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THE GOODBYE PROJECT: Letting Go is Good, Yo! Episode 12–The Shell Collection

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 12: THE SHELL COLLECTION

My shell collection.

The box in which I kept my shell collection.

Okay, I’ll admit my shell collection wasn’t very impressive: that’s probably because I wasn’t out to collect them, it was more like every once in awhile I’d come across something cool on a beach, someone would give me a shell as a gift, or I’d buy an interesting one as a souvenir from a sea-side vacation. But each shell (or piece of animal, as you’ll see) was also special because after I became an aquarium volunteer I was not only able to identify what which animal it belonged to pretty easily, I knew something about the animal’s biology or behavior. The shell collection, and my interaction with it, was a constant reminder of the excitement I felt as an aquarium volunteer—and was a constant source of inspiration for several of my short stories, among them “Jingle Shells,” “Cancer Moon” (unpublished), “Tooth and Claw” (unpublished), and “Gorlak” (unpublished).

The fascination with shells began, oddly enough, nowhere near a beach. It began in my parents’ dining room way back in the 1970s, when I discovered a dried sea star (back then, I thought “starfish”) they had sitting on their hutch.

The dining room was like everything else in my parents’ house—dark. Growing up in that house was like growing up in a cave. It was dark, it was damp, it was always getting hit by lightning and the bottom floor was always so cold in the winter you could see your breath (oh, and did I mention that we had to spend a lot of time thawing out the frozen pipes using a hairdryer?). If you think I’m exaggerating, feel free to ask my three siblings and they’ll tell you the same thing. It was probably why, once I’d had my first taste of bright, sunny Florida, I never wanted to come back.

As children, none of us was allowed near the hutch. It was full of my parents’ most sentimental, fragile stuff—their wedding cake topper and engraved cake knife set, plates from various states, the crystal wine glasses, the punch bowl, the serving platters, the china, Dad’s childhood poached egg cup—and a nesting doll from the Frisian Islands (Föhr), where my Dad’s father’s family is from.

It was that nesting doll that grabbed my attention, and why I was near the hutch one afternoon when I shouldn’t have been.

Above, my cousin Maryanne holds my brother Chuck, 1974. Look in the background—that’s the hutch. The sea star, which isn’t visible in the picture, was on the first shelf. Some of you might recognize it, because now the hideous thing is in my dining room.

I grabbed the nesting doll and pulled her toward me, and that’s when I noticed the sea star. At first I thought it was a big cookie—it reminded me, for some reason, of those colorful, oversized giant sugar cookies I saw down at a deli near us where we used to go every Sunday to get fresh black ‘n’ white cookies—although I didn’t try to eat it. I shook it, and I could hear little parts or something rolling around inside; it seemed very fragile. At that point, Dad came into the room and asked me what I was doing. I asked him what it was, and he told me it was “a starfish from Florida.”

“It used to be alive,” he said. “It lives in water.”

This made me excited. “Like, down at the beach?” (I was referring to our community’s beach on Candlewood Lake).

“No, they only live in salt water. In the ocean. You won’t see those until we go to Florida again.”

After that, the Forbes’ Common Sea Star (I wouldn’t learn that’s what it was called until many years later, after I started aquarium volunteering) became a symbol of hope. Every time I thought I’m never going to get out of this hole I’d go to the hutch, pick it up in my hands, run my fingers along the creature’s prickly tube feet, and count the days until our next trip to Florida.

Sometime during my adult years, while I was no longer living at my Dad’s, the Star disappeared. In 2008, my father passed away, and I was thrilled to re-discover it. It hadn’t gone far from the hutch—it was just inside it. It had been shoved into a drawer with a menagerie of items that didn’t go together, such as photos, placemats, and remotes for televisions we no longer owned. It also wasn’t in bad condition—only the end of one arm, where the creature’s “eyes” would be, had a small chip in it. I decided to keep it, and took it home.

