Friday, March 27, 2015

The Candy Cane








3 parts golden rum
2 parts cream
1 part lemon
3/4 part praline liqueur
3/4 part créme de noyeux (almond)
1/2 part Frangelico (hazelnut) liqueur


Not much to say about this one, only that it's a fatally seductive preparation, guaranteed to lift your spirits and assuage your ills. With addition of the praline flavor, there are hints of the Deep South, perhaps New Orleans, though I doubt this drink has ever been mixed there. Like all the other concoctions featured on this blog, it's my own invention--I never consult the literature of mixology in devising my combinations. 





Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Limited



What is a "traditional cocktail"? Of what would such a recipe consist?

Tradition is what we make it, the constantly unweaving or weaving (raveling or unraveling?), unfolding present, which is being in process, or becoming. 

Traditional cocktails are always going to taste familiar because they are part of our immutable past. We can't change the past, so we can't change what traditional means, except by deliberately altering versions of past practice and formulae, through experiment and accident and testing. New combinations. Different approaches. 

The spirits that have been invented by humankind are givens: They were developed over time, and we have inherited these prototypical substances through sheer passivity. They are what we've inherited. Whisky, tequila, gin, rum, brandy, vodka, aquavit--these are the classic "goods" from which all variations of mixture derive. They are the foundation upon which the taste pyramid--if you will--is built. The number of such variations isn't infinite, of course, but the numbers of possible permutations is vastly expandable, simply through minor variations in proportion. 

Tradition is also popularity--the acknowledgment that one or another taste is very satisfying, or desirable. A Lemon Drop or a Rusty Nail aren't simply familiar because someone made them up and gave them a snappy logo, they're popular because they satisfy a universal quality of taste. 

The following mixture uses ingredients whose basic flavors are wholly familiar, which is to say anyone who drinks recognizes them. The combination of bourbon and Drambuie (a proprietary orange flavored liqueur) is familiar as the Rusty Nail, mentioned above, but with the addition of these other flavors, it is only vaguely "reminiscent" of that familiar taste. Supposing no one had ever before tried combining bourbon and Drambuie; then what we know as the Rusty Nail would not exist. 

It may be that most of the "easy" combinations have all been tried, at one time or another, and that the contemporary trend toward "flavored" bitters, spicing and so forth, is just an obvious symptom of the exhaustion of possible combinations of the usual spirit goods we know. The challenge, with cocktail mixes, as in life, is to find the novel or unique version that can capture attention and enter the permanent collection of desirable choices.  

A great cocktail is like a poem. Its ingredients may be familiar, but the way it's constructed, its specific combinations make it unique. We can paraphrase its qualities, but the actual experience is always more compelling than the explanation, the alembic of its effect. If we could package poetry, the way we do liquor--bottle its essence, preserve it and market it in abbreviated form--we could make a bundle. But there are no shortcuts to healthy experience. Sex and eating and swimming, and drinking a perfect cocktail at 5 PM can't be captured and made more convenient, can't be duplicated or saved or prolonged through some device or potion. 

So let's live and appreciate what there is, because our time is limited. Let's call this one, then, The Limited, since it reminds us of the fragility and ephemerality of life, passing us by. Like the little trays passing before us on the sushi conveyer track, decked out with clever arrangements of fish and rice and vegetable concoctions, we have to select. And so we shall.    




      

3 parts Woodford Reserve bourbon
1 part madeira
1 part amaro
1 part 151 rum
1 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part Drambuie


All ingredients (by proportion) shaken and served up into chilled cocktail glasses. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tom Selleck's Late Career Surprise


I don't want any swingers out there to get the wrong impression. Hunks and studs don't turn me on, but I thought this shot might get your attention. I assume it's not a constructed photo (placing the head on a body--a little trick you see now sometimes on the web), since Tom Selleck was one of Hollywood's most attractive and well-constructed male lead actors, known primarily for his Magnum P.I. television series. Female fans undoubtedly found him irresistible, but I'm sure he generated interest on both sides of the aisle. 

Fair warning: I'm not a fan of Tom Selleck The Man. And this isn't a political piece. We can have disagreements about what people think about entertainers "in their real lives" but that doesn't, in my opinion, have any affect on what we may or should think about their artistic accomplishments. 

