A month ago, my boys thought iPads only worked on airplanes. In light of the growing body of research about the dangers of kids and mobile devices, I was in the Anti-Tech-for-Young-Kids-Except-For-TV-Because-Hey-I-Gotta-Stay-Sane camp. So when my son’s school informed us he’d be receiving an iPad for Pre-Kindergarten, I was apoplectic. I had spent Sam’s entire life teaching him that iPads were evil.
I wouldn’t even utter the word “iPad” when it arrived. It’s a “learning pad,” I said, “and it only works during school time.”
So you can guess what happened after Sam had spent just ten minutes is his first Zoom meeting. “Dad. I can’t look at the screen anymore. I have to turn this off. You know screens are bad for me.”
I’d spend five years railing against something that we would need to rely on for the next several months, if not longer. The joke was on me. Suddenly I didn’t feel so high on my horse as Mr. Fishing and Golf Dad.
What I had perceived to be an advantage for Sam had now become a disadvantage, at precisely the time he needed to feel a sense of efficacy and belonging: his first experience in school. This reinforced a lesson I’ve been learning and relearning over the last six months: Embracing change, even when it goes against the very core of my being, is inevitable, and it’s probably healthy.
What I used to think was surrendering my values is now simply accepting reality.
Every day Andrea and I alternate between encouraging Sam to engage in this bizarre online Kindergarten world (25 5-year-olds singing “The Hello Song” with bad audio, for example) and telling him it’s okay to take a break. We want to instill the importance of education and of honoring commitments, but we also know a 5-year-old should probably put down the screen occasionally to wrestle with his brother.
So whether it’s Sam on his iPad, your 9th grader blaring his French horn in front of a Chromebook camera, or your 6th grader working on a project without ever meeting her group members, remote learning is forcing all of us—parents, educators, and students—to surrender what is ideal for what is real. It’s a hard lesson, and one especially young people often don’t learn until much later in life, but the optimist in me believes they will all be stronger for it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shut off the learning pad.
If your house is home to a recent high school graduate, you’ve probably seen articles like this one, whose author argues that the truncated school years of millions of high school seniors will have a long-lasting, deleterious effect. No prom, no College Decision Day, no in-person graduation—none of the quintessential milestones and traditions that define the American high school experience.
Many of my own students have used the term “lost” to describe their senior year. It’s sad. It’s unfair. It’s unprecedented and often traumatic. But what if there’s also something of a silver lining?
It is undeniable that many people have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many individuals have lost jobs, lost family members, and experienced a suffocating pall of anxiety and depression. COVID-19 will go down in history as one of the defining events of our generation. In no way am I suggesting that this is, overall, good for people. Instead, I’m highlighting what might be some hopeful outcomes for high schoolers.
Let’s begin with the fact that American teenagers already experience anxiety and depression at a disproportionate clip. Two of the primary causes are being overscheduled and losing a close connection with their parents. Sleep deprivation among teenagers has reached staggering levels, with less than 9% of teenagers getting enough sleep. Here’s a typical schedule for a high school senior:
6:30 a.m. — Wake up.
7:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. — Attend school.
3:00-5:00 p.m. — Attend an extracurricular.
5:00-9:00 p.m. — Work.
9:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m. — Do homework and chores.
12:30 a.m. — Go to sleep.
Somewhere in the day, your student might find the time for two potentially nutritious meals, often while multi-tasking and not always with their families.
Many high schoolers try to “catch up” on sleep on the weekends, but the notion that you can bank enough rest in two days to make up for five days of exhaustion is a fallacy. Even if they could catch up, they’re operating at a suboptimal level for five days, only to crash for two.
The schedule outlined above leaves no room for the spontaneous activities that are critical to mental health—time in nature, time with friends, and perhaps, yes, time with video games. I’m not advocating that your child loafs around all day.
“But a brain is like any other muscle. Without sufficient rest, it will be pushed to the limit and torn apart.”
Basic neuroscience teaches us that a healthy brain, teenage or not, needs idle time so the subconscious can do its important work of background process learning. If it means they’re happier and healthier, so be it. Maybe daydreaming should be considered a legitimate extracurricular activity.
Another fallacy in America is that teenagers are hard-wired to be rebels, that they want no part of their parents once they reach puberty. On the contrary, this is exactly the time when your child wants to communicate more. In many other countries and ancient societies, the teenage years are and were a time to engage with elders in order to learn how to navigate adulthood.
I spoke with a mother of one of my students, who, despite acknowledging the challenges of being stuck at home with three children, admitted, “I feel blessed to be able to spend this time with my (senior) daughter before she goes to college. Before, she was going to practice, to work, to all kinds of extracurriculars. And right now she is going through a bit of a personal crisis. So it’s really important to connect.” Pre-quarantine, this mom may have sent her child off to college without addressing things that only mom and daughter can suss out together. Another mother told me pre-pandemic she was lucky to have family dinners a few times a month. Now it’s every night.
Jogging around my neighborhood, I see teenagers and parents talking to each other. At the state park near my house, a normally sleep-deprived, annoyed son was out kayaking with his mom, smiling and enjoying the outdoors together. It’s as if stripping away all of the trivialities of daily life has reminded parents why they love their children—and vice versa.
Take note: I’m not suggesting that a shelter-in-place order is what students need for the foreseeable future, or that there haven’t been some trying moments for all families. Kids need their friends, they need to get out of the house, they need to engage with teachers and counselors and coaches for a sense of identity and belonging.
Yes, losing some of the most fun and important parts of senior year is a bummer. But let’s not forget that in March 2020, we already had a crisis on our hands, one that has been brewing for years: the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our teenagers.
From here, from this Great Pause, perhaps we can build a new model for the quintessential American teenage experience.
The COVID-19 crisis has, in short order, reframed the way I view myself, my family, my community, my work, and my world. Although as of this writing no one in my family has been stricken with or died from the virus, several students and colleagues have lost family members. Several more will follow.
I’ve reached out to students to see how they’re doing, several of whom are likely not responding because they are dealing directly with this crisis in some way. Of those responding, one is working long hours at a grocery store, another is babysitting her brother while her mom works overtime at Amazon where someone recently tested positive, and another is being kept from his mother and grandmother who are in the hospital with Coronavirus.
As an educator married to another educator, I am acutely aware of how fortunate we are to be working from home and in good health. Although I am an advocate for public education, it is debatable whether my job is essential right now.
Which begs the question of what is actually essential: medical workers, first responders, police officers, grocers, delivery drivers, pharmacists. In the words of governor Whitmer, people who work in industries that “protect and sustain life.” Three weeks ago that list would have looked much longer: lawyers, investment bankers, pro athletes, filmmakers, YouTubers. No offense to any of those professions, but they are not essential right now. Valuable in many ways, yes. Essential? No.
What is essential is what we can’t live without.
So in the context of this national crisis, how might this change our students’ answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Might this be a chance to inspire our students not to pursue careers that earn the most money, but that are the most “essential?”
In a prophetic moment, a few weeks ago I polled our Eagle Scholars (graphic in the upper right) about potential career paths. I was stunned by the results: public service was the most popular response, over STEM, Business, the Arts, and Humanities.
Maybe this crisis will elevate farmers, small grocery store owners, nurses, first responders, police officers, and delivery drivers to a higher status. In short, jobs whose primary goal is not to profit from others, but to serve others, pandemic or not.
When we come out of this – and we will come out of this – perhaps it will have inspired a new generation driven not by rugged individualism but social responsibility.
Regardless of age, health or location, the smartest people I know have self-quarantined. On their counsel, I’m also home with my wife and two boys working remotely and working harder domestically. Between looking for ways to keep Sam and James occupied, checking in with friends, and talking to my parents over the fence in a bizarre Home Improvement meets Every Body Loves Raymond scenario, this question is on a loop in my head: What is the universe telling me right now?
Consider the education system. With classes going online for several weeks (or months), parents, teachers, and administrators are rethinking everything we do and how we do it. Suddenly high stakes testing, class size, and evaluations are meaningless. Soon enough, we are going to have some strange bedfellows: public, charter, private, and online education.
What is the universe telling me?
If we get this right, we could be looking at the biggest positive change in the history of American education.
A month ago, I bragged about having my head in the sand. I was in a state of blissful myopia, ignoring social media and the news, mainstream and otherwise. Now? Being uninformed is not only irresponsible, it can be deadly. As someone young enough to not be at high risk and old enough to know better, it’s incumbent upon me to know what’s happening so I can act accordingly.
What is the universe telling me?
Blissful ignorance is selfish.
