Howell Raines has gone fly fishing with presidents of the United States and legends of the sport, as well as relatives, childhood friends, and his two sons. Casting deep into the waters of his tumultuous and momentous life his storied career at the New York Times, his painful divorce, his seven-year feud with his father, his memorable friendship with fisherman/philosopher Richard C. Blalock Raines offers his now-classic meditation on the "disciplined, beautiful, and unessential activity" of fly fishing and the challenges and opportunities of middle age. A witty and profound celebration of life's transitions and the serene pleasures of the outdoors, Raines's memories and observations offer wisdom for the younger man, comfort for the older man, and rare insight for women into the often puzzling male psyche. "Hear me, my brothers," Raines says. "Anything is possible in the life of a man if he lives long enough. Even adulthood."
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About the Author
Before stepping down in 2003, Howell Raines was Executive Editor of the New York Times. He is the author of Whiskey Man, a novel, and My Soul Is Rested, an oral history of the Civil Rights movement. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1992.
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Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis
By Howell Raines
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Howell Raines
All right reserved.
How It Starts: The
Song of Rapid Anne
Like many Southerners, I was ruined for church by early exposure to preachers. So when I need to hear the sigh of the Eternal, I find myself drawn to a deep hollow between Fork Mountain and Double Top Mountain on the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge. This is where the Rapidan River plunges through a hemlock forest and through gray boulders that jut from the ferny earth like the aboriginal bones of old Virginia. This is a place of enlightenment for me, the spot where I received the blessing of my middle years. Here, after three decades of catching fish, I began learning to fish.
At this point it is necessary to introduce Mr. Richard C. Blalock, a man given to pronouncements. There are two reasons for this trait. As a former officer of the Foreign Service of the United States, he is a natural-born pontificator. Also, Dick Blalock serves as the fly-fishing guru for a handful of people around Washington, and some of us provoke his speechifying for our own enjoyment.
I'll try to give you a sample of the conversation in Dick's loose-jointed old Chevy as it grinds along the road that the Marines scraped across the mountains in 1929 so that Herbert Hoover could reachthe Rapidan. In those days, the stream was reserved for his exclusive use. President Hoover liked to fish. He also needed a place where he would not be bothered by the little people while he planned the Great Depression. I find it impossible to visit the Rapidan without a haunted feeling in regard to Herbert Hoover, but more on that later. First, the fish and the river, according to the teachings of Dick Blalock.
"This species of brook trout has never been stocked in this stream. They go back to the Ice Age. That means they have been here in this form, just as we see them today, for ten thousand years. They are survivors." That is what Dick always says to newcomers by way of inspiring respect for the Rapidan and its tenacious little genetic warriors.
"They are the most beautiful fish that God ever put on this earth. When they are in their spawning colors, they are just breathtaking," he adds for those who need prompting to adore the lush greens and pinks, the unmitigated reds of Salvelinus fontinalis -- ' 'the little salmon of the waterfall."
Then he enunciates Blalock's Rapidan Paradox. "These brook trout will strike any fly you present, provided you don't get close enough to present it." This means the fish are predatory, but skittish. More to the point, pursuing them prepares us to receive the central teaching of Blalock's Way. To achieve mastery is to rise above the need to catch fish.
This part did not come easily for me. I was born in the heart of Dixie and raised in the Redneck Way of Fishing, which holds that the only good trip is one ending in many dead fish. These fish might then be eaten, frozen, given to neighbors or used for fertilizer. But fishing that failed to produce an abundance of corpses could no more be successful than a football season in which the University of Alabama failed to win a national championship.
Of course, not even Bear Bryant won every year. Similarly, the greatest fishermen get skunked. So it is inevitable that the Redneck Way, which is built around the ideas of lust and conquest, will lead to failure. In that way, it resembles our physical lives. In the days of youth, when the blood is hot and the sap is high and the road goes on forever, it is easy enough to slip the doomy embrace of frustration. But time, as a British poet once said, is a rider that breaks us all, especially if our only pleasure -- in football, fishing or love -- comes from keeping score.
By the time I reached my late thirties, my passion for fishing brought with it an inexpressible burden of anxiety. As Saturday approached or, worse, a vacation, the questions would whirl through my brain. How many would I catch? How big would they be? Would my trip be wonderful? Would I be a success? I had reached the destination of all who follow the Redneck Way. I had made my hobby into work.
Then one day in the summer of 1981 I found myself at the L. L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine. I was a correspondent at the White House in those days, and my work -- which consisted of reporting on President Reagan's success in making life harder for citizens who were not born rich, white and healthy -- saddened me. In fact, hanging around the Reagan crowd made me yearn for connection with something noble and uplifting. I bought a fly rod.
I do not know if you are familiar with the modern fly rod, but it is one of the glories of industry. The maker starts with a toothpick of steel called a mandrel. Around this mandrel are laid miles of thread spun from graphite. The mandrel is slipped out, and this long taper is then painted with epoxy, producing a deep, mirrored finish of the sort one saw on the German automobiles of thirty years ago.
The result is a piece of magic, an elegant thing, willowy and alive -- a wand that when held in the hand communicates with the heart. And the more I waved such a wand over the next few years, the more the scales of my old fish-killing heart fell away. At last I stood on the threshold of being what I had tried so hard, yet so blindly, to be since that sublime spring day in 1950 when my father and mother helped me catch twenty crappies from the Tennessee River. In the ensuing decades, I had killed hundreds of fish -- bass, crappies, bluegills, shelicrackers, pike, king mackerels, red snappers, black snappers, redfish, bluefish, pompanos, amberjacks, jack crevalles, barracudas. I had been blooded in the Redneck Way by those who understood fishing as a sport and a competition. Now I was about to meet a man who understood it as an art, a pastime, a way of living easefully in the world of nature. One day my telephone rang and it was Dick Blalock.
Excerpted from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis by Howell Raines Copyright © 2006 by Howell Raines. Excerpted by permission.
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“What a wonderful book Howell Raines has wrought... as lovely as a stream.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Funniest book you will ever read!!! Raines does a great job and his experience as political reporter/writer is great.