Goldfinch and Associates: Landscape Architects – A Tour of The Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek

We growIMG_1430 a lot of flowers here on Duffy’s Creek. And trees, and bushes, and vegetables. And we’ve spent way, way too much money doing it. And it takes a lot of time and grunting to maintain what we’ve done from year to year. But I tell you what: I’ve walked around a lot of neighborhoods with Mookie Dog these last four years, and I’ve gotten a good look at a lot of peoples’ properties while Mookie sniffed and peed on the nearest telephone poles (The Dude gets credit for coming up with: “he’s reading his pee mail.”). In the world of property ownership, and what a wonderful world it is, I have come to believe that people who have flowers growing around their house are the people who look like they’re enjoying their stay on Earth a bit more than the people who don’t. And they  probably are. I know I am. Of course if the homeowner is elderly or disabled it isn’t a fair statement, but still, if you can grow some flowers and you don’t, it looks to me like you just don’t care in general, and you probably don’t. Is that arrogant? It might be arrogant. Hell, I don’t know. I’d just like to take you on a tour of Gardens @ Duffy’s Creek. You like flowers? We got some flowers for ya today.

Trisha's Rose Garden. The big show is in the spring and fall. I'll post more pictures then
Trisha’s Rose Garden. The big show is in the spring and fall. I’ll post more pictures then

It doesn’t matter where we start, since you’re not actually here, so we can start where it all started. Trisha and I bought the old Duffy Family House on The Creek in 2001 from my parents, who moved to a Lifecare Community. My mom kind of went kicking and screaming, mostly because she loved the backyard on the Creek. Trisha’s family owned an operated a Florist and Nursery, McCloskey’s  on Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park, Queens for 86 years, Her grandfather started out by selling flowers for putting on graves in St. John’s Cemetery across the street. So as soon as she saw the backyard of this place, she knew what she wanted to do with it. The first thing she did was clear a whole lot of crap (her newlywed husband dug up a few tree roots for her) and plant this Hybrid Tea Rose Garden. I love that all the plants have names and little stories, but I can’t keep any of them straight. Still, I like hearing about them. And truly, there’s just nothing like roses. I don’t know what smells you associate with your spouse (Cheese? Cinnamon? Ben-Gay?) but to me the smell of hybrid tea roses, whatever the hell their names are, remind me how much I love my wife. Isn’t that nice?

The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden

We have a big six-foot wood stockade fence along the back of the Rose Garden, courtesy of some former psychotic neighbors who will get their own post one of these days. I’ll even name them for you. Anyway, the point at which the rose garden meets the house and the stockade fence is Trisha’s “Secret Garden”, which has more Hybrid Teas, plus some climbing roses and Clematis on arbors and some various perennials, the Lupines being my favorite, if only because of the silly Monty Python sketch. There’s some bitchin foxglove in there. And it’s a great place to hide from The Dude.

Around front, you get to Trisha’s Cottage Garden, modeled after a Thomas Kinkade painting if he dropped acid, which has a lot of beautiful perennials and some good smellin’ Mock Orange and Quince, plus this cool guy called a Purple Beautyberry Bush which is owned and defended by an insane Mockingbird.

Trisha's front yard Cottage Garden. It's a scene, Man.
Trisha’s front yard Cottage Garden. It’s a scene, Man.

Me, I always liked playing in the dirt. As a matter of fact, when I was very young in this very backyard I had a “diggy spot.” And when I was 30 and stuck living back with my parents after going through surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, I decided to start a little garden out where my “diggy spot” used to be.  And my mom liked planting flowers, too. So one day in 1993 we went to Dee’s Nursery in Oceanside together – which in itself is a great memory – and she sprung for some perennials and bulbs to get that garden started. There’s still a couple of hyacinths that come up every year from that garden, but for the most part it got too shady under my neighbor’s giant oak tree to really get anything good growing there. So after my mom died in 2012, I planted a Colorado Blue Spruce as a memorial to her, thus taking the “diggy spot” out of the active flower gardening area. I’ve never visited her grave, and I don’t know if I ever will. If I need to talk to her, she’s right here.

The Colorado Blue Spruce I planted as a memorial to my mom in 2012 so she could keep an eye on things. This was my
The Colorado Blue Spruce I planted as a memorial to my mom in 2012 so she could keep an eye on things. This was my “diggy spot” as a little feller, and when I was 30.

When we moved back here in 2001, I started noticing the birds. And the ducks and the geese and the other assorted characters – osprey, egrets, kingfishers, terns, herons and cormorants to name a few- who made their living on the Creek. We had a lot of songbirds, too.  Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the whole place was overgrown and they had lots of places to hide. Once we put up some bird feeders, it was madness. One January twilight we had over 20 cardinals dancing around in the snow. We don’t have as many birds now because we had to take down two massive maple trees and a pear tree before they killed us in a hurricane. (And there was one, and they didn’t. And we of course replaced those trees, but these things take time). Back when we started, I wrote down all the species of birds I saw and when I saw them in a spiral notebook (very neatly ’cause I’m OCD), then I looked them up and found out what they were doing here, and what they wanted for dinner. I have a list of about 115 bird species that have passed through or by this property. I will put that list up as a separate post sometime soon. It recently may or may not have helped earned South Valley Stream $3 million dollars in New York Rising Recovery grant money, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, around this same time, we started taking hikes through Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a long way from here but connected by water, and noticing not only the birds but the plants. This led to the Duffy’s Creek Bird Sanctuary. We started trying to use as much garden space as possible for bird-friendly habitat plants and stuff that grew here naturally. This led to the Wetland Gardens that run between the yard and the Creek, which is actually planted on land that belongs to Nassau County. But screw ’em, they don’t deserve it.

