"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Golf As A Metaphor For Life–Hit The Ball In The Middle Of The Fairway

Vibby Painter – Vibberts Randall Painter III – was horrible at golf. No matter how hard he tried or how many lessons he took, his tee shots always either rocketed left in a mighty boomerang hook, clipping the tops of the oak trees and coming back around no more than 25 yards from the clubhouse; or sliced right in a towering drive above the maple trees, over the brook, and past the sand traps into the woods. For the life of him he could never hit the fairway, let alone land in the middle of it.

Vibby’s father had been the reigning club champion for three years running. Harrison Painter was a scratch golfer who had excelled at the game since he had won the Connecticut junior title at 15.  He played rugby and tennis at St. Grottlesex and was an alternate on the 8-man crew team – an alternate only because of his varsity obligations in the Fall and Spring.

Harrison Painter crewed at Yale and helped win the Ivy League title all four years he was in New Haven and even more importantly the Henley Regatta.  There was nothing he couldn’t do, no sport that he had not mastered.  He was preternaturally gifted, said his coaches, but the real gift came from his genetic heritage.  His father was a three-sport man at Yale as was his grandfather; and his mother at Wellesley had won every equestrian event held among the Seven Sisters.

Needless to say, Harrison Painter was disappointed in his son.  Vibberts was in reasonable shape, tall, and well-built and had none of the flab and flubber of a lot of his classmates.  As a small child he showed energy and enthusiasm when they played badminton in the backyard or kicked the soccer ball; but as the boy grew older, energy and enthusiasm could no longer carry the day.  Whereas other boys quickly got the hang of torque, that elegant transfer of energy from legs and upper body to arms, wrists, and hands, Vibby never did.  His golf swings were awkward and ill-timed.  He could never manage to hit a softball, never mind a baseball.  His swings were ungainly and off kilter.  He twisted like a dervish at home plate in a futile attempt to act on his father’s sideline encouragement (“Torque, Vibby, torque”). A clang off the rim on a foul shot was the closest he could ever come to getting the basketball through the net; and his soccer shots were never on goal but far wide of it.

“The boy simply can’t shoot straight”, said Harrison Painter to his wife.

Sports were compulsory at St. Grottlesex, so no matter how he objected, knowing that he would be endlessly taunted by his classmates who could play every sport naturally and with ease, he could not convince the administration to let him be the equipment manager or water boy. “We here at St. Grottlesex pride ourselves on mens sana in corpore sano, young man”, said the Headmaster who turned down his request every year. “Out onto the playing field with you, my boy.  Take my word for it, someday you will thank me for it”.

So out he went and took his licks on the football field, missed his dribbles on the basketball court, and lunged, whiffed, and cartwheeled at the plate.  He was hopeless.  He knew it and the school athletic staff knew it.

“I’ve never seen anything like it”, said the Headmaster. “Usually our boys excel at something; but young Painter is a failure at everything. Very unusual indeed.” He was thinking, of course, of the school’s reputation.  Not that one dud would tarnish St. Grottlesex’s premier reputation in the New England Independent School Athletic Conference, but word could get around.  The Admissions Department at St. Grottlesex had set exceedingly high standards, and in fact they were looking for perfect boys.  This was usually not hard to do, for they picked from la crème de la crème of upper class New England society, families who summered on the Vineyard and wintered at Aspen, Gstaad, and Val d'Isère, and subscribed to English values of discipline, hard work, strength, and commitment.

St. Grottlesex thought they had a winner in Vibby Painter.  How could they not, given the illustrious history of both his father and mother – champions on the field of sport and successful in business.  They noticed something a bit dodgy in his application.  Sports were rarely mentioned; but then again boys often mature physically once they leave Middle School, and Vibby would surely find his groove.

They couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  Vibby was good at absolutely nothing.  He was a good, middling student.  He kept his end up at mixers and social events, and looked good on special events, like Shakespeare Day, when the Drama Department put on excellent amateur performances of even the most difficult plays.  Vibby never actually acted in the plays, but his patrician bearing and impeccable dress added to air of superiority which the school always wanted to display.

Thanks largely to his father’s legacy and his St. Grottlesex pedigree, Vibberts Painter easily was accepted to Yale where, thank God, nothing was compulsory.  He enjoyed his four years in New Haven, majored in English literature with honors, and graduated to the applause of his parents and family.

The problem was that Vibby’s inability to shoot straight wasn’t just an issue on the athletic field, but everywhere.  Instead of missing the ball, he missed the point.  No matter how hard he tried his arguments were just a few degrees off center, eliciting perplexed frowns from his colleagues.  His marketing ideas were not stupid, per se, but were never on target.  He read the same consumer data as anyone else, sat outside the one-way glass and watched the company’s focus group just like the rest of the employees in his department; but he couldn’t quite match the figures with the target audience.  He thought he understood what housewives wanted in a cleanser, but somehow his copy turned out wrong and somehow perversely twisted. His humor missed the mark.  His irony missed the mark; and his pitches to the subliminal desires of middle class women were more appealing to gay men.

