Sunday, April 28, 2019

Masterful


The most beautiful golf shot I’ve seen in years came at last Sunday’s Masters tournament. It was, oddly enough, a putt. A long putt, early in the final day. The fact it brought tears to my eyes says as much about me, I guess, as the putt itself, and its author, Tiger Woods.

We’ve been Woods fans for decades. And why not? He has always been a story in motion, a narrative packed with drama, every swing: “Triumph or disaster,” as Kipling said, and “treat those two imposters just the same.”  

When the man Woods self-destructed in a personal way, it was really more a sad extension of the narrative fascination than a departure.

And then he began the long road back, painfully reassembling himself. His physical obstacles included a broken leg, crushed knee, four back surgeries, including a fusion. For a time, he could barely walk.

We do love a story of second chances. Most of us have transgressed, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes tragically--or just tragicomically--in our lives. When a sports great struggles back from disaster, and seems to have done so successfully, we feel a personal connection. We pull for him.

Yes, we do.

But then there is the golf.  The two came together on Sunday in the beauty of that putt, one of many extraordinary shots he made that day. Looking relaxed, focused, through it all.

It was an unusually long putt on the eighth green. A downhill putt with a necessary break.

Any golfer knows the interior trembling induced in contemplating such a putt. The pull of gravity adds the element of dire consequences to the already daunting combination of distance and direction. I think of the challenge as an adventure in imagination.

Woods stood for a long time before he struck it. Calculating. Visualizing. I stood there with him, then. Many did.

We knew what was coming next.

Golf is a series of existential moments. Every part of the golfer must execute in perfect sequence before connecting with a stationary sphere barely wider than a quarter. It requires faultless concentration. You set up, you pause, swing—and you’ve stepped off a ledge, suspended in air until the ball drops.

You are not in control. At no point are what we think of as “you” in control. “You” may contemplate, estimate, and you should. Then something else about you takes over. Muscle memory, training—and if you can sustain it, over and over again, character.

Out there on the course, your truest opponent is yourself. Your rhythms, your nerves. The temptation to cut a corner in a friendly game is strong. Winter rules. Gimme putts. Mulligans. Who doesn’t long for a mulligan in daily life? Who doesn’t long for a do-over?

I said I stood with Tiger Woods as he imagined that long putt I found so beautiful.

I began to play golf at thirteen. A natural, the pro said of me. I even loved to practice, and the practice paid off, tee to green.

But I never became adept at putting. Faced with a putt as long as Tiger’s on Sunday, I would see my day’s score doubling. I would have far preferred to be the same distance from the cup off the green, where I could chip.

That’s why I was there with him when he struck the ball. Holding my breath as it rolled, and rolled and rolled—perfectly calibrated, hewing to its invisible track as it yearned toward the hole and Tiger’s eagle.

And missed.

Tears arrived in my eyes--for its almost perfection.

For the unimaginable quantity of work required for its author to rebound from so much personal mess and injury. The months of mental, emotional and painful physical labor necessary to miss by only inches while within a stroke or two of the lead in the Masters.

And then, quite calmly, to go on and win.

Redemption, perhaps, is part of the greatest comeback story in golf, since Ben Hogan’s.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Springing, Sprung


Spring, at last, is airborne. We feel it on our skin, outdoors.

We see it, from car windows, colors pooling faintly in the greening fields. The flood of blue, orange, red and yellow will come soon. Invasive rapistrum rugosum, whose common name seems harsh for these pages, has made a good start, already, the tall, appealing spray of pale yellow disguising its ruthlessness.

Ah, but close up, the little things. Under our feet in the yard, tiny yellow starbursts, dots of periwinkle blue. The suspended layer of onion grass brings white to sunny spaces. Oak shade shelters the five petaled snowy cups of dewberry blooms.

Much of the ground is a dappled carpet of dropped leaves, beige and dark gold, implying the variegated hues of a copperhead. We walk with attention to where we step.

Here is a black jack oak, leaves of puckered green silk trailing chartreuse beards of bloom. More oaks in the woods, brushing our shoulder along the path—the translucent green at the end of a post oak branch, tenderest leaf to have so much responsibility, for life, for breath.