The Forbes’ Common Sea Star (Asterias forbesi) that was my symbol of hope. I am not getting rid of this; instead, I packed it in bubble wrap and placed it in my childhood keepsake box. I’m very thankful it survived and I’m grateful to have it—and when I rediscovered it, I automatically had some new memories attached to it, like how many kids I’d freak out at the Touch Tank when I’d tell them the story of how a sea star eats: by inverting its stomach into the body of the prey.

That sea star was one of the many items or experiences that contributed to my fascination with the sea and my eventual role as an aquarium volunteer, but my love for it would eventually lead to collecting all kinds of other stuff that, sadly, I just can’t keep. Here’s a little tour of my aquarium adventures and the shells that I am letting go.

My Maritime Aquarium volunteer badge. I started working at the aquarium in late June, 2001; in my tenure there, I logged 1,319 hours. Very often, I’d work all day long both Saturdays and Sundays. I just loved it.

That’s me working the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk’s Touch Tank, summer, 2001. There were several stations where we could work, but the Touch Tank was my favorite. Here, I was making the spider crab (Libinia emarginata) “sleep” by turning it on its back so the kids wouldn’t be afraid to touch it—actually, it’s not really anything like sleep at all. It’s a defensive pose to ward off predators.. A little-known fact? I was actually TERRIFIED of working the Touch Tank when I first went to work there, BECAUSE of the crabs. True story: I’ve anxious-ambivalently romanced crabs since I was five, when my father had carried me to a Long Island Sound sandbar, set me down, and made his way back to the mainland. “You can do it, Kristi!” he’d called. “Walk to me!” Between us, a submerged field littered with half-buried—but very much in motion—crab claws; I imagined, attached to each indigo, white, bright orange pincer, a salivating beast. Whimpering like a seagull, I’d squinched my eyes closed and walked toward my father’s beckoning gestures. I made it pinch-free, but the experience scarred me, and I possessed a fear of crabs that wasn’t cured until I started working the Touch Tank.

April 5, 2002—I was working an overnight (a camp-type deal in which the kids sleep over at the aquarium) at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. Here, I’m talking all about the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). My favorite stories to tell about this crab involved its instinct (and terrifying) Silurian, Cambrian and Devonian ancestor Pterygotus, which could grow up to nine feet. I had a photo I used to show the kids. If you want to know what Pterygotus looked like and get a sense of its size, here’s a pretty good model: http://bugguide.net/node/view/505441/bgpage. I also liked to show the kids how the horseshoe crab uses its spike-esque tail to flip itself over, and got a huge thrill out of allowing the kids to stick their fingers into the crab’s chelicerae (pincers near the mouth) so they could feel that there was only pressure and not a pinch.

Part of being an aquarium volunteer at Maritime involved working outside events. Above, me and fellow volunteer Judy work the aquarium’s booth at Norwalk’s annual Oyster Festival, September 7, 2002.

In March, 2002, I signed on as a Fishes & Inverts volunteer at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut. I never wore this badge—no one in our department wore badges—because the work was hands on, you crawled around a lot, you were up on ladders over tanks, et cetera. There was just too much danger of it falling off, or getting snagged on something. I logged 207 volunteer hours during my tenure at Mystic.

I was also a member. This is one of the stickers that never quite made it to my car.

In January 2009, I visited the National Aquarium, Baltimore. Set near one of the tanks was the above container—a familiar sight for me, since this was exactly the same system we’d use for storage and distribution of feeds at Mystic Aquarium, even though this clearly belonged to the Education department and not to whatever their F&I department equivalent is. Lettuce is a common feed, by the way—even the fish need vitamins and roughage!

Of course, visiting aquariums is as much fun as working at them! Here’s me in the salt marsh exhibit at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island, June 21, 2002.

Me at the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island’s Touch Tank, June, 2003. The girl in pink is my niece, Andi.

A Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata), caught on the beach at Duck, North Carolina (in the Outer Banks), June, 2003. I only kept him for a half hour or so. He was safely returned to the beach with his buddies.

