Outdoor Masochism

After catching some of the delightful videos people have posted online about their housebound entertainment activities, I thought I’d take a walk on the lighter side myself this week.

The title of this blog might bring to mind different activities to you as we all try to keep ourselves amused close to home this summer, but I’m talking about the venerable and frustrating game of Golf.

While a few people love the game unconditionally, if you ask most people you’ll find that they lean towards more of a love-hate relationship. After a good round we’re bubbling over with enthusiasm and confidence, which often gets flattened the next time we play and everything goes to hell-in-a-handbasket.

Golf requires a challenging combination of hand-eye coordination plus mental focus, taken out onto courses that are designed to throw kinks at you.

Where else would you find sand traps that are directly in line with where you need to aim, or that are so deep you might think you’re going to strike oil when you swing at the ball? Trees wait to grab high-flying balls in their branches and dump them straight down to lie forlornly at the roots, or bounce them backwards past where you hit from. Pretty little ponds wait with strange magnetism to draw your ball, which you were sure you were aiming in another direction, down into their murky and irretrievable depths (and then your golf club, which frustrated golfers are sure is the cause of all their troubles and so often fling into the same pond).

Even the pros, who practice so much that they should have robotically-perfect swings, engage in public hissy fits when they find themselves, despite their best efforts, making the same bad shot several times in a row.

The evil genius of the game is that our minds and bodies don’t always agree to cooperate. We know we can hit the right shot, it just sometimes refuses to appear until the second try, when we invariably grumble “Should have done that the first time!”

So why do we keep playing this ridiculous game, that Mark Twain was erroneously attributed to refer to as ‘a good walk spoiled’?

Well, for one thing, it’s a great excuse to spend some time outdoors in beautiful surroundings, away from everything else going on in your life. While we’ve seen the odd person bring their cell phone onto the course, it’s generally frowned on. Nothing must distract us from our pursuit of that elusive great round, and golf etiquette demands that we maintain a reverent silence near anyone else struggling to find their own Grail round.

In between shots, though, we may speak to fellow golfers – there’s a camaraderie brought on by shared frustration punctuated by whoops of joy when a ball actually does what we want it to or laughter when sheer luck defeats the course’s hazards. Last summer I had several fellows come over from a different hole to congratulate me after my shot bounced off a rake and avoided going into the sand trap.

Sand traps, or bunkers as they’re more commonly known, are devoutly to be avoided. We watch helplessly as our ball seems to make a beeline for these little slices of beach that aren’t nearly as much fun as the real thing, then either lays a track to a spot that’s never as easy to get out of as it was to get into, or – even more fun – plugs itself halfway into the sand (amusingly called a fried egg). In a deep ‘pot’ bunker this can be a disaster of epic proportions – you have only to watch the British Open Championship to see seasoned pros get stymied by trying to dig a stuck ball out of the steep sides.

The scenery sort of makes up for a poor game. Here in North America course designers like to make the most of the landscape, which can make for some wonderful, if challenging, layouts.

One of the challenging holes at Island Pointe, trying to land safely across the river

One of our favourite courses is in Tennessee, Island Pointe Golf Club. It picturesquely meanders in and out of the French Broad River, among high cliffs and utilizing three islands in the river itself. The water is deep and rushing, making the island holes quite exciting as you’re surrounded by what can feel like a raging flood. It’s not a well-known course – we stumbled upon it a few years ago and are so fascinated by it that we play it whenever we’re in the area.

Heading into the unknown for the men’s tees

Ladies have it a bit better than men – our tees (where we hit from) are placed closer to the pin, that little hole that seems to be like the exhaust port on the Death Star, something that seems impossible to get your ball into. At the course my hubby and I played last weekend, the path on the sixth hole branched off to the men’s tees through a dark mysterious wood so removed from the fairway that there was almost an ominous hush. My hubby had to whack the ball over a wide clump of nasty, grabby wild plants, while from my tee block I enjoyed a pleasant vista down the fairway.

