Dear Fish

Dear Fish,

There is a pond/reflecting pool at my university. I write pond slash reflecting pool instead of pond or reflecting pool not because I am afraid of commitment, but because the body of water truly does bear characteristics of both. Shallow concrete levels effectively serve as steps leading down to the water's edge or stoops for contemplation once you're there. Not that anyone ever contemplates down at the water's edge, but you could imagine it being done, perhaps if there were more mature trees and this weren't a university for applied sciences full of engineering students but rather a liberal arts college like NYU-  a lonely girl slowly pulling her hand through the water, mourning the recent end of a relationship. A poet lying reclined on the second-to-last step, eyes down, brow gently furrowed in contemplation of the meaning of meaning or perhaps the quiet study of the metaphorical significance of a sparkling crystal of quartz caught forever within the unrelenting grasp of the surrounding concrete. Alone the poet could tell you which set of thoughts were actually running through that young, angst-riddled mind, and maybe even the poet herself couldn't tell you.

A group of kids sat on the steps and cackled over a YouTube video. It got such a reception that the computer science major with the tablet decided to show it again, and then an encore for a late-comer. I can't resent him for it. I've been known to cackle over a YouTube video myself now and again.
The shallow concrete levels, straight modern lines, and 90° angles, however, are only half of the story. The other half of the reflecting pool/pond is of course pond. The edges of that side are indeterminable because they exist somewhere within the belly of a thick swamp of tall reeds. The water is alive with algae and water lillies and fish. The croaking of bullfrogs will sometimes disturb classes in the neighboring building if the windows are left open. These two very different halves of the pond/reflecting pool form a stark but pleasant contrast. Because the water is that of a pond, the overall impression of this hybrid is that of something modern and constrained (the square concrete levels) set directly on the edge of something wild and unconstrainable. It's like a less impressive version of the Skywalk over the Grand Canyon, or the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Fallingwater.

After the kids with the YouTube video left I began to pay attention to the fish. There were a lot of them; most small but a few behemoths lumbered about. The smaller fish darted around randomly near the surface and after a few minutes it became clear why; bugs were flying near the water's surface and every few seconds a bug would light upon its own reflection for a moment and then bumble off again. If the fish were fast enough, and they usually weren't, a meal could be had. Every few moments a small splish could be heard as a fish broke the surface trying to eat a bug. And there was another good reason to swim around rapidly near the surface; people sometimes threw food in.

At first then, it was odd that the big fish swam slower and deeper than the small fish. They never discovered anything. They weren't responsive to every impulse coming from above like the smaller fish were. Instead, it slowly became apparent that they were attuned to a different stimulus- the excitement of the little fish. The big fish waited for small fish to start jumping and then they would swim in and take whatever (if anything) was left over.  The results were mixed at best. While I observed, the little fish starting biting wildly at something which appeared to be a peanut, or something of similar size. The problem was that because of their size, the little fish could never swallow the peanut. But a lot of them tried, and as a result one the big fish's curiosity was aroused. It swam up and ate the peanut. Apparently fish hate peanuts, because he spit it out again a second later. Then the little fish went back to pecking at the peanut and the big fish's curiosity was awakened once again. He ate it again. He spit it out again. The big fish paid literally no attention to the actual item he was trying so hard to eat; he only knew that the other fish wanted it, and that made it desirable. I watched the same fish eat the same peanut 5 times and I watched him spit it out five times. He was caught in a feedback loop from which there was no escape because instead of independently evaluating the peanut, he based desirability upon how hard smaller fish were trying to eat it. The smaller fish never did figure out whether it was good for eating or not because they couldn't even fit it into their mouths. As a result, they kept trying and he kept eating something dumb. As far as I know he's still there now, coveting a peanut he's already tried and hated 1000 times just because his ignorant little friends want it.

Get your act together, fish. Either the big fish needs to tell his tiny-mouthed friends that peanuts suck, or he needs to stop slavishly copying everything they do and make a real effort.

Sebastian Braff


Popular Posts