THE GOODBYE PROJECT: Letting Go is Good, Yo! Episode 9–The Jacques Cousteau Book

About The Goodbye Project:

There are so many of us who can’t part with objects because of the sentimental attachment we have to them. You know—the graduation tassels, the barfed-on stuffed animal with the missing eye, the coat your late father bought for you because you begged. So what do you do when it’s time to let go of these beloved items because it’s absolutely necessary?

I’d read someplace that one of the best ways to let go of an object is to know that you have a photo. Sure, you can photograph it before you get rid of it. The Goodbye Project takes the idea a step further: go back and find photos of yourself actually with, using, or wearing that object, and blurb a bit about the memories it invokes.

Why? Everything has a story.

And because of that, the object deserves more than just a hasty trip to the Goodwill or the trash without a second thought.

EPISODE 9: THE JACQUES COUSTEAU BOOK

The book that started my obsession with wanting to work with fish.

While I plan on a few episodes about several books and what they mean to me, this one—like Episode 7, about the penguins—merited a separate episode.

I don’t remember how old I was—probably 11 or 12, which would set this story in 1982 or 1983, but we still had the small yellow Subaru, and my parents took me to Mystic Marinelife Aquarium (it’s now called Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration) in Mystic, Connecticut for the day.

It was the first time I had ever been to an aquarium, and I remember plunging through the double-doors (the place looks completely different now) and into the cool darkness that smelled to me like swimming pools and aluminum—a smell I never forgot. I was immersed in a new world—around me, the creatures of the sea, which I’d previously only seen in books. It was the first time I saw a jellyfish, which had stung me in Daytona Beach when I was six. It was the first time I saw a shark up close. It was the first time I saw crabs, sea stars, and dolphins (at the time, Mystic had dolphins). I was awash in magic, and I looked down at the blue carpet under my feet and said to myself, ‘someday, I am going to work here.’

At that time, the way in which you exited the aquarium was through the gift shop. Our parents were not the best in terms of getting us the souvenirs we wanted, but they always got us something small. On that day, though, I just couldn’t be talked into one of those felt pennants or a hat. I wanted pictures of all these wonderful, incredible animals. I wanted something from which I could learn more. I saw this book on the shelf and had to have it.

I’m sure there was some kind of argument in the gift shop, because the book was expensive, but eventually, Dad caved—then gave me the silent treatment all the way home. It was one of those uncomfortable childhood moments when you can feel the tension, when you are terrified to say anything because it might invoke something worse.

You can tell I took this book very seriously—I never wrote my name in any of my books when I was that age.

Finally, Dad said something to the effect that I was selfish. He was always telling me that as a kid: I was selfish, just like his brother Marty. I do remember, though, at one point, my mother had had enough. She said: “That isn’t your older brother in the back seat, you know. That is your daughter. And she wanted a book instead of a piece of junk that’s going to be tossed aside in a couple of hours, so I suggest you stop, because you’re going to scare her out of learning anything new.”

My mother rarely spoke up in defense of me, but when she did, she meant business—there was no mistaking that or else tone in her voice. Dad clammed up.

I read that book cover to cover several times, and it inspired me to once again dive into Dad’s National Geographic collection (see Episode 5 of The Goodbye Project here: http://wp.me/pIXRs-Ec ). One of the issues had a few articles on the ocean written by Cousteau. I do remember being surprised to see his name (remember, I was 12 at the time).

If you’ve read Episode 5, then you know that certain issues of National Geographic have affected my life. This issue was one of them, mostly because of the double-sided map which featured the ocean floor topography and the article on “Blue-Water Life by Night.” What’s really interesting is that this issue also contained an article called “Mount Saint Helens Aftermath.” This is one of the issues that I had culled from my collection years ago. As for the map? I still have it. I found it tucked into one of my “research” notebooks from 1982.

I was so inspired by Cousteau’s writing I wrote a letter to the National Geographic Society. I’m not even sure what I said—I didn’t keep a copy of the letter, as back then all I had was one of my Dad’s old typewriters and no way to keep a copy unless I typed a duplicate—but I did get a response, and I can infer from its content that I probably gave a compliment on how much I enjoyed the articles.

I was so excited to get this in the mail! As much as I’ve adapted well to e-mail, there was nothing like getting real letters in the mailbox. I found this in one of my journal boxes tucked in a file labeled “special letters.” Apparently I was gutsy enough to write tons of letters to all kinds of people—I found responses from Oceanus magazine, Adirondack Life magazine, and even one from the producer of The Twilight Zone (the 1985 series). It’s safe to say I probably became addicted to getting interesting mail. Hey, I was 12, and what, back then, used to come in the mail for a 12-year-old except birthday cards once a year?

This was totally cool. I was impressed not only by the personal response from Lee Smith, but the hand-typed thorough listing of other articles by Cousteau. I don’t know if the Society does this kind of personal correspondence anymore, but back then it looks like it was common practice—notice the letterhead here is already pre-printed with “Selected National Geographic articles containing information on,” and then the rest of the page is blank. Lee Smith, or, more likely, Smith’s assistant/secretary (you can tell by the notation at the bottom of the cover letter) typed this just for me.

I did, apparently, take Smith’s advice and wrote to the Cousteau Society. Again, I don’t have a copy of the original letter, but here’s the response. Obviously I asked for an autograph.

