Learning the Hard Way

The world can be divided into two types of people: those who read directions and those who don’t.

Ok, maybe that’s a slight generalization. There are probably those who only read part of the directions before launching into an activity. But a reasonable argument can be made that these folks do not yet have fully developed mental faculties and will eventually be slotted into one of the two primary categories above.

This universal truth is most clearly displayed through the microscope of experience focused inside the home, especially if you have kids.

Case in point: I came home from work one Friday and found my two daughters and a friend who was sleeping over busy pulling together ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. My wife, who was busy doing six different things at once, asked me to order pizza. I dropped to the couch with my laptop and began putting together an order after we’d wrestled to the ground a consensus on what toppings the three girls wanted. About that time, the doorbell rang, and the mother of the girl who was sleeping over came in to bring some items her daughter had forgotten in her rush of excitement to get to our house.

I finished ordering the pizza, chatted a little with our guest, tried to calm our yapping 7 lbs. Maltese-poodle, and redirected my youngest daughter, who had plugged in my bass guitar and was plucking the strings for fun. Anyone with elementary school kids can picture and appreciate the maelstrom of activity circulating through our house at the time.

During this time, about 25 minutes had elapsed since I had placed the pizza order online. So as our guest left and the cookie making activity, as well as the level of noise, in the kitchen began to pick up again, I informed my wife that I was going to pick up the pizza. That’s when I got the steely look of “Oh, hell no you won’t” from my wife. As she cleaned up sugar that had been spilled all over the counter, my wife informed me that she was going to pick up the pizza. I was to oversee the cookie making process. And in a flash, she was gone.

I was left standing in my suit and tie with three girls all talking about the list of ingredients and debating who was going to add what into the mixing bowl. My oldest daughter was reading from the list of ingredients, while the other two were searching cabinets, the refrigerator or the pantry for the various items mentioned.

I realized at this point an unfortunate truth. I would never be the hero I had imagined in my head should a band of ninjas break through the security of our unlocked door and demand the secret recipe for our cookies. I would fold like a cardboard box left in the rain.

Slowly I began to wake from my stunned state to realize that ingredients were being dumped into the mixing bowl with the random flair of an experienced grandmother by three girls whose collective ages were still more than a decade shy of mine.  After the second round of mixing, I looked over at the recipe and noticed that it was arranged like most recipes with the list of ingredients at the top, followed by a few sentences describing how those ingredients should be combined, mixed and applied to a baking sheet for cooking.

At this point, I thought it best to go with the Socratic method since I was too late to apply the Chuck Norris approach of bringing order from chaos. I found a brief pause in the high pitched shouts of excitement and interjected a simple question, “Has anyone read the recipe?”

With this question, I got the “Oh, dad” look as they all informed me reading the recipe is how they knew what ingredients to add. They then proceeded to illustrate this obvious fact by asking me where they could find the vanilla extract.

As I searched the cabinet for the vanilla extract, I explained that the bottom half of the recipe described “how” to combined the ingredients and if you did not combine and mix the ingredients in a specific way, the cookies may not come out the way they’re supposed to.

My oldest daughter then looked down at the bottom half of the recipe and began reading aloud the description for how to combine the ingredients, all of which, except the vanilla extract, were already in the mixing bowl and had been blended together thoroughly. As any good chemical engineer or grandmother can tell you, once the dye is cast, you simply can’t unmix it. So, with a shrug and an unwavering faith in all the wonderful goodness inside the mixing bowl, the girls began rolling little balls of cookie dough in the palms of their hands and placing them on a cookie sheet.

As the two cookie sheets went into the oven, the girls disappeared like capricious lightening bugs in the summer evening, leaving only the lingering glow of high-pitched voices coming from somewhere upstairs. I was left standing alone in the kitchen as the expectant father awaiting the delivery of the proverbial bun in the oven.

My wife returned just in time with the pizza. She brought with her a stack of napkins and the cool air of confidence that had been missing from the kitchen just moments before. She called the girls down for dinner and effortlessly restored order. Clearly, she is much more prepared to handle ninjas or any other threats to our secret family recipes than I am.

As the girls filled in spots at the counter for dinner, the oven timer began to wail ominously. I quickly tried to explain the mixing kerfuffle that had occurred in her absence to set appropriate expectations about what she might find as she reached into the darkness of the oven with a towel to retrieve the cookie sheet. But it was too late. Like witnessing an accident happen right in front of you, the visual senses overloaded her brain and filtered out any audible background noise I was making.

