Thursday, March 8, 2007

Off the Hook: or Trying to Teach My Child Some Sense of Responsibilty

I should have taken some pictures, you know before and after ones. They would have been remarkable. The thought occurred to me when I was about halfway through scrubbing off the underwater-decorative-hollow-log. A horrible scent, something between dead fish, live fish and mold was wafting up out of the fish tank towards me as I laboriously scrubbed the inside of the decorative log with a toothbrush. As I tried to remember to breath through my mouth I thought, "Damn. I shoulda taken pictures. Look at that. It's actually a pale tan color--not dark brown, I'd forgotten!"

But it is probably better that I didn't take the photos. I'm not sure where animals stand in Japan as far as their rights and humane treatment are concerned (I'd hazard a guess that they are just a few up on the treatment of insects. . . but that's a whole 'nother essay) but as these photos would have accompanied a piece on my blog the chance that U.S. SPCA officials might have stumbled across it and plotted ways to arrest me on my next visit home were too high.

Those poor fish were living in just about 10 inches of filthy, dirty, as aforementioned stinky water. Their water heater was 3/4's of the way out of the water. . .and covered in molding and rotting fish food. Yes, that flaky stuff gold fish eat will rot when appropriately soggy.

I was trying to teach my eldest daughter about "responsibility." When the last batch of gold fish all mysteriously turned belly up (and it really was a mystery because their tank I cleaned religiously!) I had refused to replace them for weeks.

"Not until you are old enough to care for them yourself!" I declared.

And while, my DD#1 may suck at animal husbandry she is really skilled at whining, pleading and deception. She had me totally believing that she was, "tah dah!" so dedicated to having more gold fish that she was willing and able to care for them. She even suspiciously looked a little taller as she proudly stood in front of me and swore to care for them--herself.

So in came new gold fish. One gold one with googly eyes, one black one with googly eyes and one trim one with eyes which are not googly. These we carefully selected at the local home goods store. . . or that's where we attempted to select them. Basically we pointed out the fish we wanted and a woman with the worst fish catching skills I have ever seen spent about 15 minutes futilely terrorizing the entire tank of gold fish. When these three landed in her net we choose them.

The first week when it came time to clean their tank I ceremoniously told DD#1 that this time we would clean the tank together. I was going to teach her the skills she would need to clean a fish tank; after that one time she was to become the sole caretaker of the fish.

It was about three weeks later that nature started to really impress me. It is so strong and resilient. I mean, after one month in the same water with fish flake food tossed in only when DD#1 happened to remember. . . those fish were still alive! They even seemed to swim about happily. Then after two months with the water slightly clouded and DD#1 now having to be begged, "for the love of god, feed your fish!" those gold fish were still happily swimming about.

Then she brought home the guppy. I liked it immediately because it darts around really fast in the tank making the goldfish look like floating blobs of color. It is arrow dynamic and matches the grey of the pebbles on the bottom of the tank. When DD#1 first brought it home I refused to let her keep it, telling her that the other fish, as she was wont to starve them, would probably eat it. They were much bigger than the guppy and they were, it was true, usually ravenously hungry. But her friend who had given her the fish looked at me and close to tears told me, "I can't take it back home!" Mmmmm. . . . I sensed another mother who hated cleaning up fish tanks behind this gift.

So, I let DD#1 and her friend put the guppy in with the gold fish and the first thing I thought was, "Damn, that's one fast fish! Huh? Where is it?" and realized that if any fish was equipped to survive with those hungry gold fish it was that frightened little guppy.

Then the wonder and beauty of nature turned into macabre fascination. Looking at the fish tank started to take a lot of courage. Three months, passed and DD#1 still did not clean the tank, then four months. The first day that I realized that the water level in the tank was decreasing was unsettling. Now the lectures started.

"What you are doing to those fish is sick. You are slowly killing them." I announced with lots of emphasis on the word "sick".

