Suzy Q to the Old Rugged Cross, all with a heavy blues influence. As in Labatt Blues. To call their sound “eclectic” is being generous – it most closely resembles that noise your grandfather used to make first thing in the morning, set to music. Typically there are more people on stage than in the audience. I have been known to jam with the boys on occasion, but get the same reaction to my extended guitar solos as Marty McFly did in Back to the Future.

July 4th, dusk
The crowd again grows restless. Anticipation ripples through the ring of people softening the soles of their shoes around the bonfire as several lollygaggers are sent to retrieve the fireworks.

There are two factions at work here. My son (the future Medical Examiner) believes no Independence Day celebration is complete without Snap ‘n’ Pops, those strange little paper noise-makers that snap (or pop, I’m not really sure which) when you hurl them to the ground. I can only guess that these recessive tendencies come from his mother’s side of the family.

At the other end of the spectrum is another friend with plenty of disposable income and a penchant for things that go “boom.” No one questions his impressive cache of pyrotechnics, the vast majority of which are illegal in Michigan. We just stand back and enjoy the show. And keep a fire extinguisher at the ready. A few foolhardy souls join him on the dock to help send all the ordnance skyward, lighting fuses and then falling over one another in a mad dash back toward shore as whistling explosives launch from their mortar tubes with an angry “thump.” The show is spectacular, and puts many of the surrounding communities’ displays to shame. But they still talk about the year he showed up with the Titanic, a floating incendiary device designed to fire multiple rounds from its smokestacks as it chugged out across the lake, while fountains of sparks erupted fore and aft. Unfortunately, it suffered the same fate as its namesake. A rogue wave tipped the vessel onto its side, sending several errant shots into the scurrying crowd before the mighty ship headed for Davey Jones’ locker with most of its payload unspent. Salvage crews have yet to locate the wreckage in the murky depths.

July 5th, unspecified
Like a python that swallowed a tapir, most attendees are immobile and near-comatose as they slowly digest the previous day’s meal. Eventually, they will rise only to spread some balm on their sunburns (or powder burns) before returning to a prone position for the duration. All will proclaim that this was the best celebration ever. Another successful 4th of July, mid-Michigan style.

As for northern Colorado, well, I’ll grill up a few hot dogs if you bring the Snap ‘n’ Pops.

Father’s Day

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They were men of simple means. ‘Working stiffs’ who raised their respective families with far more love than money.

Both had their own brood of ‘biological’ children – maybe one more in the mix just didn’t make much difference to them. But to me, it meant everything. Mostly, it provided refuge from the random, unpredictable mayhem in my own home caused by a step-father whose unhappiness would quickly turn to anger after a few shots of vodka.

Bill England, better known as W.D., was a son of Tennessee, brought north by the promise of jobs in the booming auto industry. His boy Dave, the second of four kids, made the mistake of befriending me in school. About a mile away was the home of my other good friend Bill. His dad Don Kring was an educator. At first they were little more than someone else’s parents. But neither said a word when I would hang around long past my welcome. There was always a warm greeting, an extra place at the table and a sense of belonging. Both accepted me without question, as if I were some long-missing child who had suddenly turned up on their doorsteps. Without them, I would not be the person I am today.

Don had a quick and infectious laugh, and his good-natured ribbing – usually about my shaggy countenance – let me know I was part of the family. Their house, beside a small neighborhood lake, was on my way back from school. Fishing poles stood by the basement door, and many an afternoon was spent tossing a line from the backyard rather than face the uncertainty of what could be waiting for me at my own home.

As for W.D., he didn’t seem to mind that I was raised by Yankees. In fact, he took it upon himself to pass along his country roots (and his turn of a colorful phrase) whenever possible. There was always music in the house – as he himself might have said, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a guitar, and it’s where I learned to play. It also explains why, when it came to my musical repertoire, I could offer up a serviceable rendition of not only “Stairway to Heaven,” but “The Old Rugged Cross” as well.

I may have missed the opportunity to call either of these men “dad,” but if ever there were people in my life deserving of the title, it was them.

Someone once said, “Families are not determined by marriage certificates, divorce papers or adoption documents. Families are made in the heart.” Thank you both for taking me into your families, and into your hearts. You will always be in mine.

Oh, Canada!

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Image credit: canadiandreamz.com

No, this has nothing to do with my reaction to the Orange One winning the White House. Okay, maybe a little.

I recently read an article about the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife, Sophie Trudeau. She wants to do more in her role as ‘first lady’ of Canada, but with only one aide she felt she didn’t have enough staff to manage her affairs. Rather than pony up the salary for another admin that would allow her to serve multiple charity causes around the country, opposition members are choking on their own outrage, saying the attractive political spouse is out of touch with normal working moms, and similar vitriol.

