When Fish Have Wings: The Exciting Life of a Goldfish Owner

Until yesterday I’d never given thought to the phrase “a fish out of water.” The long-suffering goldfish in “The Cat in the Hat” came to mind immediately, which betrays my age; born in the 1960s, I practically cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss. If you’ll recall, a six-foot cat in a striped top hat shows up uninvited at the home of two children on a rainy afternoon. I’m not sure this storyline would fly in an age of stranger danger, but it’s probably okay to let in a talking cat, even when your mother is out? Promising fun and tricks, the Cat wreaks havoc while the officious family goldfish tries to evict him. Children’s programming was limited back then, and I looked forward to “The Cat in the Hat” TV special. I especially liked the Cat’s song with foreign words: “Cat, hat, In French, chat, chapeau!  In Spanish, el gato in a sombrero!” Still, I felt sorry for the fish, who tries to keep the irrepressible Cat and his minions from destroying the house. Who doesn’t pity the fish when Thing One and Thing Two toss his bowl about as if it were a football or basketball?

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Art from “A Fish out of Water” article on the Dr. Seuss Wiki at FANDOM and licensed under the CC-BY-SA.

Although his bowl nearly breaks during the Cat’s shenanigans, ultimately the fish leaves the safety of water on his own terms: he hops out to scold the Cat or to call for help. A few years after the publication of “The Cat in the Hat,” Seuss’ wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, wrote “A Fish Out of Water” about a fish who outgrows his bowl; her book was inspired by “Gustav the Goldfish,” a short story written by Seuss under his real name, Theodor Geisel. Out-of-water fish must have amused the Geisels. Me? Not so much.

A fish flying from its bowl sounds like something from a children’s book or a Saturday morning cartoon—except that it really happened last night. Imagine my horror this morning when I glanced at Faramir’s bowl to make sure that he’d lived through the night and saw that Faramir wasn’t in his bowl! Since my daughter had already left for work, my first thought was, “Did the fish die in the night? Did Emily dispose of him?” Wildly, I looked around, and there he lay, his vivid orange-and-black body motionless beside the bowl, not gasping for air but staring wide-eyed at me. I shrieked, and my husband came running from the breakfast room.

Bryson may sleep through high winds, but he knows what to do for a dying fish: he scooped him up and put him in the bowl. Breathless (not literally, like poor Faramir), we waited to see what would happen. To my amazement, Faramir seemed to breathe a little. Belatedly, we realized that Bryson should have scooped up Faramir with the net rather than touching him, but at least Faramir was back in the water. Mainly, I was relieved that the fish wasn’t dead . . . yet. By the time my son came down for breakfast, Faramir was moving around a little, although one of his fins seemed to be stuck to his body.

While Bryson drove David to his homeschool classes, I researched what could be done for a fish snatched from the jaws of death. Neither Bryson nor I had much doubt as to why this had happened: Bryson had added water to the bowl before he went to bed, bringing the water level up to just below the rim. Had I been paying attention, I could have told him that was a bad idea: I’d read the day before that it was better for fish living in a bowl to have more air at the top. Alas, I was on Facebook at the time. I don’t fault him. A supportive husband, Bryson had read my post about Faramir and had stepped up his vigilance with the fish’s water. He’d used the trick of diluting, rather than changing, the water with other fish: who’d a-thought this fish would make a break for it?

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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may not apply to Faramir.

Happily, I found one practical suggestion for Faramir: fish have a slimy coating, which could have been affected during Faramir’s time out of water. Adding water conditioner was the recommendation; fortunately, we had a small bottle in the cabinet. Almost immediately, Faramir’s fin seemed to come unstuck, and his swimming improved. Thank you, fish forums!

Faramir refused to eat even one Tetra-Fin flake, however, which seemed ominous. Then I learned that fish food can go bad. In our ignorance, we’d been feeding out-of-date food to Faramir since bringing him home from the fair. Bryson bought a small container of food and two gallons of distilled water after he dropped off David. When he got home, he moved Faramir to a tiny bowl; next, he emptied the larger bowl and, using distilled water, rinsed off the rocks in a colander. After adding fresh water and water conditioner, Bryson returned Faramir to the bowl and gave him a flake of the new food. Lo and behold, he ate a flake!