The Wetlands
The Wetlands

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In the wetlands are Rosa Rugosa and Red Twig Dogwood and Winterberry Holly, a Weeping Willow Tree, a Butterfly Bush and one of our signature specimens, the Great Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. It was a four-foot tall Eastern Red Cedar bought from Dee’s Nursery. I really had to wonder about myself when I planted a $139 tree on property that I don’t actually own, but no matter. The Red Cedar got really tall, probably about 15 feet or more. Then Hurricane Sandy came along and knocked it to a 45 degree angle. My brother came down from Connecticut to help us out with the mess about a week after the storm. We raised the Cedar back up and he tied it to the fence using one of the knots that he learned in Boy Scouts and I didn’t. The Cedar survived, but it leans like the Tower of Pisa now. So we call our backyard The Leaning Cedar Cafe @ Duffy’s Creek, ’cause we like the way it sounds.

When we first moved in, we had a deck. It was a very 1970’s deck, probably because it was built in the 1970’s. And it was slowly rotting away. The final straw for the deck was when a cat caught a mallard and left his decapitated head under the step. It was a little too evocative of “The Godfather”, but I digress again. Around that same time, we took a day trip from Copake Falls to visit the Stockbridge Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, Mass. Here we met some of the “Herb Associates”, whose name still inspires giggle fits around here. Basically a bunch of old ladies who planted and maintained an herb garden just off the kitchen of the house at the gate of the Gardens.

We were already planning to replace the deck with a loose-laid brick patio. The “Herb Associates” inspired us to include a little garden with some sage and lavender and thyme and oregano and mint. And then we just kept going, and started adding lots of cool perennials, dahlias and zinnias from seed.

Patio Garden looking out towards Duffy's Creek, taken from the attic window
Patio Garden looking out towards Duffy’s Creek, taken from the attic window. You can also see my Quaking Aspen, which transports me to Lake Kushaqua in the Adirondack Mountains every time a breeze blows through.

Soon enough it was the insane garden you can see in the foreground of this picture. Some of the coreopsis and rubekia and hellenium and Mexican Sunflowers grow over six feet tall. We call them by their latin name: “Crazius Bastardus.” The patio garden is our landing place. It’s the nicest room in the house in the summer, and consequently, we watch a lot less TV. It’s where you sit and stare for five minutes  – or an hour- when you’re between things you have to do, or walk around and crush leaves between your fingers, take a big whiff and say, “damn that’s good!” At least we do.

Patio Garden
Patio Garden. Real gardeners rarely put away the hose.
Patio Garden
Patio Garden with Crazius Bastardus on display.

As you can see, the patio garden has some nice bee balm. And when you have perennials, you can make the same jokes at the same time every year. As soon as one of us mentions that the bee balm is coming into bloom, the other will either do a Monty Python falsetto and say, “Whatcha bringin’ a balm in here for!” or do the Jackie Childs voice from Seinfeld. “A balm? Nobody know what a balm will do! They’re unpredictable!” We try to have fun.

The patio garden. The bench is dedicated to our sister-in-law, who loved to exchange garden stories with us. Her spirit can visit and see what we're up to.
The patio garden in all it’s glory. The bench is dedicated to our sister-in-law, who loved to exchange garden stories with us. Her spirit can visit and see what we’re up to.
Patio Garden from another angle. The MAESTRO gave you a balm?
Patio Garden from another angle. The MAESTRO gave you a balm?

Along the side of the house this year I have some, OK a thousand, black eyed susans growing quite untidily. Usually I insist on tidy, but I’m letting them have their fun. Last year I planted a thousand black-eyed susan seeds in the Wetlands and in this spot, where I was out of ideas, and in one year they have naturalized and become our own resident wildflower. They are pretty weeds.  God bless ’em.

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We also have eight blueberry bushes in large planters which have been producing phenomenal fruit for us and the Robins, Catbirds, Song Sparrows and Mockingbirds for ten years now.

Blueberries and Vegetables, and more crazy Black-Eyed Susies.
Blueberries and Vegetables, and more crazy Black-Eyed Susies.

During the Hurricane Sandy storm surge, the blueberry bushes floated on down the block. We found them the next day on various front lawns around the neighborhood. A neighbor with a van brought us two that he found at the high school at the end of the street, about a quarter of a mile away. We have a dog kennel that we bought when we first got Mookie, but that he decided he didn’t like one damn bit because we weren’t in there with him. We were going to sell it, then we realized it would come in handy in the next Hurricane as a place to put anything that might float away down the street.

Hurricane Sandy (I hate “Superstorm”) didn’t do the damage to us here in South Valley Stream as it did in points south, specifically East Rockaway, Oceanside, Island Park and Long Beach, which all got walloped. But it did take out some of our favorite specimens. We had two little Christmas trees growing on the side of the garage, a Frasier Fir and a Balsam Fir. We were going to make them our last two Chistmas Trees here someday if we had a choice in the matter. But the brackish water from the surge killed them, as well as a Mountain Laurel that had survived for 60 years and two outrageously beautiful Burkwood Viburnum bushes outside the front window. But when life hands you lemons and all that, we turned the space along the garage into a nice vegetable garden, where we’ve started feeding ourselves as well as the birds. We have carrots, celery, broccoli and cucumbers growing there now. I use the cucumbers to make homemade Bread and Butter Pickles, because I can. Actually because I jar, but no matter. The best part of making bread and butter pickles for me is being able adopt Robin Williams’ silly, exaggerated Scottish accent and scream at my wife, “Damn it, Woman! I’m makin’ The brine right now!” I never get tired of that one.

Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Cucumbers.
Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Cucumbers.

