Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Friday, January 27, 2012 -- 7:55 a.m.

Driving down the canyon after a bit of snow the night before, it’s easy to place where people cased in the cars around me live -- by altitude. I carry only a dusting from around 7,800 ft., but the car in front of me has two inches or so....down from at least 8,500 ft. I’d say.

Down in Boulder they’ve gotten nothing, and I am marked -- standing out -- obviously, from somewhere else. I think back to one evening after work when I stopped for some groceries at Alfalfa’s Market, where all the cheese is dairy free, or so they say. Except, I had extra sharp raw-milk goat cheddar in my cart. The slogan lies. It hadn’t been too cold in Boulder that day, but I was bundled up -- hat, gloves in my coat pocket, heavy leather boots. I knew that when I got home and had to unpack and carry in all the groceries from car to cabin, it would be cold. Possibly falling 20 degrees or so. The woman at the register looked at me, “You’re from up in the mountains, aren’t you.” It wasn’t even a question, really -- but rather as if she was simply telling me she noticed -- you’re not of this place.

Sun spots glaze the foothills in the distance -- rending clouds -- opening, and closing again within seconds. There’s a break ahead, an end to the gray, but I just don’t know how long it will take to get there. Turns out in this case, it’s about 45 minutes away yet, at the intersection of Highway 66 and Main.

8:54 a.m.

“How was your week?” Frank greets, laying out my bound strips on the workbench.

“Long...very long.” I say, thinking about my dad’s theory --> that my work week wouldn’t seem so long if I didn’t do exciting things on my days off. He’s got a point. I anticipate working on my rod each day I’m not, and in the summers dream through to Friday when I can find myself in the highcountry -- like a child counting down to birthdays or summer holiday.

The strips are just as I’d left. I sigh with relief. I’d had nightmares, nerves, and good natured ribbing, about the glue not setting right and everything going to hell in a handbag. Which, I’ve always thought, is an appropriate place for handbags to go, however odd the saying. I guess I was still having trouble believing that all of those splits would really stay together as a whole. But facts are facts, however believable -- and the fact is, the glue worked.

Frank takes a razor blade and shows me how to cut the string ends on the bound cane, pulling them off in one direction and then the other. Deceptively, the string remains -- haunting in glue lines. I unbind the remaining pieces. And then suddenly, it’s an actual a rod -- well at least a blank -- standing on its own.

Frank hands me two blocks of wood covered in P220 sandpaper. “Each block is good for about three sides...then we need to change the paper out...ok?”

Push forward, not down...just like in planing, I repeat to myself.

Starting with the butt section, my block slips off the end a few times before my muscles learn the motion -- and the cane sings -- vibrations of a distinct note which I’m sure could be identified by one of my perfect-pitched friends from conservatory who figured out that the ambient hum of the school’s air conditioner was a B. After air conditioners, I’d think bamboo would be easy -- it’s used to make instruments after all, and I like that -- feeling nearer to an art I once had mastered. George Black wrote in his book “Casting a Spell,” that H.L. Leonard used to say, no man who does not love music and who can not play at least one musical instrument can make a good fishing rod. It’s not so much that I agree, but it does give me a bit of confidence in the promise of the instrument here before me.

The glue and cane sands off, mixing together, looking like I’ve spilled a jar of ground ginger. Smelling just as good.  Out the window, lost snowflakes amble by, looking in. Or perhaps they’re not lost after all but just wandering, as Tolkein would say. Those two are very hard to tell apart sometimes -- but you aren’t lost unless you know exactly where you should be. And what with that being very rare, I think most of us are simply wandering. It's comforting to have others in the same boat with you; especially if you've lost the anchor.

I finish the butt section with P400 sandpaper and move on to the tips. “Sand up just as far as you feel comfortable...on all sides....then move up, inch-by-inch to the tips. You don’t want a 5-sided -- or, even worse, round, tip -- take your time," Frank says, "We want it done, but we want it done right.” The string’s glue lines angle, disorienting my eyes. Like one of those optical illusions which asks whether you see a duck or a rabbit, infectiously passed around on the Internet, the great magician of our age. Nearing the tip-top, the apex disappears mottled between sides. I bend in closer, squinting my eyes like adjusting binoculars, right above the cane. But all is well -- still six sides. And while I’m sure “sanding” isn’t  usually associated with adrenaline rushes, I’m here to tell you it should be.   
Clouds move in, covering the east. 

