Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why I Love To Work Holidays: Thanksgiving Edition

Knowing that Thanksgiving is in a mere four days, I felt inspired to share one of the best days ever to be a marine mammal trainer.

Thanksgiving! It comes before Christmas!  (But not, this year, before Hannukah)

Don't get me wrong, I know lots of people work on Thanksgiving.   I'm continually surprised at the sheer number of people who DON'T realize people have to go to work on such a big holiday.   The lack of logic is astonishing.  I'm compelled to ask these people a series of questions in the form of a Working During A Major Holiday Quiz:

1) How do animals in zoos, aquariums, shelters, pet stores, veterinary hospitals, or ranches eat, receive husbandry care/habitat cleaning on Thanksgiving?
    a) Their caretakers come in on Thanksgiving and care for them
    b) The animals order Chinese food, because everything else is closed
    c) The animals with any dexterity (this can apply to birds with capable beaks) adeptly let
        themselves and the rest of the lot out of their enclosures.  And in Toy Story fashion,
         have a running-with-scissors type day eating all the food and partying, making sure to
         clean up after themselves and  return to where you think you left them

I'll have the capelin casserole!

2) Where would you go on Thanksgiving if you received a critical injury, such as: severed limbs, myocardial infarction, donut overdose, and/or car accident?
     a) The ER
     b) A witch doctor
     c) CVS for some band-aids

Band-aids.  For those life-threatening holiday emergencies.

3) Follow up to question number 2.  Of the aforementioned places, how many of them require actual human beings to work in order to provide appropriate care?
    a) 0.  Robots are the new thang
    b) 3.  D'uh.
    c) 1.  Witch doctors don't care about Thanksgiving

"WTF is Thanksgiving?"

4) Your car runs out of gas next Thursday.  What do you do?
    a) Go to the gas station, like usual.  Because you know, people are working.  On
    b) Pump your own gas and leave an IOU
    c) Siphon gas out of someone else's car, then say you're grateful.

Give the kid a break.  Where else was he supposed to get gas on a holiday no one works on?

Let's also not forget the poor souls who have to work at Our Favorite Giant Stores so we don't miss a nanosecond of Black Friday.  While we are stuffing our faces (and subsequently resting our faces in a face-down position due to Food Coma), a whole lot of people are hard at work making sure you have the best Black Friday experience, because we can't possibly just enjoy a holiday without showing your gratitude for life by buying a TV for 92% off at 3am.  But I digress.

Unless they're lining up for free pumpkin pie, count me out.

Those of us in the animal care field must work on all holidays, because the animals still need to eat.  Beyond that, they need their habitats cleaned, training goals still need to be met, and you know what?  You're supposed to spend holidays like Thanksgiving with your close family and friends, so it is very fitting you spend several hours with the animals you adore.

Now, I'm sure everyone has their own unique experience with working Thanksgiving at their facility.  It just so happens that this year I have Thanksgiving off, so I'll work on Christmas.  But I'm going to share my favorite things about working Thanksgiving and holidays.  

For most of my career, the facilities I've worked at close for Thanksgiving.  Side note: No one shows up at the places I've worked at during times we've been open on the holiday.  They're too busy waiting in line for their discount sock warmer at Large Department Store.

Top Ten Things I Love About Working Thanksgiving As A Marine Mammal Trainer

1) Traffic is NONEXISTANT.  Zip, zap, zam, you're at work in no time.  You still, to some extent, get to sleep in on the holiday.  Even if your shift is at 6am, you know you've got the road to yourself so just enjoy those 15 extra minutes of sleep.

No school busses! No slow drivers! 

2) Everyone is in a great mood.  Really.  No weepy, pissed off trainers to be seen here.  Not that I've worked with many people who are wired like that, but everyone is excited because it's Thanksgiving, we're closed, we get to play with animals and go home and eat until our stomachs rupture and we end up in the ER (where hopefully, someone is working).

Hopefully, he's working.

3) No shows, no programs.  As much as I love to share my knowledge and passion for the animals with guests (because that's why zoos and aquariums exist), it's really nice to have one day where you have nothing but fun with the animals.  I don't have to worry about little things such as: accidentally eating garlic humus for lunch right before a dolphin interaction (wherein I try not to breathe anywhere near my helpless guest), my out-of-control saltwater hair, does my uniform match.