Of course, every good gardener knows that you go through a lot of experimentation and a lot of failure on your way to creating a successful patch. That’s the thing that Thomas Jefferson and I have in common most of all. The spot outside the front window has seen and lost Two holly bushes, the aforementioned Viburnum, a peach tree that was really cool but was under constant siege from Ants, Squirrels and Fungus (which may have been the name of a Warren Zevon album).  I also planted and moved an Eastern Red Cedar and a Crabapple Tree from that spot after I decided they each looked better somewhere else.

Our resident Insane Mockingbird decided he like the Eastern Red Cedar so much he planted another one on the opposite side of the front lawn, and it has grown almost as big as the first.

Sargent Crabapple. Successfully transplanted twice, now happily right outside the front door, where you can watch the birds harvest the fruit in the fall.
Sargent Crabapple. Successfully transplanted twice, now happily right outside the front door, where you can watch the birds harvest the fruit in the fall.
We planted two Eastern Red Cedars, including the Famous Leaning Cedar of Duffy's Creek. A Mockingbird planted this one.
We planted two Eastern Red Cedars, including the Famous Leaning Cedar of Duffy’s Creek. A Mockingbird planted this one.

And this leads me to one of my favorite things about this whole 14 year experiment in floral hedonism that we’ve got going on here. Two years ago, I decided I would just fill up the spot in front of the window with flowers. I threw in some zinnias and gladiolas and dahlias and lilies and phlox that I grew from seed. As usual, I spent too much money that could have gone towards fixing the house itself, like say, a roof for instance. And after I do all that, and it all grows in, the most impressive flowers in the whole business are the a deep orange multiflower sunflowers that were planted by my friends the goldfinch.Who are busy eating the seeds of it and pooping them out to make sure they come back next year.

Front Yard Garden - My Patch
Front Yard Garden
Front yard - my patch
Sunflowers courtesy of resident goldfinch

So if you’re walking by our house (And your dog is reading his pee mail) you might notice a nice display of flowers growing outside. And if you knock on the door and ask, we’ll show you round the back. And you’ll say, these people, they seem to have a pretty good life here, and we do. And because we do, we praise God with a thousand flowers every year, because we care, and we’re trying to enjoy our time here on Earth. And we like birds. And it smells good.

And if you’ve got a couple of geraniums in pots on your front step, and you keep them watered, well you’re all right with me.

A creek runs through it, Duffy's Creek starts in Valley Stream State Park, goes through Hendrickson Park, goes under Merrick Road, reappears in the Village Green, ducks under Sunrise Highway, flows through Mill Pond Park where it becomes Mill Pond, goes through a spillway under Mill Road, flows past our about a mile until it goes under Rosedale Road, flows past North Woodmere Park into Jamaica Bay and out into The Atlantic Ocean. During the Hurricane Sandy Surge, the brackish water was up to the top of the post and rail fence.
A creek runs through it:  Duffy’s Creek starts in Valley Stream State Park, goes through Hendrickson Park, goes under Merrick Road, reappears in the Village Green, ducks under Sunrise Highway, flows through Mill Pond Park where it becomes Mill Pond, goes through a spillway under Mill Road, flows past our house and on about a mile until it goes under Rosedale Road, flows past North Woodmere Park into Jamaica Bay and out into The Atlantic Ocean. During the Hurricane Sandy Surge, the brackish water was up to the top of the post and rail fence. Other than that it’s nice in the summer.
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UL Listed Dimmer Switch

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The Dude created this light dimmer using a tupperware container. I think I can safely guarantee that the previous sentence has never been written before in the 1400-year history of the English Language. The dimmer switch controls two lamps above and next to his bed. Since he likes to sleep with some light on, and Dad keeps saying he should get used to sleeping with the light off, it was a smart compromise. All the wiring is inside the tupperware, and safely taped, with a line out that plugs into the power.

The Tupperware Dimmer is right up there with my All-Time Favorite Dude Inventions: The Kitty Litter Jug Vacuum Cleaner and The Styrofoam Cooler Fog Machine / Dehumidifier, both of which ran their course and were eventually disassembled, their components salvaged and either reused or thrown away when The Dude wasn’t looking. (We have to be careful what we throw away around here. Once he grows out of that, we’re gonna have one bitchin’ garage sale).

The Dude insists the dimmer switch is perfectly safe and since the house hasn’t burned down yet I would have to agree. When I was remarking again recently about what a good idea it was, he said, “Yeah. But I’d probably been better off using a junction box instead of a tupperware container. Still, I think I could get it UL listed.”

Never a dull moment.

Glue Gun

DSCN5948I don’t consider myself superstitious. Obsessive/Compulsive but not superstitious. Of course, baseball players are known for having odd superstitions. Turk Wendell, a great relief pitcher, used to wave to the center fielder and throw the rosin bag into the ground as hard as he could before he threw his first pitch. He also used to leap as high as he could over the foul line on the way back to the dugout. It was all very fun to watch, but he did the same things when he pitched well and when he coughed it up, so it was hard to see what it all meant.

I don’t know if young Jacob DeGrom of My Metsies, 2014 National League Rookie of The Year and one hell of an entertaining baseball player, is superstitious by nature. All I knew is I couldn’t let him go into last night’s big start against the Dreaded Gnats without his head.

The “DeGrom Gnome” was a giveaway at a Mets game we went to on my 52nd birthday back in May. He didn’t pitch that night, and the Mutts lost the game 1-0. Then they lost the next day 1-0 again. It was fabulous. But we had a nice night at the ballpark. My brother met us at the game, but the 15,000 DeGrom Gnomes had all been given away, and seeing as we had three, we gave him one. That left two.

One of these gnomes was sitting on the electric fireplace next to a lamp in the Back Room yesterday, about two hours before game time, minding it’s own business, when the human tornado that is The Dude knocked it to the floor and watched in horror as it’s head broke clean off. The Dude was mortified. I would have been more mortified if I didn’t have another one that I will be keeping far out of his reach. (I understand people buy these things and collect them, and I might need the money someday). Stuff happens. Things break. Particularly around here.

