Some days the universe seems to be trying to tell you something.
Rather than taking the highway down to Connecticut for the Pi-Con convention, bombing along at speeds that demand constant attention to driving and render one oblivious to one’s surroundings, I took the back roads. I allowed an extra hour so that I could stop wherever I saw something that interested me. An extra hour wasn’t nearly enough.
There is a double stone arch bridge in Stoddard. No mortar, just skilled construction holds it up. The water was at its August low, chuckling lazily among tumbled rocks into pools with thick boas of brilliant green algae. I made the acquaintance of the locals – frogs, schools of small fish and crayfish – and admired the reflection of the reflection of sunlight on the underside of the stone bridge.
When I hauled myself back up the bank, I realized I had wrapped my hand around a thick braid of poison ivy. I looked around frantically for some jewel weed, which often grows in the vicinity of poison ivy. Also known as touch-me-not for the way its mature seed cases explode on contact, jewel weed is supposed to counteract the toxins in poison ivy. I had never before tested this bit of folk wisdom, but this was as good a time as any. I grabbed a stalk of jewel weed and rubbed it all over my hands and wrists. Never did develop a rash.
I rummaged in the pile of audiobooks I had brought for the trip and came up with Thoreau, essays on Walden and Civil Disobedience. Listened to it as I drove through the hills of the Monadnock region. At one point Thoreau is protesting against the war that the US Government has gotten the country involved in. At that time it was Mexico. It might as well have been Iraq. Names change, as do the particulars, but the dynamics of our social and political institutions don’t seem to. Some Roman version of Thoreau probably ranted furiously in Latin about the same things.
As with many New England roads, my route followed a cold, rocky stream for several miles. I pulled off the road and slid down the bank to check it out. Wading in the clear pools I thought: I am pressing my foot into the cool gravel of a stream bed. I can’t know what will become of my footprint after I’m gone, but I am here, doing this now, and that’s what matters to me.
The more I thought about it, the lighter I felt, until I laughed out loud like a loon.
In the Connecticut River Valley, I followed signs promising a scenic overlook. I parked the car and scrambled down a steep slope, following a path to the edge of the broad, sparkling water. Several feet of bank were exposed, the mud baked hard in the sun. I stood at the river’s edge, watching a couple of fishermen sitting on a sunny ledge with their poles. They didn’t seem to be having much luck. But then again, fishing can be its own reward. If you actually catch something, that’s gravy.
As I stood there, enjoying what the fishermen were enjoying, sun and breeze, rich river scent and glitter of water, I looked down. There, only a few feet away, two enormous fish swam by me, each big enough for a meal. And me without a pole. Sometimes the score comes when you aren’t trying for it.
I knew I’d seen what I needed to, so I hit the road again, picking up the highway and roaring on down to Enfield, listening to Malcolm Gladwell talk about profiling serial killers. Time to shift gears.
I only got lost once; it didn’t help that the name of the hotel I was looking for had been changed from the Crowne Plaza to Holiday Inn literally the day before. But I came slouching up to the front desk lugging my bags a mere half an hour before my first panel, a discussion on Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. It was the one I’d prepped the most for, and I was all set to talk about the symbolism in the film, relating it to other German Expressionist films of the era and the conditions in German cinema and society that gave rise to it. Well, we talked a little about that. But then the other panelist and the members of the small audience hijacked the panel to talk tech, what film stock was used, the quality of the restored segments, and then they followed a trajectory out of the atmosphere into realms of contemporary science fiction films and series. I couldn’t speak to that. I’d brought my pole and there were no fish.
But the panels I walked into with little or no prep were brilliant. It was subject matter I knew well. I got teamed up with excellent panelists, some professionals, some just really bright and articulate enthusiasts, and the audiences were small but highly engaged. It was pure intellectual chocolate.
People talk about Flow. Magic. The Force. Blessedness. It’s an intuitive thing, a difficult thing to wrap your intellect around. So it gets all these squishy, unsatisfying labels. Unsatisfying, that is, to a skeptic like me who wants a testable hypothesis, not mysticism. It’s like a corn starch colloid; as soon as you think you have it solidly pinned down, it oozes off the pin.
But to experience something, and then dismiss it because it doesn’t fit your convictions about the nature of reality, is like the cleric rejecting what he saw though Galileo’s telescope. The true scientist scowls at the anomaly, scratches his head, admits, “Damned if I know,” and documents it as best he can. Somebody else might be able to figure it out someday.
So I can’t explain the flow, the fish, the journey and the allegory. I just know that if I let go and ride the current without trying so damned hard to paddle in a particular direction, it seems to work a whole lot better for me. Just keep my eyes open and do a bit of inspired steering.
I catch a lot more fish without a pole.