Wednesday, January 20, 2016

monthly column

Below is this month's somewhat dough-y column for the local Daily Hampshire Gazette. Scalpels are no longer my strong suit.


On Jan. 4, the Gazette ran a front-page picture of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders as he made a weekend appearance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The candidate was shown surrounded by galvanized, sign-waving supporters whose placards read, “A Future to Believe In.” The photo bore a big-type over-line that quoted Sanders’ saying, “People want change.” 

On that same Jan. 4, the BBC ran a lengthy investigation into the widely believed tribal tales about a minute but horrific fish that swims in the depths and shallows of South America’s Amazon River.

Tales of the candiru appear to find their origins in the early 19th century. Briefly, the candiru, which is real, is said to seek out a man’s unwary urine stream, follow its airborne up-current course to the source, enter the penis and feast from within. With time, the fish may work its way up to the bladder, where, if unchecked, an excruciating death can result. Remedies vary from amputation to herbal teas.

Ladies, do not feel left out. You too are reputed to be at risk if urinating in the Amazon. One variation of the candiru legend is that the fish are attracted by the mere scent of urine in the water. But when it comes to emphasis and balance, it is men who have told and embellished the “history” of the candiru and we all know how men feel about their exceptional apps.

In all of this, the BBC’s question was: Is any of it even remotely true?

At no point does the BBC report flatly discount the ravages attributed to the candiru. Instead, the article amasses enough circumstantial and logical evidence to allow Marine Biologist Stephen Spotte to conclude that the likelihood of a candiru swimming up an arching urinal stream and then actualizing its horrific mission is “about the same as being struck by lightning while simultaneously [being] eaten by a shark.” All of this brought me back to Bernie Sanders and his enthusiasts ... of which I am one.

Isn’t it true that there are some stories or assumptions that are so alluring that no amount of reason can dislodge them? “People want change.” The line swims upstream in the mind and is every bit as enticing and benevolent and convincing in its hopes as the candiru is in its largely unsubstantiated depredations.

“Change,” to borrow and corrupt a line from Beatle John Lennon, “is what happens while you were busy planning for change.”No one can foretell the future, so believing in an envisioned tomorrow is more a matter of personal choice and socially cohesive enjoyment and less a matter based in a quantifiable reality. What is for-sure is as deeply important as it may be deeply flawed. But how many are willing to take a personal responsibility for the folk tales and fishy stories about “change?” 

For my money, Bernie Sanders addresses matters that are more like national issues and less like insulting folk-tale vulgarities or religious posturing. Education, taxation, climate, jobs, income disparity, infrastructure and the willingness to create yet another war are honest issues in my mind and Sanders touches on them without telling me where he goes to church. If morality or political integrity could actually be deduced from church attendance, what sort of story would that tell?

Anyway, I like Bernie Sanders, but I am old enough not to love him.

Nor is politics the only realm in which fish stories get their hooks into a wide swath of public approval. Consider the “War Department” and its comforting transition to the “Department of Defense.” Or perhaps a “life insurance” industry whose very existence relies on individuals’ willingness to drop dead. Or the bevies of ecclesiastics who say their “god is unknowable” and then proceed to tell you all about him/her/it and add, perhaps, that they are the only credible link between what is unknown and those who wish to know it.

Isn’t it important at some point to step away from warm and wonderful fish stories and ask who is generating this warmth, this truth, this euphoric sense of for-sure?

Think back four years to the last presidential election and the “future you can believe in.” 

I have nothing against a good fish story, but I wonder if it is a basis on which to make serious decisions. Your sense of “change” may be similar to or dissimilar from mine. Either way, an unwillingness to step away and take responsibility for my own fish stories is to invite dissatisfaction and worse down the road.

For the moment, then, I say, “Go ahead, Bernie. Tell me a well-intentioned fish story and I promise to applaud. But I also promise to run a reality check on the wily progress of yet another much-applauded fish.
Meet him now or meet him later, the devil — my very own devil — is in the details.

And without precautions, perhaps my devil can even swim upstream.

Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at
To read the BBC story, visit

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