I checked in with my friend Chris over the phone for our longest call in years. After acknowledging the gravity of the situation, he cut the tension with a story about heading to Kroger in a Hazmat suit to buy salad dressing for his 80-year-old neighbor. For the first time in months, I was literally rolling on the floor laughing.
What is the universe telling me?
Seek out opportunities to laugh really hard with other people.
As a sports fan, March and April are truly the best time of year: March Madness, opening day in baseball, The Masters, the NFL draft, the NBA playoffs. Typically most days have been full of options for escape, even during my darkest times, since childhood. No more. Time to read, write letters, exercise, meditate, call people I haven’t called in awhile, engage and be fully present with my family. In other words, be Dionysus, not Appollonius (see graphic above).
What is the universe telling me?
Slow down, breathe, move inward. When this passes, we will all emerge more whole.
1. ethnic variety, as well as socioeconomic and gender variety, in a group, society, or institution.
2. A cliché term used in mission statements, tag lines, sales pitches, and school websites to show that an organization is more than just a bunch of people who look the same.
On the first day of first grade at Cook Elementary School in Flint, I noticed I was one of three white kids. I was too young to recognize the novelty of my situation but old enough to feel uncomfortable. Some time that first day, a smiling, stout little kid with glasses approached me and asked if I wanted to be his friend.
Turns out we lived a block from each other and ended up spending countless afternoons hanging out, laughing, talking sports, and having deep, seemingly endless conversations about things that mattered.
We both enrolled in Flint’s Magnet Program in elementary school, a place where true diversity of thought, creed, class, race, existed. Cordell and I were lynchpins in a posse of class clowns whose mission was to earn As and Bs while acting like complete imbeciles. (Apologies to Ms. Butler, Mr. Butler, Mr. Debevec, and Ms. Hearn for all of our indiscretions, and thanks for being truly amazing teachers).
Though we remained in contact, Cordell and I parted ways in middle school (I moved across town to a whiter, more affluent area) and then reunited for high school. I remember heated debates in 9th grade English about controversial, complex social and political issues like race and class. Cordell’s bellowing, full-bodied laugh always cut the tension of these arguments. I longed for that laugh because I often left these arguments feeling as uncomfortable as I did that first day at Cook. I found myself questioning my beliefs, and wondered if Cordell thought, no matter how close we were, I would never really understand him. After all, I was just a privileged white kid.
Since those days in Flint, which we still reminisce on as some of our best, Cordell and my paths have converged and diverged: he studied African American History with plans to become a teacher and is now working in the private sector; I studied journalism and ended up in public education. Cordell coached baseball in Dexter; I coached golf in Redford. He’s a bachelor; I’m married with two kids. He moved back to Flint; I live in Ann Arbor. He believes in the power of social media; I’m convinced it’s a hellscape of broken dreams. He’s got a deep understanding of the history of Black oppression; I’ll probably never truly get it.
A few days ago, I shot Cordell a text (unfortunately that is now our primary form of communication) to get his take on the presidential elections. In a few words, he challenged me, then shared an article about the folly of the “Everyone needs college” argument. I read the article, processed it, and shared it with several people. Again, I began to question the foundations of my belief system, partly because of what it said mostly because of who shared it with me.
So what does this all have to do with diversity? I believe diversity (of thought, creed, race, political views, etc) holds the most power when it’s set in common experiences and deep relationships. Yes, there is value in reading about other people’s experiences in interacting with people of diverse backgrounds. But it’s only because I see Cordell as a complex human with nuanced (and sometimes fluid) ideologies and values, that I can learn and grow from him and actually change my mind.
Last month, we brought 50 students to U of M Ann Arbor for a tour that focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. When I looked at the pictures of this visit, I felt like I was looking at the Flint Magnet Program all over again: bright, thoughtful young people with diverse backgrounds sharing a common, powerful experience (see pictures below).
During panel discussions, U of M students and staff talked about the importance of learning to study with, break bread with, and live with people whose backgrounds were vastly different from their own. At one point, I teared up, overcome with a unique emotion – some combination of nostalgia and pride. While many first-gen, minority, and rural students struggle mightily with this transition, because of the common, diverse experiences and deep relationships, I believe our students will be just fine. That is a credit to the program, the school, our staff, but most importantly the students and you, the parents.
Cordell, if you’re reading this, thanks for being such a good teacher all these years.
* A giant thank you to my good friend and Flint Magnet product Mischa Boardman, Kat Walsh, Alesha Montgomery, DJ Hawkins, Catalina Ormsby, Laura Saavedra, DJ Jackson, Antonio Junior-Robins, and everyone else affiliated with U of M’s Center for Educational Outreach who made this possible. It was truly an amazing experience and one that created several future Wolverines.
As an expectant father, most of what you’ve been told is that parenting is really hard. Other synonyms: difficult, tough, challenging, life-altering, impossible, a grind. But “hard” seems to be the adjective of choice for the modern, unsolicited advice-giving parent, usually along with a sigh and a head shake.
Sleepless nights, maddening carseat scenarios, nightmare plane rides, strain on marriage, strain on space, strain on body, strain on professional life…just a lot of strain, really.
So I’m not going to sit here and regale you with the countless other reasons why having a child will be the hardest thing you do. On the contrary, I’d like to make the case that, on balance, parenting will actually make your life a lot simpler.
You will always have an excuse to arrive late, leave early, or not show up at all.
No more hemming and hawing when you get these texts:
Colleague: “See you tonight at the Christmas party?”
Boss: “Can you stay late to finish the project?”
In-laws: “Wanna pop over to watch the latest Meryl Streep’s vehicle?”
Friends: “Moving again. Help me lift the couch?”
A simple “Can’t make it. Kid thing” will suffice. No explanation necessary. Keep responses vague and you don’t even have to lie.
Best part is you can always hedge with something like: “Gonna do my best to make it, but if so, will probably need to leave early. Kid thing.”
Better yet, don’t respond at all and no one will hold it against you. No one gets the benefit of the doubt like a parent.
You won’t need to set an alarm.
It can be glorious when they shuffle in with bed-head and snuggle you on a Saturday morning. It can be maddening on a Monday when you were up with them until 3 am and you’re trying to get 20 more minutes of uninterrupted sleep before a full workday. Regardless, it’s one fewer item you need to worry about. Congratulations, your wife will birth the world’s most sophisticated alarm clock.
You will become more efficient.
My folks watched my boys the other day and I accomplished more in three hours that my pre-kid self would have in two weeks. Something about having finite amounts of time that ramps up your productivity.
You won’t need motivation to get (or stay) in shape.
There’s a reason we’re built to have kids in our twenties: millenials can eat nuclear waste between Fortnite binges and still stay fit. At 40, a trip to the post office saps most of my energy. But for the first few years, 90% of parenting is getting your kid tired enough to sleep, so physical fitness is as important as emotional resilience. If I don’t stay in shape, the nightly game of “Dinosaur King on the Mountain” in my basement could put me back into physical therapy.
You will never need motivation to go to work or to stay at your job.
Mouth to feed = “I don’t need this job.” Mouths to feed = “I can’t lose this job.”
You will become a better person.
Imagine life with a parrot on your shoulder and a mirror in front of your face, both reminding you, incessantly, of your faults.
Actual exchange from this morning in the van:
Sam: “Dad, can you put on the Superman song?”
Me: “Buddy, I can’t use my phone while I’m driving.”
Me: “Because it’s not safe.”
Sam: “But you just did it back there when you turned on the Batman song.”
Me: “I know buddy, but…(stammering). Hey, look at that excavator over there!”
It’s not even that you become a better person because you necessarily want to become a better person. It’s just less of a hassle.
So friend, as you await this miracle, take comfort knowing that just because something is more challenging, doesn’t mean it’s more complicated.
I leave you with the words of one of my favorite minimalists, Henry David Thoreau:
“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”
Fatherhood will afford you to let alone pretty much everything.
Last month I signed up my three-year-old son for swimming lessons at the local YMCA. One of my 2019 goals is to make sure both of my boys are semi-proficient swimmers, and I knew if I didn’t pay up front, it was never going to happen. Most of my friends are Goldfish Swim School zealots, but the one time I went there I was freaked by the bizarre, flourescent setup in which parents ogle at their kids through a window while checking Instagram and paying bills.
No, I wanted to be a good citizen and do lessons through the YMCA, a community organization that overcharges me for adequate services.
