Listen Up

The PGA Championship just finished up right here in Rochester, and although I’m really just an occasional golf fan, it was pretty exciting to have such an important tournament take place in our back yard. (I almost mean this literally. My mom and my aunts grew up in a house that was a two minute walk from Oak Hill Country Club. It’s been rumored that when she was a teenager, my Aunt Lisa and her friends used to sneak onto the grounds after dark and scrawl inappropriate words in the sand traps. My grandmother finally sold that house three years ago, so Oak Hill is no longer actually in my family’s back yard… But, still, there’s a connection.)

Back in 2003, the last time that the PGA Championship was hosted at Oak Hill, Nick and I happened to be visiting the lake from our home in Westchester County (outside of New York City) . Through his employer, Nick was able to secure a job as a walking scorer, and spent several days traveling around the course, pencil in hand, following some of the world’s best golfers and relaying their scores to the official score-keeper people (yes, that’s the technical term) at the end of each hole. He had a blast, and even managed – after his official job was over – to slip me his all-access pass, so I was able to watch the play from inside the ropes. With that as my benchmark, my experience as a golf spectator kind of went downhill from there.

This year, although Nick wasn’t given the opportunity to be a walking scorer again, his company did have a corporate tent, so he spent three days working there – meeting clients, talking with advisors – right alongside the 18th green. Not such a bad week at the office.
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He asked if I’d like to work the PGA, too, but I wasn’t convinced. Sure, getting to potentially see golfers I’d heard of (Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson sound, you know, familiar), or maybe glimpsing that delicious Aussie, Adam Scott (if you don’t know him, do yourself a favor and say g’day), held some appeal… but I wasn’t really sure that I was interested.

Then, Nick’s company decided, during the Tuesday practice round, that they would work with the PGA to donate their tent to some local veterans’ organizations. It would be an opportunity for armed service personnel, both active and retired, to see some great golf – for free – while also having access to a nicely-appointed tent and a chance to win some cool, auctioned-off, golf-related prizes. A relatively small gesture, to be sure, but a kind one nonetheless – a chance to thank those who have served our country and allow them to get away and have fun for a while.

Although we, as a family, try to support veterans and veterans’ organizations as often as we can, I often feel like our gestures are greatly inadequate. And so, when I was asked to volunteer as the event’s photographer, I jumped at the chance.
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Nick (who was volunteering as well) and I left the lake around 8 a.m., leaving Ella and Annie with my aunt, and told her we’d probably be done at Oak Hill by 3:00. It was a beautiful summer day, perfect for golf – perfect for just about anything – not too hot, not too humid, not too windy. The course was packed with spectators, and even though I don’t consider myself “into” golf, the air of excitement and anticipation that was contagious. We made our way to the corporate tents, watching as the golfers played through the 18th fairway, and then I got down to work.
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My instructions were to take mostly candids of the military personnel as they chatted with one another and with the PGA staff and Nick’s colleagues, with a few “official” shots thrown in for good measure. I did so, but even more than that, I was eager to speak with some of those in attendance, to thank them, to try to let them know how grateful I am for all they do.
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The conversations ran the gamut, from the Vietnam-era vet who had stayed stateside, test-jumping out of helicopters so that those actually in Vietnam would know what to do, calling those years “the most fun of his life,” to the young soldier who had been wounded in Iraq, rehabbed his shoulder for six months, and then hastily married his fiancee when he discovered that he’d be shipped out again, this time to Djibouti and Uganda. He’d been home for only a few weeks, and his wife – who became teary several times during the conversation – couldn’t stop holding his hand, telling us over and over again how wonderful it was for them to be able to have a day on the golf course like this.

