She certainly wasn't my oldest friend, nor my newest. She was, however, the first friend I made in Alabama. And that's not something to snub your nose at, right?
She wasn't your average friend, either. She wasn't a person, for one. She wasn't even a mammal.
She was an octopus. She was the giant Pacific octopus we had at my job.
You know, when I first moved to Alabama, I didn't know anyone. I lived with people who, for whatever reason, didn't seem to like me, despite my efforts to be friends with them. I didn't have a car and I had no way of meeting people outside of work and my roommates. I was desperately trying to fit in in the South, with no sense of the well-known hospitality. I was seen as pushy and rushed and rude and I swore too much...I never meant to be so antagonistic. Making friends has always been difficult for me, but it felt like making friends in Birmingham was going to be impossible.
She arrived a few weeks after I did, in a big styrofoam container filled with water. When we put her in the tank and I got a good look at her for the first time, it was like...seeing an old friend. I'd helped take care of a few giant octopuses before my job in Birmingham and...she was something familiar. Someone familiar.
She was my only friend in Alabama for...a good while. She was there for me. When I was sad, or scared, or angry, I would go to her, and she would wrap her arms around mine, and look me in the eye, and it was almost like she was saying, "It's going to be all right. We got each other. It's going to be all right."
It always seemed like she was trying to start trouble. When we'd work on her tank, she'd try to steal the vacuum tube we'd use to clean the gravel. She would tear silicone sealant off the walls of her tank and throw sea stars around like a ninja. And she was always, *always*, trying to sneak out of her tank. We had to keep a big heavy lid on her tank that we'd lock down when we weren't working on it. But when we had the top open, she would sling her arms over the edge and haul herself out of the water. I would have to grab as many appendages as I could to toss them back in, but she would always flop a few more over the edge. It was like it was a game to her or something. I would always tell her, annoyed and exasperated, "Sweetheart, there's nothing for you out here! Just air and concrete!" That never seemed to deter her, for whatever reason.
No one cared about her like I did. No one went to bat for her like I did. When they wanted to cut corners, do the bare minimum to keep her alive I said, "Fuck that. No. She deserves better than that." I met a lot of resistance ("Well, this is the way we've always done it") and there were so many times I wanted to pound my head against the wall in frustration. I wanted to give up and scream at my coworkers, "FINE. DON'T LISTEN TO ME. WHAT THE FUCK WOULD I KNOW, I ONLY SPENT THE LAST SIX YEARS OF MY LIFE LEARNING EVERYTHING I CAN ABOUT THESE ANIMALS. NO. IT'S COOL. DO A HALF-ASSED JOB. SEE IF I GIVE A SHIT." But then I would go clean her tank, stewing and angry and muttering swear words to myself, and she'd come sneaking out of her corner to be near me. She'd reach up, put a few of her arms on my hand and I would just...feel relief. *I'm doing all of this for her,* I would remind myself. *After everything she's done for me, I have to do this for her. I* have *to.* She would...calm me down. Until she decided to climb out of her tank. Again.
I don't think I would have made it this far into my time in Alabama had it not been for her.
But octopuses don't live forever. They have a notoriously short lifespan. Cephalopods are the rock stars of the ocean: they live fast and die young. Small, tropical octopuses live to be about eighteen months. Giant Pacifics live to be about two or three years. The big fancy aquariums, like Sea World and Georgia, with their money and staffing and all that bullshit, can get their giant Pacific octopuses to live to the ancient age of four or five.
Her health started declining months ago, when I put her age at around two. It's called senescence -- her body was literally starting to shut down on an enzymatic level. She stopped trying to crawl out of her tank. She stopped trying to steal stuff from our hands. She stopped coming out of her corner to see us.
I still did my best to keep her company, even though she made it clear she didn't want me around. When I would touch my fingers to her suckers, she would push me away. She would spit water at me and turn a deep shade of red. I didn't let that deter me. I started to sing to her whenever I would clean her tank. I might have been imagining things, but I think she was less grumpy with me when I would sing songs about the ocean, particularly ones about people getting eaten by whales and giant squids.
One day, she didn't eat as much as she usually did. A few weeks later, she ate even less than that. Then she started biting her food and spitting it out. And then came the day when she stopped eating entirely.
That was a few months ago. And...you know...you can only go so long without eating anything.
I'm currently seeing family in California and I was visiting the local aquarium here in my hometown when I got the call. I was actually standing in front of their giant Pacific octopus tank. Their octopus was huge...not small and scrawny. It was a gorgeous shade of red-orange...not a mottled brown. With big, golden eyes...not black and sunken.