The Dude immediately wanted to set things right. He told me he would fix it. I said, “OK, fix it.” He said he would use his glue gun. “Fine”, I said, “use the glue gun.” Why does he have a glue gun? Well, it actually belongs to Trisha, who has used it for arts and crafts stuff. But she gave it to him while he was waiting for his number one Christmas present, which was a soldering iron. Now he has a soldering iron and a glue gun. I probably would have stopped him from using the soldering iron to reattach Jacob DeGrom’s head.

The Dude never caught my passion for baseball. He played Little League for two years and had some fun, but was distracted enough in the field that I was pretty sure he was going take a line drive to the head if I insisted that he keep playing. I was the co-manager of the team in his second season, which was a wonderful experience, except when it rained. It was a Bucket List thing for me. I did it, and now I can say I did. But The Metsies are always on the radio and the TV in the summer, and The Dude probably knows more about baseball than I think he does.

As you can see in the picture, Jacob DeGrom’s surgically repaired head was not the most flawless of fixes. But The Dude knew it was important to me, and he dropped everything (pun intended) to make sure he took responsibility for his mistake and tried to put it right. Later, there was Jacob DeGrom pitching on the TV. I pointed out to The Dude that it was a good thing he got his head back, as it would be hard to pitch without a head. We had a good laugh.

DeGrom got the win last night, as the Mutts actually scored some runs. The win pulled them within 2 games of first place and 1and a half out of the Wild Card. If they actually make the playoffs this season, and the season comes down to DeGrom, we may have to break the head off the other gnome and reattach it. But I’m not superstitious.

Of The Long Island Expressway, Piping Plover Conservation Areas and “It’s A Wonderful Life”: Three Little Stories With Magnificent Punchlines That I’ve Told At Least A Hundred Times Each And Now Get To Tell Again

images-3When you get to be my age, many of the people close to you have heard all your favorite funny stories. My Irish blood impels me to be something of a raconteur, but it’s tough to always come up with new material. Sometimes I’ll even ask Trisha, who has been with me for 16 years, for permission to re-tell a story. Something will come up and I’ll say, “I know you’ve probably heard this one before…” and she’ll usually let me get away with it because she loves me. At this point, all I usually need to do, though, is repeat the punchline, because the story was set up many, many years ago. Anyway, if you do get to be my age, and you start writing a blog (which you should) you will find yourself with the golden opportunity to tell these stories again to The Internet, which hasn’t heard them before, and possibly people reading your (rolls eyes) content will appreciate the stories as if they are brand new. And then those people, who might enjoy those stories while reading your (rolls eyes again) content, might say to themselves, “I have a funny story, too.” And if they don’t have their own blogs (which they should), you can encourage them to write those stories in the comments at the bottom of your blog post, so you can enjoy a funny story that you haven’t heard before, and perhaps steal it.

So there’s your set-up: I’d like to tell you three little funny true-life anecdotes today with what I believe are truly Magnificent Punchlines. Maybe you’ll think, not so much. You can even rate them if you’d like. And again, feel free to add your own in the comments if and when you can. I won’t judge them in any way.

The first story recently celebrated it’s 33rd birthday, so it’s been told the most. The other two are relative youngsters at 15 and 11 years old respectively. There are a few others I considered that ultimately did not make the cut of the top three. The best of these, with honorable mention at number four, goes back to 1984, when I suggested to my dentist, Dr. Andrew Shemella, that having bad teeth was my cross to bear, and that it was better than being stupid. He paused for a full minute and replied, “You know, some people are stupid AND have bad teeth.”  And now, with brevity in mind, here are my Top Three Magnificent Punchlines:

In Third Place: July 1982. I’m working on the summer cleaning and maintenance crew at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village. I have the enviable job of being Willie Johnston’s assistant. Willie cuts the grass on the gigantic athletic field while riding a big tractor and wearing a big straw hat. My main role is to go along the fences and around the trees with the lawnmower, but my 7am first thing in the morning job is to go around the entire perimeter of the building and grounds along the sidewalk and pick up all the garbage. It being Queens, this usually takes the better part of an hour. My second important morning job, perhaps my most important, is to walk up Hillside Avenue to the Deli (across the street from Creedmore Psychiatric Hospital) at 8:30am and get all the egg sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes for the crew. I take this job very seriously and prove I can do it without screwing up, despite the fact that everyone gets a different combination of eggs, bacon and sausage, takes their coffee a particular way, and cannot substitute any other brand of cigarettes. The crew: Willie Johnston, Bobby Johnston, Moses Brown and Norman Jackson and Henry Smith, all from South Carolina and 20 to 30 years older than me, begin to accept my presence that summer despite the fact that my father is their bosses’ boss and I’m a scrawny little 19-year old asshole from Long Island. Still, I’m smart enough to keep my mouth shut and just listen when it’s time to sit down for eggs, bacon, sausage, coffee and cigarettes at 9am.

That particular morning, Bobby was telling a story about a friend of his who was pulled over for speeding on The Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, part of the Interstate 95 System. I’ll let Bobby tell it from here: “So the cop pulls him over and he says man you crazy, you doin’ 90 miles an hour back there! Shit, I oughta lock yo’ ass up right now! And he says yeah well I seen the speed limit sign said 95, and you say I was only doin’ 90! And the cop says get the hell out of the car right now.”

We’re all enjoying Bobby’s story. And now it seems it has reached it’s climax. Willie Johnston, sitting next to me, takes a drag of his Pall Mall, elbows me and says, “Lucky thing he weren’t on FO’ Ninety-Five!”