Ghost crabs were always a favorite of mine, and they figure prominently in more than just one scene in an unpublished novelette of mine called Gorlak, which I wrote back in the early 2000s. For fun, I’ve put one scene in which the crabs are prominent here. I’ll just give you this caveat: this has the potential to be a great scene to move the story forward in terms of both escalating danger (plot) and clarifying the issues between Petra and Simon, but in its current state it feels like it’s an outline. I’ll definitely be reworking this entire book when I get to Florida. Still…enjoy!

Gorlak-Chapter 5, Last Scene

It looks like I’m examining a mussel at the New England Aquarium (Boston)’s Touch Tank in October, 2004.

Remember when I talked about my favorite things to do with horseshoe crabs? Here, I’m showing Nathan’s nephew Jakob that there’s no pinch—only pressure—to the crab’s chelicerae. This photo was taken at Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, April, 2006.

I know, isn’t this awful? There isn’t just an adult in here, but a baby hooked around the adult’s tail, so look closely. I am not sure what species of seahorse this is—I’d say Potbelly (Hippocampus abdominalis—the most common varieties you will see in aquariums are abdominalis and H. erectus), but not only are the skin markings inconsistent, the shape is a little too classic, especially since baby Potbellies tend to be extremely slim in the middle. If I had to guess, I’d say a Zebrasnout, because although you can’t see it in the picture, if I look at the object itself very closely, the animal appears to have markings consistent with that species. I have no idea how old this paperweight is; my housemate picked it up for me at a tag sale. I am actually NOT getting rid of this—I’m keeping it. Just because it’s the only seahorse-related object I own, and on my first day volunteering at Mystic, they asked me to water change a behind-the-scenes seahorse tank. It was my first time getting a siphon going, and I ended up with a mouthful of seawater. One of the most interesting things about seahorses—besides that the males give birth—is that they have no stomachs.

This is a Sunflower Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), which you’ll mostly find from Alaska down to Southern California. I bought this at the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke in 2003.

This is the endoskeleton of a Brown Sea Biscuit (Clypeaster rosaceus). Sea biscuits are echinoderms, just like sea stars and sea urchins. They are indigenous to the southern North American coast: from North Carolina to Florida, the Bahamas, the West Indies.

This is a variety of “knobby” sea stars, such as the Chocolate Chip Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus). I remember being thrilled to find this in the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke gift shop in 2003.

I swear, I really DID take a photo of a Chocolate Chip Sea Star in a tank, and I’ve been through all my files and can’t find it. So, I’ll give you a picture of another pretty sea star. This one is, I think, a Cushion Star (Oreaster reticulates). The reason I’m leaning toward Cushion Star is because of the way the knobs on its exoskeleton are not only equidistant, they form a “network” of squares and that’s a dead giveaway for that species. This was taken at Epcot’s The Seas with Nemo & Friends (formerly The Living Seas) Pavilion in Orlando, Florida, in September, 2006.

Clams are, in all fairness, not my forte. So many species are so close to each other in shape that for me it’s tough to sort them out. I’d say this is a Northern Quahog, but the “notch” at the top doesn’t lean the right way, so it could just be a good old Surf Clam. I’m totally guessing, so if anyone knows for sure, please give a shout out.

The glass jar in which I kept the smaller, smellier shells and pieces of animals (God, I opened this, the stink was out of control, even for me, who has no problem with dead fish/animal smells).

While this endoskeleton is commonly referred to as a “Sand Dollar,” it isn’t. Technically, it is a Keyhole Urchin (Mellita quinquiesperforata), although in fairness, it’s more closely related to sand dollars than to urchins. How can you tell if you’re buying one at a shop? Look for the single large “keyhole” toward the middle (if it’s an adult). If you’re looking at a box of really small ones, chances are they weren’t adults yet, and the “keyhole” shape might be filled in.

