Zen Golf

I’m a writer and have been for a long time – and in that time I’ve written about everything from Online Dating to Pina Coladas. But I have yet to write about golf. At least I don’t recall writing about golf (see reference to ‘long time’) and that’s odd, mostly because I’ve been playing the game for decades.

I can’t tell you when first I was exposed to the sport, it could have been with Dad when I was a kid. Or it may have been in phys-ed class at high school. I don’t know, but I do know when I started to develop an actual interest in the game.

I enlisted in the Air Force when I was 18. When I got to my first base I was assigned a room with a kid from Ohio named Troy Ferber. He was a golfer, and a good one. Troy talked about golf a lot – even had his own set of clubs – and he made golf seem cool. I guess that’s because he was cool. And funny. Plus he could drink a lot of whiskey without falling over. He had attributes that I wanted to have. He was a guy I looked up to… and he golfed.

There were the cultural influences too. I could tell you I got interested in golf because it had an air of affluence to it (there was a time I was pretty impressed by that sort of thing) and I guess I aspired to be somehow more than I was?

However the interest got going, the actual playing of golf didn’t happen right away. It was a few years before I took club in hand and tried to hit anything with it. But what I did start doing was watching the sport on TV. Despite the military’s rough and tumble image, what you actually do a lot of is domestic type stuff. There’s lots of laundry and making beds and ironing – oh man is there a lot of ironing – and what I began doing when I ironed my uniforms was turn on a golf match. I’d mute the TV, turn the stereo up, and, as I pressed lapels, creases and collars, I’d watch men hit balls across colossal lawns in search of holes in the ground.

And I liked it.

After my time in the service I moved back to California, started college, joined the reserves and, with the help of a re-enlistment bonus, bought my first set of clubs. The irons were perimeter weighted (a recent innovation) and the woods were, misnomer of all misnomers, ‘metal woods’. And man were they cool! And man was I cool, with my very own set of brand new golf clubs.

Only trouble was, I couldn’t use them very well – which was disconcerting. I mean golf looked so easy on TV. As I ironed my uniforms and watched guys take elegant swings at dimply balls, it all looked so effortless and graceful. But the foul words that jumped from my lips as I thrashed angrily at those tiny wicked balls had very little to do with grace.

If you know what the term ‘slice’ means in golf, then you can guess at my frustration. A slice is when you swing in such a way that the clubface isn’t square to the ball and instead of hitting ‘flush’ it contacts at an angle, thereby ‘slicing’ the ball and imparting a wicked spin on it, sort of like a curveball in baseball.

And I had the slice to end all slices.

The harder I swung (like if I was still a long way from the hole and needed a great shot) the worse my slice would get. I swear, that ball would travel about a hundred yards forward and then, when the spin I’d imparted to it via my crappy technique took over, it’d hang a sharp right turn and head the next hundred yards away from the fairway and into whatever woods or ponds or sand traps were over in that part of the course nobody ever seemed to go but me.

I considered quitting the game.

But after a time (and after my wife bought me golf lessons one Christmas) my swing straightened out and I began to hit pretty well. And golf actually got quite fun there for a while.

I started playing in those insufferable golf tournaments that my, or someone else’s, company would put on. You know the ones, where you’re stuck for hours with three other people you’ve never met. And invariably they hold political, social and whatever other opinions they might have that are in direct contradiction to yours. But, because they are your customers, you bite your tongue just about every time they start flapping theirs.

After a while, I started finding reasons (excuses) to miss those tournaments – seemed all of a sudden I was too busy that day, or I had a family function to attend. I think what happened is the social part of the game didn’t much appeal to me. I get why it works for others, but I know myself well enough to understand why it doesn’t appeal to me: I’m actually a bit of an introvert. That isn’t to say I don’t like people, I do, I just don’t like being with a group of people for four-plus hours at a time.

So I started playing alone.

I was living in the town of Hollister at the time, and Hollister had a golf club named Ridgemark way down the south end of town, where the low rolling hills that surrounded us started. Ridgemark was a semi-private Club, with two separate courses that “alternated”. Here’s what I mean: On one day, the North course may be open to Club members while the South course was open to the public, and on the next day, vice versa. But what I found was that most of the golfers out there were members so that the public course was seldom very crowded. And about the time cocktail hour started that course would just about empty itself of frustrated hackers who gave in and headed to the bar.

