Sunday, September 15, 2013

Internship Failz: Airborne Edition

Every so often, something or someone reminds me of a story that immediately rings the MIDDLE FLIPPER CONTENT alarm in my head.  It's like unearthing a rare fossil; as the years* pass, I start to forget some of the hilarious things I've said, done, or have happened to me in this amazing job.

But luckily, such a memory-jogging event occurred at work the other day.

One of our new interns and I chatted over a sinkful of buckets about what it was like to make mistakes as a new intern.  I reassured her that everyone does it, which bridged the final synapses in my brain to bring you The Story Of the Airborne Disaster.

I did my internship at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which started on January 20th, 2005.  Why do I remember this?  Because it was four days after my 21st birthday in which I really let loose and ushered in my newfound drinking privileges with eating key lime pie for the first time and drinking glass after glass of….water.**

I know how to party.  Sober.  Yes, I'm serious.

To give myself some credit before I well, discredit myself, I did have the general notion of what a marine mammal internship would probably be like.  I knew I'd be cleaning a lot, and sorting fish, and of course I knew what I'd read on the sheet sent to me about what to expect in the internship.  I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work and and smells.

But I really had no clue how to distinguish myself, since this was My First Step Towards My Dream Job.  I wanted to Make An Impression.  Be careful what you wish for, right?

My first day, I put on the required clothing and showed up with a bellyful of butterflies at CMA.  Wait wait wait, let's backtrack.  What did I do after I put on my black quick-dry pants, tevas, and random crappy shirt?  Oh, I put on makeup.

Apologies to trainers/zookeepers everywhere who put on makeup for their job.  I'm sure yours is waterproof and expertly applied.  Well done!  This is not the experience I am describing for myself.  I've had spurts of makeup-wearing periods, especially around that time in my life.  But I didn't know what I was doing.  I had the cheapest stuff you could find because, uh, it was cheap.  Furthermore, I have never felt comfortable in makeup because it makes my eyelids feel heavy and I always feel like it's running down my face and making me look all heroin-addicty.

This is much later in my internship, sans makeup.

But how else was I supposed to look presentable and professional my first day on the job?  Certainly not by the way I dressed!  Makeup was the answer.

I was directed into the fish kitchen, which was crammed full of People Who Knew What They Were Doing.  And it was there that I realized I had made a huge mistake in wearing makeup.   In fact, one of the volunteers even commented on it, "Wow, you look awfully nice to be down here."  

Now that I remember this, I'm like dude, that's no big deal.  But at the time, I was convinced it meant my job as a dolphin trainer would never happen, because I'd already made myself look totally stupid in the first 23 minutes of my internship.

So that sets the stage.

My next few days were very stressful.  I didn't know what anyone was talking about (WTF is an SD? How can they really tell these otters apart? How can they keep track of food each day? Where the hell are the bathrooms?!), everyone was so focused and passionate that I felt like I'd be bothering them with really, really dumb questions to help me learn how to do different tasks, and I just felt like I wasn't cut out for the field.  I was defeated, disillusioned…and most of all, self-conscious. 

This ain't the place to get sick.

With the stress and cold weather, I found myself starting to get sick.

Oh NO, I thought! I can't be sick during my internship! I can't call out sick so early in a job!

That day, I did my duties feeling pretty crappy.  I still couldn't remember everyone's name, and was just yearning for the moment when I felt like I belonged there.  When lunchtime rolled around, I sat quietly at a desk in the marine mammal office.  One of the trainers asked me what was wrong, I told her I was fine, just felt like I was coming down with a cold.

"Have you heard of Airborne?" she asked.
"Yes, but I've never had it."
"Oh, I have some in my purse! Take it! I swear by it!"
"Thanks," I said. 
"It tastes like Orange Crush," she said.

Herbal cold-fighter, or harbinger of horror?

She handed me the tube of Airborne and went back to her conversation with the other trainers and volunteers in the office.  I was touched by the trainer's kindness, but my insecure mind made me feel embarrassed that I'd admitted I was getting sick (I showed a sign of weakness! Now I'll NEVER get a job!). My stress and impending illness may or may not have affected what transpired.

I thought I'd read the bottle carefully.  I thought it directed me to take one tablet with a glass of water.

I popped the top of the tube open, unleashing the characteristic citrusy smell.  I slid one tablet into my hand and peered around the office.  Everyone was engaged in conversation, so I could take my Airborne in peace.  Thinking back, I had unbelievably low self-esteem during that time.

I looked at the flat, orange wafer in my hand, hoping it didn't taste like well, every other chewable med out there (Chalk and some perverted version of "Flavor").  But I couldn't afford to get sick, I didn't want to be rude to the trainer who'd lent me her personal rhinovirus-fighting stash, so I bucked up and popped the tablet into my mouth.

