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My View: Life in the tank offers a window on the world

By Sharon F. Cramer

L. Frank Baum, author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," created an extraordinary universe named for the label on his second filing cabinet (the first cabinet was labeled A-N). Heroine Dorothy discovered that, in the land of Oz, most of her life lessons were no longer true. In Kansas, only people talked, but in Oz, scarecrows, trees and monkeys carried on conversations.

Baum created an unusual heroine – few adapt as easily when rules and expectations are unknown. Seemingly without hesitation, Dorothy quickly embarked on the yellow brick road, to get home. Most of us would remain in turmoil – indecisive, shifting eyes, limited involvement, maybe loss of appetite. Whether it be a different school, a new job, an unfamiliar social group, or travelling within a new city, the “Watch, wait, and postpone action” is used by all but the bravest of us, before we venture out.

Fish wait, too. After months of planning, six beautiful new fish arrived from California, to enter my 90-gallon saltwater tank. The new fish went from darkness (their traveling containers were dark individual bags, packaged within heat-controlled containers) into my well-lit tank. Like Dorothy, they found themselves in colorful, unfamiliar spaces. My excitement and anticipation were rooted in the knowledge that we had slowly and carefully adjusted the tank (with only four resident fish) to welcome the new members. Resident fish had simple routines for swimming, eating and leaving each other alone. I didn’t guess that one of them had the potential to turn into a nasty bully.

The beginning of the acclimation process was misleading – all original fish swam around, the new ones hid creatively. Soon, it was time for “lights out” and all fish found safe spaces to rest. The next morning, the Wicked Witch of the West suddenly appeared, in the form of the clown fish (Nemo to those familiar with the Pixar/Disney fish universe). He began tormenting a trio of new arrivals, darting and intimidating as soon as any ventured out to explore or eat. The bully, previously fun to watch, a curious and active tank resident, became a nonstop persecutor. Watching used to be fun, but I considered getting rid of the tank, now a troubling world of harassment and cruelty.

My limited fish skills consist of watching, feeding and calling on my fish expert, Matt, to professionally monitor and care for the fish. In the face of these new challenges, his suggestions for being patient, for reorganization of the space to change the hiding places, all seemed to be ineffective. The tyrant was frightening to watch, reminding me of how the winged monkeys picked Dorothy up and carried her away. I – the face outside the tank – was as helpless as the wizard to resolve tensions.

Amazingly, the new fish found their inner Dorothy. As the week went on, each new fish developed curiosity and courage. By week’s end, the problem gradually, completely solved itself; no destruction of the Wicked Witch fish was required. As the new fish became bolder, the clown stopped his intimidation. Now fish swim together as if trouble had never been.

Frank Baum didn’t abandon Oz. He continued his series with 13 more books. Dorothy wisely exchanged Kansas for Oz, her new home. She acclimated, as did the new fish in my tank. The tank – briefly a microcosm of cruelty – is now again a place of beauty and co-existence, and fun to watch.

Sharon F. Cramer, Ph.D., inherited her fish tank from her husband nine years ago, and remains intrigued with its lessons for life.

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