Category Archives: Personal Essays

Next Shot

The most important shot in golf is the next shot.

Ben Hogan

One of the ironies I’ve discovered on becoming the father to grown children is that the lessons I tried to impart in their younger years seem to come back to me from them as I have aged.

I was delighted when my youngest child, Meghan, began to take an interest in golf. In addition to the pure enjoyment of her company and the bond the game creates between parent and child, I would finally have someone to help remove the guilty sting of the inordinate amount of time I stole from my family to pursue my obsession.

Of course, I did not know at the time part of her motivation was to get my wife interested in golf. Meghan, who was the last at home, worried, as youngest children do, that her mother and I would not have enough in common to keep us together when she was no longer around. I only found this out years later once it became clear to her that Eileen and I were reasonably secure and stable empty-nesters.

In any case I introduced Meghan to golf by bringing her with me to a golf lesson. The pro I was working with at the time was a truly eccentric genius who loved teaching kids and I know that first golf lesson still sticks in her mind 15 years later. It was immediately apparent she had real talent. Being the youngest among intensely competitive type A characters bequeathed on her healthy aggression often hidden in the personalities of young women. From the beginning she swung with the kind of abandon I only saw in women who played professionally.

One day shortly after we began to play together she asked, “Dad, can we play golf tomorrow?” For some reason I did not immediately say “Yes!” though, of course, that was the answer but instead embarked on the following Socratic dialogue.

“Meghan, if I say the word “baseball” does that tell you anything about the game of baseball?”
“Sure dad, there are bases and a ball.”
“And if I say the word “basketball” does that tell you anything about basketball?”
To this she pondered for a moment before answering “Well yeah, I guess the hoop and net are a kind of basket and there is a ball.”
“And how about football?” I persisted.
To this she replied “Of course dad, there’s a ball and you kick it.”
Finally I queried “If I say the word “golf” does it tell you anything about the game.”
Now she was stumped and looked at me quizzically.
I said “Right, Meg! There’s nothing in the name of the game that tells you anything about golf. So from now on whenever you want to play golf with me, I want you to ask “Dad can we go play some next shot? because that phrase actually has something to do with and begins to describe the game.

Sadly, Meghan’s interest in the game peaked when she left for college. Ultimate Frisbee, young men and the rigors of an Ivy League education at Cornell left little time for golf. Though we still played the occasional nine holes when she was around in the summer, most of her involvement with golf was as a caddie. Her knowledge of the game, her high professional standards and personal dignity made her an exceptional caddie, one sought out by many members of the golf club in our hometown.

You would think a degree from Cornell in International Agriculture and Rural Development would lead to a better job than manning the cash register at the local gift shop for minimum wage but Meghan graduated in June 2008 and the economy had collapsed. Much as she wanted her caddie days to be behind her, she badly needed the money.

As it turned out her bad luck was lucky for me because she was available to caddie for me in the senior club championship in July that year.

A good part of my golf career was an exercise in frustration in that I often came close to winning but rarely succeeded. Never the most talented player, I prided myself on my intensity and refusal to quit but the truth is I lacked confidence and somehow that always seemed to show itself under pressure.

To defuse the natural tension that precedes a tournament I told myself having Meghan on my bag for the 36 hole stroke play event meant I was in a no lose situation. Regardless of the outcome, we would enjoy each other’s company. Obviously, that was not just a psychological ploy but also true. But, once the tournament began, it did not seem to be working.

Driver, nine iron to 15 feet on the first hole and three putts for bogey. 6-iron to 30 feet on the second hole and three putts for a bogey. Routine pars on the third and fourth holes and a five wood to 20 feet on the fifth hole. So far I’d hit every fairway and every green. I lagged the downhill 20 footer to 2 feet above the hole and missed the tap in. Another bogey. Though my frustration was building, I managed to lace a four iron to the uphill par 3 sixth hole onto the green but on the wrong side of a huge mound that bisected the green.

Unlike the other 5 greens I had hit, this was a truly challenging birdie putt, one anyone would be pleased to two putt. It broke right to left up the steep slope and then hard left to right down the far side of the elephant’s back buried in the middle of the green. In order to get it close you had to just crest the top of the hill and risk the ball coming back down to you but I judged it perfectly. I struck the putt firmly and it crept to the apex of the hill and wobbled over the top, gained speed and slipped past the edge of the cup no more than 2 ½ feet directly below the hole.

