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An asterisk-free life

November 1, 2008
by Gary Tetz
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I'm in an awkward position. Not literally, because I'm actually quite comfortable here in my cozy recliner, feet up, mug of coffee in hand, computer nesting like an adoring poodle in my lap. It's more of a strategic/tactical problem.1

As you may have noticed, there's a lot happening in the world these days, some of it very bad, some of it not very good. And since I'm a so-called writer, I'd like very much to use this forum to expound about the election, for instance, or the bailout, or the stock market crash, or… (insert new scary crisis here). If you asked nicely, I would even try to make my comments relevant in some tangential way to the long-term care profession.

But instead here I sit, helpless and hostage in the dead zone between composition and publication. Everything that's happening now, while I write this, will almost certainly be fixed, over, worse, or irrelevant by the time the November issue of this magazine rockets through your mail slot—so any further commentary seems futile. Does this upset me? You betcha it does.2

Since there's no point in talking about how the world is teetering3 on the brink of ruin, let's discuss something else that's been much on my mind lately: golf. You're familiar with the sport, I'm sure—the one where pseudo-athletes in ugly clothes spend an obscene amount of money to whack and chase a defenseless white ball across acres of previously pristine natural wildlife habitat.

I admit it. I'm one of those people—an obsessive golfer. Not a good one, mind you, but determined. Over the course of my adult life, I've managed an impressively consistent mediocrity, polishing my game until it shines like burnished Tupperware. After years of determined flailing, my handicap4 still equals the legal drinking age, and in clear defiance of my political leanings, most shots still fly wildly to the right. I continue to try—valiantly, even heroically—but I simply don't get any better.

At one point not that long ago, a miracle happened. Despite my continued incompetence, my scores began to magically improve, and it took a rare moment of introspection to figure out how. It seems that as my tiny pencil hovered over the card after each hole, poised to record the awful truth, a still small voice in my head invariably whispered, “You shouldn't count that stroke, because…,” and continued with any number of seductive excuses. “You were only a foot out of bounds.” “The sun was in your eyes.” “The beverage girl was making you nervous.” “A butterfly in Borneo flapped his wings during your backswing.”

The voice was very persuasive, and I generally followed its advice. Later, in the clubhouse after doing my phony math, I'd brandish the tainted card and excitedly say to my assembled colleagues, “Wow, I shot an 89! That's my best score ever!” But inside a different, more annoying voice was saying, “No you didn't. No it wasn't.” There was no sense of personal satisfaction, no reward. I wasn't getting better; I was just manufacturing more excuses. Every time I left the golf course, an asterisk followed me home, and I realized it had to stop.

Now, don't get me wrong. I heart the asterisk—*. See, it's pretty, like a snowflake or star, even in Garamond.5 Just look at it laying there on the page, all ornamental and innocent. But for something that appears so festive, it's anything but harmless, a universal symbol of compromised potential and blemished achievement. On its own, it's just another innocuous character. Attached to a life, it becomes a stain you can't remove.

Look around. The world is full of people bearing permanent asterisks, in various forms. Baseball slugger Barry Bonds sports one that's bigger than his steroid-swollen head, Bill Clinton's answers to the name of Monica, and George W.'s looks like Florida. Team photos of the undefeated 2008 New England Patriots reveal an asterisk with a video camera perched on the coach's shoulders, and the one Senator John Edwards carries is shaped like a hypocrite. Each has achieved that special status in society where the asterisk is bigger than the name that precedes it, overshadowing and defining its host.

It may look unassuming, with its spindly limbs pointing all directions, but an asterisk is heavy, a significant burden to lug through life. I'm sure none of these unfortunate folks grew up hoping to have one of their very own, but I can see how it happens. Asterisks are awfully cute when they're young, when they're single-celled excuses and petty little concessions. But along the way, they develop voracious appetites, biting into names and swelling up like mosquitoes. And by then it's too late.

I'll be honest—I'm not frightened by the stock market, global warming, or who the next President might be.6 It's the asterisk I really fear. I didn't see one on my birth certificate, and I certainly don't want one on my tombstone. So I'm thinking the pursuit of an asterisk-free life should rank right up there with food, shelter, and Osama Bin Laden.