Stuff I No Longer Care About, and One Thing That I Do

So a few days ago, I wrote about a book that has changed the way I view the world. Read it, practice it, love it, quit caring about stuff that doesn’t matter. To be honest, it’s not easy to let go of the emotional stuff. It’s funny that as a borderline hoarder, going all KonMari on my vast collection of *STUFF* has come more easily to me than not giving a… shall we say “fork.” Point me in the direction of a cluttered dresser, and I can sort, and organize, and spark so much joy that the house nearly catches fire. But not caring? I have taken the book with me everywhere so I can re-read parts and get it stuck in my brain. But when I CAN let go, it’s really so wonderful! I feel unburdened.

That’s the beauty of the “Not Giving A Fork” method. If I miss obsessing over stuff, if that anxiety sparks joy, I can have it back. Here are some things that I decided not to waste any more energy on, at least for now:

  • My weight. This one was surprisingly easy given my decades-long struggle with an eating disorder. I am what I am. I go to the gym now several days a week because I frickin’ LOVE the gym (no joke!), and if I lose weight, fine. If I don’t, that’s okay, too. As long as I am active, that is all that matters.
  • The 2020 presidential election. I will care about it later, but dear God! There is too much going on right now to spend an iota of energy worrying about 2020. I’d like Congress to sort out the Now before moving on to 2020.
  • The economy. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I can’t do anything about it. If I can’t fix it, how does worrying help? I’ll write my representatives, of course. But obsessing until I make myself sick? No can do.
  • Whether my kids eat what I cook. This is a big one because I tend to take it kind of personally. But one has sensory issues, and one gets home from school and eats a big snack because he is starving, so he isn’t really hungry for dinner. Know what this means? I can cook what I like!
  • Whether my clothes match when I go to the gym. I am just going to get sweaty. Might as well start out looking like something the cat dragged in.
  • Grouchy people. I didn’t do anything wrong, so I am not going to shoulder the burden of someone else’s bad mood.
  • The Wall. I’ve let my representatives know exactly what I think about the ridiculousness of such a venture. I’ve done what I can do. Yelling at the radio every time it is mentioned does not do me any good.
  • Understanding all the implications of Brexit. I am nosy, but this issue is just too complicated to spare any extra forks for. Over the last 2 years, no one has explained it in simple enough terms for me to understand, so odds are I’m not going to gain a sudden understanding of the complexities of such a big event. I am okay with that.
  • The Oscars.
  • People who claim that e-readers aren’t *real* readers.
  • When someone cuts me off in traffic.
  • Being over-charged at Sonic. $2 isn’t worth getting worked up over.
  • When I make a minor mistake. I apologize, I mean it, and then I let it go.

Now here’s something I DO care about. I’m trying to turn my blog series “Notes From the Zookeeper” into an actual book. I have some chapters laid out already, but I would love some input. If you were reading such a book, what would you hope to learn? This book is going to be primarily factual, with lots of references, but there will be room for anecdotes about animals. What do you want to know? Help me bring this idea to fruition!

I had so much fun with “Unscienceandanimal” hash tag!

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The Thing That Has Maybe Changed My Life

If you read my last post, you may remember that I have begun to employ the KonMari method around my house. If you missed it, you can catch up here. Embarrassing photo and all. It’s so simple. Look at all my things, one by one. If a thing makes me happy (or is something I *need*), I keep it. If I don’t need it, and it doesn’t make me happy, I have permission to let it go. This notion is huge for me! I grew up low-income, and with tight family ties. This combo is a giant-double whammy, and has led me to be a borderline hoarder all my life. But now, I have permission to let it go. My brain does not operate in any kind of linear manner, so organization has been a huge struggle until now. But using KonMari, I have less *stuff* to process, and packing what I DO have in clear bins makes sense. I get it! And it’s easy for me to maintain because I can see immediately when something is out of place and return it to its home. But there’s something that has helped me even more.

I have started going back to the gym, too. I had a wake-up call that reminded me that I need to take care of my body. The gym seems cliche (have you met me?!), New-Years-Resolution Driven, but the truth is that I love the gym. After spending an hour on the treadmill, reading and listening to music, I feel so good. It’s like a spa treatment. I have not prioritized going because it felt like a guilty pleasure, and because it has been difficult to get there. The Destroyer has had full-on panic attacks when we have tried to get him to stay at the facility’s childcare. It just wasn’t worth it. But now The Padawan can babysit, and The Destroyer even likes to work out on the treadmill, too, so it can be a bonding experience, at least in the short term. But that isn’t the thing that has revolutionized my take on the world.