“What the … what happened here?!” was all she had to say.

The girls all jumped out of their seats to rush over and see the wreckage that was their chocolate chip cookies. The small doughy balls of sugar, butter and chocolate had transformed into a thin flat slick of brownness that didn’t resemble anything remotely like cookies.

Amid the multiple exclamations of “Oh, my gosh!” and the squeals of laughter that followed, I tried to squeeze in my “some-lessons-are-best-learned-through-experience” moral. After all, I have the authority of experience having done exactly the same thing before. You see, I fall into the “doesn’t read directions” category.

But my wife’s quick sideways glance cut me short. She sent me off to the grocery store to purchase more butter for the next batch of cookies while she dispensed pizza on paper plates.

And my experience has taught me that those are the type of instructions that are best to follow.


Lessons in Love

February 14, 2014

Certain memories from childhood stand out as if under the lights of a museum exhibit while the rest tend to recede into the shadowy corners of our mind until called upon.

One of those memories for me is sitting with my dad in the kitchen and talking with him about the nature of love. I was in first grade.

But my dad was a coach and a teacher, and never more so than with his three boys. So, when I asked him how do you get a girlfriend, he took the opportunity teach me a valuable lesson in love. As he suppressed an overly eager smile, he said, “You just walk right up to the girl you really like and say, ‘Will you be my girlfriend?’”

I remember feeling anxious, but somewhat relieved because I assumed it was a much more onerous and painful process. But this seemed quite simple and direct. Not sure why it seemed so much more complicated on TV.

So, the next day while Ms. Jones’ first grade class was washing up after arts and crafts time, I walked up to Beth Watson, a cute brown-eyed darling with shoulder-length brown hair, and told her I had a question for her. I leaned over and whispered in her ear so no one else would hear. As I pulled back to see her reaction after posing the question I had carried with me all day, she simply smiled and nodded.

And boom, I had my first girlfriend.

But as I was to learn later, young love doesn’t always last. Beth and her family moved away during the following summer, and I was left with a 7-year-old broken heart. The talk with my dad had covered this ground, too, but I wasn’t old enough to understand or appreciate the lesson. Some lessons are taught best through practical application.

But what he said stuck with me. As I sat there on my dad’s knee in the kitchen while mom washed the dishes from dinner, my dad looked up at his wife and said, “I love your mom more today than the day I married her. I love her more every day than I did the day before.”

That was hard for my 7-year-old brain to understand, especially in light of the deep and meaningful love I felt for Beth Watson. How could such feelings grow more strongly than this?

I’m older now, and arguably maybe a little wiser from experience in some areas of my life. Today, I understand what my dad tried to tell me when I was younger. For the last 12 years, I’ve been married to the love of my life, my best friend, my defender, my challenger, the mother of our two girls, my partner in life, and what Cat Stevens described as my “hard-headed woman, one who’ll will make me do my best.”

I know now about how love grows with every experience, every challenge, every new adventure, every argument and even the mundane daily routines we each follow. Our love has grown together. So much of “us” is inextricably woven together so you cannot quite separate the individual parts.

To loosely paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13:11, when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child. I believed the Disney fairytale that falling in love was the happily-ever-after end (OK, so I adapted it a little.). But when I became a man, I put the ways of Disney behind me. I realized that Disney’s love story should have started with the falling in love and followed the real love story, the one that shows love age, mature and grow in the fertile soil only a messy life full of trials and triumphs can provide.

So, on this Valentine’s Day, I wanted to explain what “I love you” means to me now. Christine, you are my new definition for love, a relationship that continues to grow and bear fruit.  And I look forward to the days when we are both in rocking chairs talking about how naïve this letter was and how much our love has grown since those youthful days when we were in our 40s. Because I know now I will love you more every day than I did the day before.

I Wear the Ring

October 13, 2011

In the immortal words of Pat Conroy, “I wear the ring.” Specifically, the 1991 championship ring for the Old Dominion Athletic Conference that was earned on football fields tucked away on small college campuses scattered mostly across North Carolina and Virginia. It represents a shared experience for those of us who came together at Guilford College, put on the pads and walked on cleats through gravel parking lots to the fields of our youth to play a game, to test our mettle, to become men.

I wear the ring.

