BY THE LAKE, Installment 2, Thesis

[51]

Deep evening.
I light my pipe & pull up a chair by the lake.
Geese are arriving, one pair at a time, sometimes two.
Their song in flight echoes as they pass
on my side of the island. It is different
than the song that signals their circling,
different still than their song as they finally descend.

Into the water they careen feet first, wings wide as spring,
breasting the water & pollen film, a cacophony
of clucks & growls & sharp honks,
haggling with geese that have already settled in the water.

To sit close enough at waters’ edge is to hear
their pinion feathers rattle like playing cards in spokes,
& with ample light, to see muscles working at their shoulders & breast,
to see the outstretched tongue of the loud lead bird as he wails,
to see each white belly feather as they arc around a bend,
to see water spatter ahead of their webbed feet on the still surface.

After a time they float, still & silent as decoys,
as the few remaining pairs arrive. Some land directly
on the island. Others sing & circle & sing & splash down.

8:45 & like clockwork they have all made their way to nests
in the shadow that is the island, have had one last blaze of voices
& assured that all are accounted for, have gone silent
or murmur beneath my hearing.
A bullfrog sounds.

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MY THESIS WAS ABOUT FISHING

My dad told me a long time ago that one of the things he admires about me is that I always do things 30-degrees left or right of center. I’ve managed to find or create my own path, no matter how arduous or easy it may turn out to be… and more often than not, I come out just peachy in the end. Hell, what fun is life if you don’t get some dirt under your fingernails or find your way into the weeds every now and again along the way?

Choosing my thesis topic when I was getting ready to finish my MA in poetry at George Mason was the same way. I could’ve gone with a highly academic investigation/critique of some literary topic… something like:

Stop. What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.
An exploration of the use of imagery, sound and cultural reference among the New York Avant-garde school of poets.

OK, so maybe I did actually write a paper with that title. But my thesis– the baby I was to birth as the culmination of my academic career, the printed and hard-bound proof of my time there– was a book-length poem about fishing, titled All Water.

52 sections. 60-some-odd pages. Modeled after Whitman’s Song of Myself. I wrote about the change in our American landscape–physical, spiritual, cultural, socioeconomical–through the eyes of a fisherman, father, husband and veteran. My research was stream-side and in books like Sand County Almanac, Founding Fish, Walden and My Secret Fishing Life; stories like Big Two-Hearted River and A River Runs Through It; the humor of Patrick McManus and Gordon MacQuarrie. I wrote while listening to The Dead, Paul Simon, Van Halen, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Robert Earl Keen, Radiohead, The Stones, Zeppelin.

I wrote in first light and evening’s slow exhale. Before the kids woke up and after they gave in to the sandman. I wrote high on wine. I wrote depressed. I wrote and started to figure out who I am and my place in this shifting landscape that is America…and I’m still writing.

That said, I’ll be posting some excerpts from time to time. Just a heads-up.
Here’s the first:

[1]

Once I saw a gator snatch a deer by the head & drag it flailing into a small lake in Georgia.
We were fishing for bass in a boat along a weed-bed fifty yards from the explosion.
The deer was quietly sipping at the shore.
We left the water ringing with the noise-memory & blackbirds lighting out from the trees.
Ten years later blackbirds still remind me.
Even on this stream, their calls crash through sun-up or mid-day or dusk quiet & my hackles raise & I look to the water at my feet.
All the while, trout snatch mayflies from the surface around me, splashing, leaving ripples & small bubbles, noise-memory & blackbirds lighting out from the trees.

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DOWNSTREAM

I’m going to Oregon and I’m going fishing.
I’m leaving work for a full week in one big hurry. I’ve booked my flight.
Fly rods, reels, flies, waders, boots, rain gear, clothes, camera, notebook, whiskey (snake bites) all need to be packed.
I’m going to stand in rivers like the Deschutes, Crooked and Fall. Knee-to-waist-deep in their shifting story.
I’m going to stand in these rivers and cast flies to brookies, native rainbows and steelhead.
All the stress I’ve picked up and carried around like 80 pounds of crap in an 80 pound bag for the last 6 months will drift off, swirl from eddie to eddie, bust itself on the rocks and disappear downstream, dilute and no longer mine.
I’m going to take pictures of the wildness of the northwest. The immense breath of rock, pine, whitewater and sky. Possibly a fish.
I will tie flies with cold fingers. I will tie them in the rain.
I will make casts that fall brilliantly short.
Rain will drip from the brim of my baseball hat and from pine boughs. The sky a crowded gray.
I will abandon frustration and anger for the humility that a broken leader teaches.
I will sit on boulders larger than imagination and simply listen. I will not interrupt.
Morning chill and possibility. Evening hush and perspective.
Heaven is still.
Solitude will remind me of the beauty of my wife, the pure music of my children. I will finally be awake.
I’m going to Oregon and I’m going fishing.