I went to the used bookstore the other day, with $90 in credit from the books I had KonMari’d because I didn’t feel like I needed them anymore. In the humor section, I found the most incredible book, a gift from God. It’s called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** by Sarah Knight.This is a family blog, so we’re going to say the f-word is Fig. The idea behind this book is so simple. Set a Fig Budget for how many figs you have to give overall and then see where they *really* matter and where they don’t. Where the figs given do not matter, cut them out. That’s it. There are even tips for how to do so politely so that feelings don’t get hurt when we say no. It’s all about prioritizing, and it’s glorious.

As a result, just a few days after buying the book, I am sitting at my kitchen table at 8:30 in the morning. School is delayed due to ice on the road. Husband has an early-morning meeting, so it is up to me to stay home and disperse kids. I normally leave for work at 7:15, and Wednesdays are busy days. But can I change the weather? I cannot. So why invest the energy of giving a fig? So I am blogging and drinking coffee while my son and his buddy play football outside. It’s not even an inconvenience. This re-route is a gift.

I went out to move my car for husband, and the car wouldn’t start. The battery is sick and needs replacing. That will take me a half-hour this morning. Can I control it? No. Will buying a new battery after I drop kids off make my life better? It will. No more mornings wondering if today is going to be the day my car won’t start. I can put that fig back in my pocket. And if it’s a battery? They’re expensive. But electrical issues in the car are MORE expensive. So a battery seems like a good deal. I will save this money-fig for another day.

So there it is. All that time and energy spent worrying about things that I can’t control today have been invested in writing. Do you spend more figs each day than you have? I have your solution. Read it, love it, share it. I’m serious.

A Zookeeper’s Gratitude

Please don’t ask me why I have put off this post for so long. I simply do not know. It’s not that I am a whiny ingrate. I have been practicing gratitude daily for a while now because it really works. But I’m tired. Somehow, the act of creating a post, and finding the right pictures, and editing, and feeling a little exposed has felt like more than I could do. I have been ill for a while, and illness has taken its toll. I’ve been doling out my energy by the tablespoonful just to keep functioning, and the hoops have felt too tiny to jump through. But I promised my sweet friend, Dawn. Gratitude is worth giving some energy to, even if I don’t count my blessings all the way up to fifty. I am not on the verge of death here, I promise. Even though this first paragraph is kinda heavy. I’m just tired, ya’ll. Physically spent. There are worse things.

So here I am. And what am I grateful for? Lots. So much. I have good things, and more good things on the horizon. Some of them are more obvious than others.

  • I am so thankful for Marie Kondo. Let me just tell you, the Netflix series really was life-changing for me. If you’re not familiar, Marie wrote a book called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Now she has a TV series. If you know me in real life, you know that I am a borderline hoarder. I have sentimental attachments to every, little thing. And I lack a linear thought process, so my house is perpetually a mess. I can appreciate a tidy space, but my brain doesn’t always know how to get there. But I watched the entire season in a couple of days, and now I get it. She doesn’t tell anyone to throw anything away, ever. Ever. She gets a bad rap on the internet because the internet is for people who like to complain about things. She says that if an item “sparks joy”, (or if you NEED it, like pots and pans) keep it. There is a way to store it. In the last three weeks, I have donated about 15  trash bags full of things that I was ready to let go of. It is an incredible feeling. For the first time ever, I feel like my living space is getting tidy. And I traded books to our used bookstore and got $90 in credit. Which I am saving for something cool.

 

  • FROGS – It has been a good frog-year for me at work. I got my first eggs from my Bumblebee Dart Frogs, which are easy to breed but had eluded me. I got 2 clutches, and I have four froglets. They are tiny enough to sit on my pinkie nail. I have learned from my mistakes as I went, and they have not suffered for it. I am pretty stoked.

See that little tadpole? It’s not so little anymore!

 

  • Big Al. Because always Big Al. He has so much personality, and he gives me hugs when I need them. Al, for the record, I always need them.

Big Al is pressing his face into my shoulder. It’s how he gives hugs. I love him.

  • I got to take a trip to San Diego this summer. For free. Getting there was a nightmare, but I learned that I do like to travel. And I can pack light. I can go cross-country for four days with only a backpack. As long as my e-reader is in it, I’m good.
  • This is my favorite picture of all.

