Fishbowls, Tequila, and the Meaning of Life
One night this past summer, a friend and I sat on his front porch in West Philadelphia. We had the tunes going, bags of chips and pretzels, a cooler of ice, and a bottle of tequila. I was leaving for Miami and he was getting ready to start his final year of college. We had planned on greeting the dawn with tequila sunrises, but someone had forgotten the orange juice. So, we made due with what we had.
Brian is a psych major with a tendency to philosophize. I am a philosophy major with a tendency to psychoanalyze. We can usually have stimulating intellectual conversations. That night, we were imagining that we were fish — goldfish to be exact.
What do you think of if you are a fish? Do you like the food that you are being fed? Does it piss you off that some big fur covered creature keeps sticking its paw into your home? Do you care what size bowl you live in? Do you stare out the side of the bowl and wonder just exactly what is going on? Do you care what is going on outside the bowl? Do you even realize that you are in a bowl?
Well, we found the questions to be quite stimulating. Laughable, but stimulating. With Brian’s knowledge of animal behavior and my knowledge of useless trivia, we were able to formulate some answers. First of all, living in a fishbowl is like being a child: dependency is the rule. Whether or not you like the food, you are going to eat it. You have no choice. Eventually, hunger will overcome disgust.
Also, like a child, you are ignorant. You do not know anything unless you learn it by experience. You might be curious about the furred paw the first time it comes into your bowl. You may think it is a new kind of food. When you find yourself scooped unceremoniously out of the bowl, thrown across the room to land on a hard surface, and hopefully only come close to being a snack, you learn, by experience, that the furred paw is not food. (We couldn’t figure out if goldfish are smart enough to learn fear.)
In the natural progression of thoughts, and the natural progression of the tequila, we came to consider the idea of the bowl. Is there a relationship between a child and a goldfish in respect to the bowl? Is the bowl the entirety of its environment? Is it satisfied with its environment? If not, will it seek to leave its environment? Does a solitary goldfish have a better chance at free though than a goldfish in a school? As the night grew longer, Brian and I pondered these questions.
I grew up in Philadelphia. My father was a policeman, my uncles worked at the navy yard, and my mother and aunts were professional homemakers. They followed in the footsteps of their parents. I saw my cousins following in the same footsteps: they were going into the service or taking exams to get onto the police force. As a small child, I remember hearing stories, when I was not supposed to be listening, about pensions, retirement funds, work security, and mandatory raises and promotions: the good life. I remember writing a paper entitled “What I want to be when I grow up.” You can guess what I wrote about. I was content in my fishbowl.
Geography lessons, in those days, were great fun. There were castles, soldiers, wars, palaces, kings, and adventures. There were people to read about that were almost real. They lived in places that were almost real. They led almost real lives. But they could not actually be real, they could not exist within my fishbowl. The fishbowl could expand, occasionally, to include the Jersey Shore, but never beyond that. I was content.
Everything within the fishbowl influences the decisions of the creatures within. I was no different. As family members got married, I could see what being an adult was like. There were children to support, bills to pay, and homes to provide. What better place to do this than right near your family? They had connections on the police force and in the navy yard. They knew the people selling the house right down the street. They knew the perfect girl for you. If you fell on rough times, the family was just a walk down the street.
“Stay in the fishbowl,” you were told, “it’s comfortable. It’s secure. It’s safe.”
The friends that you had were the same as you; they came from the same environment. They were told the same things. They learned the same things. You were a school of fish in the same bowl; you swam in the same circles.
So far, I have painted a somber picture. Or is it a somber picture? Does the fish care that it is in a bowl? Would it rather be in the ocean? Brian and I found out, theoretically, they have no concept of time and space. They cannot desire more space or more variation. As the sun rose, and we greeted it with a toast, we realized that we were no longer talking about fish.
The family structure, like the fishbowl, is a safe environment. You are taught to be satisfied with that environment. People are able to learn by other people’s experiences. You remember the girl next door, right? The one who ran off to Hollywood to become an actress? Well, the poor girl overdosed one night. Yes, it was a shame. How about that nice boy up the street? The one who went to Nashville to become a singer? Well, after a few years, he came back. Turns out he worked as a short order cook and never got his big break. Hey, being safe is nice. Being surrounded by people that love you for who you are is great. Being in the fishbowl is really not an awful thing in itself. It is resigning yourself to the fishbowl that is disastrous.
Me? When I was told the stories about the girl next door and the nice boy down the block, I asked about another story that I had heard: What about the that boy that you used to go fishing with down the shore? One summer, he just disappeared. The next time you heard his name, it was on the radio. He had just released his new album: “Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey.” It was the Bruce Springstein, right?
When I was about eleven, though I was ten years from even thinking about being a gold fish, I began to stick my face up against the glass of the bowl. What was it like out there? How much farther does it extend? What did it have to offer me? What could I become?
It went on like that for a number of years. I got to high-school. My grades were pretty good. My advisor started asking me about college and future plans. I remember that I almost said that I wanted to be a police officer. Almost. Instead, I swam up to the waiting paw, and said, I want to be a writer.
Over a bottle of tequila, Brian and I decided that being a goldfish in a bowl was a good thing, for some people. But the two of us had to find out what the “almost” world was like. There was another world out there to experience. There was more to life than just playing it safe and swimming in circles. Maybe — just maybe — when you allowed yourself to be flung out of the bowl, there would be more to it than becoming a snack or being placed back in the bowl. Maybe, just maybe, you might even learn how to fly.