In Greek mythology, the Gorgon is a terrifying creature, so ugly it turns those who look upon it to stone. “Gorgon,” in fact, is derived from the Greek word gorgós, which in English means “dreadful.” Synonyms for “dreadful” include: horrible, terrible, awful, frightful, and appalling…among others.

It’s easy to find references to Greek mythology in modern life. The Oedipus complex as described by Sigmund Freud. Terms like “Achilles heel” and “Herculean task.” The concept of Pandora’s Box. Even an ancient sea creature, the Kraken, has recently been released as a powerful, 94-proof, dark-colored elixir that brings out the fun in certain social situations where writers are involved.

But the Gorgon to which I’m referring, the dreadful monster that for years frightened anyone who dared look up on it, was the golf swing of my long-time friend, Brian Weir. In 1996, when I was first introduced to its complete form, all my own muscles seized up, and I could no longer properly hit the ball…almost as if I had turned to stone. Brian lives in southern California, far away from Oklahoma, so twice a year for a decade the two of us met on golf vacations, enjoying the artistry of many picturesque courses, even if our own games didn’t quite measure up to the beauty of the locations.

On each of these trips I would bring along a video camera to document the experience, footage that never failed to amuse us later. Over time I developed a sizable library of squirrely shots and pushed putts and missed opportunities, but mainly these recordings languished away in magnetic tape obscurity, only emerging when the two of us met again to relive the glory.

Then, in 2005, I saw in ad in Golf Digest, a golf publication that reaches an estimated six million readers per month.

“Do you have the World’s Worst Swing?” asked the ad. “Or know someone who does? If so, make a video and send it to us. You could win six free lessons from Dean Reinmuth, one the top golf instructors in the country.”

The contest was also sponsored by the Golf Channel, which planned to film and broadcast six free lessons awarded to the “winner.” And that’s when an idea occurred to me, an idea that is and probably always will be the best practical joke it’s possible for me to play on anyone.

Until that time I’d dabbled in linear video editing, like hooking VCRs together with cables, but I’d never edited on a computer. I purchased a Windows-based software app and taught myself how to use it over a period of days, painstakingly capturing hours of analog footage in real time. I assembled a collection of the best (or rather, worst) shots, often laughing so hard that I had to stop and compose myself. Then I purchased a microphone and attempted to record voiceover for my two-minute, eighteen-second video. This consumed even more hours, not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because I couldn’t go ten seconds without laughing again.

I completed the video two days before the deadline. I watched it again and again and again, supremely confident that, upon viewing, the selection committee at Golf Digest and the Golf Channel would immediately select Brian as the winner. But I also guessed there would be thousands of other submissions, and the chances of them even watching the video were small. Not to mention I was forced to overnight the DVD just to get it there on time.

Then I waited. Every day I would think about the video, and what might happen if my plan worked. To understand the true significance of the joke, you have to know Brian. We met at Texas A&M University. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets, and was commissioned into the military directly after graduation. He served the Air Force for several years, attended Army Ranger school, and reached the rank of Major. He went on to serve local law enforcement in Southern California and is now a sergeant. He is a tough, proud man who does not respond well to ridicule. Of course, we always joke around with each other, but those are private matters. This joke, if it was realized, would be played out on a national scale. Every time I thought about it, it made me laugh.

About two weeks after I mailed the disc, I received a phone call. I looked down and saw it was Brian. I answered, trying to hold my expectations in check. But Brian and I don’t speak on the phone often, and I got that feeling, you know the one.

“What the hell did you do?” were the first words out of his mouth.

“What do you mean?”

“Some chick just called me. She said she works for the Golf Channel. Apparently I’ve been chosen as one of ten semifinalists for a contest to find the World’s Worst Golf Swing. And then she gave me the link to a video. A video you made. She laughed at me, man.”

So did I. I couldn’t help it. Someone had actually watched the video! They even put it on the Internet!

“They’re going to call back and interview me in a couple of days,” he said. “You’re an asshole.”

