Fishing for Papa

This essay was first published in The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal: Issue #60, May through August 2015. The online version in the Journal can be found here.

There are three ponds on my in-laws’ property in northern Georgia. Each was stocked decades ago with largemouth bass and bluegill, and since then, the fish populations have flourished. I’ve seen them from the water’s edge, sleek shapes among the weeds, under overhanging branches, and near the pilings of the old dock. On a recent visit, my kids asked if we could go fishing, so we went to the nearest of the ponds with the two decrepit fishing rods from the wrap-around porch, rigged with the only two lures available. One rod sometimes loses its upper half with a hard cast. The other has a broken reel mount, so the reel is always on the brink of falling off.

I demonstrated how to cast and reel in the line, and the kids practiced casting toward the center of the pond. At first, they were too quick and jerky in their movements, naturally thinking that casting far requires a lot of force, and the lures flew astray or splashed hard into the water just a few feet away. “Try slowing down and moving more smoothly,” I told them, “and let the rod do the rest.” After some more fits and starts, they sent their lures soaring gracefully farther and farther toward the middle of the pond as their fishing rods became extensions of their arms. Their smiles flashed as they hit their marks more often than not. I showed them how to work the lures back to shore, varying speeds and angles and bringing them close past likely fish hideouts.

As I watched the children, memories of my grandfather rushed into my mind. Papa was an angler, not by profession, but by passion. A Chicago native, he fished the lakes of the Midwest for years, returning to his favorites, like Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, time and again. Later, when he and Nana moved to my hometown of Los Angeles, he didn’t get to fish as often. Yet he talked about fishing with a wistfulness that I didn’t hear from him on any other subject, though baseball sometimes came close for the former second baseman. When he talked fishing, his clear blue eyes shone and a grin lit his round face. His tackle box was among my favorite things, a massive green case that opened by splitting apart the top to reveal six stacked trays, three on a side, which lifted into perfect tiers to reveal a meticulously organized array of lures.

When I was about ten years old, Papa bought me my first fishing gear, a grey, six-foot, light-action Browning rod and matching Mitchell reel. That same evening, I took the rubber band off the spool of the reel – exactly what he had told me not to do. I did it so I could see the line, thin and bluish-white, almost luminous in the light of my bedroom. The line instantly sprang from the spool with a will and quickly grew into a bird’s nest, even as I tried to hold it in place.

I shuffled down the hall and into the dining room, where Papa was sitting at the table, and handed him the mess. He took a slow, appraising look and said, “Took off the rubber band, huh?” Then he set to work on it. His hands were knobby and his fingers blunt, perhaps from the physical labor he did as a grocery warehouseman, yet he deftly handled the ultra-fine line. He could have cut it, of course. Or he could have made me deal with it to teach me a lesson. But he knew that the lesson had been learned already. Nothing more needed to be said.

Fishing with my children, I remembered standing as a boy with Papa in my front yard, casting a rubber weight over and over again as he gently gave me nuggets of advice. I remembered my practice casts hitting the near edge of the neighbor’s lawn, then the middle, and eventually the driveway, beyond the lawn, and Papa giving me encouragement: “Oooh! That was a good one! Try putting the next one over there.”

Before long, Papa took me to Lake Casitas for my first real fishing trip. There, he showed my cousin and me how to place our casts precisely under overhangs, where bass might be lurking, though only my uncle caught anything on that broiling day. Later, my cousin and I attended a day camp that ended the summer with a week-long fishing adventure in the Sierras. Before that trip, Papa showed us how to rig for rainbow and brown trout. Fishing the San Joaquin and Owens Rivers, Twin Lakes, Horseshoe Lake, and Lake Mary, I did as he taught, keeping quiet by the bank, standing so that my shadow did not darken the water, and placing my bait or lures right where I wanted them. He was a great teacher; I caught plenty of fish.

Despite my childhood love of fishing, and the fact that Papa frequently extolled the angling wonders of Michigan when I moved here 20 years ago, as an adult I’ve fished very little. Yet in Georgia, as I taught my children, Papa’s lessons came back to me as if riding into my mind on my memories of him. When my kids felt comfortable casting and working the lures back to shore, we talked about where the fish might be, and I taught them as Papa had taught me. There were some good looking overhangs and weedy areas, and while we risked losing our lures to snags, the kids felt confident that they could place them right where they wanted them, just as my cousin and I had at Lake Casitas and in the Sierras so many years before. That’s what they did, and it worked. Each of them caught and released a lot of fish.