I can just play!

4) Wearing whatever you want.  As long it's animal safe.  If it's warm, I don't have to cover up my tattoo sleeve.  You can run around in a  crazy bathing suit.  Or comfortable sweat pants.  Or an ugly sweater.

Sean Connery? Or marine mammal trainer on Thanksgiving?

5) You typically don't work a full day.  Everything that needs to get done gets thoroughly accomplished in 3/4 of the time, because there aren't programs or shows.   

Couldn't find a relevant image for #5, so here's a picture of stuffing.

6) The animals are almost always super attentive.  I don't know why exactly, but it is likely to do with the fact that it's such a variable day.  Everyone is laid back.  They're getting massive amounts of food in a session for just playing with a football.  

Throw me the ball! I'm open!

7) …. and there's always that one animal who doesn't get into it.   They don't want to eat a lot.  They'd rather go back to the same daily schedule.  You might have 99% of your animals fed out by noon, but there's always one who's the limiting reagent (LR).  So what do you do with an LR animal? Well, you respect what they want.  Maybe you don't get out as early as you would had every animal been on board with the plan, but you're not going to deny an animal food because you want to get home to your green bean casserole.

I'd prefer to savor my meal today, thank you.

8) You do special little things when you're not feeding animals.  At one facility I worked at, one of my bosses put on the Macy's Day Parade in a conference room on a big screen TV.  In between sessions and after all the buckets were cleaned, we'd watch the parade for 30 minutes, then go back out and do another round of sessions.  

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, you should make this a tradition at your facility, too!

9) We can play whatever music we want over the sound system.  No more Elevator Music! No more Public Domain Banality!  Want an hour of gangster rap? Sure!  Feeling like some Lo-Fi? Go for it.  Want to have a football game on over the speakers?  Just make sure no one on your staff hates your team, or you're getting pushed in a pool for sure.

For your Thanksgiving nostalgia, enjoy the calming sounds of this gentlemen quartet

10) I've already said this, but it's so important to me that it's worth saying again.  The best thing about working Thanksgiving is I get to spend it with some of the most important beings in my life.   I get to wake up, play with all the animals I love and people I adore, and then I come home and eat a lot of stuffing, and mac n' cheese, and bread, and fruit salad, and pumpkin pie, and…

Oh hurry up, Thanksgiving.


So yeah, we're working hard while a lot of people are relaxing and enjoying their day off.  But we love every minute of it.  It's a special experience that not many people get.   

Wait, before I let you go, let me admit that, like anything in life, there are some down-sides to working Thanksgiving.  

The Cons To Working on Thanksgiving As A Marine Mammal Trainer

1) You don't consistently get to spend the holidays with your family

2) You don't usually get the entire Thanksgiving weekend off, even if you're off for the holiday 

3) Trainers can't even afford Black Friday prices

and the last con to working Thanksgiving as a marine mammal trainer:

4) Black Friday for trainers is actually the massively depressing process by which you attempt to squeeze back into your wetsuit Friday morning after eating 3,349 metric tons of stuffing.


Now, fellow animal caregivers: share your favorite parts about working holidays! I'd love to hear it!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Anthropomorphism: It's not a 4-letter word

Anthropomorphism.   Sixteen letters of sheer terror to some in the animal field.  I think it’s high time we take a good look at what anthropomorphism really means to those of us in the training field. 

Let’s first define our wordy friend:


noun: anthropomorphism
  1. the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.
This may or may not be anthropomorphism. 

We are really apt to anthropomorphize as a kid on objects like toys or stuffed animals.  Well, when I was a kid, I brought to life a colorful character by the name of Pluggy.  Pluggy was a plug (like as in the thing you plug into an electric outlet). Not only did I spend a large amount of time talking to walls (....because that’s usually were Pluggy hung out), but I had many dreams about her.*  

My friend!

So sometimes anthropomorphism is just our imagination taking flight, and it has some good uses.  Kids develop social skills this way (uh, not sure that applied to my electrical friend) and empathy.  It serves its purpose.  And once you enter teenagerdom and adulthood, it’s weird to continue attributing emotional responses to inanimate objects.

Now, let’s get into the meat of this topic.  It’s time we stopped dancing around this word (frankly, it’s too long to dance around for a long time.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it).

