Thursday, September 19, 2013

Zoning Out

I played golf once in college, and that was about the third time I'd ever been on a course other than to float tiny "boats" down streams and generally stomp around in winter.  I don't remember the circumstances that lead to me suddenly finding myself, squinting slightly dazed and out of place, on a driving range with my buddies Ace and Dean, but there I was giving it a shot.

I had an excellent teacher in the Aceman.  He was a single-digit handicapper at the time with the long, flowing swing employed successfully only by those of athletic grace unknown to most of us.  (An athletic prowess, by the way, that also allowed him to almost casually throw at extremely snappy velocities.  I can easily recall that distinctive rocketing hssssss of an Ace-thrown baseball -- the hiss you only hear when a ball has been fired from a serious arm cannon.  And the startling mitt POP! that would make people stop and look while we threw the ball around in the green space now occupied by the Kohl Center.)

There we stood on the recently rain-soaked range with a bucket of balls and a teacher whose very moniker had been earned through achieving a hole in one not once, but twice.  Ace is a good friend, so with undying patience he instructed me from the ground up.  Tips and pointers I don't remember about hips and elbows.  How this should feel and that should look.  Keep my hands here, pause there, and remember to breath.

I was headed for the PGA, and I hadn't even hit a ball yet.  After absorbing all the instruction I could hold, I stepped up to the tee for my first colossal hack, and unceremoniously buried the face of the club deep in the mud about a foot behind the ball.  A ball that remained frustratingly inert on the tee, completely unmoved by my ungainly thrashing.  It was then that I further considered dedicating my free time to becoming a mediocre fly fisherman rather than an awful golfer.

Somewhere in the midst of our later 9-hole round a wholly unexpected thing happened.  I'd hit a decent drive (one that didn't fly off on some oblique trajectory, actually landed in the fairway to the amazement of all),  and under Ace's instruction, I lined up my iron shot.  In that mystifying and elusive moment that happens only so rarely, I swung easily and made a fine shot.  More importantly here, I felt it almost immediately on the strike.

It landed pin high, on the left edge where he had told me to aim, and followed the natural slope of the green down so near the cup even I could make the putt.  I walked up, read the break correctly, and put it in the hole.  The remainder of my round was an ongoing and unmitigated catastrophe the likes of which they should've written brooding Norse sagas about, but for the briefest of instances, I'd known what it felt like to be "in the zone" on a golf course.

I don't think we really know what "the zone" is.  The fact that it may be different for everyone or may come in varying degrees of intensity for the same person make defining it even more difficult.  For me it involves a full immersion in the activity at hand.  Complete focus and control in that time span also play roles.  And the infamous time distortion people mention.  It felt like everything was happening in slow motion -- we hear and say that a lot when we talk about the zone.

It's a rare and beautiful thing to find oneself in the zone.  Even rarer to suddenly blip into existence there right out of the gate.

I took a walk in the woods behind the house this past weekend, armed with my much-loved bolt action .22 and thoughts of fried squirrel.  Hunting seasons had just opened that morning in Wisconsin, and I was primed and pumped to gather some protein.  A shotgun is often a more logical choice for early season squirrels, often obscured from the shooter with all the green still up, but my first tree rat hunt of the year will be with that nimble little Savage rimfire until one of us is in the ground.

I grew up shooting that peep sight, and had a bit of a tough time adjusting to scoped rifles when it became clear I was going to get more shooting opportunities using them in the low light conditions when bucks often appear.  I got comfortable enough eventually, but there still exists a smidge of hesitation and adjustment when I put my eye behind a scope that isn't there behind the Lyman.

It's to the point now, using that .22 with the peep on shots that test the limits of both gun and marksman, that it becomes nothing more than a matter of feel.  Meat conserving head shots are paramount to me on small game such as squirrels.  When Mr. Fluffy Tail appears before me at such a trying range that he is almost completely obscured by the front sight post and I lean the barrel against a tree for support, I hold on the center of his body, and give the slightest nudge with my cheek or left thumb as I take out the last bit of trigger creep. (I actually clench my teeth when I need to push left, making that little knot pop out on the corner of my jaw, and that does the trick).  I settle there, and with the lightest, almost inadvertent addition of pressure to the trigger, when I'm in the zone, the lead is well on past my dinner's far ear before he even begins his tumble to the forest floor.

I gave up, and contented myself with stealing his dinner.
It doesn't always happen that way, but it did twice on Saturday morning.  A welcome and surprisingly abrupt return to the sweet spot in a breeze barely hinting at the cold to come.  Monday morning I missed a much closer squirrel twice with a scatter gun.  Though, as if to present a convenient excuse for me which I'll gladly employ here, he was bounding along up in the thick green tops.

Comfort, and even a little time in the zone, did eventually come with the scoped rifles.  I remember the first buck I shot when I used to hunt over by the rifle range years ago.

I had a tree stand parked on a thickly poppled knob overlooking a beaver pond and the game trail that encircled its perimeter, supported by an aspen roughly the diameter and tensile strength of overcooked rigatoni.  It was a nice spot, but there was plenty of pucker factor in that little tree on windy days.

I'd grown comfortable enough with the scope by that point, but by some happenstance unknown to me, I found myself running through the process of the shot in my mind all through the season that year.  Even on the drive up, I concentrated obsessively on sight picture, trigger pull, and follow through.  While hunting, I ran the imagery through my mind on a near-constant loop like an athlete would do before a contest, as a way to remain alert on the stand.

