The Parable of the Fish
Rick was the kind of guy who used people. He did it because he wanted as much out of life as he could get, by any means within his broad definition of moral action. When he moved to Seattle it was to improve his options, expand his contacts, make good on his debt to the college degree that had somehow languished in the quiet pond of lazy Ohio summers. He was young and plain, and maintained an air of incurious indifference to everything outside his previous experience. At the same time, what he did sample during his strained tenure with reality became immediately passé upon its experience, so that nothing mattered but: NOW—the moment of passion for an appropriate issue; and TOMORROW—the inevitable extension of a vain confidence in his capacity to make all the right decisions.
Rick appeared, to the unpracticed eye, as a mild-mannered, unimposing, self-deprecating individual whose farmhouse idioms and staid ideals inspired confidence, even trust. He had, after all, no friends or relatives in Seattle; he needed support, companionship, entertainment, life. What more potent example of the lost and needy soul could present itself? How could a caring heart turn away from this short, balding twenty-six year old who expressed his myriad expectations so artfully? So shrewdly? So deceptively?
Janet, on the other hand, was a lonely hunter. A thousand white knights had galloped to her door, but, alas, she had protested too much. Too much? She didn't like to complain, but she was nearing forty, and the prospect of remaining unmarried, unbefriended, and childless for another forty years was excessively horrifying to her. For some reason, in the absence of a better plan for life than the one exemplified by all the women close to her—her mother, sisters, close girlfriends—she had adopted the pursuit of a suitable mate as the focus of all her applied energies. But lurking beneath each suitor's smooth smiles and enchanted evenings was a consistently tragic and corruptive conquest: sex. Then he wouldn't commit, or lacked uniqueness, or had personal tastes intolerably disparate to her own, or he was perfect beyond expectation but was inaccessible or uninterested. . . And as the list of failed potentials grew, Janet's attitude worsened: complaints became indictments, disagreements waxed cataclysmic, depression was a general continuum interrupted only by brief, narcotic bursts of seppuku fantasy.
Philosophy has stemmed from, been related to, and modeled after systems of nature. The reading of many esoteric tomes has no end. Likewise the unnatural, supernatural, and mechanical have inspired ephemeral speculation, so that nothing living, inanimate, or speculative has escaped our propensity to expound. One noticeable exception, at least to my knowledge, is the twenty gallon aquarium. Aquariums provide a microcosmic union of natural and mechanical processes, and a macrocosm of tiny, tiny ideas. Consider the lilies of the aquarium and how they grow: they need not be firmly rooted in the gravelly bottom; they climb and branch rapidly, filling all available space; and when a section of lily is forcefully separated from its parent, it needs no encouragement to become a healthy, self-sufficient, competing organism. And lilies are only for show! They serve no practical function in a well-filtered, frequently freshened aquarium other than to liven the atmosphere. Some aquarium owners prefer plastic plants, because they need even less care and provide similar benefits, although these falter in their provision of an interesting allegory.
The fish? Domesticated residents of the twenty gallon aquarium seldom feel alone, because they want to be alone. Why else would they eat their young? Why would they battle with each other over territory so restricted and obviously confined, nipping and tearing and chewing each other, until a single victor emerges? They devour all available food supplies, leave nothing to regenerate or reproduce, and starve if not refed.
Fish are also dictators.
The most important decisions an aquarium owner can make have to do with variety and quantity of fish purchased for a tank. Very few species establish rapport with each other, and quite a large number consider all other fish, even those of the same race, to be a threat worthy of annihilation. Thankfully, most small fish live relatively short lives, increasing the potential for, or probability of, the right combination of suckers, predators, bottom feeders and fighters.
