Beginners Are Not Welcome Here

Last year, my daughter got a betta fish. Let me back up for a moment. Twenty years ago, I got a betta fish. It came in a vase, maybe eight inches tall and five inches at the roundest, with a narrow mouth at the top. The vase was filled with water. Some sort of plant plugged the mouth of the vase, and its roots derived their nutrients from the fish who lived down below, and the fish ate the plant's roots. It was basically a little ecosystem. Every couple of months, I would replace the water, and in the meantime the fish would hide in the plant's roots, and swim around, and do pretty much what you expect a fish to do, which is not much, and the fish and the plant lived in harmony for about two years, which is pretty good for a little fish. The fish died and then the plant died, and that was that.

So last year my daughter got a betta fish. We bought it from PetCo. It came in a clear plastic container the size of a butter dish. I looked up online what food would be best for the fish, because there are about six thousand fish foods at PetCo, and my previous betta experience involved a plant.

I soon had my eyes opened to an extremely depressing, and I would suggest, new part of American life. There are, apparently, some serious betta fish enthusiasts out there, and they all have very strong opinions about how to care for a betta. (That's not the depressing part. I'm totally OK with people being interested in whatever.) On more than one betta discussion board (there is more than one betta discussion board), some would-be fish owner would ask for advice for buying a fish, and the response would be so heated that even Jonathan Edwards would step back and say, "Whoa, fellas, let's take it down a bit." Make sure you get a certain kind of water pump that doesn't disturb the water, because bettas are sensitive to noise. (There are stern warnings to affix some sort of sponge to the filter as a makeshift noise dampener.) Aquarium sizes—my god the aquarium sizes. Forget the betta tanks you buy off the shelf at pet stores—you need serious water volume for the fish. At least 2.5 gallons—or maybe 5 gallons! (For a single fish!) Then there are the plants, and decorations, and a certain kind of rock where special vacuums to clean the bottom can do the best job, and a heater—don't forget the heater, you monster!

Now I'm not saying that betta fish today are softer than when I was young, but based on my Internet research, there is no way these fish are presently able to survive in the wild.

I get that we want to be humane to our pets, and I agree that we should do whatever is reasonably possible to make their lives worth living. But the Internet breeds enthusiasts and experts each trying to out-enthuse the other, and what you end up with are beginners turned off of the whole process. I felt bad for the poor beginners wanting to know which betta tank is best—there is no "best betta tank." You can get the 30 gallon shark tank or you can get the hell out of here.

There have always been judgmental know-it-alls in all areas of life, but rarely have they been so angry at the prospect of someone new entering their little kingdom, and so angry that someone might enter their kingdom with insufficient zeal. You like Parcheesi? Well unless you're prepared to study for grandmaster-level Parcheesi play, beat it loser. We got no time for fun around here.

(For the record, we opted for the 1.5 gallon tank with the photograph of a betta on the box. Whatever pump it came with is what we use. I sprung for the heater because it was cheap, and because nobody wants to be cold all of the time.)

For a while, I thought it was just the fish community that had lost its collective mind. Last month, though, my daughter and I decided to get a bat box for the backyard. I had never heard of such a thing; we learned about them at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Basically, a bat box is about the size of a pizza box with a slot on the bottom for bats to get inside. The box is a little shelter for them, and once they get in there, they know what to do. They're bats. They're dry. They're happy. Apparently they eat lots of mosquitoes, and everyone wins.

So our project, in theory, looked something like this: 1. Get a bat house; 2. Paint it; 3. Hang it on the back fence. Like an idiot, though, I googled "bat box" and was once again sucked into the world of angry enthusiasts. (Bat enthusiasts, specifically.) The general format of online discussion followed the betta fish one almost to the letter. On some discussion forum, someone would post something like, "I'd like to get a bat house. I saw one at Home Depot. What do you recommend?"

The responses: "Are you kidding? Home Depot? You're wasting your time. Your best bet is to build your own. Here is a 375-step instructional website with blueprints and directions for how to run electricity to your bat house so that they can have a tiny television set to watch during the day. You'll need an extra iPhone. My bat house has about 500 bats in it, and..." And so on.

I can't imagine that anyone would read this and say, "Oh, well I'll whip out my bandsaw and get to work." Rather, he or she will read it and say, "Well, I guess my bats are going to be homeless."

Ultimately, we bought a $25 bat box at Ace Hardware. We painted it and hung it on the fence. Maybe bats will move in. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll opt for some Bat McMansion down the street. I don't know what will happen. (Apparently it could take up to two years for bats to find and move into the house.) What I do know is that my daughter and me got a cool experience out of the deal, and that we have a bat house. Maybe it's subpar. Maybe it's a bat shanty. But if a bat moves in, that would be pretty cool. And if not, we're out $25 dollars and a couple of hours. I can tell you with certainty that if I had to build a bat house ("It's easy! All you need is—") it never would have happened, because I am a normal human being.

I wouldn't have mentioned any of this except that I ran across it again today while reading about fitness. I love running, and do five miles a day, six days a week. The run plus warmup, and just pulling my running gear on, takes about an hour total, start to finish. (I've been neglecting my long runs because it's basically become impossible to cordon off three solid hours of my day for anything that doesn't have a paycheck at the end.) Even for five-milers, because my schedule is a little weird lately, and because it's freezing in the mornings, it's become really difficult to get a good run mid-day without spending the day fretting over it, and trying to figure out when and how I'll do it. So I have a membership to Planet Fitness, and until things settle, I figured that on hectic days, I'd just plan to go very early in the morning and do the stationary bike or treadmill.

On a whim, I decided to look into the little "30 minute fitness circuit" they have in the back of the gym. I thought I could throw that in alongside my cardio. I wonder what people think of it? I stupidly wondered. So I went to google, and that was that. Same format as the betta fish and bat box. Multiple someones posted in various places a question to the effect of:

"I'm a beginner. What do you think about the 30-minute circuit at Planet Fitness?"

And the responses are all the same: "It's garbage! You'd be wasting your time. What you need to do is plan a MWF workout working alternate groups. So on Mondays you're going to start with single leg hamstring curls and dumbbell neutral grip bench presses..." and you know the rest. These enormously overwhelming and confusing exercise plans that no normal human being will ever do, because no normal human being wants to pick up a car (or house 500 bats, or have an ocean-like aquarium for a single fish). Why not let the beginner just be a beginner? Hey guy, go to Planet Fitness and do your 30 minute circuit, and eat right. When you're ready, branch out.

The thing is: I know that these experts and enthusiasts know their advice will go unheeded. It's never about helping the beginner. It's about feeling superior in your godliness at that one tiny thing in the world you are great at. What I don't understand (aside from the anger) is how someone could love a hobby so jealously that they sabotage the efforts of others. Our wired world has made loners of all of us. We don't know the names of our neighbors, and don't want to know. It seems like common interests would be a great way to bring people together in the real world. "You want to get a fish? That's awesome!" Instead, somehow the Internet has made doing anything new a little lonelier and a lot scarier. "You want to get a fish? You're not ready."

[Image credit: h080]