They caught the fishing bug, too, as I had once. During our few days in Georgia, the children and I grabbed whatever time we could to go down to the pond and see if the fish were biting. The children’s eyes shone, and their faces wore joyous grins, as Papa’s had when he fished or just talked about it. I watched quietly as the children angled, admiring their patience and concentration. Their casts were beautiful – their arms cocked back and then brought their fishing rods forward swiftly and smoothly, and their lures flew into the pond trailed by an arc of line that settled gently onto the water. I watched their intent looks as they worked the lures back to shore, bringing them right past where they thought the fish might be waiting. And I thought about how much Papa would have loved that moment. The surge of closeness to him that I felt watching his great-grandchildren fish that pond in northern Georgia brought to the surface not only how much I miss him but also the tremendous gifts he gave me over the years: his love, encouragement, and knowledge. They are gifts I try to pass along to my children, and like most parents, I don’t always succeed. But when I do, my mind fills with warm thoughts of those who bestowed those gifts upon me, and Papa was one of my primary sources.

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Happy Industry

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My son whistles to himself as he bends his head over a piece of paper, colored pencil in hand. Alternately tuneless and melodic, always cheery, the whistling is the sound of a child doing what children love to do most: being creative, meeting the world with his own imagination, reflecting his discoveries in what he puts on the page. His cheerful bird call signals to the world that he is drawing at the table by the sunny window and enjoying the moment.

Children love to make stuff. They are industrious. It’s not the adult version of productivity, which is so often marred by anxiety and pressure, banality, repetition, performance metrics and high-stakes outcomes. Instead, children pursue happy industry. They eagerly seek ways to engage fully with the world. They turn a box into something to play with; create a small book of drawings; glue together sticks to make a little house; fall into a great book; play school with stuffed animals or dolls; create entire imaginary worlds – it’s all about making something, transforming one thing into something else, learning and engaging, pretending, and being active, not passive. A great deal of what they do most naturally is inherently creative. Unfortunately, our school systems, schedules, and expectations seem to be interfering more and more with the beautiful, happy industriousness that children bring to the world. When children’s version of productivity is devalued and forced to look more like that of adults – e.g., with an over-reliance on performance metrics, high-stakes outcomes (i.e., testing), repetition, banality, pressure – we are getting in the way of their healthy development.

The trailblazing psychologist Erik Erikson conceptualized psychosocial development as a set of stages, each framed as a contrast between a healthy developmental step and what happens if that stage is not completed successfully. His theory, unlike other psychoanalytic theories of the day, extended the concept of development across the lifespan and was concrete about what people are trying to accomplish at each stage. The fourth stage of psychosocial development, from ages 5 to 11, Erikson called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Healthy development in this stage is marked by increasing pride in one’s accomplishments, active engagement with the world around oneself, and a blossoming sense of oneself as competent. In college and graduate school, studying child psychology, I was particularly taken with this view of children as industrious. Their form of industry is fun and creative and both inspiring and humbling to see.

As a parent, I’ve noticed that my children and their friends appear to be especially nourished emotionally, socially, and cognitively by being outside. They spontaneously create games in the yard – ball games, imaginative scenes, treasure hunts, “nature studies.” They explore the nearby ravine, sometimes for hours. They climb trees or squat together to see something small, perhaps an interesting bug or a brilliant fall leaf or a beautiful stone, their heads close together as they peer at whatever it is. I love to hear their high, clear voices outside expressing delight or wonder, solving problems, identifying something new, making guesses, trying out ideas, and I love the questions they sometimes have afterward about their discoveries, or how they run inside to get one of us to show us whatever they’ve found. There is nothing as potent as experiencing nature for stimulating children’s imaginations, and I hope that more parents and schools and organizations can facilitate just that. These experiences need not be in nature writ large, on nature’s grandest stages – though those are lovely and wonderful and I hope that more children can enjoy them. On a smaller scale, a neighborhood scale, experiences in what we might call “everyday” nature are important for children to have and should be made as accessible as possible.

Historic site: former fort

Historic site: former fort

Under the evergreen tree in the front yard, shadows move in the twilight. My kids and two of their friends are building a fort out of logs. They move about, staying low under the boughs, pausing and squatting and placing logs, spider-walking around their developing creation. Walls take shape; conflicts and compromises get worked out; gravity is reckoned with when some logs topple and have to be placed carefully anew. Plans are laid, attempted, and reworked. Their discussions are barely audible through the house window. My son occasionally whistles. I’m aware of all of these sounds as the hum of contented kids doing what they love to do most – it’s the hum of happy industry.

When I Heard “Divorce”

Some things can’t be fixed. Some never needed fixing.

One evening, when I was ten years-old, my mother walked into our cozy den, where I was watching television. She looked calm, and her voice was even, but when she asked me to come into my parents’ room, I could tell that something was wrong. It wasn’t that she never asked me to come into their room. It was simply that my radar for emotion, the same ultra-sensitive radar that most kids have, was pinging like crazy. I slowly got to my feet and followed her to the back of the house. We passed through the dining room and went down the short hallway to the two bedrooms. My brother and I shared the cheerful one straight ahead, the one with bunk beds and model airplanes and Legos and scores of children’s books. My parents’ room was on the right. As I walked to it, I kept my eyes on the floor.