From the men’s tees on No. 6, it’s hard to even see the distant flag
Much friendlier view from the ladies’ tees

Hitting straight onto the fairway is a definite advantage, and much harder than it looks. Going off-course into the ‘rough’ is fraught with danger – things like the shimmering ponds and tall fescue grass that waves pleasantly in the breeze while it waits to wrap your club in bands of steel. Courses in the southwest United States feature thorny cacti that will capture your skin and not let it go, or homes along the fairway with patios that may transfer your ball straight into someone’s swimming pool (better that than their plate glass windows anyway).

Our favourite course in Ontario is attached to the Taboo Resort in Muskoka. It’s a beautiful course in any season, although we love to be there in the fall especially. Last summer the resort added an outdoor seating area on top of the hill by the driving range, before you approach the first tee, with a food truck and a bar that offers passion fruit margaritas so good that they (almost) make your play irrelevant.  

Rock-strewn hole at Taboo Golf Course

The course is set among the granite outcroppings of our Cambrian Shield, and my husband will attest that you can achieve some spectacular arcs as your mis-hit ball bounces off the rock high into the air and away into the woods.

Many players’ golf balls have been permanently sacrificed to all these devilish ambushes.

On the plus side, other bonuses are the weather – on a beautiful fall day, with the sun shining and the scent of wood smoke and fallen leaves all around, there’s nothing better – and the wildlife, contingent on whether you mind having a flock of geese or ducks as your watchful peanut gallery. Great Blue Herons, one of our most spectacular birds, seem to like hanging out by the ponds and completely ignore the people flailing away with their clubs.

The end of a round, which may come too soon or not soon enough depending on how you played, always deserves a refreshing beverage (maybe more margaritas!) and a good meal. The score card may be kept in triumph or stomped on, shredded and then burned to ash. You may have to separate your head covers that have been quarreling in your absence.

And the next week we do it all over again, because near the end of every round there’s always at least one great shot that sucks you back into the game.

Whatever your favourite form of self-inflicted torture is, make the most of it – at least it’s a good distraction.

Leisure in the time of Coronavirus

Finally some nice weather is here, and my hubby and I made a beeline for a golf course. It was a still, humid evening, so the air was very heavy, but we chose our tee time at 6pm, past the midday heat and hopefully hordes of fellow golfers.

It turned out that the course was almost empty. It was a little eerie – normally on a weekend the course would be very busy – but the relative quiet was nice, and we enjoyed playing the round at a more relaxed pace without having to worry about either crowding a group ahead of us or having someone come up behind us.

The golfers we did come across on nearby fairways, in a range of ages, all seemed happy to just be out getting exercise in the fresh air for a couple of hours.

Mark Twain once famously described golf as “a good walk spoiled”, but during this pandemic a golf course is one of the easiest places to play at safe distances from other people.  

On the flip side of the outdoors coin, our local news service reported that 300-plus youths crowded onto a lakefront beach on the weekend, making physical distancing impossible.

The hard truth is that, as much as we would all like our lives to go back to normal, they aren’t going to. COVID is going to become a permanent fixture, and, like the increased security in airports and on flights ever since 9-11, the ways that we’re going to mingle with other people will change.

There are upsides to this scenario, though – less crowding at public attractions, for one thing. The last time we were at Disney World, for our nephew’s destination wedding, the park seemed determined to jam in as many people as possible. It was a good thing hubby and I had been there many times before, as we weren’t able to get onto a single ride. We did actually spend 45 minutes shuffling through the long line for the Haunted Mansion, only to have the overused ride breakdown just as we were getting close. Walking around the massive parks, you would have been hard pressed to find any unoccupied pavement, which thronged with harried parents bashing their strollers into everyone’s legs, sugar-hyped children running amok, seniors trying to stay out of the worst of the traffic.

The scenes were a far cry from the video clips on all the shuttle buses that showed happy, smiling families laughing and enjoying themselves.

Universal Orlando park is set to reopen late next week, and one of their primary safety measures is to limit attendance. Prices don’t seem to be very much higher than pre-pandemic, but even if they rise, the trade-off will be greater enjoyment when you’re not cheek-to-jowl with other visitors.

We have the opportunity now to rethink how we want to spend our leisure time.

The Baby Boomer generation, which I’m part of, is arguably the best-positioned generation to weather the pandemic because we grew up without all the electronic gadgets that provide easy entertainment in the 21st century. I know – the horror of growing up without computers and the internet!

