Dear Deuce

Not a Fish

February 1, 2019


My very first blog, which was maintained for maybe 5 years, until about 7 or 8 years ago, was in Chinese, and with the name “You Are Not a Fish” (子非鱼).

Let me explain.

There’s this Taoist story about an ingenious conversation between two great philosophers.

Strolling on a bridge over a river, one of the philosophers observed:
“See how the fish dart between the rocks! How happy they are!”
You are not a fish, how can you possibly know that fish is happy?”
“You are not me, how can you know that I don’t know that fish is happy?”

I just liked how this form of rhetoric goes, in an artfully endless way.

On another level, the name was an attempted double entendre. My then-boyfriend was a Gemini, in Chinese a “Double You”, and me Pisces, in Chinese—yes you would’ve guessed—a “Double Fish”. With that the name carries some sort of statement that he, or you, is never me, that you can never understand my happiness, or unhappiness.

But if you know how my conflicted mind always goes, the statement is, both decidedly asserting that you will never understand, and nervously waiting to be persuaded otherwise, seeking to be understood, asking to be the target of trying.

Whether that complicated message worked, I never know. Maybe he was entirely unaware of the meaning, or some awareness was there but was eventually worn out by the whole idea of speaking through thinly disguised messages.

Nevertheless, I still like the phrase. I like the directness of speech, that glaring effect when something begins with a pointy “you”. I like the playfulness of involving fish. And I like the strong assertiveness with a negation right in the middle. When you say it you’d slowly shake your head, and the whole phrase wavers around the center.

On a deeper level, the unfinished part of the message is: you are not a fish—as I am. I am a fish, or so I wish.

Is it true that fish have memories as short as seven seconds? Do you get to choose which seven seconds, or is it always the most recent bit? Do you get to make a compilation of seven seconds that consist maybe more than seven only some are compressed and fast-forwarded and some slowed down? After all, the perception of time is relative, and largely correlated with how happy you are, which, as the statement assures, no one knows but you.

Is it true that if I count to seven, all that fazes me now will just peacefully evanesce?

Fish don’t make a sound. Or when they do they make sure you don’t hear it. To be that elegant I shall learn to stop saying words altogether, stop the self-deprecating communication, as communication is a tantalizing act; you only want to communicate if there is something you want to hear back. The act itself never promises you are heard, or even worth listening to.

Fish just spend their lives swimming. I spend my life thinking, and writing half of the thoughts down, to add my voice to the collective unconscious, to connect with someone across the void, and to feel less alone in this crazy water.

But never mind if I will ever be a good fish. What’s important there is that you learned a fish story.

Another fish story, also from an ancient Chinese parable, is to “climb up a tree in search of fish” (缘木求鱼), meaning you are doing the impossible thing.

Another fish story is the saying that “to be a fish on somebody’s chopping board” (人为刀俎,我为鱼肉), meaning that someone, controls whether you live or die. Why fish though, instead of other types of meat? I thought about it. Because any other type of prey, when they are on the chopping board, they are most likely already dead and the control is over. Only with a fish, flapping on the board, you get to think about throwing it back into water.

Another fish story is a movie I watched one weekend in snowy Chicago. Serenity, starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey (which is of course why I watched it). At the outset it is a fish story. But wait until you hear the phrase “machine learning and neural networks” in it. I am not kidding.

So many fish stories you can hear about, even if you are not a fish. The last time someone told me a stream of stories like this, accompanied by the rumbling sound of a moving train, was on a misty night. The train was brightly lit, encapsulated from the dim and frosty outside world. Here I am telling you stories from my warm bed, accompanied by the one reading lamp that creates a circle of light in the middle of darkness. But through the darkness a sweet wave has been carrying my thoughts to the ether, and back. A communication that’s finally meaningful.

I learned from those stories. Like a fish I get to make myself anew, every seven seconds. No reason to mourn over something that’s older than seven seconds. Like a fish, I just swim on and don’t look back at the colorful bubble that just passed me. On days I wake up and hope is not yet present, I could learn to get on with it, onto the incomprehensible business of being alive, not listlessly, but with defiant panache.

I learned these especially from being a fish, and you not being one. Most people aren’t, and it is difficult, sometimes dangerous, to be so different.