My wife and I prepped Sam throughout the week with the typical feigned excitement when you want your kid to do something you’re pretty sure he’s not ready to do. “It will be awesome, buddy! You love swimming!” But we knew it wasn’t the swimming part that was going to be a problem. It was the part about handing him to a strange person in a large body of water amidst cacophonous echos with elderly women AquaZumba-ing in the deep end.
It’s a lot to take in for a marginally-adjusted adult like myself, let alone a 3-year-old.
Nevertheless, we loaded the car and headed to the Y, me with high hopes, Sam with other plans.
I’m going to pause the story to share with you the emotions I felt, in order, from the time we left the house to the when we got home.
This was in a 45-minute time frame. I defy you to name anything, aside from the second half of a Detroit Lions game, that can evoke this range of emotions.
Here’s what happened.
Excited: As we drove down to the Y, I made up some cheesy song about swimming lessons and noticed Sam crack a smile. “I’m winning him over,” I thought.
Nervous: Upon entering the building, Sam clinged to my leg like an oversized slug and started crying, “I don’t want to do swimming lessons, daddy.”
Hopeful: We got him dressed in the locker room and he started to peel himself away from my leg and giggle a little. “We’ve got this.”
Frustrated: Because it was our first time there, I didn’t know the protocol. There were no clear signs and no one to direct me where to go; I could sense Sam feeling my uncertainty. “Damn it, should’ve gone to Goldfish.”
Horrified: When I finally sorted out where to go, I walked over to the side of the pool with Sam and tried to hand him to the poor teacher, whose other two students were already in the water, frolicking around with no anxiety whatsoever. Then, Sam let out a blood-curdling scream so loud that I’m certain everyone underwater heard. This scream quickly morphed into an all-out hysterical cry, and I could feel the 100+ people in the pool area, the folks in the cardio room on the second floor, as well as the folks in the lobby staring through the giant windows (actually worse than Goldfish, upon reflection), at which point I was overwhelmed with
Regret: For being so selfish, for projecting my 2019 resolution on my kid, who just may not have been ready for this.
Sadness: So Sam and I sat on the ledge watching the other kids enjoy their lesson, while I was careful not to make eye contact with the other parents — there was nothing I was going to say that wouldn’t be somewhat hurtful to my son, even if he didn’t understand it. I was sad for me for thinking I could make this work, sad for Sam that he couldn’t enjoy the lesson. After the silence, Sam looked up and said, “Dad, can I still watch Transformers?”
“No, son. Remember you had to do the lesson. You didn’t even get in the water.”
I could see his little brain humming. I thought he might react with another wave of tears, but he just nudged a little closer.
“Maybe you could show your teacher how you can jump in?”
This negotiation continued for the entire 30-minute lesson, all the while I was holding out hope that he might join the other kids, if only for five minutes.
Pride: He didn’t. He did, however, in a Toddy Gurley-esque burst of speed, make a hard buttonhook cut to the right, sprint to the edge of the pool and launch himself so confidently and violently that you would’ve thought he knew how to swim. The teacher darted over to grab him as I caught the eye of the lifeguard whose omnipresent “I’m bored as hell” look became “That kid’s got balls.” The teacher helped Sam out of the water and handed him to me, at which point I said, “Sorry about that. I bet you’ve seen it all.”
“Not that,” she said.
In the car, I cried. I’m not sure if it was the sadness or the pride, or just the overwhelming love I felt for Sam. I think part of the reason I cried is because I knew this was just the beginning in a long series of experiences in which I’ll have to navigate the space between forcing Sam to do things that are difficult and letting him wait until he’s ready. Perhaps parenting is 90% that sentence and then a bunch of miscellaneous stuff.
Lesson #2 is next Saturday, 10:45 sharp. I’m beginning to think the lesson may not be his.
I’ve begun a regular practice of one-on-one lunch meetings with students. And while spending so much time in the cafeteria has changed my views on a lot of things (for example, unlike in the movies it’s quite civil in there and the food is actually decent), it has only solidified my view on something else.
One of the questions I ask my students — specifically those who are struggling — as they attempt to jam a spicy chicken sandwich in 11 minutes: What is the main reason you are not achieving what you are capable of achieving?
Not “The work is too hard.” Not “I have a new girlfriend.” Not “I’m too busy with sports.”
You guessed it: “I spend too much time on my phone.”
To be fair, ask any adult and if they’re honest, this statement would apply to them as well — the average person checks his/her phone between 50 and 200 times per day. Consider the learning, the productivity, the attention, the ability to connect with people, the deep thinking, that is lost when we are constantly jumping like Pavlov’s dogs to a tiny glowing box that probably has nothing consequential to show us.
Ironically, the founders of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech behemoths are vigilant about their kids and phones; one of the reasons for their success is that they were able to stay hyper-focused for long periods of time. For more on this, check out The Wait Until 8th pledge. Don’t our kids deserve the same?
A 2017 grad who is now at U of M told me he leaves his phone in his dorm room, then leaves the building to study. How many of us could do that without triggering some anxiety?
I’m not suggesting that phones are inherently evil, or that they don’t offer some fantastic benefits. They save me those annoying trips to the bank, for example. They’ve also allowed me to bow out of a dinner party without an awkward conversation.
But let’s be real about what is lost when our students, at a time when their brains are most malleable, choose Youtube, Snapchat, FaceTime, etc, when there is studying to be done and, more importantly, a living, breathing world to experience.
For a deeper dive into how screen time is affecting our kids and what you can do about it, please join us on March 6th at 6:30 for a special screening of the acclaimed film, Screenagers. Details here.
In the meantime, I’ll be making kids put away their phone at lunch so they can focus on our conversation…and not choking on that chicken sandwich.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — from Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today we call this “flip-flopping.” Politicians are skewered for this. It’s how I justify being completely wrong.
Last year, just before the birth of my son, I wrote a letter to my wife pleading that she allow me to maintain my regular golf habit once I became a dad. My friends, family, and the seven people who read this column assured me I was delusional. Exactly one year later, I’m playing much less and much worse. But I wasn’t delusional; I was just naive. Here are six realities I hadn’t anticipated:
I don’t want to play as much as I used to.
It’s not that I don’t still love it; it’s just the cost is so much greater than before. A year ago I might miss Game 4 of the NBA finals to play 18, but then I could always DVR it. You can’t DVR fatherhood. Every moment passes, every milestone is reached, every smile and new discovery happens with or without you. Cliché, also true. How would I feel if I had missed Sam’s first words: “Dada” and “Garbage,” which he uses interchangeably.
I’m getting worse.
The day I published that letter, my handicap was 5.6 and dropping. Now it’s 7.9 and rising. I’ve played 18 holes five times this year, which puts me on a pace to play 10 times total — the lowest since Charles Howell III was relevant . The other day, following a gaggle of blades, shanks, and chunks — the kind that are commonplace when you don’t play — I actually mumbled: “I should quit this stupid game.” It was both a terrifying and seductive thought, to have an out from this expensive, maddening, paradoxical sport.
I struggle to stay in the moment.
The other day my buddy asked me where his ball went and I was too busy checking my nonexistent text messages to watch. I’m compelled to check my phone — a practice I’ve railed against for years — every few holes to make sure Sam hasn’t fallen off a table or swallowed a beetle. I know being present is paramount in golf, but the moment can feel trivial, even distracting, when your progeny is elsewhere.
Another friend warned that parenthood brings a new meaning to the word “tired.”
A child’s brain and body are in perpetual motion, which means that, by default, so are yours. The energy you had to clean the house or meet your buddy for beers is usurped by this little dictator, who is relentless in his thirst for stimulation. Leftover energy is spent trying to translate his whines, grunts, and shrieks. If you’ve ever traveled to a non-English speaking country you understand the fatigue at the end of a full day trying to figure out what the hell is going on. So if this is happening for two thirds of the day, one third of the day loading clubs, unloading clubs, checking in, hitting balls, and walking for 18 holes playing a game at which you are getting worse, sounds exhausting.
I can’t manage my time.
Having children puts a different dimension on time. This year felt like three months, and a full day often feels like three hours and all you’ve done is walked around the block, picked bananas from your hair, and helped your kid open and close a garbage can 30 times. Sam wakes at 6 am and goes to bed at 7 pm. If I golf in the morning, I miss the most fun part of the day — playing with Sam and mom, eating breakfast, putting him down for a nap. Playing in the afternoon means forfeiting Team Nap Time from 2–3:30. And If I play in the evening, I miss the hardest time to be a single parent: dinner, bath, bedtime.
I feel guilty.