Music plays. 

And now, for the first time I can actually feel the taper. I knew it was there. Heck, I trained it in. But running my hands up and down the split, I couldn’t feel it -- that is until now, sanding -- feeling each dimensional change, diminishing towards the tip, swelling towards the butt. I ponder the physics of this all, why each measurement is where it is, and why this makes for a beautiful and powerful casting tool. I don’t understand all the mechanics, but I love the precision, and even the mathematics that turns split cane into grace. And as Maclean wrote of these things which elude us: one can love completely without complete understanding -- working hard on the latter in the meantime.

“Nice grooves!” Dick echoes back from the front desk of the shop, thankfully breaking the silently loud dialog in my head.   

“What would you call this type of music, anyway?” Frank wonders aloud, planing behind me.

“I don’t know...beach music...? Definitely should be listened to in bare-feet I think.” It reminds me of the music a surfer friend of mine in San Francisco used to listen to. He rode his bike all the way out from a small town in Missouri in the 70’s -- and never rode it back. “Optimistic music, for sure...”

“Yeah...like, if-you-didn’t-get-everything-done-today, there’s-always-tomorrow kind of music.” Frank adds. And it’s true, because you never will, and there always is. And that, is why we listen -- for these reminders that we’re not alone in our shortcomings, achievements, and our idealism that there always will be another tomorrow.

We need that.

Darkness falls upon me still sanding, and Frank still planing. James Taylor goes to Carolina, and takes some of my thoughts with him -- but most, remain here in concentration upon keeping six sides. And I do, somehow. As I finish up the last tip, Frank, sensing that I'm almost done, comes over to check my work -- looking at each piece through magnifying lenses, running his bare fingers up and down the sides which for at one time, we had to wear gloves. “Nice...very nice.”

I smile, content at a good day, and proud of its work.

A cloud bank lingers over the mountains, following the shape of the peaks, raising each one at least a few thousand feet; and as I cross underneath the railroad bridge at the mouth of the canyon, snow begins to dusts the ground like powdered sugar on Saturday morning pancakes my grandmother makes (always, with a squeeze of lemon juice on top). And here, I enter back into my range -- knowing where I am, and more importantly, where I should be. Found again -- at the end of the day.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rooster Baby.

A spring pike streamer courtesy of Banjo, my constant companion who shares a love of the high country.

Rooster Baby.
Hook: Gamakatsu SC15, 2/0.
Thread: Danville's 3/0, black.
Tail: Banjo's tail hair.
Body: Banjo's body hair, some dyed black with Rit dye.
Eyes: Hareline Dubbin, 1/4" oval pupil 3D eyes.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


January 21, 2012 - 8:32 a.m.

Prairie dogs stand tall and straight by their dens, like gnomen on a sundial. Worshipping the sun -- perhaps, asking of it a favor for the day. The request, between them and their god. It’s said that there are no bigger issues in the West than water and wolves. But here and now, I’ll add prairie dogs. In Boulder County they’re an issue, to say the least and say it kindly. Yet this morning, I like that they are here -- a reminder of a time when we too, worshipped the sun. And although we still rely upon it, as children of privilege we lack responsibility enough to pay our respect. So driving north, I glance east with thanks.

8:55 a.m.

Jake (an entire welcoming committee and then some) hears the shop door open and runs, skidding on the laminate floor to a stop before me. Throw this bone? Please? So I do. “Now you’ve started something, ya know?” Mike says. I know. So I throw the bone again. 

I have tips to finish up this morning, and my vision triangulates: where is the cane, where is my hand, and where are both going. In my world at this moment, there is nothing else.