Easy-to-chew tablets?

And then it exploded.

Foam, saliva, orange chalk flavor, filled up my mouth and burned my tongue as the effervescent tablet tried to figure out what the eff just happened.

Airborne Tablet: Where the hell am I?
My mouth: Uh, this is a mouth.
Airborne Tablet: What am I doing in here?!
My mouth: I don't know, Brain isn't thinking.

Meanwhile, I am more and more closely resembling a rabid dog as I struggled to maintain composure in a room full of people who could Make My Career Happen.  My tongue on fire, I tried to take a sip of water to flush the sensation away.  But as I tried to open my mouth, Airborne foam poured out of my face.  

My brain: You're gonna have to just deal with it! Ain't no way you're gonna spit this out and RUIN YOUR CHANCE AT YOUR DREAM JOB.  NO ONE WILL HIRE SOMEONE WITH RABIES!

I suffered in silence until trainer who had given me the pills turned around and saw me.

"What is going on?" she asked.
I couldn't answer because, well, my mouth was full of foam and I was 86% certain my tongue had burned away.

"Did you just put the Airborne in your mouth?" she asked.  At this point, everyone in the office stared at me.

I nodded, cheeks full.

Everyone laughed.  Not the meangirl laugh, it was a genuine, "Oh god this is hilarious" laugh.  It actually made me feel a little better.

"You're supposed to put it in a glass of water first! Like alka-seltzer!"

And then I started laughing, and drooled orange-flavored foam all over myself.  This action freed me to drink copious amounts of water, diluting the awful flavor and sensation burning my cheeks and tongue.

I looked at the Airborne container again.  Indeed, I had somehow misinterpreted the directions.  More importantly, I'd missed the word "effervescent". 

….and/or Airborne inappropriately.

At that point, the ice had been broken.  From that day forward, I felt more comfortable around my bosses and coworkers.  They'd seen the Real Me and thought it was hilarious.  I could be myself around them and be accepted, because they were all good people.  

And the best part? My immune system gave me a pity pass on the illness. 

My mouth: Hey, Immune System, give her a break.  She just put an Airborne directly into her mouth.
Immune System: What?! Didn't she read the directions?!
My mouth: Not thoroughly.  But she's under a lot of stress.  Cut her some slack on this cold she picked up.
Immune System: Sigh. Just this once.

Alas, I've seen many interns come and go in my career, and expect to see many more.  Half of those interns have an experience similar to mine (although I've never seen or heard of anyone eating Airborne directly, which makes me feel really unique).  And while they field feelings of embarrassment and self-consciousness, I can relate to them this story to tell them it's okay, it happens.  That perhaps it's more important how you react to the mistake, no matter how bizarre or bad, than the mistake itself.

"…so I was like, I didn't even realize I had to dissolve it first!"

Now I'm curious about you all, dear readers.  Share with me your stories of internship disaster!

* Haha, yeah, more like "as the seconds pass, I can't remember where I put that bag of M&Ms, much less everything that's happened in the last eight or nine years."

** And I regret not a moment of my sobriety or nerdiness


  1. Wow you used a bridge as an intern? That's crazy! They definitely don't do that anymore

  2. Yeah, they had us buy a whistle. You guys must be able to bridge some behaviors, right? Don't you still work with the otters?

  3. Yeah we used a point bridge. We aren't allowed to get in the exhibit with the otters anymore. We did get to do a little hand targeting with Oscar though. We were allowed to start asking the dolphins for behaviors during the last 3 weeks of our internship, and it was definitely cool being able to bridge them even though we didn't use whistles :)

    1. Hey, a bridge is a bridge! It's all the same no matter what stimulus it is! It's great to learn how to bridge behavior in an internship! When did you intern there?

  4. Cat,
    This was so funny, I hurt myself from laughing too hard. Well done.
    I'm trying to think of my most embarrassing moment, but I'm guessing 90% of them occurred at MSQ, and I have consequently blocked them all from my memory. They were all horrifying, though, and not in a funny sense. I remember the first time I met (unnamed) head trainer: she yelled at me for the shoes I was wearing, which were identical to the ones the previous group's interns had worn. Evidently the protocol had changed in the course of a week. It was pretty much downhill after that.
    I'll get back to you with something funny.

    I will say that when I attended your "girl party" I was envisioning painting toenails and watching chick flicks. I had nooooo idea what was in store. I think I blushed for a solid three hours. HA! Good times :)

  5. I was in fish kitchen, my first time ever, stacking the buckets full of fish into the proper fridges. I was putting the second to last bucket and the fridge completely FELL APART and fish went everywhere! But I was trying to save myself so I jumped forward, swinging my arms out, trying to catch the buckets and crying out "help!" at the same time. We had to re-make all the meals in that fridge--and I never lived it down and will be forever known as the intern who broke the fridge.