 

  • My e-reader. I love my Kobo. Don’t @ me. I get a little tired of the “I don’t like e-readers because I like REAL books” crowd. I love physical books, too, but I am running out of room. Literal floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our family room are filled to overflowing. I do buy some nice print editions – most books related to my job are either not available in e-format, or they are so beautiful that I buy physical copies. I get all the illustrated Harry Potters, too. But my e-reader can hold 10,000 books without gaining a single gram. And I can fit it in my pocket to take it anywhere. And it is backlit, so if I can’t sleep, I can read without disturbing my husband. And when my hands start cramping, I can prop it up on my lap and turn a page with a single tap. I don’t have to fight to hold open a huge volume.

 

  • My Tweeps. I love Twitter. I have found a band of fairly like-minded people there, and they are often my soft place to fall. I have also found some people that I don’t necessarily agree with on all things, but that educate me on the other side of lots of issues. Twitter has been a good learning place for me.

 

  • Books. I have read so many great books recently! I have been on a roll. Not one stinker, DNF in the entire bunch!

 

  • My tortoises groups are laying eggs in record numbers, and some of them are developing. I got six shoe boxes of eggs this year, which is impressive because they only lay one egg at a time, and I don’t start the incubation process for an individual box until there are at least 9 eggs in it. Not all of them will hatch. Most of them will not. But I am collecting some really valuable data, and I am trying some new things to see if I can hit the sweet spot and increase the hatch rate.

Common Spider Tortoise is awake and ready to hatch.

  • Power tools. I was able to build a new series of outdoor enclosures for the Northern Spider Tortoise adults, and as a result, they got to spend their summer outdoors. The natural sunlight does WONDERS. UV produces vitamin D, which in turn helps the females shell their eggs properly and utilize the calcium in their food, it gives them signals that can’t really be replicated indoors. Sometimes it takes a year to reap benefits, so it might be this upcoming breeding season before I see results, but I am hopeful. And proud. I did a thing with very little help, and I did it with power tools and an 8lb sledge-hammer.

 

  • Home Improvement Stores
  • My plants. Sorry, husband. They spark joy, so they stay…
  • My cell phone (it’s so much more fun and useful than I ever thought that it would be!)
  • The Padawan got his first job.
  • Family meals when Girl-Child tells stories from her days at private school
  • I’m getting better. One day at a time, one step at a time, if not feeling better, I am functioning better. I can at least make dinner some nights before getting into bed.
  • Little surprises. This banana plant was, to the casual observer, dead. Look what popped up yesterday while I was off!
  • My bed. My comfy, cozy, welcoming resting spot, covered in cats who want to be near me.
  • Puppies catching treats. You’re welcome.
  • Friends who prompt me to get the blogging done.

Alright. I have completed my post. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write your own post. Visit Dawn to get complete rules and link up, and make sure you check out some of the other folks in the link-up. Come on in. The water’s fine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes From the Zookeeper: Gratitude

I love my job. There are so many things to be grateful for.

The first call is the critically endangered Golden Dart Frog. The second call is a Bumblebee Dart Frog. I have played these calls back to them for fifteen minute stretches three times a day, five days a week for several weeks now. It gets them grooving.

  • Ingenuity and success. Bowers made of coconuts cut in half are recommended for breeding Dart Frogs. I only have one, and my Annulated Boa has commandeered it. So I made due with what I had – black snake hide-boxes set atop the lids from Chinese food takeout containers. And you know what? It worked!

These are just a few of the eggs hidden in the exhibit. If they hatch, Dad will carry them to a water source on his back. Check back in about 10 days days.

  • Hoses that don’t kink
  • Hoses that aren’t frozen
  • Brand-new hoses that save us from filling our rearing reservoir with a bucket in the cold
  • Guests that show up on bitter cold days because they love the zoo
  • A raise
  • Good water pressure
  • Disposable food storage containers. Seriously. We use these for everything from storing food to raising dart frog tadpoles. Thank you, Glad and Ziploc! Wanna sponsor a post?
  • When the youngsters start to figure out what they’re meant to do

Egyptian Tortoises (Testudo kleinmanni). He’s only seven, so he’s maybe not quite got the hang of it yet, but he’s trying!

  • Surprises. My female Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus) has babies every two years. So we thought. She had eleven babies last year. In December, she surprised me with eleven more. This species is critically endangered due to habitat destruction, fragmented populations (some groups have 10 or fewer adults, which isn’t sustainable), over-collection for the pet trade, and a long gestation period (9-14 months!) which combine to make population recovery difficult

Newborn Chinese Crocodile Lizard. It’s tiny until you think that there were ELEVEN of them all curled up in there!

  • This guy.

    Tex, wearing his best opuntia fruit lipstick.

