goldfish

A Fish Named Nellie Bly

Nellie was my first goldfish.

Not my first fish; I had a lot of fish growing up. And I named them all “Cat,” as part of my oh-so-subtle plan to convince my parents to adopt a kitty. (Took seven years, but it worked. Subtle and steady wins the race.)

Anyway. Our story starts on April 21, 2016. My sophomore year of college.

To raise money for a local philanthropy, a campus club decided to sponsor the “Fishy 500,” a fish race. Participants paid a fee, squirted fish with tiny water guns to spur them to swim through a 10-foot track, then got to walk away with the satisfaction of having helped abused children as well as the subjects of their mild waterboarding.

Which is how I ended up paying $10 for a fish that costs 34 cents at PetSmart.

I named her after Nellie Bly, who pioneered investigative journalism, but is now mostly remembered for her “stunt work,” most famously traveling around the world in 72 days, beating the fictious record set in the book Around the World in 80 Days.

I had no idea how ironic all of this would be.

I’ll be the first to admit – Nellie (the fish) had it rough. For one thing, being a broke college kid, I never wanted to spend the money on a fishbowl. Plus, none ever seemed to be the right size; I wanted something big enough so she didn’t feel confined but small enough that she didn’t feel lost in an endless sea of isolation. (Sorry for the pun, I really tried to avoid it.)

So, I bought a large piece of Tupperware from Dollar Tree, and that was Nellie’s home, except for a few short stints in a Mason jar, pickle jar, and salsa container.

You think that’s rough? Just wait.

Between my sophomore and junior year, I lived in three different states. Ergo, so did Nellie.

That summer, we packed our bags (and Nellie’s Tupperware container) and scampered between Tennessee (where I went to college), Florida (where my family lives), and Alabama (where I interned). As we toodled across state lines, Nellie bobbed along in a pink cup sandwiched between me, singing along to some Broadway soundtrack for x hours, and a passenger seat littered with mostly empty water bottles, my shoes, purse, and who even knows what else. Over the course of many trips, she had a few tumbles but always survived. She was basically the aquatic version of Jason Bourne.

The journalist Nellie Bly once feigned insanity to write an expose about the brutality and neglect of mental institution. I’m sure my Nellie longed for the sanity of an 1887 loony bin.

Anyway, when summer ended, the traveling ground to a halt as I slogged through the fall semester of junior year. Then we hit December. As a single fish parent, this posed a dilemma.

I always flew back to Florida for Christmas break. At the time, I was not well-versed in the TSA policy on fish. After diving into parts of the TSA website that no one who wasn’t planning a low-scale terrorist attack has ever looked before, I concluded that I could probably bring Nellie. But I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to take any chances with my little golden-scaled traveling buddy.

When I flew home, I always parked my car at a family friend’s house in Nashville to avoid spending a small fortune for airport parking. So, rather than run the risk of some dour muscle in a bulletproof vest confiscating Nellie, I asked my friends to keep her.

The mom was very nervous, but I remember promising, “Nothing will ever kill this fish.”

[Phantom of the Opera overture]

That poor woman prayed over Nellie every single day, and on January 2, 2017, when my plane finally landed at the Nashville airport – after a five-hour delay – and I lugged my duffel bag off the suitcase carousel, my car and Nellie were both shiny and sleek and ready to go.

By the end of the night, we would all be in varying degrees of ragged.

My plane took off late because of foul weather in Nashville. As I navigated the roads to Jackson, Tennessee, it was still raining steadily. To make things worse, there are no lights along I-40. But I had a podcasting class the next day, so I zipped through the dark, listening to the Hairspray soundtrack.

About an hour later, I felt the wheel turning itself to the left. Before I could react, my car smashed into the guardrail. Then it bounced off and veered to the right like a tiny metal ball in a pinball machine, slamming into guardrail on the other side.

I screamed. (Honestly, though, I think a part of me was less scared of dying than embarrassed that the last sound I ever heard would be Zac Efron singing “Ladies Choice.” That’s a swan dive onto rock bottom you never get to recover from.)

Anyway, after bashing both sides of the car, I managed to get control and pulled over to the side of the road. Turning on the emergency lights, I yanked open the car door. My bare feet sunk into the mud, rain sopped my clothes. I stood back and tried to assess the damage, but I couldn’t make anything out through the rain. Cold and wet, I crawled back into the car and called the police.