Nothing I’m about to write about is eligible for a peer-reviewed article.  So if you’ve got your scientific-paper glasses on, take them off.   If you feel like you’re ready to go to battle to me over this simple blog on an interesting topic, go eat some candy or something to better your mood.   This is supposed to be fun!

One of the first things an animal trainer learns is to “never” anthropomorphize in their training session.   Why is this?  For those of you who don’t know, operant conditioning requires that each behavior you teach has a list of criteria that must be met in order to be considered correct.  For example, if I ask a sea lion to wave her pectoral flipper, she must respond right away to the signal and wave pretty vigorously until I let her know she did a good job.  So the criteria for the behavior are: quick response to signal, moves flipper vigorously, moves flipper in a controlled manner, and keeps waving until I tell her she’s correct.

If she messes up one of those criteria, then we apply a 3 second neutral response and move on to something she is likely to succeed at.

Girl, gimme yo' flipper

So where does “anthropomorphism” come in?  

Let’s say Sally the sea lion isn’t waving right.  I ask her to wave, and she slowly lifts her flipper and gives a little twitch, then sets her flipper back down on the ground.   If you stick to your training fundamentals, this is what you’d do:

Trainer: Hmm, Sally isn’t waving properly.  Does she look like she injured her flipper somehow?  No, she looks healthy.  Okay, I’m going to move on to another behavior and I’ll come back to this later.
Sally: Hmm, I wasn’t reinforced for that flipper wave.  Yeah, I know I have to do that differently.

If you “anthropomorphize”, this is what happens:

Trainer: Oh, Sally isn’t waving properly.  Her eyes are half-closed, she’s tired.  Come to think of it, that thunderstorm last night was really loud.  I bet she was up all night.  She probably just doesn’t feel like waving.   But she’s at least making an effort.  I don’t want her to think I’m mad at her or something for not waving as well as she usually does.  Okay, I’m going to reinforce that wave, because she is really trying.
Sally: Wow, this is confusing and frustrating.  I guess there’s new criteria for the wave.

Make sense?  If you assume you know WHY an animal is not reaching criteria and/or is refusing to do a behavior or a session, and you act on that by reinforcing poor criteria, you will eventually wind up with behavioral drift.  Why? Because that’s what you’ve taught the animal, regardless of their emotional state.  It’d be different if you could have a conversation with them:

Trainer: Hey Sally, can you do a wave for me, please?
Sally: No, I’m just really not into it right now.
Trainer: Why not?
Sally:  I slept on my left side kind of weird and my shoulder joint is stiff.
Trainer: Okay, just give me a tiny little wave and we’ll call it a day.  But once your shoulder is feeling better, we’ll go back to the normal wave okay?
Sally: Sure!

But here’s my question: Is assuming the emotional state of an animal truly anthropomorphism?

Let’s dissect the definition.  It says “...attributing human characteristics or an animal...”. 

What are human characteristics or behavior?  What does that mean exactly?

Here’s the thing, it’s not up for debate as to whether or not animals have emotional responses.  Emotions are a combination of factors involving: neurotransmitters, brain matter, and external stimuli.  Humans are not in any way unique in this capacity.  If you want to read more about emotions and how they work in the brain (in both humans and in a handful of animals in peer-reviewed studies), go to the link below.

Animals with brains (for sake of argument: brains = at least having an amygdala, pons, and hypothalamus) have emotional responses.  Emotional responses in and of themselves are innate, they are physical, they require cells and the exchange of electrical information thanks to some neat ions you can find in such things as Gatorade.  There is nothing wishy-washy or hippy-dippy about admitting to ourselves that animals have emotions** .  It’s biological fact.

Might not be what plants crave, but your cells sure do!  Why? Cuz it's got electrolytes.

Sometimes I hear people talk about “human emotion”.  Well, I’ve yet to come across research that specifies there is a difference between “human” emotion, and the emotions of every other species of brained-animals on earth.  Setting aside a spiritual belief that says otherwise, there is no scientific backing to separate a human being’s brain from that of another animal in terms of the presence of emotional response.  It’s the law of parsimony: the simplest explanation is usually the one closest to the truth.  So which of the following do you think is the most parsimonious?

  1. Humans have instinctive and learned emotional responses, unlike the other tens of millions of other species of extant animals
  2. All animals with an amygdala and hypothalamus and neurotransmitters  can produce emotional responses 
Ain't nobody on this ball got emotion? Puh-leez.

