Packing the days

BY COLIN GILBERT | JUNE 17, 2009 7:20 AM

Sometimes an empty day holds infinite promise, the sense of possibilities multiplying all around you, and that day seems wonderful for its sheer blankness. And then the empty day comes around with its possible scenarios, its lack of imperative, the same openness that at first makes the day free and fine, and you falter. You look all around and see that, indeed, you could go to the movies, or out for a drink with some buddies, or read a book, or work the crossword, or walk the dog, or, or, or, and you want none of it. You see the world spread out like a map of itself, and you freeze.

Summers in Iowa City seem like they have a lot of these days. Maybe it’s just me and whatever interesting neuroses I entertain (out of habit, mostly). But I often feel like this respite from the marching hordes of Sports Column thugs and the scantily wrapped sexual-assault-victims-to-be they stalk is simply less worth the effort. The tabula rasa of summer, by its very agency, promises high times and whirlwind fun but places their coming-about in our hands.

The answer to summer’s doldrums seems to consist of Frisbee golf. (And yes, I am refusing to call the game “disc golf,” though the purists out there are hissing between their teeth, for the same reason I do not call Kleenex “facial tissue,” honestly).

I am extremely new to the game, and sometimes several times a week drive with my friends out to the course to fling my Frisbee directly into trees. I’m constantly amazed at the skill some of these players have. My friends are pretty good, throwing flat, straight drives that go for miles, or neat S-curves that navigate stray branches, or graceful parabolas that bite into the air and slide this way and that (and here I’m remembering that sound, that fantastic *thok* as it makes impact). And others, the real pros: you’ve probably seen them, the ones that with a flick of fingers send their Frisbees flying edge-vertical for a hundred yards before flipping flat and angling directly into the baskets. I find myself wondering how they find the time and energy to perfect such a skill, coupled with my simple perplexity that some people can train their bodies to do such exact work. I can barely swim straight down a laned pool and here are these guys, performing neat half-turn-jumps and as if by magic loosing their laser-guided missiles.

I enjoy the game, I do, and I respect those good at it, as I do anyone who’s better at something than myself (oddly, this seems to be everyone on the planet). But what’s got me a little confused is the drive behind skill itself. We can talk about talent, I suppose, but really, what does that word mean? Talent is that word we give to alacrity without effort, or perceived effort, and somehow “skill” has a slightly less gifted feeling to it. Are people born with their abilities purely, or is their work involved? (And here we could detour into subjects such as “potential” or, God forbid, “purpose,” but we’ll glaze over all that for now). Those in the “arts,” painters and sculptors and writers and such, are seen as somehow touched by fate to work their abilities, and yet we would describe an experienced, efficient, successful receptionist as having a “skill” instead of talent. Is a “real job” any less awe-inspiring when it’s performed well than a well-thrown Frisbee or a nicely turned phrase? It’s all just what we do with ourselves.

And now we can talk about potential: Is it self-informed? Is it ingrained? Does it exist at all, being what it is, potential, in the face of actuality? I think sometimes the days are so empty I don’t know what to do with myself, because of questions like these. I could master a skill or indulge a talent or find my potential, but those are some pretty big agenda items. Which is why summers here feel so sapped, to me, and why I usually just end up sipping a cocktail on the Deadwood patio, watching others pass by on their errands or frivolities. What was it that Calvin once said? (Not that one, the other one): “The days are just packed.” That’s the trouble.

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