Reckless choices involving gin aren’t at the root of every hangover this week.
For some of us, it’s kin that leave us stupefied. A dash of family can do more damage than any holiday bender.
Why aren’t you married yet? You get paid to sit in front of a computer all day? Wow, that’s a lot of screen time you give the kids. Add some political disagreement, talking points from Hannity or Maddow, soak the whole mess in Uncle Jim’s special eggnog and — bam! — you get the family hangover.
But this year, I found the antidote. Strangely enough, it came in the form of my kid brother. And it left me full of hope, inspiration and wonder.
Let me introduce you to Little Bro. We all know that person struggling to find their passion, right? It’s a common trope, “Office Space,” the lost soul floundering in an unfulfilling job. That was my brother for a great many years.
In a culture relentless in its obsession with college and upward mobility, those with gifts and talents outside the curriculum are undervalued. The people who actually make the world function with hands, backs and brains get little in the way of direction. As a society, we expect them to fend for themselves.
Mikey was one of those guys. Since he was tiny, he loved to fish. But my family — and me, too — pushed him to do something more mainstream.
He worked in a concrete plant, where our folks wanted him to join the union. But it didn’t take. Then, he drove a snowplow for the city. He learned how to cook a frozen burrito on his engine block, but that was about it.
My husband and I even moved him in with us for a year, determined to help him get through college. Study marine biology, we said. Or maybe forestry. It was fun, but not productive.
Then, he turned a corner. Mike was always steadfast in drawing a sharp line. “Fishing is my hobby,” he said. “It’s my love. I don’t want to ever mix it with work. I don’t want to ruin fishing.” He didn’t want to sell out, guiding wealthy, weekend anglers to his cherished holes.
So he decided to find jobs that let him fish. The longest run was on the night shift in Safeway, where he eventually moved into management. My parents pushed him hard on this one. “The benefits!” they said.
But I saw it, they saw it, he saw it. He was miserable. So at last, he untied that grocery store apron and headed into a world of fishing. Slowly. The tackle store, selective guiding here and there. Working on a salmon crew.
It was an itinerant life. He was happy. Out on the open sea, unreachable for days. Living in his car and on boats, his entire existence hanging on the whim of silvery steelheads and the hatching pattern of mayflies. His hair grew in dreads not as a fashion, but because he simply didn’t have the time or desire to manage his curls.
He was so extreme that he caught the eye of Field & Stream’s seasoned columnist, Bill Heavey. Mike took Bill on a harrowing fish chase up and down the California coast. Bill put Mike on the cover of Field & Stream as one of America’s craziest fishermen. The story told of their wild adventure, but also served as a cautionary tale dispelling a notion of glamour for anyone daring to chuck it all for a passion.
That was the brother I expected to see again this Christmas.
Instead, I got a surprise.
In the two years since we gathered last, Mike drifted back toward the middle. A woman was part of it, yes. But at 40, he’s also getting older, and the nights of sleeping in the car on the boat ramp (so he’d be first on the water) were beginning to wear on him.
He was back on land, figuratively and literally. In an apartment.
Mikey invited the whole clan to that place.
And there it was — the best Christmas present I got in years.
It was a moment in his small dining room — strung with whimsical white lights threaded with fishing lures capped with wine corks — when the whole family crowded around the table. It’s a place overlooking the working harbor in a small city south of San Francisco. He bikes to his boat, going out any day he wants to make some money during crabbing season. Commercial fishing isn’t the moral high ground of catch-and-release, but he makes it a point to stick to sustainable seafood, champions underrepresented fish and does some guiding here and there.
He brought another bowl of steamed crabs — Dungeness and Box — to the table, making sure Grandma had enough napkins, bringing extra lemon to his nephew. He was so happy, the lord of his perfect, little manor.
He found it. Without the classes we tried to cram him into, without the management track, the union rules, the human resources paperwork, the timecards and without the hungry years of living out of his car. He found it on his own, a way to live his passion in full.
All along, little brother didn’t need a guide. It turns out, he was the guide. And not just for himself, as I suspect we can all learn a little from him.