Friday, October 03, 2014


Every golfer should read Marcel Proust.
A golf course, after all, can function like that famous madeleine from In Search of Lost Time, activating a memory rush.
In this, as much else, golf is very different from sports like basketball or soccer.   Their breath-sucking demands hardly allow for indulging in reminiscence during the game itself, a good fit for the young with not much yet to recall anyway.   By contrast, we aging golfers have plenty of time to ponder life’s meaning as we amble between shots, especially if playing alone.   We often find that the course's smells, sounds, and sights transport us back, as the Beatles song has it, to people and things that went before.   
It was that way for me yesterday at Hillandale Golf Club, our stalwart Durham public track.  Fall is arriving here in the Carolinas.  The hint of chill and the first gold and reddening leaves along the fairways took me back almost forty years to my freshman year at Haverford College.   Haverford is close by the fabled Merion Golf Club on Philadelphia’s Main Line.   Merion was our golf team’s home course, though the more plebeian West Course and not the storied East.  
I caddied that year, 1979, at East Merion to earn some money, though the double bags chafed at the bad acne on my eighteen-year old back.   I’d never really seen autumn colors except in pictures, having grown up in the California Bay Area’s evergreen Mediterranean spring.   Even then, the leaves struck me as very lovely, and yet also deathly, a last show of color before the darkness.  The leaf fall, I discovered, also makes it hard to find your ball.   Autumn is high golf ball losing season in Pennsylvania and here in North Carolina.
Now, decades later, I see death’s shadow often on the golf course. There are so many older players out there, those edging towards life’s end.  We aging golfers find special satisfaction in golf because it allows us one last chance to play, that most primordial human pleasure.  (And some of us even die on the golf course as Bing Crosby did of a heart attack while walking off the 18th green on Spain’s Costa del Sol.)   The cheery golf shirt colors, the ritualized grill room bonhomie, and even the aggressively green grass can all feel like a last stand against the grave’s grey finality, at least if you are feeling in a morbid mood as I sometimes do.
After five back surgeries, I use a push cart now.  We know the Sphinx’s riddle, but it has a golf variant. What walks on two legs in the morning, three in the afternoon, and four in the evening?   It’s the golfer. We pass from the youthful carrying of our own bags to pushing clubs in a handcart to, finally, riding in a golf cart when we can't walk the course any longer.  Then, for the very old, even cart golf becomes too much. That bad heart, the stroke or just plain frailty expels us from golf’s green kingdom for good, watching on TV all that remains.  We enter, our bodies and sometimes minds beginning to fail us, into what the anthropologist Victor Turner famously labeled the “liminal” state between life and death.
As I pushed along yesterday at Hillandale, it was to the motion’s soft clicking of the Ping irons that belonged to my grandfather, Ray Starn.  They’re some forty years old, the first generation of cast irons; they have the same grey metallic early space age look as the model Apollo landing module in our local science museum.  Ray pumped gas in the Great Depression and eventually had his own prospering body shop in California’s Central Valley.   Into his seventies, he’d work all morning under cars in his blue mechanic’s suit with the little oval “Ray” name patch sewn into its breast.   Then he’d head out to the Del Rio Country Club, where he had become a member.   It was a great pleasure for a boy who’d grown up poor in a Nebraska sod house to golf at his lush country club, the American dream in living color.  That Ray was a lousy golfer never got in the way of his enjoying the game, a lesson for all of us who gripe and complain our way around the course as if it were some terrible burden to be playing instead of a lucky privilege.
I remember playing with Ray at Del Rio sometime in the late 1980s, around the end of the Reagan presidency (and Ray, a proud Republican, loved “my boy Ronnie,” as he called him).   He’d been fighting prostate cancer for a few years by then.   “I’m worried about this cancer thing,” he said out of nowhere as we walked off the 18th green to our golf cart.  That night, he cried at our family dinner, telling us how much he loved and would miss us.   We never played golf again.   I flew on a night flight up from Peru, where I was working as an anthropologist, only in time to get to the hospital a few hours just before Ray died.