Emotional responses mean survival.  Long gone are the days of believing all non-human animals moved around their world like robots, mindless machines, and/or me after eating 12 donuts in a row.   Brained animals interact with their environment in a meaningful manner that requires a lot of learning and knowledge retention, in addition to instinctive response.  A beautiful combination of learning and instinctive behavior?  Emotional responses!   The emotions are innate, but when they are experienced can be (and are) learned.

Humans tend to believe in an almost poetic sense that emotional states are evidence of “higher” thinking.  This notion of “high” or “low” in terms of cognition are thanks to our pal Aristotle.  But this idea that you can arrange complexity of animals on a linear scale is outdated and unsupported by evidence.   So by admitting that non-human animals have emotions, you’re not unscientific.  On the contrary, you’re more in line with the current research.

Aristotle was unavailable for comment.

So, when we say anthropomorphism is attributing human emotions, I take issue with that.  Perhaps what we mean to say is, attributing human emotional responses (and behaviors).  We smile when we are happy (well, at least in the Western world).  Despite us being a primate, our primate pals smile for the complete opposite response; it is a precursor to some serious aggression.  

This chimp decidedly did NOT just save a bunch of money on car insurance.  

You need to know your animal and the set of behaviors we currently understand that they emit.  That is where anthropomorphism comes into dangerous play:

Trainer: OMG! Look at that seal smile at me!! He must be so happy, because when I’m happy, I smile!
Seal: Whaaaaaat? Dude, this is my pissed off face.
Trainer: Really? I could’ve sworn smiling means happy.  That’s what it means to humans.
Seal: Wow, I thought you guys were just angry all the time because you’re always baring your teeth.

Attributing human emotional responses is anthropomorphism: saying animals have emotions is not. 

We rely on the fact that animals have emotions in the training field all the time.  In fact, training would not work without them.  Tremendous amounts of research have been done on how dopamine plays a major role in positive reinforcement training and knowledge retention.  Basically, you feel good when you get rewarded with whatever you find reinforcing: praise, money, large slabs of cheese, etc.  

The very fact that we as trainers learn our animals individually and try to use things that seem reinforcing beyond just food is evidence that, while we are afraid to say our animals like something, we base our entire training program on that very belief.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that I (or any trainer) can scientifically or even always correctly guess the emotional state of an animal.  We can barely do this in ourselves (c’mon, who lied to grandma about that sweater they got for the holidays?).  But the more you know your animal, the more you learn about their mannerisms, the more you learn what reinforcers elicit a quicker learning response.  What’s wrong with then saying, “My dog Fido likes the ball, because he plays with it every day.”

Some trainer “purists” would counter, “Fido appears to like the ball simply because it has a high reinforcing value.”

Okay, what’s the difference here?  I can describe things I like and dislike by using the same terminology.

Cat appears to find donuts reinforcing because they have a high reinforcing (and caloric) value due to the high proportion of sugars and fats which are innately reinforced through positive feedback in the brain.

Cat appears to enjoy Christmas time, because this time period is associated with a long history of chocolate balls.

The reinforcement history is strong in you, Christmas Ball.

Cat exhibits behavior consistent with aversion when she goes to the dentist, because there is a long and complicated punishment history involving pain, discomfort, and oh, this one time where her hygienist didn’t speak a word of English.

My brain is conditioned the same way a dolphin, or a dog, or a parrot, or even a lawyer’s brain is.  My likes and dislikes are shaped with an intricate process of internal and external stimuli and subsequent consequences.  I’m just allowed to talk about what I and other humans like and dislike, but I have to use 67 times more words to explain the same concept in another animal species. 

So look, I get why this “anthropomorphism” thing got out of control in animal training.  Because there are times when it is taken to the other extreme: when people are 100% convinced they know the emotional state of the animals under their care and it results in a major breakdown in their training program, which can frustrate the animal and even be dangerous at a point.

Don’t anthropomorphize by thinking all human behavior is the universal litmus test to understanding emotional states in other animals.

Don’t assume you know your animal’s emotional state when it could cause you to slack on criteria and therefore confuse the heck out of your critter.

