Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Opportunity Knocks Twice, Part IV: A New Hope

This is the final installment in what was planned as a four-part mini-series.  Things didn't quite work out as planned.  You’re invited to start with the prequels if you haven’t read them, but I won't insist that they're prerequisites.  After all, George Lucas started with Episode IV...

 A long time ago in a magazine far,
 far away...

Knock knock!

Who’s there?
Can’t be.  Opportunity only knocks once.

Cute.  But untrue.  In my case, Opportunity is leaning on the doorbell.  My life thus far has been filled with improbable second chances.  I got a second chance with my newborn son, when a doctor revived him after he quit breathing.  Another when he clung to life by a thread for weeks following complications from his first open heart surgery.  Another chance after the accident.  I was 19, and my brother was 16.  I came home from college for Easter weekend on a Thursday night.  In a moment that could have been inspired by “A River Runs Through It,” my brother and I made plans to go fishing the next morning.  We left early, and we didn’t come home for a long time.  One of us never really did come home.

My injuries kept me in intensive care for two weeks, yet they were mere scratches compared to my brother's.  Nearly every rib was broken, his pelvis shattered, and both lungs punctured.  Those things healed.  But his mind was never the same again, even after five months in a coma.  Traumatic brain injury forever changed him, and eventually took his life 16 years later.  I walked away with some scars and survivor’s guilt, stumbling down down a dim and lonely path.

The first time I saw the movie adaptation of Normal Maclean’s short story, “A River Runs Through it,”  I fell apart.  As in totally lost it.  Scared my new wife.  I sobbed uncontrollably while Robert Redford narrated the passing of Norman’s younger brother.  Tears still flow when I watch that sequence of the movie, but not just for the one brother.  I also weep for my youngest brother.  He’s gone, too.  And, like Norman Maclean’s brother Paul, we could not help him.

The movie is about beauty.  Yes, there’s tragedy, but I’ve come to know there can be beauty in tragedy.  The story, the collection of words assembled by Norman Maclean (whom I sometimes refer to as “Saint Norman” for various reasons), is something completely different.  I’ve read the story several times and will continue to do so until I decide what they story is truly about, at least to me.

From the story:
    “I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books.  But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of the water.  And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.
    “The fisherman even has a phrase to describe what he does when he studies the patterns of a river.  He says he’s 'reading the water,' and perhaps to tell his stories he has to do much the same thing.  Then one of his problems is to guess where and at what time of day life lies ready to be taken as a joke.  And to guess whether it is going to be a little or a big joke.
    “For all of us, though, it is much easier to read the waters of tragedy.”
My youngest brother was ten years my junior.  He lived fearlessly, somewhat recklessly, and glowed brilliantly.  I can feel him behind me when I look down at my shadow.  I see the flow of both boys’ rivers in my memory, and perhaps in my memory they will always be boys, tumbling over rocks and merging into something else all too soon. 

Perhaps as St. Norman intended, I often ponder his closing words from both the movie and the story: “I am haunted by waters.”  Being of somewhat shallow intellect, I lack the insight to discover and decode “deeper meaning” in literature.  I am, however, the kind of mind that will parse the words.  What are the potential definitions of “haunted” and did the word mean something different in the era during which it was written?  Most of my brief research had the predictable negative connotations:
  • to eventually cause problems for someone as time passes
  • to have a disquieting or harmful effect on
  • to keep coming back to the mind of someone, especially in a way that makes the person sad or upset
  • to cause repeated suffering and anxiety
Instead of these, I found one that fits me much better, and probably reveals that I am more of an optimist than I’d like to believe.  This is the lens that provides the best focus for me, right now:
to occur persistently in the consciousness of; remain with.
By any definition, I am no longer haunted by the memory of my brothers.  I don’t dwell or wish that it had been me instead as I once did.  Memory now brings a grin instead of a sigh.  I even laugh about them “messing with me from beyond,” that Parkinson’s might be their idea of a brotherly but not-so-practical joke.  Instead of feeling haunted, I am motivated by the loss of two brothers who loved to chase trout.  Opportunity no longer knocks for them.