Somewhere along the line I discovered that this was a double volume of Cousteau’s series of books, and in 1997, I was lucky enough to find the whole set at a tag sale (which I later cast off—it just didn’t have the pull that this one volume had, so I never read any of them).

As for going to work at Mystic? You bet I did. Despite the two hour and fifteen minute haul, I became an aquarium volunteer for the Fishes & Inverts department (sharks, crabs, etc.) in March of 2002 and logged over a hundred hours up through the middle of 2004. My duties included feeding the octopus (I hated that job—you had to knee yourself over the tank on a 2×6 and watch the beast rise up from the bottom), feeding everybody else, cleaning tanks, water changes, preparing food, monitoring ozone levels, and more. I taught a class in lobster dissection, I got the tip of my finger clipped by a puffer fish (they have sharp beaks, man!), I felt the hum of electricity when I plugged in a wet vac while standing in a pool of water (according to one of the guys there, my initiation to full aquarist included getting bitten, getting electrocuted, and falling in a tank. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, right?), I tripped with a full tray of food. I helped clean out the mort freezer (DO NOT ASK) and I also participated in the stranding unit (you can read more about this in my science paper for Burlington College here: BCScienceEssay2005). Every other Sunday I got up at 5 a.m. so I could make it to work by 7:30 a.m., and every other Sunday I came home sticky with fish guts.

They were some of the most glorious days of my life.

This is the book that started it all. Although I have to say goodbye, I photographed the pages or photos that fascinated me the most.

For more information about volunteering at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, visit here: http://www.mysticaquarium.org/get-involved/volunteer

I’m not quite sure what it was about this picture that fascinated me, but when I played school I would trace these figures onto paper and make a “choose the correct answer” problem to try to memorize them.

The whale in the middle looked mean. I had a thing about mean-looking whale drawings for two reasons: the drawing on the cover of my father’s copy of Moby Dick, and the whale in Disney’s Pinocchio.

I did the same thing with the drawings on this page, and the two pages below this, that I did with the drawings about streamlining.

I won’t lie. I was only interested in this drawing because of the stunning combination of pink and orange. I traced this onto paper many times and colored it using the same markers and then hung it on my wall.

It was the menace in both of these pictures that grabbed me.

I couldn’t stop staring at this page. Yipes, what an UGLY fish. I kept imagining how horrified I’d be if I were swimming and this thing butted up against me. I was also fascinated by the curves in the drawings of how they swim.

My mother was a musician, and she had a box of random things like finger cymbals and maracas. These scallops reminded me of the castanets that she also kept in that box. I could envision these creatures in motion and I wondered if they made a sound like the castanets did.

Up until this point I had no idea that sea stars moved. So this picture fascinated me—not only because of that, but because I wondered if they felt prickly—like living pickles, I imagined—when you touched them. In fact, the thought spooked me so much it was a long time before I ate pickles again. To this day, I only eat a pickle maybe once a year.

Hideously ugly—again, another instance in which I couldn’t stop staring at something so horrifying. In addition, the memory of having been stung by a jellyfish just a few years before at Daytona Beach was still pretty fresh.

Loved this pic—my father had this awesome copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea down in his den, and it had a marlin similar to this one whacking through the old man’s boat. I read his copy of that book several times. It was the first time I was exposed to Hemingway.

More diagrams, tracing, and quizzing myself.

The opening phrase on this page—“Nature red in tooth and claw?”—struck me. I opened several science reports with it.

I only liked this picture because the green water around the shark looked so cool and inviting, and I thought that when I grew up and moved to Florida I would have a swimming pool that had green water instead of blue.

This is going to sound completely stupid, but I liked this picture for two reasons: 1, I felt like I could stick my hand in the shark’s mouth and it would feel soft, like a pillow, and 2, I liked how it came out of the darkness, like a ghost.

It was the colors that attracted me to this photo. I was enthralled that something so deadly could be so pretty.

To me, looking at half-eaten fish was the same as looking at dead birds (see Episode 5). What’s funny about this is that I became more terrified of schools of bluefish than of sharks or barracuda simply because of this picture. In 2003, when I was invited to go water skiing with some friends out in Long Island Sound, I was behind the boat, waiting for them to go so I could get up on the water skis—and somebody shouted, “go now, there’s a school of bluefish around her!” I haven’t set foot in Long Island sound waters since.

For some reason this drawing reminded me of The Bermuda Triangle, which I had sketched on a National Geographic map at home and hung over my bed (I had the top bunk).

The photo that introduced me to the concept of “The Feeding Frenzy” in sharks, which I’d learn much more about a couple of years later when I found Dad’s 1968 National Geographic (covered in Episode 5).

This picture is the reason it took me a long time to be comfortable with scuba diving (which I did a few years later when I was 16).

This creature looked menacing. It wasn’t until years later, when I went to work at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk as an exhibit interpreter, that horseshoe crabs were harmless.

The only reason I liked this picture was because it looked like the shark was eating a chicken leg. Don’t ask me why.

Here's the full set I acquired at a tag sale in the late 1990s. I gave this away years ago.

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About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, is a co-editor for Read Short Fiction, and co-hosts the Dark Discussions Podcast. Her work Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. More info: www.kristipetersenschoonover.com

Posted on June 28, 2011, in The Goodbye Project and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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