"Eighty percent of success is showing up."
I am a student of fly-fishing. I take my lessons on the Provo River between the Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs. It is a popular stretch of water as the worn path along the bank attests. No matter what time of day you arrive, guys are fishing, thigh-deep in water, throwing arcs of line or fiddling with a feathered hook like a squirrel with a nut. Some of them fish the Provo almost every day. They have favored places—a sweep of current hard by a deep pool—where they stand for hours, casting. Walking to the river, I spend a few minutes watching them from a distance. There is an aesthetic of fly-casting, as graceful as Roger Federer's groundstrokes, but it's better to focus on the river where dimples on the surface betray hungry trout. If I don't see fish feeding, I approach a fisherman. "Anything going on?" I ask. Most are forthcoming. I have even had guys give me flies that had fooled fish that day. The conversation often turns to what the riverine insects are doing. At that point, I often hear a most-dispiriting sentence: "You should have been here yesterday." What that generally means is that the day before, a multitude of bottom-dwelling bugs had swarmed to the surface and the trout had fed on them voraciously. It is called a hatch, and it is amazing to watch. So many insects take to the surface that it can be hard to discern an artificial bug floating among thousands of real ones, but I have watched with envy as a skilled fisherman hooked a fish with every cast. Such opportunities are easily missed, however: From start to finish, the duration of an insect hatch is measured in minutes.
There is a word for those of us whose arrival at an ephemeral event is ill-timed.
It is the verb, azaleate. Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets, credits another poet, the late Howard Nemerov, for coining it. I was azaleated last summer in Glacier National Park. At one of the visitors' centers, I was drawn into a conversation with a ranger standing next to a telescope. The chitchat led me to disclose that reading The Littlest Reindeer as a child had left me with a life-long desire to see the northern lights. To which he replied: "You should have been here last night." Ribbons of green light shimmered in the late-night sky, he said. No telescope required.
I have been azaleated by driving to Albion Basin too early for the wildflowers. I have missed the peak autumn foliage in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and I have arisen before dawn to watch the Perseid meteor shower only to find it was an off-night for shooting stars. The desert in bloom? This was a banner year in Death Valley thanks to El Niño, but I missed it. I missed it because I was 600 miles away, casting flies on the Provo River and playing pickleball at the Holladay Lions Recreation Center.
That unassailable fact of time and space is an integral part of a poem Collins wrote called "The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska." It begins with this stanza:
Too bad you weren't here six months ago,
was a lament I heard on my visit to Nebraska.
You could have seen the astonishing spectacle
of the Sandhill Cranes, thousands of them,
feeding and even dancing on the shores of the Platte River.
Because it was physically impossible for me to see Death Valley's flowers or for Collins to watch the cranes dance along the Platte, it is pointless—perhaps even impolite—to bring it up. What benefit accrues from knowing what was missed and can't be reclaimed? To be azaleated by a should-have-been-here-yesterday remark is to be drawn into an awkward exchange in which Collins advises you to affect "a look of mild disappointment / if only to be part of the commiseration." In so doing you acquiesce to a pivot—from birds to words, in Collins' case—that leads to dissembling. You end up saying, in effect, "I am sorry that you are sorry that I missed watching Sandhill Cranes six months ago."
There is nothing like being in the right place at the right time. "Showing up is 80-percent of life," Woody Allen said in the original version of the quotation. I may have missed countless insect hatches on the Provo River, but I have seen the flowering of a night-blooming cereus and a bloom of bioluminescent plankton transforming the Red Sea into a glowing, blue blanket under a midnight sky. And I walked the Spiral Jetty before it was left high and dry by the drought-shrunk Great Salt Lake.
I have twice taken out-of-town visitors to the Spiral Jetty. On the first trip I found it lived up to its artsy reputation. I was impressed by the contrasting colors: red-tinted water, curves of black rock traced in whitish salt, a vaulted blue sky. Returning a few years later, I found the lake had retreated, as it did from Saltair in the 1930s, leaving the jetty surrounded by an ugly mudflat. I was so disappointed, I azaleated my friends thoughtlessly: You should have seen it when the lake was high.
I don't want to play the azaleation game when the Green Drake mayflies begin to hatch on the Provo River in early July. When the feeding frenzy begins, I hope to be in the right place at the right time, reeling in fish after fish. CW
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