This is an egg case for a skate—sometimes referred to as a “Mermaid’s Purse.” While skate cases are basically of similar shape, they can be different, depending upon the species. The one pictured here is a Winter Skate (Raja ocellata ) egg case—notice its “olive” coloring and the very long, curled tendrils on either end. You’ll find these commonly washed up on the beaches of New England, but I know for a fact I got this one from Mystic Aquarium because we had that species there at one time. At Norwalk, on the other hand, the types of skates we had were mostly Clearnose (Raja eglanteria). Their egg cases are more toward black in color (think Hefty garbage bags) and are more plump, and the “purse” part of it is shorter in length than the tendrils.

A young Clearnose Skate in the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk’s nursery area, April 5, 2002.

I have to take a break here and tell you a couple of stories about my experiences with skate cases.

It seemed like—particularly at Norwalk—the skates were always producing them, and most of the time they were empty: nothing in them, so they’d float. On one occasion, I was working an after-hours wedding reception at Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, and the cocktail hour was set up in the Long Island Sound gallery on the second floor near the Touch Tank. The bride came to me, very distraught. She said it looked like the fish in this one tank were dying.

I left the Touch Tank in the hands of the other volunteer, but not before I grabbed the keys to the back-up area for that section of the building, just in case. I had already, at that time, been working for Mystic for a few weeks, so I knew more about intakes/outtakes and how the tanks and filtration systems worked than most of the other volunteers, who were only trained in facts and procedures (why I went to Mystic in the first place—I wanted hands-on experience. I wanted more doing and less talking). The bride led me to the Sandy Bottom tank—this was a tank that contained Clearnose Skates, Weakfish, Flounder.

The Weakfish were listless, some of them listing to the side, a couple resting on the bottom. The gills were still pulsing. That was when I noticed the water had a “soupy” quality to it—it looked thick, almost like how heat waves look coming up off asphalt if it were air we were dealing with.

I knew that had something to do with the water not being aerated properly.

I had to admit I was panicked then, but I told the bride it wasn’t a problem and thanked her for alerting me. Then I took the keys, went into the back up area, climbed the wooden stairs that lead to the top of the Sandy Bottom tank, and was relieved to discover that the source of the issue was right in front of me: without getting too complicated, I’ll just tell you that everything was jammed up behind a bunch of empty skate eggs. I got a net, I removed them, and by the time I left the aquarium a few hours later, the “soupy” water had thinned out quite a bit and the fish looked like they were beginning to recover.

That was one problem with empty egg cases. Occasionally, you did find a full one.

Below in PDF, a section of my journals from that year entitled “Embryonic Mess,” dated April 14, 2002. Enjoy!

Day Before Mystic 04-14-2002

At Mystic Aquarium, it was the Horn Sharks (Heterodontus francisi, I THINK) in tank T-13 (don’t hold me to that, I’m pretty SURE it was T-13, but it’s been eight years now) that were always laying eggs. Above, one I removed from the tank and kept—I pulled about fourteen out of there on that day, more than enough to go around to the education department, etc., and still keep one. Yes, it was empty!

These are egg cases for the Channeled Whelk (Busycon canaliculatum). They are Gastropods (snails), and are usually strung together, so a strand of them is sometimes referred to as a “Mermaid’s Necklace.” From a journal entry entitled “Salt Water,” I wrote about working at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk dated December 5, 2001: The woman stands up. “Yes,” she says, “what is that thing?” I reach in and retrieve the Mermaid’s Necklace. “This,” I say, “is an egg case for a Channeled Whelk, which is a Gastropod – a snail.” I hand her the necklace. “It just feels a little bit like a wet garbage bag. It’s constructed of a high-grade biological protein that the female makes from a gland in her body. What she’ll do is she’ll weave a strand like this and bury it in the sand and then she’ll make each one of these pillows and fill them up with eggs, about 20 to 30. It takes her about 2 hours to make each one of these pouches, and it takes her two weeks to make something about this size, but I’ve seen them bigger.”

I miss those days as a volunteer, and every once in awhile it’s still possible for me to get a taste of that. Provincetown is one of those places where it’s possible.

Here’s some neat discoveries I made on the beach at low tide behind Norman Mailer’s House in Provincetown, Mass, August 14, 2010.

