Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Happens When An Animal Trainer Tries to Grow Plants: Botany 101.

I'd like to first apologize about the title of this blog.  This post is NOT Botany 101.  I don't even know if there's a level lower than 101.  Maybe I should've called it Botany .000000001.  Or "Botany For Blonds."  Or, "I stuck plants in the ground, will they grow?".

All of my posts up until now have been about working with animals.  They're easy to care for and interact with, if you're not an egotistical maniac.  Feed them (the animals, not the egotistical maniacs) appropriate amounts of high quality food, clean their habitats, provide them with medical care, give them a lot of unconditional love, and laugh it off when they ignore everything you ask them to do.

Some fish, some toys, lots of love and laughter means one happy sea lion!

But see, my interests aren't limited to animals.  Yes, my degree is in zoology, but that was just as function of practicality.  I only had four years* of school to learn something well, so I had to choose between a general major like biology and a more specific major.  Ultimately, I chose the latter.  But nonetheless, that doesn't change the fact that one of my interests is one of the largest and most under-rated groups of organisms on the planet: PLANTS.

I love plants.  They smell neat (or really bad), they are beautiful (or not), you can eat them (or die), they can heal (or burn, sting, rot, maim, kill), they provide shelter and security to almost every living thing to one degree or another, they cannot get cancer (but some plants can give you it!), and they can survive bizarre genetic mutations that would easily kill an animal and/or put Michael Crichton's imagination to shame.

So why haven't any of my posts been about my years of experience learning about and cultivating plants?  Because I have the King Midas Complex when it comes to vegetation. Every plant I touch turns to gold and dies (clarification: it does not turn to actual gold). Most of my plants end up looking like a pile of hay.

If they survive, it's because I gave them to someone else who knows what to do.

Let's revisit the list of what it takes to care for an animal, and then compare it to what it takes to care for a plant one would find in a garden. 

The Official and Scientifical List of Required Care of Animals and Garden Plants

Animal                                                              Plant

1. High Quality Food                                        1. Sunlight for photosynthesis of sugars 
2. Clean Habitats                                               2. Dirt with the correct  concentration of scientifical
                                                                              chemicals and pH, moisture, and soil drainage
3. Medical Care                                                 3. Super human vision and a sixth sense that can detect
                                                                              and respond to invasions of slugs, ants, white flies, etc   
                                                                              and in some way get rid of them in a effective manner 
                                                                              that does not require spraying Agent Orange all over
                                                                          4. Oh, and make sure  you watch for fungal infections
                                                                          5. Ensure your garden plants are not eaten 
                                                                              tranquilizing all wild animals to unconsciousness 
                                                                              within a 10 mile radius for the growing season
                                                                          6. Fertilize with appropriate amounts by becoming 
                                                                              familiar with advanced organic chemistry and its 
                                                                              effects on plant tissue on a microscopic level
                                                                          7. Thin your garden once seeds have sprouted; callously
                                                                              decide who lives and who dies, then toss the rejects' 
                                                                              bodies unceremoniously next to their luckier kin
4. Unconditional Love                                      8. Spent at least 9 hours a day worrying over your 
                                                                              garden and why none of your plants have leaves 
5. Don't sweat the small stuff                            9. Water 

Watering plants is a skill I've acquired thanks to my experience using water as enrichment for dolphins!

Despite all of this, I decided to give gardening a shot.  Now, there are a lot of blogs out there that do an amazing job tracking their homesteading or gardening projects.  These blogs are laced with beautiful photos, delicious recipes, creative ideas, and the occasional story of failure.  I can essentially guarantee that my gardening stories will not in any way resemble that.

Here are two crappy pictures of my garden:

Garden two
Garden one

Here is an itemized list of the plants in there:

1. Strawberries (so the slugs and sugar ants have something to eat out in the wilds of my backyard)
2. Green Beans (which hide the slugs and sugar ants from my sights)
3. Weeds (sons of #%&*(#$)
4. Peppers (I can't tell if they naturally grow slowly, or if I've killed them before they've even grown)
5. Collards 
6. One sunflower (because why do you need more than one?)
7. Okra
8. Beets
9. Cucumbers
10. Marigold (Which the pyramid ants ate already)
11. Weeds
12. Red beans
13. Lettuce (which must be delicious, because 8,035 whiteflies can't be wrong)

I also have some apple trees, two pecan saplings, a key lime shrub (with one-inch spines), and some other decorative flowers. 