Quit making me laugh, ya bastards. This is serious.
When that massive northwoods buck (OK, it was just a little forky) stepped into view, I was prepared.  For the first time in my brief career as wielder of a scoped centerfire, there was no need for pause or adjustment.  It was about the only time I've ever set the crosshairs immediately and precisely where I wanted them on an animal.  One of the very few times I pulled smoothly and saw the impact happen through the scope, saw the insides explosively become the outsides on the other side of his rib cage as clearly as if it had happened five feet away.  I guess sometimes you can pick the locks, and force your way into the zone.  I don't know why I don't more often.  I miss often enough that I certainly should.

That sweet spot of perfect execution is not limited to shooting, of course.  I most often encounter it at the fly vice and sometimes in the kitchen or sitting here spewing forth these tales of outdoor triumph and failure.

The doing of repetitious small tasks often leads me there.  Anything from spinning repeated gobs of deer hair on a hook to peeling a pile of spuds, the activity in question doesn't matter.  If I'm in the right mindset I'll make it a game, imagining myself in a contest to become the fastest and cleanest tater peeler this side of the ol' Mississip.  Soon I'm on autopilot, hands functioning with almost no thought given to their actions.

We used to talk quite a bit about that state of "rigorous autopilot" in drum & bugle corps (insert collective moan from the DSO fellas, I know.  Bear with me, gentlemen).  At that activity's highest levels, the search for perfection leads up a path that eventually comes to extremely small degrees of differentiation at the apex of a huge scale.  Minutiae and exacting detail rule your every performing thought at those tiny spans of separation.  Fractions of pitches and inches and seconds.   After hundreds of hours of rehearsal on a single piece of music and movement, so much information concerning technique and execution has been wedged into the soul of the player that he or she cannnot hope to perform at an acceptable level outside that near-mystical level of precision autopilot.  You just line up and twelve minutes later, panting hard and dripping sweat, they're screaming in the stands.  Deep in the zone.

The place I often find the autopilot zone most fleeting and frustratingly elusory also happens to be one of my favorite pastimes -- fly fishing.  More specifically, the glorious and terrible art of casting.  Much like the golf swing, fly casting is all about rhythm, timing, and feel.  And much like the golf swing, you can learn the basics in a short time, then spend decades working out the kinks to perfect it.  It's all long flowing loops and the poetry of physics in motion until it isn't.  Then it's tripping on line, strained epithets, and ugly coiled heaps on the water.

I have dipped a toe in the cryptic pool of flycasting zone on occasion, and a particular cast and fish stands out in the recalling of rare moments basking in that gentle glow.

A couple years ago I was invited to take part in a shakedown smallmouth trip on a Michigan river with my buddy Flockshot and his guide friend Aaron.  Even though we caught fish numbering somewhere on the north side of sixty that day, Flock may remember this particular fish when he reads this.  I'm not a whooping and hollering Fish On! type when I latch in to a big one.  Instead I usually go silent in concentration, but at the moment of this particular bite in the zone, I startled myself and everyone else by sharply bellowing, "Holy shit!" loud enough to shatter the gentle sussurations of a pleasant trip down the river.

My float had begun spectacularly far outside the zone.  Casting with a guide rod, on an unfamiliar river, standing at the bow of a raft I'd never been in, I was a towering beacon of suck.  Flailing like a crack monkey.  I couldn't see the solar system containing the zone with the Hubble Space Telescope.  With time and a couple smallish fish, I slowly improved.  Eventually, I got my wits about me and my act together, and began to fish like a moderately competent human being.

It was an odd day on the river, for me at least, in that we started with dink smallies, and the fish got progressively larger as we neared the end.  Maybe Aaron used his double secret guide mojo or the power of the beard to home in on the proper fly selection and boat positioning as the day played out.  Or maybe the fatties were too lazy to swim upstream to our launch.  I'm not sure.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the float, I found myself approaching an event horizon of imminent zonage.  Still in the bow as a guest, my cast had un-bungled itself into something resembling an effective fly presenting tool.  I spied a perfect lie -- an underwater log, barely visible from behind polarized amber shades, jutting into the current with that slick of pillow water behind it that denotes a washed out hole.  Overhanging brush provided both shade and cover for the hole, and a formidable defense against probing flies.

You forget to grin like an idiot when stumbling down out of the zone. 
Everything slowed.  I took a breath, a double-haul false cast, and laid a long, low cast perfectly just upstream of the log.  A quick mend gave the streamer a moment's pause, and it disappeared into the deep.  The instant my offering vanished from clear view I witnessed that slightly eerie signature apparition, that thing we're all chasing out there waving sticks around -- the torpedo flash and shadow of Darwin's own predator crushing the life out of a fly.

It was a great fish, though not my biggest of the day.  Probably not even the biggest that hour.  But it remains clear to mind (and heart) among countless other catches before and since because it happened when all things came together, when focus and motivation collided with loss of self consciousness at the zenith of control.

It happened in the zone.    


  1. awesomely written post about that place we all want to be, thanks dude. (also, the green in front of the Kohl center is still enough to play catch in, though competition for space might be bit more than it used to...)

  2. No, thank you. I've only been back for basketball and hockey, but there does look to be enough room for a quick game of catch. Lots of pickup football and catch there when we lived in Witte, but there were just train tracks along the back then. I'm getting dangerously close to sounding like an old curmudgeon, so I'll stop. :)

  3. I just spent an hour, trying to find this exact entry. Not because I am in it, but because of a sentence you muttered after releasing this fish.. "that was my favorite take ever..."..its taken me to this spring to fully understand what you meant by that..the "A river runs through it" moment...maybe its age, or the fact that I dont fish as much as I used too..but the flash behind my fly has become greater then the fish itself.


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