Back in the day when Magnum P.I. was on television (the series ran from 1980-1988, and was Selleck's "breakthrough" role), I must admit to not have been impressed with his acting skills, or indeed the show itself, which I regarded as an exploitation production--exploiting the star's good looks, the character's laid-back life-style, exploiting the tropical scenic values of Hawaii, and generally providing the sort of low-grade pop entertainment typical of television shows of that time--one part surfer dude cruising the island beach scene, and one part dumb crime solving. Not a formula destined to achieve immortality.   



Nonetheless, actors can occasionally "grow up"--not just in the sort of roles they are likely to play, but in the skills they hone over the length of a career. As an early middle-aged heart-throb playboy (Selleck was 35 when he began his Magnum run), his acting skills were pretty limited. He could smile, he could frown, he could show mild irony, and he could run athletically across the beach sand. But that was just about his full range. 

Imagine my surprise, when, just a few years back, I saw the first installment of the Jesse Stone franchise, based on the novels of the late Robert Parker. Jesse Stone is a complicated man, unlike the earlier Magnum character. He carries a load of trouble from his past, and is a depressed loner with a private code of honor. He doesn't get close to people, and spends a lot of time alone. You might think that this sort of character would be beyond Selleck's range as an actor, but you'd be wrong. Something happened between the end of the Magnum period (1988) , and the first Jesse Stone TV movie in 2005: Tom Selleck the actor grew up. 



You always figured that Selleck's career would go the way of similar kinds of TV actors. He'd do another private eye or "soldier of fortune" series or two, and age out gracefully in his early Sixties. He certainly didn't need the money. But Selleck wasn't done. He had more to do. 

Most straight Hollywood heavies over the last 30 years have been smaller men, intense, quirky and unpredictable: actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro,  Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris. These actors could carry a heavy load in a movie, but they tended to turn straight acting tasks into complex, eccentric versions of themselves, often at the expense of the narrative thematic material they used. They were all good, but they weren't the classic "big jacket" types who could fill out a powerful character with subtlety and understated technique (like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, George C. Scott, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper). 

Selleck might be compared to actors such as Sean Connery, Russell Crowe, or Clint Eastwood. Or even perhaps Tom Hanks. But we wouldn't be making this comparison, if Selleck hadn't upped the ante. Selleck's Jesse Stone is a brooding, thoughtful, emotionally subtle persona, with real depth. He's able to convey delicate shades of sensibility with small, economic gestures and movements and intonations of voice. Like Parker's deft dialogue scenes, he transmits irony and frustration and amusement with deft pacing and queues. Physically, Selleck is big, but fit, but there's no attempt to make him seem physically dominating. 

It isn't easy to bring life to a character who speaks little, and thinks a lot. Private investigators in fiction tend to speculate and calculate--they're figuring out plots and uncovering secrets. But cinema is about action. The Jesse Stone franchise doesn't rely on action, or violence, or big slushy romantic entanglements. It's all about poise and negotiation and authenticity. Stone can wrestle and even kill when he has to, but he's a little like Richard Boone in Have Gun Will Travel, who would "prefer to avoid violence" but is fully prepared to engage in it, should the need be.

Sellect communicates this sense of fortitude and smoldering resentment barely held in check. Frustrated in not being able to make it to the big leagues as a pro ball player, betrayed by his x-wife, fired from his job as a police investigator, he's a refugee from fate, without self-pity, and without excuses, too crusty to admit weakness, but smart enough to know when he's wrong, and still committed to getting the bad guys, while not allowing himself to be seduced into bureaucratic corruption, no matter how petty. 

Alone with his depression, sipping scotch and talking with Reggie, his Golden Retriever, isolated on a little islet house connected to land with a narrow-walkway, he perseveres in his campaign against his own hopelessness and the evil that threatens to eat away at the picturesque idyllic little seaside community he watches over. 

Now, in the television series Blue Bloods [2010- ], in which he plays New York City Police Commissioner, he's expanded his new range with an even larger character, one not only with a difficult past, but with complex, public, and significant issue-driven tests. He's as good here, as he is in the Jesse Stone pictures, but perhaps a bit less attractive, since he's playing a high-profile urban executive, instead of a common man in a small place. It's no secret that some of Selleck's personal political points of view have found their way into these important dramatic productions. Self-reliance, shouldering tough burdens without giving up, and without compromising personal values--are clearly on the agenda. Selleck now produces the Jesse Stone series, so presumably it carries a fair load of his input.