It gives me much pleasure to play still with his irons.   Strangely, perhaps the good family karma, I hit them far better than I did the expensive, latest model Titleists I tried out a couple of years ago.  Their soft rattling as I walked along yesterday reminded me, I realized, of sound clips I’ve heard of the Khoisan languages, spoken by nomadic tribal bands in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert and famous among linguists for its distinctive clicking.  That, in turn, led me back into my life a decade ago, when I was absorbed in researching the story of Ishi, the last survivor of another Stone Age tribe, the Yahi of California’s northern mountains.   Like my grandfather, Ishi died in a California hospital bed, though in San Francisco, where he’d been taken to live in a museum, and not the Central Valley as Ray did.  The Ping grandfather...the clicking...the Khoisan...Ishi...the deep depression that engulfed me as I struggled to finish a book about him...hospitals...the anesthesiologist putting me to sleep for my last desperate back operation in Sweden... the lucky delight of being with my wife, children, parents, friends in my new life now... 
It’s always disconcerting, of course, what jumbled, sometimes involuntary sequences of associations our minds choose to make late in a sleepless night, or alone on a golf course.   As I walked up the ninth fairway at Hillandale, my reflections growing Grateful Dead metaphysical, I thought about how connections are the essence of everything human.  There’s language, and the way words really only work when strung together, or, in the bigger picture, those social linkages that we anthropologists so love to study – family and kinship; neighborhoods; religions; economies; countries.  Our bodies themselves are but a connector set of molecules; our minds, as the philosopher Gregory Bateson once put it, a “dance of interacting parts,” one where clinking irons on a gentle North Carolina autumn afternoon bring back the life and death of a California body shop owner in the last century. 
As I got up to my drive, I was two over par for the nine.  That’s about always where I seem to be at Hillandale, quite an easy course.   Numbers are funny.  I’m still a good golfer, and almost always break 80 at Hillandale.   But even when I was very close to scratch, I’ve not once shot in the 60s.  It surprises me a bit as I’ve played hundreds or rounds, and shot 70 a couple of times.   Of course, I never imagined either that I would be as old as a number like 53.   A half century on this strange planet!  It’s still my hope, every time I tee off at Hillandale, that this will be the day I break 70.   Golf is made up of such hopes, normally dashed in the end.
Just before I’d driven over to Hillandale, I had an e-mail from my mother.   She reminded me that this day would have been my Grandmother Frances’s 99th birthday.   Frances had died just more than a year ago in her house near San Jose, the last of my four grandparents.   I thought about her, too, out on the Hillandale fairways.   She used to play with my other grandfather, Warren, a moody and difficult man who had few friends.   I loved Warren (and never doubted he loved me back), and he taught me to play golf in the first place.   That meant putting up with my adolescent’s bad temper and strange habits, like using dirty socks for clubhead covers.   But Warren  wasn’t much fun to play with.   Like Ray, he was a lousy golfer, and yet could never accept it.  He’d storm off the green after missing a putt, sometimes off the course altogether.  His garage filled with strange mail order clubs and swing aids that, then as now, never did much to improve his game.
It was different with Frances.  A big woman, she could smash it past Warren with her blue ladies Powerbuilt drive when she got hold of one.  She’d been born in the Czech Republic, and liked baking, gardening, fishing, her grandchildren and life in general.   We played together without Warren sometime, going over the hill to the quirky Delaveaga Course by Santa Cruz.   That was always a treat.   A couple of years ago, I showed her my titanium TaylorMade driver.   She, at 96, could no longer play -- and drivers were still wooden in her day -- and yet she grasped the club with the curious pleasure she took in most new things.
We thought, despite periodic health crises, that Frances would make it to 100.   She always loved food, and, still going quite strong, shared a crepe with my two year old, her sixth great-grandchild, when we were out in California in late summer.
That was the last time I saw her as we had to return to North Carolina.   She died a few months later.  The doctors had no explanation.  Her body had simply decided it did not want to keep working any longer.
We had chatted over the phone about a week before she died.   Our conversation turned, as it often did, to golf; she liked to hear that I was still playing.  Our other favorite topic was fishing, and I told her about a bass expedition I’d made to a local lake.  I had to yell into the phone since she’d lost most of her hearing.  “Is that right?,” she’d say, having decided that was a good default when you couldn’t make out what the other person had said.
I was thinking about that last conversation as I got to my ball at the ninth.  It was 140 yards up a slight hill, a nine iron for me.  
I hit it well.  The ball rose high into the pale blue sky.  Every good shot is a little flying capsule of loveliness in its fleeting seconds.  It’s a sliver of beauty, and, as happens when we know we’ve done a thing done right, the human frailties of doubt and fear recede in the moment’s pleasing magic.
Then, as all things do, the ball plunked down to rest, fifteen feet from the pin in this case.
Frances was never a very good putter.
I missed mine too.