Nick and I spent a great deal of time talking with a burly former soldier/ NYC police officer, who was so blunt and jovial, even as he described the times he’d been shot at from close range (as a cop, not a soldier), that we couldn’t help but laugh along with him. There was a delicious buffet, some short speeches, and several news crews on hand who had taken an interest in what they termed a “charitable effort” and decided to document the event.
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Photos. Conversations. Food. Watching a few golfers play through. Photos. Conversations. Repeat. By early afternoon, nearly all of the veterans had had their fill of lunch and were out walking the course, and the tent was strangely quiet. Despite myself, I started to get antsy. When we discovered that the auction wouldn’t take place until 4 p.m., I began to become downright agitated. I knew that Annie and Ella were fine, but I felt terrible leaving them for so long with my aunt – and now we’d be home much later than we’d anticipated. I’d already spoken with the soldiers and told them I was thankful. I’d snapped a lot of photos. The most famous golfers had already played through.

I was bored. And annoyed. And couldn’t wait to leave.

As I fumbled for my phone one more time, cursing the poor wi-fi connection in the tent, a young, slightly-built man came through the door. He was carrying a large black leather case – a portfolio of some kind? – and plopped it down on the table. Without any introduction, he looked up at Nick and me and asked if we’d “like to see some artwork by veterans.” Intrigued (and, honestly, I was eager for anything to break the tedium), we said yes. He opened the portfolio and, staring back at us, was incredible sketch after incredible sketch — pencil drawings, oil pastels, charcoal etchings – mostly of soldiers, some of civilian life, but all done by someone who clearly has a gift. Turns out, this quiet man was a soldier who had returned from Afghanistan less than a year ago (after having joined the National Guard, not expecting to actually be sent out on active duty), and he had created every one of these amazing pieces of art.

Some had been done while in Afghanistan, scraping together whatever supplies he could, and some had been done after he returned, but he credited the artwork with getting him through the war and back again. One of his pieces was a photograph of a bicycle in an Afghani courtyard – a gorgeous photo, radiating peacefulness and contentment, so beautifully composed that it took my breath away… until the young man pointed out the IED, completely hidden to us, buried in the ground just in front of the bike. He casually estimated that by removing that IED, they’d saved at least a thousand lives. It’s an image I will never forget.

While we were mid-portfolio, another gentleman came into the tent. Apparently, he and Nick had chatted earlier about our raising CCI dogs, and he’d come to ask if we knew how he could become a certified dog trainer. As we talked, I learned that he’d also been deployed to the Middle East and, upon returning home, had been unemployed for 99 weeks. Nearly all of his buddies had PTSD, and several had committed suicide or become alcoholics since their return, and he knew he was going down the same path. Then, unexpectedly, he adopted a Siberian Husky who, in his words, “became his best friend and saved his life.” After seeing how his Husky affected him so profoundly, he knew that the pup was unique, so he went through the training necessary to certify his dog as a therapy dog; they visit loads of people each month, and nothing makes him happier than seeing his dog bring people joy. He is now looking to start a business with a “pack” of therapy dogs living in a special house, where soldiers suffering from PTSD can come and stay a while, allowing the dogs to work their healing magic and help the soldiers re-enter society.

Our conversations were finally stopped when it was announced that it was time for the auction — 4 p.m. already. I couldn’t believe how quickly the rest of the afternoon had flown. Neither the artist nor the dog trainer won a prize, but both left the tent with smiles on their faces.
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It was not lost on me that if I’d left two hours earlier, when boredom seemed to be overtaking me, I would have missed out entirely on meeting these men, and I never would have heard their stories, stories which will stay with me forever. Sometimes, the universe works in funny ways.

As we walked back to our car, Nick and I marveled at how, really, these folks just wanted to talk. Not necessarily about their time in the military (although that was obviously the reason they’d attended the event, so some discussion about their service was a given), but about anything. Their passions, their dreams, their childhoods. Their other jobs, their marriages, their artwork, their dogs. The subjects kept changing, but one thing remained the same: they just wanted to be heard. And all we had to do was listen.

Which, when you think about it, is a fantastically easy thing to do. To listen.
I wonder, if we all did it more often, if the men and women of our armed forces would have an easier go of things. It seems so simple… But I think it’s time to try.

I’d started out working at the PGA so that I could give back. In the end, of course, I received far more than I gave… Which made the entire thing so very worth it.