One journalist suggested the outcry stems from her ‘tall poppy’ standing, something that appears to grate on most residents who live in the Great White North. What’s a tall poppy, you ask? As near as I can figure, it’s someone who enjoys a certain social stature due to their talent, looks, money, fame – what we here in the states would call ‘celebrity status.’ Whereas Americans fawn over the rich and famous, Canadians view them with disdain. And while I personally have no cause to judge Ms. Trudeau, I am nonetheless buoyed (once again) by the attitudes of those who call Canada ‘home.’

This goes back to my days growing up near Detroit. As a Michigander, they were truly our neighbors. If you drive east or north from the mitten you’re in Canada. And Windsor, the City of Roses, is right across the river from Detroit, which meant we could pick up the CBC network from the local affiliate. I loved it. Hockey Night in Canada (Don Cherry – need I say more?), the National Curling Championships (which rank just above baseball for sheer sporting excitement), Mr. Dressup (groundbreaking children’s programming, featuring a cross-dressing host and the first openly androgynous hand puppet on television), The Friendly Giant (a subtle dig, I felt, at the superpower next door – a metaphor to illustrate that the biggest kid on the block didn’t have to be an asshole).

And when, even as a child, I tired of watching Olympic coverage that focused exclusively on American athletes and their cloyingly star-spangled accomplishments, I could count on the CBC to offer a more balanced view of the competition. Or of the world in general, for that matter. While they had plenty of concerns and issues, Canadians never seemed to lose sight of the fact that the rest of the world did, as well. To me, they appeared so much less self-centered, less hostile, less jingoistic, less arrogant.

We were frequent visitors, too. For all the turmoil his alcoholism inflicted on the family, my step-father had a few good moments. A German immigrant, he fancied himself a modern-day French voyageur. So we bought a canoe and traveled to the boreal forests of northern Ontario regularly to paddle, fish and camp. It’s where I learned to appreciate the natural world. And it was just a bonus that you could buy bricks of “Black Cat” firecrackers there, highly prized contraband in the Great Lake State that was easily slipped past the unwitting customs agents on the way home.

“Anything to declare?”

“No, sir.”

And with the wave of a hand, we became international smugglers, heady stuff for a 12-year old still wetting the bed. So “thank you,” Canada, for making me a badass.

Look, I know the “love it or leave it” types are already emailing me directions to the nearest border crossing. I’ve always been impressed with such open-mindedness. But all I’m saying is, now that the election has gone south, going north might not be so bad. Unless, of course, you’re a tall poppy.

Throwback Thursday – The Long Run

Image Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Image Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

With the Rugby World Cup Finals coming up this weekend, I dusted off an early post highlighting my own illustrious rugby career.

Lately I’ve had an overwhelming urge to perform some ridiculous feat of validation while the equipment, my equipment, is still capable of delivering the goods. I can only imagine it’s an instinctive thing meant to thin the herd, this middle-age compulsion to test myself by, say, entering the Ironman Triathlon or traversing the Hindu Kush in flip-flops.

Well, probably not the Ironman, seeing as how I don’t run. Not can’t, just don’t. Not since high school, anyway. I should explain…

Having neither the physique nor the disposition for sports back then, I spent my days marching in the band and avoiding those who wanted nothing more than to treat me to an atomic wedgie. Being short and sarcastic was a bad combination.

Everything was fine until the year when, inexplicably, I signed up for a semester of Combative Sports rather than Soccer, Interpretive Dance or any of the other safe-haven gym classes populated by my fellow band mates. Most likely it was an attempt to improve my meager standing in the hierarchy of the high school jungle, where cheerleaders and their ilk were assumed to give it up for the guys who could dish out an ass-kicking as opposed to those receiving one.

Our class was a gathering of jocks who actually enjoyed this sort of stuff, greasers who saw it as an open invitation from the public education system to pound the bejesus out of someone with relative impunity, and two or three other hapless milquetoasts like myself. One of the football coaches would be our mentor, a good ol’ boy whose fuse matched his abbreviated stature. Bobby Dilday always wore blue gym shorts with white tube socks regardless of the weather (or occasion) and showed unabashed favoritism toward his players during class, apparently unaware that they called him “dildo” behind his back. Not that he was much better. In fact, it was well known that names confounded the man, and mine proved to be particularly vexing. After several creative permutations he settled on “Yankee Doodle” when he wasn’t simply referring to me as “that little son-of-a-bitch.”

Over the course of the semester we took a turn at boxing, wrestling and even some of the eastern disciplines, although Coach made no bones about his dislike for these “Asian gyrations,” claiming they were no match for a well-placed haymaker. The man’s true love, however, was rugby – the sport of Satan, football for the criminally insane – and we played at every opportunity. No pads, no helmets, just a crooked athletic supporter and a field full of a band geek’s sworn enemies. Rules, as such, seemed to have little bearing on what actually transpired on the field. “I wanna see BLOOOOD,” Coach would scream from the sidelines while his minions hurtled headlong into one another, trying their best to comply. Most believed that a high body count was the only gauge of a successful match.