I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

“I hope you know paybacks are a bitch,” was his answer.

But after the interview, Brian’s position changed. Apparently he’d impressed them over the phone. Had made everyone laugh. “I’d be on television,” he said. “They’d buy me a new set of clubs. I would get lessons from this famous dude. Did you know he used to coach Phil Mickelson?”

Readers and viewers were asked to visit a web site, check out the videos, and vote on their favorites. Or they could watch a special episode of “Golf Channel Academy” and call in their votes. Brian explained how they were going to include some of the submitted footage on the show. I salivated at the thought of a scene from my video being shown on national television. At the time, the Golf Channel boasted more than sixty million subscribers. I told everyone I knew to watch it. So did Brian.

My DVR was ready. If only a few seconds of my footage was shown, I’d be happy. So imagine my astonishment when “Golf Channel Academy” opened with my video, with no introduction and no voice over (other than my own) for almost two minutes. I was floored. I was ecstatic. After the video, Kelly Tilghman remarked, “The guy who did that voice over deserves an Emmy.”

Hahahahahahaha!!!!11 I said to anyone who would listen. The only thing better than this would be if Brian actually won the contest.

A few weeks later, a crew from Golf Digest visited Brian in California, and I flew out to watch. They brought a high speed camera to capture his swing. This is the camera used to make those fold-out, frame-by-frame pictures of golf professionals. Only the most notable golfers in the world get this treatment. Brian was asked to hit into a net, and the photographer pointed out a patch where the net had been repaired.

“We filmed Retief Goosen last week,” he said. Goosen is one of the best players in the world and has won two U.S. Open Championships. “He hit the ball so hard it tore the net.”

By now Brian was basking in the glow of his possible upcoming fame. He swung as hard as he could. He hit the ground so far behind the ball that the club bounced over the ball. A complete whiff. And the impact with the ground sent a chunk of sod into the net, where it stuck, coincidentally, on the patch created by Retief Goosen.

“Let’s see Retief do that,” Brian remarked.

Every day this was just getting better.

Finally, the day of the selection show arrived. The field of contestants had been narrowed to three, and the Golf Channel planned to announce the winner on the air. All three swings were terrible, but Brian and I couldn’t imagine the others would win. He is a born entertainer. I think he could do standup if he put his mind to it. The combination of my video editing and his comedy couldn’t be beat. Golf Channel invited us both to Orlando, and we managed to play Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s famous Florida course. We made friends with the other nominees. But would Brian win? Would it really happen?

It did.

Brian’s six lessons were filmed outside of San Diego, shown nationally on the Golf Channel, and I was invited to be on the final show with him. He was awarded a new set of clubs. He was recognized in airports, in restaurants, and especially on the golf course. His game improved dramatically.

And his swing, frame-by-frame, was featured in the pages of Golf Digest. Twice.

A few years later, after it was all over, Brian told me he was getting married again. In Hawaii. He’d sent me the raw footage from the various Golf Channel episodes, and I kept meaning to make a compilation video for him, but I never got around to it. So, as a surprise, I put together a new video, with old footage and new, and called ahead to the hotel. I set it to music and arranged for it to be shown at a reception before the ceremony.

One more final jab, you know?

As I said before, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to play a better practical joke on someone. It’s one thing to poke fun at your buddy’s golf swing in private, but to bring it to the attention of a national audience…that was sublime.

If you’d like, you can view the original video and the encore presentation below. The second link is on Facebook, so if you can’t see it, send me a friend request and I’ll hook you up. I’ve also included links to a few pictures.

But be careful. Watch these videos at your peril. His old swing could easily turn yours to stone.

World’s Worst Swing Submission Video

World’s Worst Swing Encore

Golf Digest Table of Contents

Golf Digest foldout

Brian and Richard on set


Outrage

By Richard Cox

Rants

In a little while I have to go outside and haul six giant lawn bags from my back yard to the street. The bags are full of leaves and some pruned tree branches and they aren’t all that heavy, but that doesn’t make me dread it any less. It’s fairly downhill from my back yard to the street. There is a strip of grass all the way to the curb, so I don’t really have to carry them. I could just drag them down there. Tomorrow morning the bags will be magically whisked away to raked leaf heaven, and still I’d rather complain about having to move them forty feet to the curb than actually do it.

