• Richard Murff

Trying Hard to Relax

It was on a fly-fishing float down a 15 mile stretch of the South Holston River my vest began to vibrate with a text. About the time I’d forgotten about it, the buzz went off again to let me know I wasn’t engaged. Then I got another text, and it to poked me in the chest a second time too. It was the sort of thing that a man with a fly-rod in his hand really ought to ignore. Technology, however, isn’t that easy to push around.

I think that it was William F. Buckley who wrote, in one of his books about sailing the Atlantic, that busy person juggling several concerns never has time to take a vacation, but some time off is needed nonetheless. So, the only sensible option is to plan the damn thing whenever you can and let the chips fall where they may. I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the general thread of it.

So, with Mrs. M working for a school as she does, Spring Break just falls when it does. I wanted to see my brother and his wife in Asheville, North Carolina, maybe get in some fishing together and – according to Mrs. M’s employer – that was the week it was going to happen.

Unable to stand Manhattan a second longer, bro and his wife bought a house in Asheville, up on a mountain side. The house was still empty when the COVID lockdown notice went into effect – he caught the next flight out that night (she’d changed her return flight) and they moved into an entirely empty house. They haven’t retired – Asheville is one of those places that attracts people who don’t have it their nature to really call it quits – they’ve just got a better view. And lately, their furniture. It was that between graciously letting my wife and I invite ourselves over, planning a fly-fishing guide (we’re both new to the sport) and our arrival, he found himself spearheading the purchase of a company. Which is CFO-speak for finding the money to do it.

Which is how the sporting Mrs. M was on the boat with me – separated by a fishing guide who was better suited for more seasoned anglers. The South Holston is nearly heart-breaking in its beauty, well aside from the sport. Still, it’s reckoned to have some 8,500 fish per square mile and 85% of said fish are wild brown trout. The river, starting as it does as a tailwater of the South Holston dam, is cold and deep and never fluctuates more than about 10 degrees from winter to summer. Practically, it never really freezes and even in the heat of summer, no one wants to swim in it for very long.

And yet there I was, being nagged by damned gizmo I thought I’d bought for my convenience. The first was from a client in LA and another was regarding another proposed errand in the Middle East. Obviously, floating on the South Holston in east Tennessee, some 500 miles from my desk in Memphis there wasn’t much that I could do about either. Then there was my own mental health to consider: I was out on that river specifically to not think about the desk I’d failed to straighten on the far side of a very long state.

I shoved the phone back in my pocket and spied a lovely hole of soft water by a moving seam under an overhang of bare branches near the bank. Now that was something that I could do about it. So, I promptly cast my fly into the branches. I related this not to brag about my prowess as landing squirrels with a fly-fishing kit, but to underscore the degree of focus it takes these days to simply relax.

The fact that the fuzzy rodent got away and I had to leave a perfectly good fly and tippet in the branches did manage to cheese me off just enough to forget about LA, the Levant and the cellphone that I should have left in my room. Perhaps my fury was sharper than I realized at the time because, by substituting my thumb for my forefinger, I employed the same trick as I do with a pistol to place a round where I want it to placing the fly on the water.

At any rate, my casting got more controlled. The fly began to get closer to the intended landing spot. Not perfect, not yet, but satisfying to both myself and the riparian squirrel population. For the record, Mrs. M was wearing the trout rotten at the front of the boat.

If you can relax and stay plugged in (I mean really relax) then good for you. I’ll buy you a drink if you show me the trick. It seems to me that to really get the job done you have to pull the plug. My brother knew his brain wouldn’t make the switch, and a day – that day - on the river would be pointless. The irony here is that the mere act of unplugging takes a great deal of effort and sometimes it simply can’t realistically be done.

And if there is an underlying source the modern madness around us, that just might be it: It is easier to stay frazzled.

And it shows.