This weekend, I went back to Guilford College to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our accomplishment and reunite with those who shared this experience. Now, most of us are married with kids and our battles are more pedestrian – getting our kids to eat their dinner, trying to keep the hairline from receding further and navigating office politics at work. On occasion, I still suppress an urge to tackle someone. It usually passes without incident, but I think all the guys who have hung up their cleats can appreciate where I’m coming from. At a small NCAA Division III college that did not embrace the Greek system, the football team was the closest thing to a fraternity that I could have experienced. In some ways, perhaps it was closer to the true meaning of the word than any artificial Greek designation could have been. It was this sense of brotherhood that I had wanted to capture in the locker room as a senior on the week of the last game I would ever play.

During that week, the team traditionally gathered in the locker room and each senior was given an opportunity to speak. Most spoke from the heart about what the game and the individuals on this team meant to them. In clumsy words, we each tried to convey how precious this time was and how those who were younger should file away these moments in their mental scrapbook for their exquisite perfection.

I chose to read a passage from Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat.” I wanted to reach beyond the words as Crane had done to convey the special bond we all shared because I could not find the words to describe it or hold the thing completely. My words could not be woven together tightly enough to capture the full weight of the experience — the sweetest juices always seemed to seep through, leaving only the husks of empty words behind. So I turned to Crane to convey what I could not.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it recounts the actual experience of Crane and three other men who were stranded at sea in a small boat for 30 hours after their ship sank off the coast of Florida. Here’s the passage I read:

“It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingy. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.”

And still, I have no better words. I am so grateful for the friends that the fraternity of football has given me.

A Growing Number of Women Have Picked Up Fly Fishing

Originally published in the Greensboro News & Record May 28, 2000

With a short cast, the caddis fly landed gently on the surface of the water and followed a riffle downstream. A flash of silver, a swirl of water and the fly disappeared. Sharon Slade let out a short gasp, lifted her rod and felt the weight of her first trout on a fly rod.

“It was thrilling,” Slade said afterward. “It happened so quickly. I saw him come up, but I wasn’t sure if he took the fly until I raised the rod. I wanted to scream, but there were other people fishing near me, so I just screamed inside.”

Slade is one of a growing number of women who have picked up a fly rod for the first time recently. She was one of several pupils in a women’s fly-fishing class offered by Lorraine Rothrock of Nat Greene Flyfishers, the Greensboro chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Fly Fishers.

The two-day class provided classroom instruction and a field trip to the East Prong of the Roaring River in Stone Mountain State Park in Wilkes County.

“I have offered the class for the past two years,” said Rothrock, who has been fly-fishing for nearly 10 years. “The class is an introduction for women who want to learn the basics of fly-fishing. We spend a day going over rods, knots, flies and casting. Then we get our feet wet with a day on the water.”

The field trip proved successful for each of the class participants, all of whom caught their first trout on a fly rod.

“Women often pick up fly-fishing more quickly than men,” Rothrock said. “Fly-fishing is more about finesse than power. Men sometimes try to overpower their cast when they begin.”

Although men have dominated the sport, more and more women are taking to the stream with fly rod in hand. One of fly-fishing’s most distinguished anglers today is a woman – Joan Wulff. She has taught many men and women the art of fly-casting and has written several books on the subject, including “Joan Wulff’s Fly Fishing: Expert Advice From a Woman’s Perspective.”

The wealth of books, clubs and classes such as Rothrock’s offer easy access to the basics of fly-fishing. Patti Edwards of Greensboro took the women’s fly-fishing class to enjoy trips with her husband.

“The first time I tried fly-fishing was on a windy day,” said Edwards, who fished with spinning tackle for years before trying a fly rod. “I cast into the wind, and all the line flew back in my face. I got untangled and cast again, and it flew back all around me. After I cast a third time with the same results, I picked up my spinning gear and started fishing. I took this class because I was ready to learn how to fly-fish. It is so much more exciting than fishing with spinning gear.”

Alex Bailey got her start in fly-fishing by doing some fishing on the Internet. When she moved to North Carolina from West Virginia, she searched for Web sites about fly-fishing in North Carolina. One of the sites she found was Nat Greene Flyfishers.

“I knew I wanted to join, so I wrote a check and sent it in before I ever attended a meeting,” she said. “This year I hope to leave my spinning gear behind and use nothing but a fly rod.”

Bailey now serves as the organization’s membership chairwoman and welcomes visitors and new members to the group.