All of these plants are actually doing well so far.  Well, except the desert rose, which is dying on the table outside.  But in my experience, the more I ignore a desert rose, the better it does.  So let's just forget it exists.

But what isn't going so well?  Controlling the insects.  I have a fire ant problem (as does the State of Florida, so I'm told).   Stay tuned for stories of battling those imps from hell.  

Slugs and sugar ants and whiteflies are now residents of my silly garden.  Putting pesticides on my plants is not an option, due to the fact that it's poisonous and at some point, I'd like to eat whatever my garden yields**.  Plus, I'm lazy, and I'd rather not kill other insects and arachnids that could kill the pests without me lifting a finger. 

After reading about safe methods of getting rid of tiny, pesky creatures eating all my crap, I decided to build an insectary, which is a garden whose sole purpose is attracting predatory insects.  A few weeks earlier, I realized that one of the native species of ants (the pyramid ants) in my backyard was starting to get rid of some of the fire ant colonies back there.  The pyramid ants haven't gotten all of them out, but they've done a good job.  

After spending a lot of time picking flowers and herbs that effectively contract out the Mafia of the Insect Realm, I came home and installed an insectary.  

Here's the Professional Digging Job I did for the insectary, with the Sprinkler Pipe I Totally Knew Was There Before I Dug. ***

Then, satisfied, I walked over to every single fire ant mound and cackled.  And dumped a mountain of diatomaceous earth on them, which will slice through their chitinous, armored bodies, dehydrating them to the point of death.  I also cackled while I did this.

And so officially begins the Middle Flipper's journey into botany.  Don't worry, most posts will be about animals.   But now, thanks to my black thumb, the Middle Flipper has tapped into an unused source of hilarity and frustration.  

If I were a plant, I'd wither if I saw this face.

* Before I drove nails into my eyes due to the amazingly underwhelming collegiate experience

** Probably two green beens and a lot of yard waste, in which case I won't eat it

*** I'll post photos of the actual insectary I planted when the plants have proven to me that they will live past 24 hours 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I Hate Melanoma!!!!!!

I spent several minutes staring at my computer screen wondering how I could come up with a quippy beginning to this semi-serious blog post.
It's not that I don't take melanoma seriously.  It's just that the only way I got through the experience was a lot of humor and a little bit of misplaced operant conditioning.

The first question people ask me when they found out I had melanoma was what the spot actually looked like.  I recall very clearly walking up the stairs at Clearwater Marine Aquarium in 2005, looking down at my left arm and thinking, "Wow, that mole looks darker than I remember it."

And that's about where I left it.  This is a massive feat for me, because my second profession is Hypochondriac Extraordinaire.   I've diagnosed myself with illnesses not seen since 1749, but on the plus side I've learned about terms such as anisocoria.  I don't just extend this tender worry to myself, but to my animals too.   People who live around me know this peer-reviewed scientific constant (known as Cat's Hypochondria Constant): If you cannot find me in the usual places (e.g. work, home, Publix's bakery), I'm sitting at a 38 degree angle at my computer, breathing very 3 minutes, absorbing WebMD information and/or google-imaging people or animals with illnesses I'm convinced we have.

So why, other than pure irony, would I not have (correctly) instantly diagnosed myself with melanoma when I saw, you know, melanoma on me?  Well, according to my research, I probably have one of twelve forms of dementia.

So before my brain is completely useless, let me share this story with you.

So I spend six months glancing down at this black spot, thinking that because I'm getting tanner, so must be this particular mole.  When my internship ended, I had to go back "home", which wasn't really home to me at the time.  My parents had moved from my native Chicago to New York City while I was doing my internship, so I went from a subtropical paradise with horrible traffic to a concrete city with horrible traffic.  And, within a week of being there, my mom informed me that I'd have to see a dermatologist since I'd been in the sun so much.

New York, the city that never sleeps or cleans up its garbage.

That's when the panic struck.  I stared down at my arm and knew for sure that something was wrong.  Just like I'd known two weeks earlier that my hair was falling out and I was going to be bald by 30.  Or three months earlier, when I just knew my cat had been bitten by a venomous spider only found in parts of Middle Earth.

