Hubby Was Acting Fishy, Now Everyone's Hooked

Cleaner shrimps are stars of the domestic ocean the author has helped oversee since her husband's aquarium interest deepened.
Cleaner shrimps are stars of the domestic ocean the author has helped oversee since her husband's aquarium interest deepened. (Family Photos)
By Anne Lindenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 27, 2007

Ihave three pet shrimps, but it wasn't always that way.

My shrimps represent an important area not covered in today's marriage self-help culture -- Spousal Hobby Creep Syndrome. This is defined as the persistent and progressive absorption of one spouse by the other spouse's hobby. I've studied up on current psychological sources (watched a bunch of movies) but found little guidance there. While Hollywood solves most relationship problems through a therapeutic process that consists mostly of characters declaring their love in a rainstorm (and why is that?), directors and producers would do us a big favor by covering the hobby thing. If they had, I might have known that falling in love and getting married would mean ending up with a small ocean in my living room.

I could have used the heads-up six years ago, when my husband looked up from the Sunday paper and said that he was going to get a saltwater aquarium. I was pleased, since I had been urging him to take up a hobby for some time. As a veteran political wonk-operative-junkie, my man was so absorbed by all things campaign that he had begun to communicate almost exclusively in that particular Washington dialect known as Poll Result Speak. As in:

Me: "Would you mind passing the salt?"

Him: "Eighteen percent of married, college-educated, Caucasian women age 35 to 38 with a preschool child at home are concerned about high blood pressure."

You can see where this was going.

His first 90-gallon tank made him happy, mostly because it mimicked campaign life. There was constant upheaval, fish that didn't get along, chemistry that drifted off-message -- enough things going wrong to hold his interest. After a couple of years, he grew bored and wanted to move on to a more complicated operation. And more staffing, I would soon discover.

This time when he looked up, it was from examining the renovation plans for our house.

"You know," he said, "after we knock down all the walls on the first floor, there'd be a perfect place for a coral-reef tank."

I didn't realize that this meant something the size of an actual coral reef. Two steel beams, a designated pump room and a reverse-osmosis water-purification system later, we had an 8-foot, 450-gallon aquarium in our living room. This was an aquarium that he could -- and sometimes did -- really get into. It's beautiful and monumental. It completely fills our front window, making our house look, with all the tank lights turned on at night, as though it is filled with fish. Friends come over and sit with our aquarium, soaking in its calming effect.

Over time his own private ocean has become mine, too -- for better or worse. Since saltwater fish have to be fed frequently and I work at home, it seemed natural that I would become chef du marine. At least twice a day I thaw out a special mixture of frozen fish gunk, mash it with garlic oil to promote their fishy appetites and immune systems, and dump it in the tank. Then, since I was around so much and all, I became the go-to person for the aquarium repairman. After the tragic and very smelly death of an anemone -- spurring my own research on invertebrate illness -- I became the chief anemone handler. When I didn't like how some of the coral was looking, I started squirting a special, emerald-colored, plankton-packed liquid at them with a syringe. I do this every few days, right after I feed our cowrie that dried seaweed he/she/it likes so much.

You can see where this is going.

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