My friend says, “Guilt is self-inflicted” every time he drags in a five-footer, and while I don’t agree with its use in that context, he’s right. My wife is actually encouraging me to play, partly because she knows it’s fundamental to my being, but partly because every round, prorated, is costing us $200. But the deeper issue is wired in our nature. Our ancestors left the nest only for a purpose — to, say, hunt a mastodon. Chasing a white orb though a man-made field seems trivial and selfish by comparison. The same buddy whose push-slices I didn’t watch: “Man, I even feel guilty being out here and my daughter is at a friend’s house all day.” A year ago I would have scoffed, convinced his wife had eaten his manhood; this time I nodded and checked my phone again.
If Emerson is right, a year from now I’ll feel different. Maybe I’ll argue abandoning your sacred hobby will cause resentment toward your family. Or that you appreciate golf more when you play less. By then maybe every round will cost me $300 and maybe it will be worth every cent.
Maybe by then Sam will no longer be confusing me with garbage.
1: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
2: a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance. So when Karl Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the people,” he was referring to #1. But when my buddy says, “I eat spinach salads every day for lunch religiously,” he is referring to #2.
What about when we say, “NFL football is a religion”? Are we just “pursuing” an “interest” of “supreme importance” when we sit down for three and a half hours to watch grown men concuss each other? Or are we actually “worshipping” them? As a Lions fan, I suppose it is not religion, but sadomasochism. Like many other sports, golf is a domain where the lines between these definitions blur. Indeed, to some it is just an interest or hobby. To others, it is the center of a spiritual journey. Case in point: one of the reasons my wife and I have not found a church for my son’s baptism is because Sunday morning is the only time I can play.
But like all religions, golf has different sects and varying degrees of devotion. The world’s bloodiest conflicts, from the Crusades to ISIS — have been a result of religion. Read the following profiles carefully to determine which best describes you and how to survive any foursome without bloodshed.
Also known as The Hater, The Atheist sees no value in golf — the same way I see monster truck racing. He can’t understand how anyone can be passionate about something so trivial. If you end up in a foursome with The Atheist, either ignore him or antagonize him. Anything in-between will result in a death march.
He has a hobby that he realizes others might find trivial — maybe collecting coins or playing video games — so he empathizes with golfers. He thinks “I’m not really into that, but I guess I can understand why someone might like to play.” With enough evangelism, The Agnostic can be swayed, although if he spends too much time with The Atheist there is little hope for redemption. If you encounter him on the course, say little and listen a lot. He might sell himself on the game.
The Major Holidays Only
Maybe the worst of the bunch, because he doesn’t seem to care too much, thus when he does play he’ll say, “I never play,” which pisses everyone off whether he plays well or not. He also tends to be the one to borrow your golf glove or step in your line or commit some other transgression because he’s out of practice. If he played just a little more he might be a positive member of your group; if he played a little less he might just give the game up completely. Should you join up with him, cajole him toward the latter so that I never have to deal with him.
The Devout truly loves the game and wants to protect its purity. He plays ready golf everywhere but on the green, keeps pace, and can fit into any group of any level. He also can be judgmental of the Major Holidays Only crowd, especially when he loses to them. The Devout has trouble playing fewer than 18 holes, always keeps score, and when faced with a room full of atheists, would rather talk politics. Seek out opportunities to play with The Devout; he will make you appreciate the game more.
Typically in his 50s, The Born-again was once Devout, but effectively retired when he started a family. Now he’s back and reminisces about his pre-offspring days. Whether they were actually better remains in question. He likes to remind you how much harder the course used to be, how much easier the game has gotten with the new equipment, and so on. While the nostalgia can be tiresome, he offers hope for The Devout who has small children and a rising index.
The Zealot must be viewed as a terrorist. You might hear him say “It’s March 1st and I’ve already played 37 times.” or “You guys wanna duck out early from work and watch the first round of Q-School?” He gets antsy if he doesn’t play every couple days, and has a hard time with any leisure activity besides golf. Marital problems are commonplace with The Zealot. He will “sneak in a quick 18” before his kid’s birthday party, then show up late bragging about shooting a 74, oblivious to his wife’s death stares. The Zealot develops a tick when there’s a hint of sun and he’s not on the course. Like The Atheist, his extreme position makes him hard to get along with. Should you join up with a zealot on the course, stare straight ahead and say as little as possible in case he invites you to play in his company scramble.
As the world at large struggles with religious conflict, let the golf course be a place where acceptance is the norm. Remember that whatever the religious bent of your playing partner, he is pursuing the same ultimate goal of inner peace. Practice empathy and tolerance. Resist judgment and malice.
Nevertheless, if you can, pray for a cancellation and play alone.
“Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” — Angela Carter
If you laughed at Jordan Spieth soiling his Under Armour underwear on #12 at Augusta, you do not have a sense of humor; you are a sadist. If you’re a golfer with a soul, the only emotion you felt was pure, unadulterated sadness.
A profound lesson about golf and life, that the sages have preached for centuries, was behind the noise of whether this was a Norman-esque choke or if he can “ever come back from this” (The Onion ran a piece entitled “Jordan Spieth’s Family To Wait A Few Days Before Asking Him What The — — Happened”). Despite Spieth’s old head — and I’m not referring to his hairline — which typically demonstrates a rare ability to be fully present on every shot, Augusta reminded us that no one is immune to being seduced by the future or tormented by the past.
Sometime just before Spieth hit the tee shot on 12, he was probably thinking something like, “I’m going to win the Masters again.” Maybe he chuckled at the absurdity of a green jacket ceremony in which he dressed himself. Within seconds, he probably put this out of his mind, but it was too late. One loose swing and a pensive glance, and his ball was bounding into Rae’s Creek like a frightened toad.
Jordan’s chest must have fluttered before he took his stance — much like that moment you realize parring 17 and 18 means you’ll win the pot for guy’s weekend. What inevitably follows? Bogey, bogey, expletives, loss, ridicule, picking up an obscene bar tab. Alternatively, when you shoot two-under on the front, then think, “37 on the back and I break par for the first time in my life.” Then a sloppy back nine where fairways shrink, your swing disappears, and somewhere around 13, you accept that, once again, your 71 will be an 82. See, you are really not that much different from Jordan Spieth.
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” i.e. “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” became part of our vernacular for a reason. Although this ability to “see” the future is what makes us the most intelligent species on earth, it’s also what makes us miserable. Notice that dogs and babies don’t seem to care much about the future. They’re also pretty damned happy.
And another aphorism: “Don’t cry over spilled milk” i.e. “What’s done is done.” A millisecond after making contact, Spieth probably thought “Oh no, I sprayed it; there goes my back-to-back Masters.” Remember, seconds prior he was actually watching himself win the Masters, probably even imagining how he’d react to Jim Nantz’s creepy stares. So consider the mental and emotional trauma endured in just a few seconds. Spieth became the laptop with the dreaded blue screen — wires crossed, motherboard scrambled, hard drive virtually destroyed. The subsequent chilidip back into the creek was just a formality, and by the time he’d tapped in for quad, Jordan’s brain was melted.
Though you’re not a world-class player like Spieth, consider how many times one poor shot has undone an otherwise stellar round. But the shot didn’t destroy your round; your brain’s reaction to said shot did. I remember a few years ago, I joined up with a guy in his 60s, and through 12 holes he must have been two or three under. “Sir you’re playing really well,” I said, innocuously. He thanked me sheepishly. Then … Flub. Chunk. Snap hook. Push slice. OB. The old codger had made the same mistake Jordan made on 12: with my help, he just plain got ahead of himself. Consider if Spieth had truly forgotten the first tee shot, collected himself and treated the hole as if he were playing it for the first time. He’d have posted a non-fatal double, and thus might be snuggling under two green jackets in his new Texas mansion as we speak.
What will never show up in the digital Sports Almanac is how quickly Spieth shook off the nightmare and clawed back into contention; but, of course, by then it was too late. And if you watched Spieth closely in the Butler Cabin in one of the most awkward post-round interviews ever, you saw that he literally almost collapsed when donning the jacket on Danny Willet. Spieth still could not believe what he had done.
So what can we learn from this? And how can we apply it to our own games, our own lives? Remember that the second you start to imagine beating a threshold like breaking par, you’re finished. Similarly, perseverating over a four putt will make you miserable. Remember that living in the future causes anxiety, living in the past causes regret. Neither brings a state of peace or happiness.
I want to personally thank Jordan Spieth for not only making it cool to have a receding hairline, but for reminding me that even the most mentally disciplined people have a moment of slippage. And what makes golf so beautiful and so horrible at the same time is that there is no coach to give you the hook. There is no clock to run out on you. There is no injury to feign. Lose focus on the present for a millisecond and you go from hero to zero faster than Nick Faldo can seize an opportunity to talk about himself. Such is golf. Such is life.