When we entered the room, my dad and my three-year-old brother were sitting on the bed. My mom joined them, but I hovered near the door, reluctant. “Come sit,” my mom said, and I did. “Dad and I have something we want to talk to you about.”

I don’t remember exactly what my parents said next, but it was about troubles in their relationship. They emphasized that they loved my brother and me very much and always would, and that none of what was happening between them was our fault. There was talk of “grown-up problems,” but all I could think was, “Now we kids will have problems, too.” I recall listening to each of them saying the things that parents are supposed to say at times like these. They made it sound so simple, but my life was getting more complicated with every word they said. The bottom line was that they were getting divorced.

When they were finished, I looked at each of them, then at my brother. He was such a serious kid, somber and seemingly older than his years, and his little brow was furrowed under his crazy curls. I wanted so badly to protect him from what was happening.

“OK,” I said to my parents as matter-of-factly as I could, “now that we know what the problem is, let’s fix it.” My budding analytical mind combined with my childhood optimism: where there was a problem, there must be a solution, just as surely as “what went up must come down.”

My mom tilted her head to one side and looked at me with eyes filled with love and sadness. She said something like, “There’s no way to fix this.”

My brother started to cry. I followed. It felt like pieces of me were flying off and spinning away, and I couldn’t catch them fast enough.

At the time, I was in a private school in Los Angeles. Though my parents didn’t talk to me much about it, I had the impression that they could barely afford to send me there and perhaps only did so with help from my grandparents. At my school, the boys wore navy corduroy pants and white or sky blue polo shirts with the school name emblazoned in an arc over the left breast, and the girls wore light blue or navy jumper dresses with button-down, white blouses. The headmaster was a former US Navy man who whistled like a boatswain over the intercom to get our attention. Every morning, after his ear-splitting, three-tone squeal and gruff announcements, the whole school marched out onto the blacktop playground in lines to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. There was a monied, mainstream feel about the place. Intact, rich, Protestant families were the norm, and I was a Jewish kid with divorcing parents. Looking back now, I am aware that there were other kids who fell outside the usual student profile, too, but we were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Like a chameleon, I worked to fit in, generally well-liked, involved in student council, a reporter and then editor-in-chief of the school paper. While all of these efforts served as cover, they actually accentuated my feeling of “otherness.” I had become part of the school establishment in a place that felt foreign to me, part of a club I was pretty sure I didn’t really want to join, even if part of me desperately wanted to be a member. I thought that any day, my peers would realize that I’m not really one of them and send me packing. Now, with the news that my parents were getting divorced, the sense of difference was joined by shame. There was no one at school that I was willing to talk to about what was going on at home. The day after my parents told me they were splitting up, I remember sitting in Miss Cooley’s fifth grade class and feeling numb and distant. With my school friends, I kept quiet about my family.

Holding in my feelings, I started to experience anxiety, and I developed an angry edge. By all accounts, I had been a very mellow, sweet kid. My anxiety and anger were new, and I neither understood nor knew how to handle them. And while I remained a “good boy,” not getting into trouble or misbehaving, my insides squirmed and I started to worry about things. Most of all, I worried about my brother. I stepped into more of a parenting role, and I felt like he needed me to take care of him and that something might happen to him if I didn’t.

It was a hard time, but it also spurred growth in me and in my family. My mother gained strength and independence. She started to search for a job, figuring out what she wanted to do, what would work for her and for us. She went on interviews, and she got some offers. Her confidence grew, and after she worked at a job for awhile and decided it wasn’t for her, she got another, and then another, as she found her way. Her newfound strength made her a better mother to us, more able to give us guidance and support.

My family’s challenges made it necessary for me to do more around the house. I learned how to do laundry, ironing, housecleaning, and cooking and became independent at doing all of them. Perhaps this sounds minor, but these are wonderfully practical skills, and I like being able to do them proficiently without thinking much about it.

Eventually, I also learned how to maintain a home. A couple of years after the divorce, my mom met the man who would become my stepfather. I hadn’t been able to fix what was going on in my house when my parents split up, but my stepdad actually could fix the house itself. He was a patient, inviting, and straightforward teacher, helping me to develop a handiness that I probably would not have gained otherwise. Just as important, he was also my first guitar teacher, guiding my initial, tentative steps into making music on six strings.

There was a lot that was hard. Blending families as each of my parents remarried, seeing my dad on a schedule, and struggling with a sense of shame and increasing anxiety were all difficult. Yet I cannot imagine my life any different, and I am grateful for what I gained. My mother met her challenges head on and became a stronger, more complete and independent person and parent. I learned how to take care of a household. My stepfather has been a powerful influence on me, as instrumental as anyone has been in building my confidence, because he saw me as fundamentally capable and took the time to teach me everything from home maintenance to folk, rock, and blues tunes on the guitar.

