An unsolvable puzzle...
One of the recent guests on “The Daily Stoic” podcast was the writer, journalist, and self-labelled “human guinea pig” A.J. Jacobs, whose latest book “The Puzzler” is an exploration of the world of puzzles, from the maze to the sudoku. Jacobs is always entertaining, and the profound themes that emerged from his latest journey found a good home in Ryan Holiday’s excellent platform.
As they talked about the value of curiosity and mystery in our lives, my thoughts turned to golf, as they often do. It’s like my attention will get dragged off course like an errant tee shot, only to be brought back into focus by a crafty recovery that reveals that I’ve experienced such awkward lies before. So while they delved into the furthest reaches of arcane fields such as the enormous jigsaw, I pondered on the ways in which this quaint, old game of ours is eternally baffling.
There are many codes to be cracked in golf, which perhaps explains the longevity of its appeal for those under the spell. There is the course, whose architecture may contain a great deal more thought and intent than the average golfer consciously picks up. There is also the technical side, and the balance between forming good physical habits without letting the often frail state of our mental game derail us.
Then there’s the eternal search for the right equipment, and no amount of hard cash can ensure the strange chemistry that binds us to tools that simply oughtn’t work so well if we are rely on logic as our guage. I know a man who will refuse to leave his ancient, trusty four wood in the boot outside a country pub. He’d rather lose the car and the thirteen other shiny new clubs than the soulmate with the old grip, so precious is their connection, so treasured the memory of their adventures together.
And then you tee off, and find surprises, lessons, scowls and laughter at every turn. Our modern, western insistence on retaining control of things is made a mockery of by this giant green puzzle, living and breathing as we stumble across it, perplexed yet happy. In what other realm might you, to take a recent personal example, snap-hook a drive from the tee of a generous par four, sending the ball hurtling across the left edge of the semi-rough and diving gleefully into the long rough that only the worst shots find at Rye.
The ball seemingly decided to retire from action after a long day, and a new one dropped down not only flew straighter than its predecessor, but bounced once before settling safely out of the wind, in the base of the cup. Where else would such absurdly different outcomes and feelings occur in sequence? My playing partner quietly said “I think you’ve holed it”, and we both shrugged, stunned by this latest development, though after probably a combined eight decades of golfing adventures, it is perhaps equally odd that the game will still surprise us. You’d think we’d have absorbed the lesson by now.
Jacobs and Holiday continue their happy dialogue, covering everything from the cryptic crossword to the meaning of life, and I delight in a mention of “The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy”, another fragment of my childhood floating to the surface across the decades. And then, Jacobs introduces the notion of the unsolvable puzzle, one that he created that will be played and passed down through generations of families, despite the certainty that “the universe will run out of energy” before the puzzle is completed.
Once again, my thoughts turn back to golf and how, even for the greats of this sport, mastery can only ever be partial, and transitory. We are all custodians of a little patch of golfing time, and pass on this marvellous recipe for an eternal struggle to anyone who will listen, but none of us see more than a fleeting glimpse of the solution, and before you know it, it’s gone. Or, more accurately, the moment you think you might have something, it vanishes. Replaced by a duff, or a thin. Maybe a shank.
But, as Jacobs points out, maybe the meaning of life is to be found “in the looking for the meaning of life” - in the search itself, not the answer. In the eyes-up, hopeful optimism of the perpetual hacker and in the fist pump of the Master. If we can stay open to opportunity and allow golf and life to unfold before us, now and then we will be host to a little piece of magic, and all of the time and effort spent looking for the key will suddenly be worthwhile. So I push a tee into the dewy green turf, and wonder what on earth will happen next…
Thank you for reading this, and if you are subscribed, or have helped spread the word about these musings via email or social media, I am hugely grateful. It all helps!
In case you are new in these parts, here’s one from the archive that perhaps sits well with this latest bout of nonsense…