  • When my snack drawer is full. Zookeeping is hungry business!
  • Hidden opportunities. In 2017, I got to volunteer at the Turtle Survival Center in SC, and I got to go to the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in Charleston. I also had a trip to Amphibian Management School. This year, I’m going to Amphibian Research School, and I have a lead on a trip to California.
  • Weird animals
  • Mossy Leaf-tail Gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) shortly after hatching

  • Guests who ask questions and are genuinely interested in learning more
  • The sense of wonder and amazement when guests finally see a well-camouflaged animal on exhibit
  • Plants. I just started two small green houses at work with cuttings to make some really interesting additions to exhibits
  • My iPod. A lot of what I do is solitary. It takes me 6-8 hours a week to maintain my aquatic exhibit. It’s great to have music to listen to. This year, I may expand to podcasts
  • Lowe’s. I love home improvement stores, and it gives me jollies to know where everything is
  • Toboggans and gloves. It’s cold out there!
  • Possibilities. We’re working on planning our new facility. It is going to be incredible and state-of-the-art. Stay tuned!

What are you grateful for? Today is the last day that the linkup is active. Want to participate? Set a timer for 15 minutes. Make a list of what you are grateful for. When the timer goes off, stop. Post, link.

From Dawn at Tales From the Motherland:

How to join in: write your own post and publish it. Copy the link from the post. Then click on the frog below, and follow the instructions to add your link. If you have any trouble, please let me know, and I’d be happy to help. I will also add a link to each post on my own blog post, as they are published. For extra fun, please add the hashtags #BloggersUnite and/or #50HappyThings… because, well, everyone loves a hashtag! The link-up expires January 15th at 11:59pm.

Click here to link

 

 

Notes From the Zookeeper: Help!

Dear Mom,

I want to go home. I’m currently seven hours south of the ole homestead at the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in South Carolina. I get to spend the next three days learning all about countless species from experts the world over. Turtles? Yes. Studying up on them? Absolutely! School’s my jam! At a conference where I do not know a soul?  (insert needle-scratch) Ummm. People? I don’t do the whole human thing very well. I am shy, a little weird, and I have the social skilz of an octopus, minus the tentacles. Did I have tentacles when I was born, Mom?

This is me. Trying to blend in, or maybe just outright hide. My Patronus is an octopus.

I stepped out of the car into a city that smells of an odd mix of excrement and brackish water, and I was ready to turn around and go home. The brackish water I get. I’m right here on the coast. But poop? Why? Why the poop? I do not understand! I’m in the heart of the historical district. Is it historical poop? Maybe?

The hotel is a shack. Three room suites, valet parking, a mezzanine, thick walls where I can’t hear the neighbors scratching their bed bugs, maybe not even bed bugs. A shack. I will suffer through. But one of the bars of soap was already wet when I opened it, and that creeps me out more than a little. And everything from the soap to the lotion smells exactly the same.

Our opening event was at the South Carolina Aquarium. I had never been. It was all kinds of amazing. Let me show you.

There’s, like, this whole ocean and stuff!

I did make two friends right off the bat, Mom. Want to meet them?

And there were other cool things.

I found a drug store on my way back to the hotel, and I thought I should get some snacks because food is WAY too expensive here. $12 for hotel breakfast is way more than I want to spend. But I am a jinx, and as I was buying my stuff, the entire computer system shut down, and I had to stand at the register making awkward small talk with the cashier and manager for ten minutes. Ten long, painful, awful minutes.  Come and get me.

The TV is broken. At least the one in my bedroom is, and I don’t want to go to the living room. That’s too much trouble. I mean, the TV comes on, but it only gets crappy channels. There were these two pink people who were walking through the jungle. Did I mention they were nekkid? Why were they nekkid? I go hiking all the time, but always with my clothes on. Don’t these people know there are insects and other things you don’t want close to the tender parts? Am I missing something?

The alarm went off, and I’m still typing my letter. But I will get out of bed. I will. Eventually. I can do this, Mom. I can learn good stuff and make new friends and eat all my snacks so I’m not spending a billion dollars on breakfasts. I can do this. I can.

On second thought… there are two beds here. I should go try out the other one.

 

 

 

Looking For the Joy

It has been a while, friends. Two months. I know this because two days after my last post, my department suffered an unspeakable tragedy. Two months. And I still can’t speak of it. Not yet. Looking at the image on Time’s website, I can barely breathe. The snake I am holding in the photo died the next day despite our best efforts. Such a stupid phrase, really.  Despite our best efforts. As if we would give an animal in our care less than our best. The snake I was training on in my last post is gone. And it’s hard.

