"Catch and Release" - Learning to Live with Loss
In the early years, I was on my own with the losses, fighting the pain every day, watching my life burn to the ground, and compiling a list of grievances against God and the world. One of my earliest losses to the fire was the only hobby I’ve ever pursued with passion: bass fishing. For those uninitiated in the finer things of life, bass angling is not like other types of fishing where you bait a hook, cast out your line, sit down, and drink a beer. Nor is it “trolling” or dragging your live bait (and hook) behind a slowly moving boat, while you sit in the boat, and drink a beer. Bass fishing is constant action with all artificial lures—no live bait. Bass are a finicky target. To succeed, you must first find them, which is not a simple matter of looking on a “Fish Finder.” Instead, you must take account of all the things a depth finder actually tells you: the depth of the water, the contour below (flat or dropping into a channel), the nature of the bottom (sand, rock, or clay), and the presence of any brush (an old tree or bush). Next you must examine the water: is it clear, stained, or muddy? What temperature is it—is it rising or falling? Has a cold front just come through? (If so, go home.) Look up to the sky: is it cloudy or clear? Where is the sun—rising, setting, or overhead? Add the time of the year (spring, winter, fall), what grows along the shoreline (cattails, lily pads, or nothing), and what you have learned about this body of water on earlier trips. Put all this information together and establish a game plan, how you will spend a precious few hours on the water—and know that the slightest miscalculation will make the difference between catching nothing or ten beautiful bass.
If you can make a tactical error bass fishing, trust me, I’ve made it: using the wrong type of lure, the wrong color of lure, the wrong size of lure, using the wrong type of line, retrieving the lure too fast or too slow, at the wrong place, at the wrong depth, or fishing at the wrong time of day. And here’s the catch: even when you put together a brilliant game plan and you should be hauling bass into the boat, sometimes the bass will simply not be interested. Then you go to plan B: take one stick of dynamite, one match, light the dynamite, throw it into the water—away from your boat—then take a net and scoop up what you want, and enjoy a cold drink.
Bass fishing is a beautiful symphony of constant motion. Because of so many variables, a person may have three to ten rods out on the deck of the boat, each rod made for a specific purpose, equipped with a specific type of reel, and specific baits tied on and ready to go. So we stand on the deck, using one foot to direct the slow movement of the boat with an electric motor, while casting their line and lure to specific “fishy looking” areas—a technical term determined by all the factors mentioned above, and most of all, looking over the water and the structure below and asking, “If my basset hound Buford were down there taking a nap, where would he be?” Cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve: run the lure straight to the boat (fast or slow), bounce it along the bottom (big hops or little), thread it through underwater tree branches (crawling it around or letting it drop), or jump it from one hole in the lily pads to another (fast or slow). If one lure isn’t working, pick up another rod and change strategies. Keep searching and changing until we are able to establish a “pattern”—which lure, in what color, in what type of underwater structure, retrieved in the what way—will give us the best chance for catching bass today, or at least for the next few minutes. The pattern may change multiple times through the course of a day.
I toss a Texas-rigged plastic worm near a boat dock and focus on the line. I think it just twitched. It could have been the wind. No, the line just moved again, just a little bounce. Unless you are watching closely, you’d never see it. I act quickly, carefully moving the tip of my rod toward the water, reeling up the slack in my line. Then, with all the power and speed I can muster, I jerk the tip of the rod back and up to set the hook. The rod bends, the reel squeals, and the line in the water races away from where I tossed my bait. I’ve got him! Or maybe I’ve got her and she’s bigger (just a fact of bass life). There’s nothing better than this moment, when I’ve detected the nearly imperceptible and I first feel the bass on the other end of the line. It’s almost as good as sex.
I don’t want to lose her: for her to shake off the hook, tie me up in the brush, or break my line. So I keep solid tension on the line, taking in line with the reel, but not moving too fast. She’s getting closer now and though it’s thrilling to watch a bass jump out of the water, I need to keep her down. If she jumps, she could throw the hook or break the line. So I put the tip of my rod into the water and keep working her to the boat. If she is big and I have a friend along, I’ll ask them to get the net. If I’m alone, I’ll either get the net myself or try to pick her up out of the water with my free hand, clamping my thumb down on her lower jaw to freeze her.
