Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The life aquatic

My mom was a kindergarten teacher. Now that she’s retired, her house and garage are full of things that are infinitely interesting to a four year old. From various types of blocks and puzzles to an endless supply of playdoh toys and shelves full of children’s books, it’s no wonder Josh loves going to Gigi’s house.

One afternoon a few months ago, they were looking for an old box of costumes in the garage when Gigi stumbled on the small fresh-water fish tank from her classroom. She brought it in, cleaned it up, and offered to fill it with fish for Josh to take home. So they took a field trip to the local wet pet store. They arrived intending to buy some goldfish, but they were quickly talked into three platies, which are a little smaller but much cleaner than their carp bretheren.

When I arrived at my mom’s house to pick up Josh that day, he ushered me into the bathroom to introduce me to Chris, Martin, and Zoboomafoo. He couldn’t have been prouder of his first pets, and I have to admit I was also a bit enthralled. After a tumultuous trip across town in the trunk, the platies arrived at their new home, and we set them up on Josh’s bathroom counter, which gets great light and seemed like the ideal place for a tank full of water should we ever have an earthquake.

Josh pops in to visit them several times a day. He’s gotten quite proficient at shaking the red can full of colorful flakes into the water, and he loves to just sit and watch them swim around. I dutifully check on them every morning to ensure they all made it through another night. I had enough goldfish as a child to know that it’s not uncommon to wake up to a floater.

Several weeks went by, and Chris, Martin, and Zoboomofoo were all swimming strong—until one evening when we were brushing our teeth, and Josh noticed that Martin was sleeping at the bottom of the tank, upside down. I was forced to explain the cycle of life while flushing one of his first pets down the toilet. We had lost his great-grandma to Alzheimer’s disease only a month earlier, and he was just starting to realize that he would never see her again. Suddenly, I could see Josh equating that death to this one. And he had a lot of questions.

After an evening of deep talks about how and why things die and who is and is not going to die anytime soon, I promised to take him back to the fish store for another platy. So the next day, Josh introduced me to the store’s resident cockatoo that was on a timeout on his perch because he squawked too loudly while the shop owner was on the telephone. We oogled the various tropical fish, found Nemo again and again in a tank of clown fish, and tried to get the Cockatoo to talk. We examined the turtles, snakes, and lizards while Josh plotted how to make them his next pets, and I strategized about how to permanently avoid reptiles in my home.

While we arrived planning to replace our dearly departed platy with another similar platy, we were talked into trying a balloon molly instead. This plump white fish looked like an angel fish who had seriously overeaten. With tiny side fins that pumped at double speed and prolific caudal and dorsal fins, she was absolutely adorable, and we were sold. We also took home a small plant for the tank to keep everyone satiated between feedings and to add extra ambience to our fresh water paradise.

We introduced both molly and tree to their new habitat when we got home and sprinkled in some food. The molly flapped its side fins in utter excitement as she fervently chased bright orange and green flakes around the aquarium. She seemed to dance from side to side as she moved. Her enthusiasm was contagious. I looked at Josh and asked what he was going to name her. He thought a minute and then said, “White Chocolate!”

About a week later, I noticed what I thought were small pebbles from the bottom sticking to the sides of the tank. Upon closer examination, I realized that the pebbles had small, transparent shells. I quickly called Eric in and asked him what he thought they were. “They look like little snails,” he said matter-of-factly. That’s what I was afraid of. I examined the tank and found five little snails slowly making their way up the glass walls. Where did they come from? I looked suspiciously at White Chocolate but then quickly realized that the tree must have had snail eggs on it when we bought it. After a little time on Google, I discovered the snails were my friends. They help keep the tank clean. And Josh was thrilled to have more pets.

Two nights later, I noticed more sticky pebbles—nine to be exact. And a couple nights after that, there were fifteen. Uh oh. I suddenly envisioned snails covering the walls and decided I had to figure out where they were coming from. That’s when Josh came in and said, “Daddy and I found a gigantic snail in my tank.”

I had noticed that one of the little snails seemed to be growing a little, so I pointed it out. “Yes, that one seems to be getting big.”

“No, this one!” Josh shouted as he pointed to the back wall of the tank. I craned my neck around to see what he was talking about and let out a shriek as I saw a brown snail the circumference of a penny racing across the glass. Where did that come from?