Within seconds of my wife saying she was pregnant — after a few joyous expletives — one of my first thoughts was, “I hope he loves golf.” Actually, at the time it was more like, I hope “it” loves golf. To be clear, my thought wasn’t, “I really hope it wins the Masters” or even “I hope it beats all the other kids,” although I‘d be fine with either, or both.
But yes, initially it was a purely selfish thought, in the same way all parents want their kids to like and do the things they like and do. But this obsession with our kids following our passions is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically, people had kids in order to milk more cows and shuck more corn so the family could survive the winter; children were utilities rather than embodiments of our desires. Remember, a baby goat is called a kid.
Now though, pop into any youth soccer match or baseball game or dance recital, and what you’ll see is a bunch of adults swelling with pride (and sometimes envy, and sometimes even shame) over their kids’ performance.
This is not to suggest that all parents use their kids as pawns to carry out their unfulfilled dreams; it’s actually more insidious. I think we’ve been sold that the more our kids are “involved” in “activities,” the more likely they’ll become as passionate as we are — and if they snag a D-1 scholarship in the process, we’ll take it.
Which brings us back to my son Sam’s future as a golfer. My uncle, who introduced me to the game, says “don’t push.” He did everything he could to get his son hooked, and the more he pushed, the more his son pivoted to other pursuits — he became a triathlete-pianist. My father-in-law wanted so badly for my wife to play that he taught her with the intensity of a tour-level coach, breaking down the nuances of the swing and critiquing her every move until he completely squeezed out all of the fun of the game.
When I ask my father-friends for the key to getting my kid into something I love, they respond with some version of: “Your kid is going to do what your kid is going to do. All you can do is expose him to a bunch of things and support him in what he likes.”
I might be naive, but that answer doesn’t sit well. I want Sam to be an avid reader. Doesn’t that depend on how much I read with him? I want him to eat healthily. Doesn’t that depend on how I eat in front of him? I want him to not be a jerk…you follow. So how is golf any different? If he grows up around the game and sees the spiritual, emotional, physical, and social benefits it provides his father, will he not adopt it as part of his DNA? I’m sure that finding the balance between pushing too hard and not pushing enough is not easy in sport, let alone child rearing, but I want to believe that certain passions are just too good to not love. Yes, I’m biased, but it’s not like I’m hoping he grows up to love Grand Theft Auto or reality TV.
As any parent will attest, having a child completely reshapes your world. It’s like going from an old, blurry 13-inch standard definition television to a 65-inch HD. Your priorities and your weaknesses come into such sharp focus that sometimes you have to look away or your eyes will water. Extraneous interests and relationships begin to fall by the wayside and what’s left is what really matters.
But I submit that the guys who say “You’ll stop playing once you have kids” never loved the game the way I do.
Our pediatrician said something before Sam had even left the womb that has stuck with me. Andrea and I were asking her recommendations of great parenting books. She smiled as if she’d heard it a thousand times. “You want to know the key to parenting? Enjoy your child. Just have fun with him.” Any golfer knows that the same principle applies to playing well — if you focus on enjoying what you’re doing and stop analyzing and questioning every decision, you tend to play better. Less wind-checking, more grabbing a club and swinging. Less plumb-bobbing, more having a quick look at the line and trusting your instinct. Less shaking your head over a birdie putt, more smiling at the bladed chip-in for bogie.
If there’s another activity that is so clearly a metaphor for life and allows me to spend hours at a time with my son, I haven’t seen it. Fishing is a close second, but I’m bad at it, and I have a compulsive fear of getting lost in the woods.
Sam is eight-months-old now, so he’s starting to develop a little personality. I try to imagine what kind of player he would be, what kind of disposition he would have on the course. He strikes me as a Freddy Couples or Ryan Moore type: laid back but laser-focused when it matters most.
Or maybe that’s just how I see myself. There I go, awash in self-indulgence. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to put a golf ball in Sam’s crib.
The minutiae of the Rules of Golf, as well as the unwritten rules of golf etiquette, are enough to drive Joe Public away from the game. However, this has led the rest of us to a sense of entitlement; as if because we know how to play and how to not be a jerk, we need not adhere to any other norms. In 2016, let’s all to stop doing the following on the golf course, not because there is an official rule that dictates them, but because they’re bothering me.
Stop saying “I never play like this” when you’re having a bad round.
This is a logical fallacy. That you’re doing it now is evidence that you do it. By insisting that your poor play is an anomaly, you’re actually accomplishing the opposite of your intent. Remember that every player has a bad day. How many times has a tour player followed up a 65 with a 75? That’s golf. Accept that how you’re playing at a given moment is not a reflection of who you are. Billy Shakespeare said it best: “Me thinks thou doest protest too much.”
Stop using your phone.
The only exception is if you have kids, in which case you may do so sparingly and inconspicuously. You’re on the course to escape life’s obligations. If you can’t do that and enjoy your round, then get off the course. I don’t care about your important client or your nagging boss. I don’t want to play golf with someone who can’t be fully present. By definition, if you’re checking your phone, you have something else more important to do. Go do it.
Stop playing out the hole when you’ve reached your handicap limit.
We have handicaps for a lot of reasons, one of which is to speed up play. You pull-hooked your drive into the creek, sprayed your third into the woods, bladed your fifth into a pot bunker, chunked your sixth thirty yards short of the green. Now, calmly reach down, grab your ball, place it in your pocket, mark an “X” on your card, and watch the rest of us finish; this will also give you time to reflect on what you’ve done.
Stop getting mad at yourself.
Another logical fallacy. Only one “you,” exists, so to get mad at yourself is actually an admission of insanity. Plus, I don’t want your bad vibes.
Stop narrating your round.
“Should’ve hit a 6 there…man, that putt broke more than I thought…I think I tweaked my elbow…wow, that turned out better than I thought…I’d forgotten this was Bermuda…I actually birdied this hole yesterday…jeez, I can’t believe I’m already 10 over. I don’t think I’m gonna break 90 today…” I understand that some of us think, then speak; some of us speak, then think. But this is not your skull session at work or the dinner table or any other place where it’s acceptable to “think aloud.” To be sure, I’m no mute on the course. I’m happy to discuss just about anything in the world — except your round.
Stop not reacting when you hit a good shot.
If you’re taking cues from Lucas Glover, Danny Lee, Gary Woodland, or any other expressionless doorknob on tour, then you’re already in trouble. I’m not expecting a Cam Newton celebration, but if you jar one from 70 yards, give me more than a half-hearted shrug. It’s downright disrespectful. When blessed with such a stroke of luck, you owe your playing partners and the game at the very least a hearty fist-pump or a Mickelson phone booth leap.
Stop not reacting when I say “Nice shot.”
Stop saying, “But I was hitting it so well on the range.”
Really? So was every other human who ever hit balls before a round. “It giveth and it taketh away” is one of golf ’s core tenets. You’re not entitled to a good round because you hit it well on the range. You’re not even entitled to hitting it well on the range. You, my friend, are entitled to nothing. Besides, if you had so much fun on the range, go back there and let me finish my round in peace.
Stop not having cash to pay up on bets and/or tip the cart girl.
You’re either unprepared or you’re cheap. Either is intolerable for a golfer, let alone a human. Please leave home a few minutes early and stop at the ATM. The golf course is not a place for credit cards, or PayPal, or IOUs; it’s one of the last bastions of Grown Man-itude, where we smoke cigars and swear at each other and pay with crisp bills.
Stop forgetting your score.
If you’re one of those “I don’t even keep score, I’m just out to have fun” types, you need to either tell me on the first box or stop lying. We’re not kicking around a soccer ball or shooting hoops. You just paid $50 in the pro shop, grabbed a scorecard, and proceeded to commence a game which is based entirely on posting a score. If you don’t keep score, then you don’t play golf. And certainly don’t announce that you got a birdie after you supposedly are “just messing around.” You may not have it both ways. Besides, the golf gods only smile on those who keep score.
They’re merciless. They are golf’s unspoken disgraces. They seize your throat like Cujo and choke out your soul. They call into question your golf swing. Your sanity. Your humanity.
They induce panic like black ice on a highway, like locking eyes with the weird cousin in public, like a toilet-paperless Porta-John.
Think running out of gas in strange, scary city. A dead furnace at 2:00 am on a Sunday in February. Malfunctioning sedatives before a colonoscopy.