Rick liked to be alone. Only prestige and social consciousness enticed him to interact, otherwise he would have read "significant" literature and kept to himself. Choosing the correct relationships was, he supposed, paramount to his success in life. Dropping unwanted acquaintances, or ridding himself of the well-intentioned but boring people who helped him along his way, was also crucial in his cultivation of an elite support group. He had not, among many, many other things, yet learned the separation of public and private relationships. Everything was for a political purpose but essentially private interest. Consequently, he neglected to define the use of his friends to his friends, deeming them incapable of --or otherwise disinterested in--a complete understanding of their place in his life. He always made his goals very clear, however, and secured his furtherance along the road to liberal nirvana by acutely criticizing any attempts from his friends or the public at large to narrow his mind, restrict his actions, or deny him access to the resources he so needed.
You couldn't fault him for a lack of justification. Growing up as an oppressed, sexually frustrated child of a self-worship cult, he was bound to reject his roots and reach for new experience. Martha and Bill, his parents, were caring people who strictly adhered to their cult's doctrines. They opposed intellectualism, grasping instead at the raw emotions that freed them from critical thought. They embraced every primal, instinctive urge they felt had to, in some way, further the human species. Certainly other animals had existed as long as the homo sapiens on gut-reaction alone, so why not them? They vested themselves with supreme authority over right and wrong, which didn't exist objectively, but as subjective perceptions of what was "constructive" or "destructive" to self and self-worth.
Rick had adopted his parent's attitudes and beliefs for the first nine years of his life. It was the innocence with which he had embraced these truths, the loyal fervor which had infected his childhood brain, that bred contempt and distrust of all people during his adulthood. Throughout his adolescence he had berated himself: How could he have closed his mind to the infinite varieties and complex modes of intellectual exploration? How could he have spread his emotions so thinly under the pulp of parental guidance, displaying his guts before the eyes of the unseeing? Now that he was free, he opened his mind, and closed his heart. But the obsession with self—self-awareness, self-stimulation, self-betterment, self-security, self-fulfillment, self-priority—which his parents taught him was never left behind, and Rick fled his home town in reverse orbit around the same narcissistic nucleus.
Cleaning the aquarium is very important. A vacuum can be created using a large flexible tube or hose, with one end emptying into a bucket below the aquarium. The resultant flow of water, initiated by first sucking on the free end of the hose, exhibits adequate force to eliminate unwanted food particles, algae, and fish crap from the bottom of the aquarium. It is important to use a waste-water bucket of sufficient capacity to accommodate the siphoned muck, or a smelly, dirty mess will spill everywhere. Why does the fish tank need to be cleaned? A good question. Some people rarely, if ever, clean their aquariums, leaving their fish to gag and sicken in the pervading putrescence. Most owners clean their tanks regularly, but because they've never witnessed a totally disintegrated ecosystem and its inevitable conclusion, they tire of and resent the weekly ritual. Who were these fish store owners, anyway, to tell them how to run their lives?
Janet hated being alone. Empty rooms screamed incantations of personal failure, the silent telephone and doorbell redoubled her fears, until she ran crying from her apartment. She had been a strong woman, once. She had toured the United States, lecturing on investment strategies and business start-up capital acquisition. She had owned four or five thriving outfits, ranging from a florist shop to a movie theater, had nurtured them to excellent profitability, and sold them to high-bidding New York conglomerates. Now she didn't need to work. What of it? She filled her days with concerts, books, films, meals at better restaurants, and liaisons with the few friends she hadn't alienated with her incessant whining. Sometimes, when she sensed a need to reinforce her one goal left in life, she would invite her married friends over for dinner. Janet would grill them for details on how the two met, why they chose to have children when they did, where they planned to spend their remaining years together. . .it was essential information, because Janet still had a shot at life. She was intelligent, attractive, and dulled the sun with her cynical wit. She was just very very picky about her men.
When she could fall in love she left most of herself behind. Why? That was the observed precedent, and she lacked the capacity to suspend herself from "appropriate" and "historical" patterns of courtship and romance. She understood her own body, but not the chemistry that evoked her fevered, primal responses, so she attributed her instant magnetism (and misted certainty of having found the perfect man) to the man himself, or to a sudden, irreversible—though subtly intentional—twist of fate. In either case, it was in her suitor's favor to play along, unquestioning but not ignorant of his privilege, capitalizing on the enfeeblement of Janet's cognitive faculties. She was a great date, too. She knew the best entertainment spots in the city, and if they were too pricey, she'd pay. She accompanied her excellent taste in music, food, and clothing with a continuous stream of unabashed flattery of her date, warming the heart of the most recalcitrant megalomaniac.