Earlier I went to the grocery store and they were out of local honey. All they had in stock was a slick national brand harvested in a faraway place, and for all I know it’s not even honey but high fructose corn syrup with glue in it, the product of an evil, shadowy agribusiness scientist whose entire purpose on this planet is to genetically engineer foods that are addictive and make me fat when I eat too much of them. As you can tell I’m pissed off about the honey. About the store being stocked full of 3.8 million food items I might want to buy but being out of the kind of honey I definitely want to buy. The nerve.

On the way to the store the streets were packed with cars and trucks and SUVs. There were too many to count. Where the hell are all these people going? There are twenty four hours in a day. We don’t all have to take the same two hours out of every day and jump on the road together, do we? The guy in front of me was driving a giant pickup truck, red and shinier than a brand new Porsche, and it should be clear to anyone who cares that he’s never hauled so much as a screwdriver in the bed of that thing. There is a cover over the bed, for heaven’s sake. How dare he have the opinion that a pickup truck is nice-looking and might be purchased for any reason other than pure utility?

And even when the roads are empty, like late at night or in the middle of nowhere, I’m always too far away from where I want to be. Last year I drove to Wichita Falls on a storm chasing expedition, and when the chase turned out to be a bust, I was five hours from home. Five hours! So on the way back, in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, I got a bit of a lead foot. Maybe it was my choice to drive all the way to Texas but that doesn’t mean I should have to spend five hours on an empty highway going home. Somewhere between the Red River and Lawton I reached 135 miles an hour before I decided I was being an idiot. What’s the big rush to get home? So I can sit there and sulk about not seeing a tornado?

But I have every right to sulk. When I storm chase I connect my laptop into one of the power outlets in my car and hook it to a GPS receiver that is plugged into the other power outlet. Then I use a wireless card to connect my laptop to the Internet. Software on my computer overlays weather radar with a road map, it tells me how fast the storms are going and how fast I’m going and allows me to plot an intercept course. It tells me if storms are rotating and if they are producing hail. The software does everything but drive me to the damned storms, but then I cross the Red River and that’s when I find out my phone carrier doesn’t offer rural data service in northwest Texas. So I have to actually look for the storms, like out my window, and I have to place a phone call to someone and ask them to look at the radar. I mean I’m in the middle of nowhere and I have this little flatscreen computer phone that makes it possible for me to call anyone in the world, but that’s not enough. There is no data service out here for the love of God.

My car is smart enough to talk to my iPod and pipes all my playlists into a fancy display on the dash, but the menus take too long to navigate. I guess it’s my fault because I had the nerve to load 4,000 songs on there. 4,000 songs that I’m totally bored with. Hundreds of thousands of hours of blood and sweat tears by musicians I’ve never met and I can’t find a single song on the damned iPod that I want to listen to.

And while I’m driving back I can’t decide if I’m hot or cold. I tinker with the interior climate of the car by individual degrees. And the road is too bumpy. I look out on the prairie and I imagine people trying to cross the land on horses or in wagons, with no smooth asphalt, unimaginable discomfort caused by life-threatening conditions in the Old West, and I’m frustrated because the only restaurant on the turnpike is McDonald’s.

This weekend I’ll play golf and probably shoot a pretty good score, but I’ll be upset whenever any shot doesn’t go exactly where I want. I’ve only been playing for twenty-five years. Why haven’t I figured this out yet? It’s not rocket science.

And speaking of rocket science, why haven’t we sent a man to Mars by now? This is 2010. We were supposed to find that big black alien rectangle by Jupiter nine years ago, but the reality is we haven’t even traveled to the closest planet yet. We’re supposed to be flying around in DeLoreans propelled by fusion engines that run on trash, not arguing over where to dig up more fossil fuels. And if you really want to piss me off, ask me why there is no such thing as a real lightsaber.

