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Fishing: Providing Metaphors for Life

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Posted on March 5, 2009 |
By Matt Dickerson



I have an evil twin.

Actually, he isn’t evil. He’s a pretty nice guy. Thoughtful. Polite. Friendly. I played pickup basketball with him once, and you can tell a lot about somebody on the basketball court.

And he’s not my twin, either. We’re not even closely related. Probably no closer than 13th cousins, once or twice removed. We just happen to have the same name.

Well, not exactly the same name.

If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. My not-actually-evil not-actually-a-twin is Matt Dickinson. And the name Dick-IN-son happens to be quite a bit like Dick-ER-son. Not only that, but we work at the same place. The other Matt teaches political science at Middlebury College. I teach computer science (and environmental studies). Both these disciplines involve the word “science.” And while the other Matt doesn’t fish or hunt, he does target shoot, and we enjoy several of the same outdoor sports: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, canoeing. I appear regularly in the newspaper. He appears from time to time on the radio.

And so, not surprisingly, we get confused with one another. Which isn’t to say that he gets confused, or I get confused, but that other people confuse us. At least once a month he’ll get a piece of mail or e-mail intended for me, or I get one intended for him.

Now while this can be frustrating at times, it can also be fun (or at least funny). I’ve been working at the college for almost 20 years, which is a few years longer than the other Matt. And I have colleagues who have known me for a significant portion of that time who haven’t actually figured out yet that there is also a Matt Dick-IN-son. In their minds, Dick-ER-son and Dick-IN-son are the same person. We are blended to a single identity. I write for the newspaper AND speak on the radio. I am an “expert” in computer science AS WELL AS political science.

This is cool because it means I get some social credit not only for what I do, but also for what the other Matt does. (Or maybe what it amounts to is that some of the credit for what he does cancels out some of the blame for what I do. So it may be a good deal only for me, and not for him.) For example, twice in the past week somebody congratulated me or commented on how good I sounded on the radio. Of course I wasn’t actually on the radio. I assumed it was the other Matt giving intelligent commentary about some important political issue. (The fact that it was intelligent commentary about anything might have tipped off my colleagues that it wasn’t me.) But I just smiled and nodded. Why correct the person and lose the social credit — making both myself and the other person feel worse at the same time?

Unfortunately, there is also a potential problem. I live in fear that some day somebody will stop me on the streets or at a college function, and ask me some deep political question, and expect intelligent commentary. What will I say? Until recently, this concern used to bother me so deeply that I avoided public situations for fear of shattering the illusion.

But then I remembered the classic 1979 film “Being There,” starring Peter Sellers. Sellers plays a simple-minded gardener named Chance, who doesn’t know much about anything except gardening. When, during a chance meeting with the President of the United States, he responds to a political discussion with a comment about soil and planting — because this is all he knows — the comment is taken as a brilliant metaphor full of great economic and political wisdom. And as a result, Chance rises to national prominence, and even goes on the talk-show circuit, where he continues to answer all questions about any topic with comments about gardening … and people continue to be convinced that his gardening comments are brilliant and intentional metaphors. At the end of the film, Chance is on the verge of getting one party’s presidential nomination.

So anyway, it dawned on me that fishing also provides wonderful metaphors for some of the most important things in life. If people were convinced that Chance was brilliant because, in his simple-minded way, he responded to all inquiries about politics and economics with a bit of gardening wisdom, maybe I could do the same with fishing.

“Professor Dickerson, how can we solve the Iraq problem?”

“Well, when I go fly-fishing, I know I need the right fly. Sometimes you need to match an insect hatch with an exact imitation, but other times a big gaudy attractor fly that doesn’t imitate anything will work.”

“Professor Dickerson, if the economic recovery takes longer than four years, will there be a backlash against the Democratic party?”

“It’s a mistake to think that you always need a large lure to catch a large fish. I’ve caught some of the biggest fish of my life on very small flies and very small spinners. You get cold water coming out of the bottom of a deep dam, and you’re not going to find any insects in there except tiny little midges.”

Of course if I actually try to think wisely about any of these questions, I’d be in trouble. (If you find any connection between my answers above and the questions, let me know because I sure don’t know what it is.) But the wonderful thing about good fishing stories is that they can apply as metaphors to almost anything. The insight comes in the inherent importance and wisdom of the very act of fishing — and thus, to some degree, also in interpretation of the advice as a metaphor. As I observed recently to a sales clerk at L.L. Bean, “You can’t fly fish through the ice.” She stared at me blankly for a moment, until I pointed out, “Big fish always hold up in the best part of the pool.”

So if you’re out there reading this column, Matt Dickinson, feel free to take the credit for it.

Or the blame, as it were.

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