I was left with a perfectly straight uphill putt but after 3 three putts in the first 5 holes, my confidence was shaken. I tried to convince myself otherwise but a familiar tightness crept into my chest and I missed it! Now steam was coming out of my ears. Six holes, six greens and four over par! I was storming off the green with my head down towards the seventh tee when Meghan handed me the grip end of my driver before she hurried out to fore caddie. I grabbed the club and pulled away but she held fast to the club head. I pulled again but she wouldn’t let go. At this I finally looked up at her and she said “Dad!”
I said “What Meg?”
More gently now, she said “Dad.”
I said “What Meghan?”
She just looked at me and said “Next shot.”

It’s funny that I can remember those first six holes so well yet can’t remember much about the remaining 30. But I remember vividly that moment with Meghan and the feeling it gave me, one of immense pride in her mixed with gratitude and a kind of deep calm. The tightness in my chest dissolved into warmth. If I had played any role in producing such a splendid and wise young woman, I could not possibly be the failure my foibles at golf led me to believe. That I am vulnerable to such emotional tyranny is a long story and I’m grateful to golf for giving me a safe place to exorcize those demons. But my deeper gratitude is to Meghan for providing me with such a memory.

This event took place many years ago and Meghan has moved on to a fine career in the non-profit world. I would like to report that I have overcome the challenges to my confidence golf seems to continually present. Sadly, I am still a work in progress in this regard but I continue to draw on the lesson Meghan taught me, the one I tried to teach her when I introduced her to golf in the first place.

For the record I went on to play two over par for the next 30 holes and won the event going away.

On Resentment, Writing and Repair

To teach her children about forgiveness a dear friend had her children collect several stones and write on each stone a word to remind them of someone against whom they held a grudge. Each child put the stones in a backpack and carried their backpack on a hike. From time to time they stopped and were invited to remove a stone from their backpack and leave it on the trail.

It is hard to make any declarations about my relationship to my parents. I can say my mother abused me and it would be true but not truer than that she loved me desperately. I can say I could never be close to my father because I so feared him and that would be true but not truer than my memory of his stubbly cheek and his rank aftershave when he let me jump into his arms at the end of his workday.

Even now that they are dead these many years who they were to me and who they are keeps changing. In writing about them I realize I have wanted to fix them in my memory, to make them characters in my story, to know them once and for all and, in that way, to bury them.

In some ways it’s hard to believe they are gone and at the same time that they existed at all. Could memory and imagination create such changes in people who were once real? I, of course, understand that my experience of them does not define them but it has shaped me so profoundly, I think I am owed some license in how they will be remembered.

Why couldn’t my father just have been the imperious self absorbed jerk who deserved the contempt of his military school classmates? I understand the way they seem to have felt about him. But when I saw the evidence of their disdain in his high school yearbook, I couldn’t help but hate them and want to comfort the pain he never showed and perhaps never felt. He was not just cut off from me but from himself. I want to believe caring, for him, must have seemed too big a risk.

His violence towards me created a template in my personality of fear and aggression shot through with my relentless need to please. Not surprisingly, I gained favor with other older men in need of an acolyte. I courted and left several till I found a man even more hurtful than my father. The approval I gained from the kind and generous men who took an interest in me seemed unearned. But when I met Frank, I sensed his approval would mean more. The wound from my father’s mistreatment must have created in me an emotional divining rod for the darkness of other men. In any case I found it in Frank. It seems odd that I can almost forgive my father but feel nothing but enmity for Frank whose approval I so assiduously sought out before he turned all his vicious paranoia on me.

It makes sense to me that I would be a threat to my father, a challenge to his manliness; a foil for his posturing that betrayed his unacknowledged insecurity. I don’t blame myself. I was only a child and an indefatigable, emotionally intense one at that: a poor fit for a man who wanted to be left alone, a man who, if he were to have children at all, was not cut out to be the father of six.

I can forgive my father because he had so much skin in the game. In the distorted or perhaps accurate way abused people think, I believe his violence toward me is evidence of caring. I want to believe his own intense emotionality was so unfamiliar to him, so much a threat, that it came out at me. I can forgive that but I still harbor resentment that he never took responsibility for it. I finally gave up on him when a few years before he died, he refused to acknowledge his violence against me, claiming I was confused.

