Archives for the month of: February, 2007

So I have this friend who called to ask if I would babysit her 30 gallon live-rock saltwater aquarium, while they try to sell their house. (Given the recent market, that might be a really long time.).

I was instantly intimidated. Even my attempts with pingpong-ball carnival goldfish have been pretty dismal; I have killed more fish than Chicken-of-the-Sea. One day they are lovely and swimming, the next day they have some hideous alien fur-fungus on one eyeball and I count they days, as guilt-wracked bad fish mommy, until they go belly up so I can flush them.

I stammered, “How complicated is water testing? I’m not sure I can figure out how to do it right”…

She laughed, and said, “Well, water testing is one approach. Then there’s my method: You just tell your kids, “Look, things die. Other things eat them. It’s nature.”

I began to feel better about my ability to handle the task.

She arrived later that day and unloaded from her van a sturdy but battered 70’s looking wooden base, andthen an incredibly heavy half-empty aquarium full of purple, green and pink algae coating big rocks perched in swirling muck.

“Yuck”, said my daughter quietly. “It doesn’t smell very nice.”

Friend made several trips to the car to collect salt-crusted tubes and wires and parts, and put it all together. It was not the least bit intimidating, after all, because it became clear that this was a very laid back operation. I learned that I needed to stuff a wad of paper towel in the air intake where the part was missing, and smack the pump hard on one side a few times if it didn’t run when plugged in.

She made several trips from my bathtub to the tank with a five gallon bucket, having added something called “instant ocean”. My kids brought towels to mop up dribbles, puddles, friend’s arms and my glasses when she spattered us. She had a down-to-business, no-nonsense approach with which I identified immediately. Damn the details, Orville, let’s get this thing off the ground.

She topped it off with a hand-built light box dangling a rainbow spaghetti of wires, tucked everything neatly into and under the stand, turned on the light timer, dished out hugs and disappeared, like some fantastic Santa-Claus-Jaques-Cousteau hybrid.

So. My kids pulled up chairs like it was a wide screen TV. We released the cleaning crew from their plastic bags — (some extra crabs she had brought along) — and they settled to the bottom, found the indigenous crabs and tried to yank them out of their shells. Love? War? Some crab fraternity handshake? We had no clue. Hey, stuff dies, other stuff eats it. Circle of life and all that. But nobody seemed to get devoured that day.

In an hour or so the water became clear, as the pump did its magic. Two bright green crabs were picking bits off the rocks and eating them, compulsively, nonstop. Snails cruised along with purple-crusted shells, happily licking the glass with their little o-mouths.

As the water warmed, tiny phallic tubes all over the rock began to pop out things that looked like inside-out umbrellas made of eyelashes, or like the parachute part of a dandelion stem. We agreed that watching them waft in the current-breeze makes us feel very peaceful. We are not clear yet on whether they are plant or animal, eaters or eaten, but I suspect a trip to the library will give us names and details. Then my son can be even more convincing with his David Attenborough voice over narrations.

Meanwhile this is the best TV show my kids have ever seen. They yell up the hall for me to come and see this little shrimp-thingy or watch the crabs fight. Every time I go out there I find chairs pulled up to the tank, the homeschool books forgotten on the table behind them.

The kids and I went to my brother’s today and met Jenny, who is wonderful and lovely and warm (even in Ohio where it’s 4 degrees right now.) Then we drove to EMU together, where they watched their movies at Diana’s house and I went to printmaking class. Patrick had timed the bread machine to be done just as we arrived, so the house smelled wonderful and a note said “The bread is for y’all”.

Tomorrow a horde of my childrens’ friends will descend upon my house for the first Pokemon Card Trading Meeting. I am not fluent in pokemon, but my role will be to make the house at least marginally presentable, provide popcorn and juice-seltzer punch, and stay out of the way of the little wall street wheeler-dealers as they swap cards with names like “pikachu” and “jigglypuff”. My kids are a little disappointed that I am so dim about the world of pokemon, but they forgive me when I make jokes about the names. They are in the other room swapping a “squirtle” for a “wheedle” and I announce that nobody had better squirtle OR wheedle on MY rug. I get a sympathy laugh for stuff like that, most days.

Off to bed. House to clean tomorrow morning, teapot handles to pull, miles to drive. Stay warm, all.


I have always been a nest-maker, and life with small children has made me even more rooted in place, unwilling to consider any life changes that would mean leaving my house, my neighborhood, or my familiar, comfortable routine.

But the last year has thrown me together with people whose stories are full of romance and adventure. Our friends/neighbors from Iran tell stories of a marriage arranged by a mother-in-law, and a journey from their home country to the U.S.A, where they are now happy and in love, raising their daughters.

My friend in the ceramics studio was interviewed on Libyan TV after her sculpture was featured in a gallery, which resulted in four marriage proposals from strangers. After several emails and a little travel together, she accepted the proposal of a University of Michigan professor from the US. Though she had never been to America, she moved here a year ago, learned to drive, and is pursuing her MFA in Ceramics, with a baby due in April.

These have always been the kinds of stories that make me sigh in admiration. I have always loved to read the diaries of pioneers who left behind homes, communities and families in the East to make their way west in covered wagons. They had no idea what might lie ahead, but they went anyway, trusting that they could make it work, with their loved ones beside them.

My own ancestors had that same sense of adventure and faith in the future. Some left Germany with whatever they could pack in a steamer trunk, suffering long and grueling sea voyages to arrive at Ellis Island, and enter a new country where they owned nothing, knew nobody and didn’t speak the language. The rest came from Ireland, fleeing hard times and looking for a way to start fresh with just the ability to work hard and the heart to not give up.

Immigrants brought an open mindedness, sense of adventure and determination. Passed through generations, it still makes up a lot of what is best in this country. For me, though, it’s the individual stories that keep me interested.

Joseph Campbell said — and I wish I could quote him directly, but this is close — that you must be willing to let go of the life you have, so that you can acheive the life you were meant to have.

To me, this means small daily adjustments: learning to let go of mothering little ones so that I can raise teenagers, or reminding myself to explore new paths and take small risks, leaning away from comfortable habit and into new growth.

For Jenny, it means a leap of faith that has brought her to a new land, a new life, and a lot of unknowns, guided by love for my brother. I am full of admiration, awe and a little envy when I think of her courage. I have no doubt that she will make a wonderful life for herself and add something special to our world: the adventurous ones always do!

To friends who have asked aboout Jeff’s cardiac catheterization: it was yesterday, and all is well. There was no blockage requiring angioplasty or stints, and he’s happy to have the information (though he’s walking a little slowly today). I got to see the video loop of the veins branching like tree roots around his pumping heart. Glad the movie had a happy ending.

Jeff gets really funny under stress and was a regular stand-up comedian at the hospital yesterday. At one point I bumped his IV stand with my bookbag and he went into a dramatic sudden-death scene, much to the amusement of the nurses…

Many thanks to my friend who came over and spent the day with my kids…