Sunday, June 1, 2014

Defeated By The Stand-On, Gravity Reversal, and Other Embarrassing Things

I've been doing this blog for a while now, and it's something I look forward to writing every week.  The only momentary stress I experience in regards to this stream of consciousness I subject all you loyal readers to is coming up with the right topic on which to opine.  I actually have a  list of things, a Pages document entitled "Blog Ideas" which has close to 200 topics waiting to be written about.

Some topics are inspired by extremely recent events.  Others are opinions I've formed over the past several years, and still others are anecdotes from previous facilities.  It's the latter that I cherish the most, mostly because my long-term memory is about as powerful as a walnut.  

A walnut always forgets.

So when I have a sudden marine mammal memory pop into my brain, I have to write it down.  Because yes, even though I will tell myself "Oh Cat, you'll totally remember that", I won't.  Oh, it must be the blond hair, or maybe it's true what they say about "you are what you eat" and I am turning into a gigantic donut whose hole happens to be in my skull.  These are the things I think about.

But the other day, I suddenly recalled an embarrassing moment* at my first job at Miami Seaquarium.

Some of you may have read about how bad I am at waterwork, in that I am extremely clumsy and know beyond a reasonable doubt that my life will end abruptly should I choose to engage in any high-power waterwork.  Like, I can barely handle stairs.  Just the other day, I was walking down the stairs from the dolphin area and I fell.  Not because it was slippery, or I missed a step.  No.  It was because my flipflop broke in a very weird place which caused my entire foot to slide THROUGH the flip flop, resulting in said shoe being forced around my ankle like an anklet and me sliding down the stairs.  Weird stuff happens to me, and that's just a scientific fact.

An artist's rendition of my inner clumsiness

To be honest, with all of the glorious aspects of being a marine mammal trainer,  the waterwork has never really been a draw for me.  As I've said before, I am really impressed with trainers and animals who do it well, and admire them for the hard work that goes into it with all parties involved.  All I'm saying is when most other aspiring trainers saw a Roman ride, they were all like:

"Whooaaa! I can't until that's me!"

These are the stuff dreams are made of!

And I was all like,



For those of you who don't know, Miami Seaquarium does some pretty amazing waterwork.  They take a lot of care both in training the animals and their staff to make sure it is not only done safely and making sure the animals are into it, but that it looks really good, too.   Trainers there spend a lot of time learning, practicing, and being critiqued on their waterwork, which is why it looks so great.

I mean, that's awesome!

It's also one of the ways they reinforce people for working hard.  And it makes sense, right?  If aspiring or new trainers can't wait to finally be the person doing the rocket, or the surf, or the stand-on, then it's great motivational material.  You do a great job and be a team player, then you win!

So one day, about a year into my employment, one of my bosses comes up to me and my good friend (the one I'd actually swim-tested with!).  She said, "You guys have been doing a great job and we want to reward you for it.  You can choose to do one thing today, something that you normally wouldn't learn at this level within reason."

My cohort immediately said, "Thank you" followed closely with "stand-on."

"Blood," I replied.

Both my friend and my boss looked at me with an expression I've come to expect.  You know, WTF? face.

"Of all the behaviors you can learn," my boss said.  "You want to get a blood sample?"

"Yeah," I said.  I mean, my nerdiness was no secret.  Everyone knew I was a science geek, and getting a voluntary blood was routine on all of the animals, so whenever the next one was, I'd love to learn how to do it.  I figured it was a practical skill to learn and it was by far the most reinforcing.

Ain't nothing wrong with a nerd

"Let's stick with a waterwork behavior," my boss said.

So what was I going to do?  Say no?  No.  I wouldn't, because my boss was going out of her way to do something nice for me and my friend.  I really did appreciate the sentiment.  I also knew that I wasn't the most adventurous person, and it would be good to get out of my comfort zone.  I could physically manage some kind of waterwork behavior.

So I opted for a human hurdle, since it required me to lie on my back while a dolphin jumped over me.  This may sound easy, but it's not.  The SD (at least at the time) for the hurdle involved the trainer floating on the surface, sending the dolphin over their body, then slapping the water in a very showmanshippy.  The trick was, you slapped the water on the opposite side of the arm you were using.  So if you sent the dolphin from your left to right, you had to slap on the left side of your body with your right hand. On the surface, the trainer may look like they are just floating and gracefully arching their hand across their body, tapping the water's surface moments before a dolphin adeptly leaps up and over him or her.

Does this look easy?  FALSE

But what's really going on?  Well, the hand that's not presenting the SD is sculling like mad beneath the trainer's body, trying to provide counter thrust so that when the trainer swings their other arm across their body, they don't:

a) tilt noticeably to the side
b) bend at the waist, sinking a little below the water to become a crumbled human mess

It takes a lot of practice to set up for a human hurdle, and in fact requires lots of trials without a dolphin until you can make yourself look like it ain't no big thang.

I thought that the challenges of this particular behavior were in my wheelhouse, and it didn't involve me being launched into airspace which is of course, precisely the kind of thing that NEVER goes right for me (refer to: the aforementioned anecdote about the stairs).

My friend looked disappointed.  Wait no, she didn't just look it.  She said it.

"Awww Cat!  C'mon, do a stand-on with me.  It'll be fun!"


"Yessss come on! Stand on!"


It's the terror of knowing what the stand-on's about! Having some good friend screamin', "C'mon Cat! DO IT!"