How come everything isn’t exactly as I want it? Whose fault is this?

I’m outraged!

Aren’t you?

I could start off by saying I was a shy kid and I liked books more than people and my dad was a rough oilfield man and blah blah blah, woe is me, and now I’m a writer and everything is all better.

The reality is I was shy and I’m not sure why, because inside I felt I could soar as high as the sky if only someone would pay attention to me.

Like in the sixth grade I could stand in my back yard and make fifty straight free throws, but I was barely five feet tall and my feet were already bigger than my dad’s and I didn’t move around very well. Which is why on the playground no one passed the basketball to me and when they finally did I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later I would make fifteen three-pointers in a single game on the way to 51 total points, but obviously in the sixth grade no one knew that.

On many sunset evenings I would run pass patterns in the front yard and my dad would throw the football to me over and over until I never let it hit the ground. “If you can touch it you can catch it,” he would say. But at school I was short and slow on my clown feet and no one would throw me the ball. The only time they did I scored a touchdown, but somehow no one ever remembered that.

If I had known it was possible I would have sold my soul to be Keith. Keith was the fastest human in our school and possibly the entire city of elementary schools, and like Superman he could score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He could pour shots into the hoop like Magic Johnson. He could destroy you in kickball, in foursquare, in anything. All I wanted in the world was to be like him.

The situation was different in the classroom. In there I was dominant, or rather co-dominant along with my friend Kevin. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the two of us always finished projects first and tests first and read the assigned chapter first and then sat around wondering what was taking everyone else so long. If there had been teams to pick, we would have been captains, and if there had been a ball to hog, it would have been ours. If you scored lower than the 99th percentile in any subject on the CAT test, you melted from the scorching shame.

I wanted to believe I had a leg up on Kevin because we made the same grades but I was more social than him. Or not so much social as wanted to be social. I was shy but I didn’t want to be shy. Kevin was a vastly different animal. He didn’t listen to music. He didn’t like girls. I had a huge crush on this girl named Gigi ever since I saw her on the cafeteria stage dancing to Billy Joel. She had brown hair and green eyes and put her hands on her side-thrust hips when she talked to you. She had attitude. I knew she wanted to go around with me but that attitude was intimidating so I never asked her. Still, I talked to her every day while Kevin read the extra credit chapter. When I asked him why didn’t he listen to music or talk to girls, he would say, “A Jedi craves not these things.”

As much as I wanted it, I knew I didn’t really have a leg up on Kevin. He was just as smart as me. For that matter, Keith’s grades were almost as good as ours. And even though we were all close friends, along with Jason and Butch and plenty of others in the neighborhood, there was an unspoken pecking order. Keith, being both smart and athletic, was unquestionably at the top. Jason lived in Country Club so he had votes for second place, as did Butch, who was friends with all the girls and whose parents were cool enough to own a Datsun 280ZX. Kevin and I were a bit lower, but to be honest everything below Keith was kind of hazy, and one big victory could propel any of us skyward. And finally in the middle of the sixth grade I found my chance: the Spelling Bee.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is how I took to reading at an early age. I was prone to picking up books and trying to figure out what they meant and learned my ABCs when I was three. By the time I started kindergarten I was already reading, or so the story goes, and my mom always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells that part.

So it was understood by everyone in our class that I would win the school Spelling Bee. It wasn’t in doubt. The bigger question was if I would win the city and regional competitions and go onto the national finals. I was that good.

Every afternoon, in the days leading up to the Bee, my mom picked up Words of the Champions and grilled me for hours. We spent little time with the first round words because I could spell those in my sleep. The grunt work was in the second round words, and third round words were for heavy lifters. School Bees, we understood, rarely made it to the third round words, but we studied them anyway. The word we loved the most was dirigisme, which I’ve never forgotten how to spell, though I never knew what it meant until just this year.

