Monday, September 06, 2010

Archery of My Middle Ages

So begins a series of occasional posts that I originally wrote as radio commentary for the "Metro Connection" show on WAMU, the public radio station here in the DC area. As that gig has gone belly-up for me, I'll be posting the narratives of my unaired commentary pieces here now and then. This first one is about my pleasant obsession with sharp, pointy things.

Well, here goes. I guess you'll just have to imagine the sweet dulcet tones (snerk, cough, cough) of my voice reading this on air...

Some people hit their forties and have the stereotypical mid-life crisis: buy a fast car, have an affair, bungee jump over a gaping crevasse. My own crisis unfolded over the first half of my forties after a series of car accidents, a pile of broken bones, and partial vision loss. I felt defeated, and I needed some inspiration. But fast cars and affairs aren’t my thing, thanks, and I’m way too chicken to bungee jump. So what did I do?

I took up archery.

Other than paying a few bucks to shoot warped wooden arrows at ye olde Renaissance Faire a few years ago, I hadn’t had a bow in my hands since high school gym class in 1984. Back then, we were handed a few splintery arrows, assigned a beaten-up bow, and pointed in the general direction of some equally beaten-up targets... targets placed directly in front of the faculty parking lot. I always assumed our gym teacher had an axe to grind with her fellow educators as we heard the unmistakable sound of projectiles bouncing off hoods and windshields – and occasionally impaling a tire.

Or maybe she was just a sadist. She usually didn’t hand out protective arm guards until after we’d shot a few arrows and half the girls had walloped their arms with bouncing bow strings. As novice archers shrieked in pain, the teacher would casually point out the bucket of crispy leather straps, stained with years of high schooler sweat. And, faced with the choice of bruises or contact with God-only-knows-what on those diseased pieces of cow skin, most opted for the bruises.

When I recently went with a friend to choose a new recurve bow, I told him about the bruised arm phenomenon back in the day. But I realized I rarely ended up with bruises. (I also never winged a teacher’s car.) Instead, I managed to hit the target with surprising regularity. Turned out, I wasn’t half bad at archery. And when you are a clumsy fat kid in high school, if you find you excel at anything in gym class, you hold on to that. For once, I felt like an equal with the nimble girls who moved in ways I never could. I felt strong. I felt confident and self-assured. And that felt pretty cool.

But like so many things, archery got lost in the haze of college. And then, in work. And work. Aaand work. Over the years, I told incredulous friends how much I’d loved archery. But I never seemed to find the time – or place – for it. Then I hit forty and became a magnet for vehicular disaster. As I thanked my lucky stars to still be alive and mostly in one piece, I started to take stock of what I enjoyed most in this life. And that’s how I ended up happily schlepping a weapon through a Montgomery County park this spring.

There’s a public archery range at Lake Needwood Park up in Rockville. It’s located in a quiet meadow - safely across the street from the nearest picnic area – and has a handful of hay bales and stone markers noting distance. You have to bring your own targets to hitch onto the hay, but the ones I’d ordered hadn’t arrived yet for that first day. All I had in hand was a six-inch by six-inch piece of sticky paper from. The small square was marked with a single red triangle encompassed by a single black circle. It was ludicrously small for a beginner (especially one with crappy eyesight), but I figured, what the hell - I was here, and this was, after all, just a first attempt.

I picked a target and slapped the sticky paper on the hay. When I’d limped the forty feet back to my bow, that little red triangle looked ridiculously tiny, and I wondered just what the heck I was doing. But as soon as I had that bow in my hand, it felt right. I nocked my first arrow, took a deep breath, and drew back the bow string. And when I heard that arrow zing straight into that little scrap of paper? Man, it was good. It was kinda Zen, even.

The score at the end of my first day? Well, I managed to step on my arrows once. Somewhere along the way I lost a fletching off one of them. (I have no idea where it ended up.) And on one shot, I actually snapped the bow string behind my protective arm guard. (That shot briefly voided my Zen.) But it didn’t matter. I shot sixty arrows and had to retrieve only two that I managed to embed in the hillside. The rest? They all landed true on that tiny target. Not bad for a chick with 1.5 eyes and a numb leg, eh?

Another archer arrived while I was shooting. Older than me, with a fancy compound bow, he shot at another target and occasionally stopped to watch me. We wrapped up at about the same time, and he came over to me. “Don’t know how long you’ve been shooting,” he said. “But you’ve got talent. I hope I see you out here again.” How ‘bout that? I’ve got talent! And a big bruise.

Now, I know I’m never going to be called up for the Olympics - or defeat the French at Agincourt - but I’m hooked. Best. Mid-life crisis. Ever. I found out there are at least two other archery ranges in Montgomery County waiting for me. So, consider this fair warning, hale bales of Maryland! Beware!! I’m armed, I’m ready, and I’m coming to show you who’s boss!


Chuck said...

From now on, your code name will be "Robin."

Claire said...

Yay, M!

We had archery targets in high school, but I don't recall anyone ever shooting at them. I never did-- too much hassle for our gym teachers to pull out the equipment & supervise us I'd bet. Jerks.

I loved watching archery during the past summer Olympics. Felt like my kind of sport.

Washington Cube said...

I haven't engaged in archery lately, but I do own a recurve bow and used to (like you) go to a park range where I would be in a row with hunters and their plastic deer and compound bows. I was the only female out there and the only one using a proper bow, not the equivalent of a automatic weapon.

One Sunday morning I was out and saw Zen archers in their white robes and longbows. Now "there" is talent...using a long bow. It takes a lot of strength and accuracy. They also offered prays and splattered rice around. Ritualistic and great to watch. The respect.

Here's an idea for you to make it more fun. Sometimes I would photocopy a picture of an aggressive realtor in my neighborhood, or someone you aren't fond of...and aim at that...the other archers will give you "room" when you pull that one off.

My favorite thing to do was buy a cheap bag of balloons. Blow them up tiny...about the size of a plum or smaller, then shoot at them. They make a nice little "pop" sound that can be fun.

I've always believed archery had a zen quality to have to sort of let your mind zone out to be really good. It's fun, too, to site your target minus a telescope (another thing those compound guys are big on.) You shoot. Miss. Adjust. Hit. Very satisfactory. Like a sniper.