Sunday, January 29, 2012

Holy Animals Prologue

A Hazard in the Garden


     I am the only son of a golf pro.  This is my family curse, and I am its only heir.  I am like a wandering descendant of Cain who can’t pass a roadside driving range without thinking of my father, and my own mighty failures on the links.  I might as well have a mark on my forehead, separating me from the rest of the golfing tribe. 
My father Jesse Flowers believed that golf would take him somewhere in life, and I suppose it has.  But whatever dreams my father had as a future professional golfer, as the next Ben Hogan, ended somewhere between college golf matches and marathon fraternity parties at the University of Oregon.  Many golfers have succumbed to the dangers of the nineteenth hole, and so did my father.
Now the hope of the golfing lineage is upon yours truly.  Golf was my family religion, and I am the anti-golf apostate--the filial Judas, Brutus, and Benedict Arnold all wrapped up into one.  I am the athletic heretic of the Flowers family, but I try to embrace my outcast state as proudly as I can.  Golf has made me a nomad, and my journey isn’t over yet.  
My name is Hazard Flowers, and I suck at golf.  I really do.  I do religion instead.  But it wasn’t much help in escaping my fate, and my character.  They were inexorable.  My character and my fate played through together.  You land where you land, and you figure out how to make a living after the fall.  It sounds biblical, and it is.  Golf, for those who like the sport and suffer with it (and even the best do both), combines the garden and the fall, innocence and shame, futility and hope, often in the very same round, sometimes in a single hole.  We get kicked out of the garden.  That’s the way golf, and life, goes.
For my father, golf still keeps the old dreams of the beautiful garden alive.  All I ever got from the game was the swinging ritual of self loathing, an endless liturgy of shame.  When I think of the game, I can only see my father’s frown, as he tried to fight off what he would always say anyway.  God did not give my father a filter; I always heard exactly what he was thinking about me.
“That swing was horseshit."
That was when I was five years old! 
Despite my father’s hopes and dreams for me on the golf course, he named me Hazard.  Go figure.  Jesse raised a Hazard, not a Tiger, and my middle name might as well be bunker.  Or bogey.  I spent my childhood searching for errant shots after my hazardous physics.  Whenever I asked him about my name and its inspirational, or demonic, origins, dad always maintained that Hazard is a Flowers family name.  Yet no historical method on my part has yielded evidence of another Hazard besides me on the family tree.  The answer to the riddle of my name is clearly out of bounds, deep in the woods, and that’s why I hit it there: To find my true self.  Dante got lost in the woods too, midway through this course of life.  I started lost in the woods.  With my horseshit swing. 
 I could always find my namesake on the golf course: water hazards, sand bunkers, houses on the course, parked cars in seemingly safe relationship to the holes, and the boundaries of out of bounds.  In the search for my own identity, I homed in on my fate, my name that is, with uncanny regularity.  I have spent more time in the woods looking for golf balls, while my father waited impatiently on the fairway, than I ever spent with my father camping or hiking or going to baseball games.  My boyhood was like an Easter egg hunt in hell.          
My father waited impatiently for the Flowers genes to push me to the front of the pack in junior golf, and I had a streak going of three straight tournaments where I came in last place.  My parents wanted to have more children, hopefully some without my athletic defects, but they never conceived again after me, though they apparently tried.  My father was stuck with his Hazard, and I was stuck with my father’s conditional love.  I don’t remember anymore what my mother’s love was all about.  I don’t remember the other parts of my childhood like I remember the golf lessons.
My father, more so than the game itself, was the real and lifelong enemy to my self esteem, and the only kind of self esteem I have ever known is low.  Not even the heavy rain in Portland could stop his demonic lessons.  I stopped praying for rain because we would still go out wearing matching green and gold parkas.  VCRs came into fashion when I was in middle school, and I can’t remember how many golf videos dad and I watched together.  If we weren’t on the course, we were breaking the swing down slow motion on the videotapes.  Before that it was the ever humorless, and stylistically hopeless, prose of Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, by the taciturn Ben Hogan. 
