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Saturday, June 25, 2005

What I Did For My Summer Vacation (Part I)

If you wonder where I've been, I was on vacation for a week, spending some time at the beach in Cape May, New Jersey (prior to that I was getting my sports affair with EA Sports FIFA 2005 Soccer out of my system and resting a bit after a year straight of blogging). If you haven't been there, Cape May's just a wonderful place to go. If you have kids, there's enough to do, and if you don't like amusement parks on the boardwalk, Cape May has neither a board walk (it has an asphalt promenade that runs parallel to the beach) nor an amusement park. If you don't have kids and seek solitude and romance, you can get that too. Cape May has a) the best restaurants at any New Jersey shore point and b) the best concentration of restaurants in New Jersey, period.

But this isn't an advertisement about Cape May, which holds a special place in my heart (for reasons that are far from obvious to all but those who know me well), but about rediscovering whatever athletic tendencies are left in me in my middle age.

After professional school, the need to impress on the job left me without a good athletic outlet other than being a fan. While I had a short commute in my first job, I didn't find a routine, and urban living really didn't suit me. During my last year in school, I enjoyed a great daily pickup basketball game that went for hours at a time. We played half-court, three-on-three, and it was great to run picks and rolls, gives and gos, and to play "make it take" it and hit ten jumpers in a row to ice a game. It was equally fun to run the backdoor with one of my favorite hoopsters, a bearded woodsman from the Northwest who years earlier was a freshman QB in the Ivies (and then was one of the most un-jocklike people I ever met).

I still miss that game.

I miss the slightly bent rims, the chain nets, the pebbles that sometimes made a ball bounce worse than on a deadspot at the old Boston Garden. I miss my old Nikes, icing my sore hamstring after a two-hour game, grabbing a beer afterward. I miss playing when we could see our breaths, and I miss throwing passes with my back to the basket at the high post. Sure, it was far from great basketball in the ultimate sense, but we improved week to week, and as we developed a rhthym with one another we played some mighty good basketball. The purists in Boston, New York and Philadelphia all would be proud, not to mention Princeton, as the back doors were excellent.

Truth be told, in the many more than ten years since that time, I haven't found much to replace that game. I had played a middling game of golf, but my golf game went sour after college. During my senior year, when we could join the course down the road from the college for $55 for unlimited play second semester, I played at least 40 rounds, carrying an old red Wilson nylon carry bag, about 12 clubs (my father's Spalding Registered set and an odd assortment of true woods -- a drive, three and four wood) and say 6 balls. We got up early and walked about 10 minutes to the course, and then played 18 in about three and a half hours. I have many great memories of those rounds, some hilarious laughs and a good story about how an offensive lineman friend of mine hit a shank -- calling it a slice would have been a compliment -- at a forty-five degree angle that almost turned the school's hard-nosed hoops coach into a soprano of the lower-case variety. My golf year culminated in my shooting a 37 on the back nine on a 95-degree day about a week before commencement where every shot I hit turned to gold, the course's graduation present to me.

My golf game hasn't been the same ever since.

I played okay that following summer, but then the journey to professional school meant a crowded public course, six-hour rounds, and, of course, no time to play. I missed my college friends, and I learned that for me golf was as much about with whom I played as the course I was playing on. I probably didn't give the game as much of a chance as I had before, I lost patience with it, which was easy to do given the absence of driving ranges nearby, the lack of time to practice, and the fact that my college buddies were far away. I enjoyed playing with my father during intervening summers when I came home, but my game was so out of whack that I played one decent round followed by two where I discovered flora and fauna on the course that perhaps its architect hadn't realized were there when he built the place sixty years earlier.

My golf game has had its moments thereafter, but I never found the playing partners I had in college. Part of it was (and is) that they were (and remain) wonderful people. Part of it was that after college I enjoyed playing golf the most with my father, who passed away less than a year after I returned home from professional school, almost 20 years ago. And, I'm sure, part of it was that I didn't give many of the newer people in my life the chance I should have with respect to golf.

So I was adrift for a while, resorting to becoming a workout wonder of sorts, hitting the gym six days a week in the apartment building where I lived, doing the stairmaster, lifting weights, stretching. All good stuff, and I felt in great shape.