The night that I heard “divorce,” my first reaction was to try to figure out how to fix the situation. But now, if I could talk to my ten-year-old self that night sitting on my parents’ bed, as he felt overwhelmed by the news and his own sense of responsibility, I would tell him not just that he can’t fix it, but that he doesn’t need to. It never needed fixing at all. As he dealt with sadness and shame and anger and anxiety, I’d want him to know that the experience would be part of what would make him a good husband, father, friend, and teacher. I’m glad I know that now. I wish I knew it then.

The bravery of children

Children are brave. Sure, they believe in monsters under the bed or lurking in their closets, and – partly because of those monsters – they might be afraid of the dark. But where it counts, in the real world, where they risk real pain or injury or failure, they are incredibly brave.

They plunge into school year after year and deal with transitions galore, from harder material to a particularly strict new teacher to a goon who might be sitting next to them in class or hassling them in the school yard. They climb trees with abandon and look down from those lofty heights, and while it might inspire a bit of caution, it doesn’t keep them from doing it. They learn to ride a two-wheeler or to ice skate and, again, just do it. They don’t like falling, and they don’t want to fall, but they don’t let the thought of failure or pain keep them from their goal.

Recently, my daughter was in a swim lesson at the Y, and I was doing an indoor cycling workout and watching her down below through the big bay windows that overlook the pool. In my daughter’s lessons, they use the adult lap pool. Back and forth she went, over and over again, her teacher walking alongside, periodically instructing her. Freestyle back and forth, back and forth. Back stroke. Breast stroke. Butterfly. OK, let’s work on your diving. Now your kicking. On your back, arms outstretched, no stroking, just kicking. Back and forth. Back and forth. Again. Again. Again. Meter after meter, length after length, lap after lap. And I’m sitting up there on the indoor cycle and taking inspiration from watching my daughter go. She swam without complaint. She worked quietly and determinedly. She was without fear. She had to have been suffering, particularly during the prolonged kicking drill, but she didn’t show it. She pushed through it, and I pushed myself on that bike, because I wanted to stand with her the only way I could at that point.

I can’t swim the way she does. I mean, I’m safe and fairly functional in the water, but I’m uncomfortable and stiff when lap swimming. I lack rhythm in the water. I don’t let myself do it. I’m afraid of swallowing water, looking like an idiot, not making the grade. And that fear stands in my way. What I should do is get some lessons and re-learn to lap swim. It would be great for me. But fear is a barrier. In contrast, my daughter joined a swim team over the summer unable to swim more than one-third of a length before stopping. That’s about 8 meters. By the end of the summer, swimming day after day, working herself hard, listening to her coaches, and just flat out swimming with the kind of grit and fearlessness that I think many kids possess, she swam 100 in competition. Straight through. No stopping. No fear.

Passing the beach test

Then came our annual family trip to a rustic, lakeside family camp. It is our one true get-away, and we love it dearly. At the camp, there are a couple of swimming tests, the longer and tougher of the two being to permit a child to go onto the beach alone. If they don’t pass, then they can’t even set foot on the sand without an adult, not even to look for sea glass or colorful stones. The beach test involves going from the little camp dock to the beach without touching the bottom, about 250 meters of open water, dealing with waves from boat wakes, currents, chilly pockets, sea monsters, what have you. My daughter did it, and she did it beautifully, with a strong crawl stroke, stopping only a couple of times to turn on her back for a quick rest and to chat with her mom, who was nearby. The thoughts that led to this post started as I watched her pass that test. Afterward, she confessed that it was a long way to swim, but she hadn’t experienced any fear. Not a bit.

After all that, I suppose her swimming length after length at the Y doesn’t feel like a big deal to her.

I suspect that children’s lack of fear is linked to their relative lack of inhibition, which in turn seems linked to their inherent playfulness and innocence. As adults, we gradually seem to play less. And we take far too much far too seriously. We let all kinds of things get in our way, including our fears of pain and failure, and particularly our fear of shame. Our inhibitions build up. We hold ourselves back.

I’ve heard it said more than once that great athletes have the capacity and willingness to suffer more than most people. They will work their bodies right up to that “oh no!” point and then push beyond it, making athletic gains where many would have stopped. They have a goal, and they are determined to achieve it. Maybe kids are a bit like that. They look at a task that they want to accomplish, and rather than dwelling on the barriers and potential bad outcomes and what others might think, they plunge in and just do the task. They get into the water, or on the horse, or on the bike, or on the ice, and rather than thinking about all the bad stuff that might happen next, they lose – and ultimately find – themselves in the sheer joy of seeking and achieving mastery through play. Sure, I’m proud when I see my daughter do something like that. But even more than that, I’m humbled.