That’s a really fun read.  Here’s just a sample of the giggles of Ben Hogan:
“Up to a considerable point, as I see it, there’s nothing difficult about golf, nothing.  I see no reason, truly, why the average golfer, if he goes about it intelligently, shouldn’t play in the 70s I realize that in some ways I can be a demanding man and that some things are harder for certain people to do than I may appreciate, but it really cuts me up to watch some golfer sweating over his shots on the practice tee, throwing away his energy to no constructive purpose, nine times out of 10 doing the same thing wrong he did years and years back when he first took up golf.  I cannot watch him long.
So, don’t watch him, Ben.  It’s a free country! 
Dad never stopped watching me, and I always "cut him up."  My father and I made each other miserable over that dimpled ball, which is so innocent at rest.  It never did what it was supposed to do in motion--like on the videos, or in Hogan’s anal-retentive little diagrams.  Some fathers and sons have sports in common at the very least, a text to share when words have failed. 
But it was easier to hate golf than to deal with the other torment my father and I came to share.  Or not share.  Golf came to represent the real pain that both of us did our very best to hide, and I’d rather play a round of golf with dad than face the real test of pain, both mine and his.  My golf game broke my father’s heart, or what was left of it after my mother was gone. 
When my mother died of leukemia at the age of forty-five, we lost her separately, not together.  I can remember every word of my father’s criticisms, but I have trouble remembering a single conversation with my mom.  I keep pictures so I can remember her face.  If I lose her face, her presence, I lose everything.  I lose my soul. 
For dad, golf was the only consolation in life after her.  For me it was going to church.  I was saved by religion, and more than once, in the nick of time. 
It was just a month after my mother’s death that my father decided it was time to get me back out on the golf course.  It was a Sunday morning, and my time for grieving had apparently come to an end.  It was always on the sabbath that my father would wake me for a lesson--before his first scheduled appointment as head pro at the Portland Country Club. 
     "Get up.  It’s time to play," my father said as he turned on my light.     
     "It’s raining," I said without opening my eyes. 
In Oregon, this usually goes without saying, or looking.  But I was desperate, so I said it.  It was raining.
     "And I want to go to church."
I had never been a big churchgoer.  Mom and I would go to the local Episcopal Church, but usually just for the big holidays.  My statement of ecclesiastical desire, and destination, was a new one for dad.  Standing there in his plaid green and gold golf pants and Oregon Ducks golf shirt, he looked truly puzzled.  I treasure that look in him.  It was a magical moment of sweet release, like a call from the governor for a prisoner on death row.  How anyone could choose organized religion over eighteen holes was perhaps the greatest folly he had ever heard of.  He mulled over my heresy for several moments in silence. 
I kept my eyes closed, a young Martin Luther holding his breath, waiting for the great divide, the spark to tinder to burst into holy flame.  I was knocking on the old door of Wittenberg.  With my eyes closed, I’m sure I was praying.  That’s the only word for it, my new holy state of mind.  The answer from the hierarchy of one, the pope of my childhood, finally came. 
     "Ok what?"
     "Go to church, if that’s what you want to do.  You can wear dresses if you want to.  But it’s a horseshit decision."
     When I finally opened my eyes, my father the golf pro was gone.  My door was closed; he had shut it quietly.  Some kids grow up dreading going off to church, but I jumped out of bed.  For me organized religion was my first glimpse of freedom, a haven if not heaven itself.  At the very least, I now had my one way ticket out of purgatory.   I embraced the classical formulations of Christianity as if my very life depended on it; and it did.  After all of my athletic failures, I was ready for a new field all my own, a clear passage to individuality as a man.  I became a theologian at the age of thirteen, with the ashes of grief on my forehead, and cobwebs on my golf clubs.  The only thing more important than the almighty game of golf was Almighty God himself. 
On that rainy Sunday morning, I happily put my golf shoes in the trash.  I knew in my heart that my mother’s death didn’t, and still doesn’t, make sense in any ordinary line of reasoning.  It takes a leap of faith to find peace of mind.  My faith redeemed the double bogey of my childhood, and religion was my ultimate mulligan.  But the one thing that has nagged at me since my early morning conversion is that I could no longer hear my mother’s voice afterwards.  Somehow the religion that saved me also left her behind.  Religion opened a door for me, but it also closed one to my past.