In Second Place: July 2000. I’m on Point Lookout Beach, in the beautiful Irish Riviera Town of Point Lookout, NY. I would not even be allowed on this beach if not for the fact that I am engaged to the youngest of the McCloskey’s of Cedarhurst Avenue, one of Point Lookout’s founding families. My future father-in-law, the late, great Jack McCloskey, in his 70’s at this point, is playing horseshoes. I would like to be in on the horseshoe game, but I’m relatively new and I don’t want to insinuate myself too quickly and then suck. So I’m sitting in a beach chair talking to a few of Jack’s large circle of friends, part of a large conglomerate of sun-kissed Irish men and women in their 60’s and 70’s who called themselves “The Youngies.”

At some point, I decide to take a pair of binoculars out of my bag and see if I can identify some of the little sandpiper and plover birds running along the water’s edge. A little backstory: There was a big fuss on certain beaches on Long Island when officials started closing off access to protect the nests of endangered piping plovers. Hardcore beach people didn’t much like that, and would naturally be a bit suspicious of birdwatching dweebs with binoculars. I was and still am more birdwatching dweeb with binoculars than hardcore beach person, but I have evolved after being part of a hardcore beach-going family for 16 years. This day, being relatively new to Point Lookout Culture, I was not ready for what one of The Youngies said to me as he watched me watching the birds.

“You lookin’ for them piping plovers?, he says.

“I don’t think there are piping plovers here,” I say, as I look through the binoculars. “I think those guys are least sandpipers.”

“You know what I like about them piping plovers?” he says.

I have no idea what to say. I attempt to be funny, having no idea where he’s going with this. “They keep the riff-raff off the beach?” I speculate.

He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “Nooooo!” he says, “they’re great on deli rolls!”

Piping_Plover_e08-2-008_l_1And now, The First Place Magnificent Punchline, spoken by the beautiful Trisha McCloskey Duffy, a damn fine and damn funny woman, on Christmas Eve, 2004. It was our baby boy’s first Christmas. It was our third Christmas here at the house on Duffy’s Creek that we had bought from my parents when they moved to a retirement community. My parents had lived here for 45 years. We had begun a tradition of having them over to the house on Christmas Eve, because they were staying in a hotel in Rockville Centre so they could go to my sister’s house in Lynbrook for Christmas Day. But Christmas Eve was reserved for my sister’s in-laws, and seeing as my parents had nowhere to go, we started feeding them on Christmas Eve.
Its-A-Wonderful-Life-350x264That particular Christmas Eve was a lot of work, it being The Dude’s first Christmas and all. Trisha really wanted out of it. She had to work that day and really didn’t want to go through having my parents over for Christmas Eve again, as it seemed we had just done it last year. I was sort of ambivalent about it myself, but I knew, as she knew, that there was no way out of it, it being family and all. And I knew that they wouldn’t be doing this forever, and really I liked them, and I wanted them to get to visit the house where they spent 45 Christmas Eves. So in short, my wife knew she had to put on a happy face and put up with it, and I gladly accepted that I would pay for it in the due course of time.

We had a nice visit, although I could see that Trisha was getting more and more tired. At about 9:30, she excused herself to put The Dude to bed, and after about twenty more minutes of Irish goodbyes, My parents went on their way back to the hotel. I sat down to watch the last part of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Trisha came downstairs very groggy and very punky about 45 minutes later. She had fallen asleep with The Dude while putting him to sleep, which always made her feel very groggy and very punky when she woke up and realized she’d fallen asleep. George Bailey was on the bridge. He had just found Zu Zu’s petals. I was feeling all Christmas-y. Trisha was knocking back a Miller High Life, not smiling at all.

The final scene comes around. All of George’s friends come to bail him out. Harry swooshes in covered in snow, after Ernie the Taxi Driver had just whisked him in from the airport. Mary Bailey exclaims, “Mr. Martini?  How about some wine!”

On the couch, Trisha takes another healthy swig of her High Life and says, “What? Oh, Mr. Martini just happens to be walking around with wine for everybody? Just ’cause he owns a bar he automatically has wine? That makes no sense! Mr. Gower? How about some Vicodin!”

I love that woman.

I hope you enjoyed reading these little stories half  as much as I enjoyed telling them one more time. If you have any Magnificent Punchlines of your own, I’d love to hear them. See you back here on Duffy’s Creek real soon.

Call That Dog Jesus: The Story of Mookie the Yellow Lab

DSCN4413This is the story of Mookie Dog. It’s a really good story about a really good dog, but it takes awhile for him to show up. To tell it right, I have to start the story five years ago at Taconic Valley Lawn and Garden Supply and True Value Hardware on Route 23 in Hillsdale, NY, a few miles up the road from our summer vacation cabin at Taconic State Park in the small, magical hamlet of Copake Falls, NY. Then I have to take a big detour to my childhood, with a stop in 1986 before coming all the way back to the last five years. I can only ask you to stick with it. If you like a good dog story, I believe I’ve got one you’ll enjoy today.

As for Taconic Valley Lawn Care and True Value Hardware, heretofore known simply as “the hardware store”, I always make it a point to visit while we’re staying at the cabin in Copake Falls. There’s always some excuse why I have to go walk around this great little hardware store once a year. This past year it was because the coffee maker at the cabin sucked and we forgot to bring the one from home, and I regarded that as affront to all that’s good. Without coffee, my life is just not sustainable, but I digress. This is about dogs. I’ll stay on topic.

