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"We Are Pushing On, Brother, slowly slowly"
An Anglers Autobiography
Simple pleasures, minor tragedies, lessons for living.
By J.I. Merritt
MY SECRET FISHING LIFE
By Nick Lyons W53
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.
187 pp., $23.00.
of a certain age will remember Nick Lyons as a scrappy point guard for
the championship teams of Howie Dalmar of the early 1950s. Legions of
other Americans, however, know him not as a basketball player but as
a fly fisherman and fishing essayist.
My Secret Fishing Life, a collection of Lyons
angling-related pieces, is his 16th book on fly fishing. In addition,
hes midwifed hundreds of other fishing titles as a publisher and
editor, and for many years he wrote "Seasonable Angler," a popular
column in Fly Fisherman magazine. All this while also teaching
English at Hunter College in New York and ghostwriting a half-dozen
books on nonfishing subjects (mainly to pay the bills that went with
supporting a family of six).
Lyons writes about fishing, a pastime
that Samuel Johnson is supposed to have dismissed as "a stick with a
hook at one end and a fool at the other." But Johnson didnt fish,
and its hard for any nonfisher to understand a compulsion that
at its heart is as mysterious as sex, and about as easy to explain.
Lyons describes the simple pleasures he gets from seeking trout and
bluegills in streams and ponds, and striped bass in the shadows of lower
At times the writing gets technical, to the point
of losing the nonfishing general reader, but he makes no apologies,
claiming, "I am a fishing writer, not a writer who fishes." Many would
disagree, for Lyons also writes about life in the context of fishing:
about childhood and aging, love and loss. In the end, bagging the quarry
becomes secondary to its pursuit, the excitement of which yields in
turn to some deeper connection between fisher and fish. In one vignette,
Lyons describes a mans obsession with a huge brown trout he observes
year after year but never catches; the angler, who grows old watching
it, takes pleasure enough from knowing that the great fish, a touchstone
to his soul, is always there.
As a genre the fishing essay is a half-millennium
old, dating from 1496 with the publication of The Treatise of Fishing
With an Angle, reputedly written by an English nun named Juliana
Berners. The genres master was Izaak Walton, a London ironmonger
whose Compleat Angler: The Contemplative Mans Recreation
(1653) describes a self-contained world of "good-natured plain" fishermen
for whom catching fish is something of an afterthought to the country
pleasures of streamside rambles and singing milkmaids.
Reading Walton, one would never glean that he lived
through one of the most tempestuous periods in English history. In their
mutual love of nature theres a hint of Walton in Lyons, but
the latters vision is bleaker, and the real world with its messiness
and contradiction too frequently intrudes. Its also hard to imagine
two writers of more different temperaments. Lyons the would-be Walton,
at peace with the world and himself and moving to natures rhythm
rather than the clocks, struggles mightily, and usually unsuccessfully,
with the demon of his obsessive, workaholic personality.
During one especially hectic spring he drops some
pressing task and with high expectations dashes upcountry for some fishing.
But the afternoon swiftly unravels: he tangles his line, loses his flies,
breaks his rod, falls in the water, dislocates a hip. The writer plays
the episode for laughs, but his tale has the arc of a minor tragedy.
Another time, he gets stuck in a fishing camp "where every other joke"
is "racist, anti-Semitic, at the expense of women or children or modern
art," and philandering is toasted as the "supreme adult activity." He
writes about a pond that he and a close friend fished together for years
on sweet summer evenings, communicating in "that happy familiar pattern
that only the oldest and best friends have." Then the fishing and the
friendship end abruptly when the property is sold and the two men have
a bitter falling out and never speak again.
