Friday, March 28, 2008

My Life in Fish

When I was seven years old, I made my First Holy Communion, a rite of passage for young Catholics that involved wearing a frilly white dress and having a Priest put a cracker in your mouth. This cracker symbolized the body of Jesus, who died for my sins, I was told, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On the morning I was to take my first bite of God, I woke up to find that while I slept someone had come into my bedroom and set up a fish tank on my dresser. It glowed with its intense fluorescent blue-tinged light, complete with rocks, water, a bubbling filter and a handful of fresh water fish. When I was a child, I could sleep through anything.

The fish tank, like the cracker, were a symbol of transformation. I was no longer just another schmuck in a house full of pets. In coming closer to Jesus, I was coming closer to being regarded as someone capable of handling responsibility. I was a pet owner. These fish were mine.

The problem with pet fish is that they aren’t the most interactive of species. Rosie, the parrot that lives in the corner of my parents house next to the pool table, often wakes the household lazybones in the late morning with a rousing chorus of shrill, intensely loud screams. Max, the 130 pound Great Pyranese dog, still thinks he’s a puppy and will saunter up to you while you sit on the sofa, and plop his giant ass down on your lap as he envelops you in a cloud of stray white hairs. My cat Harold will drag the covers off my body if he thinks I’m neglecting him in the morning, which I often am. “I’m sleeping, damn it. Go bother someone else.” This tactic is often ineffective.

I kept the fish in the bedroom tank for many years, fish coming and going. Once a beta fish, added because I thought he looked lonely in his softball-sized solo bowl, managed to eat an entire forest of guppies. A swarm of hundreds was reduced to six in a matter of days. I was horrified, but by then, there was nothing to be done except flush the beta and re-stock on guppies.

Pet fish taught people resiliency.

They also gave me my first taste of insanity, that is. Of suicide.

It was a brown, hideous “sucker fish,” universally known as such even though I’m sure they have an actual name, who was the first creature to try to end its life in front of me. One morning, groggy with sleep, I dragged myself out of bed to take a shower and get ready to go to school. I shuffled across the blue nylon carpet and my foot stopped itself. Something cold and squishy was about to be crushed, and I screamed.

My father rushed in, convinced I was either being kidnapped, mauled or otherwise done wrong, to find me staring at a four-inch, still-breathing sucker fish, splayed on the carpet.

“I have no idea how the fish got out of the tank,” I said.

Laughing in that way dads do when they find out their children aren’t actually being stolen by the gypsies, he picked it up and, opening the tank’s lid, tossed it back in the water.

We started at it for a second and then. Splash!

In the three-inch gap at the back of the lid, open to let air in, the fish had found his escape route and had jumped back out of the tank. We put it back, only to have it leap out again. This fish was determined to cease being.

So, we flushed him, still alive, hoping that in the bowels of our septic system, he’d get what he wanted.

Meanwhile, the fish downstairs lived in a 70-gallon salt-water tank that my father lovingly maintained, in a place of honor in the house: right beneath the television.

Trying to be a semi-popular, fully-relevant member of elementary school society in the 80s meant logging several hours of after-school cartoon time on a daily basis. The roster of He-Man and She Ra, the Thunder Cats and G.I. Joe. Transformers. Saturday morning Smurfs viewing. If you couldn’t name all the characters in Rainbow Brite, you were basically a heathen (or in the case of one unfortunate girl named Trisha, a Jehovah’s Witness and not allowed to sing in the Christmas pageant, Trick-or-Treat or dye Easter eggs. She was an automatic outcast even though as a white blond girl, she should have had automatic status.)

In our house, the prized spot was directly in front of the television, laying on a giant pillow on a blanket spread out like a beach towel, with your feet propped against the fish tank. It was the drivers’ seat of the television. You had staked your claim to watching “Little House on the Prairie,” and no one could do a damned thing about it until you either got hungry or could no longer hold it in, and you got up to pee.