Which left me and my clubs out there pretty much alone.

There were times I’d see maybe a handful of golfers my entire round. On those evenings a round of golf, which normally takes upward of 4 hours, would take me 2 ½ – and that was on foot. I’d get up to the tee box, tee up, and send that ball screaming. Then I quickly walk to its landing spot and send it again. Pretty soon I’d be up near the green, and then I’d be in the hole.

I happily, and peacefully, repeated that sequence of events 18 times, then headed into the clubhouse for a beer or two myself. Though often, I’d just walk straight to the car, and drive the 10 minutes to my house. All this was usually on a Friday evening, typically after a long week, and during a time in my life when I was working two jobs (one Monday through Friday and the other on weekends) in order to afford to keep my wife home with our kids. And it was good – and it made me feel good.

You know what was funny? That night, after my solo round of golf, as I lay in bed starting to relax toward sleep, I’d replay each shot in my head – every single one of them. It was like I was getting a second round for free. Then I’d drift off.

I loved those days of my Zen Golf.

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Runner…

Eddie and Me

I’ve been running for as long as I can remember.

My parents are from Ireland, as in everybody I am related to, who aren’t my parents, siblings or kids, still live there. So every other summer or so, Mom and Dad would put me on a plane in San Francisco headed for the homeland. And when I say me, I mean just 12, 10 or 8-year-old me, to fly for hours and hours, and then change planes at JFK in New York, and then fly a bunch more hours.

Personally, I loved it. I’ve always been, how do I say, a little on the solitary side. I like my own company and am totally cool being alone for long stretches of time, and distance, so the five thousand miles to Ireland was no big deal to me. It was to others (like Mom) so I was typically placed in the charge of some group of adults, I assume known to my parents, who were headed the same direction. Sometimes it was the Irish Club that Mom and Dad belonged to, one time it was an order of nuns, and this other time it was Sister Michelle (the principle of my parochial school, and boy was that a long trip) but whoever it was, I always made it there, to the landing strip at the little airport in Shannon.

Remember how in the old days they’d roll a set of steps up to the plane and you’d walk down to the tarmac like you were coming down the stairs of a two-story house? Well it was the old days in Ireland more recently than it was in most other places, so that was still a thing when I was there. And when I got to the bottom, there would be Grandma, and her husband, Eddie O’Hanlon. Eddie wasn’t my grandfather (that guy had passed away many years prior, after a life spent mostly on the lam) but had married my Grandma after one of those later-in-life romances.

And Eddie was a character.

“Eddie” was short for Redmond, his namesake. Redmond O’Hanlon had been a highway robber who, legend has it, took from the rich (English) and gave to the poor (Irish). Think a local version of Robin Hood and you’re probably pretty close. You’re also pretty close in guessing that such generosity origninated from trying to keep said poor from sharing one’s identity with said rich, but that doesn’t make for as good a story – and in Ireland, it’s all about the story. I liked Eddie from the time I met him because he didn’t treat me like a kid – in fact he’d let me do things my parents wouldn’t dream of (nor later be told of) like fetch his drink at the pub (blackberry brandy with a beer chaser) or run his bets down to the bookie. I think he had me run bets because I could always get there in time to place them, even if he’d spent a little too long picking his ponies.

After collecting me at the airport in Shannon. Eddie would drive us back up to the north of Ireland to Grandma’s house, just outside a little village called Poyntzpass. Ireland’s funny in that just about everywhere that’s anywhere has a name, so the plot of land where the old house was had a name too: Corcrum. I loved Corcrum, with its sloping green hills, it’s rabbit and fox populated fields, and the little stream the ran through the bottom of the small valley below the house.

It was that same small valley where Eddie would have his eight greyhounds run up the steep slopes of the fields. They were chasing the rag constructed ‘rabbit’ I was rapidly retrieving via the tire-less back wheel of an upturned old bicycle I was pedaling – by hand – as fast as a boy could. Of course, the rope being wound onto the wheel that was tied to the rag rabbit kept jumping off track, so that scheme didn’t pan out as planned. But that was okay, as Eddie was an idea man. When some connivance didn’t quite come together, he typically had the next one ready to go.

