Friday, September 22, 2017

Golfing in the Moment

To build on the change from summer to fall I put a new set of discs into the CD changer here in the shack.  I looked at my music collection and found musicians I haven’t listened to in a long time.  I had one requirement.  No lyrics.  I have writing to do.  Words in my ear interfere with words in my head.

I turned to jazz:  Chet Baker, a couple of Miles Davis, two by Wynton Marsalis.  I have a two disc set on standby to replace the two CD’s I tire of first.  It’s the Riverside Recordings, a musical collaboration between Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane captured at New York’s Five Spot CafĂ© in 1957.  Chet Baker is playing “’Tis Autumn” in the background as I write.  Let’s get at it shall we?

For a couple years now I’ve been golfing with a good group of retired guys.  It’s an eclectic group, changes every week, goes to different courses, playing collectively or individually well one day and badly the next.  Some of us keep individual scores privately but we only note and report our group success.  We track the number of pars and par equivalents as a ratio of the number of holes played.  The number of holes played depends of course on the number of guys playing.  We aim to play 18.  Once in a while someone has to leave after 9.  At times (like now) someone goes past nine but doesn’t play a full round of 18 (that’s me, still getting my ankle back in playing shape.)  Anyway, using those numbers we do some math and rate the group’s performance.  I’ve decided to forgo that for last week’s round.  It was a different kind of day.

Five guys played 79 holes of golf.  Three played 18, one played 9, I cut out after 15.  But it was not a day for numbers.  That day was an experience, not a contest.  

It started when one of the guys on the list replied to the e mail announcing the place and time with an idea to bring an old friend known to most of us.  He’s a guy who no longer plays much.  Let’s call him Bob.

“Hey, I was thinking of bringing Bob.  It’s going to be a nice day.  He may want to get out of the house, or his wife may want a break.   He won’t play a lot.  Just hit some balls now and then.  Putt a little.  What do you think?”

When you’ve lived in one community for as long as we have you develop and keep friendships with guys important to you.  Bob was a mentor to many of us.  I worked with him for a very short time.  He was happy and expressive, said what he thought, and we realized he had good things on his mind.  He was well suited for his job.  I remember him as both sarcastic and good hearted.  Fun.

“Bring him.  I haven’t been with him in a long time.  I’d love to see him.”

I showed up late, last to arrive, and Bob was already in the cart.  He was wearing big orthopedic tennis shoes with Velcro straps extending down by the toe.  I check those things out these days.  Still recuperating from ankle surgery, I was wearing an Ankle Foot Orthotic (AFO), black leather over plastic covering my calf and laced up to my knee, in sensible black street shoes.  Hard telling when I’ll wear my golf shoes again.  Bob and I were both heavily shod.  When I shook hands with him he gave me a big smile.  You remember people’s smiles and how they make you feel.  At least I do.  His smile had always made me feel good.  It still does.

“You going to be our swing coach today Bob?  Our spiritual golf guru and advisor?”

“Nope.  Playing.”

“All right then, let’s go.”

We play at a fairly leisurely pace on the local courses, and playing on weekdays we find them rarely crowded.  For some reason that day everyone had the same idea.  It was a lovely morning.  There were lots of golfers.  We waited for the guys before us to hit and as we were teeing off another foursome was parked behind us.  That’s unusual for golf in the Illinois Valley.  As the last guy was teeing up his ball I saw Bob slowly step out of his cart.  Very slowly.

He was looking around intently.  When he finally reached the tee box he scanned the horizon all around. 

“That way Bob.”  I pointed down the fairway.  “Straight ahead.  See the flag?”

We were golfing at a course which was a country club that sold and went public.  Bob was a member there.  He knew the course well.  Or he did at one time.

He looked in that direction.  Slowly he bent to put a tee in the ground and once accomplished placed a ball on it.  Then he stood up.  A cart went by on the fairway next to us.  He followed it with his eyes as it disappeared over a little rise.  In the other direction a foursome cheered an apparent long par putt.  He turned and looked intently at them.

“C’mon Bob.  Hit the ball buddy.”

It was his cart mate gently urging him to hurry.  Another of his old friends called out.

“How long does it stay light out these days?”

That crack came from another supportive friend.  It’s what guys do.

Bob looked back and smiled.  Then pulled the club back, his back swing much reduced from the last time I saw him play.  He brought the club forward, all arms, and hit a soft liner about a foot and a half off the ground.  It travelled 80 yards.   But right down the middle and, you know, past the ladies tee. 

“OK.  We’re off.”