Janet and Rick met for the first time at a bus stop. Janet, on her way home from an unsuccessful meat hunt at the gallery walk, was languid and mildly horny. Rick was energetic, he had just dumped his last girlfriend and was eagerly awaiting a new plateau of experience. There was very little impeding them from a long, intensely unsatisfying relationship.
Fish do not like poetry or music. They don't grow more quickly, live longer, or interact better in the presence of great works of art. Fish are oblivious to aesthetics. However, they will die within hours if the colonies of bacteria in their environment are too slow to convert Nitrites to Nitrates. Where do the Nitrites come from? Fish piss. It is of profound importance to realize that water-bound creatures live, eat and reproduce amidst their own excrement. The chlorine in municipal drinking water thus becomes an irrecusable barrier to proper fish fostering, and requires itself to be eliminated. Bacteria is such an enigma! While one breed of bacteria enables the fish to survive, another engulfs the fish tank in brown slime, killing plants and clogging water filters. You can purchase a Placostomus to eat algae off your tank walls, but few fish want to eat slime.
Janet introduced Rick to her friends and the hidden treasures of Seattle. She increased his resources tenfold. Rick used his new connections and knowledge as leverage for other, higher-tier relationships in which he could appear suave and informed. He was even able to quit his job at a radical activist newspaper, because he didn't need the deliberate stigma anymore to attract appropriate alliances. With Janet's help he had crossed the great gap between the underclassed and uninformed neo-Bohemians to the bourgeoisie of liberalism. He was protected, secure, self-assured and down-right cocky. No more Mr. Humility. Now he could pontificate the woes of urban sprawl and the faults of libertarian reconstruction with equal condescension and finesse, and his ego stretched the ears of every listener to their limit. He was politically correct, adventurous, outspoken, and he knew it. It wasn't long before he considered Janet an obstruction, a well-worn and discardable stepping stone obscuring his broadening vista.
Then, one day, they were eating dinner together.
"Um, Rick?" Janet said, trying to recapture his attention.
"Yes?" Rick sluggishly broke away from his meal.
"Don't you think we should get married?"
"Because I haven't healed yet from my last relationship."
"You never told me—"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"All right. Well. . ." She smiled and slid her hand over his. "Do you think there's a future for us. . . someday?"
Rick looked at her with expressionless blue eyes. "I've enjoyed the time we've spent together--" Then he suddenly thought of something. "Say, Janet., you know those season tickets you got us for the opera? Well, I was wondering if I could invite a friend along."
Janet was confused. "Um, I don't see how they could get seats with us, at this late date. I mean, they could try. Why, who is it?"
"Oh! No, I didn't mean that. I was hoping you could let them take your seat, just this once." He smiled his sweet, innocent, plain face into hers.
"Um. . ." She wasn't at all sure she understood him. "You mean, you don't want me to go at all? You want me to give them my ticket?" She started to titter, because he had to be joking.
"Right. That's right. What do you say?" His smile widened.
"No. Of course not," she said, laughing. She considered him quizzically.
Rick returned to his meal. "Well, no big deal, I just wondered."
Many other incidents of similar configuration occurred over the following months, and Janet began to realize, through her haze of desperate delusion, that Rick was a prick. Still, she rationalized his behavior away as "healing from his past relationship." So she continued to patronize Rick's elevating consciousness and flew ever deeper in debt to her initial infatuation. But Rick was nothing like he'd been at first, and she had changed as well. She couldn't sleep, wouldn't exercise, overate, and maxed out all her credit cards. Janet, a woman who had once designed successful lifestyles for other people, was sinking in her own conspicuous waste. She decided to see someone about it.