An autobiography of sorts emerges from between the
lines. Lyons lonely, fatherless childhood was redeemed by fishing
during summers at his grandfathers Catskill hotel. Later, as an
adolescent in Brooklyna place "as far removed from the outdoors
as Outer Mongolia"he and his buddies Mort and Bernie eschewed
stickball for dangling lines from piers in Sheepshead Bay. Fishing writers
like Ray Bergman and Roderick Haig-Brown ("as much my heroes as DiMaggio
and Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese") introduced him to anglings
After Penn (where he majored in business), the Army,
Bard College (where he picked up a second bachelors degree, this
time in English) and graduate school at the University of Michigan,
Lyons settled into a frenetic life of teaching, writing and editing.
The flat-out pace came close to killing him.
Not surprisingly for a book written by an English
professor, literary referencesto Thoreau, Yeats, Kafka, Browning,
Hemingwayabound. At one low point the author compares himself
to the self-deluded Gabriel Conroy of Joyces Dubliners
short story "The Dead." After Lyons confronted his own near-death in
the form of a blown-out gall bladder, he at last got control of his
manic self. Its a mellower man who speaks in the penultimate essaya
long, introspective look at love, life, and art as embodied in his
relationship with Mari, his wife of 40-plus years, whose pen-and-ink
drawings illustrate My Secret Fishing Life. (With a largess only
a serious fly fisherman can appreciate, he forgives her for calling
his fly rods "poles.") Lyons says this might be his last book on fishing.
Pity if thats so, for few write better about it. If the examined
life is indeed worth living, Lyons has been a full one.
Jim Merritt, a former editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly,
writes frequently about fishing.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of
interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from
information supplied by the authors and publishers.
THE TRIAL LAWYERS ART
By Sam Schrager Gr83.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
1999. 264 pp., $29.95.
How do lawyers sway jurors in the heat of a trial?
Why do the best trial lawyers seem uncannily able to get the verdict
they want? In addressing these questions, folklorist Sam Schrager endorses
the popular belief that lawyers are actors who manipulate the truth.
He makes the case that attorneys have no choice but to treat the jury
trial as an artful performance: as storytelling combat in which victory
most often goes to the lawyer with superior control of craft. Schrager
focuses on the performance styles of some of the nations most
artful criminal and civil advocates, including Roy Barrera, Penny Cooper,
Roger King and Cecil B. Moore. The author teaches cultural and community
studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and was curator
of the American trial lawyers program at the Smithsonian Institutions
Festival of American Folklife.
CO-LEADERS: The Power of Great Partnerships
By David Heenan Gr72 and Warren
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.
312 pp., $24.95.
Todays heads of big companies
may be as recognizable to the public as the most popular entertainers
or sports stars, but the heart and soul of every organization are those
leaders in positions below the CEO, argue Heenan and Bennis. The real
work is done by teams of leaders who forge great partnerships to increase
the organizations success. Using the stories of a dozen "great
partners," such as Microsofts Steve Baller and Chryslers
Bob Lutz, Heenan and Bennis show how organizations and individuals can
benefit from a more inclusive, less celebrity-oriented definition of
leadership. Heenan is trustee of an estate valued at over $2 billion.
He was formerly a senior executive at Citicorp and Jardine Matheson,
and a faculty member in the Wharton School. Bennis, who also taught
at Wharton, is now Distinguished Professor of Business Administration
at the University of Southern California and a consultant to multinational
companies and governments around the world.
POISON WIDOWS: A True Story of Witchcraft, Arsenic,
By George Cooper W58.
New York: St. Martins Press, 1999.
287 pp., $24.95.
This book retraces one of Americas
most bizarre and deadly insurance scams in 1930s South Philadelphia.
A trio of con artists preyed on destitute immigrants, forcing them to
take out huge life-insurance policies on their husbands. Before the
ink had begun to dry on the policies, the unsuspecting spouses were
being taken on "fishing trips" from which they never returned
or being poisoned by cocktails of arsenic and antimony. Eventually the
scheme was uncovered and the "poison widows"some willing
accomplices and some foolish dupeswere prosecuted in a dramatic
court battle. Cooper uses court transcripts, press reports and interviews
with participants who are still alive today to produce a stranger-than-fiction
account. A former civil-rights lawyer and Columbia University law professor,
Cooper previously wrote Lost Love, about a sensational murder
in old Manhattan. He is married to the novelist Judy Blume.