It was apparent from the start that rugby players required bulk and speed above all else, both of which I lacked in great quantities. As sheer survival tactics then, the prudent thing was to avoid direct contact with a steam-rolling ball carrier or charging defender since neither would hesitate to deliver a blow capable of producing a closed-head injury. The trick was staying close enough to the action so as to appear to be involved in the play. This required lots of expertly timed ‘near-miss’ lunges or jumping into the fracas as last-man-on-the-pile. Ball handling was out of the question, a kamikaze mission reserved for those with more gonads than sense.

And then, one chilly autumn day, greatness was thrust upon me. I had once again managed to elude serious damage by scurrying around on the perimeter of play for most of the game. Another ten minutes and I would be home free. The opposing team was in control (if there is such a thing in rugby) and sweeping to the far side of the field, so I pulled up short with a few of the other stragglers to watch the impending havoc. Sensing doom on all sides, the ball carrier cut back in the opposite direction just as the squads collided, leaving behind a mass of broken humanity the likes of which had not been seen since Lee retreated from Gettysburg. A stocky fullback at home on the gridiron, his footfalls shook the earth as he slipped the grasp of lesser foes.

I became aware of those around me starting to backpedal or drop to the ground, writhing from phantom injuries. Within a few strides the juggernaut had crossed the width of the field and was bearing down on me, now the only man left to beat due to my slow reaction time. A collective groan went up from my teammates as they realized all was lost – their last defensive hope rested on the shoulders of a spindly musician whose main concern was how to keep from breaking his glasses. The runner, arrogantly confident of his ability to crush me underfoot, accelerated toward impact rather than merely sidestep past me. And if not for a loose piece of sod that betrayed his footing at the last possible instant, I would have been little more than bug viscera on the windshield of victory. Instead, he went crashing to the ground in a spray of dirt and grass not three feet away. The ball squirted free, arced gracefully through the crisp, blue sky and fell neatly into my hands.

The moment provided me with a profound appreciation for the phrase “scared shitless.” That fear propelled me forward as much as the strangled cries of players from both teams stunned by the sudden turn of events. As I mentioned, physical activity had never been high on my list of priorities, but now seventy yards of open playing field lay between me and the sanctuary of the end zone. It also occurred to me that running and fleeing were two completely different things, and I scrambled for the far goal post with the urgency of a man losing control of his sphincter. And all the while, above the rising clamor, Coach bellowed his approval from the bench, one half-pint to another.

“LOOKIT THAT LI’L SON-OF-A-BITCH RUUUUN! WAAAHH-HOOOO! LOOKIT THAT LI’L SON-OF-A-BITCH…”

By now most of the rival troops had gathered themselves and were in thunderous pursuit of the little son-of-a-bitch leading them on a merry chase. Though already a full ten yards out in front, the head start provided me only scant comfort. Barely five feet tall, with the gait of a chain-gang convict, I was no match for these sinewy thoroughbreds weaned on football and track, and the gap narrowed with every step. It boiled down to nothing more than a simple footrace, a function of speed and mathematics. How long before runner A, gaining ground at an exponential rate, overtakes and decapitates runner B, with the expressed intent of defecating down the resulting hole C?

With oxygen levels dwindling and adrenaline on the rise, I attained an elevated state of consciousness just past mid-field. There came an eerie silence as the shouts of both teammates and opponents faded away. I no longer felt the burning rush of air at my throat or the stabs of pain shooting through my legs. Then the image of Mr. Spock and Doctor McCoy appeared before me in a vision, the two of them seated on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, viewing my predicament much the way they had observed the epic struggle between Kirk and the Gorn on that forsaken asteroid. Fists, tree limbs, even giant boulders dropped from great heights had proven useless against the plodding lizard-beast, so Kirk hurriedly assembled the makings of a primitive firearm from raw materials scattered conveniently about the landscape.

As Jim mixed together the ingredients for gunpowder and I crossed the twenty yard line, our respective adversaries closing in, a solicitous Bones asked “Can he do it, Spock?”

“If he has the time, doctor,” the Vulcan responded as coolly as ever, one eyebrow hoisted speculatively. “If he has the time.” Indeed.

These were my last cognitive recollections. The events that ensued were reconstructed from several eyewitness accounts and subsequent locker-room mythology. I was told of a heroic yet ultimately futile last-ditch sprint as the lead pursuer, arm cocked, pulled within range of his target. There followed an unintelligible sound heard just at the point of convergence – band geek lore records it as a final, defiant curse directed at my towering foe, referencing the consumption of human excrement. Then came a crashing blow to the side of the head, a vicious yet masterful stroke that separated me from the ball, my senses and my protective equipment. Worst of all, it pulverized my glasses. Pieced back together afterward with tape and chicken wire, they dashed any trace of virility I had hoped to foster.

I’ve never run since – at least not with any real purpose – except maybe if a bee was chasing me. So much for the Ironman…guess I’ll be dropping you a postcard from the Khyber Pass instead.