18 September 2011


I suppose it started with a single fish tank - and even that I don't remember.  I mean, why was I ever interested in raising tropical fish?  Perhaps it was part of  a long-standing fascination on my part with what might be called scientific - or technical? - matters.  I was a keen amateur astronomer from about age 11 or 12.  My rearing of rabbits - admittedly as a little business and for meat - was nonetheless connected with the fascination of the structure of their life cycle.  Later, when we had moved to Honolulu, electronics became a focus.

In Berkeley it was fish.  I do not think we had any fish in El Monte.

Fish became a kind of obsession.  Our apartment in Berkeley had a largish living room.  By the time we left I think there were 15 fish tanks in it.  Thinking about what it was like astonishes me now.  The room gurgled.  Each tank had air bubbling through it.  I think I must have had a single air pump to service all the tanks.  Each tank had its own heater as well, of course, for these were tropical fish.  And the flat has to have been very damp, with all that water vapour in the air.

At its height, the fish business became a genuine - albeit tiny - fish business.  It never paid for itself - but I regularly sold both swordtails (and not the common green variety but a gorgeous goldfish-coloured sort) and blue gourami to the tropical fish wholesaler in Oakland whose warehouse Edna and I visited, at one time, almost weekly.  I bred a variety of different species.  Feeding them was itself part of the interest.  Our refrigerator had cigar boxes with - well, I have forgotten the name, but some sort of white grub-like thing - breeding in it - fed with cornmeal.  There were tubifex worms in the 'fridge as well.  They had to be left in water for some time to purify themselves, because they are caught in the sewers and will contaminate the fish if fed straight from the shop.  On top of our bookcases - in a warm spot - were jars with wingless fruit flies - I mean a strain bred to be wingless - I didn't pull their wings off!  Jars full of brine shrimp bubbled away.

Feeding baby fish is a different challenge.  Some can initially only eat single-celled organisms - paramecia, principally - when they are newly-hatched.  Here is how you raise paramecia to feed your baby fish - in case you ever wanted to know.

First you take a large tank.  It need not even be a conventional fish tank.  You aren't going to look in.  Could be an old bathtub or refrigerator shell, but mine was a tank.  Put a number of apple snails into it, and drop a few lettuce leaves into the tank.

The snails eat the lettuce.  The snails - er - process the lettuce :-)  The by-product of this processing, via the snails' gut, becomes food for paramecia.  You could get your original paramecium culture from the fish store, or you could just do what I did - get pond water to start it off with.  Ponds have fine cultures of paramecia, along with lots of other interesting life.

Now to check your culture, you can put a little of the water into a test tube and just hold it up to a very bright light.  Astonishingly, these tiny creatures can be seen as bright little specks in the water - but I used to use a 15x lens to see mine.

These are now the first food for baby gourami.  Later they will eat newly-hatched brine shrimp.

A few of these gourami you will grow to adult size and sell - not many, because gourami are very prolific and you don't get much for them from the stores.  Most of them ... become food for other more valuable fish.

It's a fish-eat-fish world.

You may see from the above that I found the whole business quite fascinating.  There was much else I had to care for - pH, temperature - both have to be adjusted to stimulate breeding behaviour - fish cannibalism (to breed zebras you have to provide a layer of small stones or marbles in the bottom of the tank.  Otherwise, the spawning pair will eat the eggs as they emerge, falling to the bottom - or eat the fry when they hatch).  I became so entranced by the whole business that at one point, when Edna and I had moved to Honolulu, we talked moderately seriously about buying a tropical fish breeding business there and doing that for a living.

Silly, of course.  There is no slightest chance I could succeed in any sort of business.  But it was fun, and fascinating.  I do not remember the details of how, eventually, we wound the whole thing up - in Honolulu, that was - but now my only relation with (live) fish is the goldfish in the pond in my front yard - and they take care of themselves.

I may say - to allude to a painful fact about the future - that the fish contributed to my and Edna's eventual separation.  When, in June, 1966, I had finished my last exam and rushed off to Honolulu in advance, I left Edna with the very demanding task of shipping all our belongings to Honolulu, including the fish.  This latter task involved:

1)   Edna arranging with our fish wholesaler to specially bag the fish into triple-layered plastic bags, with straight oxygen filling the air space in the bags;

2)   Arranging with them to pack the bags into insulated Styrofoam boxes.

3)   Edna's getting these Styrofoam boxes to air freight in the shortest possible time - changes of temperature, loss of sufficient oxygen, any of a number of other hazards could have killed them all.

All this whilst taking care of Kathleen, disposing of the remainder of our furniture, overseeing the packing of about a million books and other useless objects, getting rid of our 1954 Ford station wagon, and flying to Honolulu herself.  It was a daunting prospect - one which I do not think I would have been happy being left to do.

I do not think Edna resented having this to do.  But she did tell me later, once peace had returned to our relationship, that her accomplishment of this had given her the first sense that she was a competent person in her own right - a sense of independence.  Given the other reasons for the failure of our marriage, this was instrumental in giving her confidence to start again.

Or so I see it.  All this will come up later, but I thought I would mention it here.  Gentlemen, do not suppose that you can mistreat your wife without concern, because you think her unable to live without you.  It is not so.

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