I WAS NEVER what you would call a “skilled” or “competent” or “sober” hacky sack player. But, for a good chunk of my 20s my friends and I played with a ferocious regularity. We were not the shirtless, dreadlocked, stoned, Dead listening, patchouli scented hackers of clichédom. Though, I did like the Dead, especially when stoned. And for a few years there between 2000 and 2003 I wore my share of patchouli. But we weren’t the hackers you think of when you picture hackers. It wasn’t a statement of the laissez-faire, or a tribute to a hippified lifestyle. No one wore tie dye. Instead, it was a pastime. A recreation. In those years, post-university (the first go) and pre-Montreal (the first go) and sans-career (still no) we seemingly played an endless round of hacky sack at barbecues, in parks, in driveways. Any patch of space that could accommodate three to eight people, really. On New Year’s Eve, 1998, I believe we played in the small living room of our unimpressed host. It was a transitional time in my life, in all of our lives. We were all equals, still. No mortgages. No car payments. No kids. Little debt.
And then, suddenly, one day, it was over. And everybody golfed.
I don’t hate golf, but I’m not in a financially secure enough position in my life to enjoy it. I have no skills, no confidence, no matter how much beer I drink. I’m a blade of grass shy of a birdie on one hole, and double-quintuple bogey on the next. If I never golfed again, it wouldn’t rob me of sleep, I would soldier on unaffected. But I enjoy the day. I like the time with old friends, the boys, out for an afternoon with nothing to do but chase a dimpled white ball around a lush expanse of private, well-manicured land the way we used to chase dimple-cheeked girls around public, poorly-maintained bars, as some of us still do.
Friday last, I set off from my current residence, a family cottage just outside of Portland, Ontario, heading across country, through grand metropoli like Smiths Falls, Merrickville, and Kemptville, to meet up with a few Ottawa friends for a round. Of golf. I grew up in Ottawa, if you can call what I’ve done in the last decade-and-a-half “growing up”. I’m one of the many that left, but a few remain. Good friends. Life friends. Like the three who joined me. And, of course, former hackers. They are the evolution of my recreation, my 20s, my life so far.
I’m the first to arrive, and there in the absence of my friends, avid golfers all, I feel horribly out of place. I have no clubs with me, no proper shoes, no matching checkered shorts and cerulean golf tee. I assume that everyone who looks at me can smell the underemployed writer emanating. The setting is pristine, out of my price range. It’s a new golf community, acres of beautiful untouched, unsullied land pilfered for the enjoyment of the few. Though the landscape I drove across to arrive here was dry and burnt from drought, the course here is as green as the colour will allow. It seems false. Impossible. Wrong.
Devon arrives first. I have a grand affection for Dev. While the setting is apocryphal there is nothing false about Devon. He is as true as the drives he will unleash over the course of the morning. There is no bullshit. No compromise. Just Devon, who for some reason I often call Sally. Dev, in the pop culture wake of FUBAR, still calls me Miker. He’s the only one that does. And I like that. It identifies us. What, perhaps, I like best, love most, about Devon is that if I ended up in a place in my life where I needed to bury a body, he would be my first call. He wouldn’t ask questions. He wouldn’t want the answers. Instead, he’d meet me in some secluded rural back lot, with shovels and coffees. Gotta get down about six feet, Miker. I’m not sure if friendship like that exists anymore.
Just after Devon shows up, Joe comes speeding along in a cart, too fast, in aversion to the throngs, smoke dangling, the most purple shirt ever blinding even the sun, smiling all the while. I’ve known Joe for 18 years. 18 fucking years. I feel old just writing that. How do we get to the point in our lives when we’ve known people for 18 years? We graduated from high school together. I stood in his wedding. We’ve shared emptying bottles on beaches in Italy, Denmark, Greece, and Costa Rica. We’re friends in a way that I won’t ever find again, because we share a memory of youth that is gone forever, once fleeting, now extinct.
There’s no friend I respect more than Joe. Not one. He is self-made. He is generous. He is honest. He is the very definition of a friend. No one works harder. In the few times I’ve brought a girlfriend back to Ottawa, each one has separately and independently, and without prompting or provocation, remarked that he was attractive. One girl, who I once loved too much and now won’t return my emails, even went so far as to call him beautiful but she enjoyed getting a rise out of me. It got a rise out of me. When we were 19, I mistakenly broke his front tooth with a pool cue. Not so beautiful. He forgave me. His mother holds a grudge.