We’d watch entire miniseries, legs crossed and writhing in pain, to not get up and lose our seats. There were four of us. Occupying a prime space involved intense calculation of tactics, careful negotiation. “If I run and get the pillows, and you slide onto the floor, we can meet back up and lay in front of the TV together, and then Jessica and Jackie will have to sit on the sofas…” we would plot. Siblings teach strategic thinking.

If they were around to tell us, my parents would demand we remove our feet from the fish tank, but it only happened for as long as it took them to leave the room again. If they watched something with you, you slowly inched them back up until they were resting on top of the tank, at which point they’d make you take them down. And the cycle continued.

The entertainment center was custom-built to hold the fish tank, but the design forgot to take into account tank maintenance and the fact that, since it wasn’t the ocean, food would have to be introduced to the tank in order to keep the fish alive.

We had a problem of access. The opening in which the tank sat was only a few inches taller than the tank, and my father was the MacGyver of fish tank masters. When fish died and fell to the bottom of the tank, he would break out his spear – a wooden dowel with a nail attached to one end with electrical tape. We would then watch him try to maneuver to stab the carcass with the nail and pull it out slowly so that he didn’t drop it. “God damnit!” He dropped them a lot.

To change the water, he’d invented a hose and pump system that would empty a few gallons of water out of the tank so that he could mix a clean batch and then pump it back in. We used magnetic pads, one on the inside, one holding onto it from the outside, to clean the algae off of the glass. When those unfailingly fell, a combination of the spear and persistence were the only ways to get the magnet back to the glass, where you’d get it to re-adhere to the other one, only to drop it again. The opening was so narrow at the top that not even Jessica, with her miniature 6-year-old arms, could reach in.

When I was in college and we moved, the tank stayed behind, and I don’t think anyone was sorry to see it go. You can only take so many years of spearing clown fish with a nail before you start to wonder why people bother keeping pet fish. If you wanted to see them that badly you could go to any Chinese restaurant, and with that you’d get the added benefit of beef with broccoli and fortune cookies.

My last fish tank was a 120-gallon impulse buy. My friend was slowly dying of cancer, and rather than deal with it, I was engaging in retail therapy of the highest order. The day before, I’d bought an oversized armchair at a Jennifer Convertibles warehouse store, and they did not deliver.

I had to rent a U-Haul van to pick up the chair, which I had arranged to do during my lunch break. I had also spent part of the morning browsing Craigslist, and came across the fish tank. 120 gallons, complete with a 6-foot long, 3-foot high wooden base with cabinets for supplies. It was $100. I was sold.

In addition to retail therapy, I’d also taken to trying to take care of things, like vagrant computer programmers and tomato plants, during that year. Remembering the intricate work involved in maintaining the salt water tank of my childhood, I thought I’d found the perfect hobby, but it wasn’t meant to be.

My friend died the next day, and I sat looking at my fish tank. “Shit,” I thought.” What the hell am I going to do with a giant fish tank?”

In the end, I sold it to a woman who came to pick it up alone with a station wagon, in spite of several emails and Craigslist ads advertising that the unit was six feet high, six feet wide, and weighed several hundred pounds. When she finally came back for it with a truck and a friend, I’d already moved out, so I don’t know what she was hoping the behemoth fish tank would do for her.

But by that point, I’d moved to New York and into an apartment that would finally let me have cats, and found Harold at the 92nd St. ASPCA. While he sometimes watches TV if I’ve got one of those nature shows on, I can’t imagine Harold would be that fond of a big wet bubbling tank of food that he couldn’t get at, so we make due without fish, and its probably for the best. I don’t actually like them.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


In my "new computer" haze last night, I apparently made a few mistakes and this post has been updated to reflect what actually happened. (Thanks dutchess!)

So, I went to the store intending to buy the $1499 (already not cheap) Macbook. The black, 200 GB hard drive-having, Intel-based one with the shiny display.

One comment from a salesman about how the shiny display distored color if I wanted to use the laptop for photography... And la voila. My one nerve had been touched. The one thing I do that requires a specific "look"... i.e. the color you see is the color it is... is just casually mentioned and I kick into "Yes sir may I have another!" gear. I would have bought anything he suggested from there on out. Too bad he didn't pitch a laptop carrying case or some software that cost less than $649 (bad Photoshop!)...