My latest book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race and Celebrity Scandal is in its second printing from Duke University Press and available in paperback as well as various e-book formats. 


Friday, July 11, 2014

Fernando, the Peruvian Neymar

I'm in a desert shantytown in Peru with my two-year old son, Lucien.  There's no golf course at all here in the sun-baked dusty city of Piura, which lies in the great Peruvian coastal desert -- an expanse of sand and rock almost as vast the Sahara.  It's among the world's driest places anywhere.  The piece below isn't about golf, but another sport, soccer, or "football" as the rest of the world properly calls it:

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I’ve never lived in a stranger place than Venice.

It was a great empire centuries ago, the master of the Adriatic and a swath of Italy.  Now it’s an open air museum.  Tourists from Russia, Germany, China, Brazil, the Ukraine, and, of course, the United States tramp through like an invading army.    Some three million visitors a year come to see the Grand Canal and other iconic sites, and yet there are only about 80,000 Venetians left.  Tourists outnumber natives by more than three to one on most days.  It’s hard sometimes to find a shop that sells something besides carnival masks, plastic model gondolas, and the latest Italian novelty souvenirs like joke kitchen aprons with the penis of Michelangelo’s David.
As much as anything, Venice has always been a brand.  No place on the planet may be so stunningly gorgeous as this emerald island city, and Venetians themselves have always known that.   Those extraordinary Venetian Renaissance painters – the Bellini Brothers, Carpaccio, Paolo Veronese – already mythologized their city’s watery enchantment five centuries ago.  So, later, did the likes of Canaletto and Guardi, whose oils of the Grand Canal and the Rialto godfathered the modern tourist postcard.   Then as now, a gondola ride, a stroll through St. Mark’s Square, or an excursion to watch the glassmakers of Murano form the Venetian copyright.  This carousel of images conjures enough beauty and romance to draw more visitors than ever from around the globe.   As the global middle class has expanded, tourism has become the world’s largest industry, and this has only multiplied the numbers coming to Venice.  There were no Russian, Chinese, or Brazilian tour groups here several decades ago. 
But why do so many of us want to travel?  As sociologists John Urry and Jonas Larsen observe in their fine The Tourist Gaze 3.0, vacationing has become “a defining characteristic of being modern.”  We’re drawn, of course, by the promise of escaping the grey grind of home and work, and the lure of some legendary faraway locale.   Every trip, in fact, has its own moral imperatives – a “must see” list. Thus, in Venice, a gondola ride remains obligatory for the more mainstream tourist, no less than climbing the Eiffel Tower in Paris or visiting the Vatican in Rome.   Those more would-be discerning visitors – of the kind who style themselves as “travelers” as against the run-of-the mill tourist -- have their own moral economy.   Here the search for the local, the authentic, and the less touristed takes precedence no matter that these have all become Lonely Planet clichés in themselves.   Urry and Larsen also coin the label of “post-tourists” for those who disavow any interest in the authentic in favor of a perverse anthropological delight in the kitsch, hybridization, and unexpected juxtapositions of a world where there really is no place off the beaten track anymore.  And, by now, the taxonomy of tourism also includes its more particular niches – the medical tourist to India for heart surgery; the astronomy tourist to Namibia for a total solar eclipse; the wine tourist to Croatia or the latest viticulture hotspot; and, yes, the golf tourist chasing some new great golf experience.
I’m little more than extended-stay tourist myself in Venice, here just for the fall.  But I am teaching two courses at Venice International University, and the crowds can sometimes make it hard.  When running late, I always seem to find the alley blocked by some ambling, camera-laden scrum of a German tour group.  The area between St. Mark’s Square, the Academia Bridge, and the Rialto forms a tourist Bermuda triangle.   Many, if not most, Venetians live off the tourist trade; but many nonetheless speak nostalgically about less crowded times.  If you wander down the right back alley, you can still find the surviving remnants of a functioning Italian city -- a playground, a tailor, a basketball court, an upholsterer, a yoga class, a pet shop, a funeral parlor.  But everything costs twice what it does on the mainland, where the down economy already makes things difficult for ordinary people.  And family life is no easy business in a cramped Renaissance city however picturesque.  No wonder so many Venetians, even those who still commute across the lagoon into the city, have moved to Marghera, Mestre, and other terra firma towns. 