By the time I got to my appointment, I was wrought with worry.  I couldn't think about anything else.   When Dr. Michael Jacobs (J-Dog, for short) entered the room, he quickly scanned me and decided to Remove The Cause Of My Concern.

A week later, my family took our annual trip to Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  We decided to stop first in Chicago, then drive the rest of the way up north.  I spent some time with my best friend Kelly, and returned to the hotel in excellent spirits.  I checked my cell phone and saw that I'd missed two calls.  From J-Dog's office.  And there was a Voicemail.

There are three things in this universe that make my blood run cold.  Here they are (in no particular order):

1) Seeing anonymous phone numbers + voicemail on my phone screen
2) Seeing doctor's phone numbers + voicemail on my phone screen
3) When the Tagalongs box is empty but I thought for sure there was one more in there

May you be ever full of tagalongs!

My shaking hands picked up the phone and listened to the voicemail.  It was J-Dog's office, telling me to call them right away.  And then they added:

If We Are Closed, Here Is The Doctor's Personal Cell Phone Number So You Can Call Him Without Delay

Oh GOD!!!!!!!!!! That's it, I'm dying.

When J-Dog picked up the phone and learned it was me, he told me the news in a way I could really understand.

What J-Dog said:
"That spot on your distal left bicep has a Clark's Level II melanoma nevus with a Breslow depth of 0.36mm.  You'll have to come in immediately for surgery."

What I Heard:

"Better start telling people who can have your stuff."

He asked me if I understood what he'd said.  As a fellow medically-oriented person, what with the years of WebMD research, I answered confidently that OF COURSE I understood.  I hung up with J-Dog and called my parents who were with some family friends.  When my dad picked up the phone, I lost all composure and told him the news.  I'm 75% sure I said something like, "I have stage 2 melanoma and I have to go back to NYC for surgery." And then I started crying.

My parents rushed back to the hotel and called J-Dog again.  They got the real information, which did not include stage 2 melanoma, but Clark's Level II, which is just a fancy method of staging the depth of the cancer.  And luckily for me, Clark's Level II ain't so deep.  In fact, it was well within the curable range.    And, we learned further, I could absolutely wait a week to have the surgery.

With that minor fire extinguished, I had the daunting task of enjoying my vacation a) in spite of the melanoma diagnosis, b) my deeply ingrained character flaw in which I live in worry in the past/future, but not the present moment and c) I had no access to a computer and therefore WebMD and I were forced apart.  

I spent most of my vacation really scared.  I spent time in my bed worrying about prognosis.  I'd never had surgery before, and I didn't know what was entailed at that time.  I also became completely and irrationally convinced that I had to avoid any exposure to sun, because maybe that would make the melanoma get worse before I had the surgery.  So when I did force myself to get outside to enjoy the outdoors, I found myself avoiding the sun in Vampiric Proportions.

After the Rhinelander vacation, I had several doctor's appointments that involved a lot of blood tests as well as Assessing The Ailed Arm.  My surgeon was (is?) a well-respected oncological surgeon at Sloan Kettering, which is within walking distance from my parents' apartment.  This doctor informed me that my surgery would entail a Wide Area Excision of the biopsied area, that the excision site would be roughly 3 to 5cm (an inch or so), and that while the original biopsy probably took out all of the cancerous cells, the excision would really make sure it was all gone.

I felt a wave of relief wash over me.  Then she said started quoting statistics of 5-year survival, of 10-year survival, and of recurrence.  My head was not necessarily in the right place to assimilate all of the numbers (plus, the part of the brain responsible for mathematics is notably missing from my head and has been replaced with a section entirely dedicated to thinking about Chris Hemsworth).  

Algebra or Chris Hemsworth? Uh, not even a question.

I asked for clarification.  The doctor said, "If this cancer comes back, it'll be in your liver,  your brain, or your spinal cord.  Have a nice day."  And my mom and I were ushered out of the office.

Finally, the day of the surgery arrived.  The nurses at Sloan Kettering were extremely kind and understanding, which was really great because you know, they see people on some of the worst days of their lives.  And even though my situation was far better than many others (for which I'm thankful on a daily basis), I can tell you that having another human being provide you with the tiniest act of kindness can serve as a light in the dark.  My light involved a nurse with a killer taste in music giving me a CD player and insisting I listen to the Beatles from the moment I sat in the waiting room until the moment I woke up from the surgery.

