It is not often we see art and sport meld into one activity, outside of professional performances and perhaps some of the activities in the Olympics. But when we are least expecting it, the most amazing things happen and our training in unrelated areas can be useful, indeed even vital , in preserving our lives and bodies as we have come to know them.
I experienced this very thing some years ago when I decided to become a fisherperson. After several instructional sessions, my husband took me to the “favorite” fishing hole. Fisherperson etiquette mandates silence on precise location at all times and punishment can include, but is not limited to, revocation of membership in our family fishing club. But I was delighted to finally see the place that was held in reserve for those who have proven they can “handle it.” I was so thrilled, I bought new waders (basically rubberized pants) and matching fishing boots (no real words to describe this fashionable accessory). I topped the outfit off with a very stylish fishing hat and matching creel (basically a purse that you get to put fishing stuff in). Pole in hand and dressed to the nines, I began my adventure in the world of river fishing.
After about two hours of snagging my line, breaking hooks, slipping on rocks, hauling in weeds and sticks covered with stuff I knew was breathing, and stressing over the fact that my new boots and waders were getting covered in mud/muck, I was discouraged to put it mildly. My hubby had been by my side, instructing and I think laughing (?). He decided to go downstream a bit (or maybe it was upstream) to try his own luck. I told him to go ahead. I was hanging it up after one last cast of my miserably pale, no longer living bait.
I took a deep breath and cast the line into the water. Of course, it stuck in the rocks. Drat!!! How demoralizing. To make things worse, a fish jumped from the water and flashed his sliver tail at me. I could have sworn he stuck out his tongue too. Do fish have tongues? As I tugged and pulled, gritting my teeth and attempting to dislodge my hook, the line started jumping around and took off. Could it be? Had I snagged a fish? Rocks and sticks usually do not take a line out like that. Oh boy, oh boy, I had one.
I did what Keith taught me to do. I pulled back hard and “set the hook.” I had a fish. It probably was a little one but just the same, a fish. Then the cold reality set in. The fish that jumped a few minutes before was on the end of my line and he jumped again. Out of the water now he showed he was anything but a small fry. Good grief! I felt myself being pulled into the river and fighting to stay upright. I waved frantically in Keith’s direction. He gave a lazy wave, a slow nod and continued moving away. Was that a smile on his face as he separated from a person who was determined to be in the record books for having snagged, broken, fallen and hauled in river trash more times in two hours than anyone in history? There was another frantic wave from me and another slow nod with a smile from my life partner.
“No, no, no. I am in real trouble here,” I yelled. But roaring water and distance between us made my words inaudible. I was on my own with Moby Dick, a fast current, deepening water, and the threat of ruining a perfectly crafted and fashionable fishing ensemble. What was I to do?
Most of us, when faced with difficulty, fall back on the training and practices of the past. In this moment my beginning ballet class came to mind. The memory was complete with the image of Miss Carla walking around in Army boots because her feet were destroyed from a lifetime of dancing. Her instructions flooded back loud and clear.
“Keep your stance shoulder width, feet flat, toes out, knees slightly bent. Tuck that butt under and pull in that gut. Keep shoulders back, chin up – strong and proud. Then tighten, tighten and hold. Drop those shoulders, they do not make good earrings. Breathe, breathe, breathe; how do you expect to stay alive if you don’t breath?” Staying alive at this point was not necessarily a given from my lens.
Dancers do not take time to analyze technical details once we learn them. We rely on muscle memory as a sort of physical teleprompt. Miss Carla’s words ran like a subtitle in my mind’s eye as I fought to keep the “proper” fish landing strategy in working order. I tried to remember what Keith’s instructions were week after week. “Let the line out a little when the pole starts to bend severely. Let the fish run some, it will tire him out. Keep the pole pointed upward for the most part to keep tension on the line. Reel in slowly, but let him have his fight.”
Keeping my stance as Miss Carla commanded, I continued to “work the fish.” Then the line suddenly went limp. Had I lost him? I relaxed my stance, came back up to standing position and BOOM!! He was off and running (swimming actually) again. Back into ballet form with Miss Carla’s instruction hammering at me.
“I can tell when you are not sucking in that gut Padgett. Pull it in. Tuck that bum under and find your center. Breathe, breathe, breathe, girl.”
This monologue alternated with Keith’s instructions of pulling the fish to the shore as I reeled him in, slowly. I cannot tell you how long the “fish ballet” went on. And I cannot tell you how long these two distinct sets of instructions played on the CD player in my brain – Keith, Carla, Keith, Carla, Keith, Carla. Then just when I was ready to collapse, my husband appeared with a net and scooped the great sea creature from the water. I will never know how he knew to come to my aid. Maybe a little life-saving angel tapped him on the shoulder and called his attention to my distress. Maybe the attention in my direction from the other fishermen on the opposite river bank alerted him to my need.
“Wow, what a beauty,” Keith said with great respect. Since I was sitting with my hat askew, up to my knees in river weeds, and sweating like a race horse, I was pretty sure he was referring to the fish. He asked me, “What do you want to do?”
Now I was flat on my rump in the shallow, pure, freezing Rocky Mountain water (great for beer maybe but not so good for maintaining normal human body temperature). With screaming muscles and eyes glaring at Keith over my sunglasses, I queried, “Do? What do I want to do? Actually being close to land, breathing normally and realizing I may yet see another day seems to be working just fine for now.”
“No, I mean do you want to keep him or throw him back?” He asked, still looking at our finned and scaly friend.
Oh man, more thinking? Drat and double drat! All right, fine. But we sure didn’t cover any of this decision after the fact in Fish Hunt 101. Well, on one hand Fish was a worthy opponent who deserved respect and not tartar sauce. On the other hand, I had worked up an appetite. On the other hand, Fish and I spent the last one half hour in battle, a competition if you will. I have been a competitor on many levels – dance, music, sports, and academics. Honestly, I do not remember ever eating another competitor. (But now that I think of it, I have observed the occasional “fork and knife” eye from time to time in dance competitions.) On the other hand, cold water fish is good for us. On the other hand – No! In the infamous words of Tevia from Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.”
Decision was made and cemented with another famous quote, this time from the Old Man and the Sea (no kidding). “Sorry, Fish.” Too tired to think about preparing my admired, albeit defeated, adversary for dinner that night, I found a home for him in the refrigerator to await the “recycling” process. I settled for a hot bowl of chili from Wendy’s as dinner, with extra cheese and no onions (enough stomach acid churning for one day, thank you), and a jumbo chocolate Frosty which I unapologetically felt entitled to. I also bought my husband a grand Wendy’s feast as I thanked him for sharing his fishing wisdom with me, enabling me to land that high country tuna.
After dinner all I wanted that night was a hot Epsom salt bath, two Advil tablets, some herb tea and my bed. But before I made it to this coveted evening itinerary, I sat down and penned the most heartfelt note of gratitude I have ever written. It began, “Dear Miss Carla.”
Copyright September 2011
Lakewood, CO 80401