Will there be any long-term effects? Who can say? He doesn’t seem quite as active as before, and he still has the black splotches (possibly from ammonia poisoning): maybe they’ll go away, if we keep his water free of waste and leftover food? I’ve also read that the change in color could be genetic; the black-and-orange combination is rather striking—perfect for Halloween! Whether because of his ammonia burns or his personality (do fish have personality?), Faramir has been very active since we brought him home. A little less activity might be good for him.

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Fish with a death wish?

That leads me to the next question: why did he jump? Was it simply because he had the opportunity? Some folks say that goldfish will jump, if you don’t keep a lid on the tank. (On the fish-care forums, there was a lot of hate for those of us who keep fish in an open bowl, but I’ll address that in a moment.) Others suggested that fish jump when breeding or when they don’t like something about the water. With the water level so high, an active fish like Faramir probably couldn’t resist the temptation. Apparently, he has little in common with Karlos K. Krinkelbein, the rule-keeping fish from “The Cat in the Hat.” As my daughter said when she heard the latest development, “He’s a jumper.”

Is a tank in Faramir’s future? Probably—but we don’t want him to suffer the same fate as Merry and Pippin, whom we bought at PetSmart in the fall of 2013 because we didn’t win a fish at the fair that year. See? It’s a lose-lose situation with that fish game at the fair: if you win a fish, you bring home an unhealthy fish; if you don’t win a fish, you have disappointed children whom you placate the next day by buying them healthy fish. For Merry and Pippin’s well-being, we also invested in our first tank, but it wasn’t really large enough for two fish. Right from the start, as you’ll learn if you watch this video of my son introducing the fish to his college siblings, Pippin tended to gobble up all the food, leaving Merry to fend for himself. My daughter’s friend suggested that Pippin should be renamed Fatty Bolger, an amiable hobbit from The Lord of the Rings; presumably, Fatty enjoyed not only a first and second breakfast but even a third breakfast.

Food squabbles weren’t the worst of it, however. One day, my younger daughter rushed up from the basement to report that Merry’s fin was caught in the filter! Even though turning off the filter freed him, his fin was damaged (shades of “Finding Nemo,” but, trust me, that wasn’t a “lucky fin”). Before long, he died. Then Pippin also swam up to the filter, got caught and injured, and died shortly thereafter. See why we have a phobia about tanks with filters? Still, Faramir does need more room (assuming he makes it through the weekend). I’ll have to read up on tanks and filters before we make that transition.

How can I be putting so much thought and energy into this foundling of a fish? Clearly, my son isn’t the only one who cares about him: I found myself talking to Faramir several times today, although I did that annoying parent thing and called him “Frodo” instead of “Faramir.” In my defense, we once owned a betta fish named Frodo. Frodo was very short-lived, but Dave, whom we bought at the same time, lived for more than two years. Dave and Frodo were kept in separate bowls because the pet store people told us two male bettas shouldn’t be in the same space, and they used to glare at one another. After Frodo died, Dave’s existence was less intense but also less interesting. (My daughter dubbed him, “Dave, the Boring Betta.”)

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Merry and Pippin joined the family on September 23, 2013–just one day late for Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthday celebration on September 22.

I fervently hope that my next post here will be a typical descriptive piece about one of our hikes and not an elegy for Faramir. While the poet in me might enjoy composing it, the parent in me wants Faramir to live a long and happy life. After so much emotion expended on one fish, it would be nice to get a good return on our investment. That is the problem with fish, though: they’re not much trouble—or not usually—but they can’t go on a walk, or learn tricks, or show affection. . . . I can’t complain: Faramir may be trouble, but he has added more drama to our lives than I was expecting. The moral of this story is, if you name your fish for an epic hero, he may decide to have adventures befitting his name.

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Welcome to our world, Faramir!

Faramir the Fish became a part of our family over a week ago. I won him at the Mountain State Fair! At the time, I felt bad because my 12-year-old son had clearly hoped to do the winning himself. For $5.00, my husband, son, and I received a bucket of ping-pong balls that we attempted to toss into one of numerous tiny fish bowls (the actual fish were kept somewhere else). Only one of our 35 balls actually made it into a bowl. The midway at the fair is one of those places where it pays to be cynical: they’d lose money if the rate of success was much higher than ours.

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The fair took place the same week that Irma hit our corner of North Carolina. Happily, the weather was perfect when we finally made it to the fair.