I’ve heard it described as meditative, planing -- yet until this moment I haven’t been able to fathom it that way, being too concerned with the physical process to let my mind wander. Plus, I’ve always struggled with meditation, however it’s defined (as an emptying of thought, or a concentration upon one); but right now, I think I’ve come the closest I ever have to understanding it --as a filling, and as an absorption -- unable to get my mind off the cane, I give in, wholeheartedly. Eagerly, even. And although a deeply rooted concentration, it’s an open one too, and growing -- multifaceted --of senses, thoughts, analysis, and imagination. And so perhaps it is not a specific time, or place, or thought -- but rather, meditation is the consistency of life...

…..an absorption in living. 
My eyes smart, and I realize that I haven’t blinked in god knows how long. Like when fishing and I don’t want to take my eyes off anything. Things can happen when you blink, you know. In fact, that’s when they usually do.  

And just like in fishing, in planing, time at once stands still and speeds up -- life held back and pushed forward, suspended. Come late afternoon, it seems like I’ve just begun, yet have been planing forever -- and I finish the last strip of the butt section.

Frank begins rounding up the gluing supplies: wax and painting paper, tape, buckets of water, cloths, and toothbrushes. And of course, the bottle of glue. The magic. I vacuum, trying to make sure I get any dust or shavings that could get in between the splits and prevent the pieces from rolling evenly. Frank shows me how to cut and lay out four strips of tape, and then carefully place each strip of cane down, double checking that the node pattern is correct. Precisely, and reverently-- almost as if performing a religious rite. They’re beautiful, all laid out. Waiting. I try to remember the strips in this way -- my rod in this way -- as separate beings, before joined again into a whole -- into something they could never be all on their own. I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned from this for a fiercely independent soul such as myself. However, I choose not to think about that right now.

Frank zig-zaggs glue across the first set of tip strips, reminding me of frosting Christmas cookies as a kid for some reason. Probably, the wax paper. “Well, that’s how it’s done” he says, and with a satisfied look, hands me a toothbrush. “Make sure everything is covered....all the corners and between each strip.” And I do.  

Then he picks up the strips, still taped together at their back. “Now, this is where that little leap of faith part comes in,” he winks, knowing the outcome. Knowing that it has worked before and it will work again. Perhaps not every time -- but yes, again. Deep snow-packs, long run-offs, and abundant wildflowers won’t come this year. But they did last, and I know they will again. And that, I believe, is faith.

The strips roll perfectly, like they’re remembering this place -- a home-coming of sorts, and I feel myself sigh. I’ve been holding my breath. Something is complete. Not finished, but complete -- those being two separate things entirely. The former, a sadness...growth's mourning; the latter, encouragement that you can go on...and you will.

Darkness has come, later than it did but only a few weeks ago. Lights are low, casting shadows off the cane, and it seems a right setting for alchemy such as this.

I glue up the next tip and butt, and Frank shows be how to run them through the binder, helping knot it in tightly. Then I roll them out on a sheet of waxed paper, making sure everything is pressed together tightly, and getting off excess glue. “In all actuality, more might come off on your hands than the paper.....that’s what another student once told me,” Frank notes. But either way, it serves its purpose.

“Look straight?”

I squint one of my eyes, scoping down the bound cane.



Now they dry, appropriately hung by clothespins -- “high tech” says Frank --and these creations I’ve shaped into birth hold my eyes, as I remember a line of Ansel Adams about children, and how they are “not only of flesh and blood” but also “ideas, thoughts, emotions." And maybe, I think, even bamboo fly rods.

I smile and clap my hands. Frank’s eyes sparkle, as if he too is seeing this all for the first time...and perhaps, each time he is.  

On the drive home as I enter the canyon, flurries fly from a clear night sky, and I wonder how that can be. But then again, I suppose it’s  just another one of those things in life that requires a little leap of faith to believe it can actually happen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Friday, January 13, 2012

It’s early. 5:00 a.m. Banjo barks at the wind’s knock on the door. As comfort to his nerves, and reward for his attention paid, I cautiously open the door to what I confidently know won’t be there. He’s passed on -- down the canyon, knocking and then running away, like a childhood prank. The shovel’s once squared edges on walks and driveways now angle, evidence that indeed, he was here -- leaving erosion in fast forward, overnight. The drift outside my rocking chair’s window now has scalloped edges, and I’m sure it looks like a high mountain cirque to the vole family who lives in an old pine stump the drift has now enveloped as an igloo. I scattered some breadcrumbs for the birds yesterday and the voles tunneled to reach them, so as to not miss out. How did they know?