Read your animal.  Look at the facts: what reinforcer gets the job done faster?  Be consistent, fair, predictable in your training....but be compassionate.  Your animals feel and think, but it’s a mystery beyond that.   Don’t feel bad saying, “I think that dolphin is happy, based on my 15 years of experience working with that dolphin.”  Are you submitting that sentence for publication in a scientific journal? No.  Are you letting your belief that the dolphin is happy interfere with your training program? No.  So what’s the big deal?

Have fun with getting to know your animals!

Maybe some of us are worried about the naysayers to our profession as zookeepers and animal trainers.  If we say our animals have emotions, doesn’t that give the greenlight to detractors to say, “your animals look bored/sad”?  No.  They do not have the same relationships with the animals.  They are looking at the animals through a political lens, and most of them do not even have a background in ethology.  THEY truly anthropomorphize because they are usually unaware of that animal species‘ natural ethological repertoire:

Detractor: That dolphin is so sad!!!! He is just sitting at the surface motionless.
Dolphin: Hey jerk, I’m trying to sleep.

As animal caretakers, we shouldn’t be embarrassed anymore about expressing our opinions to one another about our animals as emotional individuals.  We can keep it professional and cutting edge, and be on the forefront of current scientific understanding of how other animals perceive the world.    We can use the helpful, necessary training terminology and provide excellent care and a stellar training program to our animals.   You can live in the middle of this amazing spectrum: acknowledge what is there, but that you can’t understand it.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

* Once time I had a dream that Pluggy was decked out in Notre Dame gear.

** Maybe not jelly fish, because they don’t have brains (THANK GOD). 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Great Immune System Challenge

I really love smartphones because they let me track my ideas for Middle Flipper whenever they come to my mind.  And sometimes I'll sit and look at my list of entry topics and wonder which one I should choose.

Then, the entry chooses me.

I want to share with you a moment that could really only happen to the likes of me.  I hope you realize that the Middle Flipper is now so fully engrained in my person that not only does my brain come up with themes about which to write, but my immune system as well.

So there's this stomach virus going around work.  It's probably the norovirus strain that's been plaguing the U.S. since the summer.  You might call it "stomach flu", you might call it "stomach virus", you might call it, "oh GOD WHY ME."  


So this Evil Little Virus (herein noted as ELV) is just floating around, probably on delicious wrappers of pieces of Halloween candy that as a staff, we all share.   ELV is invisible to the naked eye, and so enjoys its stealth and laughs as it plunders the unsuspecting and well-meaning immune systems of human beings everywhere.

I thought I was in the clear.  A few of my coworkers fell victim to the ELV but I, being the hypochondriac I am, felt I was taking proper precautions.  Yes, I ate the communal (WRAPPED!!!) Halloween candy, but I like, washed my hands a zillion times.   I kept up with my daily exercise regimen and ate healthy food (well, aside from the 39 Kit Kat bars but there are no calories in Halloween candy, d'uh).  

A week had passed since the first person had succumbed to ELV and I was feeling pretty confident my immune system had fought the enemy.  I was also really excited because I got to go on a trip to visit another Really Amazing Facility with a coworker of mine.  I'd never been to this Really Amazing Facility, and while the drive out there was several hours, I looked forward to the trip there and the behind-the-scenes tour, as well as meeting up with some people both my coworker and I knew who worked there.

Little did I know, the ELV was well-aware of my travel plans.

So we get in the car, pumped for a fun adventure.  The drive was gorgeous for most of the way and we enjoyed getting to know one another and laughing to Brian Regan*.  When we arrived at our hotel, we got ready to meet up for dinner with our friends from said Really Amazing Facility.  And that's when I noticed something slightly awry.  Despite my bottomless appetite and the fact I hadn't eaten in a few hours, I didn't really feel hungry.  In fact, I felt this strange, vague ache in my stomach.

Oh, you were the last laugh I had!

"NO," I told my immune system.  "You can't let this happen now.  I've got a facility visit tomorrow and have to represent myself well.  ALSO, I HAVE TO EAT MEXICAN FOOD IN 10 MINUTES."

"Okay," my immune system responded.  "But be careful."

"Don't listen to that moron," my brain said.  "Eat whatever you want.  You're just tired from the drive.  You're fine."

So obviously, I listened to my brain, since the last time I checked my immune system had no neurons and therefore was incapable of speech or thought.  What the heck did it know about eating Mexican food with a minor bellyache?

