Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What cartoons about talking fish will do to you

I was a much better liar when I was a child. I could lie without feeling even a twinge of guilt. I was a much better thief when I was a child. Stealing, the very few times I did steal, was matter of fact. I knew, in theory that it was wrong but there was no internal feeling of morality associated with it. I was a much better killer when I was a child. My father use to take me fishing and I remember having no problem skewering the live worm onto the hook, no problem pulling the hook out of the fish, no problem gutting and and cleaning the fish. All that before I was ten years old.

Around the time I was ten years old, I remember a day when a gopher ran into my family's garage and the more my father tried to shoo it out with a broom, the more it fought back by hissing and screeching - at least that's what I remember it sounding like - and refusing to be moved out of its corner. My father, having never dealt with wildlife before, being from a place where wildlife had been wiped out long ago, didn't know what to do. He thought this little creature was a threat, maybe would bite, maybe had rabies. So, he called the neighbours.

Three of them showed up. One had a baseball bat, one had an axe and one had a handgun. Now even though I was only ten and didn't have a highly developed sense of sardonic humour, I knew there was something sadly comedic about the sight of those three men with their hammer horror weapons of metal and wood going after a furry little creature smaller than a typical house cat, and even though at that age when I was not perturbed by killing, I knew there was something awfully, pathetically wrong about grown men getting excited over killing a cornered and scared animal. Even my father, who still wanted the gopher out of the garage, looked like he now regretted calling the neighbours over.

Part of me wanted to stay to see the action but another part of me felt sickened, not so much by the inevitable killing but by the atrocious injustice of it all and so I walked away to my neighbour's front yard waiting for it to be over. And when I heard the gunshot, once again part of me wanted to go back to the garage and see the blood and guts finale but another part of me just became sad so I stayed away. I stayed away the rest of the afternoon, making sure they had more than enough time to clean up any evidence of their activities.

Many years later, when I was living in China, my girlfriend at the time and I went to the market and bought a dozen small fish to make a fish stew which my students had given me a recipe for. The fish were freshly caught and kept on ice at the market stall and were still alive. Even after we got them home, they were still alive. We flipped a coin to see who would kill and who would clean. I lost.

I brought the fish along with a sharp knife out onto the balcony. I picked up one fish I thought seemed dead and brought the knife up to its belly. The fish squirmed. I wigged out. I dropped the fish and it landed on the concrete floor and then flipped itself off the edge of the balcony onto the street below where it probably got run over by a truck.

Eventually, I did manage to kill the rest of the fish but it took me an hour to work myself up to it. I don't really know why I forced myself to do it other than I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn't do then something which I could easily have done when I was a child.

After that, the fish soup didn't taste so good.

The last time I think I intentionally killed something, other than a biting insect, was about twenty years ago when I dropped a lobster, either barely living or just dead, into a vat of boiling water.

Nowadays I pick up stray spiders inside the house and let them go outside; I set live traps for the mice so I can release them elsewhere far away - and I know they probably won't survive the displacement but a death removed and not directly by my hand is a death I can more easily ignore; and, I volunteer with shelter dogs to help ease their anxiety in their transition from their previous lives to their hopeful new ones and I do that in part for the reward of their companionship but also in part because, like many others, like many of you, I feel an emotional ache when I think about even their present lack of joy never mind their past suffering and future uncertainty.

I don't know if this means I've become soft or if I've become civilized. I don't know.


Joanne said...

Oh my god...I remember so well the experience of dropping a lobster into a pot of boiling water and innocently asking (at least however innocent you can still be at 22) what the hissing noise was. I was told it was the lobster screaming. I don't know if that is true or a carefully contrived conspiracy to separate me from my portion of the lobster but that was it for me. Also, I remember living in a house next to a field and Speedy Gonsalves and his entire damn family moved into my house. I spent house catching the little suckers, putting them out in the field only to have them beat me back into the house. I couldn't break their backs or necks in a trap, poison them or catch them on sticky paper and leave them to starve, and the little buggers were too smart to go into the humane trap no matter how much peanut butter I loaded it with. I remember once when I was about four or five. I found an injured bird and put it in a shoebox. I caught worms to feed it and although my mom told me it was going to die, I thought the power of positive thinking could overcome the advance of death. Silly this day I can still recall my feelings of helplessness that I couldn't save that little bird. Then, let us not even go to Walt Disney. Bambi's mother and Cruella de Ville and coats made of Dalmatian puppies. Did you ever notice that it was always the mothers that died or woman that were victimized in Disney films? I cannot say that I am as kind to spiders as you...maybe I need to rethink that and be thankful that giant spiders DO NOT rule the world. I wonder how much of an influence early life and death experiences determine the outcome of a person in regard to compassion, empathy, kindness, etc.

Fred said...

I've had varied success with those little gray box live traps but I'm convinced that they only trap the dumber ones leaving the smarter ones behind to spread their higher I.Q. genes. We're helping to create a super race of genius mice. Pretty soon they'll be building traps for us.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think you have become wise. Somewhere along the line you figured out that all lives are important, at least to the ones who live them, and learned to extend respect across species boundaries. Not bad, when so many of us still cannot even concede equal value to the lives of other hominids of class. culture or colour different from our own.

For me, the turning point was also in childhood -- my father walking down the street deliberately stepping on ants with a glee that repulsed me, for some reason I have long forgotten.

And a poem by William Matthews on boiling live crabs....

Lynda said...

When I was a teenager, I worked at a Deli where we sold live fish and lobster. I had to kill them for customers. I'll never forget it - never. I did quit after some time, cause I couldn't handle it and to this day I cannot walk by a deli counter without cringing.

I was also the little girl who brought home every stray dog in the neighbourhood saying "Can we keep him Mom?" and every little birdie that fell out of his nest in the springtime. My best friend and I even rescued 2 baby pigeons and raised them ourselves when we were little.

I'm still that same girl. I rescue parrots, dogs, cats - you name it. I have just expanded my family this week by a couple of more dogs because their owner was "moving out of the province". I initially took one, but on his way to the airport their owner dropped off the other one too. At least they have a happy home now.

Keep up the good work Fred and the blog. I love reading what you write.

Lynda & The House Full of Critters

Fred said...

2 dogs instead of 1. That's great of you to do, great Christmas present for them, though it must have been a bit of a surprise. What kind of dogs are they? How's everyone getting along?

Lynda said...

They are both Chinese Cresteds and they're littermates. So I now have 2 sets of Twins. Everyone gets along amazingly well - it was meant to be.

And yes, it was a surprise! But a fun one - they really are wonderful dogs, those little hairless one - I have pics on my blog.

Are you coming to the meetup on Sunday Fred?

Fred said...

I haven't gone to a meet-up in years. Stella really only likes new dogs if she can boss them around and a room full of Danes her size and bigger, she can't easily boss around. She still sometimes plays with puppies but puppies often tire her out and then she has to run away from them. Not very dignified.

Lynda said...

Well, I do hope that someday we meet, Fred.

Stella is absolutely stunning and regal and she can boss any of my guys around anytime she likes.

Caveat said...



I release all insects (except flies and mosquitos) into the 'wild', even in winter, where I know a slow freeze won't hurt them at all. I like to have at least one spider in each room, since they devour dustmites.

As for lobsters, you have to use steam (instant death), a sharp knife behind the head or start them in cold water so they pass out when it gets a bit warmer than lukewarm. I feel more sorry for them in the tank with those elastics over their claws than I do when they go into the pot. Mind you, it's not something I do more than every few years or so.