Four of us walked quickly back to our carts while Bob made a slow deliberate trip, one step at a time, back to his seat. 

Brilliant blue and plush green were the colors of the day.  A yellow sun moved across the sky.  White clouds came and went.  We played all through the September morning.  Sometimes when I come home from golfing my wife asks what we talk about.

“Golf.” I say.

People have tried to convince me that business gets done on the golf course.  Not in my lifetime.  We talk about turning slices and hooks into fades and draws.  We estimate distance, complain about sand traps, bemoan our bad shots silently (for the most part) and praise good ones openly.  We chide ourselves for bad habits.  We get serious about golf.

Golfing with Bob was different.  He was quiet and didn’t get out of his seat in the cart often.  At random times he would say

“Is it my turn?”

And when he did we would drop a ball twenty yards away from the pin for him to chip, or place one on the green ten feet from the hole to putt.  We kept him involved to some extent, but sometimes didn’t because the foursome behind us was waiting to hit.  He rarely initiated conversation so we took on that task.  Mistakes can be made unknowingly. 

“Bob do you remember that time in Berta’s when you …?”

At the word remember Bob looked in my eyes and replied firmly, but with a smile, “Nope.”

I was embarrassed but Bob wasn’t. 

I did see flashes of the guy I remember from the past.  I drove my ball off the tee first and pulled my cart next to his as the others of our foursome were getting ready to drive.

“How’s your wife Bob?”

Bob is married to a lovely woman, a nurse.  He looked at me for a long time.

“Compared to what?”

It was just the kind of smart ass thing Bob would have said thirty years ago.  Never a straight answer. 

“Oh, I don’t know.  How about compared to you.”

He smiled again, his biggest smile, very close to a laugh.

“Me?  Compared to me?  He paused.  “Fantastic.”

Bob changed our game.  He was living in the moment, enjoying each swing, while we were trying, like always, to figure out how few strokes we could manage at the finish.  He saw everything around him while we saw the flag on the green at the end of the fairway.  His life had changed.  At times we found that awkward to deal with.  But we also found ourselves changing to help our friend.  We pulled his cart to places on the cart path where he could walk more easily. We took his arm and helped him up and down the slopes.  We paid attention to him and each other more than normal.  We may have been good to Bob, but Bob made us a little better that day too.  The score was less important.   Kindness and enjoying the day ruled. 

Good to see you Bob. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Week Away

Eight men lived in a three room cabin  for eight days and seven nights on a lake in western Ontario.  They had no television, radio, phone signal, or internet connection.  No outside voices, no news, no information from anywhere else came to them during that week.  You might think it would be awkward, boring, perhaps tiresome.  It wasn’t. 

Room one was a narrow galley kitchen.  Past it was the main room with four handmade log bunk beds built into the walls, a dining table with eight chairs, a wood stove and a shelf unit.  In the corner was a tiny bathroom equipped with hot shower (courtesy of propane gas), sink, and a urinal.  Outside, up the hill, was an outhouse.  A fine outhouse I might add, perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered.

The outhouse had a tiny solar night light, a double door, a plastic seat, and dehydrated lime in a bucket, the kind you use to make the batter’s box and foul lines on a baseball diamond.  We were instructed to sprinkle a dipperful in the hole after each use and did so faithfully, or at least I did.  Despite the outhouse visibly reaching capacity the odor was minimal.  It’s said that outhouses in these fishing camps keep out those who require the latest in modern convenience.  So be it.  If true, both the fish and the fishermen benefit from keeping out the faint of heart.
We were the only cabin on a giant lake.  The cabin, the outhouse, a boat house for storing fuel and equipment equipped with solar panels for electricity, a table for cleaning fish, the docks, four aluminum boats with 9.9 HP gas motors, and a good wooden walkway up the incline to the cabin were the extent of man’s intrusion into Job Lake.  Nothing else was manmade.  Apart from that little compound nature took over.

The eight of us quickly fell into a simple routine.  Eating, fishing, drinking, talking, and sleeping.  We did each to extreme.  I’m recovering yet today, days after our return.  With the exception of fishing, which I do exclusively on this trip, and drinking for some, aren’t the rest of those elements pretty much daily life as we know it? 
EATING - We eat well, but we eat too much.  Let me illustrate that reality by rattling off just some of the food we bring for eight people.  Ten pounds of bacon, five pounds of sausage, a six pound box of Bisquick (along with a one pound box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix for peace of mind), two picnic hams, eight big rib eye steaks from Handy Foods, 12 loaves of Canadian Rye bread, 72 eggs, ten pounds of potatoes, a dozen onions, hot dogs, brats, homemade chili, crackers, not enough cheese, Pringles, peanut butter we didn’t eat, jelly, tortillas, homemade pasta sauce, pasta, rice, 7 heads of lettuce, too many tomatoes from home, peppers, carrots, celery, apples, oranges, powdered milk, 9 dozen homemade cookies, and a cake mix.

