The Grand Poobah
Years ago I wrote a satiric piece for the Planing Form newsletter. Set to come out on April Fool's day, the title was "An Interview with the World's Greatest Rodbuilder". I made up a name for the builder, Effluens Parabolis, and poked fun at some of the weirder aspects of the craft.
Part of the interview dealt with the subject of poobahism, and some of the hype and bullshit associated with cane rods. One of my favorite bits to lampoon is the so-called 'waiting list', and I wrote something like this:
Q: What makes your rods so valuable?
A: Their rarity.
Q: Please explain.
A: Well, when I built my first rod I had two potential buyers. In other words, demand exceeded supply. So I raised my prices and built fewer rods. This in turn attracted more buyers and generated a 'waiting list', so I raised prices again and again. Eventually it is my goal to work less and less for more and more money until I eventually don't have to work at all.
The longer I've been in this craft, the more this 'satire' has become reality. And perhaps even more frightening, there were people who really believed that there was a builder out there named Effluens ..
Not long ago, a friend sent me a rod to examine made by one of the Grand Poobahs of rodbuilding. After he mailed it he asked that I return it insured for $5,000. By the time it arrived I was so damn intimidated that I was afraid to touch the thing, but after donning some rubber surgical gloves I gave it a good look. What I found was a nice rod. Well-made but far from perfect, I was more then a bit disappointed. After all, it was made by a grand poobah.
How big a poobah, you may ask? Well, this poobah had been known to walk through shows examining and critiquing the work of others. One guy told me that at a show, the poobah's entrance was actually announced over the PA system. "Ladies and gentleman, the poobah is in the building."
Just like Elvis.
Swear to God.
Now here's the kicker: the guy that sent me the rod told me that he insured the rod for 5K because he knew if he sold it, he could get that price because the guy wasn't building them anymore. Hmmmm. All of a sudden it was worth a lot because the guy isn't working.
This sent me to thinking about the various aspects of poobahism. How does one become a poobah? Who grants the designation? Is it better for the poobah to do nothing, or to actually work at the craft? Is poobahism related to quality? After a long period of observation, I'm gonna let it rip .
The Pissing Contest
"The waiting is the hardest part"- Tom Petty
One of the biggest aspects to poobahism is the rodbuilder's version of who can piss the farthest (cue fanfare music): THE WAITING LIST. It's also one of the biggest lies in rodbuilding, and there's so many ways to look at it, it boggles the mind.
The psychology behind the waiting list was illustrated perfectly by the gentleman that sent me the rod. The longer the wait, the more desirable it must be. I always wonder if this isn't just another version of that beautiful girl you dated that never put out for you constantly putting you off. The more she kept it, the harder you wanted to get it. And if she kept it, boy it must really be good. Eventually you either got it (thank GOD!), or moved on to greener pastures. Maybe you did eventually get it, and moved on to greener pastures anyway. There might be a lesson in there for rod buyers. Come to think of it, maybe you never got it at all. Another lesson for some rod buyers.
Just how pervasive this is in rodbuilding can't be overstated. One friend who builds a very beautiful rod related to me one of his experiences. He worked diligently for months to get some rods ready for a show. Really busted his ass. A guy came by his booth, examined his rods and raved about how nice they looked and asked him if the rods he was displaying were available. 'Yes', said the proud builder. 'You must not be much of a rodbuilder,' replied the moron.
Another told me how he was coached by a grand poobah. The GP told him that under no circumstances should he ever have a rod available for immediate sale, even if the exact rod the customer wanted was sitting in a closet gathering dust. He explained the 'proper' way to handle such a buyer: tell them you have a three-year waiting list. Take his name and number, and then wait a couple months. After some time has passed, call the buyer and tell him that it's his lucky day! Explain that the original buyer ordered the exact same rod years ago, and you were just getting ready to deliver it but he's either passed away or having financial difficulties. You've just made his day, and yer Poobah Factor is intact.
There are poobahs that come to shows year after year. I've had people tell me that they've waited forever to get the rod they ordered from some of these poobahs. Yet year after year, the poobahs are there at the shows always with a couple new rods for sale and always taking more orders. Meanwhile, people are sill waiting and the waiting list keeps lengthening. The legend keeps growing, as does the size of the poobah's ego.
Some poobahs generate their 'waiting list' utilizing the most common tactic: they don't build anything! Look at it this way: a rodbuilder that builds 2 rods a year with six rods on order is backordered three years! Wow! On the other hand, the guy that busts his butt and builds 40 rods a year is backordered less then two months in this scenario. Who's the better, or more desirable, builder? It should stand to reason that the guy that builds the 40 rods a year has gained a lot more experience over time then the guy that builds 2.
