The key differentiaton between semantic memories (who/what/why) and episodic memories (who/what/why/when) is the element of time. As one recalls an episodic memory they experience at some level an awareness of time and place, and of time since passed. For example, seeing a child fishing may remind you of your youth, when watching that red and white bobber do it's dance on the surface of your neighborhood pond was completely and utterly enthralling. Most of all though, you recall that it was a long long time ago. You may even long to place yourself in a specific moment of that youth, to no avail. In short time you become keenly - perhaps even painfully aware that for better or worse, things are different now.
The olfactory component of an episodic memory, however, is far more acute. The emotional and physical stirrings one experiences upon encountering a familiar smell are consistent across time and often linked to very specific details; the smell of bacon frying in the pan will always take me back to the Sunday morning breakfast table of my youth. The smell of dew on the pines will always take me back to my first trip to central Pennsylvania and my first trout on a dry fly. The smell of stale beer - and/or vomit and/or moldy bathroom showers and/or dirty laundry and/or... well, let's leave it at that - will always take me back to the glory of 120 Homestead Avenue, Oxford, Ohio.
And the smell of that fucking hospital soap will always take me back to having cancer.
So when I walked through the doors of the Cleveland Clinic for some follow-up testing on Monday, January 7th, 2013 it didn't matter that I was nearly 8 months removed from my last chemo treatment and 7 months in remission. The second I caught a whiff of a hospital bathroom, my stomach tried to turn itself inside out. I was taken back to that sterile little treatment room. To the white privacy curtains. To that God-awful "relaxation" music that found it's way into every crack and crevice of the treatment center. To the smell of saline flushing the vein, marking the opening ceremony for the chemical carnival that was about to set up shop in my circulatory system. To smiling at the nurse while she stabbed me for the third time trying to find a willing vessel. To the sunken eyes and yellow skin staring back at me in the mirror.
I thought and felt all these things and I immediately counted my blessings, and counted them again: That I didn't have a more obscure or aggressive form of the disease. That my disease was mostly well understood, and that if anyone would understand it, it was the doctors of one of the finest hospitals in the world. That one of the finest hospitals in the world happened to be in my hometown. That I had the support of the greatest friends and family a person could ever hope to have. And that I had the perfect distraction to see me through it all; a seething passion for all things fishy.
As I sat in that familiar waiting room, decked out in hospital scrubs, fighting a subtle pang of anxiety, I reflected on another year gone by. Was it just another notch on the belt? Another step towards the grave? What meaning could I derive from my 26th year?
Where to start.
My first sticky fishing memory of 2012 unfolded between the banks of an iconic Midwestern stream in the depths of its winter slumber. It inspired what I humbly consider one of the better pieces of creative writing I've composed to date and served as the impetus for what we mean to make an annual pilgrimage henceforward.
January and February produced exceptionally good results for the swung fly angler accustomed to imprisonment at the vise during winter months. These fleeting escapes invigorated and sustained me in the midst of my chemo regimen.
Finally, a rendezvous with some of my closest friends in the woods of Northeast Ohio punctuated the beginning of 2012 and gave me some momentum heading into the change of seasons.
By the time March rolled around we could tell it was going to be a weird year. Weather patterns were totally out of whack and the machinations of the natural world were clearly discombobulated. We found ourselves chasing warmwater quarry in what would otherwise have been the heart of coldwater season. But as any seasoned angler will tell you, y'take what the Good Lawd' gives ya'...
In April we relocated Fast Jimmy headquarters, trading rent checks for mortgage payments. I was cautioned about the perils of home ownership, but my bride-to-be and I were gung-ho on puttin' down roots. In retrospect, I just want to know why nobody told me my basement would flood, or that my dog would go through a window chasing a squirrel, or that the french drain that I spent weeks installing in the backyard would overflow, or that my water heater would stop working? Thanks for the heads-up, y'all. Meantime, the boys found some toothy critters, I made a trip to the O-Show mothership, and we counted down to my last treatment.
May strutted into town looking her usual vibrant self, restoring hope and vitality to the Northern Hemisphere. She outdid herself this year, bearing not only green leaves and greenbacks but an end to chemo and a clean slate for the rest of the year.
June and the first part of July were all about warmwater. I've come to love our summer season here in the midwest. Even now I find myself wishing away the time until I can chase them, shirtless and shameless, in the waning hours of a sticky summer evening.
At the end of July I returned to the Northwest corner of Montana. Despite a major last-minute wrinkle in water conditions, our trip was a success thanks in no small part to the hospitality of our hosts, Linehan Outfitting Company. If you ever get to visit them in their very special corner of the world, you'd be remiss not to.
August for me was defined by the quintessential western road trip. My buddies and I loaded a 4X4 to it's gills and blasted across the country in search of cold water and spotted slimies. This is a trip every serious angler from the East should try to take in their life. Where you fish doesn't matter quite as much as how you get there; I recommend driving, at least once. See the landscape change. Feel the anticipation build as you climb higher and higher above sea level. Immerse yourself in a mountain town and it's people, it's fly shops, it's food, and it's beer.
We held our grand finale in my favorite of those little towns, a place once described to me by a veteran guide as the "center of the trout fishing universe." I've yet to find a point of contention.
Along came September. What can I say? It was just one of those forgettable months.
"What's that baby? I'm an asshole? But-"
In October, while we waited for things to rev up on the home front, the boys and I saddled up again in search of something different. We managed to stay dry in the process while our kin were under deluge only a few miles to the East. When the dust settled we found our once familiar riverine landscapes now required reconnaissance.
The 11th hour brought with it a degree of normalcy, my 26th birthday, and the unbridled chaos of steelhead season in full swing. With the impending doom on the horizon, we fished as much as time would allow.
Finally, December became the month the world didn't end, and the fishing actually improved. As the lake-effect flakes gathered on our shoulders, we poked and prodded through the runs, finding fish more often than not. Now, as daylight begins to linger a little longer with each passing day we are reminded that another change of seasons, however distant it may seem, is imminent.
That small but persistent pang of anxiety finally settled when my scans and blood work confirmed my remission. I peeled away my rental scrubs and returned to street clothes, immersed in contemplation. Here I stood in nearly the same place I'd been some 365 days earlier, having come so far. How could I make sense of it? As anglers, by what metrics should we evaluate years gone by? By fish caught? Days spent on the water? Flies tied? New personal bests? New friends discovered? New species conquered? New rivers visited? Fishing licenses purchased? By "likes" or comments or re-tweets?
When it comes to life on the water my new motto is this: Know what you're fishing for. Whatever the answer, you'll find it difficult to attain a state of grace if you're fishing for glory.