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TOUGH TO SHAKE

There are few things in my life that I regret. That’s not to say there aren’t choices I’ve made that I would probably not make again if given the chance. I just find regret to be generally defeating, and thus try to avoid it.

But there is one regret I can’t shake.

I pretty much abandoned my love for fishing from 1990 to 2000…and hunting till 2004. When I say abandoned, I mean I completely. Poof. Gone. I lost touch with one of the most important elements of who I am – my love of the outdoors and being out in it. And the worst part? During those years I lived in places like Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Texas, Virginia, Germany and England. Crap.

I went into the Army right out of high school. Once I got my feet under me, I realized a level of freedom most 18 year olds probably shouldn’t. Needless to say, beer, partying all night, fights and not giving too much of a damn about anyone but myself pretty much took over. I think back to Germany. I remember one afternoon that my buddies and I had been at a beer fest in the small town we were stationed in. Wandering our singing, loud, drunk-American way back to the barracks, I noticed we were crossing a bridge, so I stopped, leaned over the stone wall and got a look at the river flowing below. The water was captivating. Gin clear with a gold-brown pebbled bottom. And there were fish holding in the current. Browns, just downstream from the shadow of the bridge. Effortless and almost perfectly still. Their thin shadows the only thing belying their camouflage. I’m not sure what I was thinking at that moment, but I can tell you that it never crossed my mind to have my parents send my fishing gear across the big pond. Never crossed my mind that I should be finding an entry point to wade in and cast. Never crossed my mind that these fish are the original strain that spawned the population of Browns my dad and I fished for in our Upstate NY lakes and streams. I exhaled and let my chest settle into the wall. I was content to stay, beer-and-summer-sun-buzzed, till the day I died. Then one of my buddies poured the rest of his beer off the bridge. The fish spooked. We moved on.

By the time I moved back home and started college, my priorities were a little better. A little. Beer and partying, yes. But I traded late nights and fights for lacrosse, classes and a girlfriend. I was a Conservation major to start, and the outdoors was making a bit of a comeback in my life. I took classes in wildlife biology, North American fisheries, woodlot management…I even had a class dedicated entirely to the Whitetail deer – an animal that I chased with my dad since I was 14 and could draw a bow. I went with a half dozen classmates on a three-day trip to the Adirondaks. We used two-man saws and axes and cleared 16 miles of marked trails of trees downed by the ice storm of 1991. But the comeback fell short in spite of all these outdoor influences. My time and attention stayed focused on partying and lacrosse, classes and girlfriend. Even after my she and I split, I had finished my degree and drove my truck to Texas State University in San Marcos to finish my undergrad degree, my tackle box, poles, and hunting gear were left to keep making nice with dust and cobwebs in my parent’s garage. Yes, I know. Texas…for Pete’s sake.

My then girlfriend, now wife, and I were married in 2000. We moved to Manassas, Virginia the day after our wedding for my grad school. We lived in a farm house in the sticks for six months before we found an in-law apartment in the downstairs of a house on a private lake in Falls Church. It was January. One newlywed couple + one primo apartment on a lake. We were pregnant with our first within hours after moving in (conservative estimate). When Spring broke a couple months later, I found a fishing pole and old tackle box while poking around in the shed, walked to the water and cast an old jitterbug toward some lilly pads down the shore. Two cast later the line had a birds-nest tangle that swallowed the entire reel and I had to quit…but the fishing fog had started to lift. It wasn’t until my parents had come down for a visit, and my dad and went to an L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School to spend some time together and learn how to fly fish, that the fog left the water completely.

I felt like I had just woke up from a long nap…the kind of nap that leaves you feeling worse than you felt before you closed your eyes. I learned more in the next six months about fishing than I had learned in the previous 30+ years. Suddenly, there wasn’t a body of water that I didn’t look at without thinking I bet there’s fish in there, or look at those blow-downs, or I could get a fly under that ledge. The world was one big fishing season. Fishing even found its way into my Masters thesis. And while I didn’t get back into hunting until we moved back home, the time I spent on the water had me more than ready to get back into the woods when that time came.