A fallen limb from seasons past wears a velvet coverlet, moss of the most brilliant green.

And, of course, there is the vigor of new briars yearning up the stalky trunks of yaupon, reaching for the sky. Sprigs of bright poison ivy, newly juiced, look to their important task, despite our inconvenience.

Across the pasture, trees exhale a green fog that lifts the heart in celebration. We see it and feel that hope is possible, even certain, if only we could renew ourselves in the way trees do. Live slowly, tasting every current of air, valuing the fall of daylight every moment upon us.

The pasture sprouts many things other than grass: Expectations of bluebonnets, coreopsis, the first paintbrush, its tip dipped in orange. Low growing clover competes with prickly pear, four inches tall to puncture tires and paws. Our dog finds thorns everywhere she goes.

There is more than one variety of clover, probably, but how do we really learn to name the plants we live with? Most of us just use the names we learned in childhood from our families and friends. Thus, the mis-named buttercup which turned out to be pink evening primrose.

I watch a mystery beginning under the live oak, a plant that looks like arugula, but sprouts a central succulent stalk, lightly fuzzed. The tiny independent flowers that will make its bloom, but haven’t yet, may reveal its identity tomorrow. A dandelion? Wild lettuce?

Naming things is fundamental to a human being, but does it help us see them more clearly? Or does it allow us to abstract them, to categorize wonder?

Butterflies have arrived, black ones, yellow ones, mixed orange and black that are not Monarchs, although we wish they were. Here, too, we lack the nomenclature.

But names don’t mitigate the buzzing of other small insects that accompany this riot of green. Instead of winter’s sere clarity only a week or two ago, the air is plaited now with gnats and other translucent insects. They fly under your visor, tickling earlobes, tasting you to see if you’re worth further exploration. No mosquitoes, though.

It’s early still.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

By the Grace of Trees


This morning the cardinals filled our woods with full-hearted song. Even more than Mrs. Muske’s daffodils, the chorus of this particular bird suggests that spring is stirring, once again. Stuttering its way to us, interspersed with icy blasts.

We were relieved to hear the redbirds. Last year, their numbers seemed  greatly reduced, and we were reminded of the feeling we had during the recent drouth. It was a pressure of sorrow, of ill-being, as we walked through the woods, or drove past the fields of graying grass and disappearing livestock.

We were surprised by how physical it felt.

And despite subsequent rains, the understory of briars, yaupon and young trees has never recovered. A few years ago we couldn’t see through the woods around our tank. Now we can, and it makes our admittedly small property seem much smaller. Makes us feel somewhat precarious, and isolated.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen many fewer of our usual animals, as well—rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, snakes, and so on; many fewer insects—bees, dragonflies, butterflies, even wasps and dirt daubers.

We hoped part of the reason might be our resident red-shouldered hawk and barred owl, pursuing their living in the natural cycle of wild things. An animal must eat, after all.

We must.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as part of the animal world. Even less do we desire to consider ourselves part of the plant world. Nature is becoming so alien to our increasingly technical, virtual lives that we barely notice it.

Yet when nature throbs in pain, as it does during a drouth, we feel it in our deepest self.

According to a remarkable book I read recently--The Overstory, by Richard Powers--we humans share a quarter of our genes with trees. We are connected to these beings we barely notice from the car window. We don’t realize how they communicate because they act so slowly and use far older conveyances of meaning than our words and electronic digits. Smell, for instance, by which our bodies register, without our conscious knowledge, the chemical molecules the trees exude. Walking in one of the few dense forests left, we feel good, and it’s because of the chemicals the trees exhale, along with oxygen.

We know we are dependent on trees for our breath. But we are so focused on ourselves that we destroy them without thought. Replace them with cut lumber, concrete, metal, polymers and plastics casually, calling it progress.

We are so alienated from nature that we think of it as a resource, to be exploited for our use. It never occurs to us that nature is alive, much larger and more powerful than we are. And that we exist, fundamentally, at its pleasure. 

For most of our lives, the perceptions that allow this myopia, have trended narrowly, with ourselves at the center. Something very interesting happens to the mind, however, as we grow old.

