Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Play It As It Lays

Golf is often touted as being an invaluable teacher of life's lessons. It is. Just the other day it taught me what a "French Drain" is -- and is not.

The previous afternoon, on the ninth hole of the Blue Course at the Penn State University Golf Course, I had driven my ball into the center of the uphill fairway. It came to rest in a long, perfectly mown, grass ditch.

Initially I was elated over the length and accuracy of my shot. It was almost exactly equidistant from the long-grass rough on each side, and had traveled about as far as my body is capable of propelling a golf sphere.

Then I saw what my "lie" was. "Lies" are either good or bad. A "good lie" would be one on the fairway with good grass under the ball. A "bad lie" would be one in the rough, for instance -- or at the bottom of a trench.

Influenced largely by anger at the disappointing disposition of the golf ball, but at least somewhat motivated by a sense that I was upholding the integrity of the game, I decided to "play it as it lays" -- (a) the most basic rule of golf, (b) a very good title for a novel, and (c) a really bad strategy for a golf swing if you do not know how to adapt to the lie.

I took out my three-wood, positioned myself as if I were hitting from the perfectly flat plastic mats at the driving range, swung, and topped the ball at about a thirty degree angle along the ground into the adjacent two inch high rough.

Without checking my newest ball situation I changed my club to a five-iron and tromped into the thick underbrush convinced that I would hit the ball from there to the same fairway spot that my previously failed shot had unsuccessfully targeted. Three swings and hundreds of blades of grass later I made it near to that location, albeit still in the long, fat, fescue.

Mars and I were at the PSU facility attending a golf school Elderhostel. The next morning I asked how I should have played the out-of-the-gulley shot that started it all.

"A French Drain", replied Steve, one of the assistant teachers.

Our son Bram feels that in taking up golf Mars and I have joined a mysterious cult. We prefer to think that we are independent operatives who mingle with the secret society just enough to allow us to enjoyably participate in our own variation of the ancient Scottish sport. We play by ourselves, without keeping score, on our favorite very-public golf course.

But still, you cannot be too careful. I know that one of the ways these secretive sects suck you in is by making you privy to their private internal language -- thereby encouraging you to feel like a chosen person with special insider knowledge rather than just someone who happens to speak in a bizarre, non-standard vocabulary.

Golf does have its own language. And I have consciously resisted learning that argot lest its hypnotic power seduce me into a place from which I could only emerge wearing lime green pants and an Izod shirt, while mumbling phrases like "Get in the hole!" and "You the man!"

Given the disrespect into which all things Gallic have fallen (e.g. "freedom fries") I thought Steve was giving me the golf lingo for the type of bad stroke that I had hit -- similar to a "duck hook" or a "fat shot".

While I was trying to quietly penetrate the meaning of this latest piece of arcane golf vernacular Denise, the head instructor said, "You could have taken relief from the French Drain, just like Mars' 'casual Water' ball yesterday". On the previous afternoon Mars had landed her ball in a deep puddle created by recent rain. Since this water did not belong there, she was allowed to move her ball to a spot where the H2O did not affect her shot.

"But, if you do decide to play it from the ditch you need a club with a higher loft."


"A French drain, drain tile, or land drain is a ditch covered with gravel or rock that redirects surface and ground water away from an area." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_drain)

"All French drains are immovable obstructions under Rule 24-2 and relief is allowed in both fairway and rough for interference with both lie and/or stance The ball may be dropped within one club-length of the nearest point of relief not nearer the hole without penalty." (www.rgconline.org/LocalRules.htm)

On the next day, at the same hole, I hit almost exactly the same drive, and this time ended up with the ball midway up the side of the French Drain, requiring my feet to stand on the bottom of the conduit in order to hit it.

I opted once again to play it as it lays -- but this time using a club with more loft, my 3-Iron Hybrid. I relaxed and struck the ball in a relatively straight line about one hundred twenty yards or so. As I was walking away Sarah (another instructor), who was on the course observing and coaching us, pulled up in her cart.

"How should I have played this?" I asked as I placed a second ball on the spot from which I had just hit.

"Choke up on the club and take a three quarters swing", she told me. I did, and the ball went higher, straighter, and further than my previous one.

"Damn, you're right!" I said.

"Always am." Sarah replied.

I never asked her for the name the of shot. Too much information could jeopardize my status as a stealth golfer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's Hard to be A Hermit in the 'Burbs

Our suburban property has become, through no intention on our part, the daytime "place to be" for a small band of pigeons -- as far as we have seen the only such spot in town. We do not know where they came from or where they sleep at night. They are said to be urban animals, yet they spend the vast majority of their waking hours right here in our faux-rural front yard.

It started last year with Walter. He (more likely "she" based on size) arrived one day and just kind of stayed. According to The Compassionate Action Institute (pleasebekind.com), "Pigeons are gregarious and tend to be found in small flocks of around twenty to thirty birds." Walter was always alone.

At first this seemed odd and almost a little bit creepy. Theodore Kaczynski, "The Unabomber" was a solitary individual -- as were many serial killers. But then again, so were many saints. We have found no evidence of dismembered victims, or of tiny, little graves hidden on our land. Nor any miracles. So I decided that perhaps Walter was just a hermitic pigeon who happened upon our quiet bird-friendly oasis, and liked what he found.

This solo performance continued throughout the winter and into this spring. Then as I was filling up the bird feeders one morning I felt the glare of twelve reddish-orange eyes carefully tracking my movements. I looked up on our roof and saw the silhouettes of six domestic Rock Doves, each one’s body language shouting, "Feed me! Feed me!" I put out the food, and down they came.

