What I Have Learned from Keeping Fish

I’m slowly getting back into keeping tropical fish again. I just restocked the betta vase in my day job office with a Crowntail Betta1, and on my bookcase is an Eclipse 6 aquarium that I’m slowly setting up to house a few White Clouds and Guppies. If the bug of my youth returns as a result, I may have a large tank in my house by fall. We’ll see.

I’ve kept fish on and off for a long time, and started thanks to Tide laundry soap. I had had turtles and a goldfish bowl in my early youth, but they went the way of all things. Then, when I was in junior high, I went to the grocery store with my mother one day to see that there was a huge, shallow tank of goldfish just inside of the checkout aisles. There was a promotion – buy a box of Tide, get two free goldfish. Mom was buying Tide anyway, so I picked out a gold and a calico goldfish, named them Patton and Rommel (yeah, I was that kind of a kid), got a bowl and some food and took them home.

After a couple of weeks the calico died2. For some reason, instead of taking it in stride after the Flush Funeral, I got it in my head to do some research of why that happened. That’s when I discovered the world of tanks, filters, gravel, pumps, and heaters.

So I saved up and got a five gallon tank that I wisely decided would be heated by the incandescent bulb in the hood. Into it went Patton, and eventually he was joined by a Cory Cat, a pair of Kissing Gouramis, and a handful of plain guppies – a fish I still have a lot of affection for, even though my fish of choice are cichlids.

Though my high school years the hobby grew until I had three or four tanks up to about 20 gallons in size. I went on hiatus for college, and after returning to Wyoming as a married man, our mobile home had a 29 gallon tank whose principal occupant was a large Jack Dempsey cichlid that I raised from tiny size. My young son called it a “Jack Fish.”

The hobby went on hiatus when we moved to Ohio, and I didn’t get back into it until someone at the marketing company where I worked abandoned a 29 gallon tank and hood in his office that I claimed, rehabilitated, and filled with cichlids. When the company got rid of me the tank followed me home and stayed around until time and space limitations crowded it out of my life.

So now things are slowing a bit and fish might be coming back into my life. That’s good. I’ve always enjoyed keeping them, and while they don’t seem to have the intelligence of or the emotional return of a cat or a dog (although some cichlid fans I know of claim that an Oscar or Dempsey is more of a pet than a cat), they do bring a certain serenity into your life3.

Besides that, you learn things from fish. No, this is not going to be “learn the responsibility of caring for a dependent living thing, blah blah blah” – I’m talking about lessons with a real life analogue4.

My first job was at the fish store where I bought all of my supplies and livestock. I was there on Saturday afternoons, doing light tank maintenance and waiting on customers. It was my introduction to the joys of working retail and the exposure to working with the public that it entails.

Fortunately, most of the Saturday crowd were other dedicated aquarium keepers, and I learned a lot of practical information.

But that’s also where I had the eye-opening experience of seeing that adults were fallible. Not only that, but I also had the experience of realizing for the first time that I knew more than a grownup did.

And it wasn’t just keeping an adult from making a beginner mistake like putting a couple of cichlids into a tank full of Neon Tetras. That’s part of why I was at the store. No, this was my first up-close and personal with an adult who should have known better – an adult who was just plain wrong.

It played out something like this. A guy comes into the store. In the course of conversation, I learn that he keeps Angelfish (a popular cichlid that I never had much interest in). He asked me what I liked. I said I was enjoying guppies, which were so prolific that I always had a stable population in my tank.

“Oh no,” he said. “I hate guppies.”

“Why?” I asked. Not that I cared, but it was polite.

“There’s too much protein in guppies.”

I gave him a funny look.

“I bought a bunch of feeder guppies and put them with my Angels. But there’s too much protein in guppies, and it went right to the Angels’ fins. Their fins started looking ragged after eating guppies.”

And that was the moment when I knew that I knew more than an adult.

See, it wasn’t that there was too much protein in a guppy for an Angelfish to handle. I knew from my research that guppies had one flaw (some people consider their prolific breeding habits a flaw as well, but let’s move on). They are notorious fin nippers. They can’t resist taking a bite out of something long, wavy, and slow moving, which is why you don’t want to put them in with Bettas or, yes, Angelfish.

Now I suppose I should have politely told him that, but I also had the feeling that he wouldn’t have believed me. I was just a kid who kept guppies, for crying out loud. So this was also the first time that I kept silent to let someone bask in their own wrongness.

That’s a trait I’m trying to relearn, and it’s interesting to me that it comes at a time when fish are trickling back into my life. I seem to be going through a phase of my life where I am being ignored. No, check that. I’ve been ignored all of my life, but at this particular juncture, I have just become exceedingly aware of the extent of it.

I’m fascinated by passages in the Old Testament when it is prophesied about the life of someone as they are born – Ishmael being a ‘wild ass of a man’ and how Esau is lesser than Jacob, all of that. And I can’t help wonder if when I was born that it was said, “His name will be Joe, and he will be full of great ideas. But lo, nobody will heed them, let alone listen to them, and he shall be unappreciated for all of his days.”

Perhaps it is fortuitous, then, that fish are slowly coming back into my life. Maybe I need to re-learn the fact that it is probably better to keep one’s mouth shut and let others continue to eat protein-heavy guppies.

  1. Before some of you die-hard enthusiasts freak, let me assure you that, when my wife gave me this vase as a gift several years ago (she felt bad that I no longer had an aquarium), I had enough fish smarts to know that the fish would not live off the plant roots and the plant off of the fish’s waste products. The fish is fed regularly and the vase gets regular water changes and complete cleanings. The original betta lived happily for 18 months (their life span is two years) and was comfortable enough with his environment that he built a bubble nest on a couple of occasions. I expect this one will do the same.
  2. I can’t recall if the Calico was Patton or Rommel. Since historically Rommel died first, we’ll say it was Rommel. Not that it really matters.
  3. And no, fish are not the low maintenance pets of myth – but you can determine how much time you want to spend on them by the fish you choose. I’ve always wanted to keep Discus cichlids, but they are almost as much trouble to keep as a saltwater aquarium – and saltwater setups are for people with no other life).
  4. Although I did also learn that I didn’t like goldfish. Wait, scratch that. Goldfish are great pond fish. I just don’t like them in an aquarium.

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