Selleck is officially a political conservative, something of an anomaly in Hollywood. A case could certainly be made that Blue Bloods is about supporting your local police department. But the Jesse Stone franchise--currently on its ninth iteration--is just very good entertainment, with very good acting. It's quietly raised the standard for the generic noir whodunit. It's easy to get hooked on, so embark at your peril. You might fall in love with this guy.   

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Malamud's A New Life


Occasionally, drawn by a nostalgic urge, or the need to go back over something I had experienced in the past, I will reread a book I had first encountered decades ago. 

I first read Bernard Malamud's [1914-1986] novel A New Life [New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961] in the summer of 1963, when I was 15. My stepfather had read it, and the mass market paperback copy was lying around the house. I picked it up, half out of curiosity. 

I had been raised in a fairly old-fashioned household, where things like sex and adult rivalry weren't ordinary subjects of conversation, at least around "the children." How much of my sex education and emotional maturity had their roots in the reading I did during my impressionable adolescent years? My surmise is that this happens a good deal more than we usually acknowledge. I grew up in the 1950's, when pornography and frank discussions of vital matters like sex weren't nearly as commonly available as they are to kids today. For one thing, the internet didn't exist. For another, the puritan ethic was alive and well then. That tended to make adolescents cautious, if not outright fearful, about exploring forbidden topics. 

Which may explain why Malamud's novel made such an impression on me then. So when I decided to reread the novel last month, the first thing I recalled was the seduction scene that occurs between the protagonist, Seymour Levin, and the wife of the department head, Pauline Gilley, in a secluded forest tryst. At the time, the scene hadn't so much shocked me as stimulated my anticipation about sex, something I had no inkling of at the time. 

The narrative is about a Jewish English instructor from New York who is hired to teach at a small Oregon state college near the coast. Though it wouldn't have meant much to me at the time, Malamud's own academic career had followed a path similar to that of the main character. 

A roman a clef [novel with a key] is a novel about real life, thinly disguised under a facade of fiction. Even had I known the implications of the parallels between Malamud's own career, and that of his protagonist, I doubt this would have meant much to me at the time. Fiction was fiction, and though I understood intuitively that imaginary characters were built up out of parts of people that an author may have known or watched, it would not have interested me much to have known that this story--set in a small Oregon college English department--bore potentially striking resemblances to an actual group of real people. Rereading the book now, in light of my life experiences in the intervening decades, was an interesting exercise. One of Max Beerbohm's favorite conceits was caricaturing famous people (or authors) confronting themselves in their older and younger incarnations, sizing each other up from the contrasting vantages of youth and age; and that's partly what reading an important book at widely spaced intervals in your life can do: It can show you who you were at an earlier time, by reflecting your altered character in the mirror of a familiar tapestry--which you had experienced originally long ago. The story is a part of who you are, but seeing it anew, as an objective phenomenon, permits the kind of perspective which can be very revealing.     

Any author may take liberties with truth, in fact he's expected, at the least, to make an effort to camouflage his portrayal of people and events whenever they come close to being exact copies of the model. In Malamud's case, taking into account what was noticed and noted by his colleagues in Corvallis at the time, he may have taken more liberties (or license) than was considered proper at the time. One account, posted by one Chester Garrison (obit), one of Malamud's colleagues (and long-time family friend) at Oregon U, provides useful insights into Malamud's character, as well as a couple of key coordinates between the narrative of the book, and Malamud's tenure there.                  


  
Dustwrapper of the 1st Edition

A New Life is a poetic novel, which is to say that the language is musical, and minutely probing of finely drawn shades of human sensibility and motive. Discovering that Malamud's graduate thesis had been on the poetry of Thomas Hardy was a confirming exhibit. As anyone who reads even a short story of Malamud's knows, he has an ironic, droll Yiddish lilt in his voice. No matter what he says, there is this subtle undercurrent of wry humor or bitterness, a grudging twist of dismissal or amusement. In A New Life, there are long passages in which the emotional turmoil of Sy Levin courses through countless turnings and dialectical rounds, not unlike that which occurs in the iterative ruminations of Henry James's psychological fictions. Reading this today, 50 years later, I'm struck with how profoundly personal a book this was for Malamud, as if he were working out intense inner conflicts.    