But they’re not just panic. They’re confused panic, like someone strangling you from behind, in the dark, while they ask you an impossible Trivial Pursuit question. They’re not like a slump in baseball or basketball because those don’t sneak up on you.
The Shanks attack you like a figment of Robert Allenby’s imagination outside a Honolulu strip club. And they arrive at the worst times, like when you’re hosting your father-inlaw and his buddies at your home club.
I’m one over through two, lining up my second shot on a long par 4. I had settled into a rhythm with Bill and his buddies. We’re even for the moment — not that I’m counting. Luckily, we get along and we share a fondness for his daughter and for golf. I tell myself he’s better because he’s retired and plays more, but in truth he’s just better. That stings.
A little background on Bill: 1) I can’t tell you what he did for a living. 2) When suitors came to the house when my wife was in high school, he would position himself prominently at the kitchen table, cleaning his gun. Think De Niro in Meet the Parents meets De Niro in Goodfellas. Just a little more intimidating.
I finish my pre-shot routine, begin my remarkably mediocre backswing — later Bill likened it to that of Jim Furyk (my least favorite tour player) — with my 4 iron, start down, release, and … there goes a flaming squirrel headed on a line toward the wrong hole.
And so begins the most befuddling, horrifying six holes of my life.
Anyone who’s suffered the shanks knows their paradoxical nature: on the one hand, you know they can’t possibly last; on the other hand, you know they’re not called “the shank.” The plurality of the affliction makes it that much more sinister. Those unspeakable putting woes are not called “the yip.” If so, Ian Baker-Finch might be on the course instead of welling up in the booth every time an Aussie drains a three footer.
Back to my round with Bill. To compound the crisis, he tries to help, “Relax, Rory. You’re trying too hard because my friends are here.” To which I politely respond, “No offense Bill, but I don’t give a f — about your friends.” Now consider in what context speaking to your father-in-law like this would be acceptable. Had I taken that tone anywhere but on the golf course in the midst of a tussle with the shanks, I’d be limbless at the bottom of the Chicago River.
Truth is, I’m not nervous — at least I don’t feel nervous. And yet his “help” actually pisses me off even more. Here I am, a 36-year-old man being spoken to like a three-year-old trying to catch a Nerf football. It’s beyond embarrassing. It’s emasculating. For the first time ever, I’m relishing longer holes because that means I can hit a shank-immune club. Alas, I stripe a driver, then a hybrid on #6, walk confidently to the green, putt out, then half-strut to the #7 tee with cautious optimism. #7 calls for a 5-iron — when you’re fighting the shanks, just the word “iron” causes dread. As I stand over the ball, I’m reminded of my high school Humanities teacher, who taught us that organized religion arose to answer three simple questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? After scuttling a scalded dog 30 yards off line, through the pine trees, and onto the fifth tee, I was asking the same three questions about the shanks. I’m not one to argue about religion, but I can say, definitively — thanks to the shanks — that there is a hell.
People often describe golf as “humbling.” I’ll spot you a few more letters: at its worst, golf is humiliating. There is nowhere to hide, no clock to save you, no teammate to pass the ball to, no injury to feign, no coach to ask for a breather. A shooting slump in basketball means you might be missing the hoop by a few centimeters; in golf — while in truth the difference is even smaller — what’s visible is a miss that is not only off line, but potentially dangerous. Baseball is different because the odds are you won’t hit the ball. Three out of ten is actually pretty good.
What’s most amazing about that day is not that I managed to break 90, but that upon closer examination, I only shanked the ball four times. Four times? Really? It felt like 50. It felt infinite. But like other forms of abuse, we learn to repress the shanks; in fact I’ve already forgotten. To even speak those words, “the shanks”, is sacrilege to most golfers. I expect Bill to remind me though.
Unless I can’t hear him from the bottom of the Chicago River.
Golf’s future is uncertain. Courses are closing and membership numbers are shrinking faster than D.J.’s bladder before a clutch putt. Jordan, Rory, and Rickie have injected some much-needed sizzle, but not enough to reverse the downward trajectory of the game at large. Old codgers, teaching pros, course owners, fellow coaches, and media blame the same triple-headed monster: “It’s too hard, too expensive, and takes too long.” The industry has responded with gimmicks like foot golf, enlarged cups, 13-hole courses, and golf “experiences” like Top Golf where you can “play” while slurping margaritas and jamming chili cheese fries. Private clubs are slashing rates, partnering with fitness centers (no thanks), and letting Joe Public play at select times. The First Tee’s impact appears to be negligible, and a broken, balding Tiger Woods did not bring about a generation of minority players; at the high school regional tournament where I coach in metro Detroit, there was exactly one African American player.
Yes, the game is difficult, pricey, and time-consuming, but I think the real culprit is more insidious; it’s one that has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, often without our permission.
I’ll wait for you to stop looking at your phone.
It’s the Internet.
This might be a curmudgeonly “kids these days” argument, but consider the extent to which the interwebs have spun their way into every crevice of our lives. What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Before you go to bed? Stopped in traffic? Watching the baseball game? At the game? While you’re at the game and the winning home run is being hit? If you didn’t answer “check my phone,” then you’re probably lying. Mobile web access has rendered useless three traits vital to golf: patience, concentration, and the ability to interact with strangers.
In 10 years teaching high school English and five years of coaching golf, I’ve witnessed a precipitous decline. And it would be lazy to suggest that only teenagers are in this electronic thrall. We’re all more impatient, more distracted, and more self-absorbed. I have to tell my 66-year-old dad to put down his iPhone during conversations. “No dad, I didn’t see Bernie Sanders’ tweet.”
So it’s no wonder that when you ask a kid if he wants to play golf, he’s not interested. I hear, “Want to escape for four hours and play a game in nature with some good people? You might even get close to God.” He hears, “Want to put on a collared shirt, turn off your phone, abandon your X Box, walk through the woods, and get really frustrated?”
Golf requires the very qualities that digital technology doesn’t:
Patience. On the golf course, if the foursome ahead is holding up play, you wait, take some practice swings, and visualize the rest of the round. In our digital world, if you’re stuck in traffic, you can read a Times article, check email, text three friends, deposit a check, and update your Fantasy roster. Consider that for 3 hours and 58 minutes of a 4-hour round, you’re not even swinging a club. Why would anyone “waste” that much time when he can get so much done?
Concentration. On the golf course, in order to properly execute a difficult shot, your body, mind, and soul converge in a Zen-like focus on a single task. In the modern world, you can simultaneously run a spreadsheet, listen to a Podcast, IM a co-worker, and order lunch. And despite the prevailing research that less that 2% of the population can effectively multitask, we insist on — even take pride in — doing multiple things at once.
Ability to interact with strangers. Without a clean foursome, you experience that awkward first tee moment when the starter introduces you to your playing partners. As an introvert, this has always induced anxiety for me. But isn’t it healthy to be uncomfortable? I look Bob or Bill or Mike (90% of the time they have one of these names) in his eyes, smile, and firmly shake hands. And we’re off. When was the last time you shook hands with someone in his twenties? Exactly. There’s a decent chance he spends 80% of his life on the Internet, where — with sound tech skills, serviceable writing, and cleverly placed emoticons — he can earn a paycheck, “run” errands, and find a wife. Try using an emoticon when you’ve got a 220 carry into a postage stamp with the club championship on the line.
In Nicholas Carr’s chilling book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, he argues that the Internet is rewiring our neural pathways such that we are experiencing the world much differently from our predecessors. Specifically, we’re conditioned to crave instant gratification, distraction, and artificial light. I submit that these pathways are leading us away from golf and into a scary place where silence isn’t golden and nothing is worth waiting for. Yes, golf is hard, it takes time, and it’s costly. But so is a bottle of Scotch. So is a great marriage. So is being a parent. Remember that progress is not always good. So call me old-fashioned…Please.
I was at the golf store last weekend for an iron fitting; Spieth’s Augusta drubbing coupled with blind trust in my brother’s equipment knowledge led me to the Titleist AP2s. I’ve never owned a set of irons that were made after I hit puberty. Brian, the club expert, worked with me for 15 minutes as I blasted balls. We small talked a bit until he asked if I had kids. “Not yet,” I said, watching a 6-iron draw toward the flag. “My wife is due in July.”
“What is it?” I turned around.
Brian’s face had gone from relaxed sales guy to concerned uncle. “I’m going to grab another club. The AP1 is much more forgiving.” He shook his head. “Let’s be honest man. With a baby, your once-a-week days are over. Hell, I haven’t been out this year and I do this for a living. You need to be realistic.”
