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This week, we drove up to the Salem Seacoast for a Marine Ecology Analysis program run by the Family Resource Center, an organization that arranges field trips for New England home-schooling families.

We were looking forward to tossing crabbing nets off the harbor pier and seeing what marine specimens we could pick up off the rocky shore. There were about 12 baskets tied to the pier, and a couple of marine biologists ready to help us identify our catch. We had water. We had snack bars. We had about an hour.

We set ourselves up at our net with our timer and clipboard and got set for our first five-minute “soak.” The net, which was actually a metal basket, had a chicken leg firmly tied to its bottom to act as bait. One good toss and our rope reeled over the edge, the chicken leg disappearing in the clear, blue water. There were no clouds in the sky, and I thought how perfect it was to start the day off with some hands-on learning outside on such a glorious day.

However, after three fruitless periods of “soaking,” it became obvious that my eldest son would consider the entire day, and possibly his whole life, a dismal failure unless he caught a crab. I could read it on his face. This little boy, with the personality of Captain Ahab crossed with Eeyore, had his jaw set with the grim travail of man versus nature. We pulled up the basket again, and again it was empty except for the gleaming chicken leg. We tried again. And again. The chicken leg danced back up to us through the water, briny and alone.

We passed some time looking at other people’s crabs and learned the difference between the easily-confused Rock Crab and the Jonah Crab. The teeth at the front edge of the rock crab’s shell are smooth-edged. The Jonah Crab’s are bumpy and rough.

In addition, our materials pointed out that while the Jonah Crab is “timid,” the Rock Crab is “usually very aggressive when disturbed.” This makes me wonder whether it really isn’t a good idea to try to classify an animal by seeing if it’s aggressive when disturbed.

Soon it was made obvious to me how different my children are. My oldest sulked and silently reset the timer. My daughter seemed uninterested in the entire affair, except for the pregnant crab, gravid with the thousands of eggs she would carry for two years (and you thought you had it bad).

Meanwhile my three-year-old yelled excitedly each time we brought the empty basket up.

“Look everyone! We caught a chicken!” he seemed to be thinking.

Finally, after the program was over and we sat around discussing our finds, we approached the bucket for a last hopeless time and pulled it up. Two crabs, quickly identified as not chicken crabs, were a gift from the sea. I found myself torn between being happy that my son caught something of his own and worrying that he will always expect a full basket from a life that has no guarantees.

We freed the crabs, then walked down to the beach, kicked our shoes off and waded in the surf. We had nowhere to be and nothing to do. I could see no trace of the morning’s frustration on my son’s face. The water was warm and it was low tide, so there were little purple shells everywhere. Everyone was happy and wet as the salt water soaked into their clothing. My little one was running around telling strangers how we had just caught chicken in the ocean.

And so I’m reminded: Attitude is everything. Crabs will come to those who wait, eventually, and when you’re barefoot on the sand hardly anything else matters but the sea and the sky.

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