That… and these backside shots of Adam Scott.

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Hey – a girl’s got to have a dream too, right?

 

 

 

Fore!

Last week, we took our first (of what is supposed to be five) family golf lessons. I realize that, to many folks, this will likely sound like a specially designed form of torture (believe me, I realize this), but after listening to Nick talk it up for several weeks, I decided that maybe it could be – at the very least – tolerable.

My father and stepmother are both avid golfers (seeing Grand Meg’s name on the big ol’ plaque as the club champion many years running has given Ella and Annie a huge kick – which is good, because my name is surely not appearing on any golf trophies soon), and Nick’s dad has been known to swing a mighty fine set of clubs, so you might say we come by the game naturally. In reality, while Nick really likes golfing, he only hits the links a handful of times each year (and, as such, could use a few pointers), and I have only golfed a full round once in my life (that is, if you count hitting the ball 20 yards, becoming annoyed with the lie, picking the ball up and walking it closer to the hole, accidentally chipping onto the green, declaring it a “gimme” and pocketing the ball, hole after hole, as a full round of golf).

Still, Nick found a course close to home with a highly-recommended pro who agreed to teach all four of us at a very reasonable price. Rather than purchase full kiddie sets of clubs that the girls might never use again, he wisely borrowed two sets from a friend (I believe he called them “adorable,” a term generally reserved for wide-eyed baby animals, dancing children on Ellen, and, occasionally, my stepmother-in-law). Given that the only golfing the girls have done previously is of the miniature variety (and even then, they’d become bored after about the 11th hole and proceed to try to stop the windmills from spinning or use their putters as swords), I was skeptical that they’d be interested in learning the ins and outs of “real” golf. Yet again proving my that my parental instinct isn’t worth diddly, Annie and Ella were ecstatic at the prospect of lessons – and, although I couldn’t quite ascertain why, I figured — inexpensive lessons; free clubs; nice instructor… What could go wrong?

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Pre-lesson and looking spiffy. What, you don’t golf in a tutu skirt?

As luck/Mother Nature would have it, our first lesson fell on the hottest day in the history of the earth. Okay, technically we didn’t set any records in western New York, but it was hot. Ungodly hot. Melt-your-face-off, “No, kids, it’s too hot to play outside today”, get-sweaty-by-just-thinking-of-being-outdoors, how is it even possible for people to survive without central air? hot. Plus, there’s the whole humidity thing, where the air feels thick, almost tangible, like you’re wearing a damp, full-body invisible sweater. While standing on the equator.

In other words: the perfect day for spending an hour in the middle of an open field facing directly into the sun that was shining its menacing little sunbeams straight at you.

As the girls helped gather up their gear, I began to understand why they’d been so ecstatic about these lessons: accessories. Shiny, bright white golf balls. Bags of cute, day-glo tees. And, best of all, brand new golf gloves. If I’d known this family adventure would bring about shopping, I would have agreed to it a long time ago.

After a little coaxing (and some instruction on how to carry awkward bags that are nearly as large as they are), they even agreed to carry their own clubs to the driving range.

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Our adorable little sherpas.

Within only a few steps, however, it became clear that the heat was getting to them. Nick tried to snap a shot of the girls jauntily carrying their bags to the course, but instead got this gem, wherein they look like maybe they’re marching to their own deaths:IMG_4429
Yay! Family golf lessons!!

At that exact moment, when it became clear that even one more step might result in heat exhaustion, the golf pro turned up and offered them a ride to the driving range on the cart with him. The girls accepted with the same enthusiasm they’d shown when we first took them on Splash Mountain in Disney World, and I then understood the second reason they’d been ecstatic for the lessons: riding in tiny motorized vehicles is badass, hella fun. Point one for our instructor.

Once we arrived at the range and the girls responded with rabid enthusiasm when he asked us if we’d like to hit a few balls, the biggest reason for their ecstasy became clear: they were being permitted to smack a ball with a stick. Deliberately. As far and as hard as they could. Being totally aggressive and using this metal object to whack one of our shiny, bright white balls out onto that expanse of green (while wearing a brand spanking new golf glove), and we don’t even need to pick them up when we’re done?? SIGN. ME. UP.