This has been the refrain from all of my father friends. There seems to be an unwritten rule that once baby enters, golf game exits. I understand that reversing this trend is almost impossible. I understand that I’m venturing into completely uncharted territory, a la Jerry Seinfeld in the January, 1995, “The Switch” episode, in which Jerry tells George of his intentions to date his girlfriend’s roommate:
GEORGE: Do you realize in the entire history of western civilization no one has successfully accomplished The Switch? In the Middle Ages you could get locked up for even suggesting it!
JERRY: The point is I intend to undertake this. And I’ll do it with or without you. So if you’re scared, if you haven’t got the stomach for this, let’s get it out right now! And I’ll go on my own. If not, you can get on board and we can get to work! Now what’s it going to be?
GEORGE: All right, dammit, I’m in.
JERRY: I couldn’t do it without you.
GEORGE: All right. Let’s get to work.
So I’m Jerry, and you, dear reader, are George. If you’re a dad, you can live vicariously as I try to find the white whale. My editor insists that my quest to play more golf as a new dad is futile, not to mention toxic to family life. He is venturing into year 12 of parenthood, and his game has steadily declined. But, call me Ishmael. If you’re an expecting dad, pay close attention. Step #1 in this process is crafting a persuasive letter to your wife, which you may or may not publish in a regional golf magazine.
You’re not a sap so I won’t waste time telling you how much I love you or how you’ve made the last three years of my life better than I could have imagined, or that you are the one woman on this planet who can love me unconditionally, or that I am ecstatic that you will be the mother of my child. Rather, I want to start by thanking you for being the most pleasant pregnant woman I’ve ever known. My friends warned me about their “irrational” or “hysterical” or “demonic” pregnant wives, but you, my love — aside from swallowing a basketball — have not changed. Further, at no point have you discouraged me from playing golf. In fact, you’ve encouraged it. Well, there has been the occasional “You better play a lot now because July will be here before you know it.”
About that… Remember when we read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages before the wedding? Of the five we both prefer “acts of service” and “quality time.” In fact, selflessness and your preference to spend on experiences rather than material goods were two of the qualities that drew me to you. Accordingly, I have always appreciated your willingness to let me protect my hobbies and relationships that are independent of you. As marriage guru Kahlil Gibran says, “Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.” Thanks for letting me have my own cup. I concede that my “acts of service” have been paltry at times. I’ve left dishes undone, lawns unmown, laundry unfolded, and floors unswept.
That’s about to change.
I will make you a deal. If you allow me to play golf at least once a week after our child is born, I vow the following:
I will not go to the course unless the sink is empty of dishes.
I will schedule tee times that are convenient for you instead of me.
I will bring my phone to the course and, if you need me immediately, I will walk off the course, no questions asked. note: If I’m under par on the back we may need to negotiate.
I will support you in your parallel endeavor that soothes the body, mind, and soul.
Once allowed, I will take the child with me and, in the interim, I will research golf cart baby attachments that may or may not include a Benadryl I.V.
Should you have any added stipulations, please let me know. I realize that this is a bold request, but because of your compassionate heart and rational mind, I know you will seriously consider it. Thank you and I love you.
Your loving husband, Rory
NOTE: Jerry never pulled off “The Switch,” but I’m convinced he went about it all wrong.
It’s spring cleaning for the house, the car, and more importantly, the finances. Time to review discretionary spending and start making choices. Must you eat at McDonald’s twice a day? Is NFL Redzone a necessity? Aside from the bacon-cooking alarm clock, can you reduce the Skymall purchases? Finally…gulp…golf membership or gym membership? On the surface it’s an easy decision. The aver- age gym membership costs $800 per year. Let’s say the average golf membership is five times that, or $4,000. Bump that to $5,000 to account for inci- dentals. Huge margin, right? And the gym is a great place to “get your heart rate up,” and “build core strength” blah blah.
Well, if you’ve canceled your membership at your club, there’d better be a grace period, because after much careful, totally biased research, I’ve come up with the Top 5 Reasons a Golf Membership Beats a Gym Membership. If you’re not the CFO of your household, make sure he or she reads this.
#1 It’s Social Meeting new people at the gym is at best pathetic, at worst creepy (see John Travolta). Those troglodytes chatting next to the weight bench didn’t just begin a lifelong friendship; they’re buddies who are Googling pickup lines for the bombshell on the treadmill. Not only is a golf course void of the gym’s predato- rial climate, you can meet a friend for life; perhaps even more remarkable is that you can spend four hours and say nothing and not feel awkward. Golf provides a natural rhythm, a give and take with an implicit understanding that you can reveal as much or as little as you like; over time this can lead to real relationships.
#2 It’s an Escape From the Onslaught of Digital Technology Notice that, increasingly, gyms are feeding our screen addiction. First there was one TV, then there were 30, now every machine has one. We can hook up our cell phone so we can listen to our music but watch their TV. We’re distracting ourselves from ourselves. We’re doing something we hate, so we trick our brains into thinking we’re elsewhere. As we agonize toward the 30-minute mark on an elliptical, we jump between Dr. Phil, TMZ, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Weber State. The golf course, on other hand, is nature plus play. No screens necessary (shame on those of you who use a phone app for your rangefinder. Sacrilege!) Even when we’re playing poorly, we’ve walked several miles in a natural, serene environment, mimicking the hunter-gatherers of yesteryear (some hunt more than others).
#3 It’s Food-friendly I don’t mean energy bars and “juices” with unpro- nounceable ingredients. I mean real food and drink: bacon-egg-cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee, Pepsi, beer. Some guys have a system. My uncle starts every round with a full house (three Advil, two beers), then a Red Bull and vodka at the turn. I only drink water until I know I won’t break 80. Can you imagine drinking a beer on the treadmill? I don’t think the software can add calories.
#4 It’s a Game We say “I’m playing golf today.” versus “I’m going to the gym today” in the same way we might say “I’m going to the doctor for a prostate check today.” These poor souls schlep around the gym with a clipboard, tick-marking every lift, tracking progress — they’ve added three pounds in two weeks — hooray! What they’re trying to do is turn the gym experience into a game. But it’s not a game. It’s an obligation, the same way taking the trash out or flossing is an obligation. I’m going to modify Joan Rivers’ famous quote about jogging: “The first time I see (someone at the gym) smiling, I’ll consider trying it.” Even during my worst round of golf my face does not show the pure anguish of a gym rat. Fine, there’s a brief “workout high” for 15 minutes afterward, but how about a “golfer’s high” for four hours during?
#5 It’s Story-worthy “I had just hit 3,346 steps on the treadmill. Cavuto barked on one TV, Van Susteren on the other. The manager was interviewing a prospective personal trainer…” Gripping, right? Dying to read on? Nothing great ever happens at the gym. Conversely, things happen on the course that you can’t help sharing, even with people who don’t care. When my wife asks, “how was golf?” I tell her about the hook 8-iron on 5 that I stuffed to two feet for a double save. She doesn’t care per se, but I still want to relive it. When she asks, “how was the gym?” I either change the subject or lie about how long I was on the Stairmaster.
Remember, I’m not talking about tour players — they play golf for a living, so this meathead fad — sorry Rory, I preferred you doughier — is for the world- class golfer who wants to hit it 325 instead of 320. We mortals simply want to play as much as possible; if you’re like me, you’re dividing your membership fees by the number of times you play in order to justify the cost. Make this the year you stop doing that. Acknowledge the gym as an unnecessary evil, the course as much more than a line item on your budget — as your beacon of physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual health.
Since Neanderthals scrawled in blood on cave walls, we have been defined and connected by our stories. And every story has included the core elements of conflict, setting, character, plot line, and theme. I’m an English teacher by trade, so I tend to look at the world through a narrative lens. And although my life is its own epic, I’ve yet to find the hero.
The following chronicles the story of eight 30–40 something men — ranging from wildly successful to hopelessly depraved — and their descent upon a California retirement community to escape the soul-killing winter for a “healthy” golf competition. Format: half Ryder Cup, half I’m-still-not-sure-how I-lost. Below is the study guide, with footnotes for key vocabulary. You will be tested on this.
Palm Desert, CA, Super Bowl Weekend, 2015; headquarters is a 7-bedroom McMansion equipped with pool, putting green, 9 Flatscreens and a $4,000 massage chair; fridge is jammed with 100 bottles of Stella Artois, 80 eggs, and a vat of pickles.
To preserve identities — and marriages — I will use aliases — to be fair though, this is what we actually call each other.