If she is half as big as I hope, I’ll quickly weigh her, and then take a few pictures (selfies if I must). Jimmy Houston, a famous bass fisherman, kisses his bass goodbye before putting them back in the water. I reserve my lips for other species. But I too put my catch back into the lake. It’s called “Catch and Release,” a typical practice for bass fishing. One of my friends calls it, “Terrify, Torture, and Release.” Another looks at me and says, “Stupid.”
Bass fishing took my mind far away from problems at work and problems at home. I could be so dialed into the moment on a lake: where to cast my lure, watching my line for any motion, and thinking about what to do with my next cast, that all my worries and stress simply melted into the water. God, I loved bass fishing. It’s Nirvana, paradise on H2O. And looking back, it was some of the best training I could have had for managing the severe chronic pain, teaching me how to focus my mind on one thing while ignoring everything else.
And it just gets better. My time on the water is only half the fun of bass fishing. Back home I can organize and reorganize my lures in tackle boxes and try different ways of packing more and more stuff into my small boat. Home is the place for checking and replacing the line on my reels and tying on new lures. And of course, there is no end to the time or money I could spend shopping in a big store devoted to fishing. One thing is certain about these stores: they know understand their “fish” and know how to attract them, how to display their lures, and how to provide various baits in so many sizes and colors that they caught me every time I visited—humanely releasing me each time so I could come back with more money to spend.
When we moved to Abilene from Oklahoma my time on the water took a major hit. In Oklahoma, I could be on any one of three good bass lakes within forty-five minutes of home. But believe it or not,the arid wilderness of West Texas does not produce an abundance of rain or lakes. Other than Lake Fort Phantom down the road from my house (and it’s not a great bass lake), the closest good water I can find is an hour away on Lake Coleman. Of course, had I taken the time to consult a map or simply think about what an arid climate means for bass fishing, I might have factored this loss into my decision to move to ACU or at least prepared myself for the change. So during my early years at ACU, as much as I hate to admit it, most the time I lost on the water was my own damn fault.
It wasn’t, however, just my new location. My new job took a second bite out of my time. My first year at ACU I spent an enormous amount of time getting to know the faculty and learning my new job: all the expectations, responsibilities, vision development, and learning how to lead—not to mention teaching three classes each semester (one of which I’d never taught before) and fulfilling university expectations for research and publication. ACU wasn’t a “publish or perish” institution then. But Dr. Reese gave me one direct assignment before I came: increase the research and publication in my department; a directive I could meet only if I led by example. Once I settled into my new role, I discovered (as my predecessor warned me) that I worked at least 50-60 hours a week during the academic year (late August to early May). Add in my speaking schedule, and I had little time for getting out on the water.
Then, slowly, the burning pain began to take bites out of the sport I loved (and still love). It became more difficult for me to launch a boat—with all the steps back and forth from the boat to the car. It especially became more painful to stand on the deck of the boat to fish. I tried two types of swivel chairs: a stool and a chair. But even with these chairs I needed one foot to operate the electric trolling motor (mounted on the deck of the boat), and I couldn’t keep either of my legs propped up (essential to stay comfortable). Plus, sitting in a chair made it impossible to accurately cast my lure or to cast many times before I snarled my line into a knotted mess.
I still tried to get out to the lake whenever I could. I would not and could not give it up. But by the end of 2008, it was almost impossible to go for even a few hours before the misery outweighed the benefits. If it had simply been a matter of fishing it would have been rotten timing and a significant loss to grieve. But I’ve realized it wasn’t so simple. With the passage of time I’ve come to realize that this practice was much more than a small pleasure, it was one of my primary and most effective means of dealing with stress. It put miles between work and me. It took away (or severely limited) access to my computer, text messaging, and email. It took my concentration away from my problems and gave me Sabbath rest to renew my spirit and mind. And I was losing it when I needed its benefits the most.
It’s obvious that as long as a fire continues to burn, our losses will continue to accumulate. Losses we would like to acknowledge, grieve, and then move on. But it’s not so simple; we don’t escape so easily. In my mind, I know that I can’t travel and speak like I did fifteen years ago, but that doesn’t make it easier when I receive a program book, thumb through the index to find all my friends, see their latest press photos, and then see where my name and photo should be, if not for this disease. I knew then that bass fishing was moving beyond my physical limitations. I just wish that on beautiful fishing days my heart would give-in and agree with my mind. Instead, what I hoped had healed begins to ooze with blood again. Whatever we lose in a fire remains just that, not what we lost, but what we lose—again and again.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).