So, instead of the black MacBook, I got the 250 GB-hard-drive-having shiny silver MacBook Pro, ladies and gentlemen. And I intend to use it.

At the very, very, hopefully very least, this blog post was super-lovely to type. So soft. So springy.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Viva Espana!

No, I cannot figure out how to make a tilde over the "n" in Blogger. Sue me.

But, ladies and gents, I've taken the first small step on this year's vacation adventure and purchased two guide books on Spain! Hooray! I chose Frommer's and Lonely Planet, because I like to mix up the high- and low-brow travel.

After several months of hostels and most likely lots of dirt acquired on her round-the-world backpacking adventure, my traveling companion will be treated to a night or two in a decent hotel. I'm not sure I want to throw myself into hostels from the get-go in the middle of the hot Barcelona summer.

Unlike the last time I tried to go to Barcelona, this time, I will make reservations. Last time, my college buddy and I were backpacking post-graduation, as one does sometimes, and decided to go to Barcelona in July. There were less rooms at the inn that we'd hoped. Even Jesus had better quarters with that manger thing. The one room in all of Barcelona we could find was in a building identified with the word "Hostal" on a buzzer. Nothing more. And when we opened the door, the first floor was a decrepit lobby full of newspapers and rats.

We abruptly left the building, and after finding an internet cafe and making plans to meet someone in Italy, we found the only place to sleep that night in all of Barcelona: the overnight train to Madrid. But I digress.

Because I've been to Madrid twice, I'd like to see some other parts of Spain, starting with Barcelona and perhaps winding up in Andalucia. It will be July, it will be hot as b*lls, and I think I will probably love it.

Gambas al ajillo por favor? :) See! I can do it!

I also looked around for some good Spanish literature to get me in the mood, but all I can find is Don Quixote. Spain apparently really did have a Golden Age and then give up.

The books should arrive next week and I can begin plotting the trip. What to see. Where to stay. I'm leaving nothing to chance, having seen the wily ways of the backpacker set, and don't want to wind up sleeping on the overnight boat to Morocco by default. Although that could actually be kind of cool, in my imagination it would involve some kind of robbery and maybe some muffled pleas through some kind of gag that I could get what they wanted by calling the embassy...

(I've been contemplating writing some fiction lately.)

It may turn out the whole trip is 10 days in Barcelona and its environs, but that wouldn't involve frantic European train travel, which is in my opinion, second only to sampling actual European food. In my memory, dinner was always better in Lyon. Unless I was in Paris. Then dinner was better in Paris.

I'm sure I'll go on about this at length for the next several months as I buy what will likely be an excruciatingly expensive plane ticket, pick hotels, map out a schedule and then decide what to pack. Feel free to toss ideas or experiences my way!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Facebook is Making Me Insecure

I have Facebook Network Envy.

I put this in capital letters because at some point in the future, I'm going to petition the CDC to make it an actual disease. Not quite as volatile and hard to control as SARS, but it makes the chicken pox pale in comparison. It's like being David Sedaris all the time, and that's rough.

Anyone who uses Facebook probably already knows what I'm about to say, because even the most jet-setting and seemingly cultured among us sees friends of friends who are in Facebook networks that cause pangs of jealousy and its nasty cousin, envy. "Why does SHE get to be in the Egypt network. Why can't I be part of the Yale Club. I want to be Bear Sterns!"

Just kidding about the Bear Sterns part.

But honestly, I am secretly jealous of the Indonesia, the Paris and the Abu Dhabi amongst the (1) NETWORK HERE segment of my friends. Mostly because their lives seem more exotic and exciting than my own with its grande coffees from Starbucks, subway commutes and fixation on American Idol. I feel so pedestrian in their wake.

Yes, these pants are from the gap. Yours were made by a villager in Tibet from the wool of wild mountain yaks? That's nice.

One thing I learned very slowly as I got older was that middle school playground life IS life. Cliques, cool kids and pack-mentality last until, well, death. Adults aren't miraculously moral and ethical when they hit 21. I sure as heck wasn't.