Named after the cruise director for The Love Boat for assuming the thankless job of coordinating housing, tee times, grocery shopping, including shab provisions; others suspect he secretly relishes cat-herder role because it’s a diversion from work; refers to himself in third person after bad shots; also known as “Greek Tragedy” for shooting a pair of 79s and earning no points.
Named after the enigma from The Usual Suspects; his refrain to our citing the official rules of golf: “You guys and all your rules…”; prefers Crown and Coke over coffee as a morning jumpstart; his Hard Resets generally include an antique.
Only drinks alcohol if his round is shot; most offended by players not knowing where they lie: During a pivotal match with Soze, “What do you lie, partner? Soze looks back down the fairway wistfully, “One..two…three..four…five…six…” Digital: “F — — it, nevermind.”
Large, lumbering and white as Stewart Cink’s mid-season head; known to chortle loudly at night (or your backswing); full nomenclature: “Eastern Slope Hairless Yeti”; swing resembles an epileptic baboon swatting mosquitos, hence also known as “The Yeti Project” ; only 23 handicapper with the game acumen of a tour caddy; laying seven, 80 yards out on a par 4, “What do you like? Cut 48 or draw 52?”
Tour pro wardrobe, toddler mental game; excuses are as abundant as matching belts: after blade yank from 130: “Damn it, did you hear that chicken chuckwagon me in my backswing?”
Protects his “flock” as the resident chauffeur — drives the “bus,” which resembles a church van except that it teems with alcohol, cigarettes, painkillers, and malcontents, chef — makes coffee and eggs every morning, and spiritual guide — I read his lips a few times: “May God have mercy on their souls”.
Bet his wife they would have a boy when the ultrasound officially determined a girl: ”Double or nothing”; after a full day of intense gambling on the course, demands action in shuffleboard, Donkey Kong, and Backgammon. Julie’s rebuff of the Backgammon challenge genuinely offends Rockefeller, prompting him to retire to the massage chair awash in self-pity; in a rare moment of self-reflection, “This is the first time I’ve had a dip in and a cigarette going at the same time on this trip. I don’t know what’s taken me so long!”
The Yeti asks Julie to “leave the pin in” because he’s “gonna miss” a 45 foot putt, to which Julie responds “No.” Yeti proceeds to drain a 45-foot snake for birdie and a halve. Later, Purple nearly dies choking on a Safeway jalapeno popper, then nonchalantly quips, “you can’t get those at Kroger.”
Pete Carroll snubs Beast Mode for a quick slant; concurrently, Purple, and gulping Sake, exclaims obstinately, “I’ve got the dinner under control!” as the grill, directly behind him, loaded with eight ribeyes, erupts in flames, jeopardizing our $2000 deposit for the third time.
Yeti falls into a deep shab-sleep in the massage chair again.
Pastor Frank, the winner with a 19 Index, returns the van to Enterprise full of empty beer cans, a bottle of Crown, a bag of eggs, and a jar of pickles.. Rockefeller: “If they’re industrious enough, they’ll find some full Stellas.”
I’m teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to my juniors. It’s an examination of war, of boyhood and brotherhood, of love and loss, but most importantly, of the power of story. O’Brien contemplates the space between what we remember, what actually happened, what could have happened, and how we are shaped by the blurred lines between: “Stories are for joining the past to the future…for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity…”
While it would be disingenuous to suggest that a Guys Golf Weekend is analogous to a Vietnam tour, the game of golf — like war-provides the ideal framework for a good story. It’s full of drama (Purple’s jalapeno brush with death), tragedy (Julie’s stellar play earning him no points), comedy (The Yeti saying or doing almost anything), and even Providence (the Pastor’s improbable win). What’s more, with golf, all of these can manifest themselves over the course of not just an entire weekend, but a single round, even a single hole. If you doubt that, just tune in to CBS around 5:30 every Sunday from now until late August.
And so perhaps this is why we’re so drawn to the game — in my case it’s obvious that I’m a sucker for character pieces — because we know every time tee pierces ground, a great story awaits.
For months you’ve longed for respite from the stifling, omni-gray winter drudgery. Whether it’s Derrick Rose’s knee, Jay Cutler’s pouty-face, your boss’s snicker while you scan the Fantasy waiver- wire (no, Odell Beckham is not available), in the winter you’re a bit more agitated and depressed, hopeless and dark. And cold. Damned cold.
But the Midwest ethic is hardy — it’s hearty. You wake neighbors at 5 a.m. with guttural, scraped- windshield sounds, then drive to work in darkness, then drive home in darkness, then try to avoid an ankle sprain as you scale the icy steps into your high-energy-bill home. Chicago winter means ten extra pounds, three more inches on the beard, two shots of whiskey neat instead of vodka on the rocks. You quickly transition from basking in leaf-crunching, pumpkin-patching, autumn glow to wondering what it feels like to open your front door without swearing.
What kept you going? Maybe your screensaver is the 12th at Augusta, the 7th at Pebble, or some nondescript “hidden gem” resort course in St. Lucia (it’s actually a goat track but your colleagues will never know). Maybe it’s the R15 waiting on a rack at the golf show, like a frightened puppy at the humane society, eager to join a loyal and loving master. And the transition from not golfing to golfing for a Midwesterner is more dramatic than that of our southern and western counterparts. My uncle in Tennessee and my brother in Colorado often gloat, “Yeah, it’s crazy. Sometimes we’ll just get a 70 degree day out of nowhere.” Hell hath no fury like a dormant golfer scorned.
But in the final analysis, we might just have it better. During premarital counseling my wife and I read a book based on the central question, “What if there is no such thing as heaven or hell?” In other words, what if here, on earth, some of us are actually living in heaven and some are living in hell? That there is nothing “after” this; it’s all happening here and now. The Chicago golfer experiences both, every year, at their extremes. So we’re the Yin and the Yang, the “it’s always darkest before the dawn” and “no joy without pain” cliches. We embody the death and rebirth archetype.
Frozen, barren, dead ground is replaced by lush, vibrant, green blankets of rolling hills and fertile plains, dotted with 4¼ inch holes, in which our climactic winter dreams are realized: a steaming nature-pool of pars and birdies and eagles, of won skins and dragged in five-footers, of rounds with your dad and a cool drink in the sun afterward. In the winter, we turn to Guinness or Italian beef sandwiches or Breaking Bad reruns, but as the sun stays out a little longer, and the snow-covered ground turns to green-mud slop, our souls swell with excitement. We sneak a quick nine at the muni-down-the-street with our daughter, skip the beef sandwich, and fire up the grill for chicken or a salad. Hope replaces cynicism. Activity supplants sloth. And now, instead of every decision beg- ging the question, “will this help me endure the winter?” it becomes “will this help my golf game?” which can be directly translated to “will this help my soul?”
And besides, we “figured something out” in our swings last year. That statement is in quotations because it’s not my original thought; it’s plagiarized from everyone who has ever gripped a club. The inevi- table statement to follow in May: “What happened? I thought I figured something out in my swing.”
I really did figure something out. I saw it in an insomniatic Golf Channel blur with Michael Breed and Paul Azinger. It was something so simple that I hadn’t internalized in 25 years of playing: release the club at impact. I wrote it on my hand, then on my scorecard, then typed it in my iPhone, where it now looks exactly like this: “Swing thoughts loose grip release club finish forward posted August 30th at 3:21 pm.” Those three simple thoughts changed my ball flight from weakish old-man push slice to pro-style draw. It got me to a 5.9 index. And yet, I want to go lower.
In philosophy, the Hedonic Treadmill refers to our human nature to always want more, no matter how much we have. Think John Daly with chicken wings and Budweiser or Tiger Woods with Perkins waitresses. We’re like this with cutting strokes. Golf equipment sales are predicated on this idea, and though we know rationally that a ball or iron or driver will only mask a weakness, we keep buy- ing. You, my friend, are hereby permitted to jump on that “treadmill” — goodness knows it’s better for your soul than a real treadmill. It is time for rebirth. So as the chill subsides, Derrick Rose plays two games in a row, Cubs hope replaces Bears hate, and your boss lets you out early for a quick nine, appreciate the privilege of the yearly winter of discontent. I read a newspaper headline in January, “Kitten freezes to death, stuck to the front porch.” I mean really, how much less would I appreciate a round at Cog Hill without that image seared into my brain? I doubt some guy in L.A. or Phoenix would. For us, that first round will be sweeter, the first dig into turf more precious. So as soon as a flag goes up within 30 miles, head out and play. Buy the new driver. Pay for a lesson. Re-up at your club. You lived through hell. You deserve it.