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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(October 27, 2008)

Strange Arrivals in a Stranger Town
by Abbot John

I am pleased to announce my verification of the Concept of Impermanence. The Buddha sneaked out of the palace to discover, among other things, that people get old. I acquired this information with much less effort. I became a grandfather.

When I say, "with much less effort," I'm not counting the two decades I spent as an active parent. One of the sons I was a parent of came home on leave nine plus months ago and proved another Buddhist concept, that of Dependent Origination. Because of this, we have that; and because of that, and so on, we have a new baby boy in the family

Mother, father and child are all doing well. Until recently, I didn't know whether I was doing well or not. Philosophy tends to skew one's self analysis. But even in my unsettled state, I could see that my wife was definitely not in a philosophical groove. For those same two decades, whenever she looked into a mirror she communicated with a sixteen year old Valley Girl. Against the advice of Buddha, I figured the image was permanent and that no power on earth could change it; but being titled Grandmother for the first time in her life, eradicated the Valley Girl and left some undecipherable hieroglyphics scribbled on the glass. My wife did what she usually does when she is confused. She moved furniture and rearranged rooms.

Suspecting that I really needed to meditate, I began to search for my meditation room. Where it used to be was now what my wife called our "Retreat Room." She had seen this conceptually on one of those TV designer shows. I asked, "Is this a kinder, gentler version of a panic room?" She ignored me. On what used to be my altar were now a dozen or so family photos and one mysterious sonogram. I searched and found, in the cellar, the things that used to identify my meditation room as such. Sitting on the cellar steps, I contemplated the pile of sacred stuff. I had never lived in a house that had a "Retreat Room" before, but it somehow seemed appropriate for me to commandeer the one we now had - if only because of the name.

So, I pulled my graven images, all my incense holders and candle sticks, zafu and zabuton, music equipment, ear phones, and all the other paraphernalia from the subconscious part of the house up to the Retreat Room. I placed them chaotically in the middle of the room, sat on the end of an uncomfortable piano bench like Rodin's Thinker and stared around the room for 15 minutes wondering what I was going to do with all the other stuff. I also wondered about the current period of my life. I was sure that my innate tendency to examine, re-examine, cross-examine any role that I somehow must play, would cause me to create many different faces to present to the unsuspecting grandchild. The end result would mean nothing to the child but would likely cause me to venture much too close to the neurotic edges of reality.

My own self-image had suffered an existential blow. Here was I, a self-proclaimed maverick, a believer in nothing, an anarchist, a samurai golfer, a rebel with or without cause, a societal malcontent, the defacto person your mother warned you about. Yes, here I was, a married man with grown children, a reasonably successful businessman, an excellent payer of taxes, and an abbot of a religious order. Where the hell did Pop Pop fit into this picture? I decided to go for a walk.

All kinds of scenarios started rolling through my mind. Everything I saw that had anything noteworthy about it morphed into a museum setting for the little guy. I could see and hear my wife taking his hand and pointing as she cooed, "This is the place where your grandfather discovered ------------(fill in the blank). Yes, my sweet boy, It was on a day just like today..." I was trying to daydream my way out of anxiety.

I began to think about what I was thinking about, a kind of prenatal examination of being pregnant with thought. Why was I so filled with feelings of inadequacy and so much soap-opera drama? This was when the examination began to take on an existential cast that caused me to begin to rethink every thing that had brought me to those tree-lined streets feeling so alone. Had I ceased to differentiate substance from image? Had I fallen into that well defined trap of being too self-satisfied with my own forays into the enlightenment experience? Did I really give a shit, one way or another, whether anybody else ever experienced anything at all? Had I built my own private Idaho, my own forest, my own mountain, my own cave; and was I satisfied with what I'd found?

The walk around my neighborhood was insufficient. In an intuitive flash I saw that only on a golf course could such philosophical questions find an answer.

It had rained for days and only on this day had the downpour ceased. When I got to the course it was nearly abandoned. I grabbed a cart (access was by cart path only on this day) and began to play. I felt kingly, having no one ahead of me and no one behind. I reveled in the scent of the wet grass and the air's heaviness and my slow measured swings that were unburdened with the anticipation of result. In times past, I would have called the round ecstatic. I discarded all thoughts that did not have Titleist connected to them.

The golf was great. I played bogey, par, birdie, par, par, for the first 5 holes. Even through five, is a great start for a hacker of my level. I went with apprehension to the tee at 6. The approach to this hole is blind, hidden in a short indentation of woods. The hole itself is a long par three. It was here that I looked ahead and much to my chagrin was a couple standing by the right bunker signaling me to play through. They were the first people I had seen on the course all day; and since I was having a terrific, albeit solitary, round, I did NOT want an interruption in my game. I ignored their waves and turned my back to them. After the appropriate length of time I turned back and yet there they were waving like people on the docks welcoming an incoming ship. An older male and a shorter female, who at first glimpse appeared to be an elderly woman out with her son for a bonding round of golf. People do that, though I don't know why.