Our parents encouraged us to get out of the house, expecting us to more-or-less amuse ourselves from breakfast to dinner. We became very creative at finding ways to play. My childhood neighbourhood edged a large wooded area running along both sides of a river, and we could disappear there for hours! Lots of hiking, ropes strung from trees to swing on, masses of wild roses and plenty of wildlife to hunt for.

In my back yard there was a very large willow tree at the base of which my brother and I constructed a tightly-woven branch-fort that kept us dry in the worst rain. In the winter most back yards had homemade skating rinks and snow forts.

These days I consider our entire region to be my ‘back yard’ – we’ve been exploring nooks and crannies we hadn’t bothered with before when we concentrated on exploring thousands of miles away.

The internet has been a boon while we’ve been quarantined in our homes, and has so many opportunities for trying out new things. You can take online courses in just about any subject, whether just for your own interest or to maybe develop into a new job.

As I write this blog, I’m also watching a show I just discovered on our Netflix stream called The Big Flower Fight. I’m mesmerized by the stunningly beautiful and creative flower creations – on Episode 1, a gigantic and gorgeous floral moth; on Episode 2, breathtaking fairy godmother gowns made of things like orchids and leafy fronds. I can’t wait to see what else the contestants come up with.

I have very little of a green thumb – everything that survives around our home has to be pretty self-sufficient – but if I were a gardener, I would be so tempted to try making a similar creation in my own garden. You could really let your imagination run wild with some wiry supports and an assortment of textures and colours!

Maybe you’ve got a memoir tucked inside of you that’s dying to see the light of day – that happens to be one of my own upcoming projects about some of the wonderful adventures my hubby and I have experienced on our global travels.

I also love photography, and there’s plenty to practice on within a few miles of home, as well as baking, and I finally have the opportunity to try out the hundreds of recipes I’ve clipped over many years. Tea and baking are bosom companions, and I continue to get invitations to do tea-themed talks for our local organizations – I’m booked to do one in October if the situation allows.

Years ago I joined a local Toastmasters club just to learn how to speak at meetings without freezing up. I was a terrified little mouse lurking at the back of the meetings for several weeks, but slowly I learned the techniques of polished public speaking, and with regular practice I overcame my fears about standing up front at a lectern.

Ten years and many talks later, I’ve discovered that I love exploring fascinating topics with enthusiastic audiences. At my tea tastings, one of my favourite things to do is to walk among the attendees, finding out how they like the different teas and food pairings, looking at their favourite tea cups (which they bring to sample the teas with), and hearing their personal tea stories.

I’m so grateful that my hubby and I got to so many of the places in the world that we wanted to see before last December. It’s hard to predict how many more places on our bucket list that we’ll be able to manage while destinations figure out how to welcome visitors again safely, but there are quite a few that we can do within our own country.

When the easy options become limited, it’s time to open your mind up to all kinds of new possibilities. And for those of you who think chasing a little ball across acres of land is absurd, as Mark Twain did, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

What new things have you tried, or are thinking about trying out? The results might surprise and delight you 😊

The pleasures of golf?

It’s spring in North America and time to commence the annual ritual of the royal and ancient game of Driving Yourself Crazy, aka Golf.

I blame my husband for introducing me to the game when we were dating. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

To people who don’t play, golf can be a ridiculous-looking game where you attempt to hit a little round ball with a weighted stick, and then chase down the ball wherever it may have landed, only to hit it away from you again.

Robin Williams had an extremely funny (and R-rated, for language) bit about the invention of the game in his Live from Broadway show; my favourite line is about the flag pin at the conclusion of each hole: “They put it there to give you hope”.

Novice golfers are excited about the game until they discover that having a great round on one day doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to even hit the ball the next time you go out.

Veteran golfers have a love-hate relationship that varies in degree. Golf is to a large extent a mental game:

  • being able to concentrate and remain steady through at least 72 swings at the ball over an 18-hole round, on terrain that’s constantly changing
  • trying to curb your frustration when you make a bad shot that should have been an easy one
  • tweaking your swings and strategy in an attempt to achieve consistency (which is pretty much a pipe dream – even the pros can’t manage it)

The game also plays with our heads by, no matter how bad a round we’re having, allowing us at least one great shot that encourages us to come back. It’s quite evil, really.