Cory arrives with about a minute to spare before our tee time. This seems unlike Cory. Cory is organized, tidy, orderly. I like that. I met Cory late in my time in Ottawa, through Joe. He is, perhaps, the last friend I made in Ottawa before I left. There’s something in Cory that’s difficult to describe, but impossible to ignore. When you hear folks speak of “good people”, Cory is who they’re talking about. He is kind. He takes a joke well, even if at his expense. His kids have cool names, but I can never remember what they are. I wore a leisure suit to his wedding.
This is our foursome. This will be our morning.
Cory opens the round by reminding us all that “Spry is playing best ball.” Predictably, I respond to his teasing by shanking my first tee shot. There is a collective sigh from the groupings behind us, but I don’t care. These are not my people, and in a quiet way I kind of hate them in their pretty shirts and wealth, and am happy that my incompetence is affecting their spoiled morning. They represent an opulence I despise. Golfing is like going to an industry event in Toronto, all schmooze and falsity, last names and feigned accomplishment, nepotism and quantification. The less time I can spend in my life around these people, the better. But the group I’m in, with two carts, a bag of beer, and too many cigarettes—this group I love, and I miss, and I relish this time which once was plenty and now is select, and seemingly expensive as a round of golf costs more than I make in a week. Well, a day maybe.
And so the morning goes. I share a cart with Joe. I ask for his advice on shots. His answer is always either six iron, or wedge, or “pick it up”. We catch up. Where do you live? How’s business? How are the kids? How’s your dad? How’s your mum? It’s the minutiae that can only be enjoyed in friends.
I like this. I like this time. I miss it.
These three have stayed in one place, for the most part, for the past 15 years, while I’ve wandered aimlessly from city to city, job to job, love to love. You can celebrate the vagabond existence, the writerly/artist existence if you like, but it’s bullshit. It’s a life absent of choices, of commitment, and while in the withdrawn corners of bars filled with drinks that are served too late I claim to revel in it, here in the quiet of a July morning on the 5th hole, I realize how empty it is. How vacant. I admire their stability, their progress. Their innate ability to have grown up, while in comparison I’m still the 20 year old who left them for Vancouver, or Toronto, or Montreal, or wherever it is I’ve called home, or wanted to call home.
On the 7th green we pop the first beers. They’re cold, and welcome, and in the presence of my friends it tastes like home. My fear in returning to places of yesteryear has always been my relative lack of success. But these guys never judge me. Never relegate me to a different status. Oh sure, they tease me. They ask if I’m still dating high school girls, if I live with my sister, if my poems are selling well. But they’re supportive. They’re interested. They’re genuine. As you get older, you miss those qualities, and you find it harder and harder to find it.
By the 11th hole the sun is hot and the beer is warmed. We talk about gun control, and Marinol, and about magic pills, exercise, and getting old. We talk about how the economy drives you to drink, breakfast dates, about ladies versus girls, and the absence of our notation of the moment of that transition. We talk about mortgages, and love, and error, and nine irons. We pause briefly in the contentedness of quiet. We mark the occasion of our continuing friendships in silence.
I like this. I like this time. I miss it.
On the 14th green we get caught up in the traffic of a Friday afternoon of July golf. There’s time to wait. To reflect. To stand in a circle of golf shirts and warm Heineken to share anecdotes, parables, euphemisms, and stories. These moments aren’t long enough. Somehow, the clocks are our enemies, and responsibility is overwhelming. There are children to care for. Wives to love. Mortgages to pay. Lawn to cut. Vacations to plan. I mean, not for me, but they seem good at this management. They even seem to love it, and without these visits, these hours, I don’t think I’d quite understand it.
The traffic clears, and the rate of play increases. As we reach mid-afternoon, the sun is exhausting and the beer is all but gone. Joe and Cory have a second round planned and ask me and Dev to join them. Devon has to run off to see family, and I’m pretty confident that one more hole of golf will kill me. We make plans to meet up later at Cory’s, have a beer, have some food. We’ll have more food than beer. Kids will play, and cry, and scream, and run around with an energy that we left out on a rural golf course some eight hours earlier. Cory and Joe will spend the night tending to their families, as the slow ache of thirty-six holes of golf fills their bodies. Devon and I will go out, meet up with some other friends, and then some other friends, drink too much, laugh too much, stay out too late, and wake up feeling our ages.
Ten years ago that night would have featured a long round of hacky sack. We’d throw some meat on the barbecue, some beer in the cooler, light our smokes, and make a circle. And there would be talk, and silence, and laughter, and hope, and grand plans for an unlived future. But, more than anything, this would include friends, enjoying a bond born of youth and longing for something more, but something built on the shoulders of this, whatever this was. And maybe we’re here now. And maybe we have a ways to go. Who knows.
But for now, I like this. I like this time. I’ll miss it.