You boys made everything right!

Wait, wait, there was something else that happened that was awesome that day before the surgery began.  The bed/table/slab whatever you want to call it, was the most delicious, luxurious bed I've ever experienced.  It was soft and HEATED.  And then they gave me drugs to pass out.  It was really great.

When I woke up, I felt like I'd had the best sleep of my life.  I still heard the Beatles singing in my ears, and I felt so relieved that this experience was over.  The surgeon came out to debrief me on what she'd done.

The good news was the cancer was likely gone.  The relatively trivial bad news was that instead of a 3cm excision, I had a 9cm slash.  Whatever, I thought.  I just want to get home and watch TV and go back to life as normal.

I hallucinated while on the prescribed pain meds, so I stopped taking them after a day and just relied on good ol' Advil.  A few days later when I had to change the bandages, I saw the excision for the first time.  I looked like Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas, which I thought rocked.  What else rocked about my recovery?  Walking around NYC with my arm in a sling, especially on the subway.  People stopped bumping into me when my arm was in a sling.  In fact, long after I needed it, I still used it when I took the subway anywhere.

The scar, four weeks after the surgery.  Delicious.

But while my physical recovery was going well, my emotional one was not.  Not only was I naturally prone to being Convinced I Was Sick and Dying, but the one time I wasn't freaking out about something that seemed wrong was the one time I DID have something scary.   So it stood to reason that I probably had something else wrong with me, or another melanoma somewhere that was quietly growing and poisoning me.  

My anxiety became so bad that while driving up to Maine for a few weeks of summer classes I tried to reinforce myself with a bagel (it was a good bagel) for saying and thinking positive things about my life as it was.   It was a noble effort, but I ended up housing the bagel after a few tiny, positive-thought-laden bites.  I mean, who can seriously eat a New York-style bagel in anything less than 5 bites?

My primary reinforcement in 2005

My scar became keloid and served as a constant reminder of that time. My mom and aunt both went to the dermatologist after my ordeal and had melanoma spots found, but thankfully they were caught as early as mine was.  A close family friend passed away from metastatic melanoma a few months after my diagnosis.   To this day, as much progress as I've made, I still go through phases where I worry and worry and worry, driving everyone around me insane (well, more than I usually do).

Some people ask me why I chose a career of being out in the sun when I've had melanoma, but the fact is that my melanoma was well on its way to badness before I lived in Florida...I just noticed it a couple of months after I moved there.  I'm very careful in the sun, but the key is to go to a dermatologist regularly to make sure if anything does start to go south, it's caught before it's a problem.

So what's a good way to end this narrative?  Oh, I have no idea.  I mean, I still worry about these things.  But a year ago, I decided to finally do something commemorative about the experience.  I love body art, and wanted a sleeve for a long time, so I decided to get a half sleeve of dolphins on my left arm, which covers half of my scar.  It sort of juxtaposes an experience that obviously made me question a decision to work in the sun with what is reality now: every single day I am doing what I'm passionate about, and that is caring for animals*.

The sleeve after the third session was completed.  Thanks to Jesse Britten!!

So just as I had trouble starting this blog post, I'm having trouble ending it.  Maybe this post was a little more somber than others, but it's an important part of my life I wanted to share.   Nonetheless, I think I'll leave you with this cute picture of an old man dolphin.

* And eating cheese, but a half tattoo sleeve of cheese is not in the future.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How I Prove Gravity

My job requires me to become proficient in a lot of tasks.  Here is a short list of these tasks:  maintaining established behaviors, training new behaviors, developing staff members, eating as many pretzel M&Ms as I can in a work day, etc.  It also requires me to Be On Stage, so I can hopefully inspire our guests to give a hoot about the living world in some way.   Since 2005, I've honed these skills (and let me tell you, I am like a master at eating M&Ms) and continue to strive to constantly improve myself for the sake of the animals and the people who depend on me.  And as I reflect on my skill set, I've realized this:

If there's one thing I do well, it's proving time and time again that yes, gravity is an existing force on this planet.  My favorite method in testing (and providing further evidence for) this Scientific Law is the one where I walk and then suddenly fall down.