And it strikes me that Facebook really is like that middle school playground. Using our networks we segment ourselves into groups and sub-groups, automatically creating in-crowds and out-crowds among the people we know and people we wish we knew. (We'll leave aside the people we wish we didn't know.) Who hasn't felt a little surge of happiness upon noting," I have 103 friends!" Even if it's 3 friends, it's better than no friends. Even if they are all cooler than you.

(P.S. - This post was also written on the contraband MacBook Air.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

One more thing...

Just because I wanted to write TWO posts on the MacBook Air currently in my possession and about to be taken away.

In the Lost Madness poll, the final four will most likely be: Desmond, Sayid, Ben and Charlie. How to choose?!?!?!?!

The drama is killing me.

I Am Writing This on a MacBook Air

And yes, you should be very, very jealous. It is sitting on my lap right now. Or is it? It's so light I can't feel it. Oh yeah, there it is.

Our Test Center at my magazine recently reviewed this very piece of luscious computer hardware, finding it wanting in many areas. I, however, find that the only wanting going on is my own. The screen is so bright I might need to pull out my sunglasses. The full-size keyboard is smooth and springy under my fingers. I can toss the thing around like its a file folder.

I am in love. God I want this computer. I want this computer so much I'm contemplating pulling a Newsweek on it and "accidentally" throwing it away with the copy of today's Wall Street Journal that's in my handbag. I am pretty sure that not only would it fit, it would be so slender and wee that I might not have even noticed I'd put it in my bag til I got home later tonight and "Oops! How did that get in there? Pesky MacBook Air. Always trying to get recycled."

(Test Center just came and asked for its Air back.)

But seriously. I almost feel clumsy typing on this thing. Somehow un-chic, like the time in high school someone made fun of me for wearing brown shoes with a black outfit. It's way cooler than me. Even when I'm a poser and have fashionable days.

It's making my ability to resist the iPhone even weaker... Although I'm totally waiting til the new software and hopefully the 3G version come out this summer. (It will have faster connectivity, for the luddites out there.)

Tomorrow I'll tell you what I think about Apple and Starbucks teaming up to put digital displays with song information on what its playing in its New York stores.

Those were not there last week. I know. I have a caffeine addiction.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Viva la Redbones!

As you probably already know, I spent a good six years of my life living in the fine city of Boston. I fled in August 2005 under less than ideal circumstances, but wound up in beautiful Brooklyn where the brownstone-lined streets and Gorilla Coffee keep me quite the happy camper. (I mean really, New York is awesome.) But this morning I've been hit with a pang of nostalgia so sharp it induced blogging.

I miss Redbones.

For the uninitiated, Redbones is a BBQ place in Somerville, Mass., right off the main drag in Davis Square, and they have the most amazing ribs outside of Texas. I'd write poetry about them if I thought my poetry skills were anywhere near good enough to wax on about Redbones Texas ribs, hush puppies, corn fritters, Lynchburg Lemonades... You get the picture. It's some serious down-home cooking in the chilly North East. And it is amazing.

I was hoping to head back to Boston this week for a conference, but now I'm heading to Los Angeles for a different conference, and my weeks of nostalgia and scheming on how to get in a trip to an Anna's Taqueria for a carnitas super burrito, how to find a few lazy hours to hang out in Harvard Square and then maybe hit up O'Sullivan's for a burger and still have time to have a few cocktails and a gouda skillet at the B-Side Lounge for old times sake.

Yes, much of my Boston memory revolves around food, but I think that could be true of most peoples' memories about most places. (Good memories that is.)

I used to drive to work every morning from Kendall Square in Cambridge across the city to Needham, a suburb, and listen to the Emerson College radio station, WERS. I was even having pangs of old radio show nostalgia this morning. Some quality indie rock was played on that station, introducing me to things like The Decemberists, Martha Wainwright, Meg Hutchinson and Antje Duvekot.

For a few years I thought going home to Boston would be too sad, but lately the sadness has moved aside and I'm filled with this overwhelming urge to re-connect with the little day-to-day realities of a life I'd most willingly left behind.

I think perhaps its time for a visit.