Friday, September 25, 2015

Opportunity Knocks Twice, Part III-and-a-Half: Pride and Parkinson's

I’ve never been proud of my fly angling skills.  In fact, I’ve always been rather embarrassed when someone who knows how to work a fly rod is forced to endure the unholy sight of my efforts to cast a flyline.  I dread having an expert see me laughingly “cast” a fly rod.  In a quantum nightmare, The Little Voices in my head start shouting all of the possible criticisms that might be going through said expert’s mind:  “This guy’s hopeless.”  “He’s actually caught fish?”  “That’s the worst use I’ve ever seen for a fly rod.”  “Reverend Maclean is rolling in his grave.”  “He’d be better off taking up knitting.”  And while I profess not to be “proud,” it’s pure pride that makes me want to hide my deficiencies.

So, let’s do a little non-mathematical calculating:
  1. Parkinson’s Disease: progressive, degenerative neurological condition that (among MANY other things) affects muscular control.  This is making me stiff & shaky, affecting my balance, and making it increasingly difficult to cast a flyline with my right hand
  2. I refuse to give up fly angling yet.  It’s part of my identity and good for me in many ways
  3. I’m embarrassed to have other people watch me cast a fly rod
  4. If my skills don’t improve at least as fast as my ability decays, I might not be fishing much longer.

Solution: Pride must be abandoned.  And not just for fishing.

I took a quick trip last weekend to the border regions of Montana and Wyoming near Sheridan, WY and Fort Smith, MT.  I had a singleminded goal for the trip:  improve my fly angling skills.  My highest priority was to improve my lefthanded casting abilities.  Next was paying attention to the details of two waters I’d never fished before:  the Big Horn River north of Fort Smith, and Piney Creek south of Sheridan.  I got connected with Clark Smyth of Rock Creek Anglers to float a few miles of the Big Horn River in his Adipose drift boat (technically, a skiff…)  When I first talked to Clark, I let him know that I have PD and that I’ve just switched over to casting with my left arm.  I described my “abilities” and told him my goal for the trip.  “I’m here to help,” is what he said, and he repeated it several times during the trip. 

The first step is admitting that a problem exists, right?  Describing my shortcomings and my desires to Clark felt like I was tearing little strips of pride off my skin.  It was uncomfortable, almost painful.  Then when we hit the river and I made my first few casts, the feelings of embarrassment were smothering.  But, just like the pride that holds me back from asking for help, this pride eventually faded.  I became receptive to the help from someone who genuinely seemed to want to help me.  Clark was a great advisor and teacher.  Thanks to his coaching, I can now cast dry flies better and farther than I’d ever hoped.  My favorite moment of the day involved a fish I missed:  I made a LOOONG cast (for me) into a little 3-by-3 foot opening between a couple of willow bushes.  I rolled the fly in low and it flopped nicely into exactly the spot I wanted.  Clark hadn’t gotten halfway through saying, “Nice cast!” when a big fish swirled on my fly.  I tried to set the hook, but missed the fish.  Then I set the fly right back in the same spot.  Another brilliant (for me) cast!  No second take by the fish, but I found a bandage to cover the raw spots where I’d torn bits pride out of my psyche: pride of accomplishment. 

This new ego boost was accompanied by a bit of deflation as well.  Humility returned when the surface fishing cooled and we switched to underwater fishing.  “Nymphing” with wet flies usually involves rigging with extra weight to “get the flies down” where the fish are might be.  I felt defeated when I discovered that my newly-developed dry fly casting skills were worthless with a heavier nymph rig.  Ah well, another project for another time.  " does not come easy."

The next day was spent wading in a medium stony-bottom creek.  Two aspects carried over from the previous day:  My dry fly casting was still improved and felt fantastic (most of the time!), and clumsiness with heavier nymph rigging persisted.  I was also very encouraged that my guide, Cole, told me on a few occasions that he liked how I was thinking.  But this day’s lesson would not bring a balance of shedding and rebuilding pride.