Of course I am confused but not about that, only about what it means. A son means so much to a father that crazy behavior makes a kind of sense. It doesn’t make it acceptable, just understandable. But I was not Frank’s son, only his patient and protégé and I can’t understand or forgive his treatment of me. Or is it that I can understand but refuse to forgive? After all, his own son was an abject failure. I was the good son working tirelessly for his approval, shielding him from attack, forgiving his frailties. Of course, it’s embarrassing to look back and see how slavishly I courted his good opinion but that does not make it easier to understand why he so strenuously withheld it. I refuse to accept that it was precisely my slavishness that led him to attack me after finally winning his approbation.

To think of him disintegrating into psychosis after having praised my good work so lavishly, suggests a kind of helplessness in him at odds with my experience of malice. I don’t want to think of him as vulnerable. I don’t want to consider the possibility that post polio syndrome was ravishing him. I don’t want to imagine my love for him was more than he could bear. I don’t want to think of the little boy he was, shortly before contracting polio, being scolded by his father for claiming “Dad there are millions of butterflies in the meadow!” Being shamed in that reserved and hyper rational Puritan way by his father’s repeated question: “There are how many butterflies, Frank?” I don’t want to believe that my unabashed pleasure at his hard won praise triggered resentment in him over never getting that kind of praise from his father or mentors. To think of him that way would begin to melt my resentment, to open my heart to him once again.

But I can’t help myself. For me the sequence of the stones in the backpack has been reversed. I can’t write about my resentment without creating the opportunity to let it go. I’ve been carrying these stones for too long. Only by naming them will I be able to put them down.

Solitude and Connection

It turns out I love solitude almost as much as I love people and prize it mostly because it is so rare. It’s not that on this weekend at home alone I won’t see and interact with other people. I’ll get my haircut, play golf and attend a poetry reading. But none of the people there will or can make a claim on me. I’ll be free from the threat of failing them in some way. For me to be important to the people I love means I may disappoint them and though I know I do that all the time (I hope in mostly small ways), the imminence of it weighs on me. That as far as I know I’ve been forgiven is some compensation but to be free of the threat for a few days feels liberating.

I’m pretty sure this has less to do with my current family than the one I grew up with. Eileen, Kaitlin, Meghan, Sebastian and Seth do not require or expect the kind of heroics it seemed the family I grew up in required. That family with my drunk, bipolar mom reeling and my disengaged dad raging was always on the brink of cataclysm and somehow I got the idea that I was supposed to save them.

It’s not that I came to this entirely on my own. My parents gave me and I’m sure my two elder sisters inordinate responsibility for our disabled youngest sister. And my aunt famously told me and whoever else would listen that she knew I would never let anything bad happen to my siblings.

Perhaps this issue of carrying the threat of letting down the important people in my life would be more resolved for me had I actually embraced the challenge of saving my blighted family. But the truth is I guiltily escaped into adulthood or at least my version of it. I went off to college where I took on a challenge that must have seemed more manageable to me at the time; namely, saving the world. Developing scurvy on a humanitarian mission in the Mexican Sierras, getting my head cracked open in a post Kent State student protest, and a psychotic break left me badly in need of saving myself.

I discovered some time ago that the mere proximity of other humans was experienced as a threat by me. Having been physically abused by both my parents and growing up in the violent world of male-dominated Brooklyn neighborhood, you would think that would have been obvious to me. But the apparent paradox is that throughout my life I have appeared extroverted, constantly seeking attention in ways that often precluded the approval I desperately needed.

The upshot of all this is that I experience other people as a threat but also myself as a threat. Slowly over the course of my life the threat of my own unruly mind has been attenuated through hard work in psychotherapy and writing.

So solitude is the occasion for me to imagine a benign other. One who accepts me and wants to hear whatever I have to say, who would never shame me for the fragile truths I fear would bring nothing but ridicule or worse. That person may very well exist but it’s enough that I am able to imagine them. A benevolent God seems to work for some people but so much bad has been done in God’s name, the whole concept of God has been sullied for me.

That sense of an embracing presence, an archetypal shoulder to lean on, a lap to receive my head weary with worry and relentless longing is more available to me in solitude than even with the people I know love me. Because even those who love me, and I am fortunate to have many who do, don’t know me in those places I can only reveal to myself. The sense of forgiveness I get from my imagined other for what is hidden in me and, as all things hidden, somehow shameful is slowly allowing me to feel more deeply acceptable, less stained by some unnameable existential sin.

In writing I can begin to allude to the struggle and thereby cut into my isolation over it. Writing, as a kind of intimate conversation with myself, both exposes the shame and attenuates it because at least this imagined other will not turn away. By some, for the moment, inexplicable alchemy this time of solitude enables me to reengage with the people I love with less fear and more generosity.