Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Sometimes, we all need to submit to that exercise traditionally known as "counting your blessings".  I'm not aware of a more modern, less toe-curling formulation for this process:  an "asset audit", maybe? I expect there is such a term, though: this is the territory occupied these days by "therapy culture", and therapy is all about labels.

I'm not a natural blessing counter, and resist most attempts to tell me how lucky I am.  I'm afraid that, for me, Nina Simone singing "Aint Got No / I Got Life" sits high alongside Richard Harris performing "MacArthur Park" in my Top Ten "risibly portentous songs" (not to mention "reasons to forget 1968").  You got no money, no class, and even (yikes) no sweater, but you got your liver?  Yay!  However, this is exactly why, sometimes, I need to assay my assets.

Top among my Reasons To Be Cheerful -- it's making me smile even now as I think about it -- is that I don't have to clean the fish-tank any more.  If you're a parent, you'll know where I'm coming from.

My children had very different attitudes to the Pet Question.  At a very early age, my son had decided that the inevitable upset of its eventual demise would outweigh any advantage gained from learning to love and look after some dumb beast.  My daughter, by contrast, was determined to have an animate companion, preferably a speaking dog.

Knowing her fantasist tendencies (she gets it from me), we started small with three goldfish -- two fancy and one plain -- Star, Poseidon, and Gemini by name.  The deal was the standard contract:  prove you can look after some fish, and then we'll consider the talking dog.

Looking after fish is dirty, dull, and rather smelly.  Mainly, it's unpleasantly wet.  In the end, I think she endured the water-changing, glass-scraping, pump-cleaning routine three times, maybe four.  I didn't blame her for giving up, but thereafter it became one of my household chores and, I'm afraid, I tended to neglect it until it was more of a rescue operation.  Can't see the fish?  Time to change the water.

First, a third to a half of the disgusting tank-water had to be scooped out with a cup into a bucket, carried to the bathroom, and discarded down the toilet bowl.  A similar volume of fresh water had to be prepared in a separate bucket with a measured amount of a chemical "conditioning" agent. Dead bits of waterweed and other debris had to be removed (there is an evocative term "mulm" used by aquarium owners, defined as "undecomposed fish waste and other solid matter that accumulates as a fine, brownish, fluffy material"*).  The glass had to be scrubbed clean of algae. The pump had to be removed, disassembled, cleaned of clogging weed, mulm, and other revolting impediments, and reassembled.  Finally the pump was returned to the tank, and the fresh water added, scoop by weary scoop.  Every step had its own hazards, and new opportunities for nausea.  Whole rolls of kitchen towel were sometimes needed to mop up the mess.  I loathed it.

Goldfish are prone to longevity, so this went on for years.  Eventually, however, when only Star was left, we found a new home for him/her with a colleague whose home is something of an animal sanctuary, and like Ariel I was suddenly free from enslavement to the needs of a lower life form. Free!  Yesss!  Merrily, merrily, shall I live now!

We won't talk about the reluctant experiment with a hamster, the egregious Cookie, which had a not dissimilar outcome.  On the plus side, hamsters breathe air.  On the down side, they're moody, spiteful little bastards.  Do you know the dictum about reciprocity, and the absence thereof?  "Men love women; women love children; children love hamsters; hamsters don't love anybody" (Alice Thomas Ellis, I think).  So true.

I'm afraid the price I pay for my freedom (there is always a price) is that I will never be forgiven.  All together now:
I'll be so glad when I get old
To do just as I please,
I'll have a dozen bow-wows then,
A parrot, and some bees,
And whene'er I see a little pet
I'll kiss the little thing,
'Twill remind me of the time gone by
When I would cry and sing --

Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow! Bow wow!
So be it!  But every time I see elderly neighbours, pooper-scooper in hand, walking some ancient family canine while their kids are out in the world living large, I count my blessings, and remember:  I don't have to clean the fish-tank any more.

Lucky, lucky, lucky me!

* German-speaking readers will recognise Mulm as a word for "rotten, worm-eaten wood", probably equivalent to the "punk" beloved of Boy Scouts for starting fires.


Struan said...

"wellness survey"

I'm not kidding.

Mike C. said...


"Counting your blessings" is a "wellness survey"? It sounds so dull by comparison, but I suppose it makes sense in an increasingly bureaucratised world.

I wonder how many negative wellness points entitle you to a Prozac ration?


Martin said...

No fish (I remembered what a pain they were, from my own childhood) but we did have a guinea pig. He survived surgery for the removal of a huge tumour, and lived for seven years. We also had a dog, that we rescued from a Cornish farmer, who had shot all but two of a litter. We loved her and she loved us back for twelve years. We also took the strange decision to buy a budgie. He was a cheerful little chap who, at the age of three, perched on my finger one morning, sneezed and dropped dead. This has been a pet-free zone ever since.

Mike C. said...


Our garden is too small to bury so many pets (Gemini spent 6 months in our freezer compartment). Evidence, if evidence were needed, of how far-sighted my son's view was!


Tony_C said...

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Anonymous said...

Good stuff. I'm counting me blessings right now. I've got dinner about to be put on the table and I am polishing off the rest of the beer I had.

Mike C. said...


That's a very touching story of everyday Stevenage folk, and it's good to see moral standards have gone up since my day.

Good grief, there'a whole Play For Today right there...


Martyn Cornell said...

When my own daughter's hamster fell ill, I was appalled to discover that the vet's fee was as much as the cost of three new hamsters.

Alas, when it finally died, I was out of the country and thus had no chance to try out the how to fossilise your hamster experiment.

Mike C. said...


I know a very cruel -- allegedly true -- anecdote about pet mice, for which the punchline (delivered by a 10 yr old boy) is, "Yes, but they only cost half a crown each".

When Cookie fell terminally ill, a local vet took pity on us (we look poorer than we are) and gave us some free antiobiotic to adminster. The bloody creature lived on for two whole weeks in a box in the airing cupboard. His last words went unrecorded.