The hardware store has a resident dog, an “Irish” Jack Russell Terrier named Darcy. There’s a reason I put “Irish” in quotes, which I’ll get to later. Darcy is a great little dog, and she had a face that reminded me of the only dog I’d owned to that point, Ace the beagle mix. Ace was the nicest thing my parents ever did for me, and they did thousands and thousands of nice things for me. I bugged them for years to get a dog. I really wanted a beagle, first because Snoopy was a beagle, second because every beagle I met made me want a beagle. One summer day in 1971, they went on a secret mission to Animal Haven in Queens Village and surprised their 8 year-old boy that afternoon with a year-old dog with big brown eyes and a happy smile. He was named Ace because it was nickname the older guys like my brother were calling each other and I thought it sounded cool. You think a lot of things when you’re eight.

Ace lived for fourteen years, until I was 22. In his younger years he caused a lot of trouble. He had accidents on the kitchen floor more times than I could count, and every time he did, my poor parents, cleaning up a big puddle of piss off their linoleum before dragging themselves out to work, screamed at him and screamed at me, because that’s all they could think to do. Ace stole food whenever he could, he ate the food Herman the cat left behind and got the last piece of everything I ate, and he got very, very fat. He bit a couple of kids in the neighborhood, but they had it coming. He liked my mother better than me because she was the main food and walk source, because I was an irresponsible little jerk, as all children are. But he was my dog. We played, we wrestled, we napped and we talked. For the first five years, we spent hours and hours and hours together, just hanging out. We both enjoyed watching game shows after school on cold winter days. And he was always happy to see me, even when I became a teenager and my attention turned to too many other things, none of them very good.

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When Ace was about seven or eight, he suffered a slipped disc in his neck and was in terrible pain, and he got my attention again. He couldn’t bend his neck at all and would yelp in pain just going down the front step for a walk. It was awful. I gave my parents all the money I had from various jobs and presents, about $300, when they suggested that they might have to put Ace down because an operation was prohibitively expensive. I wouldn’t hear it. He was my dog. He got better after the operation, but he got old fast after that. At the end, he was pretty much blind and deaf, and was losing control of his bladder. I wrote something nice about him right after he died that still exists written in a notebook somewhere. I’ll eventually dig that up and put on this blog someday, because I can.

Ace died in January of 1986. This is where the Mets come in, briefly. 1986 was the last time the Mets won the World Series. It was of course, the World Series when Mookie Wilson hit the ground ball up the first base line that went through Bill Buckner’s legs, one of the most famous moments in baseball history. Mookie was my favorite player on that team. As a matter of fact, I’ll submit that he was one of the coolest guys that ever played major league baseball. Having followed him from his rookie season, when the team was beyond bad, it was especially sweet that he was part of that ultimate Mets Magic Moment. It was also quite redemptive as he had also lost playing time to Lenny Dykstra that year, but I’m digressing again. The point is that I decided in October of 1986 that my next dog would be named Mookie, and told anybody who would listen. I had no idea that it would take 25 years before I finally got that dog. This is where Darcy at the hardware store in Hillsdale comes back to the story.

I was bonding with Darcy that particular July day in 2010 and so was our only-child son, The Dude, who was six years old. The fact that he was paying attention to this dog in a positive way was worthy of note to me, as he was well into the behaviors and thought-processes that got him labeled as high-functioning autistic, more than likely Asperger’s Syndrome even though it doesn’t exist anymore. We were dealing with daily meltdowns, at home and at school, and constantly correcting and explaining some really wacky behavior. Plus, his limited experience with dogs left him very wary of them. Dogs were just one more thing, of the many, many things, that The Dude couldn’t figure out how to integrate into his sensory-processing machine.

But I got to thinking: Maybe a dog was exactly what he needed. I asked the hardware store guy about Darcy’s breed. He said he was an Irish Jack Russell Terrier, which he said were smaller and calmer than regular Jack Russell Terriers. I took him at his word and started doing some Internet research when I got home. What I found out was that there was really no such thing as an Irish Jack Russell terrier, that it was actually a made up breed that people used to pass off little mutt dogs off as pure breeds. I wouldn’t tell that to the guy at the hardware store of course, and Darcy was still my prototype dog. Then my wife Trisha, God bless her, who had never had a dog, who was very unsure about getting a dog for The Dude, who knew that no matter what she said she would probably someday have a dog because apparently I told her on our second or third date that I was going to get another dog someday and name him Mookie, did what she does a lot. She said something that made a lot of sense and made me see things in a completely different way. This is what she said: “If you’re going to get a dog, get a real dog. Get a golden retriever or a lab. I don’t want a little yappy dog, and beagles howl.”

All right then. Back to the Internet. I started searching breeders. I decided Mookie would be a lab. Now there’s a contingent out there, and I very much support them, that would read this and wonder why I didn’t rescue a dog from a shelter, as there are so many that need rescuing. It’s a fair question, and here’s my answer: I had exactly one chance to get it right. With a kid as full of issues as The Dude was when he was six, and a former aspiring-crazy-cat-lady wife who believed she would merely tolerate a dog and not consider anything canine as a part of the family, I knew that it was a crapshoot to adopt a dog who I had not raised from a puppy, or a dog who had demons that were waiting to come out. No matter how well North Shore Animal League could match me with a dog, the control freak in me decided that I had to get a purebred Labrador Retriever, and I had to raise him from a puppy, and avoid the mistake my parents made, which was trusting a little kid, by nature irresponsible little jerks, to help take care of a dog. Mookie would be The Dude’s dog, but my responsibility.