And, as almost anywhere on this 21st century golfing planet, you can find golf in Venice, or at least the greater Venetian lagoon.    At the very tip of the barrier island of Lido lies the Circolo Golf di Venezia.  The course is a pleasant enough track built in the 1920s, though nothing extraordinary.   It doesn’t say much for Italian golf if the Circolo is really among the top ten in the country as one ranking has it.   But it’s nonetheless always interesting to see the local twists to the game abroad, and what they reveal about that particular society and culture.  To paraphrase the great French sociologist Roger Caillois, how we play always discloses much about who we are.  Italians, as we know, love to eat well, and that’s certainly evident at the Venice course.   You can sit on the club terrace and have a delicious cold seafood salad washed down with the Veneto’s good white wine.  It’s a far cry from the proverbial greasy hotdog, Powerade, and bag of potato chips at the American golf course grill.   
The Circolo also reflects the more parsimonious, greener habits of Italian consumers.   In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, wastebaskets, cars, toilets, cars, and even paper towels are much smaller than those to which we Americans are accustomed; people use things to the end instead of running out to buy a new one as in our throwaway consumer culture.  At many American courses, especially upscale ones, you can find all manner of balls if you poke around in the woods and creeks, including more than a few virtually new ones.   Not in Italy.  I wasn’t sure if I had enough balls to finish the round on the watery Circolo course, and yet, though I scoured the bushes, I failed to turn up so much as an old Top-Flite.   And if American golfers, at least those who can afford it, feel obligated to have the newest model clubs in their bag, there’s no such imperative in Italy.   The bag storage shed for club members was a museum of early generation titanium clubs.  A 1990s Callaway Big Bertha, so big and shiny in its day, looks now like a undersized early industrial artifact of another era, like an old Olivetti manual typewriter. 

And consider the greeenskeeping. Italian landscaping, like the food, runs to a calculated yet unforced simplicity.The Italian gardener does not share the American lawn nazi’s horror at the stray weed. The Circolo has the archetypal Italian mix of cypress and pine, and, though maintained well enough, it’s a bit shaggy, no effort made to keep every blade of grass in place as at a high-end American club. A Renaissance fountain lies just next to the 18th green in a reminder of just how much Italy remains a land of ancient and jumbled chronologies where Etruscan burial grounds, Roman ruins, Medieveal churches, Mussolini-era train stations, and new McDonald’s jostle and crowd up against one another. The fountain at the Circolo, it should be noted, plays as an immovable obstruction with no relief if your ball ends up next to or behind it.
Back across the lagoon in Venice, the grand old city can feel besieged by its millions of visitors.   It sometimes seems as if Italy’s precious Renaissance marvels -- Giotto's Arena Chapel, Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Botticelli Birth of Venus -- sag wearily under the weight of so many staring visitors, so much written about them, so many photographs, so many centuries passed.    But laments about an overtouristed Venice are hardly new.   Henry James, back in 1909, already noted that some travellers found the place “odious” because they had “too many competitors there” and were forced to share the city “with a herd of fellow gazers.”   But the great novelist loved Venice anyway as a place of “a thousand occasional graces.”   He was taken, among other things, by the light.  It was, he wrote, “a mighty magician and, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all.  Here sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision.”

I feel much the same way.   Once I navigate the alleyways out to San Zaccaria, I climb aboard the Number 20 vaporetto, these boats being Venice’s only form of public transportation.   It heads out to the university on the island of San Servolo with a view opening up back to the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark's, and the grey-blue water of the lagoon.   It’s a view straight off the postcard rack and yet no less stunning for that fact.
I can't imagine there's a more beautiful commute anywhere in the world.

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