One of the things I like about the game is the opportunity to enjoy nice weather in beautiful surroundings. (Men will play in any weather, and that’s another story entirely, but women have more sense.) My hubby and I really enjoy playing golf in different locations, and often incorporate a round in our travels if it’s feasible. Every location has its unique fingerprint, and challenges. But that’s half the fun!

For our 15th wedding anniversary we stayed and played at the gorgeous Boulders resort in Arizona. It was so great we could have happily stayed there for a month. The comprehensive service took a little getting used to initially – from the moment we arrived and our car was swarmed by staff, everything was taken care of for us – but the acclimatization took less than 24 hours and then we were soaking it all in.

Our first round took place the afternoon that we arrived, and we completely psyched ourselves out about playing on a championship course – in short, we were terrible. We did enjoy the resort-course layout: frequent yardage markers to help you check your distances, drinking fountains and a washroom building every third hole, a cart with not only both ball and club washers but also a cooler with ice for our beverages and a little nozzle to spray water on our hot faces whenever we needed to refresh. The start times were spaced 10 minutes apart, so we were never crowded by other players.

We returned to the club house, dejected. But this was resort golf, an entirely different animal! The cheerful, laid-back staff told us not to worry about our scores and emphasized that they wanted us to enjoy ourselves. Their attitude was so relaxed that it allowed us to relax, and we thoroughly enjoyed our next round.

We embraced desert golf, where divots disintegrate, made of grass on sand; there’s no retrieving your errant ball out of the rough (full of cacti called ‘Jumping Cholla’ because they hook onto your skin and break off in large chunks!); and the bunkers are really diabolical (some with cacti and even big boulders in the middle, as if trying to hit your ball out of a deep pot bunker isn’t enough punishment for landing in there).

Arizona is gorgeous, though, and our package allowed my hubby to play four rounds while I played two and visited the fabulous spa in between. It was such a hardship, I just can’t tell you.

There’s something for everyone at The Boulders – we even booked a night hike with night-vision goggles that gave us a spectacular view of the Milky Way – so it’s a great all-around vacation spot.

A couple of years ago we golfed the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama, a bucket-list item for a lot of golfers. The Trail was created in the 1980s as a way to bring in revenue to shore up the state’s retirement fund, and it’s worked brilliantly. There are 26 courses in 11 different locales running along a roughly north to south line through the state. Hubby chose the four courses he wanted to play, and as the first one was located in Mobile, just 2 hours from New Orleans, we drove down to that great Louisiana city first for a weekend to enjoy the food, history, ghostly legends and wacky Halloween Parade, then worked our way north along the golf trail.

When we arrived at our hotel in Mobile, the concierge approached me and asked if we’d had any trouble finding the hotel.

“No”, I replied, a little mystified by the question, “we just used our GPS.”

“But did it give you ‘Southern’ directions?”, he asked.

“Well no, I don’t think so,” I said, still at a loss.

“Well you see, this is how we give directions in the South”, he told me. “We say: ‘You go down the road a piece, then when you see the house where Old Blue’s sittin’ on the porch you turn right, then you go down the road another piece…’ ” My hubby and I laughed delightedly, and that exchange has become one of our most treasured memories from the trip.

The hospitality was exemplary, the courses were lovely and the Southern food delectable. One of the places we tried, based on a recommendation from the staff at the Hampton Cove course in Huntsville, was the Blue Plate Café. It’s such a faithful replica of a 1950s café that you assume it’s much older than it actually is. Created by two sisters who cook with their grandma’s old recipes, the café serves up wonderful comfort food. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you must stop there and have the fantastic fried chicken!!

The RTJ Trail has dedicated staff to help you plan your journey. They’ll book your tee times and even book hotels along the way if you want them to.

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It’s hard to take your game seriously when a family of warthogs is your peanut gallery

A nod to Africa for offering our most unusual round of golf to date. It took place in Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls. We rented clubs, and had planned to rent a cart as advertised on the course website but not actually available. The round was most memorable for the wildlife – crocodiles lurking in the water hazards for the unwary, impalas sprinting around the holes, and on one hole I had to wait for an entire family of warthogs to finish staring at me and wander away before I could tee off.