Moving on for the moment. Because I have to. The last couple of months has been a series of tests and more tests and inspections and questions and answers we don’t even have, and if I focus on it too hard, I’ll never be able to get out of bed. So I am looking for the good. Because it’s always there if I look. When I get to feeling sorry for myself, it’s easy to get sucked into the vortex of despair. So I am choosing good today.

Here’s what’s good in my life, what brings me joy. The little things that make every day worthwhile. Click to enlarge and to read the captions.

There are other things, too, things that are not possible to capture in a photograph. The zoo guests who stop us in our work and tell us how sorry they are for our loss, the people who come each week as volunteers to help meet Al’s need for attention. My daughter, upon learning her cousin didn’t have an officiant for her upcoming wedding, takes it upon herself to become ordained online. She is now a card-carrying, ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. That’s right. The Girl-child is now a Pastafarian. Our kids inherit our eyes, our hair, and our genetic garbage. It brings me great joy that mine has also inherited my off-beat sense of humor. And she’s available to perform weddings if you’re looking to get hitched. Who wouldn’t want to go to a wedding where the keepsake is a package of Ramen noodles?

What brings you joy today?

Notes From the Zookeeper

I’ve decided to add a regular feature on this blog. My topics bounce around a lot from work to cats to kids and back again, and I’m okay with that. But I thought it would be fun to add a weekly feature and give you a peek behind the curtain. I will primarily stick to my department, but there may be times that I branch out. Because I’m a giver. I put way too much thought into whether to set this thing down on a Monday or a Friday. But Friday is technically one of my Mondays, and that just got confusing, so I went with the real Monday. Consider it a tiny pat on the head to ease you into the work week. Unless you’re like me and you’re already into the work thing by Monday. In that case, forget I said anything.

I have thoughts and ideas of what I want to show you, like how we work venomous animals, the key to breeding certain species, and anything new that has hatched. I invite you to share in the comments anything you’re curious about, too.

In my last post, I covered some of my goals for the new year. Most of those were personal . I have set some goals for myself at work, too.

Neon Day Gecko Hatchling

Neon Day Gecko – Phelsuma klemmeri. This new hatchling is under an inch long.

  • I’m hatching these things left and right. I want to set up at least one new colony by dividing up the current two. Okay, really I have three. These are Neon Day Geckos from Madagascar. As adults, they are only about three inches long. They were first described only about 25 years ago, and they are considered endangered because their range is confined to a pretty tiny part of Northwest Madagascar. They live in dense colonies. Most recommend only one male per enclosure and several females, but I have had success keeping two males with a single female.

There’s a level of parental care that is not typically found among lizards. The babies that are hatched and reared in the same enclosure as their parents seem to grow more quickly than the juveniles that I pull to raise on their own. And these animals are fascinating. They move at a frequency that is much faster than our eye can register. It’s akin to watching a reel-to-reel from the 1920s, all jumpy. And babies are tiny. If there’s an opening larger than a millimeter, you can pretty much kiss a hatchling goodbye!

My goal is to study them for another couple of generations and possibly report some of my findings in a journal somewhere. I also want to get more practice at determining males from females. Boys have femoral pores that look like tiny braille dots, but when I say tiny, I mean tiny. It’s hard to tell. I want to get good at it.

Breeding pyxis arachnoides

Northern Spider Tortoise, Pyxis arachnoides brygooi

  • My second goal is to breed more of these guys. Some years are good years. 2015 was a decent year. I hatched all three sub-species of Spider Tortoises in decent numbers – a total of 15. 2016 wasn’t great. Like, at all. I hatched 6 Northerns, and that was it.  The trouble is, the eggs that hatched in 2015 were actually laid in 2014. With a 9-month span between laying and hatching, it’s a little hard to pin down the problem. Were the eggs not incubated properly, or were they not fertile to begin with? So many moving parts.

I’m going to start, though, by building an outdoor pen for my pairs of Northern Spider Tortoises to see if natural sunlight can improve egg-laying. The other subspecies go outside already, but not these guys. I also separated boys and girls for winter dormancy. I turned the heat lamps off on Christmas eve, and they won’t go back on until March. In April, I’ll put the boys back in with their ladies. Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

That orange streak in the middle is its belly button. In a few days, it will close up and disappear.

That orange streak in the middle is its belly button. In a few days, it will close up and disappear.

