Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Another garden-variety obsession

Well, it's come pathetically down to this: I have started to tie my own flies.  This can only mean one thing.  I am no longer dabbling.  I'm obsessed with fly fishing and can now add it to the long line of things that have formerly obsessed me (Russian dramatic theory, ancient literature, Northern Irish Protestant poetry and medieval architecture...). Why can't I ever become obsessed with developing highly-profitable and addictive cell phone apps? 

Perhaps the common denominator to all the things I get interested in is that they are completely useless and almost willfully inefficient.  It is, after all,  ridiculous to spend a full year rehearsing a play (as Stanislavski might have wished), and one can lead a very productive life without ever wading through Sallust's "The Jurganthine War" or knowing what a rood loft is.  And poetry? 


I hate to admit it, but fly fishing is just as needlessly inefficient and useless as my other obsessions.  After all, the guy down the bank with a ten-dollar Zebco is catching just as many (if not more) trout.  Moreover you can buy flies off the Internet for 59 cents apiece.  So why would anyone start tying?  Why buy a vise, bobbins and a whip finisher?  I have no answer. 

When I first began fly fishing, I would leaf through catalogs of fly patterns.  There were pages and pages of bewilderingly complex patterns, each with variations in size and color.  There were maybe 50 variations of a mayfly and at each stage of its life (pupa, nymph, emerger, adult, imago...).  I felt as if I had somehow wandered into a Kabbalistic discussion.  It's only recently that I've realized all this needless complexity has nothing to do with catching fish. I mean, really.  Does anyone believe a creature with a pea-sized brain focused only on eating and not being eaten makes finely-honed discriminations about hackle feathers and peacock herl? 

Needless complexity is perhaps the essence of any obsession.  Occam's razor just doesn't apply.  As with poetry, you really don't have to concern yourself with meter, assonance and metaphor to put an idea into words.  It's just gets interesting when you do.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Getting to Choose

An odd coincidence happened a few weeks ago while I was on my end-of-the-semester fly fishing trip.  I had been bumbling around small streams for a few days and ended up losing a fly box packed with nymphs, which made my last two days of fishing a bit more creative.  I had to try different odds and ends: streamers, midges, San Juan worms, a few dry flies I seldom use.

On the day before I came home, I decided to tour a nearby trout hatchery.  I was standing in the parking lot beside a little stream when a small green fly box came floating by.  I couldn't reach it, but I walked beside the stream until it narrowed, then kicked off my shoes and waded in.  The box was packed with dozens and dozens of the most exquisitely tied flies.  There were easily several hundred dollars worth of flies in the box (and hours and hours of painstaking labor if they had been hand tied by the owner).

I slipped the flies in my pocket and thought, "How strange is this?  I lose a box of flies and am kicking myself for being so careless, and, lo and behold, here comes an even nicer box just ambling down the stream. The big wheel turns."  A few minutes later I peeked in the box for a second look and noticed that the owner had  printed his name and address on a small adhesive label.  The idea of keeping them went away.  I won't say it went away instantly.  There was a momentary time lag, about two seconds, when I thought, "Eh, he'll never know." 

But then another voice said, "C'mon, that's not who you are.  You know damn well you're going to mail the flies back to the guy."  Then for another two seconds or so I thought, "It really sucks to be honest."  Later I saw an older man in waders and vest walking down the bank.  I asked him his name, he told me, and it matched the name on the label, so I returned the lost fly box.  The guy couldn't believe it.  He was sure they were gone for good.  After thanking me two or three times, he went on his way.

This event has stuck in my head for some reason.  It's almost like a little parable.  There's the happenstance of losing and then finding something valuable.  There's a stream in an idyllic setting with something just floating along, and then there's the choice of how to react.  

The other day my eight-year old son and I were driving in the car talking about nothing in particular.  All of sudden, he asked me how being a grown-up differed from being a kid.  The story of the fly box popped into my head.   When you're a kid, I told him, you don't really get to choose much.  That's also true when you're a grown up, but you do get to choose what kind of grown up you want to be.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Negative Incapability

Many years ago I happened upon a book of drawing exercises.  In one the author (whose name escapes me) instructed the readers not to draw their subject.  Rather, they were to draw the shape of the emptiness surrounding their subjects. This may be a common way of teaching drawing, but it had never previously occurred to me to look at the world this way.  For days afterward I could not stop noticing the negative spaces created by the things that shaped their emptiness.  Suddenly overhead telephone lines dissected the sky into trapezoids and triangles, and the horizon became the immense mold hovering weightlessly above the rooftops. 

I'm not sure why this memory crops up, but maybe it has something to do with the end of the semester, when I go from teaching, meetings and deadlines to not teaching, no deadlines and only the occasional meeting.  This is what I do when I'm not doing what I do.  Negative space.  And I don't do it very well, or at least I haven't yet made the transition three weeks after the end of the semester.

I should be revising my Humanities reader, making all those endless course improvements and working on core implementation.  I should at least be reading more or writing a poem, but somehow I can't seem to pass from something to nothing.  I was talking with a retiring colleague recently and he noted that his final spring semester felt like all the others.  It was merely coming to an end with summer looming ahead just as it always has.  The difference would only appear later.  Next fall he just wouldn't come back.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rose moles all a stipple

Spent most of last week fly fishing in the driftless region.   I would get up early and be on the streams in time to watch the sun come up.  Last Tuesday it was cool and overcast.  I spent a deliciously long time on one slow-moving pool filled with Brook Trout.  They were a mere ten to twelve feet in front of me.  I would lay a cast out, strip two of three times, and then feel that wonderful confidence-building tug on my fly line. 

The next day that same pool had rising trout, but not a one of them was interested in what I had to offer.  That's the fascinating thing about fishing a small spring fed stream.  There are times when everything is just right: the sky, the wind, the water, the appetite of the fish and the contents of your fly box.  But come back an hour later and everything will have changed.  So you live for these few redemptive moments.  

The entire semester was washed away last Tuesday morning.  Gone were the anxieties about work, about teaching, about getting another year older.  Instead, all I had to do was watch for rising trout and concentrate on a light touch with my cast.  I took five Brookies out of that pool.  Put every one of them back, too.  Of spring-fed creeks the writer and fly fisher Ted Leeson writes,
That a great many cultures have endowed springs with numinous properties--curative power, rebirth and regeneration, prophesy and oracle--is scarcely surprising, and that they would have been regarded as sacred seems almost inevitable.  Water is the ancient emblem of spiritual purification, and its symbolic power to absolve is as old as the need to be forgiven.
There are probably more productive uses of my time than fishing, but right now  I can't think of any.

Monday, May 2, 2011

That's one for Will

I have students read King Lear in my Intro to Humanities spring section, and more than one wrote last week that they were proud to have read it and, better yet, understood it.  But my favorite end of the term reflection paper included this story:

During high school we had to read a play by Shakespeare, and it was awful.  For some reason I always felt the urge to go to the bathroom during class when it was time to read it.  After a while my teacher caught on and wouldn't let me go anymore.  I would do anything to get out of reading that "stupid" play.  The main reason it was stupid was because I didn't understand one word of the entire thing.  I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be getting out of it.  I told myself that I would never read another piece by Shakespeare in my entire life.  I thought that until the first day of this class when I was told that we were going to read King Lear.  Right away I though to myself that this was going to be a nightmare...

If one thing surprised me in this course, it would have to be the reading of King Lear.  Not only did I understand it, but I also kind of enjoyed it.
Later she went on to use King Lear to talk about an incident in her own life with some real insight.  It made my day.  And, best of all, not once during the entire semester did she ever need to use the facilities. 


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...