Malamud, probably near the time he wrote A New Life
Photo: © David Lees Corbis

Like Seymour Levin, Malamud had come West in nearly the same scenario, though unlike Levin, Malamud was married with children (and would publish his first book, the improbable mythical baseball novel, The Natural [New York: Harcourt, Brace &; Company, 1952]), just a couple of years after arriving in Oregon. Though ostensibly the story of an outsider, a supple, subtle liberal Jew set down amidst the raw provinciality of a rural cow college, Levin is also Malamud's own imaginative alter-ego, experiencing the same emotional dislocations, amazements, seductions, and realizations his creator must have felt, coming to Oregon in 1951. 

Upon his arrival, Levin is immediately thrown into the squabbles and entanglements common to any college English department. It isn't long before he embarks on an affair with the acting department head's wife, Pauline, which further complicates the political machinations involved in the election of the next department head. The man he has been hired to replace, one Leo Duffy, had been fired the year before, and had committed suicide not long afterwards. Levin, like Duffy before him, is regarded as a radical, bent on challenging the status quo, and (it turns out) Duffy had also had a brief affair with Pauline. Will Levin succeed in installing himself as the upstart new department head? How will his affair with Pauline play out? 

Malamud may have equivocated about the meaning of the story. When confronted about the implications of his having portrayed real people in the department, he claimed that the story was a comic riff, but apparently there were enough obvious parallels to have inspired indignation among his colleagues. In the novel's conclusion, Levin's appointment is terminated, and he drives off into a very ambiguous sunset with Pauline and her two children, uncertain of his future, unemployed, chastened by his expulsion, and not really committed heart and soul to his new responsibilities.  This may be a too-convenient exit from a comic complexity, since it would have been just a little too pat to have him win the laurels as well as the lady. I like to think of the story as a pastoral, neither comic nor tragic in its implications. 

Malamud left Oregon in the Spring of 1962, just as the novel was being published. Like Levin, he was leaving just at the moment his connection to the college was coming to a close. Malamud would go off to Bennington, where he woud remain until retirement. In essence, A New Life was Malamud's ambivalent escape from the academic dilemma he had faced in his earlier years at the college, where his "instructor's" appointment had kept from from teaching literature, even as his published works were building him a national reputation as one of America's finest writers. 

There were other interesting correspondences in the narrative to events in Malamud's career at Oregon. One involved the firing of another young English instructor, whom he helped to preserve his job, doubtless a source for the Leo Duffy character in the novel. What has always intrigued me is whether or not Malamud may indeed have had some kind of relationship--real or imagined--with one of the faculty wives. Just as Levin may be a fictionalized projection of Malamud's Brooklyn Jewish self, seeking "a new life" amid the rain forests and snow-capped mountain-ranges of the far west, the other characters in the story may stand for actual figures in the real author's life there. The writing feels so private, so intimate in its details, that one can hardly avoid making such connections. Does the crisis in the hero's saga, which is played out in a single academic year, symbolize the decade of Malamud's life in Corvallis? It's possible to see the book as a sort of summarization of his life there, and perhaps even as a judgment of sorts--first as a satire on the social life of the department, and secondarily upon his own semi-mature self, isolated and inexperienced, under-appreciated, relegated to teaching bone-head English to raw-boned Oregon teenagers. But by the time of his departure, he had won a National Book Award (for The Magic Barrel [New York: Farrar Straus Cudahy, 1958], and had published two widely respected novels. 

Perhaps in several ways, A New Life, published at the moment of his departure from Oregon, and his return to the East Coast (and the fame that would be his),  symbolizes a turning-point in his life, just as Levin's departure was for him. The story may seem like a half-serious comic rebuke to a world that he may have felt did not appreciate him, and not having to hang around for the inevitable curiosity and suspicions could certainly have been a liberating feeling.