  • My third goal is to complete my venomous training. I’ve already got a copperhead in my section, and I am training on Helodermas (that’s Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards). Soon I’ll have one of those to care for, as well. We take safety seriously, so training is slow and methodical. It’s a good thing.
  • Angolan python - my first successful snake breeding

    Angolan python – my first successful snake breeding

     

    I also want to breed Angolan Pythons again this year. I have paired my male and female, after setting temperatures down to a chilly 84 degrees. But after the first night, I have seen no evidence of breeding. I am afraid my good buddy, The Professor, has been relegated to the Friend Zone. Or the female is too fat to breed.

  • My last goal is to get some weight off of that female python. If she does lay eggs, she’ll go without eating until May, which will help. If she doesn’t lay eggs, she needs some exercise. Angolan Pythons are adapted to a really harsh environment and don’t need to eat all that often. Turns out, every two weeks is too often. So I’m going to set her up on an exercise plan, maybe build her a snake gym to crawl around on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would you like to know more about?

The Real Reason I Can’t Get Anything Done

I love my job, and I try to do it well. Each day, I set goals for myself, taking pride in crossing tasks off my list one after the other. This week, one of my jobs was to take some pictures for a special event. It took me several days and 52 photos to get a shot that was workable, but there went one more big item off my list.

Luke, the Buff Crested Bustard (Eupodotis gindiana). These guys are crazy-eyed, and I love them. Even though I'm not bird lover.

Luke, the Buff Crested Bustard (Eupodotis gindiana). These guys are crazy-eyed, and I love them. Even though I’m not bird lover.

I had another big task to do this week. I almost didn’t get it done. It should have taken me an hour or two at the most, but instead it took the better part of the week, working off and on. Due to excessive rain, the hay in the Aldabra Tortoise lot looked rather shabby, so I wanted to rake it up and put down fresh hay. A number of things got in my way – tours, weather, other important tasks.

Meet my biggest obstacle.

You remember Al, I am sure. A quarter ton of love.

You remember Al, I am sure. A quarter ton of love. Check out old Tex in the back, minding his own beeswax.

Al has been at our zoo since 1974, and he knows how to get what he wants. Currently, what he wants is my attention. I have turned over some of the maintenance of his exhibit to two trusted volunteers, and I haven’t had as much time to spend with him. When I brought in the fresh bale of hay, he parked himself ON it. So there was nothing I could do but wait. And pet him. Who is training whom, here? Eh, I believe we know the answer to that one.

A better view for you. That's his giant shell, right smack dab in the middle of my hay bale.

A better view for you. That’s his giant shell, right smack dab in the middle of my hay bale. Looks right comfy, doesn’t he?

Click to enlarge the following images. They may not make sense otherwise.

So what is a girl to do?This task should have taken 15 minutes. It took over an hour. No regrets. I first met Big Al when I was 8 years old, and I fell in love with him on sight. Now it seems the feeling may be mutual. Today I was a little less task oriented, and a little more loved. It was a good trade.

 

For Alice On Her Birthday

Today I’m going to tell you a story. Because Alice asked me to, and it’s her birthday. Happy birthday, Alice! You don’t know her? Oh, you should! She’s funny and so, so smart. I love her posts. Sometimes her posts make me laugh, sometimes they make me cry. Sometimes it’s both. Read her. You just might love her.

I’ve gone back and forth about which story to tell. Fiction? Not fiction? Embellished not-fiction? I want to come up with a good one. For the last week, my internal dialog has gone something like this:

There was the time that… no, that’s no good.

How about… nope. Funny only to me.

I’ve got it! Yes! Um, are you kidding me? You can’t admit to that in a public setting.

So here you go.

Sharon slid the box across the counter. It didn’t look like much. About eighteen inches square, it had been white at one time, but trotting the globe had acquired a layer of grime. One corner was dinged, and the shipping label had begun to peel, but the packing tape held fast. That bit was all that mattered to Sharon.

“Here,” she said with a furtive glance at the ceiling. “Better hurry. Dad’ll be down in a minute.”

Thad’s eyes glowed. He pulled the box to himself and began to dig at the packing tape with his thumbnail.

“Don’t open it here!” Sharon hissed, terror in her eyes. She flung an arm toward the door. “GO!” she cried. “And don’t tell Dad!”

Thad dropped a pile of cash on the counter without bothering to count it and gathered his precious box gently, mindful of its delicate cargo. Balancing the box on his arm, he was gone with the jingling of the shop door.

Sharon watched him go, not daring to breathe until she heard him climb the stone steps to street level and saw his feet pass by the basement window. She turned to the new girl.

