"Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do"
"Play is the refuge of people of people who have never listened to their parents"
Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, Oscar Wilde's mother
Work and play—such a benign pair of words, seemingly unrelated activities, each posing a prism through which we lead aspects of our lives. It’s interesting how the relationship between the two changes when you view them as conflicting forces, so that "work and play" becomes "work versus play." Growing up, that is exactly how I saw the two: for me, summer equaled vacation, and vacation equaled play. But my Dad had this crazed notion that summer meant work. So every June we revisited the classic confrontation of good versus evil under the guise of work versus play.
One summer, my Dad got me an interview to be a caddy at the local country club, an institution we were too poor to belong to. Having seen it only in the mist-shrouded distance, it had all the mystique of a Midwestern Shangri-La. When I contemplated my interview with the caddy master there, I imagined that he’d look a lot like Ricardo Montalban. He’d offer me a grape Nehi, as we sat in the cool repose of his Corinthian leather-appointed office. He’d observe that I was preternaturally cultured beyond my years, and that my services would best be utilized in the position of Poolside Pizza Taster.
But he looked nothing like Ricardo Montalban. In fact, he was a grim young man with a pockmarked face and all the warmth of an ice pick in January. I nicknamed him Captain Happy.
After sailing through the interview (I could speak) and passing the rigorous physical examination (I could walk upright), I got the job. I became what was referred to as a "C" caddy, the lowest of the low, earning $2.25 per round, while starting at the crack of dawn.
So the next morning I got up while it was still dark, and rode my Schwinn five-speed with ram-horn handle bars to the caddy shack. I even brought pen and paper to start the list of caddies for the morning. That morning, my name was first on that. For one brief shimmering instant, life was good.
My very first assignment was one of four businessmen. I’ll never forget the look on my guy’s face when I told him I was his caddy. He looked at me like I was his mail-order bride, but I didn’t match my picture. When I saw his bag, I understood why—it was as big as I was. When I tried to sling it over my shoulder, the bottom dragged on the ground. But that was the least of my worries.
You see, I knew nothing about golf.
If ignorance was bliss, I was in a state of nirvana.
Until the first hole.
I didn’t know that I was supposed to follow the ball’s trajectory once my guy hit his tee shot. So when he said, "Did you see that shot?" I thought he was bragging. When he repeated the question, I replied, "No—did you?" Let's just say that in that moment I redefined the phrase "teed off."
A few holes later, all four players were preparing to putt. While they clumped together off to the side for a morning beer, I walked up on the green to find four quarters strewn on the grass. I methodically pocketed them, knowing exactly how many games of pinball they would buy.
When the four returned, they couldn’t find their "markers," a term I’d never heard before. They must’ve thought I was legally insane when I denied any knowledge of them, while my hands were thrust deep into my pockets, which jangled defiantly with their tainted cargo.
But rock-bottom came on the ninth hole. I was "tending the pin," you know, that tall metal thingy, standing next to it, holding it while my guy putted. Now in a perfect world, as my guy putted the ball toward the hole, I would lift the pin from the cup, allowing the ball to drop into it. But as his ball rolled toward the hole, and I pulled, the pin wouldn’t budge. I pulled harder, to no avail. I looked up--the ball was barreling its way to the cup--I reached over with both hands and yanked so hard the entire cup apparatus came out of the ground! The ball hit its levitated base and bounced into a sand trap. No one said a word, but if looks could kill, my guy would still be serving hard time.
I set a precedent that day: my party ditched me between the front and back nine. This didn’t bother me a bit. They had all the joy of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In fact, I noticed that about all the golfers I saw there. They flailed and cursed and they took no pleasure in playing.
After that, Captain Happy relegated me to caddying exclusively for elderly women with hair the color of gunmetal. They’d start a round of golf on a Monday morning and finish sometime Tuesday afternoon.
But I noticed they were the only ones who actually enjoyed themselves on the course. They laughed, ribbing each other good-naturedly for their errant shots. Maybe it wasn’t a function of their age that made them take so long. Maybe they were just having too much fun. Inadvertently, I had found my people. They knew summer was for play.
Oddly enough, caddying introduced me to the notion of pondering work and play and the idea that they could intersect, that they didn’t need to be opposing forces. That bud of a thought took full bloom when I found myself impassioned by certain things—performing in front of people, reading and writing—and wondering how I could get someone to pay me to do those things.
So though my career as a caddy was short-lived, I learned an invaluable lesson: while the gap between what you can expect in life and what you actually get is often wide, reconciling that gap is something we must work hard at. For me, it is life’s ultimate act of play.