Monday, February 06, 2012

The Flesh-eating Blue Tang of Death!

**submitted for the unschooling blog carnival for March. Topic = animal(s)**

The Flesh-eating Blue Tang of Death!

Horror beyond your most perverse imagination!

Havoc! Chaos! Destruction!

Can it be stopped?

Scientists named it Acanthurus coeruleus but that is simply a distraction from its true nature. Fear the voracious Blue Death!

You have been warned! If you suffer from heart trouble or even high blood pressure, for your sake and the sake of your loved ones, STOP READING NOW!

I mean it!

Check it out! That's some scary shit! Doesn't that face just look mean?

Stop thinking about that one! It's not that! It's not that at all! That's a cartoon character based on Paracanthurus hepatus not Acanthurus coeruleus, so just forget it!

And so our tale begins.

Once upon a time there were some flesh-eating zombies…

No, wait. That was my classic opener every time the girls asked me to tell them a story/fairytale. (Yes, I’m an awesome dad.) This is a true story, although it could be a fairytale ‘cause it has fantastic creatures, magical locations, dramatic elements, and contains a moral. Sounds exactly like a fairytale, right? This particular tale contains no zombies. A few years after the events in this story, we’ll begin a grand sailing adventure on the Zombie Princess of New Orleans; but that’s a different story.

The girls were 7 and 8 the first time we took them sailing in the Caribbean. They’d always been waterbabies and we were excited to share the wonders of Caribbean reef life with them. Our first exciting adventure, snorkelling in Paradise in the crystal clear, 85-degree water, took place at a group of rocky islets in the British Virgin Islands called The Indians. We tied up to a mooring ball and had our pre-snorkel briefing with the girls. After covering the basics about snorkelling safety, not touching coral, etc., I talked to the girls about the fish we’d probably see. They had heard us telling them stories about the aggressiveness of the fish in the waters of Grand Cayman and wondered if these fish would be like that. The fish in the Caymans are completely protected and they’re used to divers feeding them, so they’ve become very aggressive.

Ronnie and I went to the Caymans in 1986. We were both used to the common habit of trailing your arms along your sides with your hands back by your thighs when diving because fins give you all the propulsion you need. The easy way to spot a newbie diver is noticing someone using his/her arms a lot. On our first dive, we assembled at the base attachment of the mooring ball about 70 feet down, then followed the divemaster down an underwater canyon out toward “the wall” where the undersea topography drops precipitously to the bottom of the Cayman Trench, deepest spot in the Caribbean. I immediately noticed that the divemaster was swimming with her arms crossed on her chest and thought to myself, “What an affected posture. What’s she trying to prove with that?”

Mere moments later I felt a sharp pain in the index finger of my left hand. I snatched it up and turned to look at it only to see an 18-inch yellowtail darting away. He had bitten me, clearly thinking that those little fat sausage fingers looked awfully tasty. Ah! Comes the dawn. Now I intuitively understood why the divemaster swam with her arms folded. Starting then and for every dive in the Caymans thereafter, I too swam like a righteous gangsta in a Buffalo Stance.

Feeding those greedy denizens of the deep was an exercise in speed and dexterity. You’d reach into a pocket on your BC and grab a handful of food. While you did this, you were surrounded by eager, expectant, and hungry fish. Other divers could barely see you through the massed wannabe diners. Then, you quickly and efficiently drew your hand out of the BC pocket, closed the pocket flap with the other hand, and waved you full hand through the water, briefly opening it to release the food, then swiftly closing it into a fist and bringing it to your chest to avoid having it bitten. Now, with food in the water, other divers literally could not see you because of the density of the feeding frenzy surrounding you and you could see nothing but a swirling mass of fish.

But this is the British Virgin Islands not the Caymans. Ronnie and I had been here before we had the girls and we knew that the fish here were not nearly as comfortable around humans and nowhere close to as aggressive as their Cayman counterparts. The girls had seen our Cayman video and they had seen their mother disappear in a swirling ball of good-sized fish. They had also noticed that, just before she disappeared completely, they could see the fingers of her gloves being tugged in the mouths of those piranha wannabes. I assured the girls that these BVI fish were much more well-mannered than their Cayman cousins and these guys would hang back even after you distributed food and returned your closed hand to your chest. After a moment, they would shyly and cautiously dart in, take a bite, and dart away, never bothering you but giving you a delightfully close look at them. I promise. Pinky swear!

With that reassurance, the girls donned their gear, took their personal baggies of chopped up hot dogs, and we all entered that life-sized aquarium. We were in about 20 feet of water, right over a very lush reef which featured mini-canyons, carving down to 30 feet or more and peaks rising to within 10 feet of us at the surface. All around us in the water were schools of beautiful tropical fish: yellowtails, sergeant-majors, butterflyfish, rock beauties, squirrelfish, angelfish, and the eponymous blue tangs.