Time, speeding up, lifts us away from the personal focus of middle-aged responsibility and yearnings. We feel ourselves rising to a perspective from which we can see our lives in context. We note the ways in which our surroundings have changed, and we perceive clearly our human role in those changes, good and bad.

We register scientific advances in medicine, for example; and also the advent of nuclear bombs, the explosive growth of urban sprawl and plastic garbage, the destruction of old growth and rain forests.

But this larger, more accurate and valuable understanding comes at the precise time our children, working toward the next project, profit report or paycheck, begin to dismiss us as “out of touch.”

It may be the greatest of all human ironies. Because never before have we been so “in touch,” with reality. (Underscoring that irony, our grandchildren, as yet unsullied by the machine of modern life, come closer to understanding than do their parents.)

And, if we are honest with ourselves, that reality tells us that, for our species to survive—for the earth to have a chance of remaining hospitable to us—we must find a way to transmit wisdom beyond the limitations of our individual human lifespan.

In business, technology, philosophy; in science and politics; in family, too, the creativity and energy of youth must join with the perspective of age, instead of ignoring it. Knowledge must flow in both directions.

As older cultures have perceived, the wisdom of elders is a real thing, and it can be used to save us, if given half a chance.


In a slightly different form, this post appeared as my column for February in the Fayette County Record.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Cleaning Up

Yearning to breathe free—that is me, surveying the accumulation of clutter on my desk. January is the time for clean sweeps. In my case, literally.

We spend all year receiving paper into the house. It comes in the form of mail and magazines, bills and circulars, and—yes--our local newspaper, twice a week.
Also, books. Both of us never met a book we could pass by without a surging of maybe. Maybe this is the one we’ll never forget. Maybe this one will reveal the reality within the mystery we write to understand.

Far too many books climb onto our dining table, our bedside tables, every horizontal surface. We hate to throw them away, or give them away. They are our shell of protection, the friends we can return to for insight and reliable support.
To this constant onslaught of paper material, I have one of two responses: Nope. (That’s the easy one, round-file ready.) Or, “Hey, that looks interesting…” The latter is what builds the towers of Babel I find stacked up everywhere at the end of the year. Words on paper, still waiting to be read.

They weren’t interesting enough, apparently.
Fortunately, once I begin the throwing out, I become as obsessive as I am in front of a writing job. Such a visible achievement, these bags of trash! Each one is a trophy whose weight only the garbage men will truly measure.

But I’m serious about breathing free when the clutter is gone. It seems as if those disorderly surfaces were a weight I’ve been carrying, as though in a way, they consumed much of the oxygen in the room. Maybe there’s a microbial reason for this, or maybe it is merely a form of guilt, the heaviness of a task unfinished, testifying to sloth, laziness.
Never mind that I’ve been productive in other realms. Never mind the Everests of laundry, Mojaves of meals, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of kilobytes typed, pages written and read.

The pages that come in the mail are the ones who have voices in a register that sets my teeth on edge if I do not respond. If I procrastinate.
An easy way to procrastinate is to take Rosie for a walk.

Being a Lab, and habitual, she has a route we follow. She leads. I follow. When I find myself becoming bored, I recite poetry.
This is new for me.

I decided it would be good brain exercise to memorize poetry I liked, which I could practice when doing boring tasks. Driving to Houston. Separating dark and light clothing. Skinning carrots.
Watching Rosie smell a single twelve-inch patch of dirt and grass for ten minutes.

So far I have three poems by heart. Soothing, oldish poems: The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W.B. Yeats; The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry; Stopping By Woods, by Robert Frost. You will note they’re all short.
They also evoke the solace of nature. The balm of being in the “lovely, dark and deep,” woods, “alone in the bee-loud glade,” after coming “into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

These poems bring me stillness, light and air. And that same sense of breathing free, albeit heightened, that I have right now looking at my (temporarily) uncluttered desk. While the new mail that will begin the process of ruining it waits on the porch for me to carry it inside.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On Noses


If the eyes are windows to the soul, what is the nose?