  Religion provided the spiritual escape from my father and golf, and I knew that time itself would provide physical liberation as well.  When it came time to go to college, I chose the preppiest college I could find on the west coast: Claremont McKenna College, formerly Claremont Men’s College in Southern California.  I got wait listed at Stanford University, which was my first choice.  Claremont is like a New England college town in a Los Angeles suburb.  I attended Claremont on the tab of the United States Navy with an ROTC scholarship, the white collar version of military service.  I loved wearing the navy whites, even to class.  My father didn’t pay a cent for my education, but he approved of my self-sufficiency.  I had been emotionally self-sufficient for some time, and I became financially independent as soon as I could.   
In the navy I learned something about the world, and I observed human nature under pressure.  I learned about steam engines and the men who work with them.  I enjoyed jogging on ships, and I did some daily tai chi with a Berkeley midshipman, as the sun rose in the Far East.  I enjoyed my time in the service, especially being an authority figure to young men who didn’t know about my golf handicap.  I am proud to have served my country, and I am still very patriotic, God knows why.
After the navy, I became an Episcopal priest, and I was following my own secret plan perfectly. My navy whites became the Episcopal white collar.  I had wanted to be a minister since I was thirteen, but I never told a soul until after the navy.  My mother would have understood were she still alive; she would be proud of me, I’m sure.  Mothers are easy that way.  I talked a lot about the period when my mother died with the Commission on Ministry, the committee that recommends people to the local bishop for ordination.  It’s quite a steeplechase of touchy-feely subjectivity, red tape psychobabble, and haughty hierarchy that the church lays out for potential clergy.  If you aren’t a sneaky, passive aggressive, manipulative little shit beforehand, the sacred process to the priesthood will make you one, believe me.  The commission gave me the green light to go to seminary, even though the liberals on the commission thought I was some kind of warmonger for being a former naval officer.  Of course, I hid the fact that I was, then, a Rockefeller Republican.  Thank God I did some therapy in college.  They could see my uncoordinated inner child struggling to understand his big feelings, and they liked him a lot.  The death of my mother really paid off, finally.  I didn’t even mention the agony of golf in my personal history and spiritual autobiography. 
For seminary I moved to a part of the country my father has never appreciated, nor ever been: the south.  Virginia Theological Seminary was a good fit after my preppie days at Claremont, and I truly appreciate the code of the southern gentleman.  I had become smitten with the state of Virginia when I was stationed at Newport News, but it was during my seminary field education that I met my very own Virginia.  I fell in love with Virginia Thorne at first sight.  Virginia’s father is the Bishop of Virginia, and the bishop’s only child was living and working in Alexandria after finishing a graduate program in American Studies at the University of Virginia.  I married the bishop’s daughter, the quickest road to the top of church preferment there is.  I had a collar to remind her of dear old dad, and father bishop was happy to encourage my career--and to get me a plum position as the rector of a university parish in Charlottesville. 
The bishop had a plan for me as his son-in-law.  I reminded him of his humble roots in a West Virginia coal mining town, though he never spoke of them.  Somehow I was able to make Virginia my very own, and I was a Hazard in paradise, finally.  Names like Scott, Williams, Lee, Bocock were more preferable for the pedigree than the western Flowers, but the bishop liked my earnest status as an outsider, hat in hand always.  Like happy salmon, we both thought we had found the ticket to the future by spawning upstream. 
For a few precious years, a very brief golden age, I was at peace, and happy.  In our first year of marriage, Virginia and I were ready to make our tribe increase.  So was our parish, I must say.  The bishop himself didn’t believe in waiting for the begetting part of life’s scripture, and we intended to prosper and multiply in God’s own country of old Virginia.  It was time to beget the future, and the next generation.  Virginia and I got down to business, as regularly as she could abide.  The south shall rise again, as they say.  I was planning to do my part, and I just had to slip one of my boys past Virginia’s holy goalie.  The most natural thing in God’s creation should have been the easiest thing in the world, right?

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