On the day of the school Spelling Bee, everyone congratulated me ahead of time. Keith especially had little doubt. “You got this, man,” he would say. He knew what a star looked like because he was always that guy on the field. But today was my day and that cafeteria stage was my field, my court, my 18th hole green.

My mom and I suffered through a mostly contentious relationship back then. It was rare to see her smile, but this day was different. She knew how much work we had put in and was ready to see it pay off. There were maybe thirty of us kids who filed on stage and found our chairs. I looked out at the crowd, seventy-five parents and teachers, and found my mom among them. She smiled. I knew this time, finally, I would make her proud. I couldn’t wait for the Bee to begin.

Especially when the emcee of the event announced that this year’s competition would consist of only first round words. I never found out why. But as murmurs and whispers passed over the crowd, I became even more confident. First round words were for babies.

As I said I was a shy kid, so when it was my turn to approach the microphone my heart was galloping in my chest. But the training paid off. I easily knew how to spell that first word and plenty of words after, and gradually the number of kids on the stage dwindled. Every time someone made a mistake, the emcee would ring a bell, like the kind you touch when you’re waiting at a counter.

Ding!

That tinny ring was the sound of death.

Eventually there were only four or five of us left. I was one. Kevin was one. Keith was one. Every time I answered another word correctly, Keith would give a knowing nod, silently cheering me on. Upon each visit to the microphone I had become more emboldened and was beginning to enjoy the home stretch. My victory lap. This is what it feels like to not be scared all the time, I thought. Finally. Because even though I had always been too shy to ever tell anyone, I knew one day I would overcome my fear and show my real self to the world. This day was the first step. The next could be the city Spelling Bee, and who knew what might happen after that?

I approached the microphone. I could see my mom in the audience. My heart was no longer galloping. The emcee read a word and I knew it immediately, another baby word. She read the word to me and somehow I thought of green stalks reaching toward the sky, of cobs spilling forth from them, I thought of that darkish yellow color you see in the 64-pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back. The word rhymed with haze and blaze and faze and raze, but I wasn’t about to be fooled, because no word in the Bee could possibly be that easy. After all those hours of studying there was no way I would be presented with a word of only four letters, so rather than be outsmarted I confidently spelled the word I saw in my head, a word with five letters, a word like this:

D-A-I-Z-E

I was already walking back to my seat when I heard the sound, the death sound.

Ding!

I looked into the crowd and found my mother and the look of anguish was almost too much to take. I left the stage and lurched toward a seat below, my head swimming, fuzzy, barely able to see anything because I was in a daze.

Daze.

Daze.

Daze.

It only occurred to me later that I could have asked for a definition because “daze” is a homophone that shares its sound with the word “days.” Had I asked for a definition I would have immediately known how to spell it, because of course I knew what “daze” meant. I don’t know what the hell I thought “daize” was. All I know is I was too confident and too proud, I was looking to run before I first caught the ball, so I heard “daze” and I thought “maize” and I did not win the Spelling Bee.

My mom was gracious and consoled me even though I didn’t win. My friends were kind enough about it. Everyone was kind. But I knew, like they all knew, that I had blown my chance to win, had blown my chance to climb higher in the pecking order, and it was a bitter pill I could not swallow for a long time afterward.

I don’t remember what the winning word was, or how he fared in the city Bee, but I do remember Keith looking at me with a half grin on his face, almost embarrassed to be the last man standing in this long walk, the winner again, and me barely able to see him, my head lost in a white, shapeless daze.

* * *

P.S. Here’s a school photo of us. This is from second grade, not sixth, so we’re all a bit younger and shorter and perhaps more awkward. But at least you get the idea.

I’m so ashamed. I only made it three days.

Three days before I ended up on TMZ.com.

When the news first broke, I was watching a college football game with my dad. A network news anchor looked gravely into the camera and explained how Tiger Woods had been involved in an automobile accident and his condition on the scene had been described as serious. I don’t know about the world at large, or for readers of The Nervous Breakdown, but for sports (and particularly golf) fans, this was big news. Obviously you’re concerned for the guy’s safety, but when you find out he’s okay and learn a few details about the accident, questions begin to arise.