(insert dramatic music as an adumbration of what is to come)

Kicking slowly along the reef, we admired all the fantastic beauty around us. We were casually flanked by many of those fish species I mentioned above, probably because they smelled the food we carried. Once in a while one of us would reach into our baggie and produce a small cloud of meat. As I had prophesized to the girls, fish would hesitantly dart in, grab a morsel, then dart away. It was delightful and the girls were truly having the time of their lives.

Chloe was a little tentative about the yellowtails because they were the biggest and most aggressive; and our Cayman video showed that it was mostly yellowtails being aggressive enough to bite at gloves and trailing straps and BC pockets. But here in the BVI they behaved like all the rest, staying mostly out of reach.

We snorkelled around, enjoying the ethereal beauty of the undersea world, occasionally diving down to see a parrotfish up close or get a better look at the small guys who live close to the reef structure, wrasses, basslets, etc. Then, there’s a commotion in the water and Chloe is complaining that a clearly-insane and possibly rabid blue tang had bitten her pinky.

Oh shit! I am in trouble now. And after a pinky swear, too. Oh double shit!

Ronnie and I checked and her pinky was bleeding a bit and she was clearly done with this activity, so we headed back to the boat. Ronnie and I swam on either side of the girls, who were close together, in a psychological display of protection from flesh-eating fish. We climbed aboard and rinsed off in the freshwater cockpit shower, then sat down to take a look at Chloe’s finger and measure her level of pain/fear/distrust.

She told us it hurt a lot more than she thought it would but she was pretty content with a bandaid and a comfy sit-down on the settee in her mom’s lap with a glass of tropical fruit juice. I apologized to her and she superficially accepted the apology despite the fact that she was still so close to the event, which I had promised her would never happen, that she still felt a bit betrayed.

In terms of the flow of this narrative, I’ll tell you now that she was completely reconnected to me within a day and she enjoyed many more snorkelling adventures on that trip. I'll tell you this one additional story because it’s just soooo Chloe.

Sometime later in the trip, we were comfortable enough with the girls’ skills that we let them snorkel off the stern by themselves as long as we were in the cockpit watching/listening. [N.B. For those of you who twitch with concern upon hearing this, please note that I was a lifeguard and am certified as a SCUBA Divemaster, which means I am a great, and experienced, rescue swimmer, first aider, and know my abilities quite accurately. As their dad, I also know my children’s abilities. So, don’t worry. She was completely safe.] There we were in this lovely little anchorage called Benures Bay and Chloe was snorkelling the reef by herself while Ronnie and I sat in the cockpit, winding down from another day in Paradise. If you don’t know Chloe, you should be aware that she can be quite a talker. In this particular case, as she snorkelled the reef, we could hear her maintaining a running commentary through her snorkel! We could rarely make out individual words in her color-commentary narrative but one which we both heard clearly was “Octopus!”

It was completely charming and amusing. The flesh-rending attack of the monster-mutant blue tang had not scarred her…emotionally. It did, however, leave a scar on her pinky. In true Chloe fashion, she kept a diary of that vacation. On the back page of the diary, she drew two human figures, a front view and a rear view. You may have seen this technique employed on first-aid pages. It allows you to mark the victim’s injuries for future reference. Chloe’s “first-aid figures” were labelled with all the injuries she sustained during that trip! Prominent among them was the label “Blue Tang BITE” and an arrow pointing to her poor savaged pinky.

Ok. I said that was the one additional story I’d tell but there is just one more story from that trip which fits into this narrative. I’ll be brief, I swear.

At one point in our sail, we picked up a follower. When throwing our dinner leftovers off the stern to see who’d come for a snack, we noticed a free-swimming remora. A good-sized guy, too. When we saw him the next evening, it was clear he’d decided to follow us. By the third evening, we were interested in seeing just how friendly this guy was. After seeing Ronnie and MJ hand feed him, Chloe gave it a try, too.

That’s no 8-in blue tang! That’s a big remora.

It was amazing how gentle he was. He would slide up to your hand and carefully take the food from your fingers. Once we were all comfortable hand feeding him from the transom, we got in the water with him. That was a wonderful encounter with a species which is usually not found alone in the wild.

After that experience, it was crystal clear, if it hadn’t been before, that Chloe was not traumatized by the attack of the rabid, mutant, monster blue tang. And that marks the end of the narrative part of this post.

Ok, so where’s the moral of this fairytale adventure? What does this say to/about unschooling?

I’m glad you asked! (wink)

At the simplest level, people with kids in school would find it difficult to take two weeks during the schoolyear to go to the Virgin Islands. Unschoolers have the entire calendar available to them to put to whatever use they desire. People with money can travel the world. People with less money can have rich, full adventures right in their back yard. Despite the fact that I don’t really like the metric, I hafta say that the easiest way to put it is that we live and love with each other 24/7/365.

More meaningfully, the parent-child relationship in our home differs significantly from the American norm, which is one of control and coercion. We’ve always tried to be open and honest with our daughters. As a result, they’ve responded in kind. When we tell them something, they trust us implicitly; and we trust them the same way. We’re imperfect creatures, so we do screw up with some regularity. When we do, we apologize. Trust is a two-way street which is not easily found and which requires regular maintenance. But when you’re on that street, it’s smooth goin’ and easy travellin’.