Remembering the story from my earlier reading, the aspect that stands out for me, across time, is the rivalry between the department head, Gilley, and Levin, complicated by Levin's affair with the head's wife, the kind of sexual competition that is at the center of the plot. While Levin is committed to his teaching career, and to the ideals it represents to him of academic excellence and political honesty, he is drawn passionately to Pauline. He knows in his bones that he can't have it both ways, that if he chooses Pauline, he can kiss his future at the college good-bye. In Malamud's real life, he managed to extricate himself from a dead-end academic life through an act of will, single-mindedly producing works of high literary merit, while supporting his family on a modest instructor's salary. I wouldn't have known or cared about this reality behind the curtain of art as a boy, but now it offers a whole different dimension to my understanding of the relationship between life and art. I was once myself a college teacher, at the University of Iowa in the late 1960's and early '70's, trying to write while supporting my family. But my personal life was not nearly so remarkable as Malamud's.   


 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Going Postal in The Friendly Skies - The Coming Drone Wars


One aspect of the increasing sophistication of micro-technology has been the emergence of unmanned, or automated airborne devices, called drones

For decades, really since the invention of flying machines, self-propelled model airplanes have been a common toy or hobbyists' pastime. If you've ever been to one of these model meets, with their whining gas-powered props controlled with hand-held radar sets, you know they aren't new gadgets. 

But with the ramping up of micro-chip capacity, automated mechanical devices are quickly becoming practical. There are unmanned aircraft, unmanned boats, and unmanned small helicopters which are on the threshold of application, or already in use, for surveillance and reconnoitre, and also for possible parcel delivery. Anywhere an aerial view of something is needed, drones can be adapted to serve the purpose. There's a  whole new industry starting up right now, conceived around the possible applications of the drone technology. Even farmers and ranchers are using them now. Amazon, the big online-retail company, thinks it's going to use drones to deliver parcels, leap-frogging over the whole commercial delivery industry.  


Anything man-made that flies in the sky creates a possible hazard. Nations regulate the space over their territory, in the same way they do their borderlands, their ocean margins, and their broadcast and computer networks. 

Conventional propeller driven and jet-propelled aircraft have to follow corridors and flight paths, to recognize and respect "no-fly zones" in order to prevent collisions or interruptions of established routes. Different classes of craft are confined to certain areas in the sky, different altitudes. You have to have a license to fly an aircraft; flying isn't something you can just engage in at will. 

We know that drones are now an important new sphere in weaponry. The U.S. is currently running drone bombing missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East. The idea of using unmanned aircraft in warfare is a controversial development. Technologically advanced states, such as the U.S. have a distinct advantage over "conventional" military forces. 


Back home, intelligence agencies such as the  CIA and the FBI are looking to apply drones for all kinds of surveillance, while state and local police are considering their use in law enforcement and around-the-clock snooping. Drones occupy a front-and-center position now in the debates about legal searches, the right of privacy, and admissible evidence in criminal cases. 

But apparently, we haven't seen anything yet. There are reports that the security community is now dreaming up nightmare applications, of tiny, insect-scale devices, which could not only surveil without being noticed, but could even be used as weapons, to make lethal injections on a human target. A confirmed sighting of these "dragon-fly" drones was first made at an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. in 2007, so these things are well along. 


If Amazon's planned automated parcel delivery system seems clunky, ask yourself what will happen when every nation, every gang of criminals or terrorists has access to these gadgets. 

We could have "star wars" over communities, in which police drones are fighting criminals' drones, or competing nations could be fighting "automated wars" with robot planes, robot tanks, or robot boats and submarines. 

A guy is walking down the street when he suddenly gets a poison dart in the back, fired from above by a tiny drone no bigger than a sparrow, which then rockets away before any sighting is possible. 

When Huxley and Orwell dreamed up their dystopian visions half a century ago, they didn't foresee the computer revolution. We don't know where our technologies may lead us. 

But all the signs now point to an increasingly eerie landscape dominated by "devices" controlled remotely to perform all kinds of tasks, as well as leaving us all exposed and vulnerable to the prying, invasive and spooky motivations of human artifice and deviousness.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

World Oil Production


Recently, we've heard reports that the rapid decline in the price of gasoline, which is a reflection of the drop in crude oil prices, has brought about a sudden crisis in the petroleum production industry. 

For decades, we've heard that world oil reserves of easily extracted petroleum would "peak" sometime in the current century, then begin to decline, while demand, which has been steadily increasing, continued to climb--leading to catastrophic increases in price. 

At the same time, experts in oil reserve data have noted that as prices rose, the viability of less easily obtained petroleum sources, i.e., shale oil, would likely increase. As we've seen, these predictions have proven true. 

