The Pulitzer Prize winner was a wizened old man, bent, gray-haired, gray-suited, gray-voiced. Famous, though truth be told I’d never heard of him, not that I’d admit it to the tweedy crowd at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall. Renowned. World-so, for decades. More awards than a Salvadoran general and two generations of Eagle Scouts . For an hour or more, he read from his notes about Justice and Economics and Fairness and Equality.
Although I tried to remain interested, I had no takeaways of matters he discussed when it was over, save one: The Justice of Fish. The justice of fish. The justice of fish, the Nobel winner said, was that the big fish always ate the small fish.
When I think about fish, I do not think about justice. I think about silences. The silence of movement, of intent, of reversing. Of the silence of the cusp between day and night. The silence of the spaces between strangers.
It seems to me that I’ve always inhabited the spaces, those still and epiphanous microseconds whose sudden appearance between the certainties of conviction are pure rapture. The anticipation of unbounded joy. The awareness of a mystery. The unanticipated appreciation of your right to exist from someone you’ve become fond of.
But then, the big fish: Longing. Absence. Denial. So many times, these are the moments that engulf me, that I inhabit more than I want despite the strongest of intentions to the contrary. They stick to me like iron shadows.
Mere existence invites a hegemony of culture, where each of us has what he wants and no one wants what he can’t have. If you suspect otherwise, it’s less a warning about reality than it is a reminder that you somehow don’t measure up. that you’re the cause of your own misery. Get fat, and it’s your fault for not ingesting more Omega 3 fatty acids, whatever they are. And, of course, you know about Omega 34 fatty acids because everyone else suddenly does, and if you don’t believe it, go read Andrew Weil or watch Oprah.
The big fish of perception will eat the small ones of reality every time.
Writer Flannery O’Connor remarked that anyone who lived until the age of five had enough material for a lifetime of stories. I recall, once, being thirteen and entering junior high, as middle school was then called. Several friends from my elementary school were there. Student body elections were going on, and the people I knew were all saying we needed to vote for Willy Molini.
I didn’t know Molini from Captain Nemo. Student body elections were a far cry from elementary school classroom monitors, and it seemed as though every student was caught up in something larger than ourselves, especially to a lowly seventh grader. Molini was the man.
Serendipitously, I ran into him in the gym. He was a relatively big guy with an easy manner and a big smile. He said to me, “Who gives a fuck about you, Kid?”
I lived in Reno for the next twenty-odd years, achieved a measure of financial, social and political success, and never heard of Willie Molini again, though I never got over the exchange. The justice of fish.
When I turned 64, I finally realized that disappointment was not an extraordinary occurrence. I’d always convinced myself that each one I had suffered was a one-off that just came out of nowhere, as though I had this inkwell of optimism my life story drew from as it wrote itself.
But encountering disappointment is so much the norm that I look at times of unexpected happiness or intimacy as moments that should warrant suspicion. Embrace them, wrap yourself in their warmth, and you’ll get slammed by the freight train you momentarily ignored.
A big fish will do that to you, huh?
But still, there are so many small fish, and to borrow from Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.