    1. Hahaha! Well, that's memorable and I'd say a perfect example of no harm, no foul.

  6. I've been a keeper aid with the hoofstock department at my zoo for over two years so I'm comfortable around them, but I still have that 'OMG I HAVE TO IMPRESS THEM NO MATTER WHAT BECAUSE THEY MIGHT BE MY COWORKERS ONE DAY" mentality. We pick up the giraffe yard and place any wastes into empty disposable grain bags that we throw away in the dumpster later on. They're fairly big bags, and they can get pretty heavy. So it's later in the day when we go and dump our trash. I'm all about that proper lifting technique by using your legs (like I said these bags are heavy!). So I'm picking up a bag, and all of a sudden I hear a rip.... a giant rip down the back of my pants appears! The keeper I was with instantly started laughing, and I couldn't help but laugh either, but like in your story it was a friendly laugh. It was definitely a moment I won't forget for the sheer embarrassment and funniness of the moment. Luckily I had my rain jacket and I was able to wrap it around my waist so no one could see the rip. I went to go help out another section in the hoofstock department after that. When the whole team met back up at the end of the day, they teasingly asked me why I was wearing my rain jacket like that (the keeper had told them what happened - which was expected)... I merely told them I was trying to bring back the 90's.

  7. I'm currently a marine mammal training intern. It has been my life-long dream since I was two years old to go into this field. I've thought several times during the progression of my internship that I'm not cut out for this, and I'm surrounded by said people who Know What They Are Doing, when I have No Idea What Is Going On. This whole post reminds me to follow my dreams at all costs, and that one day I'll have an amazing blog and awesome pictures of animals and people I love that I meet along the way in the field. Most importantly, it teaches me to believe in myself, something the head trainer at the facility I intern at tells me to do. I look up to her so much btw and try to make her proud.
    I keep coming back to this post for inspiration. Pathetic. I know.
    Oh, my biggest internship fail was... Wait for it...
    My train of thought was in this specific order, but it still makes the fail more epic.
    1.)I was hot, because Florida is the inferno in the summer.
    2.)I was out of water. I needed some and quick.
    3.)there was a WHOLE gallon of "bottled" water on the table.
    4.)I don't like tap water. Ok maybe I'm a bit spoiled.
    5.)Ok I'm going to poor the gallon of "refill" water into my water bottle.
    6.)the head trainer that i admire so much comes back from the dolphin show and wonders what happened to her water.
    7.)I wanted to fall off the face of the planet.
    8.)I fessed up.
    9.)good thing she is so awesome. She didn't care too much I took her water because she "doesn't have AIDS", but backwashes.
    10.)I'm known as the "water bandit"at my internship now. Excellent start to my career.

  8. Bahahahahaha!!!! Lady, don't you worry. That's a great story and it was an honest mistake. Mistake's too strong of a word, anyway. It's an inside joke now! And those are always good!!

  9. :D Thanks Lady.
    I'm apprehensive about next week...
    Why? A certain trainer will be out of town and won't be able to fix all the messes I will for sure make. If the facility is in one piece, she'll be lucky. and... to the hoof stock ripped pants lady, I got a great (and very friendly) lol out of your story. My jeans ripped in high school (spray-painted-on skinny jeans that crunched your abdominal region and soul) were en vogue. talk about a period in my life of "low self esteem". I wrapped my Abercrombie hoodie around them and hoped no one noticed.

  10. I was on my first ever internship at Dolphin Encounters, Nassau, Bahamas. I am known to be one of the clumsiest people alive, I mean I could hurt myself in a soft play area wearing a padded suit and ugg boots I’m that bad.
    So I was organizing life jackets and trying to make a good impression to the bosses and its sunny out so obviously the choice of footwear is flip flops.
    Now being a girl from Scotland I don’t generally get much practice in flip flops (im great in a pair of wellies though!) so I was walking along the wooden decking making my way back to the fish kitchen to get out the buckets for the next session when my flip flop catches in the gap between one of the planks, the strap breaks and I go flying down a flight of wooden stairs on my knees and land flat on my face directly in front of fifty guests that had just stepped off a cruise ship to swim with dolphins.
    So I’m lying on the ground with a bright red face, a broken flip flop, two bloody knees and not one of them offers to help me up so I have to awkwardly scramble to my feet and try to dive through the wall of people to get out of sight. Unfortunately as soon as I step onto my feet I almost fall down again because I had successfully managed to break two of my toes, ON MY SECOND DAY AT WORK!!! Thankfully I managed to hobble to the kitchen and shovel some ice out of the freezer and onto my foot but I ended up walking around with two black toes for the next few weeks after that!

    Totally clashed with my Caribbean perdicure….