This was the view from Norman Mailer’s back porch in the morning before class started. When the tide is out, it’s possible to walk almost as far as the eye can see. Boats are sitting on the sand, animals are left behind. It’s almost like walking in a Dali painting. But it’s also like walking into a glassless aquarium. On my walk, I ran into some children, and it gave me the opportunity to share some of what I knew about the animals we found—it felt like old times.

The following are all items I picked up walking at low tide in Provincetown, or on the beach in Newport, RI.

PROVINCETOWN, AUGUST 14, 2010

I just photographed this but didn’t pick it up. It’s obviously a clam or mollusk.

This is a Northern Moon Snail shell. There’s a Hermit Crab hiding inside.

The Long-Clawed Hermit Crab (Pagurus longicarpus) in the shell of a Moon Snail. On a couple of occasions at the Maritime Aquarium, I got lucky and saw one of these run out of one shell and into another—basically, moving from one home to another. It’s hysterical—they make a mad dash, and if you blink you miss it.

This is the carapace—actually, when I picked it up it turned out only to the be the “back,” so to speak—of a Lady Crab (Ovalipes ocellatus). This was not a molt; rather, it’s probably what a feasting bird left behind—when I flipped it over there were bits of the animal’s flesh stuck to the underside.

A baby Common Spider Crab (Libinia emarginata). This little male was pretty feisty, but his teeny pincers really couldn’t do very much, so I spent time making fun of him. Trust me, I’ve been pinched by adults plenty of times and it HURTS.

If there was any crab it took me the longest to learn how to handle effectively, it was the super-aggressive Green Crab (Carcinus maenas), a nasty-tempered invasive species that found its way over here from Europe. This one is covered in Jingle Shell Clams (Anomia simplex).

This one is a male. Flipping him on his back like this puts him “asleep.” He won’t be pinching me this way.

See how these Jingle Shell Clams sparkle! Totally cool. However, this crab is displaying its defensive posture. Don’t get too close.

The kids I met on the beach had a red wheelbarrow in which they were keeping their live treasures (they did plan on returning them, they just wanted to “play” with them for a little while). Here in their wheelbarrow, we see the Green Crab (which I put in there for them) in the back corner and an assortment of small gastropods. The two gastropods you can see clearly in this photo are called Shark Eye (Polinices duplicatus).

Here, we see a Hermit Crab hiding in a shell I can’t identify because of the photo (this is a different Hermit Crab than the one I was holding before; one of the kids picked it up and put it in there) and four Shark Eyes lolling about.

Holding the Shark Eye.

Holding our Shark Eyes. I love picking up snails, especially on a hot day. Their “feet” feel cool on the palm of the hand.

The pool in which we found most of our treasures.

Here’s that little Libinia again! I love it! He’s so mad! “Scrappy” is the word I would use here.

These loopy tracks could have been made by the Hermit Crab I found nearby, but it’s more likely they were made by a small gastropod, such as a New England or Mottled Dog Whelk.

An anchor/float for a boat. When the tide pulls out, stuff like this just rests on the sand. It reminded me of something in a Dali landscape, so I took the picture.

This baby female Green Crab is missing a claw.

This female Lady Crab hid as soon as we put her in the bucket.

I stuck my finger in the water in front of the crab, and out came her claws in defense. She is pissed off.

A Lady Crab carapace and two Clearnose Skate Eggs. I found these on the beach on Provincetown on April 4, 2010.

April 4, 2010, Provincetown: I picked up that Lady Crab carapace and cleaned it out so I could keep it, but it was so fragile it broke in half. I kept these pieces in the jar.

Crab claws I found on the beach in Provincetown, April 4, 2010. I’d say these belonged to a Lady Crab, but they don’t seem long and thin enough, and they’re also too long and thin to be from an Atlantic Rock Crab, even though the coloring and pattern for an ARC is consistent. If I had to guess, because of the shape and the fact that they’re uneven, I’d say this is a type of Mud Crab with which I’m unfamiliar.