Over drinks with my nearest neighbors during the holidays, I mentioned off-hand, “The wind hasn’t been nearly as bad this year as last.”

“Knock on wood.” they said. Knock on wood.

And as a fisherman, I should have remembered -- you never mention the “W” word -- what everyone knows is there, but never speaks, even when it’s blowing so darn hard it takes your hat.

Driving up to Longmont, I keep two hands on the wheel. This kind of weather doesn’t allow for daydreaming...but I try to anyway.   

8:57 a.m. 

I’m greeted Goodmorning at the fly shop door by Jake the lab-pup and from behind the front counter by Mike, as I walk back to Frank’s shop. There, planing forms sit, waiting to be set. Paper printoffs with the taper dimensions hang above the workbench, to be written down on the forms. Frank shows me how to read the calibrator, adjusting the forms with a screwdriver and wrench, pulling in and pushing out. It’s confusing, like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.   

My strips are all set out on the work bench. Waiting. Still bound with string to the metal form in which they were heat treated, Frank shows me how to cut the end of the string -- placing them against the planing forms, pulling, and rolling it loose -- the strips bloom out like the stretcher in a Japanese parasol my grandmother used to keep in a luggage trunk I remember as a kid, into which I always wanted to climb and disappear...to go on my own journey (but apparently, luggage trucks don't hold the magic of wardrobes, just in case you were wondering, and I'm sure you were). The string unravels perfectly. No tangles, just a ball of string in my hand.  

Before planing, I sand down the frontsides of the strips. First the nodes, and then the length with a finer grain paper, even-ing to lay in the form later. When all of the butt strips are done, I start planing them down to the first dimensions before sanding the tips.

Blades are sharpened. The form is set. This feels like a prime opportunity to screw everything up. You know, how in old legends and myths, there is always that one fatal mistake? The hinge on which the whole story and character could turn, or not -- and my mind runs away with this...  

Frank takes the first strip, sets it in the form, places the plane on top, and begins -- moving his arm forward, his body follows -- arm and elbow in a straight line; push more than press; momentum; make sure the plane clears the end of the tip; roll up your sleeves -- all of this, in one graceful movement. Planing is the rodmaker's version of a cast, I decide. There’s a technique to it, but once you feel it, it’s like dancing -- and it’s beautiful to watch.  

And now it’s my turn...for dancing...or screwing everything up. One or the other. Or, I suppose, both.

The plane stops and starts down the strip. One of the partners is off -- I know it’s me. And I also know that there isn’t any way to get “on” but to keep planing...to keep tripping over my toes. Muscle memory, as Frank says later.

Midmorning, a man steps into the workshop to say hello, “back here makin’ some bamboo rods, huh?”

“Yep,” Frank replies....“because we can.” I keep my head down, sanding, and smile. Sometimes the answer is as simple as that -- because we can. We don’t have to, we want to -- and we can, so we do. And no, it doesn’t always make sense. In fact, these sorts of things seldom do.

Curls of cane soon pile up on the plane and I push them off onto the workbench. But they come back.

“What always surprises me is the static of the shavings,” Frank nods my way.

“They’re alive!” I laugh, shavings sticking to my hands.

We both chuckle.

But really, all the while thinking, maybe they are... 

Suddenly, I feel bad for the fibers curled up in front of me. Though they wanted, they couldn’t stay. They don’t get to be the end, but they were a part of the journey, part of the history of this rod -- but that, some would say, holds the meaning. With a mindset of finished products, stories are left unfinished. And even though we live our lives to their end, our stories go on ever-after -- sometimes happily, sometimes not. We’re never truly done. Never complete. Never a finished product, or closed book. And yes, I know I’m anthropomorphizing here, but I take solace, remembering Kathy Scott’s reasoning that this is okay as long as it’s “mixed with a self-deprecating smile” (Changing Planes, p.150). So I grin as I continue on...