I enjoyed thoroughly catching up with an old friend and meeting new ones.  I ate a really big burrito and about 3 metric tons of chips and queso.  My stomach ache didn't go away, but it didn't get worse, either.  I felt triumphant.  My brain was right; this was nothing.

Fast forward to 4am.  An entirely different conversation occurred.

Stomach: Cat, wake up, there's trouble in Tummy Town.
Brain: Oh, no, it's fine.  You're fine.  Go back to sleep.
Me: I should probably play Candy Crush until I feel better

I could not sleep.  I drifted into semi-consciousness for a few minutes but was awoken by the worsening pain.  By the time we had to get up to go to Really Amazing Facility, I was almost convinced I had ELV.  However, let's not forget all the Mexican food I consumed, which as we all know can deliver its own set of lovely GI gifts.

Delicious meal, or plunderer of the gut?

We got in the car and excitedly headed off.  When we met up with our contact, who happened to be a Really Big Name in the field, I forgot momentarily** my queasiness and pain.  Really Big Name showed us around some of the back areas and introduced us to several other trainers.  One of whom took us under her wing and spent a lot of time going over some really awesome stuff they do and have for their penguins.  Then, my stomach spoke to me.

Stomach: Okay, I worked it out.  If you don't move or talk, I can keep myself together.
Me: Deal.

The habitats were amazing, the back areas were incredible, the staff friendly and passionate about their work.  I had so many questions, so many comments.  But I couldn't bring myself to ask most of them, because I had made this Gastric Covenant.  And we all know what happens when you break those.

At some points throughout the tour, I started looking for hoses because I needed to know I could clean up after myself should something go awry.  I still remained unconvinced ELV was at the helm of this discomfort, but I knew something wasn't right.   I couldn't let myself be sick in front of anyone, much less people I barely or didn't know taking time out of their busy day to show me around.  I couldn't bring myself to excuse myself to use the restroom, mostly thanks to denial.

Once our penguin tour was complete, we met up with someone in charge of the otter exhibit.  The trainer was really knowledgeable and shared a lot of great information.  We saw some great examples of enrichment.  Still yet another internal conversation began:

Brain: Oh, I have so many questions! Ask them!
Me: …….

It wasn't until we went into another area of the otter back-area that I realized ELV had moved in and was holding my immune system hostage.  I'd wondered why I hadn't heard anything from it in the past two imaginary conversations.  But still, I held strong.  I didn't move, I tried not to speak too much.  I focused on some cute otters and good conversation.

However, I am prone to fainting.  And my brain finally caught up with what was going on in my body and again my internal systems spoke to me:

Stomach: I think I need to break my promise…
ELV: We're heeeeeeeerrrreeeeee

I couldn't stand there any longer.  I was going to pass out…or worse…and so I asked where the nearest restroom was, embarrassed and defeated.  ELV had won.   The trainer who had shown us the penguin area was kind and understanding and showed me the nearest restroom where 


After I had used at least one of my lives (because apparently, I'm supposed to have nine of them?), I emerged embarrassed.  Everyone I encountered was again, kind and understanding to the point where one of them offered to bring me ginger ale.  My coworker and I thanked them for sharing their time with us and we decided to head home a little early for obvious reasons.  

Why you so good?

And despite the fact that my poor coworker was trapped in a car with my toxic self, she drove the entire way home and kept me distracted from the major discomfort caused by what is medically described as "Virus Playing Steel Drums On Internal Organs".   Another coworker of mine was also hosting her own group of ELV friends on the same day as I was, so we texted back and forth sharing in each other's misery.  

Now you might ask, why did I go to said facility visit if I was ill?  Well I parry, if I knew for sure what was happening, I wouldn't have gone.  But recall the Mexican food, and recall your own experiences with such fare.  I didn't really feel awfully sick until about 90 minutes into the site visit, which was like, 100% planned by this uncomplicated virus.  

ELV #1: Guys, I know we've made ourselves comfortable now.  We've got a decision to make.  We could make Cat sick now, or we could wait until Thursday when she is in front of a bunch of people she's never met before in her industry
ELV (chorus): THURSDAY.  
ELV #2: What about timing?  It's our tradition to wake people up in the middle of the night to make them violently ill.