And the next one after ‘fast dogs’ was, apparently, ‘fast boy’.

As a boy I was always the fastest kid in my class, and usually the fastest in the whole school. My Mom was a runner too, of the caliber that took her as far as training for the Olympics at one point, and I got a good helping of those genes. Between Mom’s genetics and the small mountain in my home town I spent summers running up, I was fast. Really fast.

And at some point Eddie O’Hanlon figured that out.

The little towns in Ireland typically held a fair in summer, and Poyntzpass was no exception. At the fair there’d be music, and baked goods, and prize animals and the like – and then there’d be stuff for the kids to do. One of which was a 50 yard dash. Which Eddie entered me in. And which I won.

After collecting that medal, just about every weekend to follow included Eddie driving me to another village’s fair, invariably in time for the 50 yard dash, which I invariably won. This went on until I had more medals than I could hold in one hand. It also had gone on to the point where it wasn’t really that fun anymore. I’m always up for a car ride, especially to somewhere I haven’t been, but the rides were getting longer, and then we’d just stay for the race.

And that’s how it went until one weekend Eddie took me to a big race in Belfast. This was no fair, this was a sanctioned sporting event. There were flag poles with the colors of different countries flying, and the kids I’d be racing against were accompanied by their trainers and were wearing track suits with their names on them – and the names of their sponsors.

And I was in my usual blue jeans and Keds sneakers.

I won a race or two but got eliminated pretty early on. I thought wow, these kids can really go, and I admired their athletic ability. I would have liked to stay and see some more races, and would have been interested to see how far the kid who beat me got. But we didn’t stay. We got back in the car for the long ride home, and that was the last time Eddie entered me in a race.

Which was fine by me.

After that it was back to fishing, which I adored, and playing in the fields chasing the rabbits, and riding the bike that Eddie and Grandma bought me. And on work days sometimes Eddie would take me with him, and then somedays we’d just ride around and find a little adventure or two. I loved that old man, and I know he loved me, though back then, back there, you didn’t really say stuff like that.

I feel silly admitting it now, but it didn’t occur to me until years later that Eddie likely bet on each and every one of those races. I hope he made a lot of money, and I hope he didn’t lose too much on that last one. I was older when I heard that Eddie died. I hadn’t been back there in quite some time, and it’s not like we wrote each other – still, that charming old rogue played a part in who I’d become.

When we got the call that Eddie was gone I went up to my room, to the top drawer of my desk where I still kept all those medals, opened it, looked at them, and smiled…

 

 

Keep your eye on the (base) ball…

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The first job I ever had – I mean genuine, real job, where they wrote you a paycheck and didn’t just give you the money they had in their pocket – was lining baseball fields.

And it taught me a lesson I remember until this day.

I got the job in the summer of ’78, when I was 14. Up until then I’d cut apricots, mowed lawns, washed cars and shined shoes (unshined them is more like it) but the summer of my 14th year I decided I was old enough to go find me a big boy job.

I don’t recall how I thought of it, but at some point in my search I went to the Parks & Rec Department in my little town to see if they had any jobs I could do. It turns out they did. The guy who’d painted the lines on the baseball fields in town had quit, and they needed someone to take his place. I filled out an application, talked to some lady with a title like “assistant director” and a few days later received a call saying I got the job. A little confession here: no small part of this lucky turn had to do with, to the question “have you ever lined baseball fields before?” I answered “Yes, of course I have.”

A more truthful answer would have been “No, no I have never done anything even remotely close to drawing thick, straight, chalk lines all over a baseball diamond”, but somehow I wasn’t quite able to write that one down on the application.

The fields were situated all over town, so on my first day, because I was a kid still 2 years away from getting his license, Dad drove me (every time after that he handed me the keys to the old truck and said “Keep to the backroads”). And that first day went pretty badly. The next few days after that weren’t much better. Turns out I was terrible at drawing lines on baseball fields.

