When I was in college, I befriended a grizzled, old Philosophy professor who loved vodka and smoked a ton of butts in between classes. Rumor held that he kept warm vodka toddies in his coffee mug, sipping it throughout his early morning sessions speaking in front of half-sleeping, empty-minded college students.
Professor Zeno remembers everything. In the first day of class, making role call, he remembered my buddy Pat’s college entrance essay which included a reference to fishing. Pat had submitted that essay on his college application over a year earlier. Zeno must have reviewed thousands of those things.
Luckily, Zeno loved me (and Pat) because we loved fishing and listening to him, so we got “A”s all the time. For many students though, his ramblings soared over and above their heads, never making any sense. Over a semester, it gets harder and harder to endure long seminars that are designed to twist the mind and bring it back to a point an hour later, if you can follow along. Zeno always held his classes early in the morning, in basement classrooms with few windows. But now I realize he picked that time and place to weed out the weed-heads and allow the people who could listen and follow him to do just that, without distractions.
What I also realized, and what helped me get through all of those Philosophy classes, was that it was just an exercise for the mind. To much of an extent, the only point of Philosophy is to think together. To discuss, to interact and to work the mind through problems in a logical way, based on past arguments and developing thoughts. There may never be a solution or resolution, but the act of thinking is healthy and makes you a better person. I only realized this after 4 years of classes, but he told us we’d get something out of it.
That being said, the most important aspect of Zeno’s lessons and maybe the most important thing I took home from college was the notion of Insight. We spent a whole semester studying insight into insight, a phrase used to describe the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian, Jesuit professor who was around from ‘04-’84.
An insight is the moment you recognize and realize something new. It’s a flash of brilliance, a chance to notice something, the exact point at which your eyes are opened to a new idea. Insights open the door to other ideas, which bring more insights. Insights are the building blocks of all knowledge and if you watch out for them, and realize when one occurs, they can really make your day better.
Imagine ambling down a sidewalk and being completely aware of what’s around you. Every detail is enhanced, you notice everything, you realize things about details in your world that most people pass by in the normal, modern human stupor. Zeno brought the idea of noticing the beauty in everyday things to light for us. He described the taste of his vodka in short, simple terms, smacking his lips in between phrases to illustrate his love of vodka.
Close to the end of school, we would frequently meet Prof. Zeno outside the building and talk about fishing. He loved the simplicity of it, the chance to catch a big fish with every cast. He likened fishing to Philosophy in the sense that every argument, every new thought is like a cast, and you might not ever catch anything, but simply the act of fishing was worthwhile and a healthy human exercise.
Every once in a while, if you’re aware enough to pick the right lure, match the fly hatch correctly and get really lucky, there comes along a fish that takes your line. Each fish hooked and caught is like an insight, a moment in time where surprise, delight and the knowledge that you’re alive in a world of living things becomes apparent and important.
At my final meeting with Carl Zeno, he was evaluating my final essay (which obviously included plenty of references to fishing), and we were talking about the upcoming summer. He said he had a lot of reading to do and I admitted that I simply did not read enough, but when I did work over a book, it usually involved fly fishing. Prof. Zeno’s eye’s lit up and he smacked his lips as if he could taste the vokda. He told me straight up to get a hold of a book called, “The River Why”, by David James Duncan.
I’ve tried to read this book all the way through many times and my mind-set was never quite up to it. I’d get through a few pages and some weird language or metaphor would lose me and I’d just put it down. I used to tell myself my mind was just not ready for the book and when it was, I’d read it and understand it and enjoy it. This is a classic Vince-ism. I have a hard time reading books from start to finish. Same with journals. I have a dozen half-read books and several journals with 1/3 the pages full.
I just picked up “The River Why” again and jumped to a chapter to begin reading (this is also a classic move). Only today, did I realize the whole setting for this book is a river that exists near the central Oregon coast, in the Tillamook forest. It made me think about my passion for fly fishing again and my time at Saint Michael’s and my time thinking with Carl Zeno.
Here’s the opening quote from the chapter I opened to, entitled “Philosophizing”, in the book “The River Why”: All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.
Fisherman notice everything.