THE BANALITY OF GOOD AND EVIL: Moral Lessons
from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition
By David R. Blumenthal C60.
Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University
Press, 1999. 320 pp., $65.00 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).
People who helped exterminate Jews
during the Holocaust often claimed that they only did what was expected
of them. Intrigued by hearing the same response from individuals who
rescued Jews, Blumenthal, the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic
Studies at Emory University, proposes that the notion of ordinariness
used to characterize Nazi evil is equally applicable to goodness. He
develops a new theory of human behavior that identifies the social and
psychological factors that foster both good and evil behavior and recommends
how, through a renewed attention to moral education, we might perhaps
prevent future genocides.
CONTAGION AND CONFINEMENT: Controlling Tuberculosis
Along the Skid Road
By Barron H. Lerner C82.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1998. 264 pp., $42.50.
While completing his medical training in New York
in the 1980s, Barron Lerner encountered a disease that had supposedly
disappeared: tuberculosis. He became infected himself after caring for
a patient with an advanced case of the disease and underwent a year
of preventive antibiotic therapy. This experience sparked his
interest in the history of tuberculosis and its treatment. Lerner, assistant
professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, offers
an in-depth look at the history of tuberculosis control in the antibiotic
era. In spite of the availability of effective drug treatment, tuberculosis
has not vanished10 million individuals are currently infected
in the United States, with approximately 20,000 new cases each year.
The new antibiotic drugs have highlighted the complex social problems
that predispose people to tuberculosis and interfere with its treatment,
and raise difficult questions about how health professionals should
respond when patientsoften poor, alcoholic or homelessdont
comply with the prescribed therapy.
Composed by James Primosch G80,
New World Records, 1998. $15.99.
In describing his aim for the four
works heard in this recording, Primosch writes, "I seek to serve
the play of gesture and memory by harnessing diverse energies. These
spring from a variety of sources: the traditions of the European-American
musical heritage; the expanded resources afforded by electronic media;
and my own experiences as a performer, including work as an advocate
for contemporary music, as a liturgical musician and as a jazz pianist.
At the heart of my work is a spiritual impulse. The music is rooted
in contemplation and solitude, but comes to life in the community of
performers and listeners, when the air is set in motion as an act of
praise to the Creator." Primosch is an associate professor of music
and co-director of Penns Contemporary Music program. The recording
features performances by the Cavani String Quartet, pianist Aleck Karis,
clarinetist Jean Kopperud and the Leonardo Trio.
| "We Are Pushing On, Brother,
James Martin W82 recently completed his studies at Weston
Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and was to
be ordained a Jesuit priest in June. In This Our
Exile: A Spiritual Journey With the Refugees of East Africa,
he writes about two years spent using his business skills to help
refugees in Nairobi, and how the experience "transformed
my heart in ways that I ... couldnt have imagined."
The following excerpt was taken from the chapter "Stories
from the Grass."
I had high hopes for each of the refugee
businesses we sponsored. At the start of every new project, I
envisioned the refugees eagerly toiling away at their businesses,
efficiently earning enough funds for food and rent. But my somewhat
Western expectations often proved meaningless. Life in Africa
threw up obstacles before even the most conscientious, making
"business as usual" unusual. Still, the refugees
dogged persistence astounded me. The invariable response when
they were asked how business was going was "Tunaendelea,
pole pole." Or, "We are pushing on, Brother,
Occurrences that would undoubtedly halt Americans
in their tracks were expected and accepted in Africa. "Business
is slow, Brother," confessed Jane Tusiime, the Ugandan woman
who embroidered animal designs onto barkcloth. "My landlord
has thrown me out of my house, and now I am living on the street
with my children."