.….planing, until the butt sections are done, the sun has set, and the shop is closing.   

Saturday, January 14, 2012 -- 8:30 a.m.

Not as windy today, and I spot a red-tailed hawk sitting high in a cottonwood over a tributary of Boulder Creek as I drive across on 119. Another fisherman. The creek being frozen-over for the most part, perhaps he’s waiting for a rabbit to be flushed from the tangled thicket below, with a beagle’s sense knowing that they’ll always double back.

In the workshop there is music -- blues and bluegrass and Dylan.“I used to wear headphones, but couldn’t hear the cane, so I stopped.” Frank says. “It’s important to hear it...”

Tips wait to be sanded and planed, but first I pick out a replacement butt strip. One of yesterday’s didn't turn out like the others -- it's usable, but still has a noticeable groove above one of the nodes, which might be hard to fix, even with another two planings. We can do better, Frank says. And so having some spares, we do.  

Mike comes back during a break from customers to show me the rod he built with Frank a few years ago. It’s beautiful. A blonde. “They have more fun, right?” he says with a grin. I give it a few lineless casts, and still have a hard time believing that all of my splits will actually turn into a rod. Right now, it’s nothing but pieces I’ve torn apart form a whole, only to spend hours in putting back together again. Splitting apart, sanding smooth, planing off excess and scars, and so it goes. In life too. And eventually, with enough time and heartache and hard work, it’s put back together again. Different than it was, but maybe into what it was meant to be all along. And so perhaps rodmaking is just a further exercise of this faith → that being in pieces does not necessarily mean broken, certainly not beyond mend, and that, in fact, it’s necessary for growing into life itself.  

I try to match my planing sound to Frank’s. Long, even, and sure.“That was a good one” he says, working on planing of his own, his back turned -- listening. Today, my muscles are beginning to remember. I’m not tripping over my toes so much.  

I loosen my shoulder, push forward, and take a step to the end of the form. It feels good. All day. It feels good to feel and hear the cane, and smell its faintly sweet scent of burnt marshmallows, s’mores even, as it planes off.

Gillian Welch begins to sing I’ll Fly Away, and the evening comes. I can see the sunset, even out the eastern window. The clouds across the plains catch last rays reaching over Longs Peak, and I think to myself that sometimes, these reverse sunsets, just like alpenglow of morning -- are more beautiful than that which they reflect. Yes, I could lose myself looking out a window such as this. Or perhaps, I already have -- but no matter, I very much like where I’ve ended up. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Solitaire for Two - The Backcountry Journal.

I walk through scars, charred and still tender in places although it’s been years — over a decade now — yet the land still is burnt. Wildfires have always frightened me, and now living in a mountain canyon, I’m petrified of them. This land could be my land; these wounds, my wounds. And while fire cauterizes, I know from growing up on a farm and watching myriad animal veterinary procedures: the patient screams... 

Read the rest of this piece at The Backcountry Journal.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Splitting Cane.

Friday, January 6th, 2012 - 9:00 a.m.

Walking into Frank Drummond’s workshop, five bamboo culms hang off the workbench, and more from the rafters. I peek around the corner. Frank turns and smiles. A good, hearty smile. And after short introductions, we get right to it, picking out a taper from the scientific looking graphs and measurements hung above the planing forms. After much questioning, I narrow it down to a Young or Garrison (Frank’s two favorite tapers he fishes, he says), and I turn around to look at the cane. So does Frank.  

Looking at nodes soaks up time for my indecision. Examining the leaf sheath scars and bug damage -- birthmarks that make the cane what it is. All of these defects dictate what it will be, what it can be. Perhaps it could be a 8 1/2 ft 5 wt; but it shouldn't be, it wouldn't be happy. I could have been a plastic surgeon, but I’d have hated it.  

"The cane tells you what it wants to be," Frank says, "Don’t choose a taper and then look for the cane, look at the cane and then for its taper."

