I recently went on a weekend golf trip to Arizona with a good group of guys. One might imagine that, in general, the demographic of guys who go on weekend golf trips would tend toward a bro-ish, self-absorbed, perpetual adolescence mindset. I hope that generalization’s not true, and for our group, it wasn’t.
Still, I was lamenting the fact that, for all the decency that was embodied in that group of guys, there we were spending enormous sums of money on a game, on lavish living, on material excess. I said as much to a friend back in Longmont, and the conversation pretty quickly turned to my own complicity in that excess. The eclectic in me, the revolutionary, has always frowned upon a complacent, bourgeois existence. Yet here I am, a comfortable, wealthy, middle aged white guy who golfs a lot.
The Golf Conundrum
I golfed sporadically (and spasmodically), at best, up until my late 30’s, whereupon I decided I needed a twilight sport to transition into from my beloved soccer. I was becoming the grizzled old slow guy on the soccer team, and I wanted to go out with at least a trace of dignity intact. After a knee injury and ensuing osteoarthritis in both knees, I limped through an over-40 soccer tournament in Vegas a year ago, while my team carried us to victory. Two months later, it was still hard to walk up and down the stairs – I hung up the cleats for good (?).
Golf had been my rehab after knee surgery. Golf was how I recovered from the Vegas tourney. Golf is one way I’ll stay in shape as I stroll down the proverbial back nine. I live two blocks from a short but challenging course. I walk there and walk the course a few times a week, weather (and other obligations) permitting. It’s less than $700 for an annual pass.
I golfed a lot in 2017. I keep a spreadsheet of my various jobs and projects, and golf made it to the top spot last year, comprising 383.5 hours of the almost 1600 total project hours I logged. I golfed in Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska (really!), Oregon, Wisconsin, and Florida in 2017. I spent a lot of money on golf and the trips associated with it.
To be blunt, I was golfing as Trump dismantled policies to slow climate change (he was golfing, too, apparently). I was golfing while hurricanes ripped apart Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and much of the Caribbean. I was golfing while over 30,000 Americans died from gun violence. I was golfing while women began to expose the widespread tragedy of sexual harassment and assault. I was golfing while genocide was committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar. I was golfing while over 700 million people didn’t have enough to eat in the world.
In 2014 I wrote a post called “Climbing the Totem Pole of Magnanimity,” in which I posited that I was some kind of dog-like creature around the middle of the totem pole (in other words, I had a long way to go to achieve magnanimity). My goal was to inch my way up that pole. So, in light of all this golfing I’ve been doing, one might expect that I’ve slipped down on the totem pole. But, actually, I believe I am now slightly higher on the pole; maybe I’m now in between dog-like creature and head-holding guy. How do I reconcile this?
Golf is elitist. By this I mean that it’s expensive, it takes a lot of time, it uses a lot of land and resources.1 It’s not very accessible to most folk. But what if I’d said I’d gotten in 60 days of skiing in the mountains instead? Would that be more acceptable? Or what if it was biking, or running, or exercising, or yoga, or meditation. These are noble pursuits, right? Much more so than slapping a ball around with a glorified stick, right? Granted, some of these other pursuits are less costly or have less of an environmental footprint, but all could be equally time-intensive.2
About a decade and a half ago, I realized (while I was about 20 miles into the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge (I only finished one lap of 25 miles)) that endurance sports were not for me, so I focused most of my exercising activity on soccer. Endurance sports still aren’t for me, but I have upped my game in the workout department (last year, at age 44, I bench pressed more than I ever have). I will continue to use workouts to help stay in shape. I ski and mountain bike once or twice a year, and that’s good enough.
I don’t believe in the oversimplified idea that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at something (even the author of this idea thinks that’s oversimplified); if I practiced for 10,000 hours at the 100 meter dash under the tutelage of the world’s best sprinting coaches, Usain Bolt would still crush me. But golf is different from such a pure athletic sport as running. The PGA tour is like a Dr. Seuss book of characters: Long-Leggers, Bar-ba-loots, Loraxes, Sneeches, Yooks and Zooks… All body types seem to be represented – which gives a fairly average guy like me hope that I might be able to play this game, too. Maybe 10,000 hours (or preferably a lot less) of deliberate practice at golf could actually work for me (as it did for Dan of The Dan Plan before injury took him out).
At the risk of boring those of you who don’t give a rip about golf, I have to say that it presents a stimulating challenge for me. It’s an opportunity to let the eclectic blend of ideas that continually flows through my head take a back seat for a few hours – to breathe and focus on the task at hand. Robert Pirsig had his motorcycle maintenance – I have my golf.
Besides the meditation and exercise and getting outside, I love tracking the numbers. I keep a spreadsheet of my stats, and despite how crappily I feel like I play many days, I’m getting better, albeit in fits and starts. True to my eclectic nature, I’m always tinkering, so as soon as I start to get some semblance of flow, I decide I can do better in a certain area and I regress for a while until I get that figured out – it’s chaos punctuated by brief bouts of equilibrium, but the general trend is progressive.
All of this is to say that golf, like many challenges, helps make me a happier, healthier, and (dare I say it) wiser person. There’s a lot of “self” in this, though.3 Self improvement is a huge industry in the United States: dieting, exercise, self-help, mindfulness, early retirement, lifestyle, impressing your lover in bed… All of these are supposed to make our selves happier.