And as my coworker broke the news, the octopus in the tank in front of me moved out of her corner and plastered a few of it's arms on the glass. As I felt my heart...completely shatter, there was also a sense of...relief. She had been in a bad way for a long time and it was hard to see one of my most beloved friends waste away into...nothing. A shadow of her former self. My octopus no longer looked like the octopus in the tank in front of me. She didn't act like it, either. And I realized, in that moment, that her bright and beautiful spirit left us months ago. We've just been taking care of a body.
It doesn't make this any less painful. The next few weeks are going to suck. I'm dreading when I walk past her tank for the first time since returning from California. I know what will happen: I'll suddenly realize her tank is empty, and for a moment, I'll panic -- *where is she, where did she go, is she hiding somewhere I can't see her, oh shit, did someone leave the top open, did she crawl out* -- and then, like a kick to the stomach, I'll remember.
But honestly? I lost her...at a really excellent point in my life to lose a friend, as strange as that sounds. I'm no longer by myself in Alabama anymore. I've got a group of wonderful, amazing, supportive people in my life. And when I'm sad, or scared, or angry, I can go to *them* now, and they take my hands in theirs, and they look me in the eye, and they tell me, "It's going to be all right. We got each other, it's going to be all right." It's like...she came into my life when I needed her most, and left me when I would be OK without her.
I'll miss you, my sweet octopus. I'll always miss you.
I love my job.
I really do.
I know I bitch and complain about it a lot. It's made me lose sleep, weight, and, at times, my mind. I've literally put my blood, sweat, and tears into my work.
But I just...really love my job.
For lots of reasons. At my last department meeting, we sat around with a list of fish and a pile of books, picking out the prettiest and coolest looking ones to put into our tanks. I'm allowed to blast Missy Elliot and Radiohead and the Gorillaz and Red Hot Chili Peppers in the Prep Room while I chop up food. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I can say, without hyperbole, "I train sea horses, wrestle octopuses, dive with giant eels, and catch sharks."
But it's more than that, too. I work with a wonderful group of people. They're like family. We spend our days...having fun. Even when we're working our asses off, tired and frustrated and covered in who the fuck knows what, we still make each other laugh. We listen to each other. We hold each other up, literally and figuratively. I love my team. How many people can say that about their coworkers?
But there's one thing I love more than anything else about my job. I rarely get to experience it, but when I do...it's always a truly enlightening experience.
Two days ago, I drained down a 1000 gallon tank about halfway down. It's an Indonesian-Pacific Reef tank, about five feet wide and five feet deep. It's filled with small, colorful tropical fish and a bunch of inserts that look like coral. We usually scrub the walls and glass while standing outside of the tank, but that's such a pain in the ass. Additionally, algae was starting to grow significantly over the fake coral, turning it all into a dark shade of purpleish-black. Not very pretty, not very presentable.
So after the tank had partially drained, I pulled on a wetsuit and hopped in. I took some brushes and soft cloths and a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (that thing really is fucking magical. It gets algae off of walls with hardly any effort at all. IF YOU HAVE A FISH TANK AT HOME, GET A MR. CLEAN MAGIC ERASER). All the fish immediately darted into holes and crevices of the tank, a few peaking out every once in a while to stare at me, as if to ask, "The hell is she doing in here? She's not supposed to be in here!"
I cleaned the tank for about an hour, then, once I was satisfied with my work, I started to climb out. The tallest chunk of fake coral in the tank has a wide, flat top, and in my awkwardness of getting out, I found myself sitting on it.
While I sat there, only my feet were left dangling in the water. If I stayed really still, all the little fish would come out of their holes. They'd tentatively approach me, and then, once they presumed I wasn't a threat, they started swimming and darting around my ankles and feet. Little droplets of red and orange and blue and green. But as as soon as I moved, even a fraction of an inch, all the fish would scatter and hide in a small explosion of color.
And I just...sat there. I let myself taste the salt on my lips from the water. Smell the algae I scrubbed off the rocks. Feel the cool water against the skin of my feet. And hear...
In that moment, I let myself hear nothing. No whirring machinery, no splashing water, no tapping on the glass of the patrons trying to catch the attention of That Girl in The Tank...
In that moment, it was just me...
And the fish.
I get these moments so rarely and they always appear when I least suspect it. That moment of silence. Of peace. Of everything being right with the universe.
I don't know how long I sat there, but in the distance, I heard one of my coworkers calling for me. He's got a loud and brash voice, scratchy from smoking too much (in my opinion, anyway) and I try to tune him out for just another second or two. I just want to enjoy this for a little bit longer...
But then there he is, standing by the tank, asking me if I was good to get out by myself. I take a deep, quiet breath through my nose and turn to look at him.
