My wife’s family has maintained a cabin in Maine for over 100 years, idyllically set in a mature pine grove on a pristine lake shore. With the exception of a few necessary modifications to the structure brought about by the occasional pine limb falling into the camp from the towering pine trees, the structure is pretty much as our ancestors had left it to us. For generations, the camp has been the focus for family to gather, decompress and reconnect during the summer. Family traditions and memories grow thick from our Maine oasis, and these ties pull family members back to the lake every year.
While I have been going to the cabin since before Pam and I were married, work realities, deployments and other priorities have, from time to time, prevented my annual trek. In fact, I have not been up for the past two years. So this year we made the trip a family priority.
The activities available to occupy one’s time at the cabin are numerous, from water sports on the lake to golfing and hiking, Spite & Malice card games and going to town for ice cream or a “Cool Moose” T-shirt, among other summertime pursuits. I am an avid fly fisher and my early Maine mornings have been occupied for years in a beat-up blue metal boat, puttering along the shore fly-casting for bass. Everyone fishes at the camp, but not everyone uses a fly rod for fishing, as this approach adds a significant level of challenge and difficulty. Most use a spinning rod, hook and worm, which I will use in the afternoon to secure a few white perch for my breakfast the following morning.
Any type of fishing with rod and reel is a skill that is perpetually developed and never really mastered. Every cast is akin to the brush stroke of a painter, and there is always opportunity to improve, hopefully on the next cast. From my perspective, those who practice the art of fishing with a fly rod are the postulant monks of the fishing religion. Casting with a spinning rod can be accomplished by most in an afternoon of effort, and this was how I was introduced to fishing as a youth. Learning to cast a fly line, on the other hand, is a lifelong endeavor that is endlessly humbling but infinitely beautiful to experience and watch when performed successfully.
For the uninitiated, imagine using a ridiculously long flexible rod to levitate a significant amount of fly line moving in the air in graceful loops, untangled above your head. Then in one movement, using only the potential energy built up within the rod and line, cast the line mass in such a way that it extends out gently and straight toward your target in a manner that allows the impossibly light fly (hook with some colored hair and fuzz tied to it) to settle on the water with just the slightest disturbance to fool the fish into thinking a meal has just fallen from the heavens.
Take it from me, it is far easier to write the sentence describing the activity of casting a fly than I have ever experienced the actual action being. During the cast, much can—and often does—go wrong. Poor rod control usually results in the hapless fly fisherman becoming hopelessly entangled in the line. A misplaced gust of wind or a moment of inattention results in a prized fly being claimed by a tree lining the lake. The list of possibilities for failure in this activity is long and I am always finding new ones to add to my personal list. One might rightly ask, “Why subject oneself to this difficulty if there are easier ways to fish?” Only someone who hasn’t experienced a near-perfect fly cast would ask such a question.
Fly fishing is not for everyone, and only my middle daughter Hannah has become a fly fishing disciple like myself. She now haunts our Maine lake in early mornings with me in our battered boat. I think what intrigues me so much about fly fishing is how it mirrors my career. Fly casting, as I have noted, is plagued with failure and, even when the cast is perfect, it is usually not rewarded with a caught fish. Even when a fish is hooked, the delicacy of the fly line decidedly is in favor of the fish spitting the hook for breaking the line to get away. Similar to fly fishing, my federal medicine work life endeavors are plagued by failure, and, even when I perform perfectly, the results of my efforts are rarely rewarded or produce what I expected. Fly fishing teaches, as Thoreau understood, that the beauty and accomplishment is not found in catching the fish but in the majesty of the attempt.
Out in our blue boat, as I observe Hannah casting, I am always happy when she catches a fish, but I am even more delighted and commending when she executes a flawless cast under the branches of a big oak with the fly alighting right where any self-respecting bass should be. Furthermore, even when she has the cast go comically wrong, she is only moments away from her next cast and an opportunity to improve. Our focus and pride is in the art of the casting and the fish, the assumed goal of the effort, becomes almost an afterthought.
As I have noted many times in this column, working within the federal medicine bureaucracy can be extremely challenging and frustrating. This frustration is frequently expressed to me by federal medicine professionals at national meetings or through comments concerning this column. Successes within our system can seem too infrequent and, when they occur, often not what would be hoped for. Fly fishing with my daughter this summer has reminded me that the beauty and honor lies in the attempt, the willingness to apply oneself to the next endeavor adjusting for the lessons of past failures without loss of enthusiasm. I have come to believe that, if you focus on and take pride in the journey, the destination will necessarily take care of itself.
In closing, I applaud all of my federal medicine colleagues who are striving, casting if you will, for a better system. This is my way of saying, despite the trials and tribulations of our system, just keep casting, because the beauty and pride lies in the effort and the potential for success might only be the next cast away.
“God help us, if, the first time something fails—and something will fail—we crush whoever it was … whoever’s responsible,” —Gen. John “Mike” Murray
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