But the end goal of self-help, as I see it, is other-help, which is, after all, the key to fulfillment. Self improvement can pave the way to living a more virtuous life, but we have to strap on our packs and walk down the path of righteousness for it to count. We should be continually striving to improve ourselves, and at the same time striving to make the world better for others – each of us has to find that balance.
Anybody can choose virtue, but it’s a lot easier for guys like me who dine on a cornucopia of fortune and privilege. If you’ve been around the Cottage much, you know I’m fond of the saying “From each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s need.” The fact is, my good fortune has afforded me the ability to do more for others.
So, in addition to self-improvement qua golfing, what have I done for others? Before my recent semi-retirement, my primary source of income was from painting houses. That created value, in the sense that it improved the structural and aesthetic condition of neighborhoods. Still, I would say that my wife, a public school teacher, is creating a lot more value for society.
In 2017 I had the luxury of doing less painting: according to my spreadsheet, I spent 16.5 hours painting, mostly for a neighbor. With my newfound free time, I had more time to devote to other projects, many of which I hope inched me up the aforementioned totem pole. I spent over 400 hours working on various art, video, photography, and writing projects (including this blog).4 In addition, I worked for 42 hours with my dad on The Cooperative Society Project, aimed at assessing (and facilitating) a global shift to a less conflict-oriented, more cooperation-oriented society. I put in over 50 hours experimenting with and promoting entomophagy. I added another 50 or so hours of volunteering on a project to improve our community. And I put in over 60 hours helping to coach my son’s soccer team.
So, while I golfed more in 2017 than I did in 2014, I think I also spent more time on projects that make the world a better place.
There’s a probably-not-so-funny idiom whereby the spouses of golfers are called golf widows. I know guys who neglect their families in favor of hitting the links. There are times when I probably should do something with the family in lieu of golfing. But, thanks to my flexible schedule, most of my golf time is when the kids are at school and my wife is at work. I feel like more golf has not translated into less family time – in fact, although I don’t have this on my spreadsheet, I think I spend more quality time with my family now than I did a few years ago (I’ll see if my wife can corroborate this).
So, everything is perfect and great with my golfing. It’s all good, and I should probably golf more. I am virtuous and magnanimous and all that. I rest my case.
I’m guilty because I haven’t really found the balance yet between leisure time that benefits my self and projects that benefit others. In fact, that balance is shifting: as I have more time and means (ability) to do more, I should be re-thinking what my responsibility is to give back.
I’m guilty because, even though I devote more time to projects that are supposed to benefit others, those projects could be more effective. If you write a blog, paint a picture, write a book, and nobody’s there to read/see it, does it have meaning, or is it the sound of one hand clapping?
I’m guilty because I could be a better empathizer, listener, advocate. I could be a better husband, father, friend.
I’m guilty, but rather than saying some Hail Marys, I’ll try a different approach – there are concrete steps I can take to adjust my focus. Forgiveness is easier if the forgiven is trying to improve.5
The 10-40 Plan
Peter Singer, in his book “The Life You Can Save,” proposes the 126.96.36.199 Formula, wherein people donate 5% of gross income to charity, reduce their environmental footprint by 10% each year until they can go no further, give 5% of their time to their community, and take democratic political action at least 10 times a year.
Since I don’t have much income these days, and my wife is half time, I have a different idea. Most of our wealth is in the form of equity. I’ve set up our finances in a spreadsheet that allows me to get a decent idea of how that wealth has grown throughout the year. My idea is to donate 10% of our increase in wealth each year, so if our nest egg increases by $50,000, we will give away $5000. As time goes on, if we feel more comfortable in our retirement, we will increase this amount.
Part of effective giving is giving to effective causes. The Life You Can Save website has vetted a number of these organizations, so that’s a good start. But we’ll also donate to local causes, certain environmental groups, politicians who are fighting for a better world, and to friends who are working on worthy projects.
Regarding my time, I’d like to spend about 40% of my work/project time on causes that are making a positive change. This is a pretty nebulous concept, so I’ll just have to make that determination myself, but it could include volunteer work, activism,6 research, writing, video, or art (but not golf). Over time, I hope to devote more time to these types of projects – the idea being to incrementally shift the 10-40 plan into something like the 75-75 plan.
In my non-project life, I will continue to work on spending more quality time with my family (and actually, part of doing this may be getting my family more involved in some of my projects). I also need to improve my empathizing, listening, and just being more present with friends, family, and colleagues. And my family and I will endeavor to reduce our environmental impact through more efficiency, less gas-powered driving, less meat eating, and using renewable electricity – and offset the rest via carbon offsets.
So where does that leave golf? Well, I plan to continue golfing, and maybe even intensify some aspects of my game.7 But I’m also going to temper how much I play at expensive courses and how much I travel for the sole purpose of golf. I hope to play the fancy new Sand Valley Golf Resort in Wisconsin this summer, for example, but it will be in conjunction with a family vacation.
If I were a better man, I would forgo my health and happiness to devote all my time to helping others, but I don’t know how long I would last. Many people, of course, do just this, and they are the true heroes of the world. They are the wise, soaring owls at the top of the totem pole.