Several clam shells I kept in the ball jar. Again, clams are a weak point for me (well, other than EATING them!). There are probably a few different species here. If anyone wants to take a stab at identifying all of them, please do. Put some stuff in my comment fields.

This is a common Jingle Shell (Anomia simplex). The inspiration for my short story “Jingle Shells,” which was published in Full of Crow Fiction’s October 2010 issue. You can head over and read that here: www.fullofcrow.com/fiction/2010/10/schoonover/

Shell for the Common Slipper Snail (Crepidula fornicata). I can’t even tell you how many inside jokes there were about “fornicata” in this poor snail’s scientific name. If you’re wondering about that, I’ll tell you: it’s because these snails stack on top of each other and pretty much it’s what they do all day. Larger shells are on the bottom, smaller ones on the top, and if I remember correctly, they can change sexes. I’d have to look it up again to be sure, but that’s what I remember—unless I’m confusing it with something else. I have a lot of facts in my head and sometimes get them mixed up because it’s been so long since I lived and breathed this stuff. I’m surprised I remember all the Latin, to tell you the truth.

This is an older oyster shell, I think. It’s pretty badly damaged. If anybody can tell me what this is and why it looks like this, I’d appreciate it.

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.

THE GOODBYE PROJECT: Letting Go is Good, Yo! Episode 7–The Penguin 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 7: THE PENGUIN BOOK

I did this all the time--stick cute captions on pictures of penguins. This was a birthday card I made for my Dad in 2002--yes, he really DID have Macbeth memorized...

I’ve always had a fascination with penguins and wanted to work with them. In 2002, I applied to work as a volunteer at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (once called Mystic Marinelife Aquarium) in Mystic, CT.

I was accepted and given a choice: yes, the penguin department had an opening, but there wouldn’t be much room for missing a shift—penguins bond tightly with their caregivers—and as I lived two hours and fifteen minutes away, it was a little bit of a risk. So I went with the volunteer coordinator’s suggestion: Fishes & Invertebrates (sharks, crabs, jellies, etc).

I’m sure I would have loved working with the penguins. But I was very happy working in the F&I department (talk about people who walk to the beat of their own drummers! I had a ball). In addition, volunteers also got to attend the daily multi-departmental meeting, so I was privy to what was happening aquarium-wide—including in the penguin department.

I don’t remember what was going on with the penguins one day, but I came out of the meeting with a complete story idea. Over the next week, I went out and bought several books on penguins and did some research to see if I could get my story to work.

This is one of the books; the others I either gave away years ago (and ONE that I just couldn’t part with I kept—I figured having one tangible memory of that time in my life wasn’t a big deal). And if you’d like to read the finished story—called “Colonies,” which was originally published in 2005 in a limited-run anthology that’s no longer available—you can enjoy it here:

Colonies

Want to know more about penguins up close? Mystic Aquarium & IFE in Connecticut offers a Penguin Encounter at certain times of year. You can read more about that here: http://www.mysticaquarium.org/animals-and-exhibits/encounter-programs/749-penguin-encounter

…or enjoy marinebeauties12’s up-close encounter with them in 2009 here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsg9VxhKz-I

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

March 29, 2002: the day I became a Mystic Aquarium & IFE volunteer. I'm holding up my uniform shirt (long gone, because when you work in F&I stuff gets destroyed fast).

The last of my penguin books with which I'm parting. Information from this book helped me understand penguins a little better so I could write a halfway decent short story.

"Colonies" is about Emperor Penguins (sort of, anyway). This Post-It was stuck in the inside front cover of the book, so I'm assuming these are the pages that had information I needed.

Not much highlighting in this book--at all. I probably copied the pages I needed and threw them in the story's file.

 

Here I am with Nathan in the back-up area for the Mammals exhibit at MA&IFE in March, 2004. We were helping the beluga whales get prepared for that summer's public Whale Encounter sessions. Notice our red/purple hands? YEAH...THAT water was COLD!

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