And before you think I'm engaging in a bit of hyperbole concerning the above scenario of a builder making just two rods a year: Recently a poobah informed me that he's built a grand total of two rods in 2 ½ years!
I read in a catalog recently one dealer saying something to the effect that he aggressively acquires rods made from builder x whenever they come on the market because the waiting period was 'intolerable'. Someone better clue this dealer in that the builder is out of business, lest he die of frustration waiting for another rod.
There are companies that do have legitimate large numbers of backorders and a wait that can stretch into years. How do they do this? If you examine their catalogs you'll notice that they may have hundreds of dealers worldwide and impeccable reputations. Every day thousands of potential buyers can see their work at flyshops, and their advertising budgets are unbelievable. Yet, they don't make huge numbers of cane rods. So the smart cane purchaser might get a bit wary if a builder claims an immense waiting list but invests no time or money in promotion. And they might be just as wary if the builder quotes an unusually long waiting time after visiting a builder at a show. If they were really back ordered ten years, why the hell would they spend $800 renting a booth at a flyfishing show?
How does one get to be a poobah? The poobah status is either self-conferred or conferred by others, and there are various methods toward the end of being granted exalted poobah status.
The Self-Made Poobah
The self-made poobah becomes a poobah by saying he's a poobah over and over again until such poobahism becomes common knowledge through the mere act of repetition. Usually, this form of self -puffery is a combination of exaggerated claims of competence and achievement and a propensity towards what Gierach calls 'expertising'.
The equivalent version of resume' padding in the rodbuilding world is claiming that maker x has built x number of rods. I heard that one actually started by numbering his first rod with the number 1,000. There are tales of some builders claiming to make hundreds of rods yet their rods are rarely, if ever, actually seen.
Some people never question the number of rods built. Numbers, in and of themselves, can cut two ways. Huge numbers built by a single builder in a short time period are impossible, especially if they are of exemplary quality. The builder must have some help: someone building the blanks or someone to finish out the rods, perhaps. And there is nothing wrong with this as anyone can establish a company, train workers and build lots of rods. It only becomes problematical when a builder claims to be doing the work personally.
And the numbers don't tell the whole story as long as they're honest and not inflated. I've seen some very nice work by people that build very few rods. They put their heart and soul and long hours into them, but they don't rely upon them for a livelihood. Then again, in the world of numbers the logic sometimes gets turned upside down
Take the case of Pinky Gillum. In Spurr's book, it is noted that a number of Gillum's already low production numbers were reduced over the years because so many fell apart due to poor glue! This would seem to effect the reputation of the Gillum rod in a negative way, but noooooo. In a perverse twist, the number of crappy rods that fell apart makes the remaining rods more valuable because there are fewer of them around! Amazing. There may be a lesson in here, but before you go off and buy some outdated glue remember that this only works for rodbuilders that are dead.
There are ample avenues for the rodbuilder to pontificate with vigor: shows, Internet chats and mailing lists, writing a book, making a video, rodbuilder's gatherings. Someone once told me they attended a rodbuilding gathering where a person gave a little lecture on an aspect of building cane rods. The newbies to the craft sat in rapt attention as the lecture progressed, but an experienced builder began to realize that the talk was a bit odd. It was just that a few of the things this person said didn't make a hell of a lot of sense.
After the 'lecture' the builder approached the individual and discreetly asked him how many rods he'd built. "None," came the reply, "but I'm hoping to get started soon." This incident would be enough to garner a few chuckles among the knowing, but get this: the very next year this person spoke again, and you guessed it, still hadn't completed his first rod.
Writing a book is almost a sure route to poobahdom. There is much power and authority in the written word, especially if the reader is a bit naïve about the subject under consideration and even more so if the book has a catchy and not-so-humble title. You never find a book tiled, "The Barely Competent Home Building Hobbyist Guide to Cane Rods", for instance. This would never be considered the Bible of the craft because the title doesn't denote the proper 'cache' of the author. When I write my book you can bet your last dollar it'll be titled, "The Master's Master: Discovering the Genius Behind the Wagner Rod".
Even though I'll be older when the book is written, it'll still be better to pay a very handsome and very old man to pose on the cover in a tweed jacket, pipe in mouth, looking determined yet aloof. No one has to know it isn't me. We expect our masters to be old and dignified in appearance, and the pipe and tweed jackets are fly-fishing icons.