Although my son would have preferred to win the fish himself, he was excited to have a pet again. I’ll probably alienate readers by confessing this, but I’m not much of a pet person. Neither is my husband: his family briefly adopted a cat, but neither of our families ever owned dogs. (My parents used to tell us that we had little sisters instead of dogs—no offense, Lesley and Christie!) I’ve concluded that my disinterest in owning a pet is due to a character flaw—a lack of warmth, or affection, or optimism, or interest in the outside world? Owning a dog might help me work through those issues, but it’s a vicious cycle, since I’m unlikely to ever own a dog.

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It feels great to beat the game at the fair.

Most of my children have expressed interest in owning a pet. Poor kids! It’s hard to overcome the anti-pet instincts of not one, but two, parents. Our objections largely had to do with expense and care issues; over the past six years, we’ve put two kids through college, and two more are currently in college, so there have been other places for money to go. Add in the inevitable home maintenance costs and the odd car incident, and there goes any extra money. My husband was concerned that he’d wind up being the one who took care of the dog—and what about when we went out of town? So, no dog. My middle son wanted a rabbit, but his timing was off: we’d just had child #5, and I felt overwhelmed with homeschooling four kids and maintaining the much-larger home that we moved to before the baby came.

We have owned fish on and off through the years, though. My husband’s dear grandmother wanted all the great-grandchildren to have one of those betta fish who lived with a lily (remember those?). Mark lived for more than two years! Lion was next: my daughter won him at a school carnival, and he proved fairly long-lived. If Faramir stays around much longer, we’ll haul up the tank from the basement. Merry and Pippin were its last inhabitants; we briefly owned a Frodo, but he went to the Grey Havens before we’d had him long. (Yes, there’s a Tolkien theme; check out this post for more about my Tolkien obsession.)

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The setting sun was a challenge during the high-diving show.

Currently, Faramir inhabits a classic goldfish bowl on the island in our kitchen. At the moment, he only has rocks to keep him company, but, as my daughter pointed out, he might appreciate a plant or two—something he could hide behind. I’m excited that he’s alive, because we’ve heard reports of other fish acquired at the fair that didn’t make it a week. From our previous fish experience, we knew to use distilled water rather than water from the tap: maybe that’s helping? Or maybe it’s the devotion from my son?

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Fish aren’t that easy to photograph.

While I’m not thrilled about pets, I am thrilled about the name that my son chose: Faramir, continuing the Tolkien tradition. His name could be spelled “Fairamir,” as a nod to his place of origin, but I’d rather be accurate than cute. David picked the name “Faramir” in gratitude for my winning the fish (we were down to our last five balls when I made the lucky toss). Faramir is possibly my favorite character from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (turns out he was Tolkien’s favorite as well). It’s hard to pick a favorite LOTR character when there are so many good options: Frodo, with his desire to do the right thing and his openness about his weakness; Sam, whose folksy comments and sturdy courage get him and his master through many a dark moment; crusty Gandalf, whose bark is much worse than his bite; Éowyn, a feminist trapped in the wrong time and place; and, of course, Aragorn, the humble, healing would-be king who veils his glory in the tattered garments of a ranger.

Faramir, the undervalued younger son of Denethor, proud steward of Gondor, is more approachable than Aragon, although he resembles him in his humility, patience, and wisdom. Both soldier and scholar, Faramir takes a chance on the halflings that he encounters on the borders of Mordor, even though he suspects that his father will not approve of his assisting Frodo rather than dragging him back to Minas Tirith. Without the respite that Frodo and Sam received under Faramir’s care, would they have had the strength to complete their task? In fact, Sam uses the staff that he was given by Faramir to whack Gollum, when Gollum finally betrays them to Shelob. And what a resolution to Éowyn’s heartbreak: ultimately, she and Faramir, both convalescing in the Houses of Healing, find one another; Faramir’s kindness and love melt the bitter frost of the shieldmaiden of Rohan.

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I skipped the Twister for the second year in a row (but I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl).

Yes, David could hardly have chosen a better name than Faramir for our new fish. Initially, I was excited about Faramir’s black patches, since those in the service of Gondor wear black-and-silver livery. When my daughter heard me comparing our goldfish’s black spots to Gondorian armor, she said, “Mom, I hadn’t wanted to tell you this, but David and I think Faramir is developing more black spots. He may have ammonia poisoning.” Oh, dear. I did some research, and it appears that she is right: before he came to us, Faramir was apparently kept in a waste-filled tank and was burned. The black patches mean that he is healing, but we should not overfeed him, and we need to change his water several times a week (at least as long as he is living in the little bowl).

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See his black spots?

For Faramir, every day of life is a miracle. Actually, that is true for all of us. May I make the most of having life today!