The next day there were ten. On the day after, twelve came. Then sixteen. Their daily arrival precedes my feeding schedule. And they no longer await the completion of my activities before swooping in to fill their crops. Then they spend the next eight hours just hanging around and pecking at the ground.

But I can't figure out what it is they find to eat that keeps them here all day.

As a part of my feeding ritual I scatter a small handful of black oily sunflower seeds onto the ground -- the same amount that I left out for Walter when he was our only pigeon guest. Then there are the uneaten sunflower kernels that get tossed aside during the titmouse/sparrow/squirrel/etc. feeding that goes on throughout the day. And a small amount of thistle seeds that slip through the mesh siding of our finch feeder. But that's it.

Still, throughout the daylight hours, this uninvited horde of urban dove-wannabes pecks at our yard like a flock of chickens perched in a trough overflowing with chickenfeed. Except when they are spooked -- by almost any noise -- and flush like game birds to the safety of our overhanging tree branches or, more commonly, to the familiarity of our roof.

When we have company they also gather atop our house and look threateningly down at them. Our niece-by-marriage said to me the other day "Didn't you used to have little decorative pigeon statues on your rooftop?" When I told her "No, they were real" her body rapidly contracted as if she had a sudden chill, and her face began to take on that Janet Leigh "Psycho" shower look. "Oh!" she said.

Although Mars and I do not really want them, we have come grudgingly to tolerate their presence. Some are actually nice looking: an all-black, a white with inky stripes, and a rust and white pinto. Plus the cascading sound of their collective little pigeon feet running across our family room roof is kind of soothing, in an Alfred Hitchcock kind of way.

The population seems to have leveled out in the mid-teens -- large enough to be noticeable but not so big as to be disruptive. And generic looking Walter -- whose appearance is unfortunately identical to that of most of his species -- is probably somewhere out there in the mix.

Occasionally, when the group panics and flies up, one of them lingers behind for a minute or two and wanders slowly back and forth across what used to be Walter's private stomping grounds.

I like to believe it is him. And that he, like me, has finally reconciled himself to the fact that even a quiet life in the 'burbs is not a totally safe refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Nor should it be.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Feral Chihuahua

"Feral Chihuahua", said Mars.

I had been focusing like a laser on my impending tee shot so, while I heard her words, I had no idea what she was talking about. In fairness Mars might rephrase "focusing like a laser" to "cluelessly unaware of my surroundings", but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. In any event I looked up at her and saw her gesturing towards the area behind me -- between the first tee where I stood and the ninth hole about fifty yards away.

Therein was a russet brown, sturdy, bouncing Mexican Chihuahua. As I turned, it started yipping and bobbing even more rapidly. I took a step towards the nanoscale sized canine and it retreated rapidly to the center of the adjacent short-grass putting surface.

I advanced one more stride and it began circling the number nine flagpole, barking incessantly and somehow keeping its eyes focused like a laser on me.

The golf course, as I have written elsewhere, is located within an urban, public park so Fidos on the fairway are not that unusual. Normally they are accompanied. But in the instance there was no potential Chihuahua owner in sight.

As I began to ponder what to do the small, smooth-haired dog began running back up the ninth fairway and out of our sphere of influence.

"Feral Chihuahua" I thought to my self and laughed at the silliness of the idea -- almost as foolish as the appearance of the tiny brown canine defending the Ninth green.

Or maybe not. Searching on Google.com for "feral Chihuahua" I was presented with:

Bloodlusting Chihuahuas Kill Thousands.
According to the Los Angeles Times, "A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge must decide whether feral Chihuahuas, confiscated from a ranch, are suitable for rescue or must be destroyed. That's right. Feral Chihuahuas."

And lest you doubt the veracity of an Internet blog entry that cites a real news organization, preceding this entry on my Google list was this entry:

Fate of Feral Chihuahuas Divides California Town : NPR
NPR's Scott Simon talks with Steve Padilla of the Los Angeles Times about the fate of 174 feral chihuahua dogs in a Los Angeles shelter.
Here is the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1342375

The dogs apparently were brought to a ranch in the Greater L.A. area but not cared for. So they took matters into their own paws. They were described by one of the investigating reporters as "like Coyotes that fit in a handbag...bearing their little tiny teeth."

The interviewee pointed out that this was entirely a manmade problem. "There are no packs of Chihuahuas roaming the Great Plains."

Nor apparently at our local public golf course. Not at least that Mars and I have seen. Maybe the hawks that regularly patrol the area from their fairway-side tree-towers enjoy Mexican food too much to allow anything like that to happen. More likely all of the Chihuahuas in this neighborhood each have their own beloved human pack to run with. And our noisy intruder simply returned to his.

That was last Monday. Today we played again on the same course. There were no Chihuahuas in sight.

But, as we were unloading Mars' golf cart after finishing our round, a very feral looking dark gray squirrel hopped into the small motorized vehicle and began rooting around in the two glove compartments -- where we had carried our snacks -- looking for food.

He was completed undeterred by our presence and our activities in and around the cart, to the extent that he had to be seduced out of it by Mars using a few almonds that she had not yet eaten.

All in all he seemed a lot friendlier than the Chihuahua. In fact I am pretty sure I heard him start to say "Yo quiero..." but a small Yellow Lab pup passing by with its walker interrupted him.

Come for the golf! Stay for the wildlife!