The next morning, I called the wet pet store and explained my snail problem. The crabby man on the other end of the line didn’t seem to think I had a problem at all. “The large snail must have come on the plant, and it has been laying eggs. Your tank is a living environment. Life happens.” I could practically hear him snort as he hung up on me. Back to Google I went.

It seems he was right. Although none of the goldfish endeavors of my youth yielded this kind of excitement, and my mom had never discovered uninvited guests in her classroom tank, this sort of thing does happen. And Darwin’s theory of natural selection would ensure I did not inadvertently start my own snail hatchery. I decided to chalk this one up to biology and do what Josh was doing: watch and learn.

The snails have indeed seemed to self-regulate. And more than a few have ended up in the filter. Counting them has become a daily fascination, and thus far, none has seemed to survive long enough to significantly challenge the fish-to-snail ratio. The big hermaphroditic snail does lap after lap around the tank, covering every square inch in an hour or less. And we now recognize the abundant jelly blobs it lays and watch as they develop into litters of tiny snails that are often gone as quickly as they appear.

The fish have seemed to change a bit as well. Since we introduced the balloon molly, the other two platies don’t seem to get along as well. The pecking order has evidently been disturbed. While White Chocolate stays to herself, I have seen platy Chris nipping Zoboomafoo’s tail on numerous occasions, and Zoboomafoo now spends more and more time hiding in the foliage.

This morning as I was getting Josh ready for sports camp, I did my morning fish check. The platies swam peacefully around, but the usually giddy white molly wasn’t so giddy. And she wasn’t so white either. It took me a minute to realize that she was swimming upside down, or rather bobbing near the filter intake. And her once pearly white complexion was now dark. I said a silent prayer for our enthusiastic fish friend and ushered Josh out of the bathroom before he noticed so I could spare him the gory details.

After I dropped Josh off at camp, I returned to the bathroom and got out the small green net my mom had given us along with various other fish supplies. I quietly scooped White Chocolate out of the tank and into the porcelain vortex that would usher her to the afterlife, or more likely, the local sewer. I thought about what I would tell Josh and wondered how long it would be before we were back at the pet store picking out another fragile friend.

As I rinsed the net and returned it to the drawer below the tank, I peered in at our two remaining pets. And I noticed a tiny dark fish the size of a grain of rice swimming out from and back underneath a large conch shell at the bottom of the aquarium. I blinked and looked again. Oh my. It was indeed a baby fish. A platy, no doubt. I studied the two obvious suspects carefully, remembering their recent bickering. Perhaps Chris wasn’t simply trying to re-establish the fish power hierarchy. It was clear now that he was simply trying to spread his seed. And he evidently succeeded. Maybe all that quiet time Zoboomafoo spent swaying in the green branches wasn’t due to illness or imminent death. It seems she was simply gestating.

So I’ll pick up Josh today with a bit of bad news and a bit of good news. Nature giveth and Nature taketh away. The crabby man at the fish store was right. Life happens. Isn’t ichthyology grand?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The littlest Shark

This summer, I signed Josh up for Mini Mites through our local hockey association, which offers a weekly scrimmage geared toward 5–6 year olds. I really debated whether to let him play now or wait until he was officially 5. But after the first drop-in session, Josh was hooked.

He’s younger and smaller than all the other kids. He sometimes has trouble following complex drills. And he often pops off the ice to complain of a phantom pain. Needless to say, all the other parents know who he is. And they also know who his mom is.

Several parents have asked how old Josh is when I inevitably pass by them to loosen his skates or adjust his knee pads. Some smile cordially when I answer somewhat apologetically and defensively, “He’s only four.” Others simply turn their attention back to the action on the ice. And those seeds of initial doubt sprout roots and grow with each inquiry. But at the end of each session when Josh steps off the rink shouting, “I love this place!” I am renewed in my conviction to let him play if only because it seems to truly feed his soul. And I am fortified by his seasoned coach—who demands respect and focus while doling out consistent and equally measured encouragement—when he starts each session by reinforcing that the boys are there first and foremost to have fun.

So I sit through each scrimmage, silently and fervently rooting for the littlest Shark while simultaneously justifying his ice time to myself and wondering if eventually the coaching staff is going to recommend we wait a few more months and try again. But they say nothing more than “See you next week,” when they pass us in the locker room. And the other parents say nothing either. And we show up, week after week, to pile on his gear, lace up his skates, and send him out to center ice as he smiles and wields his big stick.