Well, after two days, my immune system regained control and banished that virus to somewhere I hope is far away from me and everyone I know.  While it's never fun to get sick around or in front of anyone, it did make for a funny story in an inevitable and uncontrollable situation.   I met some great people and saw an even kinder side of my super awesome coworkers.  And! It may think it got the best of my mental state, but thanks to ELV I now have zero interest in drinking Red Bull again, which I'd been consuming in quantities that could render me hazardous waste.

Now dear readers, do you have any embarrassing sick stories you feel like sharing?  Because let's face it, in the moment it's pretty awful, but after some time has passed, there's some good gems in those tales.  

And on a final note, it's easy to hate something that makes you feel so badly.  But then I remember, this little virus is just a tangled mess of a single strand of RNA.  It's pretty stupid and tiny and obviously, has no compassion.  So I'll let it have its foolish fun, but I still have the last laugh BECAUSE I KILLED IT AND IT'S NOT EVEN TECHNICALLY ALIVE.  FTW!

Now here's a cute picture to take any lingering grossness away from your minds:

Tee hee!

* No, he was unfortunately not in the car with us.  Just his CD was

** For the length of an elevator ride

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Flashback Cat: The First Date

Sometimes in this job, you find yourself thinking about times long past.  Most of the time, you're doing a task you've done a thousand times before, which is why you let your mind wander to the place of nostalgic recall while maintaining a focus to complete a thorough job.  The cool thing is, these tasks are usually things that seem very exotic and interesting to the onlooker.   For example, while I was cleaning the penguin habitat the other day, I had a strange stream of consciousness that went something like this:

That penguin just pooped
Wow, that other penguin just pooped
Better spray that down
Oh man, almost got that part clean
The weather is nice
Oh, what day is it?
I know it's my Wednesday
Which means it's actually Friday
But what's the date?
I can't believe it's October already
God I want pumpkin pie
That penguin just pooped

Hey, I think I need to poop.

And so on and so forth.  And while my mind took its pointless journey through my neural synapses, I suddenly realized that the following day (happened to be October 19th) had some significance.  I couldn't remember why, I just felt it was a day that meant something to me.   Thanks to the social manager that is Facebook, I was able to recall that it was the birthday of my first boyfriend.

Okay, wait, before you just close the window expecting some kind of sappy drama, remember who's writing this blog.  Then ask yourself, what the hell is it like to date someone like that?  Are you intrigued? Terrified*?  Do you wonder what happened to the poor sap whose birthday I recalled in the penguin habitat?   What was it I really recalled as I rinsed away the leavings of those flightless birds?

I remembered the first "date".

I was a nerdy, lumpy kid for all of my life.  I was obsessed with animals and anything having to do with France.  I wanted to speak french, I wanted to relive all the moments my parents could recall of their days living in France, and I was very proud of the fact that we had family friends in France.  This Francophilia resulted in my choice of instrument in fourth grade, when we were required to pick something to learn.  Duh, french horn.

Look at that embouchure!

I realized quickly I'd picked one of the toughest brass instrument, plus we never got any of the good parts (you know what I mean, trumpet and clarinet players).   Despite my protests once I realized my french horn was not actually capable of making me a bigger Fan of France, my parents wisely insisted I continue honing the skill.  

After a while, my parents opted to send me to private lessons.  Not fancy dress-up-nice-with-a-stuffy-teacher lessons, but a talented french horn musician who happened to teach lessons in her house.  I went to these once a week, and it wasn't long before I ran into Marc who often took lessons the hour before me.  

Well, he had long hair (win, I heart long hair), and he had a dark complexion, and he was mysterious (e.g. didn't talk a mile a minute like yours truly), so I knew he was the one for me.  And so began the embarrassing Eighth Grade Girl Reconnaissance Work all young girls do for their crushes.

Brandon Lee: long hair, dark, loved cats. HOT.

Let's just say my best friends at the time and I came up with a plan to use a phone book and lots of phone calls to find this Mystery Marc.  Of course, I did my recon by asking my french horn teacher what Marc's last name was.  I was about as inconspicuous as a sea lion turd, but I thought I was pretty slick when my teacher asked me, "Uh, why do you want to know that" and I replied, "Oh like, he told me once but I forgot and I have to tell my parents because they want to know who your students are before me."


