“The Game Was Meant to be a Torment”

“Being Irish,

he had an abiding sense of tragedy,

which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

(Attributed to William Butler Yeats)



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My father taught me many things. He taught me how to play golf, how to read aloud, and that in all things concerning love there is no explanation. When I was young and would walk the fairways with my dad, and curse in quiet frustration the seemingly endless stream of misfortune the wretched game would bring down upon me, he would turn from that maddening silence with which he approached all things, in golf and in life and smiling, murmur, “the game was meant to be a torment, Rob.”

At the time, I didn’t get it. So wrapped up in my own anger, I didn’t see the love in his eyes or hear the wisdom in his words. His teasing seemed as much a torment as the misfortunes of the game. The arbitrariness of life, what the Scottish call “the rub of the green”, was lost on a fourteen-year-old, whose adolescence, so stretched by things raw and random, yearned at least when walking at his father’s side, for a world of fairness and just outcomes.

It would take a lifetime to understand that in all things–golf, life, but most of all love–the game is best understood as a torment.

My dad was a student of the spoken word, an English major who became an insurance underwriter, but kept throughout his life a leather-bound book into which he would stuff Shakespeare and Milton, Melville and Emerson. He would often pull it from the shelf, jot down something witty or well phrased, and then insist that my brother, sister and I listen as he slowly read some passage. It frustrated him that the cadence of fine literature, when spoken aloud, was lost on children so eager to do anything other than listen to their father read.

He tended toward verse that rhymed, particularly Kipling and Service and Tennyson. I think he longed for a Victorian sense of order, where words were measured and made to fit into a preconceived rhythm and rhyme. He was a slow reader, his lips barely moving, as if he was searching for the sound as much as the meaning of the words. While he may have surrendered to the notion of silent reading, it wasn’t without a fight.

And so I learned to understand golf and read poetry aloud. But love itself? Hmmm, that one may take a bit more study, dad.

When, in junior high I moped about the house, my heart broken by the most recent break-up du jour, dad would look up from the paper, return to reading, and from behind the day’s headlines I would hear him murmur, “matters of the heart; matters of the heart.” At the time it seemed . . . like his wisdom on golf . . . a pithy cop out. “Matters of the heart? What the hell does that mean, dad? I need something more than a refrigerator magnet, pop. Give me something to work with. Some explanation, some reason, some . . . I don’t know . . . justice.”

I am 62 years old and now only beginning to understand what my father was trying to say with so few words almost 50 years ago. In all matters of the heart, there is no rhyme or reason, no measure, no meter, no fairness, no justice. Try as the poets may, at the end of the day, the damn thing just doesn’t lend itself to words, silent or spoken. One day, it’s there. One day, it slips away. It’s no one’s fault. It just happens.

John Irving said, “Sorrow floats.” That’s true, but not for long.  The game may be a torment, but it’s still a game. In love, just as in golf, good things will happen. I think they already are.

For four years, I have set off to Paris each fall hoping to find something: an uncle, a crevasse, as Jimmy Buffet put it, “. . . some answers to questions that troubled [me] so.” Not this year. This year I’m returning to this bridge on this golf course where 12 years ago I walked with my friends Mark and Ian and then I’m on to Ireland to explore some family history, maybe see a Connemarra pony, maybe peer over a cliff on Inishmore.

There’s a new game to be played. Time to leave the torment behind.

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