Archery is a powerful antidote to anxieties of pandemic life

Monday mornings are great when you feel like you’re being shot out of a cannon. Start dressing, feeding, brushing and sunscreening a feral 5-year-old as soon as he wakes up. Pack a lunch while you peek at your phone to catch up on all the emails, Slack messages, and news events you missed over the weekend. Take care of the child and all his things to school.

Next, there’s a Gantlet with phone and zoom meetings. First, the daily touch base call with other managers. Then check in calls with everyone on your team. Then another call from the managers to refer to the updates to the check-ins.

And in between target practice: 10 arrows per round, at a distance of 10 to 30 yards.

A person in a blue shirt reaches into a quiver full of arrows.

Archer Sai Sriskandarajah takes an arrow from his quiver.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

Most Mondays I’m content to shoot the target bag in the corner of my backyard. If it’s a nice day, I might drive a mile to the archery range where UC Berkeley’s Olympic hopefuls train and take my calls there. Sometimes I even shoot while I’m on the phone.

Match the arrow to the string. “Oh yeah?” To draw. “Interesting.” Anchor. “When does this happen?” Publication. ThhhhWOP.

When the pandemic hit, a lot of people started baking sourdough or rewatching “The Sopranos.” I bought a bow. I’ve always been a bit apocalyptic in my thinking, and the supermarket shortages and general feeling of anxiety triggered something primal in me: if it got really bad and we had to go into the woods, how would I support my family?

Two men with bows and arrows walk down a path.

Sai Sriskandarajah and Jeff Bercovici walk the upper reaches of Oakland’s Redwood Bowmen, where archers of all skill levels can “hunt” paper turkeys, wolves and moose.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

Millions of Americans who thought alike led to an historic run for guns and ammunition. I had no desire to be part of this sinister phenomenon, but an arc? I thought so. Growing up in Wisconsin, I learned archery at summer camp and in high school gymnastics classes and remembered that I was pretty good at it.

I found a used beginner’s bow on Craigslist for $60, accessories included. The limbs were bent, the arrows misaligned. But after shooting a round with them I was hooked. The pleasure is hard to describe, but has something to do with the hiss of an arrow whizzing through the air and the pop when it hits the target: ThhhhWOP.

I persuaded my friend Sai to buy a bow and we would meet at the end of the work day at the UC Berkeley Range or drive up into the Oakland Hills to a wonderful hiking trail where we could shoot paper pictures of bears and turkeys along the ridge line. We quickly bought better bows and arrows, read archery blogs for technique tips, and seriously discussed whether we needed our own fletching jig to replace damaged feathers.

Mechanically, archery is simple compared to most sports. Done right, it’s exactly the same action every time. If you aim your arrow in the right direction and do nothing to miss that target — squeeze the handle too hard, for example — it will hit its target.

As it turned out, I was still fine at archery. But as I would learn, improving beyond the OK would require reckoning with the part of my mind that drove me to look for it in the first place.

Jeff Bercovici draws his bow.

The author draws his bow before firing a round at his backyard target.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

Counting hits on a moose target.

Shooting a paper moose in the gut: a pick-me-up for the sight of empty supermarket shelves.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

Archery predates history itself, and its practice dates back as far as the Stone Age. It is so old that it has been in decline for 500 years since the advent of firearms rendered bows obsolete on the battlefield. As a sport, however, it enjoyed a renaissance in the 1950s and ’60s with the invention of the compound bow (the kind with all the cables and pulleys) and other advances in technology and design that made shooting more accessible.

There could be another comeback thanks to the pandemic, says Chris Bowles, president of the California Bowmen Hunters/State Archery Assn. Concrete numbers are hard to come by, but Oranco Bowmen in Chino, where Bowles is a range captain, has increased its membership by more than 30% since March 2020.

“People want to be together and they want to be outside,” he said. He also attributed some of the popularity to the survival fears that ensnared me: “If you find yourself in a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario, are you capable of pulling it off?”

Two men hold bows at an archery range.

Jeff Bercovici, left, and Sai Sriskandarajah warm up on the practice field at Redwood Bowmen.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

For fans of the modern age, there’s no shortage of gear to help with accuracy – fiber optic sights, laser range finders, stabilizers. But I quickly discovered that I craved simplicity in archery: the pure feel and atavistic beauty of a one-piece wooden recurve bow, aimed without sights or other equipment – instinctively – with both eyes open. Many traditional archers prefer the simplicity of instinctive aim, but it takes a lot of practice to get good.

And I needed practice judging my scattershot results. It wasn’t until I placed the target bag in the corner of my little backyard where a stucco wall meets an ivy-covered wooden fence and started shooting at it daily that I got a taste of what remotely felt like the beginnings of mastery.

Shooting hundreds of arrows a week in nearly identical conditions, I began noticing the small variations in my actions and relating them to the results. Overdrawing or pulling back the arrow past my anchor point – when the tip of my index finger touches the corner of my mouth – caused left misses. The signing produced low shots; a plucked release, high.

An archery bag.

The author’s much-used backyard target bag.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

Repeating bad shots in my head to dissect them, I often found I had fired an arrow without conscious will. It was as if my fingers were in charge of the decision as my mind raced down to see where it hit.

Running forward in my mind to escape moments of even the slightest discomfort is a bad habit of mine. On the phone with an old friend, I’ll say, “Well, it was great talking to you…” when the conversation is still warming up. Every year or two I try meditation for a few weeks just to use the time to make mental to-do lists.

In order to improve as an archer, I had to break this habit. I had to learn to slow down, be in the moment, and be fully aware of my actions. The problem is – it’s hard. Holding a bow steady at full pull is like hanging in a pull-up: it’s not something you can do very long and over and over again. As I seek a moment of mental and physical stillness to observe and correct my form, I can feel my left arm starting to wobble and my string fingers screaming at me Just hurry up and let go already.

Years ago, at a time associated with the death of my sister and the end of my first marriage, I began seeing a therapist. I came to her feeling that my life was a runaway train, that I needed to act decisively but was paralyzed by the fear that any action I took would result in disaster. Week after week she simply trained me to be patient and to do as little as possible to avoid feeling panic until the sense of crisis dissipated. As it gradually happened.

The world right now offers no shortage of things to panic about. Should I pull my child out of school before the next COVID wave or school shooting? Moving my family out of California before the next fire season? Should I stockpile toilet paper or batteries or bitcoin for the next economic crisis? These are all real questions, of course—and that’s exactly why they deserve the attention of a calm, quiet mind.

Jeff Bercovici shoots his bow at the Redwood Bowmen archery range.

Another moment of silence, hopefully.

(Ian Bates / For the Times)

And so on Monday mornings, or whenever I feel like stepping out of a cannon, I make sure to get my bow out of its case, flex his limbs and pull the string loops over the points, buckle on my hip quiver, and practice, that elusive moment of the to find stillness.

To draw. Anchor. Publication. ThhhhhWOP. Archery is a powerful antidote to anxieties of pandemic life

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