Friday, September 13, 2013

Octopi and Bettas: The Strangers Among Us

Michael Gruber's blogspot posts remind writers to investigate the mystery at hand, wherever we are. Of course, I can easily note my cats chasing down spiders, or my dog's insistence on filling the role of office manager, reminding me that a ginger ale bottle does not belong on the floor of the bedroom. Bark, bark! Let's get organized, that canine shouts at me in the dining room. You know, Meg, where ginger ale belongs!

But how does that dog know where ginger ale belongs? He must be able to conceptualize after seeing ginger ale in the refrigerator, along with its friends, the juices and milk containers. But even more, how does he conceptualize his place in this household? Where did he get the IDEA of being an office manager when the equipment he brought with him points in another direction, as in long coat, long ears, perfect nose to scent rabbits—and bound just like them?

Gruber's story of interacting painfully with an octopus in his online interview also provokes us to question how wild animals, too—not just domestic—figure out their place in relation to us. While I know my dog talks to me, and even talks back, a betta (Siamese fighting fish) has no capacity with his fish lips to form words. Nonetheless, the bettas I've kept in glass bowls on my writing desk engaged me in conversation. They didn't need words or computers, either.

Just like my dog, my bettas bossed me around. Don't they know I pay for their residence? Do they care? NO! They started by nodding at me, just as a new acquaintance might—nod, nod, got that, Meg? I'm here. You are, too. What are we going to do about it? Well, for a start, there's that jar over there, with my food. Nod, nod. I can see you're busy typing away, but, nod, nod, that jar's not going anywhere unless you lend a hand. Nods escalated to wriggling.

Before long, the hand reached for the food jar, unscrewed the lid, shook the flakes down into Betta's Water World. The fish flashed with happiness, just like a sailor signalling from a ship in the night. This stranger from another environment had made contact and accomplished his mission. The waitress brought the food right to his table. The fish curled over after consumption. Time for a nap. The writer puzzled: Where is the sign for the restaurant?

Body language alone does not explain how this fish KNEW the hand of another species had the capacity to save him from starvation. From his perspective, what did I look like—an instagram blown to life? He was an inch long, without fins. Nevertheless, he figured out how to establish contact, and engage another life form in a relationship. There wasn't room in that body of his for a brain even the size of a pea, yet he demonstrated that life seen through glass is pure mystery. 

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