When I hung up, it hit me – where’s Nellie?

Her cup had rolled under the passenger seat.

My car was totaled.

We never found Nellie’s body.

Every time I tell this story people are like, “That’s the funniest and saddest story I ever heard.” And it’s true. And even though it hurt in the moment, looking back, I have to say, I couldn’t imagine Nellie dying any other way.

So, why write about this now, more than a year and a half later?

Grieving is a process, and it took me time to work through it. For the last nineteen months, I’ve wondered if I have the capacity to give a goldfish the care it needs and deserves.

A couple weeks ago, after writing about how Nellie weirdly helped me get my job, I decided it was time to move on. I was ready to open my heart again.

Life happens. Fish die, cars wreck, screws fall out. The world is an imperfect place.

After a week of research and visiting pet stores, I screwed up the courage to buy another goldfish.

Sometimes, you just have to get back on the horse. Or put another fish in the bowl.

Or the cupholder of my car, which is where my new fish ended up the very next Saturday afternoon as I drove from my apartment to my parents’ house, an hour away.

Amazing how, in spite of all our best intentions, we end up making the same mistakes.

Well, hopefully not all of them.

If anyone was wondering, I named my new fish “Nora” after Nora Ephron, who co-wrote and directed my favorite movie, You’ve Got Mail. So, I’m naming my fish after women writers now. Cliché? Maybe. But at least I’m not using them as a mini SPCA commercial.

In memory of Nellie. I hope that Heaven is a full-sized aquarium full of friends, where you can traverse the entire galaxy without the constraints of a Tupperware container.

If you’re reading this and not completely repulsed by my negligent fish ownership, type your email into the “Stick Around” widget on the top right of the screen.

Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida

Scored on an Error

“Hey Ali, I suggested that the girl who has the internship position you did last summer set up a meeting with you,” my boss mentioned as he passed by my cubicle. “I thought you could give her some advice on how to leverage an internship into a full-time job.”

“Sure thing! I’d be happy to!” I chirped before turning back to my Post-It note-covered desk, thinking, how on earth am I supposed to explain fluking my way into this job?


“Hey Mom, there’s that company I’m never going to work for.” I pointed at a logo along the Rays outfield fence.

Mom gave me a tightlipped smile. I think it only hit her that year that her daughter would be graduating from college with two majors – one in journalism and one in creative writing.

To borrow a joke that I’ve only heard a thousand times, that means I didn’t learn anything in college, except how to communicate that very clearly.

And I had just blown my one chance for a well-paying summer internship.

For one thing, I didn’t learn about it until after the application deadline had passed, so my application was late. Plus, confused by the mad juggle of summer internship applications, I sent in the wrong cover letter, so the first paragraph explained how deeply I wanted to work for another company.

Not surprisingly, they never contacted me, so I was pretty confident when we went to a Rays/Blue Jays game during spring break my junior year that I would never work for the company whose logo I had just laughed at.

I think we all know where this is going.

Fast forwarding, the girl who did get the internship dropped out, so they gave me a call and asked me to resubmit my resume and cover letter. After that, I had a couple interviews with an HR rep and one with a communications manager, featuring my well-rehearsed spiel on how a creative writing major actually teaches valuable skills (most notably, how to think of arguments for why creative writing isn’t a useless major), and for a little bit of personal flavor, I also sprinkled in the story of how I accidentally killed my goldfish in a car accident.

In a shocking turn of events, they decided to hire me as the corporate communications intern.

Considering the fact that when I showed up for my first day, everyone in the office already knew the story of my late goldfish, I can only assume that somehow clinched it for me.

Through no fault of my boss, I really didn’t know what I was doing the entire time. But I read once that one of the reasons Ronald Reagan managed to inspire people was because any time someone asked him a question, he would sit up straight, smile, and say, “I’m so glad you asked that question,” even if he had no idea what to say after that. So, I decided to try that little presidential fake-it-till-you-make-it policy. My boss would ask me to do something, I would give a cheery affirmation, then I’d go to my desk and quietly sweat.

The second semester of my senior year of college, my boss emailed me to say that they wanted to hire me; all I had to do was submit my resume and cover letter.

As I uploaded my resume and cover letter, onto my account on the employee portal, I noticed something – when applying for the internship, I had uploaded the wrong cover letter the second time, too.

Error 404: brain not found.

