Friday, July 16, 2010

Coming to Terms with the Cosmos and my 9-Iron

The goal seemed theoretically simple: strike a stationary sphere lying on the ground in front of me using a stick with a club on the end of it and send it careening down the middle of the open field, preferably near the big sign that said "250" on it.  Everything felt right.  Weight evenly balanced.  Eye on the target-line.  The grip was firm but not tight.  Except my ball did not get near the big "250" sign.  It didn't even go down the middle of the expansive grass field.  It slithered off to the right in a wide-arc, like a boomerang that didn't know its way home.  And it narrowly missed hitting a tall, muscular man practicing his chipping near the putting green.  As I silently muttered one of what was to be many expletives, he turned and watched the ball sail past him, looked back at me behind his sunglasses, shook his head once, and returned to his chipping.  I lined up my next ball and thought, "Screw you.  You're not supposed to be chipping on the practice green anyway."

At age 50, I'm still capable of throwing a fairly decent spiral.  In a batting cage, once comfortable with the speed, I can take some admirable cuts at a 75 m.p.h. pitching-machine.  And sometimes at the gym after my workout, I'll grab a basketball and put on a not-too-shabby display of hitting 18-foot jump-shots around the perimeter.  But golf has escaped me.

I love the concept of the game.  It's brilliant.  Through trees, around hills, and over obstacles like craters filled with sand, continue striking a ball from hundreds of feet away using a series of instruments designed to matriculate the ball towards a flat, groomed surface, where the ball will eventually be tapped into a small hole.  He or she who does it using the least amount of attempts, wins.  Great, I get it.  Except, of course, I don't.  And I learned that I didn't really get it early on when my father would take us to play golf at Rolling Greens in Canal Fulton.  My dad enjoyed this course because it was fairly straight, had no water except for a small pond near the building where they kept the mowers, and not a sand-trap in sight.  Still, with many of the game's impediments eliminated for me, I still managed to have my father completely exasperated with me by the second hole.  My shots gave completely new meaning to "going right".  For awhile it became so awful that I would actually aim 45-degrees or more to the left in the hopes that my ball would swing over and land somewhere close to the fairway.  It helps explain why my father played golf with Mark and Michael a whole lot more than with me.

I've taken lessons from a variety of people.  All claimed to have some inner Zen-like wisdom that would enable them to break through my long-suffering ineptitude and instantly help me to become at one with the dimpled-ball.  One told me about "using big muscles".  Another had me envision that I was a pendulum, and all I needed to do was swing from one side to the other.  Still another encouraged me to pretend that my left arm was a steel-bar who's goal was to "not break down".  After watching my ball sail in the same general direction most of the time, I ended up seeing the same puzzled look on each of their faces.  Once, several years ago, I scheduled a lesson with a pro down in Zoar.  He watched me belt 6 or 7 balls.  I then stood on the tee-box and told him that perhaps the problem was with my clubs.  Maybe they should be custom-made for me?  "Golf Gigest had a huge article about that last month," I said.  He stood up, grabbed my 9-iron, looked at it, lined up a ball, and proceed to blast it down the middle about 150 yards.  He handed it back to me.  "There's nothing wrong with that club," he said.     

Oh, I don't hit every ball to the right.  Like most people who don't play often enough, I'll occasionally manage a few good swings.  When I really do tag one, though, I generally stand in bewilderment, mumbling, "How did I do that?!"  For whatever reason, whether it's the stance, the backswing, the left arm breaking down, the follow-through, or the 3,129 other things that could possibly go wrong between the time I line up a ball and then watch it sail far short of its intended target, something happens.  It's like trying to find the answer to the meaning of the cosmos.  Or is there a God.  Or who killed Kennedy.  Or will the Indians get any relief pitching.   Consequently, I rarely get asked to play golf, and if I do, I usually make an excuse.  Why embarrass myself, and why keep everyone else held up because I'm foraging in the woods again looking for my fifth lost ball?  So, I play golf with Donna.  She doesn't laugh at me.  Or, if she does, it's usually while I'm in the woods looking for my ball.

But that's all changing tomorrow.  I'm supposed to play in a scramble with Donna's brother, his son, and his son's friend.  He asked me several weeks ago while Donna was standing there, and we had no plans, so there was absolutely nothing I could do to get out of it.  I've been dreading it for weeks.  So, in anticipation of it, I asked my nephew, Christopher, to watch my swing and give me a few pointers.  I've never seen Christopher swing a golf club, but everyone in the family says, "You ought to have Christopher look at your swing".

I couldn't pass up a sunny day on the scooter, so Donna figured out a way for me to put a couple of clubs in my back-pack.  She clipped the zipper together so that wind wouldn't blow it around and loosen its hold on the clubs.  She can fix anything.  (While riding down to Skyland Pines, I made a mental note to have her start working on the health-care crisis and, if there's time, the oil leak.)  Once at the course, I bought a bucket of balls, as Christopher was still playing on the course.  After a bit, he joined me and then watched me swing.  He said some of the things that others have told me, but gave me some good advice.  "Right now, make sure your take-a-way is smooth and straight back," he said.  "That's it.  Don't worry about where the ball is going.  Concentrate on only one thing for now."

