A Trout Stream Clear as a Crystal Ball.
I’m standing ankle-deep in a trout stream, and it’s cold.
Fast, cold water is what makes the difference between a stream and a trout stream. It’s also the reason a more accomplished angler invests in a pair of rubber waders. I’m not at that point yet. For now it’s just shorts and rubber sandals for me. The water is rapidly carrying all the heat away from my legs and feet.
Maybe being a little cold is part of the effect. Trout fishing makes you think. It’s a communion with what the 19th century romantic poets liked to call “the sublime.”
There is a mesmerizing rhythm to it. You’re casting a long line at the end of a wispy eight-foot rod, working to stay clear of the overhanging rocks and branches, hoping to land the delicate fly just so in the center of the white water babbling around an upstream boulder. Then the current carries the fly straight back to you. The process repeats. The result is a perfect mix of focus and relaxation.
There is also solitude, even if you’re not fishing alone. With an eight-foot rod and twenty feet of line whipping back and forth, anglers need to space themselves far enough apart so they’re not a danger to each other. Some amount of conversation is possible, but it’s nothing like fishing in a boat with friends and a few sixers of beer.
I am not fishing alone. Standing upstream from me, just within earshot, is my son.
The cold water rushing around my ankles connects us.
I worry for him. He’s a doctor, specializing in some very sick patients. In the world beyond our secluded stream the wraps have come off the secret Senate plan to abolish the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and upend the U.S. healthcare system for the second time in eight years.
When I finally ask him if he worries about all the politics aimed at his profession, he doesn’t say much. We’re finally getting some trout on the line. The stream takes precedence over conversation.
It’s only later that he opens up. Insurance is a dumb way to pay for healthcare, he tells me. Insurance works best for things that happen to a random few people, like a tornado hitting your house. The idea is to spread the risk among the larger population. To expect that to work in healthcare ignores the reality that sooner or later 100% of us will see our health fail. The economics only make sense if we think a lot of people will live forever.
Or, the thought occurs to me, if there is a lot more indifference to death. I listen to the debate and sometimes it sounds like the Republicans running Congress are channeling a character out of a Charles Dickens story asking, “Are there no graveyards for the people this country can’t afford to cover? We’ve campaigned for seven years on the promise to repeal Obamacare. Why is it our fault nothing else seems to work?”
That’s why I worry about a compassionate young doctor like my son.
The thing that interrupts the meditative quality of fishing is getting your line tangled. I notice the line isn’t forming its normally graceful loop, and work my way to the end of the long rod. It looks like a skilled weaver has been at work wrapping hook and line up like a spider web. When tangles like this start to happen it’s a sign of fatigue setting in, and that’s the realization my son and I come to at exactly the same point. Even the bald eagle that’s been watching over us from the top of a tall pine tree has flown off to attend to other matters. Fishing decreases. Conversation increases.
My son will soon be leaving Southeastern Minnesota to take a job out west at a big integrated healthcare system. He tells me all the fear and confusion getting mixed into the healthcare law was part of his decision to go. The place he’s headed is huge, with clinics, hospitals and insurance all rolled into one system. He’s hoping that will keep him and his patients as isolated as possible from the political circus.
So he’s moving away. Closeness to home another casualty of our unhealthy need to politicize everything.
But right now we stand joined by a pretty trout stream in the far southeastern corner of Minnesota. The stream flows into the Root River, which empties into the Mississippi and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico a half continent away. So much, all connected to this spot. Maybe that, too, is part of the effect.
Standing in the cold, rushing water, talking some, thinking more, the clarity is like a crystal ball. Here’s what it’s telling me. The purely free market approach to healthcare delivery that Congressional Republicans keep promising doesn’t exist. The employer dependent system we had before the Affordable Care Act was failing badly. Trying to bring it back would be a disaster and could well be the thing that finally pushes the country to the sort of single payer system the Republicans despise. I’m not advocating, just predicing. Look how the current political disruption is already pushing one conscientious doctor to seek shelter in the system most unlike a traditional insurance model he can find.
If I were to recommend anything, it would be to find spots along the banks of this trout stream for all the members of Congress. Who knows what good could come from the opportunity for them to stop talking and do a little clear-sighted thinking.