Zen of handlining crabs, flying Blue Angels, playing cello

August 13, 2021

One of the great and simple pleasures of Delmarva life is handlining for feisty, greedy and claw-snapping blue crabs. Fun to catch and fun to eat.

Catching them takes skill, focus and patience – especially patience – and a quick net.

My first handlining experience came in an old, blue, wooden skiff just above the Chester River Bridge in Chestertown when counting my age took only one hand.

My old man rigged up big rockfish heads that he picked up from the wet-concrete-floored fish store downtown. He threaded a lead weight tied on a cotton line through the gill and mouth of the fish. Used 2- or 3-ounce sinkers to keep them on the bottom. After securing the line with a couple half hitches, he tossed the heads and lines overboard, and tied them off on the boat’s gunnel. We were crabbing.

Those big, fat river crabs sure did like rockfish heads. If you were patient and focused enough, you could catch a good mess of crabs in a couple of hours. When you see your line starting to go taut, you give it a feel, and you can tell if the crab is eating and trying to haul away his prize.

Then comes the patience.

Slowly, inch by inch, you start bringing the line, hand over hand, within dipping distance. Then, just when he gets close enough to the surface, you dip under the whole rockfish and crab combo, bring it out of the water being careful not to let the crab climb out, separate the fish head from the crab, and then dump the crab in a bushel basket or 5-gallon bucket. If you hear a solid thump when the crab hits the bottom, you know you have a fat one packed with sweet, white meat, these days running $50 or $60 a pound.

So what does handlining crabs have to do with the Navy’s famous Blue Angels flying team and playing the cello?

Just last Sunday, we were visiting children and grandchildren in Annapolis. Rob invited me to play pickleball that morning. Sounded good to me. That’s how I found myself in conversation with Jack and Mickey at Annapolis’s Truxton Park pickleball and tennis complex.

Jack spoke to Mickey 

“Hey Mickey, did you go to sleep last night thinking about the shots you were going to try today?” The question took me to the realm of mindfulness, living in the moment, distraction replaced by focus and visualization. Easing crabs into the reach of the net.

While Mickey laughed at Jack’s question, my thinking moved immediately to Daniel Silva’s latest novel, “The Cellist.”

Silva has written 20 or so novels with Gabriel Allon as his central character. The assassin and Israeli intelligence operative uses mindfulness to keep himself laser-focused, whether maintaining his cover as an expert art restorationist or dealing with existential threats to his homeland.

Weaving contemporary geopolitical issues into his novels – the latest includes the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. – Silva has been in the habit of bringing out a new novel each July. “The Cellist” continued that pattern.

I mentioned the novel in the conversation with Jack and Mickey. “The cello player, when she has time to fill, places the fingers of her left hand on her right arm as if it’s the neck of her cello. She hears her memorized concertos and other classical pieces in her mind as she moves her fingers over the imaginary strings on her arm. She knows when she’s hit bad notes which, in the novel, never happens. Her visualization exercises help keep her mind in the moment rather than racing ahead to other, perhaps less pleasant, events that might lie ahead.” 

That scenario took Mickey’s head to the Blue Angels. “That’s similar to what the Blue Angels jet pilots do before some of their shows,” he said. “They all sit down at a table before they head out for takeoff. There, they visualize every step of their flights, starting with their march out to the planes, moving the imaginary controls with their hands, every bit of the process. When they’ve rehearsed all of their maneuvers, including their landings, they know they’re ready for the show.”

Though I’m certainly not equating the complexity of flying a jet or playing a cello concerto with handlining a crab, for me there is nonetheless a Zen connection among the three that binds us all, and allows us to celebrate our participation as humans in achievements great and small.  

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