It’s a free spirit.

Its length, space between nodes and bug damage, speaks a natural inclination. Just like people, I think. Its soul, evident not in its perfection, but in its imperfections. Its character, shaped by scars.

Running my hands over the culms one by one, they linger on the farthest. I look at Frank. Yes, that’s a good one. No bug damage, no leaf sheath scarring, no nicks in the enamel. I look back to the taper descriptions hanging above the workbench, then back to the cane. Garrison. Yes, the Garrison 202-E taper.

“Good choice,” Frank says, “Garrison’s favorite, and that piece you picked will be perfect for it.”

My mind warms with confidence, remembering reading how Ed Engle always picked out the rodmaker’s favorite taper and rod to test and fish for “Splitting Cane,” figuring it would be the best representation of their work.

I figure he’s on to something...and I move on to splitting.

Frank demonstrates on the first. Holding the knife in his left hand, rubber hammer in right...the knife blade must be exactly 90 degree angles from the cane to get a straight split. Whack! Now my turn. Bracing the end of the culm against the workbench, aligning the knife to the cane, I take a deep breath, blink, and make my first split -- sliding the knife down the entire length, alternating side-twists, it takes some muscle to get through the nodes. But I do. And it feels good. I must be smiling because Frank says, “Fun, isn’t it? My favorite part too...”

Now it’s time to fire the four halved sections with a propane torch. Frank lays them over a grill and shows me how to run the torch steadily down the strip, two passes down, then flipping the strip over so the firing is always in the same direction. The flame blackens, a slow moving shadow over the blond enamel -- look at it, Frank says -- the shadow instead of the flame will tell you what you need to know. The shadow instead of the flame. The heat pushes moisture through the pores and evaporates with a sizzle of white. 

It smells like popping corn.

As much as I’m falling for the textures of making a rod -- as much as the feel of the knife, torch and file handles, and the bamboo itself, its smooth enamel, power fibers and fuzzy pith -- I’m falling for its smells and sounds.  
The cane is now ready to be split again -- this time into thirds, and then those into halves which will be halved again. For this last split, I use a screwdriver to start, finishing by pushing the section through a knife held in a vise. As the sections get smaller their pitch gets higher, sounding like a pizzicato glissando on a guitar. I love it. Each split is a few seconds of music and I listen to the intonation change with the diameter of the split and where the knife is in its length.

I leave two neat bundles behind when I leave at the end of the day -- one of tips, one of buts.

See you in the morning...

Saturday, January 7th, 2012 - 9:00 a.m.

A bald eagle swoops into a naked cottonwood, just as I'm driving out of the canyon’s mouth. I’ve only seen a bald eagle around the canyon once before, when there was elk roadkill. I’m not usually a superstitious person, but I do believe (and have found to be true) that unusual animal sightings are always harbingers of good. On my birthday the year I moved into the canyon, I saw a bobcat in my backyard while I was eating dinner alone on my deck. That following year was one of the best of my life. It was a good sign.

My cane splits lie waiting, bundled with masking tape into two groups, just as I’d left them. A hot air gun sits tipped up next to the vise. 

I watch Frank heat one of the nodes, starting with the butt-end splits, until it’s lightly charred and smoking, like a good marshmallow. That’s the only way they’re edible, marshmallows -- slightly burnt. Then he pinches the node hard, front to back in the vise, and then gently (so as to not crack the enamel) side to side to cool while the next node is heating.        

“Think you’re ready now?”

I nod and take my hands out of my pockets....yes.

Taking my time, I turn the cane, feeling the fibers between my fingers, paying attention that I heat just enough, but not too much to catch fire. The hot air guns are loud. Lost in thought, and occasional stories and fly pattern talk, I jump when a “Hey Frank!” rises above it all. I’m introduced to Mark, a friend who had trickled back before Larry Jurgen’s fly tying demo begins at the Laughing Grizzly Fly Shop, to say hi. Frank is working on heating and pressing some extras as I do mine, and Mark watches us for awhile. “It’s amazing you can straighten the cane that way, but man it takes awhile, huh? Kinda boring.....it’d be more fun to throw paint at the wall and watch it dry.” He laughs, thinking he’s made a good point.

