Saturday, October 9, 2010

Your Own Authentic Swing

From the time I was ten until I went away to college, my dad and I played a lot of golf. He was a doctor, an obstetrician in solo practice, so our games were almost always interrupted by someone coming out in a golf cart to tell him he had to go to the hospital to deliver a baby. Maybe it was because of that constant sense of incompleteness, or maybe because he was always trying to get me to play better, telling me to “Hit another one,” when I missed a green, that I wanted terribly to please him on the golf course. I would be playing alone sometimes, having a good round, and I would start thinking how I would tell him about it at dinner, how I was only three over coming into sixteen, and then of course the wheels would come off for the rest of the round and there wouldn’t be much to talk about.

Oh, gosh, a long time ago.
Our golfing days ended in August of 1964. I don’t think we played another round after that. He died in 1974, at the age of fifty. Of course none of us knew that was coming, so that August when I was eighteen the big things happening were I was going off to college and Dad was moving out of the house.

In college I had impossibly glamorous new friends. One was an American whose father worked for Arabian American Oil Company, back when it was basically our oil they were pumping. He lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and scuba dived with sea snakes in the Red Sea and played folk guitar and taught me how to skateboard, which in those days meant first disassembling a pair of roller skates and nailing the wheels to a short piece of shelving. He had been a Freedom Rider in the Alabama that summer, while I was playing golf at a WASP country club in Nashville.

That fall I bought a motorbike because my new friends all had motorbikes. My first one, a Honda 50 (of Beach Boys fame), was unforgivably dorky compared to their sleek machines, so I sold it and bought the baddest bike I could afford: a 1949 BSA 500 cc black beauty with a magnificent rumble and a front fork that was only slightly bent, so that when the wheel shimmied at high speed there didn’t seem to be that much actual danger of it coming off.

I rode that bike from Durham over to Greensboro, courting a woman I had met at a college mixer. It was fifty miles and I would come home late in the pitch black and the only light, the only world, would be the small white spot cast out from my headlight onto the gleaming concrete of the new Interstate. It’s a wonder I’m here to tell about it.

I stayed up all night listening to earnest folk music in dim coffee houses, bought a guitar and learned to play “Blowing in the Wind.” I felt that the times they were a changing, but they were my times mostly, not those of others. Even with all those visits to Greensboro, I never realized that only a year or two earlier it had been the vanguard of the lunch-counter sit-ins that jolted the civil rights movement into life.

The real wonder is not that that I didn’t end up dead on that Interstate highway, but that I didn’t get packed off to Southeast Asia. After what could only be called an unexceptional academic start, Dad wrote to say that whether I stayed in school or went to Viet Nam was my choice.

My choice. And yet somehow it wasn’t. The consequences of not going to class (dying in a rice paddy) could not have been direr, but that fear didn’t motivate me one bit. To this day, I don’t know why.

Maybe I was just a boy gone wild, released from bondage, as it were. Maybe I was rebelling against my Dead Poets Society honor-code-high-school life, getting a jump on “Easy Rider.” Or maybe I was depressed. We didn’t even know that word then.

I got married and had my first son not long after that (which is why I missed the war), and my grandfather took me in at his university and with patience and kindness let me find my way. Shocked back into conventional behavior by having children, I got back on what most would call the right track.

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep my children from making the mistakes I made---a task that would have been considerably aided by understanding myself why I made them.

It may be that kids are going to do what they are going to do, and that there is less that we, as parents, can do about it than we imagine. I don’t mean that as an excuse for not trying. Lord knows, I’ve lost enough sleep agonizing over the best way to motivate one child or another. And I think parenting makes a difference, but probably not in the direct way we would like to think. You can’t just grab them by the shoulders and point them in the right direction, or at least I never could.

My dad was charming and generous, but he was an autocrat: as Randy Newman says, “You crossed him, and he made you pay.” So I learned not to cross him. We had good times together. He gave me a lot of freedom. He took up for me when I was in trouble. I always felt he could (and would) bail me out of anything.

So was he a good dad? I always thought so. Was I rebelling against his authoritarianism? It would be easy to say so, but then that wouldn’t square with the vast personal freedom I had as a boy. I could go anywhere and do anything. The only thing I had to do to keep the car keys was keep my grades up. Maybe that’s what he should have told me when I went to college, not that I might die in Viet Nam if I didn’t do well, but that he would take away my car keys.

I saw “The Legend of Bagger Vance” a few days ago. It’s a sappy parable in which a caddy from “the other side” (think Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful life”) helps a young, war-traumatized golfer find his lost swing, and his motivation to get back into life. Bagger acts like he doesn’t much care if the young man wants to give up, but somehow he’s there for him in a way that lets the young man discover for himself why he wants to succeed.

Magical realism aside, Bagger’s point struck me as right: we each have to find our motivation ourselves. The most our parents and other coaches can do is give us the support we need while we’re looking.

Bagger reminded me of my mother’s father. My grandfather never told me what to do, but he was there to carry my clubs (getting me into his university after I slunk out of Durham) and to tee the ball up for me when I needed it (having his secretary type a term paper I had stayed up all night writing and was due that morning). Never once did he say all the obvious things he might have said under the circumstances.

Many years later I saw a letter he had written to his secretary when he left the university to take a foundation post overseas. I still had a semester left until graduation, and he asked her to look after me. “For all his bravado and self-assurance,” he wrote, “Mac still needs a lot of support.”

Support is a tricky concept for a parent. How much? When? It’s hard to know when to catch them and when to let them fall. Hell, for me, it’s almost impossible to let them fall. Our children need more than benign neglect, they need guidance. Even Bagger, after pretending for the longest time that he didn’t care what his player did, refusing even to help him choose a club, eventually started talking about looking for your own authentic swing; and when it finally became clear that his young protégé wanted to win, Bagger broke down and gave him some concrete advice: “Hit the shit out of it.”

To the chagrin of my children, no doubt, who I’m sure wish I’d had this epiphany sooner, I’m coming around to thinking that being supportive is a different thing than giving advice. And it’s a long way from giving orders, the way my dad was accustomed to doing, even orders to do things that you know are good for them. It’s more like holding out the bag of clubs for them to choose from and only offering your opinion on how to hit the shot when you can see they are ready for it. Like Bagger Vance himself, it’s a bit of magic.

I fear I still have too much of my generalissimo father in me---the good parts too, though, so thanks for those, Dad---and not enough Bagger Vance. But I’m working on it. To paraphrase what Bagger said about golf: being a dad is a game that can’t be won, only played.