I now had no recourse but to hit. From 205 yards I hit a five wood perfect and landed 10 feet from the pin. I haven't hit that green since June. A smug feeling settled on my thoughts about the intruders. "At least these people will know they are not watching a fool play," I muttered as I walked towards the green. To my amazement the female was clapping and jumping up and down as if I had just won the US Open. Usually good shots on the course are met with a certain nonchalance by the bystanders. With so much enthusiasm directed towards me, introductions seemed unnecessary, yet as I approached the green, the man introduced himself and his daughter who, as it happened, had Down's Syndrome. They were practicing for the upcoming Special Olympics Golf tourney to be held the following week. Guilt made me excessively friendly.

When they invited me to play with them, I could not refuse. The man said that he wanted to teach his daughter to play and he did not have much time. He thought that having another model, namely me, on the course would help her to learn what she had to know. We can forgive father, for he knew not what he was about to do. Her ball was in the rough some fifteen feet from the edge of the green and another fifteen feet from the cup, this was a perfect half air, half roll ratio that cried out for a nice chip shot. But instead of a wedge, he drew a putter out of the bag. A manikin isn't supposed to speak, but I was a first time grandfather manikin and in golfing terms this was some kind of child abuse. Not only were the clubs man sized - the top of the stick was at her eye level - but he was giving her gentle but completely erroneous instructions on how to hold it. The grandfather in me couldn't keep his mouth shut. "You really ought to try a wedge," I said. I could tell from the way he looked at the golf bag, he either didn't know which one was the wedge or else he was opting for a heavier club to crack my skull. "She'll do just fine," he said. And I stood open mouthed as the kid whacked the ball with the putter and sent it bouncing to within a few inches of the cup. The ten feet I had to negotiate became the entrance to a labyrinth. The ball rolled past the cup and didn't stop until it had gone ten feet on the other side. I tried to collect my thoughts as she tapped in. My ball wanted to go every which way but in. I bogied the hole.

We went to 7 and I went first and they both shouted, "Wow, what a great shot!" I had split the fairway. "Now," I thought as I looked down at my little nemesis, "let's see you beat that!" Golf and shame are mutually exclusive terms.

In her hands, the long driver looked like an alpenhorn. She stood so far away from the tee GPS technology would have been useful. Stronger than she looked, she swung the club back laterally and brought it forward with a wild swing that sent the ball airborne for about forty yards before it began to bounce in a kind of rhythmic slow motion, like astronauts skipping on the moon. Gravity seemed to have taken a holiday, leaving the ball to those other facts about inertia. "An object set in uniform motion..." Newton was mocking me. Oh, sure, her ball did not go nearly so far as mine which is probably why herís landed on virgin turf whilst mine cradled itself inside a divot the size of the astrodome. On successive swings I visited the woods on the right and then the left and was somewhere near the sand traps that were between me and the green when I saw her standing by the flag waving to me happily. "Come on!" she called encouragingly, "You still haven't made an X. You can do it!" With superhuman effort I got the ball to the green and asked, "What is an X?" She looked surprised. Her father explained, "If you get the ball in the hole in less than ten hits, you get the number; but if you need ten or more, you get an X."

Even before I learned that this was the scoring method used in the upcoming tourney, I found merit in the system.

Why prolong the agony? I went from horrible to unspeakable. Yes. I went into X Files territory. She slithered through, beating me at the 8th. Then, much to my relief, she said that she would be playing only nine holes. But as we walked to the 9th tee, something happened in my mind. I had not realized that my initial problem - the one that had forced me to the golf course that day - was being worked on at a very subliminal level. I had reached some kind of conclusion about my future as Pop Pop. While she was doing her alpenhorn thing, the conclusion came to me. I suppose that I got the idea from a Hitchcock film, Strangers On A Train. I had a friend who recently had a grandson. I'd make a deal with him. In a year when the boys were ready, we'd get some small golf clubs, and he could teach my grandson how to play and I could teach his. The kid would call me Uncle John... and it wouldn't matter how good or bad our instructions were - so many adjustments have to be made as kids grow. And we wouldn't have that damned inter-family macho competition or that "stage mother" zeal. People tend to get too emotionally involved with offspring.

We exchanged pleasantries and went to the clubhouse and our cars.

I went back home eager to get started organizing the mess. In the Retreat Room, the photos were all on the piano, and all my altar things were neatly arranged and the cushions were squared up perfectly on the floor. Even the CD player was plugged in.

I closed the door to the Retreat Room and went to an early bed. I woke up this morning and thought, "Things are getting real odd around here."

Humming Bird