I found a very nice breeder right in Copake who agreed to let us visit when we came back up that year in August. I told her point blank that I was not leaving with a puppy, that I only wanted our son to meet the dogs and that we’d be getting a puppy the next summer. She was totally cool with that, and I grew to find out that, in general, people that hang out with Labrador Retrievers are generally cool. So one morning we drove out to the breeder’s house on the country road that leads to Copake Lake, The Dude was already in a snit, though it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet, and he didn’t want to go meet the doggies. To make matters worse, when we pulled into the backyard, in our Ford Minivan That Broke Down A Lot, the first thing The Dude noticed was the Intex inflatable pool set up in the backyard. From the time he was an infant until he was 7 or 8, The Dude was petrified of all things inflatable, particularly balloons. You could not even say the words “inflate” or “deflate” in his presence without him scattering like a cat when the front door opens. So Daddy brings his six year-old boy to go meet the dogs and the puppies, and his six-year-old boy refuses to get out of the car. At this point the breeder lady was already at her back door coming out to greet us. I left the doors to the minivan open and walked up to her deck. Trisha stayed about halfway, or else as usual I was just walking faster.

The breeder lady had two big goofy labs with her at the back door, a yellow female and a black male, plus several barking dogs in a kennel alongside the house. She opened the door graciously so we could all come in and meet the dogs.

I need to point out the beautiful realization I had in the moment that followed. I had already read all about the amazing things that Labrador Retrievers do. People absolutely gushed about them. I’m one of those people now. I had immersed myself in the stories of how Labbies can bring all sorts of wonderful changes to the lives of autistic kids. I read about how they were noble, intelligent, empathetic dogs with the mystical, intrinsic power to completely transform people’s lives through their presence. One writer referred to them as “God’s most perfect creatures.” This is all true. But the most beautiful thing about Labrador Retrievers is that they can accomplish all of these things while being complete fucking goofballs at the same time.

The two big dogs saw the back door open. They looked out and saw a little boy in a van with the doors wide open. 180 pounds of black and yellow happy dog bolted past me in a blur, passed my shocked wife, ran like lightning off the deck, across the yard and right into the back seat of the van, where they proceeded to jump all over my son, lick his face up and down, then climb into the back of the van, where they waited for the ride that they assumed we were all going to take. The Dude did not know what to think, but he knew that he had to live in that moment, that being in a snit about an inflatable pool or God knows what doesn’t mean a damn thing to two big happy dogs who see a little boy in an open van. It was not all about him anymore. The dogs were drawing him out of his autism, whether he liked it or not. I knew at that moment that this getting a dog thing was a plan that would work. How well it would work, I had no idea yet.

The Dude finally came inside (as the big dogs had taken over the van) and we had a nice visit with the breeder and her husband and son. We held puppies and asked a lot of questions. My plan was to bring home a puppy the following July. (I have a job which affords me nine to ten weeks vacation every summer – I suppose it wouldn’t be difficult to guess what that is. Hint: Not a Ski-Lift Operator – so a puppy brought home in July would have intensive training for the first two months). The breeder highly recommended Glenerie Labradors of Saugerties, NY, just across the river from Copake. I had already seen their website. Their dogs are absolutely stunning. Big, gorgeous English Labs that looked like they should be floating in kayaks or exchanging Christmas Presents with well-groomed preppy people in LL Bean catalogues. Go look for yourself at www.glenerielabradors.com then come back and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

Ah, you’re back. Where were we? I know: By November of that year, I had a contract with Ed and Cindy Noll of Glenerie Labradors for a Labrador puppy the following July. My first choice was a yellow lab, ‘cause they’re just so damn good-looking, and they have big, soft brown eyes like Ace the Beagle mix had (which very well may have been Labrador eyes). Plus we hoped for a male, since the dog would function as confidant to The Dude. On May 8, 2011, Glenerie Broadway Girl aka Roxy, a pretty-as-they-come black lab, had her first litter of puppies. The father was from a breeder called Brookberry Labradors in Northern New Jersey. His name was Perfect Impression aka Logan, a big yellow guy with a massive head and the expression of a crazy good old boy out on the town. One of those puppies, a yellow male, became Glenerie Gets By Buckner aka Mookie. The Noll’s, despite being true blue Yankee fans, were very good about that.

I only spoke to Ed Noll on the phone only once, but it was a memorable conversation. He told me about labs that had been bred as companions for war veterans suffering from PTSD. One dog in particular had figured out when his guy was about to have the recurring nightmare that he dreamed every night. The dog soon trained himself to wake the guy up every night before the nightmare started. Ed Noll did not realize that he was speaking to a man whose sleep had been interrupted every single night for the previous five years by a little boy flying down the stairs and jumping into bed between he and his wife. He may have known that the dog he was selling to that man would, within a year, learn to stay with that little boy all night, every night, either asleep next to him on the bed or laying by the door waiting quietly and patiently for the man to take him for downstairs for pee business and breakfast, while the boy slept on and learned to love his own room.

Ed Noll was also the first to pass on the credo that I now know many people besides myself live by, which is especially amusing to me, living on Long Island among thousands of little yappy terriers who all bark their heads off when they see Mookie coming: “Mr. Duffy,” he said to me, “if it ain’t at least 50 pounds, it ain’t a dog.”

Cindy Noll greeted me nine weeks later at their house in Saugerties. Ironically, she was giving me a dog named Mookie to take home and then heading down to the Bronx on a Metro North train to catch the Yankee game. The best piece of advice she gave me was this: “He’s a mound of clay. You can make him into whatever you want him to be.” This is something that you cannot say of human children.

My mound of clay and I spent a lot of time going over the basics in the Summer of 2011. And he learned them amazingly well. You hear about how smart these dogs are, but when you actually hang out with one day after day, it will blow your mind. My training approach was a little bit Cesar Milan, establishing that I was the boss through “exercise, deeescipline and affection”, a little bit Monks of The New Skete, making sure the dog knows he’s a dog and not your equal, and a lot of Pat Miller’s “Power of Positive Dog Training”, which suggest that there should always be something in it for the dog. I immersed myself in dog training books for a year and then just went with my instincts. I could’ve done better, but I could have also done a whole lot worse.

