The allure of learning something difficult

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland
Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)
Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means
The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?