We are deep into long rehearsal days and it feels like my time is too thin to spread anymore. I have a rough draft of a blog post on discipline that needs a few more revisions but I can’t seem to carve out any more time from the day. What I should be doing in my ½ hour of free time at the moment is editing that post.
What I’m actually going to do instead is take the next 30 minutes to complain about fish.
I’m going to recount a tale that ends with me spending the last 2 hours with my hand in a slimy green tank on my only morning off.
Flash back to seven weeks ago... my sweet daughter is trapped in hotel quarantine in Sydney, Australia. We have left her family, friends, home, and almost all our belongings to move across the world for my work. Our days are long and the isolation of the hotel room is a deafening echo of the fears we are feeling about our move. Like all five-year-olds, Bird is obsessed with her birthday and as it was about a month away, it consumed a lot of our talk. She would look at me with sad eyes and ask again and again why her cousins and daddy couldn’t come to our new home and celebrate with her. Distance and time are hard concepts for kids.
One morning she rushed over to me, “Mommy! I will be older and I would like to have something to take care of. Something only I take care of. Could I get a pet for my birthday?”. The hopeful feeling I got at seeing her excited about her birthday seeped away and was replaced by guilt and sadness. Pets do not work with our lifestyle. Once again I am going to disappoint my little girl with something else she can’t have because of my work. She saw my face drop and did the most mature thing I’ve seen her do: “It’s ok mommy. I know we can’t get a dog or anything that needs too much work, but maybe it could be something small and easy. Like a fish?” I told her I would think about it and I did. We have a standard in our house (adopted from The Soul Of Discipline by Kim John Payne) that if you need a “Right Now” answer it will be a “No”, but if you can wait for a well thought through answer, it might be a “Yes”. It’s a simple way to teach patience, thoughtfulness, and lessen the instant gratification cycle kids are so prone to. It also helps me stay away from knee jerk answers and allows me the time to see if I really can make something work or at least know that I am giving a well thought through “No”.
So I thought. I thought about the benefits of having a daily responsibility, and maybe some low maintenance cleaning. I thought about how reasonable it would be to ask a neighbor to feed a fish when we traveled. I thought about the space we had and if I could set my daughter up for a first successful “Big Responsibility”. I decided on yes. We were getting a fish.
As a child who grew up in a gym, who lived away from home to train acrobatics, staying with any family who could keep me, who traveled all over the state, country, and world often enough to not be able to care for a fish, I know nothing about fish other than what is portrayed in media. By “media” what I actually mean is, Pete the Cat, A Pet For Pete. If you are unfamiliar with this book, let me recap it for you.
Pete is a cat. He is the main character in a series of children’s books, of which we own one, that being, A Pet For Pete. Pete wants a pet so his mother cat takes him to the pet store where he decides on a classic first pet, a goldfish named Goldie. Goldie lives in a bowl.
Here is where the story starts to deviate from reality.
I take my excited, newly six-year-old child to the pets store across the street from the rehearsal space. She dashes over to the wall of fish tanks to look at all the shimmery, darting, brightly colored creatures inside. I quickly find a lovely young woman who works at the pet store to help me pick out the best home, food, and whatever else a fish needs. In my mind it was going to be a <$100 adventure where we get a bowl, some flakes, rocks, and a fish for the happiest little girl who ever lived and we saunter home and stare at our pretty new friend. So naive. So uninformed….
Back to Pete...The story continues its lies as Pete picks up Goldie, THAT DAY, in her bowl and brings her home to his house.
Ridiculous. Fish are apparently very sensitive and they cannot just go home with you to live in a bowl, unless you want them to die immediately and I didn’t think I could set Bird up for such a disappointment on her first big responsibility. So this lovely woman walks me through all the things we need for our fish. My brow is furrowing as we are going down aisle after aisle of tanks, filtration systems, water conditioners, pH test kits, lamps, and heaters.
On no less than 28 instances I ask her, “Am I getting myself too deep into this?”, to which she assures me that while it may be a big set up and investment up front, fish are very low maintenance first pets and quite fun.
So, unlike Pete and mother cat, Bird and I leave the pet store with $270 worth of fish prep and no fish.
Bird handled it well. I explained that we needed to create the perfect home for our new family member. This is part of caring for something. Sometimes we have to work hard and don’t get the reward until later.
We get home and wash the rocks, and the little house, and the tank, take apart the filtration system, fill the tank, and plug in the light and the water heater. We condition the water and test the pH and the nitrates. We add the bicarbonate, check the temperature, and in less than a week our tank was ready for its new inhabitants.
Back to the pet store to pick out, not one but two angel fishes, named Zebra and Ariana (who is now Lily) and some angel fish food. The process of removing fish from their water to put into your water is a stressful one. I now have anxiety about water temperature and pH and with every slow mixture of liquid I wait for a little fish seizure in terror. Thankfully Zebra and Lily survived this adventure and I watched my little Bird pull up a chair to the counter to watch her new friends zoom about for hours.
This is what Pete’s mother cat must have felt. It was a bit of work but here is the pay off: watching your child thrive with an increase in responsibility.
Now Pete’s story follows that Pete realizes quite quickly that you can’t really do much with a goldfish. He immediately becomes bored and begins to paint pictures of Goldie. These paintings are so pretty that soon everyone in town wants a painted picture of Goldie and Pete is overwhelmed with the amount of painting he must do.
I assumed we might also experience this post excitement realization that fish maybe are too low maintenance and Bird would become bored. I, like mother cat, was ready to reap the rewards of my cleverness in choosing such an easy first pet. I would sit around as my $120 filtration system cleaned the water and look at my beautiful fish paintings.
How wrong I was. What the story of Pete the Cat fails to show is that while Pete was busy painting Goldie, mother cat was working day and night to keep that fucking bowl clean so Goldie didn’t have to breath in the foul mixture of rotten food, shit, and algea that accumulates on every inch of the tank at a rate that brings to life the exponential growth charts from intro to Biology.
Elbow deep in a dank tank chasing around terrified fish as I try not to kill them so I can clean their home so they don’t die, I wonder if that woman in the fish store wakes up laughing at night thinking of all the fools who enter her store bright eyed staring at the pretty fishies through rose colored tanks. Why did I buy a filtration system if it doesn’t clean the water? Why did I have to gently condition my tank for days before bringing my fish home only to have to empty out all the water every 5 days and refill it with unconditioned water? Now my fish live in the pot on the counter in front of the tank in nasty old water without a filter or heater as their fancy tank takes days to condition between cleanings!
I feel bamboozeled! I have been taken for a fool! Somewhere there is a secret cult of fish sales people rehearsing verbiage to trick people into believing that creating a perfectly balanced ecosystem inside your kitchen for an animal that lives in the exact opposite environment of your kitchen is simple, easy, and fun.
I want to sue Pete the Cat for misrepresentation but I’m too busy disinfecting every surface of my kitchen from this morning’s tank cleaning.