It was pretty much uphill from there, as the pro walked Nick and me through the basics of our swings and showed us tiny corrections we could make to our posture, hand grip, etc. He stated things clearly and was extremely friendly, although I admit that I didn’t exactly hear all of what he was saying because I was too busy feeling like a cast-member from A Time To Kill, a movie where not even the gorgeous Ashley Judd and delicious Matthew McConaughey can distract me from the fact that they are sweating out the equivalent of their body weight in every scene. When the sun disappeared behind tiny puffs of cloud, or when the warm wind kicked up, it was surprisingly tolerable, but when the air was completely still and the sun beat down incessantly upon us, I found myself sweating so profusely and being so aware of the perspiration cascading down my torso, I wondered aloud if I might actually die before the lesson ended. So I might not have used my best listening ears.

The girls, however, were having a dandy time, swinging away with all their power, shouting at us to watch them every single time they set up next to the ball (“Watch me, Mommy!” “Look at this, Daddy!” “No, watch me again!” “Watch me this time, Mommy!” “Daddy, make sure you keep looking!”), hanging from the golf cart roof, camping out in the shade of the trees behind us, positively chugging the ice water that the pro had kindly provided for us (point two!), and wiping their brows with an ice-water-drenched towel. About halfway through the lesson, as I walked over to get a sip of water and revive myself, Annie whispered to me, “This is awesome already!”

Nick, who did not seem to be suffering from the heat as strongly as I, followed the pro’s instructions and almost immediately began hitting better shots. Despite sweating so much I could hardly open my eyes, I did actually manage to internalize some of the tips the instructor was giving me, and was pleasantly surprised that my own swing was improving; perhaps this would, in fact, be just as awesome as Annie had declared (three points!).

Then, as she stepped up to hit another ball, she motioned me over, obviously distressed. I had opened my mouth to ask her to please stop whining when she held up her un-gloved hand and showed me one of the gnarliest blisters I’ve seen in a long time.

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Thankfully, it doesn’t look so bad here, but trust me, it was icky.

Naturally, being a stellar, always-prepared parent, I had no band-aids on me, nor anything else to cover her open wound. Hence, she couldn’t swing the club again (the pro had warned her that doing so would seriously irritate her already-very-sore finger), and that, combined with the stinging pain, sent her into a crying tailspin. “But I was just having fun and now I have to stop!”

Ella, meanwhile, had been cheerfully dousing herself with ice water – pouring it down her back (“Check it out – my shirt is ALL WET!”), dumping it on her head, and dragging the freezing water towel across her forehead. Because it was so absurdly hot — and, in what is, again, a stellar parenting move — Nick and I somehow didn’t put two and two together to realize that covering oneself in ice water + no antihistamine medication = hives, when your child is allergic to the cold. At first, I just thought that Ella’s rosy cheeks were due to the heat, but when she began to complain that she was itchy everywhere, it finally dawned on me that she was having a full-on allergic reaction.

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Weird allergies are a blast.

We limped back to our car (actually, our super pro took pity on us, so we all — all five of us — piled onto the single-seat golf cart, like some sort of golfing clown car; point one million!), one child wailing about her mangled finger, one scratching furiously and moaning that every single part of her was itchy, and we adults — who had shied away from dousing ourselves with water — looking as though we’d walked through a car wash.

In spite of the heat, the blister, and the hives, however, we all agreed that – somehow – it had been really fun. If I were to play another round of golf this week, I’m confident that I’d still pick up my ball and walk it down the fairway, but, to my surprise, I enjoyed myself greatly and am very much looking forward to the other four lessons.

Next time, we’ll make sure Ella is properly medicated. And Annie already has a golf glove for her right hand. I’ll bring band-aids and towels, so the sweat won’t be in my eyes. We’ll be prepared, by gosh.

And then, what could possibly go wrong?