Ask Matt Labash: A special philistine edition, defending mall culture, and chumming with a fly rod

Matt Labash | Columnist

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Dear Matt, I like pop music, chain restaurants and the average shopping mall. I like box-office smashes and even the occasional New York Times bestseller. Why must I be ashamed of this? Does everyone have to be quirky? — Layla M.

You’re a brave lady for admitting such things in public. If I weren’t happily married, I’d whisk you away to my local mall, where we’d hit the multiplex and see something insufferably low-to-middlebrow, preferably with homoerotic vampires, or anything featuring Tyler Perry in lots of prosthetics playing fat’n’sassy black women. Afterward, I’d feed you BBQ chicken pizza and lettuce wraps at the California Pizza Kitchen (“CPK,” to those in the know). We would laugh and canoodle, perhaps enjoying an overly-sweet Jacob’s Creek Moscato, with Katy Perry playing in the background. (Studies show that 90 percent of all songs played in malls are sung by Katy Perry. The other 10 percent being sung by The Black Eyed Peas.)

From there, we’d head off to Menchie’s for some “fro-yo” as the children of the Mall say. I’d probably get something wholesome and healthy, like dairy-free mango tango sorbet. But you — you’d get a heaping cup full of pina colada tart with fruity pebbles and Heath toffee crumblings from the “snackage bar,” because you’re clearly a naughty monkey. A decadent lust pot, who is just itching to have me take you back to your Pottery-Barn furnished boudoir where you’d wear a necktie blindfold as I spanked you in slightly-dangerous-but-ultimately-non-threatening fashion, as fantasized about by the gals in your “Fifty Shades of Grey” book club.

The point being: there’s no cause to be ashamed of your unapologetic in-the-main-vein taste. Sure, the sound you hear might be that of your soul withering inside of you. But you’re what made this country great. Or at least what helped us achieve our pre-2008 levels of consumerist mediocrity. Because you bought what The Man is selling, thus providing untold sums of corporate earnings and much-needed service-sector jobs. Which are looking pretty good right about now in recession-addled America. Plus, you like these things. They make you happy. And if you think you’re happy, you are. Happiness, like being in love, is largely a perpetual state of self-delusion. Much as loving someone isn’t merely an affirmation of their positive traits, but choosing to overlook their negative ones, being happy isn’t purely about happiness, however that’s defined. It’s about choosing not to be miserable. And if the California Pizza Kitchen (which if we’re being honest, is pretty freakin’ tasty) helps inoculate you against the rest of life’s indignities, I say embrace it.

It is better to be uncooly happy than unhappily cool. For being the former is more desirable than moving to Austin or Williamsburg or Branson (so uncool, that it’s going to soon be regarded as cool — just watch) so you can live out your days as a hipster malcontent. If everybody’s a quirky rebel, there’s nothing left to rebel against. Every outlaw needs a law, in order to have something to break. Every counterculture needs a culture against which to measure itself. They are, in effect, the parasites, and you, the bourgeois host upon which they feed. You are just busy being you. Whereas, they are forever concerned with not being you. Without your ilk taking up so much unfashionable space throughout America, hipsters might choose to live everywhere, instead of in the enclaves that they flock to. So even if you do nothing else with your life, just for keeping them sequestered, a grateful nation thanks you.

Here’s another potentially heretical question. We chase stripers on the fly around Long Island, sight-casting when we can. But I’m considering trying something different. Anchoring up, chumming and running a sinking line with a bunker pattern through the slick. Like the yellowfin guys do in the Gulf. Is this an outrage to fly-fishing orthodoxy? — Andrei Bogolubov

Absolutely! Isn’t that part of the fun of it, though? Recall that in the old days, dry fly purists would consider you a criminal or pervert just for nymph or streamer fishing. I always prefer dry flies when the fish are interested. There’s no more satisfying way to catch fish. But most of us nowadays wouldn’t think of going fishing without plenty of nymphs and streamers in our box. Meaning we must think of new ways to upset the old order. Personally, I do it by throwing all manner of non-flies on my fly rod from shad darts to little atrocities known as Mini Mites, which are smaller and which sink and jig better than nearly all of my streamers, and which are smallmouth and striper-catching machines that actually benefit from the additional animation that a fly rod gives them.

As anyone who has done both knows, in most ways, fly fishing is preferable to the kind of fishing practiced by our bait-slinging brethren. It doesn’t make us superior people, mind you. Many of us, I’m told, are insufferable bores and prisspots. Head into the fly fishing section of any bookstore (if you can still find a bookstore), and you will immediately and overwhelmingly confirm that the one attribute we possess in spades over bait fishermen is that of self-regard.

Yet because of the nature of our tackle and the places we fish with it, I’d submit that we do tend to savor each fish caught, on balance, more than the average bait fisherman. Not only because fly casting is more fun and the majority of fish we catch come by hand-tugging them in with our primitive (albeit, often overpriced) tools. So that we’re frequently meeting fish without the joy-killing buffer of a reel, a contrast in sensation that could be compared to running through a field of sunflowers naked (fly rod) vs. running through one in a hazmat suit (spinning rod).

But since our flies aren’t real food, our deception has more integrity than that practiced by bait fishermen. I can, in good conscience, look a greedy striper in the face, and tell him that he had a hand in his own fate when he decided to murderously smite my Lefty’s Deceiver, even if I let him go with a warning. (I let all fish go with warnings.) Much harder, however, to look him in the eye if I caught him with a live-lined spot, spot being a food item that is on his natural menu — thus decreasing the sport of it all. Put yourself in the striper’s place. If you got hooked by biting into a tetherball, you’d say, “That was dumb of me, and I got what I deserved.” Whereas, if you were hooked by biting into a juicy ribeye, you’d say, “What do you want from me?  It’s a steak, and I was hungry.”

I would never, of course, chum for trout or freshwater bass. If you can’t cut a river down to size to catch them, then maybe you don’t deserve to. That said, without diving birds or clouds of panicked baitfish, stripers can be hard to find in large bodies of open, unreadable water. As the estimable John Gierach writes in his vastly entertaining 2011 book “No Shortage of Good Days,” when fishing the Sea of Cortez, Gierach’s guide told him that some fly fishermen were loathe to fish over chum, a common technique in those parts. The guide’s cure for which was “to take them out on featureless blue water without a fish in sight and ask, ‘Okay, where do you want to cast?’”

Of course if you do this around Long Island, your friends will all think less of you as a fisherman. And I probably will too. But now would be a good time to ask yourself who you’re fishing for. You, or us? Whether you catch stripers on a lonely fly, or on a lonely fly in a chum cloud, we aren’t going to enjoy your fish either way. Whereas, you will, both ways. And from the striper’s perspective, so long as you let him go, chumming has its upsides. If you catch him honestly, all he gets is a lip piercing. But if he gets to ingest a wake full of fish guts before smacking your clouser, at least he had some hors d’oeuvres to show for his troubles.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.

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