“No...not really...we’re thinking -- you know, we don’t get much time to do that nowadays, everything, everything, is constantly overstimulated...loud --  but we’re thinking about where we’re going to fish these rods, and what their first fish will be....” Frank rebuts, slightly smiling my way.

With a “Huh...well talk to ya later....got to get to the demo...” Mark leaves, knowing he doesn't get it and probably never will.

And for the next almost 5 hours, I heat and press nodes, one by one...thinking about where my rod and I will fish for the first time....getting it...not bored, even in the slightest.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

History of an Education.

By training, I am a classical musician. I know there is a reason musicians play scales. And I’m very familiar with sitting alone in a room, only my instrument and a metronome for company, playing scales for hours -- varying rhythm and dynamic a bit, just to keep things interesting. But still, just scales over and over and over again; the building blocks of the foundation. And as a musician, you can always tell who doesn’t practice their scales. It’s obvious. (Just like you can always tell who doesn’t know their history, by repetition of mistakes). There is a pedagogical logic to the way things have been done; often both for mind and body’s health.

Art is never instantly gratifying -- in fact, it’s a hell of a lot of ungratifying work. Amazing paintings, beautiful symphonies, and great works of literature, were (I assure you) painful to create -- as Shakespeare’s Beatrice says, my mother cried. And even when they are “finished,” after their birth, the artist rarely utters the contented sigh of completion. Work is never done. Children never truly grow-up. Art is never perfect. Most likely, it wasn’t inspired, and it didn’t come easy. It’s always a struggle. And perhaps this is why life has been cheapened to big-boxes, drive-thrus, and movies on-demand. We don’t want to put in the work; we don’t want to feel the pain. Life itself is a work of art, and we are rushing it to its end -- left only with cheap plastic, meaningless drivel, and bitter wine. This, is why life ceases to be gratifying....because we want to experience all in an instant. Like toddlers, we stomp our feet: right now.  

My education first grade through twelfth was homeschooled, and we were always encouraged to delve into interests and become passionate about them. It didn’t matter what it was (and believe me, my sister and I decided on some strange ones) my parents were always supportive; although perhaps they did laugh a bit after we had gone to bed. But more than anything else, I believe, they wanted my sister and I to be curious, and never satisfied with just one answer. We were never “out” of school -- the farm was our classroom; life on it, our education.

Then in college, I attended a conservatory of music. There were required Guitar Literature classes, a semester each -- Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, and Classical -- wherein the history of the instrument was taught...its beginnings and ends. Its art. During the Renaissance semester, I was even able to borrow a lute from the school and learn the literature of the time in its vernacular. I heard what Luis de Mil├ín and John Dowland sounded like originally, in context, to 16th and 17th century ears. One of the dreams I used to have squirreled away into the back of my head with all of my other nutty ideas, was to be a luthier. How strange, says Benedick, that sheep guts should hail souls out of men’s bodies -- how beautiful. And I wanted to be part of that beauty, to be part of that history. Nylon just doesn’t do the romance justice. For many years now I’ve thought that my classical education, the years spent practicing and perfecting an art, was all for naught -- a waste.  A performance career didn’t pan out, and teaching wasn’t paying the bills. Guitar literature classes, learning the lute, practicing scales, and finally, playing concerts -- none of it mattered.

But recently, I’ve come to realize that it all did matter, it’s part of my own history. It has shaped the way I understand and see the world, and it has taught me the worth of work, time, art, and the hard way of doing something.

And for awhile now, a certain hard way of doing something has been bothering me. A part of my knowledge and history is missing -- as if I didn’t know who George Washington was, or had begun playing Henze before Sor. As a fly fisherman, I have never fished bamboo. I don’t understand it. I am curious. I need to fish it. But first, I need to make it. For awhile now, I’ve known -- I need to build a rod.  