Anyways, we looked up this kid's last name in the phone book, and systematically called every house with that last name.  Luckily, there weren't too many.   But we finally found the right person.  Let me clarify, my friend found the right person as I sat in the fetal position, giggling.  Side note: if anyone makes a time machine, I'm going to personally destroy the year 1997 so I never have to relive this in person again.

My eighth grade Facebook

My friend asked Marc if he knew a girl named Cat, to which Marc said YES, which of course made me just faint with excitement.  A BOY knew I EXISTED.  The conversation ended shortly thereafter, which prompted a 13-year old meeting of the minds to come up with a First Date Idea.  We settled on the three of us, plus Marc and two of his friends, going to Six Flags Great America for FrightFest.  Oh, it was perfect.   My parents okayed the idea, so all I had to do was get Marc to say yes.

I prepared for days by thinking about it incessantly, playing a lot of bass guitar (the "cool" instrument I played), and eating my feelings.   I picked up the phone, dialed the number, and asked for Marc.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey Marc, this is Cat.
Marc: Oh hey, Cat! How's it going?
Me: Oh, it's great.  Just great.  Like so great, really.  And like I was wondering if you're not doing anything on Saturday, my friends and I were going to go to Six Flags.  If you're not doing anything then, do you want to come with us?  If not, we're still going.  Like, we'll still go if you don't go, it's not like, well, a big deal, like we love Six Flags.
Marc:  Uh, sure.  
Me: REALLY? Oh, wow.  Great.  Bring a couple of your friends.  Because I'll have a couple of friends there.  And my mom will pick you up at your house at 10.
Marc: Oh okay, see you then.

And I hung up the phone and planned my wedding.

Then the fateful day arrived.  I don't actually remember which parent drove, but me and my two other friends piled into the car.  I could barely speak, my stomach was churning I was so nervous.  I couldn't believe this was actually happening, a guy had said yes to hanging out with me.   I wasn't cute, I didn't wear cool clothes (Jenco jeans? Stussy shirts? Ball-bearing necklace? Hello!), and I was into non-cool things such as Reading, Drawing, The Beatles (not cool when I was a kid), and Being Nice To People.

…and exhibit B.

We pulled into Marc's driveway.  We waited a moment, and out emerged Marc and his two pals, as his mom behind them.  His mom talked to my parent and I noticed that Marc was just staring at me.  He looked back at his friends, who said nothing, then looked back at me.  Oh, I thought. Oh wow, he's staring at me!  This is love!

We all piled in the car, everyone awkwardly silent, and drove to Six Flags.  We got out of the car, received the Mandatory Parental Rules such as: don't die, don't get lost, don't talk to strangers, don't spend more than $20 on funnel cake, meet me here at this time.  And we were off.

The boys stayed close together, and we girls did too.  Although we attempted to make conversation, the boys responded in short  (albeit polite) answers.  In fact, it took a couple of hours before they opened up to us and we wound up having a great time.  

After the night was over, my friends insisted on the Greatest Thing A 13 Year Old Girl Can Hear: that your CRUSH LIKES YOU.  And it was so, for the next day Marc called and we said we liked each other, and we should see each other again.  And my head was swirling because I thought this was the best day of my life.

And then he said, "You know, we had no idea who you were when you showed up at my house."

"What?" I asked.

"Yes," he continued. "There is a Cat I know in school.  I thought you were her this entire time.  When you guys pulled into my driveway to pick me up, I was expecting her but saw you, and had no clue who you were."

Alas, a horrified and confused Marc and his pals still piled into our minivan and spend two hours at Six Flags trying to figure out how the hell we knew who they were, but they didn't know us.   I mean, we could've been serial killers.  Or worse, politicians.

Embarrassed, I had to admit my sneaky, awful tactics to figure out Marc's contact information which at the time seemed really, really invasive.  And now we have Facebook where you can see what your crush eats for dinner every single night (thrilling!), so I don't feel as bad anymore.  Regardless, my first boyfriend was won by pure, dumb luck that only I seem to be able to manage.   It's something we laughed at later on, but still remained a small source of humiliation for me.  And over the years, I'd forgotten it thanks to a zillion other embarrassing stories I've collected.

And then, I embraced the Zen of Penguin Poo Cleanup, and the memory flooded back to me to be enjoyed, and now…shared with all of you.

* Correct answer

** Please.