Maybe regret, in the end, isn’t what I should feel about missing all that time and opportunity during those years. If things had been different, I wouldn’t have the perspective I have now. Besides, there’s one hell of a lot of water on this planet I haven’t covered yet to lament the small amount I’ve missed. Maybe it’s OK to shake this one.

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TIME ON THE WATER

mornings like this
remind me that there is more

the world goes on and on
forever around the next bend

the next draw or downed tree
it’s own universe alive and unsolved

there is no possibility like this
to stand for a moment or longer

cast after cast an admission
how small a space my breath occupies

the sun follows its own arc behind the clouds
deliberate as my line now taut in the current

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CHARACTER

I’ve been silently beating myself up a lot lately for being strict with my kids. Sometimes down-right hard-ass. I feel like I’m in a constant state of giving the evil-eye or saying use your head for something other than to put a hat on (which in turn draws the evil-eye from my wife). My struggle is between ensuring they have respect for others (and each other) and a voice telling me to lighten up, relax, let them be kids: Little lego-parts or several boardgames left out on the livingroom floor – no worries. Pushing each other into furniture, snowbanks or recycling bins on the porch – looks like fun. Leaving a prize in the toilet for whoever’s next in line – no biggie. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s tough for me. I get hung-up on the little stuff. And while I have theories, in the end I really don’t know why. Psychology is a bitch.

This past Monday, I had to work late and was subsequently late for my son’s wrestling practice – which I usually help coach. Still in my street-clothes, I pulled up a seat against the wall in the wrestling room with some other dads and watched Cam practice. He had no clue I was there. It’s been said that character is who you are when you think no one is looking. Well, I had a rare chance to see how my 6 year old handles himself thinking that dad wasn’t around.

When the coach blew his whistle, he listened. When the coach hollered “double-leg takedowns. Go!” he took his partner to the mat like the move was second nature. After he took him down, he extended his hand and helped him up. A dad sitting next to me hit my arm and said “you’ve got a good kid.”

Coach blew his whistle and started to get the kids lined up, smallest to biggest, for “wrestle-offs”–the two smallest kids wrestle to a take-down, the winner takes on the next in line and so on. Turning to go line up, Cam stopped and looked around, spotting me and my big grin. We exchanged thumbs up and I told him “you shoot first.” He turned and walked over to line up, standing taller than I think I’ve ever seen him. He was ready to roll.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey

MOVING

We’re in a new house. Moved in on New Years Day in the middle of the coldest, snowiest winter week in Upstate NY so far this season. I’m not sure what we were thinking. But we’re in and settled and making it our own place nonetheless.

This morning the kids held me to my word that we’d drive by our old house on the way to the sitter (they catch the bus with her kids in the morning). As we pulled out of our driveway, the tune “Sing Along” by the Virginia Coalition came up on the iPod. Under normal circumstances, this song evokes a bit of nostalgia-like feelings. But as we turned onto our old street, slowing down to pass our old house–as I said “well kiddos, it’s still there,” looked in the rearview mirror and saw all three of them with their heads on each other’s shoulders– the song seemed a perfect and heartbreaking soundtrack to the sense of nostalgia we were all feeling.

While Cam was far too little, my daughter’s old enough to remember our place in Falls Church. She’ll bring up the cats we had or riding in the kayak with me on the lake, but she had no emotional tie to it. To her then-toddler-mind, the location was incidental, like furniture in a room, or a rainstorm. We were there, and then we were simply someplace else.

But this house was hers, and her brothers’ too. They built their blanket-and-box forts and pirate hide-outs in the backyard. Ran with their friends till they came begging, flushed cheeks and out of breath for “water, please.” Transformed their rooms into lego and lincoln log cities, musical stages and “no boys (or girls) allowed” space to be alone. Made s’mores over the firepit on summer evenings, helped grow veggies in the garden and water the flowerbeds. Filled the sidewalks with chalk drawings in the summer and dug tunnels and caves in the snowbanks I made from shoveling in the winter. Their growth was measured in over 4 years of pencil marks on the wall in the kitchen.

That house was theirs– they had put their childhood stake in the ground there. And while the new place is only the equivalent of three blocks away and I know they’ll make even more memories as they make it their own– it’s still a mighty tough stake to pull.

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