When my DD#1 suddenly whirled around and looked at me shrieking, "Then YOU clean their tank! I don't waaaaaaaaannnnt to!" I was furious. Just the tone of her voice took 2-3 years off her age. Where she had stood proud and tall when trying to convince me to let her have the fish, she shrunk at an alarming rate when she reneged on the deal. My 8 year-old did an impressive impression of a five-year-old. The siege began.

Daily I would remind her that the fish were her responsibility, not mine. I tried to reach her through empathy, "just imagine how they feel? Their water is disappearing!" through confrontation, "You promised me you'd care for these fish!" through guilt, "how will you feel when you walk in your room one day and they're all dead?" and finally through indifference.

I thought maybe the drama of the whole "clean-your-fish-tank-for-the-love-of-all-things-great-and-small-in-the-universe" might be feeding her reluctance to do it in some way. You know, making her feel like the creator, the puppeteer, the one in charge way up there towering over that filthy fish tank. Maybe she wanted to see just how much water it took to keep fish alive, or how much filth it took to kill them. The only positive here was perhaps it showed a scientific mind? You know, maybe she was mentally keeping notes on the ever receding water level in the tank and tracking to see what was the least amount of water required in order to keep fish alive?

But today, I woke up and realized that the siege had gone on long enough. My daughter was going to kill those fish and by standing by and doing nothing about it myself I was going to be an accomplice to aquatic murder. I was an accomplice to unspeakable horrifyingly abusive fish keeping practices.

So I picked up the tank and carried it downstairs. Usually this would be difficult, but as there wasn't much water left in the tank and algae appears to be quite light, I managed it easily. First I netted the googly eyed fish (they being so slow were really easy to get) and then I went for the trim gold fish. He was disturbingly easy to get as well. "Their energy must be ebbing now. . . " and then when I put the net back in the tank, the quick and lithe guppy. . . simply looked at the net and swam in and waited. So I pulled it up and plopped him in the bucket with the others.

The next hour was spent thoroughly scrubbing the tank, the tubing to the water filter, the heater casing, etc. Early on I realized that I needed a toothbrush for the harder to reach spaces. Having just had a fight with my husband that very morning I reached for one of his. As I scrubbed off several layers of algae, mold and filth I occasionally considered putting his toothbrush back where I had found it after all this. I am a small person by nature. The pleasure I would receive from watching him use said toothbrush after I had thus employed it would be great. But it would be a bad example for the children to see. So I imagined about doing it some more and enjoyed myself greatly and then decided that was enough and discarded the idea. Although it has brought a smile to my face to recall it now. . .

However, the point of cleaning the tank was not to manufacture a weapon with which to punish my husband (who as usual that morning had been on the wrong side of the argument). It was to save the fish. To end the siege and give up on forcing my daughter to be responsible. The price had been too high. How could I have looked into their blank little googly (and none googly) eyes as I flushed them? I wouldn't have been able to, and if I hadn't looked closely I might have mistakenly dumped their dead lifeless little bodies on the bathroom floor. And then I would have had to clean that up.

So, siege over, fish saved, where were we now? I sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of Chai spice tea trying to rev up for the arrival of my 4-year-old home from preschool soon. Maybe the four-year old will learn to take care of the fish. She likes feeding the cats. The cats! Now there was a glimmer of hope. DD#1 has recently become much more considerate of the cats. She even consoles them when I scold them for scratching the wall. More importantly she sometimes feeds them without being asked. She once mentioned that she could probably clean out their litter boxes. . . maybe she just isn't a fish person? Hmmmmm. . . probably too early to entrust the litter boxes to her care (I don't even want to imagine what those would look like if we um, engaged in battle over cleaning duties for those.) but she is helping me clip their claws weekly now, as well as brushing them. Yes cats. Let the cats teach her responsibility. I should go tell the fish that they're off the hook so to speak. They'll be so relieved and happy they'll blow me bubbly little kisses. And if they do, I promise, that I'll take a picture of!