The wheels on the ‘line chalking’ contraption that you used to do the job were out-of-round, and hard to push in a straight line. And the lines that were already there (that I thought I’d just follow to make new lines) were pretty much obliterated by previous games. It seemed like the harder I tried, the worse I did. I even started to go really slow, taking twice as long, in my effort to carefully create the thick, straight lines I’d need to keep my job.

I was getting angry with myself, and embarrassed too. I didn’t know what to do. And with no youtube how-to videos for help, and no one I knew who’d done this sort of thing to ask, I felt alone. Really alone.

So one evening, about a week in, I sat down on the side of a field and decided to spend some time thinking rather than working. I started it with toughts of quitting. I hate to admit it, but when I begin doubting myself an early instinct I have is, just cut and run. But then I felt even more embarrassed, like really, I can’t figure this out?

So I figured it out.

Here’s what I came up with: my solution to the wavering, crooked lines I was drawing had been to go slower – to be careful. And then I’d go slower yet, and be even more careful. I was watching the line as I drew it, trying to match what was there before. But the slower I went, and the more closely I watch the line in front of me, the worse I did and the more frustrated I got. So I thought “The hell with it – I’m not going look at what I’m doing, I’m going to look at where I’m going”. Instead of trying to match a blurry, messy, disappearing line I started looking at the bases I was drawing my lines to. And when I did a weird thing happened – I started to speed up. I would just look straight toward first base, and quickly walk to it. Then I’d do the same with second, and so on. All of a sudden the job was taking half the time it used to.

And the lines were almost dead straight.

After that I started hearing from the assistant director lady that the players loved how the fields looked. The lines had never been so straight. And I felt proud.

Lesson? Don’t worry too much about where you’re at, just keep your eye on where you’re going to…

 

 

 

 

 

Cycles of Attraction

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I taught myself how to ride a bike – at least that’s how I remember it.

I think it was the summer of 1968, when I was about four years old. Dad was in the Army and stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia. We lived on post in a home that faced a large rolling green. Between that green and our house was a sidewalk that led out to the street in one direction and further into post housing in the other.

The first mode of transportation I recall using to traverse the long sidewalk was a little red fire engine. You remember the one – it had pedals on the inside of it and a bell on the hood that you’d ring with a pull of the string.

Those were safe and comfortable times inside my steel fire engine with wheels at all four corners and no real way to tip over. I’d pedal up and down the sidewalk as Mom watched from the front porch. I’d ring the bell and she’d smile – and all was right with the world.

Sometimes I’d still be out there as Dad walked home after he got off duty. I’d see him coming and pedal just a little faster, and ring the bell a little louder. And he’d smile – and all was right with the world.

But one day, as dad walked home, I could see he had something in tow – it was big and blue and had handlebars and naked pedals hanging off either side.

It was a bike.

I knew what bikes were – I had friends who rode them. They were typically complicated contraptions that wobbled at first until the rider got going pretty good – at which point they seemed to become a magical sort of thing that would then take its owner anywhere he wanted to go.

The bike Dad was bringing with him seemed better than most. It was a full sized bike – like a grown-up would ride – so at first I guess I thought it wasn’t for me. But when he got to where I was in my little red fire engine he said that the bike would be mine. He’d got it on post, from the wife of a friend who was shipping out and didn’t have room to bring it along.

I was excited by the idea of riding this bike. It was beautiful and it glistened in the sun. It had long, curvy handlebars with white grips, and its frame stretched up from the pedals to meet the handlebars in a long, rounded arch that resembled a slender gas tank. It was one of those bikes from the fifties that were built to resemble motorcycles – a gracefully curved and slender motorcycle.

The only reason I had any chance of riding this bike is because it was a ladies model – and as such you could step into it rather than having to throw your leg over it. But there remained the issue of how to get the whole affair started.

Dad said something about putting me on the seat and giving me a push – but in standing next to the bike I could tell that if I sat down on the seat I wouldn’t be able to touch the pedals.

And I knew from my little red engine that pedals equaled progress.

Dad was just off work and was eager to go inside, so our conversation was short. He walked the rest of the way to the house with the bike in hand and leaned it up against the porch – where I stared at it for what seemed like an eternity. I wanted to ride the bike – because that’s what boys do – but was afraid it wouldn’t work out.