But why? As I wrote in an earlier TNB blog, I don’t know Tiger Woods any more than I know my neighbors who live two doors down. I’m not interested in their daily drama, so why would I be interested in the personal life of a famous golfer I’ve never met?

I’m completely interested to see him dominate the sport of golf like no one else, to use his swing as a model for my own (I still have some work to do there). As a sports fan and a serious golfer, I have every reason to be impressed with his miracle victory in the 2008 U.S. Open (hobbled by a bum knee), or winning the 2007 PGA Championship less than two miles from my house.

But why would I care about him running over a fire hydrant, other than he’s not seriously hurt?

And yet I was.

My first thoughts were that he either a) wandered out of the house on sleep medication, or b) had gotten into a fight with his wife. How or why else would a person who wasn’t drunk run into a fire hydrant right next to his own driveway? At 2:30 in the morning?

But I was determined not to care. Even as people texted me gossip from smut web sites, I refused to go looking for those details myself.

If you ask anyone if they approve of the methods used by today’s paparazzi, they will invariably say “no.” The worst of these photographers are dirtier scum than email spammers. They jump from behind trees and frighten actresses, and then sell these pictures to magazines that write stories about how Jen still isn’t over Brad. They’ll follow any minor celebrity hoping to see a misstep that can be sold for cash.

But they’re only able to earn a living doing that kind of shit because we as consumers buy their goods.

And even if you don’t buy trash magazines, you probably still watch television and read news on the Internet. Tiger’s story is on every network, on every news web site. They cover stories like this because that’s what sells advertising. It’s what we want to see.

Look at this photo, by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images:

All this for a guy who hit a fire hydrant and a tree with his SUV.

But oh, he’s the best golfer of all time and is worth close to a billion dollars. And won’t tell us how or why the accident occurred. Further, this extra attention is directed at Tiger largely because of his squeaky-clean public persona. It’s like we want to see him fail, since we’ve never seen it happen before. Is that because we’re happy to know he’s a flawed human being, or because jealousy drives us to enjoy his suffering?

Let’s say for a moment the worst rumors are true: He angered his wife, she attacked him in some way, and even chased the SUV with a golf club as he tried to flee the scene. All he’s done since then is blame the accident on himself and ask for privacy.

Isn’t that what any of us would do? In fact wouldn’t most wives appreciate a husband who protected her in that way, even if she was pissed at him for something else?

He is Tiger Woods, however, so people want the details. But why? Why does it matter? How will the lives of golf fans or casual observers be any different tomorrow if he were to offer us a few sordid morsels?

I’m ashamed of myself for following a link to TMZ (an entertainment site I deeply despise) but that doesn’t change the fact that I did it.

Whatever the reason for his accident, no matter which (if any) rumors are true, for me it doesn’t alter my awe of Tiger Woods. He is the best in the world at a sport I love. I didn’t think any less of Stephen King when I learned of his drug and alcohol problems (that actually explained a lot), and if tomorrow Jonathan Franzen were to admit an addiction to Internet porn, I would still purchase every book he ever published. I don’t know these men personally and likely never will, but as long as they don’t intentionally kill anyone I will probably always like them.

But I like myself a little less when I’m forced to admit that I cannot completely ignore the drama in their personal lives. No matter how much I wish it weren’t so, such is the reality of human nature.

There are certain hobbies that, while possessed of an inherent appeal, I would never take up because the subculture attached to them so repels me.

Take golf.I enjoy whacking the little white ball—I’m pretty good on the driving range, truth be told—but I would never go so far as to play the game for the simple reason that I don’t want to spend a whole afternoon with golfers.

I’m with Robin Williams on the golf course, where he insists upon hitting drives with putters and putts with woods. Ostensibly, we’re going to discuss Williams’ new movie, Night at the Museum 2, but the conversation is a narcissist’s dream of a jazzy bebop drum roll.