The burgeoning shale oil extraction industry has increased American petroleum production, to the extent that we now produce annual totals which rival Saudi Arabia and the former Soviet Union. 

The attractions of an increase in production are sold on the market competition which results in remarkable declines in prices at the pump. Any decrease in oil prices has a positive effect on the economy as a whole, which depends to such a large degree on the transportation network that runs off of petroleum use. 

We were also told that were America to become "less dependent" upon foreign oil sources, our standing in the world economy, and in the foreign policy sphere, would improve. Any decline in our dependence upon Middle Eastern oil, would improve our bargaining position in price competition, and make us less "vulnerable" to political pressures occurring in that part of the world. 



But as we have seen, protecting our interest in maintaining the flow of reasonably priced Mideast oil, was not the only priority. The flowering of Islamic terrorism has demonstrated that religious and political considerations may trump mere commercial interests. We may be able to get by for the time being, by coddling the Saudi royal family, but Islamic radicalism may eventually complicate our access to the oil fields throughout much of the Mideast.

Official estimates put America's shale oil reserves at a level which would make them viable for another two and a half decades--or roughly until the early '30's--at which point they would begin to decline. That's assuming, it should be noted, that exploitation proceeded at a smart clip, an assumption that might founder on regional resistance to fracking or other destructive extractive practices. 

However, the sudden price drop we're presently experiencing has had the ironic effect of truncating the whole shale equation. Many companies are suddenly in the red, as the price of crude drops below their break-even point. The viability of fracking was posited on the high price of crude on the world market, but with the sudden surge in supply, brought about by the new methods, the price has dropped. 

The delicate balance between supply and demand has meant that the transition from easy extraction to difficult will have contradictions that aren't easily overcome. 

In the context of global warming, we're obliged to consider not just the long-term advisability of rapid over-exploitation of the earth's resources, but the more immediate problem of excess burning. We'd be advised to save a little, going forward, instead of finding excuses to forge ahead into an unknown in which both supply and price precipitate us over yawning scarcity, bringing about a world-wide economic decline. 

In the overall picture of energy use and reserve, we need to see shale oil exploitation as a temporary phase, not as a long-term solution. It isn't going to measurably lengthen the time upon which mankind depends upon oil as a primary energy source. It might enable us, given current use levels, to keep using it generously for another century, at most. But then what?

As the market-patterns sail along, riding wave and trough in tandem, we may be seduced by each successive small condition, to think that a new paradigm is spreading out around us. But these "blips" are nothing more than minor variations. 



As readers of this blog know, my priority has always been to suggest moderation in population growth, rather than promoting economic growth--with its attendant profligate confiscation of resource--as a way to slow the birth rate. Population is always used by apologists for exploitation, as the bottom line--more mouths to feed, more jobs to create, more cars to sell, more water, more food, more sewage, more pollution, more crowding, more conflict--for justifying expansion. But each iteration of supply leads inevitably to more demand, so that promoting one, without moderating the other, only makes the problem worse. We've been using that model for at least a hundred years, and look where it's brought us. The simplest way to slow demand is to reduce it. Period.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Mystery of the Water - Fishing at Night




Every sport has its attractions, which may or may not be easily conveyed to those unfamiliar with it firsthand. Fly-fishing, which developed over centuries of practice, originally as a hunting and gathering skill, has become a highly sophisticated form of sport. Whereas it once was principally about the securing of sustenance, it has morphed into a refined procedure, with a tradition, and a set of formal methods and conventions, that have become almost ritualistic. With its paraphernalia--the rods and reels, lines and leaders, artificial flies, creels, vests, boots and so on--and its prime watering holes, with their shrine-like folklore-fame--it has acquired all the trappings of a faith, a devotion which may border on fanaticism at times. 

It's important to remember that the reason people pursue any sport is the nurturing pleasure and excitement it affords, whether or not the rules are slavishly followed. A recreation may be considered a pastime, or something more. Whatever you love you do with a kind of rote allegiance--what may described as passion, even sanctity.  

Flyfishing occurs in nature, along waterways, in streams or rivers, or on lakes. Water, and the life that inhabits it, and the country through which it flows, is the setting, and the interaction between the pursuer (the fisherman), and the pursued (the fish), may only be a pretext for an appreciation of the qualities and complexities of the natural world, which are experienced first-hand by fishermen. The rhythms of the seasons, the accompanying flora and aquatic ecology, the richness of streamside life, the sights and sounds and sensations associated with being near, or in, a flowing stream, all contribute to the experience of fishing. We may become so preoccupied with the motions and rituals of performance, that we forget the fun part.

