Carping on carp


Whenever you find someone tossing bits of bread into a pond, you have to assume this:

Something’s fishy.

“Fish?” the guys snorts. “These aren’t fish. They’re carp. Meaning they’re a lot closer to cows. Fat, stupid cows.”

The water below him froths with the hungry frenzy of cow-carp in close quarters. Perhaps the fish call it “finship.”

“And you don’t like carp?” I ask.

“I abhor carp,” he answers.

“Then why are you feeding them?”

He looks at me. I look at him. We look at each other. And then he tosses more bread into the pond. And says . . .

“I’m not.”

OK, we’ve established conflict. Now we need some background narrative.

Fun fact: Wikipedia lists carp as Japan’s national fish.

Additional fun fact: Very few nations have national fish. It’s sort of like having a national bug. Or a national frog.

In an alternate universe, those carp streamers you see around Children’s Day might well be the flag of Japan. Such is the esteem with which carp are held.

Colorful — white, gold, orange, black, you-name-it — Japanese carp, or koi, as they are called, are said to symbolize fighting spirit, due to their hardy nature. Yet, because “koi” is a synonym for the Japanese word for “love,” in a linguistic sense they can also be linked to thoughts of beauty and romance.

And prices for a real beauty can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Or more. As in: lots more. In this case, price symbolizes wealth and status.

That’s almost too many symbols for any one fish to handle, but this, again, is not just any fish. It’s the national fish. And it sucks in symbolism the way it sucks in food. With that big oval mouth gaping wide for anything juicy that floats its way.

And now some character development . . .

“Let me explain how dumb this fish is. Where I’m from . . .” And he lets me know this is the American Midwest.

“. . . carp will bite on anything. A kernel of corn, a hunk of tinfoil. Anything. You don’t need live bait. All you need is a pink Post-it reading, ‘Eat this, stupid!’ and they will.”

“In the end, all that food leads to the only joy in catching them: They’re fat; they will yank your line.”

But it also affects their flavor. For you are what you eat and, according to my expert here, carp at its best tastes just like that: of corn, tin foil and pink Post-it.

“Plus, bones. Lots of bones. There are city cemeteries that don’t hold as many bones as one plate of carp.”

Now I know that is true. For I have had carp served me — in Japan no less — where I felt I was chewing more calcium than meat.

Yet does all this justify the verb “abhor”? Meaning to detest, to loathe, to scorn. Clearly the plot is weakening. We need some twist.

“Can’t you see? Koi gain their prestige from but two factors: coloring and size.”

“Not from smarts, not from fishy survival skills, not from some inner goodness (read: flavor). They are just big and pretty.”

We are moving toward a climax here.

“And that is what they represent: surface over substance. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Good looks rule the day.”

“Carp,” he says, “show why the tall handsome hunk, the one with pudding for brains, gets the job over the short, smart guy who works like hell. Carp explain why sexy airhead females gain promotion over their diligent coworkers. Carp, in all their ‘survival of the fattest’ glory, symbolize the shallowness of human infatuation with appearance. How I hate how people love them.”

“And,” I add, “I bet you also abhor the prices they fetch.”

“That’s another thing. The prettier they are, the wealthier their owners. It reeks of ‘connections.’ It’s not what you can do in this world, but how you look and who you know.”

So now we have a theme — social injustice. And it’s time for that climax.

“So why are you feeding them?”

“I’m NOT!” And, for emphasis, he scatters more bread across the waters.

“I’m feeding THEM!”

And there, among the flopping, open-mouthed, vapor-eyed koi, swim the little guys. Smaller, darting, greenish fish.

Trout? Smelt? Guppies? Who knows? They are too fast to name.

When openings present, they zip in between the giant, brocaded bodies and snatch bread that most of the slower, denser carp had not yet realized was there.

“These fish,” says our Everyman by the pond, “Beat the system. By intelligence, nerves, and fast fin-work. Maybe they live off crumbs, but they still live. And by pluck alone, they prove that, at times, right can indeed beat might.”

Ah, catharsis! A bit fishy, but sweet.

Time to roll credits? Or to push this guy into the pond?

Neither. I rush to buy some bread myself.

Thinking . . . what’s that expression about seizing the day?

Carpe diem?

Ah cheap humor, to be sure! But just remember this: national fish are tough.

They don’t mind puns.

  • Stephen Verry

    A fun piece. Seriously, there is definitely something about koi, placidly swimming about a lily pond, that hints of the heavenly world… I’d love to visit Kyoto in the autumn and feed them myself.

  • ”Carpe diem?” . . pretty bad Dillon. . .(go Cubs!).