I’m also motivated yet sometimes haunted, in the anxious and disquieting way, by an hourglass.  I’ve written before that the creeping decay of Parkinson’s Disease has turned my life (or at least some parts of it) into a race.  It reminds me of a quote I saw in a computer lab 14 or 15 years ago:
Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.
Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled
I admit that there may be an idiot involved in my race, but this race is against physical decline.  All anglers face this.  Mine’s just accelerated.  Tying knots becomes a bit more difficult with each season.  In early 2015 it became apparent that I was having problems casting with my dominant right hand.  If I want to continue fishing, I need be improve my angling skills at least as fast as my abilities are declining.  So, much of 2015 was spent learning to cast left-handed.  I have goals for further improving my skills this year, but I’m racing an inevitable conclusion.  I'm shackled to the wall, watching an hourglass on the other side of the room, and trying to decide whether to accept the chains or "rage against the dying of the light."  I no longer need to guess where or when "life lies ready to be taken as a joke."  I know the joke starts small and gets bigger.

Two years ago, my health was not great.  I was in a good deal of physical pain, simultaneously struggling to come to terms with the reality that my physical and mental capabilities might never return to their previous levels.  I felt prepared and in acceptance of gradual physical losses.  I was certainly not prepared for mental and cognitive complications.  PD is a movement disorder, right?  Inconceivable!  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back for a return visit, the Stages of Grief!  A funny thing happened on the road to Acceptance, though.  One day, in the midst of a minor tantrum of both tears and laughter, I blurted out six words: “I just want to go fishing!”  I did not understand the power of these words until later that year.

I embraced fly angling again with passion.  I think my wife would be justified to accuse me of an obsessive/compulsive issue.  If she sees it as a problem, there’s no sign, other than the fact that we've agreed it would be best to avoid dopamine agonists as a treatment option.  She’s supportive and tolerant.  And sometimes she fishes with me.  I hope this happens more often.  I love the smile and glow that appear as soon as she's engaged in the dance with a fish.

I can probably explain my lack of ability to find “deeper meaning” in literature.  Trained as a scientist and engineer, I disassemble things in my head, attempting to reduce complex systems into simpler components.  There is much to be gained by understanding the whole for its parts, but much is lost as well.  And I tend to over-simplify.  Thus, looking for deep meaning in the pursuit of fly fishing is fraught with peril for me.  Perhaps you believe fly fishing is a waste of time and money.  Or maybe it’s an existential exercise in discovering that it is “factually and theologically true that man is by nature a damn mess.*” Perhaps somewhere in the middle?  Regardless, I believe I have distilled the most powerful essence of fly fishing: hope.  It’s hope that drives me to learn the art of casting a fly rod.  Yes, it is art, and every good caster is an artist.  Why?  Referring again to Norman Maclean, forwarding the wisdom of his father:
“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe.  To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
The fly angler is a curious artist.  He or she waves a rod like a ridiculously oversized sorcerer's wand, attempting to gracefully levitate a small mess of thread, fur, and feathers on a hook into the perfect spot in the water using an arcane magical art.  This is done in the hope that not only will there be a fish waiting at that spot, but also that the fish will be tricked into thinking that it must bite the feathery-thready-furry-mess-on-a-hook.  This is hope in it’s purest form.  I think St. Norman recognized this in one of the final paragraphs of “A River Runs Through It.”
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
This is where I find peace.  No four-count rhythm or memories or racing thoughts or hourglass.  The sounds and the water and time flow around me, and hope rises even if a fish does not. 

“Just give me three more years.*

* Denotes further quotes from Norman Maclean's novella, "A River Runs Through it"


  1. I was an idiot all those years ago. I never thought about you having survivor's guilt... you seemed bigger, stronger, and fiercer than that to me. A charade I'm sure, but it worked.I'm sorry I was too shallow to realize...and for all it must have meant to you to go through. My memories of that time were mostly how frightened I was for you and for him and how your mom fiber so I could see you.

    I have such fond memories of both. Mark as our waiter for prom dinner, he seemed to enjoy it even if you didn't. And Jeffrey always wanting to tag along and I thought he was so adorable!

    1. Idiot? Hardly. You yourself have logically reasoned that a façade was put in place. What better time to erect impenetrable shields than when you're most vulnerable?

      The river flows on. And I truly hope Uncle Norman was right when he wrote, "Eventually, all things merge into one..."

  2. One of the most touching things I have ever read in my 66 years of life. Although my story is quite different, I almost lost all two years ago. I knew that if I didn't start laughing and crying again that I could never fish either. I'm looking forward to my third season.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to visit and read this, Howard. Your compliment means more than you can possibly imagine. I hope to have the opportunity to hear your story sometime.