At this point in the narrative, it'd behoove me to at least describe to you what a stand-on is, for those of you who may not know of it.  Basically, you start by floating with your feet down towards the bottom.  A dolphin comes up underneath you and pushes on your foot, launching you up and out while you are still in a standing position.  There is a glorious moment at the peak of this behavior when you are able to Pay Off** before you and the dolphin fall back towards the water in a  graceful, fluid motion.

Feast your eyes upon the stand-on!

My boss chimed in that the dolphin who we'd ask to do this behavior was Ripley (who you might have remembered from such blogs as: this one wherein a guest asked me if Ripley was going to be eaten). So Ripley is a laid-back kind of dude; the perfect personality for a clumsy soul like me to learn how to do waterwork.  The fact that I'd be attempting this seemingly-impossible feat with a dolphin as solid and care-free as Ripley provided me a little comfort.

My friend, one who had a background in cheering and loved to dance, went first.  She swam out in perfect front crawl strokes to the middle of the habitat.  She gave Ripley the signal and he disappeared beneath the lagoon waters, only to reappear as he pressed into her foot and pushed her up and out.  There was a minor balance check which resulted in a less-than-perfect re-entry of the behavior, but it went well.  When she tried the stand-on a second time, it was amazing.  She even remembered to Pay Off at the top.  She swam back to the docks beaming.

"See Cat? It's not so bad!" she said.

"I think you're seriously over-estimating my abilities on all accounts," I replied.

"Then if it's all the same to you," Ripley seemed to say.  "I'd rather play with a basketball."

But no, I had to try.  It was good for me to get out of my comfort zone, right?  So I swam out to the correct spot, which felt a lot like walking the Green Mile.  


My boss told me to make sure I held my leg strong (the one that Ripley would be using to push me up and out), which in my head translated into locking my knee and oh my god what if I lock my knee and the force is so powerful it causes my knee to buckle backwards and my tibia and fibula to blast through my calf and then I'm flung into the docks and all my teeth fall out and then I'll definitely forget to Pay Off.

Ripley's big head popped up in front of me.  

Me: Okay dude, let's do this.  Be gentle.

Ripley: You...are the weirdest trainer I've ever known.

I gave him the SD and watched him dive beneath me and then BOOM.  His rostrum is on my foot  and we sail up together, united in a common and glorious experience as we transcend the limitations of our species.  I could hear cherubs laughing and seraphim singing my praises as I was pushed closer and closer into heaven.  People wept instantly from the sheer amazement of my Stand-On, gouging their own eyes out because they'd never again see something so beautiful. 

Fact: Supernatural waterwork was all the rage in ancient Rome

Ha ha! No, I'm kidding.  Ripley's rostrum pushed my foot and immediately I think about the aforementioned disastrous series of events in which my knee explodes.  I bend my knee and sort of flop to the side in much the way one would drop a sack of potatoes on the ground after carrying it for too long.  

Yeah, kinda like that.

My friend and boss laughed at me good-heartedly.  They asked me what happened, and I gave them a much less dramatic version of my concerns with my leg.

"Don't lock your knee," my boss said.  "Just hold it really strong."

At this point I should mention that someone else had come out to watch my miserable attempts.  A co-worker, who I had a slight crush on (and who later decided to marry me, which is still a universal mystery), had come out to see what the commotion was about which is when I realized I'd probably been screaming.

The pressure was on, now.  Should I impress the boy? Or cherish my safety?  My boss sent Ripley back, and again I tried.   Ripley pushed up on my foot and I flexed my leg, but the rest of my body went limp and I collapsed in on myself as if my skeleton had suddenly vanished.  I came up sputtering.

Oh little cat, you and I are now epic failures in the realm of the Interweb

The laughter from the future-husband was enough to fuel the fire to try one more time.  Ripley was handsomely rewarded for all of my pathetic attempts, so he had no problem coming back for the Final Attempt.

I gave the signal.  I knew what to expect now.  I could do this.  This waterwork stuff was going to be fun and I was going to be good at it and enjoy it, dag nabbit!  So when I felt Ripley's familiar push on the bottom of my foot, I held myself as stiff as possible and immediately felt a difference as he was able to push me out of the water. 

At that moment, something that can only happen to me occurred.  Gravity did not actually REVERSE itself per se, but it rotated a full 45 degrees.  In fact, this 45 degree shift pulled my center mass completely to my left, so that instead of going completely UP away from the water, I moved up a little and then completely to one side, like a Wonkavator.   And then I potato-sacked back into the lagoon.  Alas, the stand-on was not to be.

This cat knows about the whole 45 degree gravity thing.

My strange physics baffled all who watched, which was in a way very re-affirming since I have always claimed that the most bizarre physical things happen to me and people think I'm just exaggerating.  But to be certain, supernatural physical shifts in time and space tend to find me and turn me into a laughing stock.

You know what though? I'm still glad that I tried.  It's good to get out of your comfort zone, even if at the end of it you're like, "Yeah, still not my thing."  At least you've experienced it.  And when it comes to waterwork of that nature, I will be (at least in the foreseeable future) the homely trainer who remains splashing about with the dolphins, sea lions, or seals but never attempts to fly.   But I will always applaud and admire those of you who go airborne and make it look easy.  

We've all got our own strengths and should embrace them, shouldn't we?  The answer is of course, YES.
* Ha ha, that's a joke.  It was not a singular moment, but a series of them in rapid succession which is the only way I experience humiliation.

** Pay Off for normal people equates to making a power fist, or a pretty "ta da" motion.  Pay Off for me = frantic waving of hands as I contemplate how the hell I got up there

1 comment:

  1. This is hilarious XD (I could not do acrobatics either, but then it's never been expected of me!) I'm glad you got to try it though! And it's always so awesome to hear all about the intricacies of your work :D