*Photos courtesy of Nate Robinson

And last but not least a box of Cheerios for breakfast for fly out morning.  Add to that 52 fresh caught walleyes and you’ve got a lot of food.  Little of it went to waste.  And it goes without saying  no one went hungry.
DRINKING - Some of the guys in our group have been coming to Canada on these trips for upwards of 30 years.  Their talk of the old days, when the fishermen were young, is rife with stories of prodigious beer drinking.  That’s changed.  We flew in just nine cases of beer, dropping below double digits, and have stopped buying beer as a group (like groceries) because of the great disparity of consumption among us.  You buy your own beer, more or less, though it’s shared freely.  Lately in addition to the beer, we have increased the hard liquor supply.  This year we brought in four bottles (3,250 milliliters) of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in addition to a couple of flasks of whiskey, and a liter of Vodka along with the makings for Bloody Marys.  It made for a pretty nice bar in addition to beer. I continue to advocate for hard liquor over beer for practical reasons.  Beer is heavy, and we have weight restrictions due to the size of both the fisherman and the plane.  The plane only holds so much, and we pay a penalty when we exceed it's weight capacity. This year, like most years, some of our stuff had to be flown in later by a second plane.  I argue the blame can be placed largely on the beer. 

A case of beer weighs eighteen pounds.  Nine weigh 162.  The comparative buzz that results from one and a half ounces of whiskey equals roughly twelve ounces of beer.  Buzz wise hard liquor is clearly more efficient in terms of volume and weight.  I lose that argument consistently, and I have to admit a cold can of Moosehead lager or two (or more) each afternoon tastes damn good.  OK, yes, sometimes in the morning too.  But not as a rule.  Suffice to say we drank liberally and well, those of us who drank, which this year was all of us to varying degree.  While we were at it we had a cigar or two.  That’s an after dinner deal, the cigars, which often come out when the whiskey appears.  I’ve observed that the drinking leads to…
TALKING - What do you talk about for seven days with no news, no new information from elsewhere, with the same guys you’ve been talking to since you stepped off the plane?  I can’t tell you.  I can however report we talked a lot.  Occasionally one of us would peel off to read or nap, but for the most part we talked as a group around the table after dinner and breakfast, moved outside to the deck and talked there until it got dark.  Talked, drank, smoked cigars, told jokes, many repeated from previous years, laughed.  You’d think you would wear out after a while, that there would simply be nothing else to talk about.  Not so.  We talked about the past a fair amount of time.  Especially the older guys.  I observed that the young guys talked more about the future.  That all stands to reason.  The older guys have much more past to talk about, and to be frank, a more limited future.  The young guys are in a different spot.  We learned a lot from each other.  And refreshingly, we were able to disagree and fail to come to conclusions.

When people converse these days there is hardly any argument over facts because someone will pull out their smart phone, get on Google, and determine the accuracy of statements within seconds.  At the lake we had only our memories and beliefs to go on.  We were left to our own devices when it came to the truth.  It was refreshing.  You should try it sometime.
In addition to talking as a group of eight we paired off in the boats, switching boating partners each day so we could all get to know one another if we didn’t already.   Nine hours or so in a boat with the motor off on a quiet lake is a great way to form an acquaintance. 

SLEEPING - My single biggest regret is that I didn’t make an audio recording of the cabin when we were sleeping to share with you.  You cannot imagine the cacophony caused by eight snoring men in an otherwise silent black cabin, all with different pitches of a unique cadence.  Being part of a choir, I could pick out the bass snorers from the tenors.  We didn’t have a true soprano, but someone, somewhere got close at times.  The animals around the cabin must have been fascinated by the noise, the rabbits, the ground hog, the whiskey jacks and ground squirrels.  We didn’t encounter bear of moose on this trip.  Good thing.  They may have felt threatened.  We were damn loud.
We were outside all day in the sun and weather, busy fishing, then cooking or doing dishes, then staying awake to talk.  Alcohol may have also been a factor.  Bedtime seemed to get earlier and earlier.  I for one had vivid dreams.  I’d go to sleep, have a series of absolutely wacko dreams which would wake me, then fall back to sleep only to dream the sequel.  I think it was the profound silence, the lack of ambient light, the feeling of isolation that made me sleep so good and dream in such wild detail.  Others reported the same thing.  We used silicone ear plugs to protect one another from the snoring.  I’m sure that helped.  Others had only to remove their hearing aids.  Be that as it may, no one appeared to suffer from lack of sleep.