“I can’t believe I did that,” she whispered hoarsely. “Dad will kill me if he finds out.”

The new girl said nothing. She simply wondered. Then she turned back to sorting the shipment of live fish that had just been delivered to the little basement shop.

“Okay,” Sharon said, collecting herself. “Let’s see what we have here.” She lifted a gallon-sized bag teeming with tiny, colorful fish. “Guppies,” she announced. “We’ll put those in one of the 20-longs in the back.”

The new girl did as she was told. She collected the bag of fish from Sharon. It was surprisingly heavy, but she did not drop it. She upended it gently, pouring fish and water carefully into a waiting bucket. She shook out the corners of the bag to dislodge any remaining fish and then discarded it and dropped an air hose into the bucket.

Shipment days were the best days, every available surface in the tiny shop stacked with cardboard boxes and Styrofoam coolers. She liked sorting it all out, seeing order come from the chaos, but mostly, she liked the new fish. Shipments from Florida were the best. Not only did they require a trip to the airport to collect, but they contained the greatest surprises.

In the mid-1980s, few fish species beyond basic livebearers and a few cichlids were regularly bred in captivity. It was easier, and usually cheaper, to import animals freshly caught from the wilds of Africa and the Amazon. Sometimes, swimming right alongside the common side-sucking plecostamus they had ordered, she would find something weird.

When one of these tiny mysteries appeared, she snagged it, put it in a catch box and ran for the books. Sometimes even after studying Axelrod and Practical Fishkeeping, she came up short. It was her first introduction to the enormity of the world and its diversity. She could barely comprehend she was holding a creature that Herbert Axelrod, that demigod of fish keeping, had never even seen. On those occasions, she put down her money and carted her new treasure home. Sometimes it died. More often, she kept i a few months until she grew bored with it and returned it for something newer and more exciting.

So  many weird and interesting things came into the shop unexpectedly that it never occurred to her to ask Sharon to special-order things for her. It did, however, occur to Thad.

“You can order it! It’s right here on their inventory list,” he’d said, thumping his index finger on the paper for emphasis. Sharon looked at him doubtfully.

“I don’t know,” she answered, frowning. “Dad wouldn’t like it. He said no. He told me, and he told you, and he’d fire us both if he knew.”

“He doesn’t have to know.” The new girl hated his wheedling tone, hated how many girls caved to it, hated that  Sharon, who was an adult and supposed to know better, was no exception.

“Alright,” she said. “But you have to pay for it, dead or alive, and Dad can’t know. Dad hates snakes.”

Harry, her father was the owner and namesake of the little aquarium shop. He had started it with just a few aquariums in his basement twenty years previously. The business had grown over the years until he was forced to either quit his full time job or hand over the reins to Sharon, his youngest daughter. He still lived upstairs, but she managed the place on her own. He would likely never see the invoice.

Sharon placed the order against her better judgement. When the shipment arrived, she called Thad immediately, and the transaction went down with neither hitch nor Harry’s knowledge. She thought she was out of the woods, but then the snake, a Haitian Vine Boa, escaped into Thad’s apartment and was gone for good, likely cooked in the heating vents, and he was back on her doorstep begging her to order another. And then another. Today’s shipment was his third.

The new girl worked the following day by herself. Sundays were usually slow and sleepy, and this day was no exception.

She stood at the sink scraping the hard water line from an aquarium with salt and a razor blade. She looked up when she heard the jingle of the door and was surprised to see Thad. He never came around on his days off. It was one of the many things she disapproved of when it came to Thad. She had a list.

She was even more surprised to see him holding a pillowcase, or more correctly, holding something inside a pillowcase. She frowned.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“My new snake,” he said proudly.

“Why is it here?” she asked haughtily, pretending disapproval to mask her terror. She had never seen a living snake up close, and she was pretty sure she didn’t want to now.

He laughed, seeing right through her and making her hate him more. “Is Harry home?”

“No,” she said, stuffing down her fear and turning back to attack the hard water line with new zeal.

“Good,” Thad said gleefully. She looked up to find him reaching into the bag.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, her voice an odd point somewhere between a his and a squeal.

“Hang on,” he said, furrowing his brows in concentration. “Relax. It’s a ball python. When they get scared, they roll up in a ball.”

She didn’t answer, her blade squeaking on the aquarium glass like fingernails on a chalkboard.