Finally my desire overcame me. I climbed out of my fire engine and walked over and laid my hands on my new partner and decided I’d just figure out how to make this relationship work. I guided the sleek bike out to the sidewalk and started running, still holding onto the handlebars. When I reached a certain speed I jumped up onto the closest pedal. This action pulled the bike sharply to the left. To counter this imbalance I pushed the handlebars to the right and fought the bike back to the middle of the sidewalk.

In my memory we battled like that for the rest of the evening. Up and down the sidewalk I’d run her and then jump on – and she’d test my balance and try to throw me back off. It wasn’t until I realized that her imbalance was in direct reaction to mine that I started to make any progress at all.

And then on one pass it all sort of fell together.

I ran my run, jumped my jump and then… then I stepped fully into my new bike. I stepped in and stopped worrying – worrying about how to reach the seat, or fearing that I’d fall and fail. Before I knew it we were both gliding smoothly up and down the sidewalk –neither of us were wholly in control – yet somehow we both were.

That bike taught me a lesson I’d get to relearn some 40 odd years later.

I’ve written in this space over the last year and a half about things like baseball and motorcycles – soccer, cars and basketball. And I’ve used those illustrations to communicate my feelings for, and my journey with, the woman in my life. Maybe speaking directly isn’t my strong suit, but let me be very direct in what I’m about to say:

I love you Loretta Sayers, and the ride is just getting started.

 

Brian

Brothers

In honor of National Brothers Day I thought I’d write about my little brother, Brian.

Brian is two years younger than me, and two inches taller (which doesn’t seem right, but whatever) and is really one of the best guys I know. He’s always ready to help, and is cool under pressure which – if you had a childhood like ours – was a vital skill.

And by “childhood like ours” I don’t mean to imply our childhood wasn’t good, or healthy or loving. It was those things. But it was also dangerous, and daring, and exciting – mostly because we made it that way.

Here’s the sort of stuff I’m talking about:

Our parents were born in Ireland – and because they were they liked to go to Irish events to comingle with other Irish immigrants and do Irishy stuff.

One Saturday when I was about 12 and Brian 10, they piled us in the station wagon and took us to an Irish dancing competition at a local middle school (think Riverdance for 7th graders) so that we could watch the children of other Irish immigrants bounce up and down to really fast Celtic music.

Whatever.

Brian and I pretty much hated that stuff because, well, I guess because we wanted to be American, and outside, and running wild, and – you get the point.

So the minute our folks looked in one direction, we beat feet in the other. And to make sure we executed a clean – and dance spectating free – getaway we ran flat out. Right around a corner and into the parking lot. Where a car was coming. Pretty fast too. That Brian ran right in front of. And which hit him.

Really hard.

I was right behind my little brother and saw the whole thing. I saw him run in front of the big sedan – I saw him fly up into the air after it slammed into him, and I saw him land on its hood and then roll off one side as the terrified driver stomped on the brakes.

And then I watched Brian fall to the ground in a crumpled heap.

At which point he sprang to his feet, shot me an “oh crap” look, and took off running as fast as he could. I took off running too. After all he’d just been hit by a car – which we were pretty sure we’d get in trouble for – so there was no time to waste.

It was that sort of danger and excitement we were always on the lookout for.

On that day we’d got lucky and it fell in our laps – but most times we had to actually create the peril. Like the time we ran down a herd of deer in the field behind our house with homemade spears (kitchen knives lashed to broom sticks in case you were wondering).

Just a heads-up here to Greenpeace: Despite our best throws, no animals were harmed in the making of that adventure.

From there it pretty much ramped up to include stuff like BB gun battles, forest fires, and cliff climbing. But in consideration of those of you with weaker constitutions (and Mom, who sometimes reads my column) I’ll leave the more daring stuff to the imagination.

I will tell you this: You know how your memory of you from childhood seems sort of average, but there’s always one whose exploits seem larger than life? Well that was Brian.

And remember – he was my little brother.

But at a point he just seemed to get, well, bigger. I don’t mean in stature – he actually didn’t get tall until later – I mean the stuff he was doing started seeming bigger than the stuff the rest of us kids were doing.

Even though still kind of short, in about the 9th grade he started dunking basketballs during our neighborhood games.  On regulation height baskets.