"It sounds like he's wringing you dry, kid," Cindy said. Cindy proffered another Kleenex to her friend.
Janet sobbed. "I. . .I feel like this is my last chance, Cindy. It's terrifying to think of him leaving--I. . ."—her tears found more plentiful springs—"don't know what I'll do! Honestly, I don't." It was a threat, a cry for help, a hopeless and irreconcilable misery.
"Awe, Janet. . ." Cindy pulled Janet's hunched form to her, hugging away the evil, nasty world. Janet quieted. "It'll be all right. It always works out, somehow."
Janet straightened, attempted a smile.
"Have you tried getting your mind off him? Doing something you enjoy, like, uh, painting? You still like to paint, don't you?"
"No--I mean yes, I do like painting. I just don't have the energy, I can't stand the thought of being alone."
And so, after a few more months, Janet had thoroughly exhausted all shoulders left for her to cry on. She was no better off for it, because she didn't listen to any of the advice offered, and refused to confront Rick. So she plummeted into the sterile soup at the bottom of a well of self pity.
Then the final blow. Her friends became enamored with Rick. How? The contrast between Janet's denunciation of the man and Rick's charming exterior had somehow made her out to be the villain. The rebound of her testimony off the secure, cajoling, expansively intelligent personality of Rick spattered a black stain across all of her relationships, enforcing a dystopia of isolation and ridicule upon an already floundering consciousness. Poor, poor Janet.
Needless to say, Rick thrived. He soon found an appropriate partner to promote his mission: the young, attractive, intelligent daughter of a renowned artificial intelligence researcher at MIT. His new fling had already worked as a Greenpeace lobbyist, passed her bar exam in two states, and currently ran an underground supply network for the Militant Subversive Activist Party as a hobby. Now Rick had an first class advocate, and access to everything he could possibly or reasonably want. He quickly ceased interacting with Janet, withdrew from Janet's group of friends--all of them were deadweights now. Rick was nearing his goal—he could taste it. Elation of a prepotent conqueror seeded his being.
Fish are essentially anarchists, and adhere strictly to the rule of "no government." They are, however, incapable of recognizing that most of their behavior is self-isolating, destructive to the environment that sustains them, and , if left unchecked, endangering to their own lives. Who will change their water? Who will feed them? Who will generate the electricity needed to keep the filter and grow-light running? Who? Answer: the only person who receives any pleasure at all from their existence. These fish, so captivated and confined, offer no protection to each other, and so must rely on the benevolence of the aquarium owner. Ironically, in the wild their environment has been corrupted by these same benefactors to the point where many species can only thrive in aquariums. But most important is that, like most pets, pleasure for the owner is paramount to the continued existence of these fish.
The loss of so much dear did not deter Janet from survival. She eventually packed her memories of Rick in an old, worn suitcase in the bottom of her hallway closet, and began her life again. Her experience had convinced her that she needed major reorientation. She paid off her credit cards and opened a downtown gift shop. She regained many of her old friends, entering new circles as well. She joined a poetry-reading club and a travel co-op. Eventually, Janet reached happiness through the back door, the one marked: "Damn, I Guess I Was Confused."
Rick, on the other hand, relaxed into a lifestyle of gluttonous hedonism, gaining forty pounds, a blatant air of superiority, and a lilting whininess. He rapidly discovered that popular ideals weren't as important to other people as he'd imagined. His abject selfishness was at last uncovered during a camping trip with his few remaining friends: Rick wouldn't cook any of the meals, carry any water, or help set up camp; his socio-political leverage was useless in a wilderness where everyone had to carry their own weight (literally). Upon returning home, the urban manifestation of his power disappeared within weeks. Eventually, acknowledging his deceit and misdirection, he, too, redefined his goals and became a violently bitter alcoholic.
Unlike domesticated fish, people have mechanisms to recover from self-destructive behavior. Perhaps the tragedies in Rick and Janet's lives could have been averted had they each, at some peak of awareness, purchased and maintained a twenty gallon aquarium.