Vibby left Madison Avenue for Wall Street.  He was coming of age in an era in which Chase Manhattan still valued breeding and social skills, and where a certain Puritan rectitude trumped hedgy deal-making.  Once again, he passed his interview with flying colors, for those vetting him were close friends of his father, had crewed with him at Yale, and had lunch with him every week at the New York Athletic Club.

It was to their surprise and chagrin that the supposedly savvy Wall Street executives erred mightily when it came to Vibby Painter.  It wasn’t that he was stupid, and he was certainly well-educated.  It was more that he simply couldn’t hit the target.  One weekend in the the Fall, the head of Vibby’s department invited him up to Cornwall to do some skeet shooting.  Vibby had tried his hand at the sport when he was a boy, but needless to say after four years of shooting at the Brook Meadow Country Club range, he had not hit one clay pigeon.  Nevertheless, he could not refuse the generous offer of his boss, so he took the train on Friday evening, and bright and early on a brilliant Fall Saturday, he, his boss, and four colleagues from the office went off, nattily dressed in J.Press tweeds and comfortable shoes, and carrying shotguns, cartridge bags, and a good Scotch.

Vibby’s father, of course, was a good shot and had once been considered for the US Olympic Team; so it was natural that Vibby’s boss assumed that his son would have the same steady aim and hawk eye.  However, nothing had changed in the 15 years since Vibby had once and for all replaced his shotgun in the gun rack in his father’s study; and Vibby was as erratic as ever and almost stubbornly so.  How else, his boss wondered, could he miss every pigeon? “Maybe there’s something Freudian going on here”, his boss, a spreadsheet-and-budget man, uncharacteristically thought.

Time after time Vibby shouted “Pull!” with energy and gusto, raised his gun to the sky, listened for the sound of the catapult, scanned the sky for the flight of the pigeon, sighted it, and pulled the trigger.  One shot after another on a long morning of shooting went unrewarded.  “Good shooting, Old Chap”, said Harter Davis, the Englishman who was a financial analyst and arbiter of all things proper and a man of quiet dignity.

I would like to report that life became easier for Vibby, but in fact it got worse. Thanks only to the residue of good will towards his father and the Painter family name, Vibby was not completely dunned out of Wall Street, but found himself in one dead-end job after another.  Each and every Senior Vice-President was sincerely sorry to let him go because Vibby was such an affable, good-natured, and principled man. “Ah”, said one.  “If only we were a company that made its money on the basis of moral rectitude and social grace.”

All in all, however, Vibby Painter did not have a bad life.  He was fortunate to have a private income, a significant trust fund set up by his grandfather, and a generous inheritance when his father died.  He still summered at the family house on the Vineyard, kept the pied a terre on Fifth Avenue, and spent most of his time in Cornwall, not far from the estate of his former skeet-shooting boss.

He married well.  In his younger, less traditional crowd – unlike the Old Guard of Vibberts Randall Painter II - where or how you acquired your wealth mattered far less than the wealth itself; so Elizabeth Rittenhouse Phipps and her family were overjoyed at the prospect of joining fortunes with the Painters. Vibberts and Libby had three children and many grandchildren.

Hitting the mark made less and less difference as he grew older.  All men his age stumbled and fumbled, never quite getting the key in the lock the first time, always scraping the tires on the curb, missing the tea cup entirely when pouring in the poor morning light. For the first time in his life he was not an oddity, the man who couldn’t shoot straight, the gentleman who couldn’t hit the mark.

As he thought back on his long life, he often thought of his father who Vibby knew was disappointed in him and sorry he didn’t turn out exactly as he had hoped. Harrison Painter was never mean or accusatory with his son and never showed his frustration. “Torque, Vibby, torque” was about as insistent as he ever got. C’est la vie, thought Vibby.  Life’s harvest is never what you expect when you sow.

Surprisingly, Vibby took up golf again.  At his stage in life, no one could hit the fairway with any regularity; and he learned like his friends to just pop the ball off the tee 100 yards and peck away for the rest of the hole.  Ironic, he thought, to be back on the 5th hole fairway where he hacked and banged the ball as a young teenager.  In fact he remembered his tee shots very well.  He hit the ball with strength and authority, and the sound of the driver hitting a Titleist was like a rifle shot. Hit so hard, the ball flew off the tee in a straight, long trajectory right down the middle of the fairway.  Only after a few seconds did the force of the drive diminish and the tremendous spinning of the slice or hook kicked in and the ball hurtled left or right into the trees.  But for those few, precious seconds, he was a scratch golfer – strong, graceful, and perfect.

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