When I told Chloe that the fish would not bite her, she believed me completely because we shared mutual respect and mutual trust. I meant what I said; it wasn’t merely a manipulative device to force her into the water. When that little tang bit her little pinky, he broke that trust. However, because of our relationship, when I apologized and told Chloe I was as shocked as she was and that the behavior of that single fish was an aberration, she accepted that, too. The next time we went snorkelling, she was a tad hesitant at the start; but by the end of that snorkel, she was back to a full level of comfort in the presence of innumerable fish of various species.

Because of the open and honest nature of our relationship, Chloe believed me when I told her she would not be bitten. When she was bitten, despite my assurances to the contrary, she accepted my explanation and apology and returned to the water with only a little hesitation. Again, because of the power of our relationship, she was able to move comfortably beyond a failed promise.

I know from personal experience that some (many?) parent-child relationships are almost completely devoid of trust. Dad says, Get up on that horse and hang on and you’ll be ok. In reality, son and dad both know better. There’s a high probability that little Johnny will fall. When he does, it will hurt. But their relationship is based on power, dominance, and control. Little Johnny knows that his dad is really saying, I demand that you do this thing. Your fears and/or desires count for nothing. Just do what I say.

When Johnny does fall, it is shocking and painful. Does dad apologize or commiserate? Hell no. Dad says, You’re pitiful. A monkey coulda done better. Get back up there and you’re gonna keep getting up on that horse til you get it right.

Unschoolers know that their children are as human as they themselves are. Kids are not chattle. Kids are not something you own. The phrase “my car” is not congruent with the phrase “my kid.” Our children deserve respect as fully functioning human beings. When we accord them that respect, they return it in kind. It is a wonderful thing.

When we do not, our little Johnnies and Susies leave home as soon as they can and minimize their future interactions with us. We are shocked and saddened by their “rebellious” teen behavior and their lack of communication with us when they leave home (as early as possible). We never understand that it is a situation completely of our own creation, not theirs.

I never want to be that dad. I want to be the dad of the spontaneous blog carnival that happened in July 2010 when people wrote beautiful posts declaring “I’m that mom” or “I’m that dad” and waxed poetic in delightful detail about the loving relationship they have with their kid(s). Mine’s here. That’s the dad I want to be. The one whom Chloe trusts. The one she continues to trust even when I let her down because she accepts that I’m imperfect and that I never intentionally betrayed our trust and that I’ll do everything in my power to make things right again.

A relationship like that is forged from the material in the heart of stars. It is so strong and powerful that mere failures, mistakes, or plain old human cussedness cannot affect it. It is unbreakable, unyielding, untouchable. It is infinite and eternal. Even Thanatos/Mors quails before it.

A blue tang? Pshaw! A blue tang is nothing. Even one with a taste for human flesh.

Amor vincit omnia!


  1. What a perfect blog entry! The beauty of the sea combined with the beauty of a trust-filled parent/child relationship. Thank you, Frank.

  2. Glad you liked it, Anette. Thanks for commenting.

  3. What a beautiful post! You and Ronnie are so inspiring to me as a beginning unschooler. Thank you for taking the time to write about your lives.

  4. Thank you, Catherine.

    Ronnie writes more consistently and meaningfully but once in a while I throw in something more useful than my usual ramble through the bramble of the underbrush in my head.

  5. simply beautiful and what life experiences you've shaped and shared with and for your family!

    i must admit that this part had me crack up, only because of its location in the story: "...please note that... I am a great, and experienced, rescue swimmer, first aider, ......and know my abilities quite accurately. As their dad, I also know my children’s’ abilities. So, don’t worry. She was completely safe." although i don't doubt your skills or assessment, it was hard to read that without a "yea, right, and is this foreshadowing?" wondering, especially coming so close after the completely-safe, no-biting-fish assurance. it smiled me.

    if the story had not already captured me early on, this part surely would have: "A relationship like that is forged from the material in the heart of stars." (but i bet you knew that.) simply beautiful!

    thank you for taking the time to share this window into your lives and heart. <3

  6. Thanks for commenting, Lynelle. Perhaps one day our extended/combined families can have an adventure off Earth!

  7. We had a similar experience years ago when I assured my oldest that grasshoppers don't bite. He wanted to know if it was safe to hold one. I said it was, and the thing promptly took a chunk out of his hand. I think I was more shocked than he was!
    I still have never, ever heard of a grasshopper biting anyone- other than that one. But if you google it, apparently they do. Who knew?
    To this day, nearly 20 years later, we still use that story to remind each other that sometimes, someone can honestly believe a thing, and they can still be wrong. People make mistakes. And there is a difference between someone telling you something that they believe, that turns out not to be true, and someone telling you a thing that they know is not true.

  8. Hi, Linda,

    Thanks for sharing!