Walking a stony-bottom mountain creek is definitely not as easy as walking a street, unless the street is covered in random-sized rocks and drops off a few inches or several feet within a single step.  Even better, sometimes these rocks are covered with organic goo that makes traction impossible.  It’s slow going for most people, wading upstream over a grease-coated obstacle course.  (And this is fun?)  After four or five near-falls, another form of pride began to fade.  I’m not talking about the kind of “almost fell” where you say to yourself, “Oops, I stumbled there.”  I mean this kind: “Holy &*@#.  How am I still upright?”   So when Cole asked me to move upstream a couple of steps at one point, The Little Voices got into an argument.  Pride shouted, “Step up, Angler.  You’ve done this your whole life.”  Something resembling wisdom whispered, “Do you really want to fall today?”

I sloughed off more useless pride and asked, “Mind if I put a hand on your shoulder to step around you?”  I steadied myself and stepped up with some support.  A few minutes later when I shifted my feet a little, I lost my balance and I caught myself on his arm.  “I’d apologize,” I said as I chuckled at myself, “but I think we’ve gone past the point where personal space has meaning today.”  He laughed a bit and replied, “There is no personal space.  Just our space on the river.”  He offered me his elbow or forearm the rest of the day to allow me to stabilize myself when we were walking in the creek.  Mostly, I accepted.  

Something in my character has always regarded the act of asking for help as an admission of weakness.  For the fiercely independent (and the narcissistic), it’s a small sin to rely on someone else for assistance.  I turned an unexpected corner this past weekend, where I was able to stop judging myself by my old standards and not only accept help, but ask for it.  Good things happened.

Parkinson’s Disease might be having a negative impact on my body, but it’s teaching me things that I would not likely have otherwise been capable of learning.  I think it’s probably good to start learning this particular lesson sooner than later.

And I’ve asked for a wading staff for Christmas.  :)

(This is the highly-unanticipated third-and-half installment of what was intended to be a four-part series.  Part I, Part II, and Part III are available for your continued annoyance enjoymentPart IV is finally complete.)


  1. Great story. We learn a lot about ourselves when we fish. Sometimes we don't like what we see ;) More often, hopefully, we learn something and gain from it. BTW, I'm sure you have, but if you have not, make sure you check out "Doc of the Drakes"

    1. Thank you, Kirk. Those first two words are high praise, coming from a writer of your caliber. I'm flattered you stopped by! *Insert "not worthy" genuflections here*

      I have indeed seen the "Doc of the Drakes" video, as well as the follow-up, "Hit 'Em Again Doc!" If at all possible, I'd like to try fishing with Doc's guide in the videos, Pete Wood. Maybe next year. Aside from the obvious coolness of Doc getting another shot at fishing, I LOVED how intense Pete was and how he appeared to take it EXTREMELY personally when they lost the fish in the second video. Fly fishing is a terrible pursuit for a perfectionist...

  2. I don't remember ever hearing of anyone who woke up one morning and said, hey, I think I'll try having a disability today! Life is what it is. Pride is a foolish thing.

  3. Chris, I am right there with you partner. Which makes it tough in many aspects reading your blog....hence this article. It is a large pill to swallow for sure. I was diagnosed with left side Parkinson's 2 years ago. Right after I turned 50. Early onset. Found myself slipping and stumbling through shallows when wading. Couldn't tie flies on at times. And lets not talk about getting in and out of waders. Pride kept me out of the docs office for a couple of years....I knew. Pride kept me from using a wading staff for 2 years after diagnosis, until this winter when my oldest daughter gave me one for XMAS and said, "Use it". If you pay attention to my videos you will see my left hand struggle many time when tying. But my solace is on the water, and tying is my physical therapy. :) Good to have found you. And thanks to Howard for pointing the way.


    1. Ralph, I am so very glad you stopped by and shared your story. As corny as this might sound, things feel a little less lonely knowing you're out there. I will definitely be digging into your blog and videos in more detail!

      I recently picked up a book called "Brain Storms" by Jon Palfreman, a scientific reporter and professor who was also recently diagnosed with PD. I'm still reading it, but I definitely enjoy digesting paragraphs where I'm saying to myself, "yeah, me too!"

      I hope reading through the stuff I've written isn't too overwhelming. I try very hard to stick to my "NO WHINING!" rule, and keep my self-deprecating humor close by. As you know, it's easier somedays than others. But one thing I tell myself frequently: At least it's not ALS, like I thought at first!

      We might need to chat more about tying. My wife has done a little (20 years ago, before kids), but I never have.