Sunday, July 22, 2007

Whatever Gets You Through The Night

Sometimes lately, when I am trying to return to sleep in the middle of the night I imagine myself executing a perfect golf swing. For several years before that it was an equally ideal tennis stroke. And previous to that a basketball jump shot. I don't see myself performing these acts - instead I feel as if I am actually doing them. Somehow it relaxes me.

I played basketball from elementary school age up through the early years of marriage. I wasn't incredibly good but I was okay enough to be chosen in the first few groups for pick up games and to make my high school team albeit, as an end-of-the-bencher. My only real coaching in terms of individual skills and fundamentals came from my father at the basket in our back yard. On my high school team I spent most of my practice time playing the part of the tall guy on the next team we were going to go up against.

I did have one session with the college coach of pro basketball legend Elgin Baylor whose parents happened to live next door to co-worker of my mother. For about an hour in his ancestral driveway he attempted to show me how the then Laker star executed his signature shot, elevating himself above the basket and rolling the ball from the palm of his hand, across his fingertips and down into the hoop. The maneuver didn't work nearly as well when it was performed from considerably below the height of the rim by someone whose hands were too small to comfortably cradle the orange leather orb.

But it was my jump shot that I replayed in my bed at night trying to fall asleep. In the real world this stroke was inhibited by the same lack of leaping ability and an inconsistency extending my shooting arm enough to prohibit defenders from blocking the ball. In the bedroom at night there were no such impediments. Interestingly I do not remember imagining the ball going into the basket or even caring if it did. It was the feeling of the taking the shot that mattered. Pretty Zen - huh!

I dabbled in tennis in my early youth also - again with some coaching from my parents but mostly self-taught. I remember playing several times in high school, both informal matches and cheap dates. My local courts at that time were surfaced with clay and I recall with pride the look and feel of the red dust that accumulated on my sneakers, socks, and lower legs - and the joy of a standing-up, sliding drop shot. I also recollect a girl with whom I was playing who (as was the practice at the time) decided to jump the net and congratulate me after our match was completed. I can still clearly picture one ankle, then the other hitting the tape on the top of the meshwork, her long black hair cascading forward, and her totally out of control, face-first fall into the sticky, fine-grained earth. We remained friends but I don't believe we ever dated, either on or off the tennis court, again.

I played a little during college but did not really return to the game until after marriage when an apartment neighbor and I began a twice-weekly series of matches. As our son Bram grew older I played some with him but not until several years into my work career did I again play regularly - first as a part of an inter-departmental "tournament" and later as a series of regular matches with various co-workers.

Somewhere during that time my forehand displaced the jump shot as my sleep inducer. It really was quite an impressive stroke with perfectly balanced feet, legs, and hips and a movement that started from the hips and core area and extended its power up and into my right arm and racket - a Platonic ideal of my somewhat less consistent on-court efforts. All of my workplace opponents moved on, and the effort to replace them became too great, so I stopped playing. But not dreaming

Six or so years ago Mars suggested that we take up golf as a part of our preparation for retirement. It would be something to do together and a way to meet new people. Other than putting through windmills and such neither of us had tried it before. We began with a group lesson at a local golf course and then an individual lesson at a nearby driving range - and a little playing. We are fortunate to live within three miles of a public course nine holes of which are referred to as the "flat nine" - no hills, no water, no sand, not much and (most importantly) no pressure from hotshot experienced golfers all of whom are over at either the "real" holes or the nineteenth one.

A former co-worker turned us on to a teacher from whom she learned the game and we gave him a try. His lessons were indoors, and videotaped with equipment and software that allowed him to draw vectors and lines onto our movements to indicate what we should be doing. He was an Englishman and a former golf club maker on the professional circuit whose walls were filled with testimonials from former pro golfers, sports announcers, hockey players, and pro wrestlers. Our paradigm was the swing of Ben Hogan. As we focused on the form of our swing our playing improved - more of that Zen stuff. Then after about a year and a half he died unexpectedly. His son, a good college golfer and similar in teaching style - but without all of the great old stories - took over.

Still, even after six or more years of non-tennis and five plus of golf, my dream shot didn't change until sometime late this spring - or at least that was when I became aware of it. It's a long club (probably a three iron or three wood), hit from a sun-baked, bright green location and executed with perfect fluidity and tempo from setup to follow through - at the end of which my right foot turn turns over so that my shoelaces almost meet the ground and my club head comes to rest in front of my face. Of my three perfect shot imaginings it is the only one that comes with an awareness of place and color. But other than that, like the other two, there is no sense of anything other than the feeling of the movement itself.

In the movie "Bagger Vance", the eponymous hero, talks about how inside each and everyone of us, there is one, true authentic swing... it is something we are born with and is ours alone... something we cannot be taught, but we must remember... over time, the world can rob us of that swing... buried underneath our wouldas and couldas and shouldas... there is a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one of us... and all we have to do is get out of the way and let it choose us.

Perhaps I am lucky enough to have more than one. Unfortunately it is still one area where I wish my performance were better out of the bedroom. But hey, whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright.

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