Up until that time he’d been my cohort, my partner in crime (I wish that was just a figure of speech, but one escapade actually landed us in a holding cell). He was my brother. He was the copilot on our go cart runs down ridiculously steep hills, the second to jump the bicycle ramp behind me, and Tonto to my Lone Ranger.

But then he got strong. And fast. And big.

And pretty soon we weren’t so much partners as independent contractors. We started going our own ways when stuff like girls and cars began to happen. Although there was that time I threw him the keys to my hot rod and told him to drive it home because I was gonna ride uptown with some friends.

He might have been 14 at the time.

But our paths started to diverge. As the little brother I used to sometimes look down on got harder to live up to I think I created distance between us.

It got to the point where I wouldn’t get on a basketball court with him anymore. And on a skateboard – which was not only transportation in our neighborhood, but a lifestyle – he started doing things I’d only seen in the skateboard magazines.

It wasn’t too much later that, following a chat with Uncle Sam, I headed off for a series of Air Force bases. After that I heard Brian got a basketball scholarship. And then broke some kind of state high jumping record. I think I heard he was lead singer for a punk band too. And one day I opened a magazine and saw him in an ad.

After I got out of the service I think Brian was living the life of a SoCal surfer. I went to college, got married, had some kids and got a mortgage. But Brian was always somewhere like Hawaii, or Bali – in my mind he was always still doing those things that seemed just a little larger than what others did. And what I did.

And for a long time there was more than just a physical distance between us.

Every couple of years we’d hook up at Christmas or Thanksgiving, and catch each other up on the latest. I’d tell him what my kids were doing and he’d tell me about some amazing adventure he’d had. And then we’d head off in our own direction again – until next Christmas. Or the one after that.

My little brother is now 51 – which makes me 53.

And while I can’t quite put my finger on when, something happened, quite a few years back now, that let me get back closer to the only brother I have. I’m not sure how it happened, or why, and don’t really care at this point, but somewhere along the line I got over myself.

I got over my perceived shortcomings, and whatever else it was that was causing me to do that crazy habit I have sometimes of being aloof – and I found my little brother again.

You know today is not really National Brothers Day – but it would be stupid to wait for a contrivance like that to say the things a brother needs to hear.

And what I want to tell Brian is I’m always right behind him – no matter what’s around the corner.

I’m Weird

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I have a secret – my secret is that I’m weird.

My guess is you’re a little weird too.

I’m willing to bet there’s something about you that you don’t want others to know. And the reason you don’t want them to know is because you don’t think they’ll understand.  You’re afraid, at some level, that their lack of understanding will lead them to judge you for your difference. Continue reading →

She Deserved Better

 

I was behind a man and woman when they crashed their motorcycle.

I was coming up the middle of a three lane highway when traffic across all the lanes started slowing drastically ahead of us. Something was clearly wrong. Then I could see what (part of) the problem was: There was, spinning and flopping down the middle lane, the whole tread of a tire. I didn’t think too much of it, as treads come off cars and trucks all the time. What struck me as odd was how severely the traffic ahead of me was reacting to it. I thought as common as this sort of thing is, surely most of the other drivers had seen it happen before.

So why the big slowdown? Continue reading →

What will you build today?

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When my Dad first came to America from Ireland he didn’t yet know how to build a life here.

He was a farm boy from a poor family in Ireland who saw America as the promise land, based on the stories he’d heard about how good life here was from the US Army Soldiers stationed near his village. It was just after World War II and his Uncle Walter, who lived in California after emigrating from Ireland himself, had sponsored Dad’s entry into the country.

Part of the sponsorship agreement was that the new immigrant had to find a means to support himself – and soon – or run the risk of being sent back home. But because it was the years just after the war, when a lot of GI’s were still returning home and re-entering the work force, jobs were scarce.

So Dad had to get resourceful. Continue reading →

I Try not to Eat Glass

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Charlie ate broken glass.

He’s my son, and was about 14 months old at the time and, if I recall correctly, that was his first trip to a hospital emergency room. By the age of six he would visit emergency rooms four more times, for things such as breaking his arm, knocking himself out, and cracking his skull.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – allow me to back up a bit and explain how it was that Charlie came to eat glass. Continue reading →