Reflecting on the “Front Nine”

My dad has spent the majority of his retirement golfing or talking about golf, so it came as no surprise when he told me this analogy.

Dad was listening to the Clark Howard show, when a guy called up to talk about financial planning, so Howard asked the guy how old he was. When he told Howard he was 40, Howard replied, “Yep. You’re on the back nine.”

In other words, you’re half way through your round of 18.

I just passed that age barrier myself this week and I spend a lot of time thinking about life on the back nine. It’s not always about me, but rather what it means in terms of life. My folks are pushing past 70, so given our family history, dad could be either chipping onto the 14th green or teeing up on the final hole.

Mom just retired, so there’s dichotomy of thoughts for me. First is, “God, I hope she finds something she loves as much as she loved to teach.” Second is, “God, I hope she and dad don’t kill each other.”

Perhaps even more, I realize that life has a certain brevity to it. I wrote more than a few obituaries for the newspaper in which a professor retired and six months later, he was dead. Not sure what it is about work and death that seem to go together. My grandfather worked 42 years in the same factory. He planned to retire in May but only made it to the previous November.

Sometimes, I guess, a round gets called early.

 

“It was freezing cold when we brought you home,” my mother told me many times. Truth be told, it was 57 degrees, which for a Wisconsin June isn’t as ridiculous as it could have been. Still, all the cute T-shirts went in back in the dresser and Dad had to scavenge for a sweater for me.

I obviously don’t remember the first birthday, and most others were lost in a wash of cake, presents and enough food to feed the army of a Ukrainian country.

(Every food argument started with mom asking about food for the party and dad listing off burgers, brats, hot dogs, shrimp salad, potato salad and more. “For God’s sake!” Mom would exclaim. “Who is going to eat all of that?” Dad would always say, “We’ll there’s you, me and the KID! And then your ma and my ma…” The list usually grew to the same 11 people, but Dad never backed off. His final retort was, “We’ll send it back to school with the kid. It’ll be fine.” It always was. My roommates and I never starved.)

Some, however, just don’t go away.

My eighth birthday was a sleepover fueled by about six cases of Black Bear soda pop and 10 restless boys. We were sugared beyond what the human body was meant to withstand, so sleep wasn’t even a thought. Around 4 a.m., my mother came downstairs to yell at us to go to sleep. She found me standing on the doorknobs of our back bedroom door. I was balancing to shoot a Nerf ball through a hoop in what had become an increasingly elaborate version of the game “HORSE.” Thank God for 1920s iron-clad construction or we might never have been able to open that door again.

About 12 years later, a few of those same friends and a few new ones were gathered in the basement for another shindig. In the middle of everything that was going on, my Dad came clomping down the stairs and said, “You gotta see what’s on TV.”

We came upstairs and didn’t get it. It was a video of a white truck, rolling down the freeway. We finally figured it out once the announcers put the pieces together for us: O.J. Simpson was going on his infamous Bronco run.

We watched for about three minutes before I said, “This is boring. Let’s play Trivial Pursuit.”

Never let it be said that I always had a nose for news.

The big 21 was the one everyone talks about but nobody remembers. My uncle, who is 13 years older than I am, took me out at midnight in Milwaukee for my first legal drink. We went to all his “old haunts” and judging by how long he had been out of the game, most of them seemed haunted. Still, it was a blast, as he knew most of the owners (as opposed to the bartenders) who were more than willing to lube up a new member of the legal drinking brigade.

The only problem? I was in Milwaukee so I could drive my folks to the airport before heading back to college for the summer. Their flight left at 7, so at 5 a.m., I’m in a car driving a way-too-talkative Dad and a very chipper, I-got-10-hours-of-sleep Mom to the airport. It might have been one of the longer nights of my life, even if had it stopped there.

Of course, it didn’t.

Back on campus, I was treated to the best and worst that birthday traditions had to offer: A mug from the Nitty Gritty on campus, a toast at some brat house and a blowjob shot off the bar at The Barber’s Closet to finish off the night.

The next day, my liver filed for divorce.

 —

Birthdays ebbed and flowed after college. The joke was that my favorite one was 25, because my car insurance premiums went down dramatically.