That was soothing.  But, as usual, I hit a few good shots and alot of mediocre ones.  I had asked him about "stance" and he starting talking about lining up the ball for small irons as opposed to being on the tee-box.  "Here, I'll show you".  He then grabbed his new Titleist 1-wood and proceeded to showcase one of the smoothest swings I'd ever seen, outside of the PGA tournaments that I've attended.  At the end of that swing, he connected with the ball, and propelled it over into the next county.  Hell, it might even be somewhere west of Pittsburgh.  I had never played golf with anyone who hit a tee-shot 300 yards, and I'd never seen one from anyone other than the pros.  All of his shots had a certain trajectory and loft to them that mine lacked, along with an extra 200 yards or so.  He watched me hit a few more and then some of his friends showed up and they went off to play another 9 holes.

So, it was me and my bucket of balls.  I can't solve any deep, troubling mysteries about my golf swing before Saturday's scramble.  But like the penetrating enigmas surrounding the Divine, there's something out there.  Somewhere between a strong-left-hand grip and turning-over-the-right-wrist on the follow-through lies a mystery.  The question is, will I die from heat exhaustion plowing through buckets of balls on the range in order to uncover it.  If all else fails, though, I can always heed the sublime wisdom of my father, whose words I can still hear ringing in my head from so many years ago at Rolling Greens: "Keep your head down, damnit!"


Image: Salvatore Vuono /
Image: br3akthru /

Friday, July 2, 2010

Staring into the Abyss

They literally nailed boards up on the door frames of the church to prevent them from being opened.  Police threatened to use a battering-ram to smash the doors down if they refused to leave.  It was a stand-off, but the 6 people inside St. Emeric Catholic Church on the near-west side of Cleveland finally yielded, exiting the church and taking both the American and Hungarian flags with them.  Reporters, police, and supporters were there to watch them exit the premises as a blacksmith scurried off to change the locks.  Surprisingly, there were a handful of protesters there to voice their dismay over the 6 trespassers.

Both the Cleveland and Youngstown dioceses have announced fairly ambitious plans to downsize, both eliminating under-performing parishes and combining existing ones in order to "better serve" the Roman Catholic congregations in northeast Ohio.  That's "code", of course, for the fact that attendance is down, which means collections are down.  Parishioners dread the thought of their church being shuttered. I've never been to St. Emeric, but as a church that's been in existence over 100 years, I can only imagine what must be going through the minds of the members, the same people who refused to attend the final Mass presided over by the bishop as a means of protesting its closing.

I thought of those people the other day as I drove back to the studio after having lunch with Gary.   We had an interesting talk about religion and where it is in our lives.  Both of us were raised as Catholics, but Gary has taken an interesting path.  I've sensed over our past conversations that because of his affiliation with a non-denominational church called RiverTree that he has pretty much abandoned Rome.  So the other day, I just flat-out asked him.  And it's true.  He said that the Catholic Church simply didn't meet his spiritual needs.  "It doesn't feed me," he said.  I thought that was a crucial way to phrase it.  He went on to explain how much more friendly the congregation is, compared to his former parish.  He also noted that his children actually enjoy going to church on Sunday.  He found it surprising that people took the Bible to services with them, something rarely done in Catholicism. And that joining a Bible study group allows him to feel like he's really on a mission to discover how to be Christ-like, as opposed to simply being told that you should be.

This is the second time we've had this discussion, and both times I admit to feeling mildly jealous.  We talked briefly about the state of my spiritual journey, and I was quick to point out that I had been at a rest-stop for some time, with no immediate help available to get the car running again.  I want to blame it on Catholicism, though.  One side of my brain thinks about the plight of those people at St. Emeric and I suddenly gravitate towards attacking the Catholic Church.  There is a lack of collections in the Sunday basket because there is a lack of members.   People, like Gary, want to go to Church because, well, they want to go.  But most Catholics go merely out of obligation, because punishment will ensue if they don't.  I'm sure there are those parishes that try to foster a Bible-study-environment, but many do not.  Kids don't like to go because the Mass doesn't speak to most of them, and it's boring.  Most priests are not good preachers.  The same readings are used and the same old songs are sung.  Again, I'm sure that there are a few parishes and priests who break the mold, but after living in Washington, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, I've had a chance to sample alot of churches.  Most do not break the mold.

Perhaps I have it wrong, though.  Was I looking for a Gary-type experience?  Am I still looking for it?  Maybe.  It turns out sometimes to be an awkward spiritual moment for me.  Those people at St. Emeric may also have merely fulfilled their obligatory duties as Catholic Christians, yet some of them were willing to risk arrest simply because they didn't want their church taken from them, regardless of the boring homilies and antiquated hymns.

That dichotomy makes it even more apparent to me that my quest lies at a deeper level than whether or not my pastor is a good preacher or whether he or she encourages us to bring our Bibles to Mass.  Gary asked me some pretty pointed questions, many of which go far beyond my views on a married priesthood or a change to the structure of the Mass or the role of ritual in Catholic ceremony.  Many of those questions I had trouble answering.  Do I believe in God?  Do I believe Jesus is God?  Do I believe that the Bible is inspired Word?

Do I believe?

I believe... that I'm in a precarious place.  I'm doing a spiritual dance between theism and humanism, East and West, doing what you've been taught vs doing what you feel.  Somewhere between the Baltimore Catechism and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a path somewhere.  I feel like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu,  traversing the barren desert wasteland.  But am I walking towards something, or moving away from something?  Am I looking for an answer, or do I already know what it is?

I feel for those saddened Hungarian parishioners on the near-west side of Cleveland.  Unlike the good people of St. Emeric, though, I don't have the doors barred shut.  Anyone's free to come in.  I'm just not sure if I'm ready to come out.


Image: dan /

Image: dan /

Image: Simon Howden /

Image: dan /