Thursday, September 10, 2015

Opportunity Knocks Twice, Part III: I Am Not Lefthanded

Can you teach an old river new tricks?

Flathead River downstream of Columbia Falls, Montana

“Water follows the path of least resistance.”  If humans are mostly water, we should not be shocked to discover that our nature reflects our composition.  Our lives tend to run a fairly static course.  The course of each life’s riverbed wanders as we gush with early life, then settles into gorges, canyons, valleys, and channels that rarely deviate.  Only dramatic events tend to alter the flow. 

A 7.6 magnitude earthquake outside Yellowstone National Park dramatically changed part of the Madison River in 1959.  A landslide dam completely blocked the flow for a time.  Humans were left with a choice: leave the river, in the form a newborn lake, to it’s own devices or intervene.  Leaving nature to determine the future could have resulted in more drama downstream if the young dam breached and released a flood into the Madison River valley.  A spillway was built to allow the river to adapt to the new conditions, with less drama.

Something started tossing rocks into the waters of my life a few years ago.  Then boulders.  A thumb twitch was the first pebble that made noticeable riples in an otherwise calm stretch.  I’ll spare you the tedium of naming each rock in the pile of debris that’s harshed my mellow groove.  Suffice it to say that something dramatic continues to alter the course of my river.  One of the rocks is messing with my right side.  The Principle of Least Resistance dictates that I drift with it until it merges into something else.  I’ve stayed this course, and now I choose to dig a side channel instead.

While fishing the Missouri River below Craig, MT in April this year, I discovered that my meager ability to cast a fly rod has eroded into disability (oh, bad word!)  When reflecting on this experience shortly afterward, I resolved to adapt: I would retrain myself to cast with my left hand.

Better men than I have elegantly, artfully, and/or efficiently described the act of casting a fly rod.  I'll try anyway.  The flyrod angler optimistically attempts to move a twisted, pointy piece of metal wrapped in thread, fur, and feathers from point A to point B.  The angler is motivated by the faith that not only might there be a fish at point B but also that said fish will believe that said piece of pointy, twisted metal and fur and thread and feathers looks like food.  Faith defies explanation, as does fly casting.  It is an uphill battle, and water does not easily run uphill.

Obviously the task is not impossible.  An abundance of artists do this daily.  I lay no claim to art, only that I eventually developed the ability to move the twisty-pointy-fur-feather-thread-metallic thing from point A to point A-and-a-half.  In the right circumstances and with the right guidance, this is sufficient to experience one of the best days of one’s life.  Good casting is art, and amateur art is nearly always a form of comedy.  I admire the art and am content to make my finger paintings and enjoy them stuck on the refrigerator with little magnets adorned with clever sayings.  If I were younger, my kind of art would be cute instead of laughable.  The good news is that I am undoubtedly the biggest fan of my own comedy.

This isn’t the first time I’ve retrained myself to perform tasks with the left hand.  An occupational hazard of sitting behind a computer console 30-40 hours per week is pain.  In my case, repetitive stress from using a mouse can cause excruciating pain.  “Doc, it hurts when I do this.”  “Use your other hand.”  It took three weeks of awkward fumbling to feel comfortable using a mouse lefthanded, but the transition was successful.

Despite my best intentions, I ignored my resolution to exclusively switch to left casting, until the end of May.  It was easier to continue relying on established muscle memory.  It was also deflating to discover that I would not be able to escape the problems with my right hand.  Casting a fly is an important aspect of flyfishing, but rapidly pulling in slack after casting upstream is just as important.  “Stripping in” slack as a fly floats toward you dramatically increases your chances of setting the hook and landing a fish that bites the feathers and pointy metal bit.  Right handed fly casters strip line with their left, so reversing the process has left me facing a task I hadn’t expected: rapidly stripping slack line with an uncooperative right hand and arm.  This was too much to initially overcome.   I got frustrated and angry, then gave up.

I wish I could recall the catalyst that finally changed the equation, but Parkinson’s Disease affects many aspects of the body and the mind.  One of the reasons I now write is to preserve some of these memories.  I did not write about this soon enough.  Whatever the reagents, a reaction occurred over our Memorial Day camping weekend and I have rarely looked back.  After two weekends of fishing, I felt more competent casting on the left.  Physically and emotionally, I still struggle with stripping line with my right, and I’m not sure these emotions will fade.  For now, the new formula works better than the old, and occasionally it’s been advantageous to be an ambidextrous fly angler.

I knew I’d reached a milestone when I went fishing with a guide in August.  Dan knew my story, and told me that he’d been forced to switch to lefthanded casting while healing from a recent shoulder injury.  He’s back to casting with his dominant hand, and he is an artist.  After much work on improving my cast during the morning and early afternoon, he asked me a question around 3 PM.  “How long have you been casting lefthanded?”  Mental calculation result: less than 3 months.  He watched me make a few more casts, then made my day:  “You’re better with your left than me now.  Keep going.”

Yes, sir. 

I’m not yet the kind to rage against the dying of the light, but neither am I an inanimate fluid.  My biggest obstacles are my own tendencies toward behaving like an inanimate fluid and perfectionistic self-crtitcism.  I blurted something out to Dan after I did something stupid under his watch.  “Arrrg!  Flyfishing is a terrible pursuit for a perfectionist!”

Perhaps flyfishing is the cure.  And maybe what I just wrote is good enough.  But that's another uphill battle for another time.

(This is Part III in a four-part series.  You are invited to visit Part I and Part II.  I have also accidentally injected Part III-and-a-Half into the series.  After that, you can visit Part IV.)

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