From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Just Do It Over—Introduction

[a] Possibilities  RF
Shanking It In Golf and Life
Consider the following situation. It is a beautiful summer day, and you have all afternoon to play eighteen holes on a suddenly quiet midweek course. It is green and at the peak of its August lushness. You spend a little time at the driving range and on the practice green, but you can't wait to get started and feel your cleats clench the warm, spongy turf. There are no lines, no waiting. The course manager checks the group ahead of you (they are already on the second fairway), nods his head, and allows you to tee off.

You pull your driver from your bag, place your Titelist® on its white, wooden tee, and begin your waggle. The rest is a blur of energy, confusion, and memory. The clubface rushes forward, you hear the thwack, and the ball flies off over the greenery...slicing (first distressingly, then embarrassingly) to the right. No, it is not in the "deep rough" right, and not even merely "in the trees" right. We're talking on the fifteenth fairway...right. Far right.

You look angrily, then helplessly, at the members of your foursome. You scan their visages. You sense approval, and you do not hesitate. Quickly, you walk back to your golf bag, pull out another ball, select a fresh tee, and, before anyone can reconsider, you rush through a strangely adequate swing and place the ball somewhere in the 200-yard range of the fairway. It will do, and the day looks better already.

In tennis, it is the second serve (almost always more accurate, albeit with considerably less velocity). In golf, it is a mulligan—a second tee shot, usually reserved for "repairing" the first drive of the day. In tennis, it is within the rules. In golf, it is not, although it is commonly practiced by everyone from pastors to (former) presidents. In life, it is well, complicated—an elaboration on the "rules" after the fact. It is the do-over, and it is nothing if not complex.

***  ***
Consider another scene. Lovestruck, thoughtful, and melancholy, you pluck a daisy in your local state park (this is, strictly speaking, illegal, but no one sees you do it). You miss the object of your desires with a kind of aching longing that reminds you of the shoulder you irritated while golfing last week. You begin to pluck the petals, saying "s/he loves me." You proceed through a series of loves and nots until you hear the decree of the oracle, especially forceful because it speaks with your own voice:
[b] Love-knot  RF

          S/he loves me not.

You pause, look to the heavens, and reconsider (thinking back to the first tee at the country club not long ago). You look around, see that you are alone, and pluck a second daisy. Strategizing briefly, you begin, "s/he loves me not." You proceed again through loves and nots until you hear the decree you wanted in the first place:

          S/he loves me.

You smile, shrug, and move down the path. S/he loves you. The sun is warm on your aching shoulder, and life is good.

Doing It Over
It has been said that there are no mulligans in life, but the purpose of this series of posts on Round and Square is to reconsider the issue, and in a far deeper fashion than golfers, lovers, or prophets usually probe. A mulligan is certainly a cultural concept (ask former President Clinton), and culture is what we discuss on this blog. At some level, though, I wish to take the conception even further and ask to what extent it is a fundamentally human construct. Is it possible that we have wired this in on fairly profound levels—all over the countryside, continent, and even globe? Are there do-overs in life?

Well, let's start small, and keep the analysis to Western culture. That will do for now, since the whole purpose of this series of posts is to explore do-overs that cross humanity and perhaps even various species. We will have plenty of time for that kind of detail in the individual posts. For now, though, I would just like to get us started with a few examples.

[c] Reset  RF
Let's begin on the level of the individual. The stakes are low, and you are playing computer chess. Things don't go especially well, and the computer jumps out to an early lead; you are not sure whether you want to play all of the way through a certain loss. Do you "resign" and start over? Did you count (even in the back of your mind) that last game as a loss?

Imagine that you are teaching a child how to play chess, checkers, Clue, or CandyLand. Do you allow the learner a do-over or two...or ten? Let's say you do. Now, six months or two years later, the little tyke is beating you routinely. When do the do-overs stop?

Let's jump way ahead in the social food chain—to educational testing. The "rules" allow you to retake the SAT or GRE (or other standardized tests). When do you choose to do so? Usually all of the test scores will show up on the report, so improvement looks good—but not as good as doing extremely well in the first place. But what if the do-over is worse? Does that ever happen in golf, testing, chess, or cards? Yup. We have to consider that, too.

[d] Midterm RF
O.k., we're almost done with our breathless preliminary run through a few scenarios that will help set the tone for individual posts in the future. Let's think about...the American political system. On the national level, one-half of the legislature (the House of Representatives) stands for re-election (note the phrase) every two years, while fully a third of the other side (the Senate) meets the voters. Have you noticed anything about elections in the United States that seems to fit our pattern? It is not absolute, but it is close to even money that the party of the president in power will lose seats in Congress two years after s/he was elected. It is a virtual certainty (over many decades) that the party of a re-elected president will lose big six years after the original election. Are voters participating in an elaborate form of electoral do-over? I have my own opinions, but we'll leave the question open for now.

The Mother of All Do-Overs
Finally, what could be bigger than elections in a large country? Remember, we're focusing, for the time being, on the West. Well, there is no bigger do-over in Western literature than the one with which I will conclude this introductory essay. Think it over, and then get ready for a whole series of posts that will consider do-overs in all of their awful glory.

          And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the
          earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them
          with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood...
                                                                                Genesis 6:13

Wait. There is one more thing.

"What?," I hear you ask, "could top that—doing over most of creation?" Well, there is one more thing. There is one last little bit that ties do-overs together, from the largest (destroying all flesh) to the smallest (cheating in golf and chess). It is the vow of "no more do-overs." It won't happen again; from now on, we will refrain from hitting "reset" or taking another ball out of the golf bag on the first tee.

After this time.

          And God blessed Noah and his son, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and
          multiply, and replenish the earth...And I will establish my covenant with you;
          neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither
          shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth...And I will remember
          my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of
          all flesh, and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.
                                                                                   Genesis 9:1

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