This Tank Is Making Me Grow Up


Life! Green, hungry and always, always, always reaching.


Left profile view of our planted Discus tank.


That photo represents a lot of what appeals to me when I look at our tank. That health and vigor requires real effort and continual vigilance. Part of the motivation for Sarah and I in getting a new aquarium was as to provide ourselves with an opportunity to get a more mature attitude towards life. More specifically, we wanted a chance to get into the habit of having the kind of set routines that make a happy and healthy life possible.

We tend to do things reactively instead of proactively. “Oh crap, we have no clean clothes, better do some laundry” rather than, “Sunday is laundry day”, if you get my drift. “Holy crap, we have no food, let’s order a pizza” rather than, “it’s our day to do grocery shopping.” Having this tank, especially a planted discus tank, requires us to stay on top of our maintenance chores and feeding schedule. If we don’t take care of the water changes and feeding, the fish will die. It’s that simple.

So far, I’m very pleased with our efforts. We’ve stayed on top of our water changes and we tend to do all of our maintenance with a good attitude and none of our usual laziness and apathy.

Of course, even if we do everything perfectly well, the fish are eventually all going to die. Death is as much a part of life as the vitality that we see in the picture above. I wasn’t expecting the tank to have such a profound impact on our attitudes towards death. But it has. It really has.

I’m a vegetarian and I’ve eaten that way since the age of 15. Even before that, I mainly ate meat products that were far removed from the actual source of the food. Things like fish sticks or big macs that didn’t require thinking about actual fish or cows. I’m not an animal rights activist or anything, I just find dead things distasteful. Remember when you were a kid and someone found a dead bird in the playground? Everyone would crowd around, fascinated by the mystery of death. Well, I was the kid who didn’t even look. Basically, I’m a scaredy cat.

Some of that probably goes back to an experience I had as a kid in Puerto Rico. We kids were playing with a hog that, for some reason, was getting a lot of attention from the grownups. Soon, the hog was dead and sausages were being made. At some point, the sausages were eaten. For the first time, I really understood that our nutrition and growth was tied to the death and dismemberment of some other living thing. I don’t remember very much about that time in my life, I don’t even remember what the hog looked like, but I do remember those feelings very vividly.

Well, the thing about discus is that they are most definitely not vegetarian. Hobbyist breeders generally feed them a diet based on beef heart mixtures. If you think “beef heart” must be some sort of euphemism or jargon, you’re wrong. It’s a mixture that has as it’s main ingredient the heart of a cow. The meat is very high protein and low in fat and provides a great source of nutrition for the fish as part of a varied diet.

That means that for the first time in my adult life I have a hunk of meat in my freezer at all times. I have to be honest and say that my first experiences handling the pieces of frozen beef heart were less than pleasant. I actually had to think happy thoughts and go to my quiet place. At this point, I’ve fed our guys there favorite food a hundred times and I don’t even think about it. That’s a dramatic change that I wasn’t expecting.

The batch of beef heart mixture that we are currently using was purchased because we didn’t want to have to actually handle and prepare the meat. Unfortunately, it’s much more expensive to buy prepared mixtures. It’s hard for me to believe it, but we’re actually considering purchasing our own heart and creating a home made mixture. I’m not sure I’m ready for that, but the fact that we’re even considering it really shocks me.

The other unpleasant reality that has confronted us is that the fish sometimes die. In fact, a second die off of my old goldfish tank is what got me out of the hobby ten years or so ago. If you’re going to keep a pet, especially one as generally short lived as fish, you have to be prepared for them to die.

Discus are considered one of the most challenging fresh water fish to raise. Generally, knowledgeable discus people recommend that anyone who isn’t an experienced aquarist should start out by buying adults, because the juveniles require constant feeding throughout the day and impeccably clean water. We decided to buy juveniles anyway, doubling the challenge. Finally, those same smart discus folks stress that juveniles should be raised in a bare bottom tank without gravel or other tank decorations that can make keeping the tank completely clean a challenge. We of course have a planted tank with thick substrate, for that final extra bit of difficulty.

Keeping our little buddies alive and healthy is going to be a real struggle. We’ve told ourselves to view this as an experiment, as a learning experience and lots of other things that make it sound less scary, but the reality is that we’re both going to be pretty torn up when that sad day inevitably comes. And it will.

Our tank also houses a school of about 30 Glowlight Tetras and Cardinal tetras. These guys are even more short lived and in fact, we’ve lost about seven since setting up the tank. I nearly had a panic attack the first time we saw one dead in the tank. I steadied my resolve, took a deep breath and netted it out. I placed the body in our kitchen trash can, took out the garbage bag and practically ran to the trash area in our building. I came back to my computer and played chess for 20 or 30 minutes to keep from thinking about it.

By the time the fifth one passed on I just reached in my tank and pulled it out with my bare hand. Again, a dramatic change in attitudes that I wasn’t expecting.

In my mind, the tank represents a tiny microcosm of the eternal and unquenchable desire for life to expand and grow. But, it also represents the harsh reality that every thing that lives must die. I think it’s helping me to make friends with death and to become more of a true adult. I wasn’t expecting that.