The number of women taking up fly-fishing has not gone unnoticed by the major suppliers of fly-fishing equipment. Today, there are fly rods, vests, waders, wading boots, hats and other apparel designed specifically for women. Jeff Wilkins, manager of The Fly Line in Greensboro, has worked in fly shops for more than 10 years and has witnessed the growth firsthand.

“There are more choices for women than ever before,” Wilkins said. “When I first started, there were a few women fly-fishing. Most of them were the wives of men who fished. Now, more women are starting to fly-fish on their own, and some are even dragging their husbands and boyfriends into the sport with them.”

Kathy Young of Lexington is one such angler. She considers herself a fly-fishing addict, but her husband only accompanies her occasionally. Young recently returned from a trip to the Bahamas, where she opted for a fly rod rather than a beach towel. She has fished for everything from bonefish in the Bahamas to trout in Oregon, which may justify her membership in a group in Charlotte called Women on the Fly.

“A friend of mine took me fishing on the McKenzie River in Oregon about six years ago,” Young said. “I still remember my first trout. I caught a rainbow trout on a dry fly. After that I was hooked.”

That friend, Cathy Tronquet, moved to Charlotte and organized Women on the Fly more than a year ago to bring women together through a common love of fly-fishing. The group of about 40 meets monthly at Jesse Brown’s Outdoors in Charlotte to listen to guest speakers, offer technical instruction and take fishing trips.

Young believes the growing number of women in fly-fishing reflects a broader trend of more women enjoying outdoor sports.

“What I enjoy about fly-fishing is the big picture – being outside in nature,” she said. “It’s a beautiful sport, and it is very relaxing. When I’m fly-fishing, I find that everything else seems to disappear. I am totally removed from the day-to-day world. I don’t fly-fish just to catch fish; it is a much larger experience. Every time I go fishing, it is a new adventure, even when I go to the same river.

“The experience is grounding,” she said. “It helps return me to a sense of center within myself.”

Young’s only regret is that she did not begin fly-fishing earlier. She will turn 50 in February and is trying to make up for lost time.

“How often do I go?” she asked. “Not enough. I would be a very happy woman if I went fly-fishing once a week, but I try to at least fish twice a month. I am much happier in my waders than anything else.”

A Connection to the Deep Water

Originally published in the Greensboro News & Record – Sunday, December 10, 1995

I don’t remember when I first cast a line into the water. But what remained from that experience is what brings me back.

The water has stayed with me through the years. I have grown, graduated and entered into the world, but I have always returned to the water . There is something about the line between a man and the water that ripples out to a mythic dimension. And there, in the deeper water , is the question that fishermen seem to seek answers for.

One time this spring a friend and I took a Saturday trip to the Smith River in Virginia to flyfish for trout. We packed a few sandwiches in the back of our fishing vests, stuffed a couple of beers into our waders and walked down the railroad tracks to find a fishable stretch of water .

We spent the morning with moderate success, catching a few small browns with a pheasant tail and a parachute adams.

When we walked up to where the river breaks into a shallow fork, we decided to take a break. We unloaded the sandwiches and put the beers under a rock in the river to cool off.

As we sat there, we began to talk about everything from football games we had played, to women we have known, to fishing trips we had taken.

A rare conversation for most men, I know, but in that typical talk a slightly more significant thought began to saturate my consciousness. Hoping my friend wouldn’t assault me with cliched-catch phrases from old beer commercials, I launched into a list of the best things in life.

In the near untranslatable tongue of men outdoors, I listed two things of which we were then engaged: getting a fish to rise and drinking a beer with a friend.

Now, such answers are near untranslatable because of the undertone which both of us accepted and understood without having to extrapolate.

But both answers ripple out into a wider understanding of what fishing is all about.

Sitting on the bank of that river with my friend exemplified the fraternity between men through the outdoors. I have grown closer with my father, brothers and friends through the community of fishing.

But the act of fishing is more personal. Getting a fish to rise is an image of the essence of fishing, both in the real and mythic sense. The act is, as Norman Maclean pointed out, a form of art.

To tempt a fish to rise from the dark waters with a delicately placed fly is to tempt the mystery of all things to the surface of consciousness. For a moment, to satisfy the question that is continually cast out into the current.

Whether I am plugging on a Hatteras pier or laying out line on the Smith River, when the fish rises and the rod jumps to life, I connect briefly with the answer to the question that brings me back to the water .