Archived Story

Are you a fast-fish or are you a loose-fish?

Published 9:56am Friday, September 28, 2012

Column: Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, Paths to Peace

One of my favorite books is “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, which is unfortunate because I rarely get to discuss it with anyone. Fewer readers seem to have the patience today to suffer through some of the less-engaging chapters, even though the rest of the book is so worth it.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

I used to read “Moby Dick” with high school juniors. We focused on the best chapters, the ones which — among other things — allowed us to share lots of references and witty allusions that only we’d appreciate, a little harmless snobbery for the adolescent literati.

One favorite MD reference comes from Chapter 89, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish.” The title refers to a rule in 19th century whaling regarding property rights. It wasn’t uncommon for a ship to encounter a whale, live or dead, that was attached or fastened (“fast”) to the property of another whaling ship. A ship’s harpoon stuck in the side of a whale, or a tangled length of rope wrapped around it made that whale a “fast-fish” and the property of the ship that owned the harpoon or rope. A loose-fish, conversely, was up for grabs, absolutely free for any other ship to harpoon and claim.

As whaling is a metaphor for bigger things throughout the book, the chapter concludes with the following: “What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What are all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish . . . And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?”

So in class we’d discuss what it means to be a loose-fish — to be unclaimed, uncommitted, free — and what it means to be a fast-fish — claimed, committed, not so free — in different aspects of our lives.

Some students would talk about being fast-fish when it came to their faiths or their families, while claiming to be loose-fish regarding future college plans. Some would claim to be fast-fish in terms of school activities, such as wrestling, mock trial or other teams and clubs requiring great personal commitment, but loose-fish regarding their tastes in music and political affiliations.

Still others would bristle at the very idea of being a “fast-fish” at all, even though I’d argue that being a fast-fish can be great, provided you have consciously chosen to be bound, eyes wide-open, to honorable tasks, ideas and values.

Problems can arise, however, when we fasten ourselves to bad logic, to untruths, to ideas and stories that sometimes just don’t match with reality. When we do this we create a “prison of the false narrative,” a way of trapping ourselves in assumptions and beliefs based on the stories we’ve come to accept as true, when they are in fact false.

Some false narratives are created without malice, passed on by careless reporters or storytellers. Other false narratives are more intentionally created and shared, as with the popular tradition of black-faced minstrel shows in 19th century America, whose music and comedy sketches spread a false narrative about African-Americans being ignorant, lazy, childlike creatures often longing for the good ole days of slavery and “the old folks at home.”

More personally we hear, accept and even unwittingly construct false narratives about others, about ourselves, limiting our options, our perspectives, our visions of who we are, who they are and who we all might become. We’re tied to these narratives, fast-fish to falsities.

A young student struggling in math, for example, may create the false narrative that he just doesn’t get math, that he’s never gotten math and that he never will get math, when the reality may be he hasn’t yet worked on math in the right way or for the right amount of time. He becomes a fast-fish, a prisoner, to his belief that he will never understand math.

Election years are full of false narratives. One has recently been unapologetically repeated with a slightly more elegant spin on the original by Mitt Romney, that 47 percent of us are dependent upon the government and view ourselves as victims. This particular prison wall — as full of holes as it is — just won’t crumble and disappear. Why? Because Mitt Romney and others like him actually believe it, even though there is boundless evidence to the contrary that the majority of us who have at some point paid little to no federal income tax or received financial help from our government are neither moochers nor victims.

We are, in fact, people from modest backgrounds, who qualified for federal financial aid in college, who chose to have one partner stay at home when our children were young, thus earning less and perhaps paying no federal income tax for few years, despite paying payroll taxes, property taxes and other state and local taxes.

We are people who have been sick, who have experienced periods of unemployment, who have served in the military, who are disabled, who are retired, whose kids may qualify for free or reduced school lunches even though we’re working hard and contributing to our communities.

These are our true narratives, members of that 47 percent, fast-fish to the American Dream — self-deluded and foolish only if we support the candidacies of Mitt Romney and those sharing his disdain for us.


Jeremy Corey-Gruenes is a high school English teacher In Albert Lea where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @jemcorey.