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.

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