What’s the equivalent of a green thumb for animal care? Is there a term for someone who is really good at keeping animals alive? Would you say, “Oh, that Betty has a real connection with dogs – she’s got a real furry hand.” Or maybe, “Bret has had that cat for over twenty years – he must have a real whisker face.” Whatever term you would use, you can call me the inverse of that because I always spell bad news for pets.
To be fair, every pet I’ve owned previous to my current pet has been a fish, and I hear those guys don’t have very long shelf lives to begin with, but mine seem to depart this world in such gruesome ways. The worst was the pet I gifted to Q for her 23rd birthday.
To understand the severity of this situation, you must first understand that Q has a furry hand, a whisker face, and probably any other animal appendage you could imagine. She worked as a veterinarian’s assistant growing up and has a deep love for all animals, even the ones to which she’s allergic. Because she couldn’t bring her dog to college, she bought a betta fish named Asterix in her freshman year to keep her company.
After about a year of ownership, Q decided to leave Asterix alone at school over Thanksgiving Break, after being told that the heat would remain on in her building. However, when she returned to a ice cold dorm room, she found Asterix unmoving in the bottom of his tank. Fearing the worst, she tapped on the glass, and suddenly Asterix woke up, happy as a clam, but unable to swim to the top of the water because, as she would later discover, his swim bladder had failed. Despite this disability, Q kept him alive for three more years. When he finally did pass away, Q did everything in her power to save him, even performing mouth-to-gill resuscitation with a straw in the middle of his last night. Had I heard this secondhand, I’d probably think it was ridiculous too, but I had a very different experience seeing her in the moment, unable to hold back her emotions. It was the first time I saw how very big her heart could be.
When Q’s birthday rolled around a few months later, I thought that it was time for her to welcome a new betta fish. I was finishing my last year of school while Q was beginning her post-collegiate career in DC, and she planned on visiting me for her birthday weekend. I decided to surprise her with a new betta fish and simultaneously show her I could be a responsible pet owner by taking care of the fish the week before she arrived. I thought myself pretty clever for killing two birds with one stone, but I didn’t realize how morbidly appropriate that aphorism might come to be.
The only other task required of a betta fish owner besides two shakes of fish food a day is replacing the water every week. The ease of feeding gave me a false sense of security in my pet care skills, so when it came time to switch out the dirty water, I waited until two in the morning the night before Q arrived to clean the bowl, thinking it would be a piece of cake. However, I neglected to realize that I had chosen an especially suicidal fish from the rows of bettas at Walmart. It only became clear when, upon pouring the dirty water in the bathroom sink, the fish met his maker by jumping out of the bowl and directly down the sink drain in a matter of seconds.
Because it was two in the morning and I didn’t want to wake my roommates, I let out a silent wail that can only be described as Marcel Marceau stubbing his toe. I tried in vain to remove the plunger but my betta fish was long gone. I was convinced that Q would break up with me because I couldn’t take even take care of the most low maintenance pet.
Thankfully she didn’t, and after buying her a more life-affirming betta that weekend, I can look back on my fish fiasco with something less than shame. I even got a betta fish for myself, and after understanding that I need to put down the sink plunger before changing the water, I kept him alive for my entire senior year and beyond. When we began living together, we got a guinea pig named Oliver because we decided he represented the midpoint between her Dr. Doolittle abilities and my inexperience, fright, and tragedies involving animal care. Despite being Oliver’s sole caretaker while Q spent a year abroad, I’m happy to report that he is still one healthy pig.
I’ve never gone fishing before and, to be honest, was never very interested in trying it out. My mom once told me that my grandfather accidentally hooked her underneath her chin when she accompanied him on a fishing trip, and that was enough to quell my curiosity. But it’s indisputable that fishing is an essential manly skill, so here we are.
I asked Q’s Uncle Thom to be my fishing MANtor, though I prefer to call him Reverend, since he married Q and me. Though he’s not a genuine man of the cloth, I’ll be a congregation of one for him today as he shows me how to fish in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Rev himself is a late bloomer to fishing, having only started in his mid-thirties. His father and brother would often go on fishing trips, and when one day his father invited Thom along, he chose to take them up on their offer. He says it took him a good couple of years before he got the hang of it, but now, he finds few greater pleasures than fishing on the beach.
I bought a starter fishing pole kit at Target in preparation for my MANtorship, in hopes that it would contain everything I needed. The marketing on the box showed, as far as I could tell, very content and successful fisherman. The Rev takes one look at my dinky pole and said it wouldn’t work for ocean fishing. So much for one stop shopping. But lucky for me, he has everything I need – I just have to get my fishing license from the tackle shop down the road. I am prepared for a test on level with the gun safety test at the NRA Range, but find that the only skill required to obtain a fishing license is showing that you can pull a ten-dollar bill out of your wallet. I don’t want to boast, but I pass with flying colors.