Expertising is always best done with a pipe in hand. The pipe adds a professorial air to one's persona. Tamp your pipe with an absent-minded attitude while staring off into space. Act bored and impatient with the ignorance in the world. Chuckle dismissively. Reading glasses on a little chain are a nice touch. In the old days, you'd have a pocket protector and a slide rule. It also helps to do a little 'cross training' in unrelated fields. You don't need any real knowledge so long as you're careful how you use it and who might be around. Learn to use words like 'coefficient', 'stress analysis', 'parameter', 'paradigm', 'modulus', 'lignin', 'parabolic'. Then practice putting them together in a sentence: "Utilizing a stress analysis coefficient taking into account the lignin parameters, I have achieved a novel parabolic paradigm "
Speak with authority, don't waver or equivocate. Don't say, "I feel that' Instead, say "It's my learned experienced based upon analysing all the variables in both qualitative and quantitative regressive quanta differentiation models "
Make sure you say analysing with an 's'. It's very important that you do so.
And don't ever say, "I don't know."
Even the way one walks is important. A number of poobahs have perfected what is called the 'rodbuilder's strut'. Walk slowly, regally, chest out. When looking at a person, focus on space two feet over their heads so that it appears you are physically 'above them.' At shows, perching yourself in a high chair acts as a surrogate 'throne' and confers status and power.
It also helps to develop a colorful personality to convey a certain mystique and aura of pomposity. I've heard tales of rodbuilders that refused to answer the phone, thus conveying the impression that they are toiling like a monk in silence. Hell, I've heard stories of builders ripping the phone off the wall in piques of artistic obstinance: "I'm an artiste, dammit, and need my concentration!"
A good story about a builder can help achieve almost mythical status. Take the well-known one about Gillum. The story goes that Pinky sells a rod to guy, then sees him on the stream some time later using the rod to pull his fly free from a tree. The legend goes that Pinky was appalled, rushed into the stream, grabbed the rod out of the owner's hand and refunded the customer's money on the spot.
Do you buy this tale? I sure don't, as I've never met a builder on the water that had more then a $20 bill in his pocket.
Poobahism by Confirmation
Poobahism can be conferred both by association with another poobah and/or authority, or these can be combined with self-made poobahism.
An example of the latter was the guy that said he trained under grand poobah X. After finishing his first rod just prior to a show, he let someone wiggle it a bit to demonstrate all he had learned under the tutelage of his master poobah. As he got the rod back and broke it down, a ferrule came off. I guess he was sleeping through the poobah's ferruling session. Undaunted and unhumbled he almost immediately claimed a one-year waiting list. I guess he needed the year for a little more practice.
In the old days, studying under a poobah did have some real meaning. These were men that worked at this craft on a daily basis. Every day, year in and year out. And the apprentice got to learn from people that were real experts. The thing I've found about these people, however, is that unlike the modern-day poobahs they are invariably the most humble and soft-spoken of all cane craftsmen. Not all of them deport themselves in this fashion, but most of them do.
It's a funny thing that self-proclaimed poobahism is sometimes met with skepticism, yet accepted eagerly if it is conferred by a 'neutral' third party. Rodbuilders see this all the time. A potential buyer may look at their work, examine it and cast it, but never buy a rod directly from the builder. They'll only buy a rod from a dealer. It's like they need someone to confirm their instincts that the work is well done, and they assume that the dealer knows more about cane rods then they do, which isn't always the case.
And the dealer is hardly a disinterested party to the transaction. In fact, many of them hype goods to an embarrassing degree, making it sound like the rod or reel was produced by God himself. And they'll have glowing words only for the items that they carry. This makes perfect sense from a business standpoint: why waste anything promoting something you can't get to sell? I encountered a similar circumstance at a local flyshop. We were casting rods one day when one of the employees at the shop made a disparaging comment on the reel I was using. "Where did you get that thing," he inquired? "I bought from your shop years ago," was my straight-faced reply. Only because they no longer carried the item was it suddenly not so hot.
Another form of poobahism by confirmation is achieved through fishing journalists writing about a person or place. Not that some writers aren't both good people and good fisherman. Many wouldn't dream of taking a rod in return for a nice article. On the other hand, many wouldn't dream of writing the article without getting the rod up front.
I had never given this sort of thing any attention until I got into business, and I suppose it's probably rampant in all businesses. But when you read about how great the fishing was at "Lake Wondertrout" I think it only fair, decent and honest that the authors disclose any pre-existing relationship or special treatment. It doesn't have to be a blatant declaration. "I was invited to experience the charms of Lake Wondertrout after the outfitter flew me there, put me up for a week, fed me three squares a day, plied me with guides, flies, booze, and a trip to the strip joint down the road and just by coincidence I caught at least 50 7 lb. Brook Trout, and it was all gratis."
No, a simple acknowledgement that they were a guest would suffice. Then we could all read between the lines and take our chances accordingly. But now I'm digressing into a talk about the incredible corruption in the world of fishing publications, which is another subject deserving of its own column.
Well, that's all for now on the subject of Poobahism. Now get back on the listserve and practice, practice, practice.
Copyright 2002, 2003, 2004 J.D. Wagner, Inc.