Gierach wrote in Fishing Bamboo that “Somehow we modern, technological humans have gotten two fallacies into our heads. One is that the current generation has to break completely with the old one in order to accomplish something new; the other is that doing something new is necessarily a good thing. In fact, the best work is still usually done in the oldest tradition of craftsmanship: You learn to do the thing the way it is: as the end product of generations of collective genius. That can amount to a life’s work, and if you never get a new idea, fine. If you do get an idea, you’ll probably have to try it. If it works you use it, if it doesn’t you go back to the old ways and continue to do recognizably good work. Those who strike out on their own without first mastering the craft can end up on some pretty thin ice.”

I need to learn to do the thing the way it is....

.....I'm scared of thin ice.

I have read all I can -- books, listervs, forums and blogs-- and tomorrow morning’s dawn will find me driving north towards Longmont, to Frank Drummond’s shop, Brush Creek Cane, to begin learning from his ‘collective genius.’ 
I have been warned about bamboo, and I have also been encouraged towards it. I have been told that it’s impossible to cast (yet I tend towards the thought that the people who can’t cast bamboo, can’t cast graphite or glass either), that it breaks easily (which makes me wonder -- why then is it used for flooring?) and that it’s just a romantic notion of old men, clinging to the past. But as Kathy Scott wrote,“The warnings may just have egged me on a little.”

I’ve also seen the light in an old man’s eyes as he leaned across a table and whispered, cupping his hands as if he were about to caress a lover or sculpt her out of clay, “you can really make bamboo....into anything you want.”   

And I will.
And I will give it my best.

Here’s to romance...

Come tomorrow morning, I’ll be splitting cane. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Being a Writer.

People, friends, family, folks I’ve never met, have all been calling me a “writer” as of late. Usually, we identify ourselves by our job, our career, what we do to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. You know, the practical things in life. But I’ve always hated being defined by the practical – that’s why I went to conservatory…to music school. For heaven’s sake, there's not one ounce of practicality in that.

But people have started identifying me by what I am, not what I do. And this is a welcome relief. You see, I really don’t like what I do. Who does? I’m told. But yet I hold out the hope that I will, one day. I’m hungry -- and, perhaps foolish. I have to believe that there’s something out there to chase down. Or maybe, it’s growing presently, underfoot. Maybe, I just need to move my left…or, my right. Or…oh I don’t know. But, I have to believe it’s true, just to keep sane.

So -- I’m a writer, they say. It’s what I am. And I’m coming to believe them. In fact, now I realize that I’ve been one even before I started writing.  It’s very much like when in adolescence I grew breasts and realized that yes, I had been a woman all along. Damn.

I have a much similar reaction to the having been a writer, all along.

There is a narrator in my head, and she told me this is true. She has been with me for over 27 years now. She’s me. Sometimes, speaking in baritone.  Sometimes, growling and hissing and howling like a wild animal; sometimes, she makes put-put-put tractor noises like a little boy. And sometimes, dressed for a ball, she sings.

I’ve spent a lot of time alone -- in childhood, and now as an adult. And this narration has been, and is, my way of "talking," I suppose.  We humans have an instinctive urge to share experiences, thoughts, and stories – and this is often where, and how, we get hurt. Self sabotage. Opening up before we truly know what’s out the door waiting.  We are herd animals though, and so we have to take the chance….always, take the chance.

But then, there are the loners, the ones who leave the pack, the ones who purposely separate themselves. These are the artists, the musicians, and the storytellers – they also often happen to be the depressed, haunted, and afflicted. Once removed, they observe -- exploring the tribe's condition from outside – and while it may look like a reclusion, really, it’s quite the opposite. You can’t see the picture, sing the song, or read the novel when you’re in it -- and so there are the artists, musicians, and writers…the storytellers.     

I, am one of them.  

Now, I see that I have been on the outside, telling myself stories my whole life…that narrator describing everything I do, taste, smell and see...back to myself. I thought this was normal. I thought everyone told themselves stories. But as it turns out, they don't. Instead, they listen. They listen for someone to find their experiences words – they wait to be given their own stories back.

This is a great expectation. And yes, one that depresses, haunts, and afflicts.

But so it goes…I am a writer.