From the start, Mookie loved getting things right, and a “good boy” and a good rubby went as far as treats. Cindy told me, “he’s a cuddler.” and it became clear from the outset that Mookie would always tolerate and often enjoy being hugged, dogpiled, scratched and belly-rubbed by The Dude, as well as myself and the entire rest of the human race. From the beginning, he has been all about pleasing people and trying to do things the way we liked them done. He never chewed furniture, he has never taken food that wasn’t offered to him, he had maybe three accidents before he was perfectly housebroken and he has never showed one iota of aggression towards people besides a low growl when someone walked too slow past the front window or otherwise seems out of place.

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Within four weeks, he learned Sit, Stay, Wait, Lie Down, Come, Go Get It, Bring It, Drop It, Leave It, Shake Hands, High-Five, Look At Me, Give Me A Hug, Heel, Walk With Me, Cross, Back Up, Go Home and Go For A Ride In The Car.

He has two flaws, one that seems pretty hard-wired and the other that I have to admit I could have trained out of him but I thought it was just too much fun. I wanted to strike the balance between noble therapy dog and happy fucking goofball, and I think I did. He does know that “off” means to please cease jumping on a given person and trying to look deep into his or her eyes and lick his or her face, but I found some people (as I do) really enjoy that sort of thing (we call it “getting the Full Mookie”) so he’s still allowed to do it sometimes. And he chases our three cats (The Dude’s Therapy Cats – who’ll get their own blog posts in due time) around the house whenever he can, but they sort of goad him into it sometimes. Other than that, our mound of clay is just about the perfect dog. He has even charmed my mother-in-law, who is a wonderful woman but not easily charmed by dogs. When we stayed at her house for a week after Hurricane Sandy, Mookie was the perfect houseguest, though he was as confused as all hell by the whole thing. He knew his job was to be where we were and help keep our little family going, but while we displaced, he was going to sweet-face his way onto the couch.

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When Mookie was 12 weeks old, we brought him upstate for a day for our annual trip up to attend Copake Falls Day, when the whole little town comes out and throws itself a day-long party. St. John’s of The Wilderness Episcopal Church hosts a big old barbecue at the end of the day. We were a little nervous about bringing Mookie that first year, so we put him in an ex-pen away from the people and the food. One by one, every little kid at the barbecue walked over to the ex-pen and sat down where the cute little labrador puppy could look deep into their eyes. Then one by one the parents of those little kids, who weren’t coming when called because they were busy staring at the cute labrador puppy who was looking deeply into their eyes, brought plates of food over to their children, then came back  and sat down with their own plates of food and let the little labrador puppy look deep into their eyes, too. Trisha looked at the scene and said, “let the little children come to me.” And because we enjoy building on each other’s jokes, and we’re both pretty funny, I replied, “Call that dog Jesus.”

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Jesus aka Mookie has been with us for four years. The effect he has had on my son’s struggle to make peace with his head and with his world is immeasurable, as we don’t know what it would have been like without Mookie, but we can tell the difference he has made. It’s sort of like how I feel about the Obama Presidency. A lot of things were screwed up anyway, but I feel that they would have been a whole lot more screwed up without him. The Dude has still had lots of trouble in school, he’s still had lots of meltdowns, still gets lost in his own head, but he’s come miles and miles in his ability to interact naturally with the rest of the human race through having a dog ambassador.

Mookie has been my ambassador to the human race as well. The year before we brought him home I was researching dog parks and I came across a petition started by a young fellow named David Sabatino, who had started a group called Envision Valley Stream. I am by nature not a joiner, but I joined forces with David – who by nature joins everything – and along with a group of like-minded people we worked with the village government to create a community dog park in Valley Stream, and through the Valley Stream Dog Park, which opened in the spring of 2012, I met a whole lot of other people. The Dude enjoys hanging out with Mookie and the other dogs at the park, and he’s sort of developed a little Temple Grandin thing with dogs, cats and animals in general. Animals have brought out the empathy, kindness and humor inside him that people weren’t having much luck getting to. The whole experience of walking through this world with Mookie has made us both better people. And Trisha loves a dog now.

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As for Mookie, the dog park is as much the people park for him. He is on a insatiable quest to “say hi” to as many people as possible in the years that he has. The entire purpose of leaving the house for Mookie is to hunt for people to say hi to, and wag his tail and look deeply into their eyes when he finds one. Since we bring him everywhere we possibly can, I would stipulate that he has personally greeted close to two thousand people in four years. He’s aslo unbelievably photogenic and I put so many pictures of him on facebook that I eventually gave him his own page. You can see for yourself at https://www.facebook.com/mookiethedog.

Our dog Mookie has comforted people in the nursing home where my mother passed away and where my father still lives, and he has attracted huge crowds through playground fences. He makes roving packs of teenage boys walking from the high school up the street turn into six-year-olds. He once even found a stray kitten abandoned by his mother because the kitten came out of the bushes and started following him along the Duffy’s Creek Path. We brought the kitten to my vet, who got it adopted. I don’t know any other dogs who have rescued kittens, but if you have one like I do, you got something there.

This fall, I’m hoping to get him through his Canine Good Citizen test so we can eventually get Therapy Dog International status and bring him around to more people who need him as he gets older and slows down a bit. Right now, he sleeps upstairs in my eleven year-old son’s bed, making sure the demons stay at bay for another night. Tomorrow morning, he’ll sit next to me on the couch while I read the Sunday paper and I’ll give him scratchies and rubbies with my free hand. Then we’ll go for a good long walk around the neighborhood, and possibly knock one or two more people off the “say hi” list. I’ll watch as the person’s face lights up when his or her eyes meet Mookie’s. The person will say something like, “what a beautiful dog!” or “”he’s a real sweetheart.” And I’ll say what I’ve been saying for years now: “He loves you, too.”

Call that dog Jesus.

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