“Oh, you want to talk about the movie,” Williams says. “Well, too bad, because we’re golfing on the moon. I’m talking holes the size of craters and man I still can’t sink a putt. A putt’s like a sinker, like I’m fishing. I’m fisherman Jack, out on the oceans. Say, there, that’s Moby Dick. Harrr, thar she blows, it’s Jaws and he done blowed up. Who says Jaws is a man? Maybe it’s a woman. Hi, I’m Miss Jaws, sho’ ’nuff, and you best have a J-O-B if you wanna dance with me.”

When I was 19 I took a job at Sears, Roebuck, and Co. The company was named after Richard Sears, Alvah Roebuck, and Bad Company (the English rock supergroup). If you’ve ever wondered who Roebuck was, I can tell you (according to Wikipedia) that the name came from Alvah Roebuck, who left the company in 1895 because of poor health. He returned as a spokesperson during the Great Depression and maintained that role until his death in 1948. Anyway, nothing against Mr. Roebuck, but I find that information to be exceptionally irrelevant to this blog, and yet I felt compelled to include it because of my fascination with Wikipedia. Who says porn is the best thing on the Internet?

The morning is soupy, humid and warm, and we all know the mercury will climb quickly. A ride on a bus and an uphill walk, rubbing elbows with an army of spectators, and then I see the sun breaking over the roof of the club house. Shadows stretch across the golf course, a man-made jewel. The sky is infinite shades of pink and blue. I never get up this early. As far as I’m concerned, the day doesn’t begin until two hours after sunrise. Minimum. But I might as well capture this rare moment for digital review at some later time, so I reach into my pocket and retrieve my camera. Push the power button. Nothing happens. I push it again, but knowledge surges into me like guilt, and I see clearly the camera battery mounted in the charger. Which is plugged into the wall. At home. Today is the day I chose to take pictures–the Tuesday practice round–because tomorrow I’m working, and during the actual tournament, cameras are prohibited. Because of the bus system and the long walk, the round trip time between this spot and my house is probably an hour and a half. Maybe even longer. I stuff the camera back into my pocket. Through the trees I notice a group of golfers on the fourth green. One of them is Tiger Woods. I happen to be standing near the fifth tee, so I walk over and find a spot on the ropes, directly behind the tee. Two minutes later, here comes Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods, two of the biggest hitters on the PGA TOUR, about to tee off on one of the longest holes in major championship golf. A 653-yard par 5. And I have no camera. But wait! I smuggled my cell phone into the tournament! It has a 2 megapixel camera! Phones are definitely not allowed here at the PGA Championship, but I get it out anyway and snap a couple of shots. Even though I know they won’t turn out well.

You know what, though? It’s okay. It’s no secret that I’m into golf. I like to think that if I could quit my job and practice full-time, I could probably make a living at it. Either playing or instructing. But I don’t, because I already chose “writing novels” as my pipe dream career. It would probably be greedy to have two.

The PGA Championship two weeks ago was one of the most rewarding weeks I’ve had in a while. I volunteered as a marshal on one of the more famous holes in golf, I was able to watch the sport being played at its highest level, and I was there when Tiger Woods won his 13th major. That all this happened a couple of miles from my house made the experience that much more sublime. A lot of people asked me afterwards: Did you see Tiger? Did you see Tiger? Yeah, I did. Being inside the ropes, I was pretty close. Did you get his autograph? people asked. Get a picture with him? I am a big fan of Tiger Woods because he set his sights on one of the most hallowed records in sports and has steadily marched toward it for the past twelve years. I am a fan because he is about the same height and body type as me, and I can look at his swing as a model. Surprisingly, I hit the ball about as far as Tiger (though nowhere near as precisely). It’s fun to compare your skill level with the best in the world, to imagine what it would be like to play a round with Tiger or any of the best golfers. But what would I do with an autograph? His name hastily scribbled on a ball cap? A photograph might be interesting, but only if it were taken after I had a conversation with the guy.