It's back to work. Back to reality.
He stands at least a foot taller than me and weighs at least one hundred pounds heavier. He asks me again if I need help getting out. When I tell him I could use a little assistance, he asks if I trust him.
"Of course I do."
And without hesitating, he grabs me around the waist and lifts me out. Sharing that connection with him, however brief, solidifies me back in the real world. After he sets me down, he tells me the tank looks great and I smile and thank him.
I shower off, change out of my wetsuit, and go out on the public floor to get a good look at the tank now. The glass is so clear you almost can't tell it's there. The beautiful blue of the walls really comes through. The corals look bright and colorful.
And the fish...look great.
Like they always do.
That's kind of...wow. Ten years. Ten years! I was fifteen when I started this? That's kind of crazy.
I keep trying to start writing in this again, but whenever I do, I feel like I'm forcing it. I figure that one day, something will strike me to start up again. But for now, I suppose I'm just going to let my LJ sit by itself for a while.
I felt like I accomplished a good amount of work today. Sometimes, I spend too much time in the office, but I was actually out cleaning tanks and stuff today.
Had a really yummy cup of coffee this morning. Mmm.
Rynnie texted me all excited because she's coming back to work and it was super funny and cute.
I'm starting to come to terms with the fact that I should spend more time looking at my accomplishments than focusing on my failures. It's...going slowly, but I hope it'll click into place soon.
Remember my friend Rynnie that I briefly mentioned? This is supposed to be a secret, but I found out today that the higher ups at my job are offering a part time position to her! When we hung out the other day, she told me she'd love to come back and work at McWane AND NOW SHE CAN!
I'm so seriously excited. She's one of my closest friends here in Alabama and we hardly get to see each other. And now I'll be able to see her a few days a week! HOORAY!
I woke up this morning next to my amazing boyfriend, Alex. And we started off our morning right, if you know what I mean. ;D
I had really yummy alfredo pasta for lunch.
I saw my friend Rynnie! She used to work as a part time aquarist at the McWane Science Center, until she was hired as a temporary research assistant in Trinidad. She came back in June and she and I FINALLY got to hang out today. We laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed. Like we always do. It was SO AWESOME to see her! I have no women friends here in Alabama. I almost never interact with women at ALL. I live all with guys, I work with all guys, and I spend most of my time with my boyfriend and my friends -- all guys.
I finished up the Legend of Korra and it was pretty amazing. Not as amazing as Avatar: the Last Airbender, but it was pretty cool. I wish I was a water bender!
I had the most amazing pulled pork for lunch.
I talked to a lady friend of mine here in Alabama. We haven't seen each other in months. We're hopefully getting dinner this Friday. I'm really excited.
I talked to my boyfriend some about feminist issues and how toy companies market to little boys and little girls. I think...I think SOME stuff sunk in.
I saw Men in Black 3. It was cute and entertaining.
I don't know if you know who he is (but if you do, then that makes you awesome). Mike deGruy was a marine biologist and film maker, with a deep love for the ocean and an even deeper love for cephalopods.
I remember that one of the very first documentaries about cephalopods that I ever watched in my life (EVER) was one Mike made. I don't remember what it was called, but it was AMAZING. It was INSANE. He had built a giant system of see-through pipes and tanks and filmed how an octopus could squeeze and move through a hole several times smaller than the size of it's body. Those images were forever burned into my brain, and thus began my fascination with the octopus.
Here is some of the footage Mike deGruy shot, but not his narration. If you want to watch this, put your speakers on mute. The new narrator they got is atrocious and some of his facts are wrong.
He also filmed the (somewhat) famous footage of the giant Pacific octopus taking out a shark. This footage DOES have Mike deGruy narrating, so please turn your speakers back on.
He also filmed most of the episode of "The Deep" from the series "Blue Planet," which is one of my most favorite documentaries about the ocean.
So Mike introduced me to two of my most favorite things about the ocean: the deep, and the octopus. I am about 90% sure that if I had never seen his work, I would not have been interested in marine biology.
I also found out, that about a week ago, Mike deGruy died in a helicopter accident.
When I found this out, I was shaken. But I was with friends, and I didn't want to get sappy and emotional in front of them. But I am going to take a moment to express my thoughts about his passing.
Mike, you helped me become the person I am today. I am eternally grateful to you for introducing me to something that would become my passion. Watching your documentaries were truly defining moments in my life. I don't know where I would be right now if I had never seen your work. I wish I had gotten the chance to tell you this. You were an amazing, talented man. Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you for helping me find myself.
Mike deGruy 1951-2012, may he rest in peace.