On my first day after graduation, I showed up at the office sporting a new ID badge with an employee picture that was somehow worse than my intern photo (although at least they spelled my name correctly this time). My supervisor showed me my cubicle, introduced me to my new team members, and then we went out to lunch.

“So, Ali,” he smiled slyly as we took our seats. “Do you have any pets?”

After explaining how I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half debating whether I have the time and resources to give a fish the care it deserves, I turned to tell the story to the new hires and learned that they had already heard about my poor goldfish.

The only bad publicity is no publicity, right?

Last Wednesday was my one-month anniversary as a full-time employee. To celebrate (or maybe coincidentally), the company gave us free baseball tickets and a half-day. Lounging on the Tropicana Field party patio with my coworkers – right next to the logo I had pointed out to my mom about a year ago – it really hit me how inexplicably everything had come full circle.

Public seminars are a $400-500 million industry. We read self-help books on setting goals, watch TED talks on exuding confidence through power poses, and paste together motivational vision boards. We all want to know the ten steps to success or how to improve your life in just five days.

But sometimes we don’t get an instruction manual. Life doesn’t always operate in a linear, logical way. It’s messy and imperfect and sometimes there’s no single magic key that unlocks success.

Maybe we really don’t have control over what happens in our lives. I guess all we can do is have a good attitude, do our best, and trust God to work everything out in the end.

And maybe have a killer fish story.

(Oh wow, that was too soon.)

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“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

10 Things to do When You’re Too Busy to do Anything

 

StressI haven’t posted anything for a solid two weeks. Classes, newspaper staff, National Broadcasting Society, sorority life…things pile up. As a self-certified expert, I can say that being too busy leads to stress. And if there’s one thing worse than being overworked, it’s stressing about being overworked.

I am the queen of stressing, overcommitting, and shouldering a heavy workload. So I consider myself the perfect person to give some advice on de-stressing. (At least without the “de-.”) Here are ten activities that will give you a little break from whatever’s getting you down:

1. Bake something sweet and share it with friends. Use those Pinterest recipes you’ve been saving up! Also, especially when everyone else is stressed, you become the nicest, most talented person in the world. (Some fun suggestions: praline brownies, pecan pie bars, salted caramel butter bars, and peanut butter cookie dough brownies. Links to recipes below.)

2. Take pictures. Explore. Try to find a new perspective on ordinary objects. You don’t even need a camera! Remind your Instagram friends that beauty, wonder, and hope still exist!

3. Pet furry animals. If you don’t own one, visit a friend or pet store. We aren’t allowed to even have fish in our dorms, but two pet stores are close to campus. (Personally, cats are my favorite.)

4. Go for a run, bike ride, or short workout. “Running gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.” If you’ve never felt so stressed that you would kill a husband (or wife), you’ve never been to college. Get rid of that aggression in a positive way.

5. Blow bubbles. Make them as big as you can. Catch them with your wand. Or kick it up a notch up by making your own bubbles and adding glow-in-the-dark or fluorescent paint.

6. Watch funny YouTube clips. Unfortunately, I don’t have any suggestions, but I’m sure your Facebook friends do!

7. Fly a kite. “With tuppence for paper and strings/You can have your own set of wings/With your feet on the ground/You’re a bird in a flight/With your fist holding tight/To the string of your kite/Oh, oh, oh!/Let’s go fly a kite!”

8. Regress. Find something you loved when you were younger. Play an old video game. “Build” a pre-built teddy bear. Finger paint. Draw on the walls. Whatever your thing is.

9. Visit a nursery. The kind that grows plants, not kids. I actually enjoy walking through nurseries more than gardens. Gardens are so clean and put-together, but nurseries invite you to smell the flowers, herbs, and dirt. There is a lot more to see when things are not show-ready.

10. Blog. Yeah. I don’t always take my own advice.

Thanks to Call Me PMC, Just a Taste, Inspired Dreamer, and Kitchen Meets Girl for scoring me friendship points! Want more? Enter your e-mail in the box on the top right or, if you have a WordPress account, press the “Follow” button on the top of the screen!

Praline Brownies: http://www.callmepmc.com/2014/05/praline-brownies/

Pecan Pie Bars: http://www.justataste.com/2011/11/pecan-pie-bars/

Salted Caramel Butter Bars: http://inspiredreamer.com/salted-caramel-butter-bars/

Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Brownies: http://kitchenmeetsgirl.com/peanut-butter-cookie-dough-brownies/