Note: This is not a golf story. I know non-golfers don't really enjoy golf stories - in fact, you can see their eyes glaze over within a sentence or two. And if you are a non-golfer, that may happen to you in the first few paragraphs. Grab some coffee and stick with it. This story has a larger point. I hope.
The other day I stood on the 13th tee of the golf course I play at and surveyed the shot facing me.
It was a shot demanding considerable precision and more than a little courage, especially if you have a relatively good score going and it's getting towards the end of the round. You don't want to generate yet another of those pathetic stories golfers always inflict on one another ("God ... I was going along so well. It was one of those games where everything finally came together when dammit, I put four balls into the water on 13." "Ah, been there, pal ... did I ever tell you about the time I yanked my drive on 17 into the bushes and it took me seven strokes to get it back on the fairway?" "Well, that's nothing, what about the time ...")
It's not a long hole - a 146 yard par-3. But the green juts out into the water, forming an enticing but relatively tiny emerald peninsula. Any shot that catches a gust of wind and strays left; or has to fight the wind too hard, loses, and comes up short; or is struck unexpectedly purely and takes off just as the wind abates and sails long, ends up making a loud and humiliating splash, the kind of splash that causes golfers on the fairways all around you to glance over and think, "Poor bastard. He should take some lessons."
I got up on the tee, selected my club, then felt a gust of wind, re-considered, and chose a different club. I took a couple of practice swings that felt right, addressed the ball ("OK, you little white bastard, don't you try anything funny."), and launched my shot.
It was - and I don't think I'm being overly kind to myself here - one of the most beautiful shots ever played in the history of the game of golf. At the moment of impact I knew in every cell of my body that it was going to be a great shot - it felt so buttery soft coming off the face of the club. We watched as it soared in a picture-perfect arc, bounced three times on the green, and rolled ... rolled ... rolled ... till it stopped three inches from the cup - very nearly a Hole in One.
My playing partners were in awe. "Wow. GREAT shot." "Perfect." "God, I thought it was in, terrific shot." People who were waiting behind us (the course was busy that day, and play was slow) were equally effusive in their praise. "Amazing." "Wow."
I leaned down, picked up the broken tee, tossed it aside, slipped my club back into my bag, gave a soft, self-deprecating smile, and said "Well, I imagine we'll be able to find that one."
So cool, so nonchalant for someone whose heart was pounding like a jack-hammer and who wanted to scream "Oh, my God, did you SEE that, with the perfect swing and the flight of the ball and the bounce and the roll and the almost going in the goddamn hole and Christ all it needed was one or two more rolls and I've been golfing for forty-three frigging years, thousands of rounds, too many to even count and I've never had a hole in one and jaysus Mary Mother of God I thought that was it!"
But I didn't. I just gave a little shrug and smiled what I hoped was a calm, crooked, self-satisfied smile and waited for the lesser mortals to hit their shots, for which I duly (and generously) complimented them, even though theirs were so painfully inferior to the shot we'd all so admired.
"Try to make it look like you've been there before and fully expect to be back."
There's the key to cool.
I used to coach football (oh, yeah - I was a passably good minor football coach for fifteen years. Not many championships to show for it, but years later grown men have stopped me on the street and - even though I can barely recognize them dressed in a sports jacket and tie and all grown up and pushing a baby stroller - have told me that the time they spent playing for me was the most fun they ever had on a football field. Rewards delayed are not rewards denied). My players learned early on that their coach frowned upon the classless celebrations that are so much a part of the game now - the touchdown dances, the posing, the self-aggrandizement that so many athletes engage in to taunt and further humiliate their opponents.
In the first game of every year one new kid would score a touchdown, or block a punt or make a tackle and leap up, do some dance inspired by his heroes (!) on TV. And his teammates who had played for me in years past would shake their heads and calm him down and know that when he got back to the bench (often a bit surprised to be pulled out of the game when he had done something so utterly magnificent), he would be beckoned over and told "We don't do that. When you get into the endzone, you make it look like you've been there before and fully expect to be back. Be cool."
Sometimes it's not easy to remember to be cool.
One time I was pitching in a slow-pitch softball game against a rival radio station. Some friends had come to watch the game, and had arrived just in time to see the other team's most imposing batter step into the box. (It occurs to me that I am drawing a lot of this from my experiences in sports. Odd. I'm not an exceptionally gifted athlete, nor a particularly sporty guy. But we find inspiration where it presents itself, I suppose. At any rate ...)
This guy was huge. 6'5", maybe 250. He was the guy on every team who causes your outfielders to slump resignedly back to the fence in preparation for climbing it to fetch the inevitable home run.
I released the ball, he swung, and it came back to me at a speed I can only estimate at 6000 MPH. A laser, directly at me. Well, to be more accurate, directly at my glove, which had, in my natural pitching motion, dropped to my hip.
CRACKTHWAP. That's as close as I can approximate the sound as the bat hit the ball and the ball hit my glove square in the palm. One sound. In fact, so fast was this ball coming back at me that it's quite possible the THWAP part of the sound came first.
I did not so much catch the ball as look down, astonished to realize it was imbedded in my palm. There was no twitch of reflexes. It appeared, in the palm of my glove, with no independent action required from me.
And note, I said "in the palm of my glove". Not "in the pocket".
The palm of a baseball glove, especially one as old and well-worn as mine, is nothing more than a thin layer of supple leather, offering approximately the same cushioning effect as, say, silk. When a softball travelling fast enough to penetrate an armoured personnel carrier meets this thin layer of leather, the kinetic energy is transferred directly into the hand underneath.
This kinetic energy is transformed into neurological impulses, which send subtle messages to your brain that "Oh, my dear GOD, something terrible has happened! Arooogah, arooooogah, commence the humiliatingly dorky maneuver where you let the glove fall off your hand and leap up and down, shaking the hand to prove to yourself it still exists, and screaming "JESUSFUCKDAMNSHITOWCHRISTGODDAMNITSHIT!"
Which, you know, I did.
The batter was nice about it. "Sorry," he said, as if that made it all better. He hadn't meant to hurt me, but as he trotted back to his dugout, you could tell he was more than a little self-satisfied. Which stung all the more.
After a while, the third baseman, a nice guy named Steve, walked over to the mound. He put his hand on my shoulder and said "You OK?"
"Yeah. Shit. Ow. Yeah, I'm OK, just give me a second."
"Sure, sure," he said. Then added. "You know what would have been really cool?"
"Nothing, I guess. But maybe if you'd just thrown the ball over to first and picked off the runner, and nailed the double play, it might have been a bit cooler than what you did."
"Yeah, OK. I'll keep that in mind for next time."
So, next time that happens, I'll be cool.
We pretend that being cool doesn't matter to us. Life isn't a show for the rest of the world. Who cares what people think? Screw 'em, right?
But in fact, being cool - or acting cool - is important to all of us. It helps us feel more together, more with it, more prepared for life's curve balls (or line drives).
I act cool when I'm really not. When something is happening in my life that is important to me, when I don't want to open myself to looking pathetic or desperate or needy or scared ... I do what I can to act cool. I try not to do the happy dance after victories (too much) and try not to look fazed when things don't go my way.
People I know, people I respect, people I love don't need another opportunity to see me at my worst. They see enough of that from me anyway. If I act cool, then somehow I figure if things don't go my way I'll be able to BE cool about it.
It's a thin veneer. Like the leather on the palm of a baseball glove. Line drives still hurt like hell.
But at the very least, if I act cool, I'll be the only one who knows how much it stings.