Unfortunately the weather was very hot, we had to walk the course, and there were no refreshments available during the entire round, so I had heat exhaustion as a result and slept for 14 hours. Nevertheless, I don’t know too many people who can say they had to face off against warthogs!

The most important piece of equipment you can have for taking up the sport of golf is a sense of humour. It keeps players sane. As the great Arnold Palmer once said, “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s game: It’s called an eraser.”

Put your hand up if you too loathe summer

I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me, but this is the kind of summer I hate — excessively hot and humid. I live in the Niagara Region, an area where the humidity can really climb in July and August; Lake Erie to the south of us, the Welland Canal to the east, and Lake Ontario to the north. For the past couple of years we’ve had cooler summers that I’ve actually enjoyed, but this summer is the kind that makes me grumpy for 8-10 weeks. This week the temperatures have soared to 45 deg C with the humidex, and the humidity is routinely over 60%, often over 90%. Thoughtless people keep taking their dogs with them to the grocery store in these conditions, and the local humane society is rescuing the poor animals every single day — heartbreakingly, not all of them have survived. Golfing is impossible — I had heat exhaustion three years ago when we golfed in Zimbabwe, and I really don’t want to do that again.

So that’s my partial litany of summertime gripes. I do have a home-grown therapy for it though: I watch the British Open Golf Championship! It’s never hot over there during the tournament, so I spend a week living vicariously through the golfers in sweaters under cool gray skies. I’m spending this week at home, venturing out as little as possible, with the chill from the central A/C simulating the temperatures my hubby and I are watching on the telly. I even cook British food all week to really capture the mood.

Today I gathered together a list of all my errands and braved the stifling heat to get everything done in one giant trip. Exhausted but successful, I returned home, threw anything perishable in the fridge, and treated myself to a Ploughman’s Lunch: ham, a nice mature cheddar, pickles, whole-grain bread with creamery butter, and a stiff cup of Irish Breakfast tea — absolutely heavenly after the earlier ordeal! Finished it all off with a lovely slice of Apple & Spice Tea Loaf, a recipe from the BBC Good Food website, which seems to have erased the link, so I’m including the actual recipe here, in case you’d like to join me in a virtual escape to a cooler place:

photo courtesy of the BBC Good Food website
photo courtesy of the BBC Good Food website

 

Apple & spice tea loaf

By Jane Hornby                           

Perfect with a fresh pot of tea, this looks and tastes just as good as a farmers’ market buy

Cooking time Prep: 10 mins  Cook: 1 hr, 30 mins      Skill level Easy     Servings Serves 10

Ingredients

  • 175g butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 175g light muscovado sugar, plus 1 tsp
  • 3 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 eating apple
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 200g dried mixed vine fruits (I used golden raisins)
  • 85g ground almonds
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 175g plain flour (I used gluten-free flour, gave a less-fluffy texture, but still tasted wonderfulP)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg (I used ginger)
  • splash lemon or orange juice
  • 1 tbsp  marmalade or apricot jam

Method

  1. Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Butter a 900g/2lb loaf tin and line with a strip of baking paper, or use a loaf tin liner (see tip, below). Beat together the butter and sugar until pale and creamy, then beat in the eggs one by one. Grate half the apple and mix it into the batter with the vanilla, dried fruit and ground almonds. Mix the baking powder, flour and spices together with a pinch of salt, then fold into the mix until even. Spoon into the tin and level the top.
  2. Thinly  slice the remaining apple half, toss with the lemon or orange juice, poke the slices a little way into the batter, then sprinkle with 1 tsp more sugar. Bake for 45 mins, then turn the oven down to 140C/fan 120C/gas 1. Cover the cake with foil, then bake for another 45 mins until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin.
  3. To finish the cake, melt the marmalade or jam in a small pan, sieve to remove any lumps, then brush it over the cake to glaze the top. Serve cut into thick slices, and spread with a little butter, if you like. Will freeze for up to 1 month.

Recipe from Good Food magazine, May 2009