This particular Sunday morning, after a late Saturday night and with an excruciating pain in the ball of my right foot (which I would later find out was caused by a tiny piece of glass), I was a little on edge. Josh decided to skip his first shift, opting to silently stay seated on the bench and leaving his darks team short-handed. I then opted to forgo my usual rink-side seat in favor of a warmer birds-eye view from the lobby.

No sooner did I get settled in the last remaining booth when I noticed the other parents looking around and motioning to me. Then I saw Josh hobbling toward the steps. I leapt out of my seat and back into the cold to find my little Number 20 complaining that his feet hurt. I sighed and asked him what he wanted me to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders. “How about we take off your socks?” I asked, presenting a somewhat unorthodox fix to an imagined problem that I could quickly implement yet might just have a placebo effect. The idea was just crazy enough to intrigue him. “OK!” he agreed. So I pulled off his skates and socks and laced him back up as fast as possible. “Now get back out there for the WHOLE scrimmage,” I said as I patted his butt and pushed him back to his team’s bench. He wobbled away, and I slinked back to the lobby.

Miraculously, my booth was still vacant, so I slipped back into it, leaning my forehead on the window and resting my chin in my hands. I watched Josh skate to and fro, sometimes following the action of the puck, other times moving in a game all his own. I watched him fall and get back up. I watched him fight to play Center with the other, much bigger kids. And I watched him play goalie with reckless abandon, armed with nothing more than his gloves and his grit.

With about ten minutes left in the game, Josh skated down to the net his team was scoring on and planted himself in front of it. The puck was at the other end of the ice. Mini Mite hockey is played on a shortened rink in consecutive two-minute shifts. Every kid plays every second shift. They all get the same amount of ice time. Scores are not tracked. And infractions such as offsides and icing don’t exist. So Josh’s strategy was actually a clever one. He was gassed from chasing the puck from end to end, and he was desperate for a goal. So he simply skated to where he wanted the puck to be and waited. And eventually, the puck landed right on his stick. He swatted at it, and the goalie stopped it. It bounced back to him. So he swatted at it again. And it went in the net. The ref (who is the head coach dressed in zebra stripes for authenticity) blew his whistle and pointed to the back of the net, and Josh lifted his stick into the air, pumped his other fist, and skated toward the bench.

I whispered “YES!” under my breath, silently clapped my hands, and grinned from ear to ear. Finally. Finally. Finally. And not until I was just starting to exhale and settle back into the game, did I hear the clamor. This was not the collective sound of polite clapping that traditionally followed any one of the 15–20 goals scored per game. This was a loud roar, combined with delighted squeals and the thunderous booms of hard shoes stomping metal bleachers. This was swift and forceful applause, and there was no mistaking it was directed at the little Shark that could.

As Josh skated a victory lap to the bench, bumping gloves with as many teammates as he could reach, I wiped away tears, overcome and completely surprised by the support. How worried I had been about my son’s impact on all the other kids’ Mini Mite experience. And how wrong I had been about their parents’ judgments of my decision to let Josh follow his bliss. They weren’t lamenting his participation at all; they were wholeheartedly rooting for him.

When the final buzzer sounded, and the parents and kids darted to and fro looking for one another, I headed down to the ice, toting the empty duffel bag I was about to fill up with sweaty pads and gear. As I stopped to motion Josh toward the locker room, a mom I didn’t recognize put her hand on my arm and said, “I just have to tell you that when your son scored, I cried. I was so happy for him!”

I looked back at her and squeezed her hand. “I did, too,” I admitted as the crowd surged between us. Just then, I looked up and saw Josh’s coach following him off the ice. When they both reached me, Coach Bill kneeled down, which made him the same height as Josh on his skates, and said, “Hey buddy. That was a great goal!” Josh beamed. “The other coaches and I were so excited about that goal that we made you star of the game,” he continued. “And we’re giving you the game puck.” He placed the dark blue puck in Josh’s small hand, and Josh looked up at me with his mouth hanging open.

“What do you say?” I asked in my usual mom tone. What do you say when a group of people collectively display such an overwhelming amount kindness and support?

“Thank you,” Josh said quietly as he ran his finger over the bumpy edge and leaned back into me.

“You’re welcome,” Coach Bill said as he tapped his helmet and got to his feet. Then he leaned over to me and whispered, “When he scored that goal, I was SO pumped up.”

All I could do was nod and smile…and remind myself that sometimes it’s wiser to trust my fellow Moms and Dads than my own perception. It seems community is not dead. Hallelujah!
Designed by Lena