Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fish House Confessional: The Water Cooler of Marine Mammal Trainers

We've all heard the phrase "water cooler gossip".  We've seen the TV shows or movies where office workers gather around the water cooler and exchange clandestine information.  

What are they talking about?  Are they gossiping about where their shadows went? Or the fact that they are floating in endless, ethereal white space? 

For marine mammal trainers, there is no water cooler.  Well, perhaps your training office has one, but even still it's not nearly as secret a place to chat as....


Camaraderie at the Marine Mammal Center's fish house! 

Oh, the glorious Fish House.  The Fish House has all of the glorious benefits of a fort with some major added bonuses.  Remember the forts you envisioned as a kid?  In my experience, the fort I had imagined and designed with painstaking details (such as bay windows, plush couches, a donut nook, and air-lock doors that went whoosh) never really turned out the way I wanted.  The last fort I remember well involved some big sticks, black garbage bags taped together, and a pot I stole from my house to make the fort seem more livable.  My sister and I built the Garbage Bag Fort in our backyard when the snow was melting, so the entire inside was wet and disgusting, but we lied to ourselves that "the garbage bags really kept out the cold."   

A slightly better version of my childhood forts

I learned quickly that constructing habitable forts was definitely not my childhood forte.  So I decided to move into another, already established location.  The attic.  All I had to to was pop out a door and there I was, in a crawlspace over the garage.  After adding few blankets, a radio, and of course the cooking pot (Oh, I was so domestic), my sister and I would spend hours in that attic.  No one could hear what we talked about in there, it was cozy enough to feel really secret.   The only downside was it wasn't climate controlled, so we had to share our secrets in 785 degree weather in the summer, and Antarctic temperatures in the winter.  

Apologies to those of who you did successfully build your dream fort, but for most of us, that never happened.  But our need to have a private place to hang out, whether by yourself or surrounded with close friends, is still there.  Most of us realized that taking OVER a potential fort was much better than creating one from the ground up.

So how does a Fish House measure up to a Childhood Fort?  Refer to this official Venn diagram:

* Maybe not all of them are enclosed.  But if yours is outside, it probably means you live in a lush, gorgeous tropical location, so you already win.

Now looking upon my first attempt at making a Venn diagram on my Mac, I realize that maybe Childhood Forts are slightly more fun, mostly because of the snack thing.   But Fish Houses are sturdily built.  Here in Florida, they can essentially withstand weaker hurricanes.  The same cannot be said for most** of my forts, which could not withstand exasperated sighs from small animals such as slugs.

But why is it we all really love secret places we can convene, alone or with a select few?  Because it is therapy.  Major therapy.  Fish Houses provide some of the best methods for therapeutic catharsis.  In fact, most of the time you're doing repetitive labor, such as sorting fish, cleaning, or cleaning.  While sorting fish requires concentration, cleaning buckets and the Fish House itself are tasks that can easily be done while talking, PLUS it has the added benefit of being laborious; it's a great way to burn off any frustration or excessive energy.

But it's not all negative.  In fact, most of the time it's quite positive, or just gossipy (but not the  mean gossip).  The Fish House represents some serious bonding time for trainers, because we spend so much time in there.  It's not like we can talk about how hot Chris Hemsworth is (with the amount of time and reverence this topic deserves) while we are in a training session.  Why? Because we focus most of our energy on the animal in front of us, so it's no place for it.  

Yeah, I'm gonna need a LOT of time to talk about him.  Mostly his arms.

On top of our regular trips to the Fish House, some of us get stuck in there.  Where I work now, it's the best place to go during a storm.   Many enclosed fish houses in the U.S. are temperature regulated, so when it's freezing out you can warm up in the Fish House, and when it's hot you can cool off in there.  Side note:  If the Fish House isn't temperature regulated and it's a zillion degrees outside, there's always the sub-zero freezer to use for emergency thermoregulation, but it's not very much fun to chat in there. 

So what kinds of things do trainers use the Fish House for?

Here are examples of some of the conversations I've had with others:

1) Recanting dates 
2) Talking about childhood stories
3) Frustrations with bosses
4) Frustrations with coworkers
5) Getting caught doing numbers 3 and 4
6) Apologizing to the victim of numbers 3 and/or 4
7) Talking about book ideas
8) Discussing animals and their various accomplishments or challenges in training
9) Religious idea exchange
10) Catching up on gossip on other people in the field (e.g. "DID YOU HEAR SO AND SO PUT IN HIS/HER TWO WEEKS AT SUCH AND SUCH PLACE?")

At one of my jobs, the Fish House is where we met on a regular basis to talk to a particular trainer with a penchant for juicy drama, let's call this person Pat.  The group of us at the same experience level often had a lot to share in terms of mistakes and accomplishments, but when Pat was promoted, the rest of us were asked individually to meet him/her in the Fish House.  When it was my turn, Pat corralled me against the refrigerator, eyes intensely focused on mine.

"I called you to the Fish House today to tell you that I got promoted."

"I know, Pat."

"I just needed to have a private meeting with all of you to tell you that even though I'm a level above you, I'm still your friend.  But sometimes I'll have to act like your boss."

And so the Fish House meeting concluded with me murmuring "ok", and signaling to the next person to enter Pat's temporary office.

Frequent visitor of Fish Houses everywhere!

When you first get started in this field, you might be shocked at the fishy smell of the Fish House (not just a clever name, I suppose).  And you'll initially associate the Fish House with lots of cleaning.  Unfortunately, it may become a place for you to cry, too.  Some first internships and jobs are harder for some than others.  I've walked in a few people weeping by a sink, scrubbing a bucket.  I've done it myself, when a very old but beloved dolphin passed away and I needed a moment to myself.

But eventually, you realize therapeutic potential of the Fish House.  You forge friendships (maybe even find the love of your life), navigate difficult work/social issues, have clandestine meetings, come up with the next training approximation step, ponder the reasons behind other people leaving the field, or maybe share a secret with another trainer that you aren't ready to tell anyone else.  

Sometimes, LOTS of fun is to be had in the Fish House.  Full on water and soap fights happen, which is really great because it's safe, it's clean, and your wetsuit can always use an extra washing.  Dance parties break out.  Jokes are swapped.  I've also been known to throw fish at people, and not necessarily always at people who are in the training department.  And the best part about this is that it applies to all levels of trainers.  One day, my boss soaked me with a hose, while the general manager cheered him on.   God I love the Fish House fun times!


Any office worker can tell me they've heard some great gossip or had a cathartic sounding-off session over hushed whispers at the water cooler, but I don't think they have the same freedom us marine mammal trainers have.  Like, I don't mortgage brokers having a Dawn soap fight in the middle of their office happens as regularly as it does with dolphin trainers.  

But I want to hear about YOUR Fish House experiences.  Leave them in the comments so the rest of the readers can enjoy them, too.  What's the best experience you had?  The worst?  The weirdest?  Share, share, share! 

* For most facilities....sorry to those of you who have it outside, unless you live in the tropics, then I have zero empathy

** All

No comments:

Post a Comment