The first facial feature I remember having exemplary qualities was my grandfather’s nose. A Roman nose, the family called it, meaning large. It resembled the Meerschaum pipe that was prominent among the collection of pipes on his desk.

My mother’s family was well enough endowed throughout in that department, but always in balance with the other facial features, I thought. Strong features. Or at least vivid ones.

Nose and all, my mother was a beauty. She had beautiful skin, virtually unwrinkled, without any tinkering beyond cold cream. When she played golf with my dad, she wore heavy paste makeup as a sunblock (before chemical sunblocks were invented). The brow band of every golf hat she owned carried the brown residue, undaunted by detergent or dry cleaner.

I detested hats, of course, and when I was about fifteen, I received the first of several severe sunburns on my nose. These were the years, in fact, when girls marinated in the sun, basting with baby oil. I never lasted very long at that endeavor, fortunately. A headache would compel my retreat. 

I did, however, enjoy sports.

My late half-brother, a dermatologist, told me that I should never let a sunburn of that kind happen again, or I’d have trouble later. And I have made great efforts to follow his advice, more or less successfully.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I was told recently that I might have a skin cancer on my nose.

The dermatologist who said this had seen me several times over the past three years for the occasional precancerous spot, a keratosis. Never before had he paid any attention to the tip of my nose.

Biopsy, however, confirmed the diagnosis. Basal cell carcinoma, infiltrative, which meant that, although BCC’s were usually slow-growing, this variety was different. Indeed, much of the offending lesion might remain hidden below the surface.

Hmmm. I did not receive the news with grace.

That’s why I’ve spent the holiday season recovering from Mohs surgery, performed in early December. Mohs is a procedure where they scrape and test until they can detect no more cancer cells. Hale’s procedure on his ear last June took seven hours. Mine took six. The lesion was indeed larger, and deeper, than anyone expected, but the surgeon was able to close it with stitches.

I will have a scar.

But I’ve been spared the complicated reconstructions that some skin cancers require, the kind that leave you looking like a Klingon for a few weeks with several scars. And the cancer is gone. For good, we hope.

So if you see me around looking a little different, with a fatter, redder nose than usual, this is why.

The caution I would add is that, if you’re over fifty, any red  bump on the face that behaves at all differently from a zit should be seen by a dermatologist. In the early stages, removal is easy. Even Mohs surgery on a shallow one is easy.

Get it seen to pronto.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Face We've Earned

For most of my childhood, and a good part of my teen years, I drew faces.  Often, they were illustrations to whatever story I was telling myself, silently, at the time. I would see interesting ones in magazines, in stores. Beautiful ones, mostly. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor. Handsome men, too, although my taste there tilted more to the rugged type. I would do my best to copy them.

I wasn’t very good, and after a time I switched to photography. Eventually, I set that aside to concentrate on writing, where the evocation of a face is less important than giving life to a character, from the inside out.
What remains, however, is my interest. Not in the beauty of a face. There are increasingly fewer beautiful faces around. But in the character of the expression. And often in what the expression reveals about the person wearing it.

There is some truth to the belief that, after fifty, we have the face we’ve earned. We have the mark of our smiles and frowns, of our default mode, at least. Does the quality of a character shine there, as well?
I do think that as one gets older, one becomes more adept at interpreting the total effect of a face, as it relates to character. Kindness, warmth, self-involvement, arrogance—all of these are visible on the face of the people possessing them.

Unless we interfere, which happens more and more in recent years.
A few of my friends have cuter noses now than they did at the beginning. Firmer chins, smoother necks, fewer wrinkles, as well. Once, at a Christmas party, I recognized a friend only by the sound of her voice. Disconcerting, and a little sad, because she was already very pretty. 

I have resisted the facelift trend, because I’ve found a kind of comfort in seeing, from different angles, my mother’s or my father’s face looking back. The visual connection, there, as I approach the age they were when I saw them last makes me happy. It helps me feel that they are still somehow with me, as I face rather fearful old age.

Our faces are so connected to our identity. I’ve wondered how a person could look in the mirror after a facelift and know that the stranger looking back is actually themselves. Doesn’t this promote a hint of dissociation? A wobble of uncertainty?