Because who is Tiger Woods? I don’t know. Who is Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen or any well-known person I admire for their skills? I don’t know them. They don’t know me. Would I like to play golf with Tiger? Discuss fiction with Franzen? Of course I would. But I would do it as a peer, not a fan. To do so is to acknowledge some gap between us, some difference in what we bring to the world, and I’m not prepared to do that. I can understand children pining for an autograph. But I don’t really get it with adults…and yet I’ve happily signed many books. For readers I meet in bookstores, for friends. It seems very hypocritical, I know. Maybe the difference is that at a book signing, I have the chance to speak with readers. Or maybe I’m conceited. All I know is that I prefer to take pictures with the people I care about. The people I talk to every day. The people who I share my life with. But hey, Tiger: Let me know the next time you have an open spot in your foursome. I’m free. And this time I’ll have a battery in my camera.

Viewed from an altitude of 37,000 feet, the Earth looks a lot different than our everyday experience.

The majestic Rockies are a bumpy patch of acne. Mighty rivers look like static, crooked lines. Teeming cities become their smoggy, Google Earth counterparts.

We build our lives in these places, we take vacations to them, we photograph them in order to precisely relive their beauty at a later time. We make clear distinctions between desolate, flat farmland and the beauty of California, where mountains meet the sea.

But from high above, the differences between these places are blurred.

***

The place where I work is made up of several buildings that surround a courtyard. There is a pond in the courtyard and a small, man-made waterfall. There are trees and grass. And there is a also network of sidewalks in this courtyard that shuffles us workers between buildings.

On one particular sidewalk, there is a place where ants cross from one plot of grass to another. I often stop to watch the ants speed down their narrow highway, wondering where they are going with such single-minded conviction. Sometimes traffic increases, and their roads widen. Sometimes I find them in the process of dismantling a dead wasp, breaking it into pieces and carrying it back to their hidden home.

Occasionally misfortune befalls the highway, and the ants are forced to clean up a group of their suddenly-dead brothers.

Imagine what an ant-produced television news segment might be like:

“Yet another giant footstep kills hundreds on I-280! Field reporter Buggy Buggerson interviews surviving worker ants tonight at 10!”

To ants, an average rainstorm is like Hurricane Katrina. Thousands wash away. Hundreds drown.

Every time a kid knocks down one of their carefully constructed hills, the ants lose their homes and are forced to rebuild.

Your average drainage ditch is the Grand Canyon.

But size isn’t the only difference between humans and ants. We’re also a bit smarter than them. Right?

I mean, we can calculate the orbits of planets and the relationship between speed and time, but we still go around killing each other for money. Or turf. We strap on diapers and shit ourselves during cross-country drives to murder rival astronaut girlfriends.

Is it a blessing or a curse that our minds, powerful as they may be, are so influenced by emotion?

To a biologist, emotions are governed by mappable, electrochemical processes. They can be altered chemically or physically. I can trigger a release of dopamine by drinking alcohol. Doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that influence (for better or worse) the brain’s delicate chemical balance.

If emotions are so easily influenced by mechanical processes, how should we define them? Are they really as special as we like to believe?

Admittedly, thinking of the world this way–from a purely mechanical point of view–is not very romantic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. Romance itself is an emotion, in fact, a filter through which we interpret the world.

And yet these are the brains we have. How would we interpret the world except through these emotionally-charged minds?

Just because we humans imagine the universe in a certain way, just because we like to impart meaning on inanimate objects and places, just because we look for patterns in events that might ultimately be random, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way or even the best way.

How do we know someone or something isn’t watching us like we watch ants, observing our human struggles with a sort of amused detachment and maybe a little pity…pity that our understanding of the world is so limited?

I wonder if we would better off knowing more or knowing less? If it turns out the universe is meaningless, if it really is nothing more than a soup of matter and energy brewing in spacetime, would you like to know exactly how it works? Or would you rather be oblivious, a worker trudging back and forth on the ant highway, day after day, blindly working toward a goal that will never become clear to you?

When you die, does it matter at all?

Does it matter even now?

For the moment I leave these questions to you. I’ll be chasing a little white ball around a plot of grass for the next few days.

-R