When I return to the beach house, the Rev shows me how to attach the fishing line to the pole. The only tricky part is the twisty knot used to tie the hooks to the line. Though the hooks are no bigger than a paper clip, thoughts of my mom’s accident forces me to treat the hooks like razor blades. After experiencing fear so early in this process, I take a fishing selfie to commemorate my disappointment and sadness, which I suppose is de rigueur for most selfies.
After we pack the fishing cart, we trek to the ocean, and once the Rev finds the perfect spot, we fling some PVC pipes in the sand, which will act as our fishing rod holders. Breaking out a small cutting board and his Leatherman, he cuts square-inch pieces of squid and shows me how to place the bait securely on the hooks. Again, I’m a little hesitant in fear of hooking myself, and when the Rev says, “You gotta show it who’s boss,” I can tell my fear is showing. Once the hook is ready for action, we proceed to casting lessons.
Casting is deceptively simple, in that the motion required for a good cast is not dissimilar to a baseball bat swing. However, even my MANtor admits that his casting isn’t as skillful as it could be, since he has a tendency to side arm it when the motion should really be more directly overhead. On my first few casts, I’m emboldened by how smooth the line flies into the ocean. Though my casts aren’t as straight as they could be, I chalk my inaccuracy up to the 30 mph wind gusts and hope that the fish don’t mind wherever my bait lands.
Much like the pipe smoking and scotch drinking challenges before it, fishing is as much about camaraderie and relaxation as the fishing itself. With a drink in hand, the smell of squid on my fingers, and my fishing pole at my side, bucking in the wind, actually catching a fish seems to be beyond the point – in my mind, I had already earned my Scout’s badge for fishing. It’s only when the Rev tells me I actually need to check on my pole every once in a while if I hope to catch a fish that I realize my fishing excursion is incomplete.
Despite several more casts, switching to a heavier sinker on my line, and replacing the old bait for fresher squid, I caught nothing but a mess of seaweed after a couple hours. I found solace in the fact that the Rev hadn’t caught anything either. He told me if anyone walks by and asks how much we caught, “A few…small,” was a good stock answer. If anyone were to instead ask if we had any luck, we could say, “You know, we’re just lucky to be fishing on the beach instead of working.” Now if that isn’t the perfect distillation of fishing wisdom, I don’t know what is.
I’ve come to terms with the results of the fishing expedition, returning to the cart to pack up the rest of the gear, when I hear the Rev shout. I turn around to see him leaning way back, reeling in his line as fast as he can. Sure enough, when his hooks emerge from the sea, I see he’s caught something. Grinning ear to ear, he places his pole in the sand as two croakers flail around helplessly on his line. One hook has gone through the bottom of larger croaker’s mouth, a splatter of blood where it pierces through his skin. It’s not an unusual sight, but I realize I’ve never been this close to a caught fish before. I tend to take my seafood frozen and prepackaged, so I find this to be an alarming sight.
The Rev asks me to remove the hooks from the fish so we can toss them back into the ocean. He tells me to make a circle with my hand and lower it over the head of the fish to avoid getting stuck by its spiky fins, after which I can remove the hook by flipping it upward through the croaker’s mouth. I try to grasp the fish but it keeps fumbling out of my hands due to its slimy skin. Feeling the vibrations of the croaker and knowing it will die if I can’t get the hook out soon further wobbles my confidence. After I few more tries, I stick myself on its fin and hand the fish over to the Rev, who in one single motion grips the fish and removes the hook. He hands it to me for a closer look, after which I run into the ocean and toss the fish back into the waves, hoping I didn’t kill him in my inaction.
I wasn’t expecting to be so helpless in that moment. But as soon as I was face to face with a dangling fish, I froze up, seeing the croaker as an animal close to death rather than possible food. When did I become such a wimp? I’ve always been squeamish around blood of any type, but I’ve never been so empathetic towards animals that I have no trouble consuming. And the most frustrating thing of all is that removing the hook wasn’t going to kill him – it needed to be done to keep him alive.
If anything, going fishing made me realize how ignorant I am regarding what happens between animals living in the wild and seeing them on my dinner plate. I’m not going vegan, but it was surprising how affected I was even on this small scale, and I didn’t even have to clean or gut the fish. I can’t say I was successful in my first fishing trip after completely falling apart when we actually caught fish, but I’m happy to get a taste of the way real men order seafood.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
Despite my own foibles, it’s evident that fishing combines the laid back camaraderie of manly leisure activities with the grit and dirty hands required for survival skills. Whether fishing for pleasure or for food, anywhere one lands on the spectrum is an undoubtedly manly place. 4.44.
NEXT WEEK: My fiercest MANtor yet shows me how to get angry when I relive my childhood passion.