FISHING – Despite making fish the main part of our diet the number of fish we sacrificed for consumption was right around fifty.  We all bought conservation licenses that allowed us a daily possession limit of two Walleye per person, four per boat.  By agreement we cut that down to three fish per boat and it was plenty.  With few exceptions we only fished for walleye, choosing the three biggest and fattest of those between 15 and 18 inches, and ate only them.  We’d run a stringer in each boat and as the day went on if we caught something better than what was on the stringer we’d release others.  On some days each boat would catch and release upwards of 35 fish.  It was a fishing bonanza.  We go to feel the fish on the line, to experience the challenge of hooking them and getting them in the boat, to go after the big one.  But we want them to live for us and others to catch in the future. 
The fishing itself is a challenge, determining where likely good spots are on the huge lake, gauging wind direction, positioning the boat so it drifts over hot spots.  Sometimes a boat would be doing so well it would stay in the same spot all day.  Often we would see our friends across the lake, motor over, and they would gesture for us to come in, telling us where to start our drift.  There were certainly plenty of fish to catch.  The fish themselves are clean and beautiful, caught from clean water, in a natural unstocked fishery.  The biggest Walleye of the week was a 24 inches, caught by a guy on his first trip.  If we caught Northern pike it was only by accident.  It was a Walleye trip and we were not disappointed.

So there’s the highlights.  After you write a blog for a number of years you realize this has become an annual piece.  How long can you find variety in an endeavor which essentially has the same elements?  I think for as long as you pay attention.  Every trip is different.  This trip was special for me because it represented a needed break from the "civilized"world.  While there we missed eight days of political chaos in America, a devastating hurricane in Texas, crazy and potentially deadly military actions by North Korea, all part of the constant barrage of news that you feel is beyond your control.  We were spared because our cell phones essentially went dead.
Instead of being persistent constant reminders of the outside world they became timepieces, flashlights, and cameras.  I have to admit I forgot at times and pulled out my phone to check for messages, to see the weather forecast.  I found myself wondering about the Cubs score.  That all faded.  Against our will we were completely isolated, cut off, and thrust into nature.  After a while we fell into its rhythm.  Nature in that part of Ontario, though inherently savage as nature is, was to our eye beautiful, quiet and soothing.  I’m convinced we need more of that these days.

That’s why do I keep going back.  In addition to the company of good people it’s the beauty of wilderness.  Given the position of the cabin we could not, from our deck, where we smoked cigars and drank whiskey, see the sunset.  But each night in which we cleaned and ate fish we had a final chore to do, which was to take the fish guts, the heads, spines, and fins that remain after we filet those walleye, across the lake to dump them on rocks at the opposite shore.  Fish guts can attract bears.  It’s a sensible safety measure to dispose of them well away from the cabin.  I went one night, three to the boat, and sat at the bow with the white plastic bucket.  We cruised up to a rock ledge where I dumped them.  Then we backed off twenty yards or so, killed the motor, and sat in silence.
The first to cruise in was a gull.  He was able to make off with a nibble of fish flesh before the vulture arrived, chasing him off.  They were wary though, and skirted around the fish gut buffet looking over their shoulder.  For good reason.  Within seconds we saw the big daddy bald eagle, proud white head, come over the tree line like a B 1 Bomber, scattering all the other birds.

He landed in the middle of the pile and leisurely ate his fill.  We sat and watched.

 Then we looked on the other side of the boat.  The sun was setting over the lake.

When you see a stunning sunset, or sunrise, in a thin place like a wilderness lake you develop both reverence and confusion.  When is it most beautiful?  Which picture among the many you take is the best?  Three of us were transfixed.  We said hardly a word.  We just sat in the boat, in the still and silent beauty of the lake, and took pictures.  We barely spoke.  It was a moment.  I thought of the people I love.  Beauty can inspire beautiful thoughts.  It was one of the moments I go there for.

You get to know other men well when you live that closely with them, spend all day in a boat with them, share three meals a day.  It was remarked during the week that one guy out of sync with the rest can ruin a trip, but I’ve not yet experienced that.  Every year the group changes slightly, yet each year all the men I’ve encountered I would go back on a trip with no problem.  I think we get closer as we listen to each other and share common experiences.  I’d go back to the lake with this last group in a minute if I could. 

That’s the story out of Ontario this year.