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Beyond Skill

BY John Blase Journal
BY Alex Via

"...Unaccompanied by other more humane qualities, skill can produce a bully like Jim or a tinhorn like the cook. The code goes beyond skill to character; for those who subscribe to it, it defines a man. A man for young Norman Maclean is neither mouthy nor finicky; he is stoical in the face of pain; he does not start fights but he tries to finish them; he does what his job and his morality tell him to do. But he cannot get by on mere skill. He needs something else, some decency or compassion that can only be learned from such sources as the boys' father preacher. In the beginning, he reminds his son, was the Word."
~ Wallace Stegner, "Haunted By Waters: Norman Maclean" in 

Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

A part of the ethos here at Buffalo Jackson is looking back into our collective past to try and get some bearing as to what it means to be a man, and then allow that to inform us as to how to live as men today and also into tomorrow. We routinely point to very recognizable names like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir and Ernest Hemmingway. We also, on occasion, mention men not quite on that level of celebrity, but still familiar to the culture at large. One such name is Norman Maclean.

If you haven’t read A River Runs Through It, I hope you’ve at least watched Robert Redford’s cinematic version of it. Both the story and the movie are dated, but they have stood and continue to stand the test of time. I included the quote above because I believe Wallace Stegner (another fine example of the rugged gentleman) gets at something essential for the ongoing definition of what it means to be a man. Skill can only carry a man so far, then “he needs something else.” That additional ingredient is character. Without character, you can be quite impressive at what you do and maybe even make a buttload of dough doing it, but you’ll be lacking when it comes to fully being a man.

Stegner calls that character piece “decency or compassion.” He furthermore says that piece comes from outside sources. In other words, someone has to model it for us, and we have to have at least one eye open to notice it. For Maclean that modeler was his preacher father, a man as skilled at fly-fishing as he was preaching. And both of those skills were undergirded by a compassion that haunted Maclean the man the rest of his good life. That decency leaps off the pages of A River Runs Through It. It leaps off the movie screen too if that’s more your speed. But both mediums not only tell us about what it means to be a man, they show us in living color. And that’s something worth our attention and time if we truly are interested in being a man, and not a bully or a tinhorn.


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