"Somehow I am just a bit sick today,"
an Ethiopian man said between hacking coughs. "I am having
The refugees had, in fact, developed an existential
worldview that was eminently reasonable under the circumstances.
It was a strange amalgam of diligence and acquisitiveness ...
Above all, I wanted to guard against too much
short-term thinking, of which the most unfortunate example was
a refugee selling a piece of [Jesuit Refugee Service]-donated
equipment for emergency funds ... So when Specie Kantegwa, a Rwandese
mother, confessed that she had sold her sewing machine, I became
indignant. Didnt she see how shortsighted that was? That
she had given up her chance for future earnings?
"It was very foolish," I said.
Specie listened patiently to my harangue, and,
after I had finished, she explained why she had sold her machine.
Specie was a taciturn woman whose most distinguishing
feature was two prominent front teeth separated by a wide space.
She entered my office carrying a child wrapped in a red and orange
khanga cloth knotted at Species neck and waist. She
swiftly loosened the ties, shifted the baby from her back to her
front in one motion, and sat down. Unbuttoning her blouse, she
began nursing her baby. With a lisp, she told me how to pronounce
her first name: "spacy." Last year she and her sister
had been awarded a project. Together, they worked out of Species
flat sewing dresses in the Central African stylewith boldly
patterned fabrics and embroidered necklines.
Like many Rwandese refugees, Specie had migrated
to Kenya with her parents in the mid-1970s. In 1973, the Rwandese
government initiated a program drastically limiting Tutsi opportunity
in the country; at the same time, Hutu gangs began their attacks
on schools in Rwanda, in an effort to drive out Tutsi students.
As a result, thousands of Tutsis, including Specie and her family,
fled the country. Like other refugees, the Rwandese were unable
to raise sufficient funds for the return trip home. (Many, not
surprisingly, did not want to return home, out of fear.) So the
Rwandese remained in Nairobiin a permanent state of
flux. For no matter how long they had resided in Kenya, the Kenyan
government still classified them (and their children) as refugees.
Now, a new wave of refugees fleeing the recent
genocide in Rwanda streamed into Kenya. According to tradition,
the Rwandese in Nairobi opened their homes to their compatriots.
Though Specie already lived with her sister and her sisters
daughter, she accommodated five newly arrived relatives in her
Living in Species slum neighborhood were
also many poor Kenyans. One of her neighbors retained a Maasai
man who acted as an askari [guard] while the neighbor was
at work. "This Maasai," said Specie, "was mkali
sana." Very fierce. One day, Species niece climbed
a tree while holding a plastic cup of water. She accidentally
dropped the cup, which landed on the head of the askari.
Everyone laughed at the Maasai. Enraged by the laughter, he pulled
Species niece from the tree and began to beat her.
The neighbors ran to Species sister.
"Your daughter is being beaten!" they said. She wept
when she repeated this part of the story. Species sister
ran over and struggled to pull the man away from her daughter.
As she did so, the Maasai reached into his jacket, pulled out
a kitchen knife, and slit the throat of Species sister.
She bled to death in front of her daughter.
As a result, Specie was left to care for her
orphaned niece and found herself with no money to buy food for
I knew instantly that I had been wrong to judge
Specie. And, as would happen over and over during my time in Nairobi,
I realized that, faced with her situation, I would have made precisely
the same choice. Sell the sewing machine and risk the possible
annoyance of Brother Jim in order to feed a child? Or keep the
sewing machine, and keep Brother Jim happy, but have your niece
go without food? It was not a difficult decision.
After Specie finished her story she lifted
her face from her nursing child and turned toward me. "Now,
Brother," she said calmly. "That is why I sold my machine.
May I have a new Singer so I can be starting over?"
From This Our Exile: A Spiritual Journey With the Refugees
of East Africa by James Martin, 1999. Reprinted with permission
of Orbis Books, Maryknoll, N.Y.
Previous issue's reviews
| July/August Contents | Gazette
1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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