For me, flyfishing has never been purely about the successful seduction of the fish, of hooking and landing it and glorying in the triumph, of winning a contest with other competitors or against the odds. It's never been about how skillful my cast is, or whether I use the "correct" fly, or any of the dogmatic prescriptions that govern the hierarchy of appreciation and duty of the sport. When I fish, I enter a special place, where civilization and its discontents are left behind, and I become in some degree a part of the forces of the natural world, in a way I never am, when getting and spending and being the responsible citizen in a busy world. 

Time, like water, flows relentlessly forward. Nature is about change, and flowing water reminds us that our lives are slipping by, that as we step into a river, as the current pushes against our legs, we are being pushed forward, towards our end. We know this as surely as anything, though it may be pleasing to be caught up in the excitement of the hunt. 

On a fishing day, we may enter the water in late afternoon, preparing for the evening hatch. Insect hatches are rhythmic, but not entirely predictable. Everything that lives in water has a time-table, but empirical observation can't tell you exactly when a hatch is going to occur, or how the fish are likely to respond. The tantalizing possibility awaits you on the water. 

With dry-fly fishing, which is my preference, the lure floats on the surface of the current, meandering over the intersecting flows. The fish, always watchful, are "fishing" (or hunting) too, and hoping for a safe pursuit of the bugs. Usually, with their natural shyness and caution, they will also have some comprehension of what the fishermen are trying to do. It's a contest between their reluctance and shrewdness, and the fisherman's guile and ability. The tension of this interaction is what makes fishing fascinating. There are a dozen factors that influence how the fish will behave, and at least twice that many that fishermen must observe and employ in their pursuit. 

The surface of the water is like a membrane between the two worlds--one wet, the other dry--a plane of division, which is sometimes referred to as the "surface film." This is where the game is played. Most of the time, you don't actually see the fish, so the moment of crisis (the rise or "strike" of the fish to the lure) can't be followed. Suddenly there is, from the mysterious under-side of this membrane, an attack, subtly gentle, or vicious. Fish are predators, and their actions are designed to succeed. But you can never really know if or when the fish will respond. You hope, and guess, and try to learn from failure. Why do certain approaches work, while others fail? 

Towards evening, the fishing may be good, or it may be slow. As dusk turns to night, what you can see  begins to fade. The water is turning black under you, and you can't see your feet. Perceiving your line as the sky darkens becomes more difficult. Your fly may become invisible on the water surface, though you have a good idea where it must be as it floats sideways across from you. You may have had a good day, or you might not have caught anything that day, but whatever the "luck" you don't want to reel in and go back. A little evening hatch may have started, and there are quiet dimples all around you, as the fish rise from the obscurity of their holding places below. 

The moon rises, spreading an ethereal glow over the water. It's late, you should be knocking off, but you just keeping making one more cast, then another, and another. You're being stubborn.

This refusal to give up is something all fishermen feel. It may keep you out well past dinner time; your buddies or your friends may be standing on the bank, reminding you that it might be a good idea to let go. Finally, reluctantly, you reel in your line, turn carefully around in the current, and wade gingerly back to the bank. 

This time, when the water is pitch black, and the silhouettes of the trees on the opposite bank are vivid against a darkening sky, seems magical to me. Almost dreamy. There have been times when I have hooked a good trout, just as the sky was turning dark, and the fish and I are locked in battle. At these times, you feel at a distinct disadvantage with the fish. You can feel where the fish is going, from the pull and throbbing action of the line through the rod, but it's mysterious, like anything that happens in the dark. Your attention intensifies, mind focused. I have often lost fish in these circumstances, but it doesn't feel like failure--since landing and releasing a fish in the dark is difficult. 

I've come to see these times, with night drawing on, as very moving, with the murmur of the water, the beautiful shifting, undulating surface, and the certainty that there are only so many such moments accorded us in this life. Their fragility, transitoriness, and beauty. They are an end in themselves, not a means to another end. We are living in this life, the only one we'll ever have, and that fact makes everything that happens unique, and precious.