Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reflections of childhood and adolescent summers

I used to consider a score of 41 on a par 34 golf course was pretty darn good. I was eleven then, and my golf partner consistently bettered my score by a few strokes. At thirteen, he was a ‘friendly’ competitor and between rounds we would take a “dip” into Portage Lake off the rock on the third tee, cool off, and then play eighteen holes in the afternoon. Of course, there would be the predictable trip into the dried swamp on the fourth fairway to look for lost balls, the one I had just driven off the tee, and the others that other players had not found. On the dog-leg sixth, I planted my feet firmly for a dramatic slice around and over the dense bush on the right, hoping to land my ball near the green. Again, however, my vision exceeded my performance level, and again I had to search for a lost ball, among the rocks, trees and underbrush.

Somehow, lost balls, while an explicit illustration of a misplayed shot, were never an event that reduced the sheer ecstacy and thrill of the crack of the driver on the little white ball and the feeling of “getting it right” when the shot flew straight out and down the fairway some 200+ yards. Trying to replay all the same “moves” of the body and the mind when that shot happened, in my mind, was the next challenge.

 Keeping my head down, and my eyes focused on the ball until after the club head struck it, bending my knees with a flex just before starting the backswing (In order to attain even deeper focus and the patience that does not anticipate and look for results too soon, and pre-empt all of the specific moves of all the muscles and skeletal structure the good shot demanded). A slight inward flex of the right knee, modelled after an aspiring pro golfer named Ron Harris followed by the slow backswing to where the club shaft was parallel to the ground, and then shift the weight from back to front foot as the club torqued down into the little sphere waiting on the tip of the tee. Remember, no distractions, no interruptions, no anxieties that the shot was going to be memorable for either of two extremes, a topped ball that rolled miserably off the tee, or the 300-yard straight arrow….just stay within myself and let the club do the work of the swing that had been rehearsed hundreds of times in the backyard at home, with practice balls.

Vacillating between the mental image of the “great shot” and the “flub” as a new golfer, and a newcomer to any activity at any age, is a mental anxiety that requires  much more concentration, discipline and rehearsal to be overcome than the physical tweeks of the elbow or the knees or even the eyes in the mantra, “keep your head down,” that is part of every golf lesson. The capacity to minimize the vacillation, to bring it under a level of control, in order to bring more energy directly to the task at hand, without ever attempting to eliminate that vacillation (simly because nature will not permit its eradication), is a ‘skill’ whose mastery brings about the setting for the “flow” of that great shot. And every shot, whether a drive, a fairway shot, a pitch to the green or a putt is another opportunity to review and to rehearse the discipline of bringing mind and body and psyche into a kind of harmony (some might prefer unity, but I reject that as too much pressure) that has been variously described as “flow” by one psychologist, or congruency of person and instrument, or even a dance with three partners, golfer, club and ball. Other than a hammer and screwdriver, the golf clubs are the first “tools” that required both training and constant practice.

Tapping these keys, decades later, however, seems much easier  than the full body/mind act of striking a golf ball precisely on the right spot on the club head, with the club head at the appropriate angle, and the speed of the club and the discipline of the swing all comporting with minimal requirements.

And, after hundreds or thousands of repetitions, perhaps, after many seasons of golf, only then does the whole act become so familiar and so predictable and so treasured that another level of satisfaction and gratification and skill and accomplishment takes over from the  kind the neophyte first experienced.

There were always senior members around the club house who were willing to offer a suggestion, after witnessing a flayed swing by a young kid or a ball whose trajectory preferred the bush to the fairway. And in the club house itself, there was also Blanche Harvey, wife of the groundskeeper, and baker of the best butter tarts in the world. Her warm welcoming smile and nourishing sandwiches made their own contribution to the young golfers who had joined the club.

The details and the practice of the golf swing, supplemented the school-year calendar of piano lessons, when the details of arpeggios, scales, chords, and the daily practice time, of repetition, repetition and more repetition. Only in this scene the routines were focused on fingering, putting the thumb under the hand when playing the scale up the keyboard, and reversing it, putting fingers over thumb when playing the scales toward the bass. Arpeggios too needed some digital gymnastics to accomplished the desired “smooth flow” running “up” over two octaves and then back “down”. Chromatic scales, uniquely, needed a pattern of thumb on every second white note, in order to keep the fingers from tripping over each other and missing the notes.

The finer points of these respective skill development projects seem quite fresh these many decades later, along with the changing summer-job requirements of first cleaning pop bottles at the local Pepsi factory using a foot-long wire brush to extract the many cigarette butts from the bottom of those bottles before placing them in the conveyor belt of the large washing machine.

 Next in the parade of summer jobs came the Dominion Store, where I worked as a packer, carry-out worker, shelf-stocker and sorter of rotten potatoes. It was a very hot August Saturday afternoon, when apparently the grocery business was slowing, and the produce manager convinced the store manager to release me to the tin-walled basement where several hundred ten-pound bags of potatoes were slowly rotting. My task was to sort the rotten potatoes from the good, ones, rebag these for sale, and toss the “mushy” ones into the garbage. Of course, I was furious that I had been assigned this odoriferous job. Rotting potatoes do not commend themselves to one’s sense of smell; to this day, the pungent odour seems still fresh in my memory.

Today, however, I claim a kind of self-awarded medal for surviving the heat, the stench and the joy of the completely re-bagged healthy potatoes. That task has come to mind when I have found myself faced with a different and equally as distasteful a task, and told me in unequivocal terms, that I can get through the new whirlpool, after the potato mess.

There is nothing “outstanding” in these chapters, except that they are the footings for how I conducted myself in the classrooms and gyms for two-plus decades, and for how I sought out various “work” opportunities that grew the skills I learned very early.
On reflection, it is not so much the details of the various skills that are memorable; it is rather the cumulative impact of a life in search of ever more opportunities to learn and to grow that grew in the garden of my adolescent and pre-pubescent summers. The people who have willingly taken the chance to engage me in tasks for which I had not been formally trained, and the need to adapt to new circumstances, and the even more challenging task of discerning whom to trust and from whom to withhold complete trust….these are the footprints on the beach that are still taking me across new beaches.
And while I have been hung with the monikers of “impatient,” “too intense” and “too tiring to be with”…it is not clear that if the world is not comfortable with my “presence” then two things are clear: first, I am not about to change, and if the world is so uncomfortable, then I am more than willing to withdraw and move on.

I may be overly cautious in the first few steps onto a new “plank” of opportunity; however I am more than willing to try and to learn as much and as quickly as I can in order to feel comfortable in the new activity. If it has to do with accounting, anything mechanical, or hunting or fishing, however, count me out!

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