But there weren't many games involved, and then I fell in love, a long-distance relationship that required foregoing golf on the weekends, and I got married and moved to the suburbs, where our small condo, of course, didn't have a gym, and where the commute was such that I didn't have much time for much exercise of any kind. I tried to fit in workouts here and there, but mostly I failed. Then we had kids, were perpetually exhausted when they were very little, and I probably was at my athletic nadir.

Gradually, with home exercise equipment, I got the workouts back, getting up ridiculously early to fit them in before work. I've always been a morning person, and I don't like working out at lunch because I like a good one hour workout at minimum and don't relish sweating the remainder of the day. By the time I get home from work, eat dinner and spend time with the family, there isn't much time left in the day. So early morning workouts were (and had to be) the answer.

But still, something was missing.

Until this vacation.

First, one of my son's friends called me late on a Friday night and asked me if I wanted to play nine holes of golf with him last Saturday morning -- at 7 a.m. We were to get to the course, only about 10 minutes from where we lived, at 6:30 a.m. to hit some balls at the range, and then we could go off the back nine and play. It was a beautiful morning, and we had little traffic on the course behind us or in front of us, and for eight of the nine holes I hit the ball better than I had in years (a recent outing with my college buddies to Long Island was a lot of fun, but golfwise I felt like I had regressed significantly), it was breezy, and I somehow felt better on the golf course than I had in a long time. I don't know what got into me, but my game felt alive again. Yes, I corrected my swing on the range a week earlier, but finally I felt that it was time to live again on the golf course. (My friends who read this shouldn't feel slighted, but when I play with them annually I usually have had no practice beforehand. ) I'm not getting any younger, and my playing partner actually had lost a good friend (in his early forties, no less -- and a golf shop owner) a week earlier. We both realize that it's time to live a little more. We now look forward to playing at 6 a.m. once a week during the summer if we can.

Secondly, my second grader has become more ambitious as a bike rider, and I had two choices. One is to walk with her to an adjacent neighborhood to ride and then stand out there with nothing to do. The other was to get back on a bicycle after, well, more years not having ridden a bike than not having played three-on-three hoops. Again, this was a choice -- I could coast into old age working out on machines, or I could live a little. I bought her a new bike about a month ago, and when I did so I tried out a bike for me at the bike store. My first thought was, "Gee, this is fun" and my second thought was, "why hadn't I gotten back on a bike before this?" I held the thought and figured I'd give bike riding a try in Cape May.

My daughter and I got up early enough (I know you're not supposed to do that on vacation, but we had talked about bike riding on the ride to the shore (or "down the shore", as Philadelphia-area natives say) and were excited to do so. We rented bikes for $7 an hour and then rode them up and down the promenade near the beach, maneuvering in and out of walkers, joggers, stroller pushers and other bicyclists. We got good exercise, and, well, I felt like a kid again.

Today, I went to the bike store and bought a bike (I already had bought the helmet). It's ghastly hot in our neck of the woods, but I look forward to my next bike ride, which, hopefully, will be early tomorrow morning. I also look forward to riding in the early a.m. before work, at least in the summer and early fall.

Vacations are for rest, for enjoyment, for spending time with the family, for reflection, for recharging one's batteries and for thinking about life. In doing so, and in recognizing that I have a lot of my journey left to take, I rediscovered some fundamental joys.

Hitting a golf ball in the early morning sun with a slight breeze at your back, wearing a hat that would make Chi Chi Rodriguez or Greg Norman proud.

Riding a bike with your determined little girl, who isn't so little any more.

Watching your son hold a golf club like a lightsaber, swing it with all the precision of a wrecking ball and get holes in one in miniature golf on consecutive days.

Jumping waves in the Atlantic Ocean with the family and planning a boogie-boarding adventure (or two) later in the summer.

Watching games, blogging about them, getting existential about the fluidity of Derek Jeter's movements, mathematical about Billy Beane's player moves or mathematical about Tony LaRussa's managerial strategy, well, that's all a lot of fun too.

But certainly not as fun as hitting the drive on your first hold right down the middle of the fairway, or riding next to your child on a long bike ride.

I'll keep writing a lot.

And living a little more.


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