I think it would for me, and that is another reason I don’t find the idea of facelifts very appealing.

Injury and illness can combine to cause this dislocation, however. A woman I know--cultured, brilliant, at one time involved in films—suffered a severed facial nerve in a surgery, causing paralysis. What a devastation. A man I know well has lived his life with a rare bone disorder that alters one side of his face. Some people with that disorder die young, because the bone grows inward. He has been far more fortunate, but that doesn’t make him like mirrors.

The writer Jennifer Egan once wrote a novel, “Look at Me,” about a model whose face was ruined in a car wreck, then pieced back together, occasioning much intricate exploration of the emotions attached.

We ask a lot of our faces, the heart of the image we present, our armor, our vulnerability, the part of ourselves we arrange so much of our physical appearance—hairstyle, clothing, hats—to highlight or compensate for. It is such a small percentage of the human body, but the most visible, carrying the most significance, communicating when we do not even intend communication.
If we could see ourselves as others see us...Robbie Burns had that right. But, even in the age of selfies and videos, we cannot.



First published in the Fayette County Record, Nov. 30, 2018

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Beer Culture

One of our favorite places when we first came to Winedale was Wagner’s Store on FM 2714. We considered it, in 1985, the social center of the community. Growing up in Houston, I never knew a place like that existed, until Leon Hale expanded my horizons.

Very soon I discovered that I loved the people who hung out at Wagner’s—Rollie and Marilyn, Rosalie and Delphine, Selma and Bruder, Chris, Robert, and all the others. Beer, burgers, stories, jokes, acceptance.
It was a stark, and welcome, contrast to the beer culture I’d experienced at my women’s college in Virginia.

In the early sixties, our social life revolved around football weekends at Washington and Lee, and UVa. Older girls arranged blind dates for us at the fraternity house their own boyfriends belonged to. There was a hierarchy of desirability, I soon learned. Some were “animal houses,” so called (and well in advance of the movie some years later). Some were snooty, populated by boys from the northeast with chiseled cheekbones and firm chins. There were, however, plenty in the middle, and that’s where most of the blind dates came from.
A boy would drive to our college, load up his car to bulging with girls and drive back over the mountain’s twisty roads to his campus. We got out, wearing our heels and kilts and circle pins, full of expectation in the crisp air and falling crimson leaves. We would stay in all girl boarding houses, run by widows with strict rules.

The boys usually started drinking at the game. After the game, there were parties. After the parties, more parties, usually with live rock or blues bands.
Scene: a keg or three, vats of grain and grape, a slippery layer of wet on the dance floors, boys shedding jackets, ties, sometimes pants. Shirts clung, heavy with sweat. Hands wandered and it was very, very loud.

This was before 9PM, when we and our nervous, increasingly inebriated, blind dates wandered from frat house to frat house.  After nine, we came back to his home base where some boys would pass out. Some would duck into the pitch black “make-out room.” Some would stagger upstairs, with or without an equally inebriated girl. It never occurred to me to visualize what took place up there. I had just turned a very sheltered 17.
Why go at all? It was the only social life. It was the way it was done. Very few people had the sense to opt out, until later.

But, even when I was young, I never understood the desire of twenty-something people to render themselves intentionally insensate. So much energy seemed devoted to obliterating the personality, the self, the censor in the brain.
How many of those boys had blackouts? I don’t know. One boy I knew very well did stagger into a room where I was, talking nonsense. A strong, athletic boy who careened around the room, knocking over a table, a chair—alarming in his strength and lack of control—before he flopped on a bed and passed out. The next day he remembered nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not me, not the chair or table. Nothing after he left the place where he’d been matching another group of boys, beer for beer, shot for shot.

Girls from my college did date at most of the houses, even the ones known as possibly risky. Sometimes that was where they met the men they would eventually marry. I have wondered how many of those women, my contemporaries, resonated to the recent testimonies of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, as I did.
Or how many of the boys they knew wondered, now in old age, whether they had done something similar to a girl back at W&L or UVa. They may not remember what they did while they were blacked out, but they certainly were told by a brother the next day that they had been “acting crazy, man,” “out of your mind.”

I know that much for a fact.