An Unconventional Guide to Saving Lives

This was my entry for Chris Guillebeau‘s Unconventional Writing Contest. I didn’t win, but I got an honorable mention and was listed on the short list (a runner-up, if you will). Watch Chris’s site for the three winning posts; I’m sure they will knock our socks off!

Now that the contest is over, I’m able to share this with you. I hope you enjoy!

I am an unconventional woman leading an unconventional life.

I am a lesbian witch, raising an unschooled son, in an illegal marriage with another woman – who happens to be my business partner, which also makes me an entrepreneur who sleeps with her co-worker.

And today I’m going to talk about fish.

Betta fish, in particular. And Wal-Mart, because before I became a tree-hugging barefoot vegan raw foodist hippie (did I forget to mention that?), I used to shop there.

One afternoon, on a particularly busy day, I was wandering around a Texas Wal-Mart with my mother and son (who was a toddler). The kiddo liked to look at the fish, so we wandered over to the pet department to let him tap on the tanks. (I’ve never been one for rules.)

While he merrily sang “fishie fishie fishie fishie” at the top of his very young, very powerful lungs, I happened to see the betta fish. Row upon row of the little guys, all in cups on a shelf. Every single one of them was white and listless. I walked over to give them closer examination, because usually bettas are colorful and lively. And what did I find?

The lids on the cups had no air holes.

Now, bettas are low-maintenance. They don’t need filters. They don’t need gravel or much light. But they do need air – and fresh air, at that.

I wandered around for a few minutes, trying to find the fabled Wal-Mart Employee, but to no avail. So, I told my mom to keep an eye on the toddler (who would’ve been hard to lose, with his volume capacity), and went to work.

I started opening the lids. All of them. There were several dozen, so it took a while. I was about halfway through my rescue program when I was accosted (and startled so badly I nearly dropped the fish cup I was holding) by the very creature that had previously eluded me: a young, nervous-looking Wal-Mart Employee.

“Can I… uh… help you, Ma’am?”

“Yes, actually.” I handed him a cup. “Open this. Then you can open the rest.”

He stared at the cup in his hand. “Um. Uh, I don’t think that’s Allowed. Why would I do that, Ma’am?”

I kept going, opening one while talking. “Because the fish are dying. Look at them; they’re white and nearly lifeless.”

“No one else cares about fish this much, lady.”

He did as I bade and surveyed the cups, taking it in. “Uh, yeah, but I still don’t, uh, think you should be doing that. Unless you want to buy them?”

The hope in his voice made me pause. Did he seriously think I wanted to buy five dozen betta fish? I shook my head. “Nope, I don’t want to buy ’em, but I don’t want ’em to die, either. Are you going to help?”

He looked at me nervously, clearly classifying me as “the crazy customer”. He shook his head. “I’m going to, uh, go get the manager.”

He did, walking off with the fish cup still in his hand. I shrugged and kept going, opening lid after lid.

After a while, the manager appeared. She had the fish cup in her hand, lid still firmly on. I glanced up at her when she said, “Can I help you, Ma’am? Is there a problem?”

I stopped long enough to look at her. “Yes, the fish are dying and your untrained employee didn’t care.”

She looked me over, sizing me up. She used her calmest voice and said, “Ma’am, the fish come to us like this, and we cannot allow you to open all the cups. It’s against store policy, and you will be accountable for them and have to buy them.”

I tried again (still opening cups): “I understand, but they’re dying. Look at them.”

She didn’t. But she did continue to try to stop me, and I continued to persevere.

But I wasn’t going to get anywhere with kindness – at least, not with her kindness.

After a few minutes of this failing, I had an idea. “Ms. Manager Lady (yes, I really said that), look. One betta is $5. If someone buys a betta, they’re going to buy food, which is $2. They’ll buy a bowl, the cheapest of which is $10. They’ll likely buy gravel for, what, $4 for the smallest bag? And if they have kids, they’ll buy something silly to add to the bowl, like a treasure chest or a little bridge, right? For anywhere from $2 to $15?”

She nodded, not really following.

“Okay, that’s close to $25 per betta. $25 for a fish and accoutrements.

She nodded again.

“And if the betta dies, how much do you get for it?”

The lightbulb went off. Finally. She looked at me, then looked at the fish in her hand, then back at me. She handed me the fish and walked off. I finished opening all the cups, found the one that looked the furthest from death, and collected my $25 worth of accoutrements.

Return to the Fish Department

Two years later and 1400 miles away, at a Wal-Mart in Virginia, I once again took my singing boy to the fish department. I looked over and happened to catch sight of the bettas.

Row upon row of colorful little betta fish swam in cups.

Not white.

Not listless.

Not on death’s underwater door.

I went over to give them closer examination. Each cup was lidded with lids that had pre-made holes. I made an involuntary “eep!” and set off to find someone to ask about it.

I found an employee who actually knew her stuff. She said, “Oh, yeah, I think it was about two years ago when we got a store-wide change and we started getting these lids instead. Something about how we were losing too much money to the fish dying before they were sold. Personally, I was really excited, ’cause before that they always looked so sad – and to heck with the money, ya know?”

I did know, all too well.

And here’s the point.

One person can make a difference.

I spent twenty minutes opening lids in a Corporate Giant, and they changed policy. I thought I’d save a handful of fish, but I helped save countless generations of them.

I had to find the way to get my point across. Appealing to the manager’s kindness failed, but appealing to her money sense succeeded. She must’ve taken my case, as it were, to her managers, and it went all the way up the chain ’til someone with some clout made a change to “save money”. Not exactly what I set out to do – but I got the result I wanted.

And that’s it, right there.

You can find a way to make a difference. It might not be the way you expect, but there’s always a way.

Feel clear and confident about your direction in life!


Do you wish you could follow your heart, but it seems impossible? I can help you find the clarity and courage you need.

In other words, I can help you find your path.