Oh, gravity! You do exist!

Almost all of my falls since I graduated college have been in my job.  While at the Miami Seaquarium, I tried to relay some Important Information I've Already Since Forgotten to a fellow coworker.  I attempted to do this while I, please brace yourselves, walked at the same time.  Not only did I risk my safety by attempting to multitask, but I did so on a narrow catwalk several feet above one of the medical pools.  As I rounded the corner to continue my critical conversation, I confidently placed my left foot into thin air.   I fell into the pool at a lazy pace, because thankfully my leg was able to catch the side of the wooden catwalk for most of my fall down.

You can see the catwalk from which I splatted in the background of this photo.

Several months later, I attempted the difficult feat of walking near a shallow haul-out area without looking at my feet.  This idiotic mistake resulted in a twisted and severely sprained ankle.

Despite having a sprained ankle, I could still air juggle.

While I was at Marineland, I thought I was doing a pretty good job with my balance.  Other than random injuries, I can't recall a time when I fell*.   Wait, that's a lie.  I do recall falling up a flight of stairs and spilling about 17lbs of fish on the ground.  

Okay so, maybe I didn't do so well with walking at Marineland.  A few years ago, in response to my klutzy nature, I began practicing yoga seriously and have ever since.  I've reaped all of the benefits of a strong, consistent yoga practice, except the one where I can function while I am on one or both of my feet.   And most of my near-tumbles at Marineland were the result of, yes I'm being serious, non-skid surfacing throughout the entire facility preventing me from actually falling.  I didn't fall as much, but I sure did rip off the tops of both of my big toes when I tripped.

When I went back to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, I found myself in rare form.  I had a mission to add to the heaping pile of evidence that Earth's gravitational force is 9.8 meters per second.  In fact, I felt so strongly about this demonstration of basic physics that many of my performances occurred during public presentations with dolphins.  In fact, in one show (the first one I did there since getting hired), I fell in twice.  On a dolphin.  Who was deaf. 

This position I chose to be in may or may not be 105% responsible for my falls at CMA.

Recently (27 hours ago as I write this), I took a spill down some stairs in one of the back areas of our seal habitat.  This is the latest in a long string of falls I've had since moving here.  In fact, I've had so many incidents that they already have names, such as:

1) The Sound of Music Fall, which was my exceptional re-enactment of Julie Andrews as Maria in the opening scene "The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music, Ahhh ah ah ah!".  While Maria swung herself merrily around the trees in a lush, peaceful meadow, I had only a metal ladder attached to an underwater platform.  Despite an attempt at a graceful entry into the water, my foot lost purchase on the slippery dock and I Maria'ed my way face first into the water onto a dolphin.

Who doesn't love this play?

2) The Fall in Which My Feet Fly Out From Underneath Me and My Entire Posterior Region Encounters The Dock With A Sound At Noticeable Volume, which is exactly as it sounds.  All I can say is that it involved a dolphin show, a poorly-placed foam mat, and my feet.

3) The Seal Stair Fall, the most recent of all.  All you need to know about this situation is that I used a target pole to save myself akin to the way Gandalf uses his staff in the Cave of Moria.

Here I am, on the steps near the seal habitat.  (This is an old picture; I've since shaved the beard).

But why do I bring this tendency of mine now?  Is it to brag about my enviable antigrace?  Alas, no.  As more of my former coworkers join me at this new wonderful place, I'd like to think I provide them with a sense of familiarity while they acclimatize to their new surroundings.  All the while I'm really proving myself a capable team member for my new coworkers, who must either feel bad for me, or just wonder how I've made it through life without intensive therapy**.

* This is likely due to the brain damage I've sustained over the years

** The answer is pretzel M&Ms

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Caption Contest: Can You Really Put A Label Worth Of My Mug?

Marine mammal trainers get photographed.  A lot.  I happen to have one of the least photogenic faces of anyone currently alive.   I also speak very animatedly to everyone I meet.  Pair these facts together and what do you get?

A collection of unflattering pictures of yours truly.  Oh, I have so many more. 

Submit your ideas for captions for the following three photos.  The winner shall be declared on Tuesday the 9th on here and on Facebook! 

Pic 1

Pic 2

Pic 3
 God I'm hot.