Actually, it was 26. The year my wife-to-be came down to see me for the weekend. We were separated by 500 miles and unsure where we were going. However, that weekend was the best of my life. I knew exactly what I wanted and with whom I wanted to be.

It started with her attempt to make me a nice breakfast after a night of drinking and accidentally setting off the smoke detector in the apartment. I woke up to the sight of my diminutive wife jumping up and down, waving a DVD case at a shrieking piece of plastic hanging from the hallway ceiling. It ended with me watching her board a train in Jefferson City, thinking only of that scene from “For Love of the Game” where Kelly Preston stops before boarding a transatlantic flight and tells the stewardess, “Give my seat to somebody else.”

She stayed on the train. I broke in half.

Three months later, she was back in Missouri and back with me for good.

The hardest birthday was 30. I hope it always will be.

My parents came down to see us for my birthday and as they drove in, we were hoping to get the OBGYN to tell us the sex of the baby my wife was carrying.

Instead, she told us the child was dead.

That year, my birthday was spent in the hospital as my wife got a D&C. The doctor told me everything was fine but that the child wasn’t old enough for me to find out if I had lost a son or a daughter.

The first words out of my ether-hazed wife when I saw her were, “I’m sorry. I’ll try harder next time.”

I broke in half again, unable to ever imagine a next time.

The next year, Dad took me golfing for my birthday. After the round, he took me out for some food. And then some lottery tickets. And then he saw a guy with a chainsaw carving wooden bears and demanded we stop and watch.

I figured that my father had finally aged beyond the capacity of his own mind. He was clearly going senile.

Instead, when we got home, I figured it out. A surprise party.

The biggest grin, other than mine, was the one on my wide-bellied wife.

Two months later, The Midget was born.

People fear 40 and I can’t say I’m a huge fan of it either. Dad, however, says getting older is better than the alternative.

Still, I had rougher years, like 36, when I realized that when I was 18, taking this lame media-writing course, my students in said lame media course weren’t born yet.

I also realize that most of my pop culture references are lost on my students. I’ve had to adapt. The giant fight over a singular A for a course is no longer “Thunderdome” but “The Hunger Games.” The self-important smarm-dog of the class is no longer Eddie Haskell but rather Barney Stinson. Geeks are Sheldon, not Urkel.

Last year, we spent my birthday cleaning like mad fools in hopes of selling our house. The realtor is supposed to give us 24 hours notice, but no one ever turns down a viewing, so we were scrubbing and waxing and polishing, all in vain. We never sold our house and I swore we’d never go back on the market again.

Of course, never is relative.

On my birthday this year, we signed papers to buy a new house. Contingent, of course, on selling ours.

Yet another stupid idea in a series of stupid ideas I’ve had over the course of my life.

The time I was 4 and made mud balls in my pool just before Mom was supposed to take me somewhere important in my good clothes.

The time I was 15 and forgot to check on an address for a cast party. My parents showed up at a dark house and couldn’t find or contact me in the pre-cellphone era.

The time I was 16, banged my car into a woman’s car at an intersection and then attempted to pay her not to tell anyone.

The time I was 18 and learned that even when they’re free, Tequila Slammers still come with a price.

The time I was 24 and tried to teach my students grammar by playing George Carlin’s “Airline Announcements.”

The time I was 28 and played two jobs off of each other and lost them both, leaving me unemployed.

The time I was 33 and forgot to care about anything involving our house-buying efforts, thus sticking me in an overpriced shell game of a homestead.

The time I was…

To quote Troy Dyer, “Life is a series of meaningless tragedies and a series of near escapes.”

That said, the purpose of breaking a golf round into two sets of nine holes is so you can sit in the clubhouse, eat a sandwich and reflect on what happened to you that first half. Maybe your putting was good but your drives sucked. Maybe you kept losing your balls (common problem among men) but you had some nice recovery shots. Maybe you did pretty well overall, but just one hole really screwed up your score.

I guess I made the turn. I looked at my scorecard and I can’t complain too much. I might be a shot or two off of par either way, but it could have been a lot worse.

On to the back nine.

Let’s see how I do.

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