She didn’t look up until she heard him say “Oh, no.” The snake, a wild-caught, thin specimen about three feet long,  had clearly not read the manuals on typical ball python behavior. It showed no inclination whatsoever to roll into a ball but a rather strong desire to bite Thad somewhere in the vicinity of his face. He managed to pin the snake’s head, pressing the animal’s mouth closed with the balls of this thumbs while the snake twined its back end all the way up his arm.

The new girl took a step back, away from crazed snake and handler. She looked over her shoulder to plan the best escape route should Thad drop the snake at the same time the snake dropped him. A thump from above stopped them both in their tracks. Harry was home.

Thad said a word the new girl had only read on bathroom walls. “Help me!” he squeaked, gesturing as if he thought she might actually step forward and assist him in his snake-handling endeavors. His hand was turning purple.

“No way,” she said, shaking her head fiercely. He frowned at her. She frowned back. Another thump and the shuffling footsteps of a knee replacement from above. Harry was coming down to the shop.

Thad said another word unfamiliar to the new girl. She was pretty sure it was German, and totally certain it was bad. He did a little dance on the spot to loosen the coils constricting his arm. By some great miracle, he was able to shake the snake into the pillowcase and tie it off. Thump-thump. Harry descended slowly down the basement steps.

Thad thrust the bag at the new girl. “We have to hide it!”

“Washer?” she suggested?

“What if he’s doing laundry? Closet?”

“He might be getting fish food for upstairs!”

Thump-thump.

Out of time and optionsThad dropped the bag into the empty display aquarium at the front of the store beside the counter just as Harry rounded the corner and appeared behind the counter, scratching his grizzled head and looking at least as grumpy as the snake.

“Thad?” he said with a frown. Men, it seemed, were immune to Thad’s charm. “What are you doing here?”

“I, uh, I just came by,” Thad squeaked, standing in front of the aquarium to block Harry’s view from the contents.

Harry walked around the counter. Thad took a step back, pressing himself against the aquarium as Harry walked toward him. Thad shot a look at the new girl over Harry’s shoulder, a look of sheer hopelessness. It was all over. Harry was going to find the snake and learn that both Sharon and Thad had disobeyed his orders. Thad would lose his job on the spot.

With the look of a hunted man, Thad darted around the corner and out of Harry’s reach. He could fire Thad, but he’d have to catch him to hit him. And hit he might. Harry hated snakes.

Harry stopped in his tracks and turned on his heel to face the new girl, his back to the aquarium and his expression inscrutable. She thought she might soil herself. Did he think her complicit.

“I thought I made myself clear,” he said sternly. Her knees felt weak. Would he fire her, too? She gulped.

“Yes?” she whispered.

“You’re listening to television.”

“What?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.

“The radio,” he barked. “The radio! You’re listening to Judge Wapner. I told you and told you, the radio is for classical. It makes customers spend more money!”

The radio! She felt positively wobbly with relief. He hadn’t seen the snake bag in the aquarium. But she could. She watched in horrified fascination as, behind Harry, the snake bag came to life and slowly rose up the side of the aquarium. Thad had not tied the pillowcase down very far, giving the snake plenty of room to stretch out.

The new girl did not hear a word Harry said, so focused was she on the snake making its slow and careful way up the front of the empty aquarium, impeded only by its pillowcase. Harry, oblivious, continued to chastise her radio choices while the snake bag danced behind him.

The new girl didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It seemed impossible that he did not see the bag contorting and stretching itself… stretching itself to the top of the tank! Oh, dear God! It was going to climb out, pillowcase and all! The snake pushed up on the lid of the aquarium and it rose a fraction of an inch. She stood transfixed, terrified. The snake pressed the lid a little further. Its head, covered by the knot in the pillowcase, was an inch from Harry’s arm. One tiny poke, and Harry would undoubtedly suffer heart attack, aneurysm, or stroke, maybe all three at once. The new girl silently lamented skipping CPR class when she was a Campfire Girl.

The snake, hampered in its exploration, fell on its side with a hollow thud as loud as a gong. Harry didn’t hear it over the radio. He made a few more points, and she nodded her head in blind agreement, eyes fixed on the snake so determined to announce its presence. Finally, he walked over to the radio, changed the station, and heaved himself back upstairs.

As soon as Harry was out of sight, Thad snatched the snake out of the aquarium and beat a hasty retreat himself, leaving the new girl to fall into helpless, hysterical giggles on the counter. Harry never found out about his close encounter of the reptilian kind, but the new girl learned that she never, in fact, hated Thad. Or snakes, and in fact went on to work with reptiles herself 20 years later.

to alice

Happy birthday, Alice! Your present will be there later this week. And no, it’s not a snake in a bag.