So What's It Like To Feed An Otter? A Recap Of My Amazing Birthday Present!

I keep a pair of otters perched on the back of my toilet. They’re stuffed, but that’s only because Gini won’t let me keep real otters in the bathroom. She’s unreasonable that way.
But anyone who knows me knows I love otters. The first thing I do at any zoo is head for the otters. My, uh, best friend Angie once had a (now-defunct) tumblr page called Otters for Ferrett. My friend Das Hydra floods my mentions on Twitter with any mention of otters in the news, which makes me happy.  My sweetie Laura has a stockpile of otter pictures to send me when I feel down.
Otters are love.
So when said sweetie Laura texted me to go, “I got you a very special present for your birthday, but it’s an hour away and we have to schedule it,” I thought: I hope it’s otters.
As we drove to the Akron Zoo, I thought: I hope it’s otters.
And the zookeeper met us at the gate, I thought it’s otters it’s otters it’s otters.
And it was, indeed, otters.
It's otters!
Now, the thing that fascinated me was how much work went into zoos.  I knew on some vague level that keeping all these animals was a lot of work, but until they unlatched the back room and let us all in, I didn’t realize how much.  The zookeeper (who also handled the tigers) opened the fridge, and showed us all the various portions of the otter diet: some ground meat in the morning spiked with vitamins, cut-up vegetables for their evening meal (the otters eat maybe 20% of it, and each day’s feed is carefully tabulated to calculate their nutritional needs), and they get a handful of smelt for lunch.
I was to provide lunch.
But not too much lunch, as the zookeeper told us, “It’s very easy to overfeed the animals.”  Their diets are strictly monitored, which some days I wish someone would do to me. Except I’d bite.
They walked us up a staircase, past a room full of pipes that led to the otter pool – a pipe marked, amusingly enough, “Otter supply,” which caused Laura and I to envision opening up a faucet and having a never-ending stream of otters pour out.  We had to step in a small tub of disinfectant so our shoes wouldn’t carry anything in, or out.  I looked at the dry-erase board with all the daily otter stats written on it.
Then we walked into Silence of the Lambs.
I don’t know what I supposed they did with otters when they took them inside for the night, but in retrospect just letting them run around a big room and be happy wouldn’t work out.  These otters – Porthos and Molly – had only freshly met, and the zookeepers weren’t certain they could leave them alone for an entire night.
So what they had were six-foot by ten-foot cages, and a lot of pulleys with padlocks on them.
When they wanted to let an otter in, they unlatched a pulley and tugged up a little hatchway so one of the otters could squirm in.  (They’re curious creatures, fortunately, so pretty much any movement seemed to get their attention.)  Once they’d gotten Porthos in, with Molly trying to wriggle in with him but daunted by the experienced pulley-shutting techniques of our zookeeper, they unlocked another pulley and opened a hatchway up into an adjoining cage.
Then they put a bright white placard on the cage – it was standard operating procedure to have a card on every cage the otter was in, no matter for how brief a time, so there was no forgetting where the otters were.  His read Porthos 1.0, which meant currently there was 1 male in this cage and 0 females.  If Molly had gone in there, it would be Molly 0.1 – 1 female and 0 males – and if there was an animal of unknown gender, it would be UnknownGender 0.0.1.
They had placards for all combinations, I was told – which, you know, given there were only three potential iterations with two otters, seemed doable.
(I was also told, later, that the sales manager who’d escorted us in had gone to see Jurassic World with one of the other large animal handlers, and spent pretty much the entire movie joyfully pointing out sloppy procedures that would never pass muster in any real zoo.  And after watching the very careful and externally-certified lockdown procedures in place, including having no pictures taken backstage so that no one could inadvertently provide information to potential otter-stealers, I believed her.)
Porthos was the rambunctious one, and there were little pools with floating mattresses for him to dive into in each cage, and at night they put in some straw so the otters could dry themselves off.  They let me look at Porthos, but I was by no means to touch the otters.  Which was to be expected.  Otters are basically bigger ferrets, and ferrets bite, and worse they often fed the otters through the bars of the cage so the otters had been taught to see “something narrow poking through the wire” as “incoming fish.”
Even knowing that, ZOMG SO CUTE.  I was worried the otters would stink of fish – I’d once had a mild penguin love before getting a snootful of penguin cage – but they were just adorable, like a larger ferret.  They were so curious.
Having gotten a look at Porthos, they took us outside for otter training.  They opened up the doorway in the picture above, and the trainer got out a stick with a green end to it.  He touched the stick to the wire.  “Touch,” he said.  Porthos pressed his nose to the spot.  Porthos got a fish. “Touch.”  Porthos pressed his nose elsewhere, and got another fish.  Pretty soon it was multiple touches, and Porthos was duly rewarded.
“Eventually, we can just point them where we want them to go,” the zookeeper said.  “We can do that with tigers.”
Readers, I checked.  The Akron Zoo does not, sadly, have a tiger-feeding expedition.
After squeeing at being so close to an otter, they took me inside to feed Molly.  I had a small metal pet food dish with several (but not enough) smelt in it, and a set of very long tweezers for safety.  “Do you want gloves?” they asked, and I thought Who would come back here to feed otters and be so scared they needed gloves?
But I fed Molly the smelt one by one, with Gini getting one shot in.  (Laura declined, deferring to my birthday.  I still feel a little sad about that.)  Molly was so eager, pressing her little nose up against the wire, curious to see everything I was doing.  I could have cuddled her, I was sure of it.
And I would have gotten my fingers bitten the shit out of if I hadn’t worried about the zookeepers.
Seriously, me, I’ve dealt with ferrets, and I know how bad their bites are.  But I have come to associate ferret bites with love, and my ludicrously high pain threshold (remember the time I walked around with a burst appendix for four days, including a session in a Rise Against mosh pit?) would have shielded me.  And really, I might get to pet the otter!  And when people asked me, “Where did you get those stitches?” would I not have a story to tell!
But the zookeepers would feel bad, not understanding that I took full responsibility for this injury, and it would probably mean fewer people would get to feed otters.  So I was good.
Still, Molly was like the coolest UI.  I sat in front of the cage, and even after I’d run out of smelt, I could move my finger like it was a mouse pointer and Molly would follow it around, dazzled by the motion.  And when she ate, she gobbled up the fish in an adorable way and then gave me those liquid otter eyes to ask for more.
I stayed an uncomfortably long time.
We went to the rest of the zoo afterwards, seeing the bears and tigers, and eventually I went back to the otter tank.  I waved at Molly.  I like to think she recognized me, but probably not.  Otters are capricious creatures, and the best I could hope for was a spurious romance.
(And speaking of romance, let us all pray that the brief romance between Porthos and Molly in late May of this year has, in fact, led to baby otters.  They’re still hopin’.)
When I left, Laura bought me a little stuffed otter.  So now there are three otters on the back of the toilet, and Gini is complaining because the otters are nearly tumbling into the bowl, and I maintain that otters should go diving for water in a constant sense of near-disaster.
Gini remains unconvinced.  But she knows it’s easier to let me have my fake otters than to hear me argue, for the thousandth time, that we could keep otters in the bathtub.  The zookeepers told us we really couldn’t, but I’m pretty sure I saw one of them wink at me.
And we’ll always have this:

Good Morning, How You Doing, Hey BUY MY AUDIOBOOK

Various people have told me that Flex is now available for pre-order as an audiobook, due out August 6th.  And with that, you now know everything I know about this very exciting moment in my life.
But if, for some reason, you feel like listening to eleven hours and forty-three minutes of bureaucromancers, competent fat women channelling the power of Grand Theft Auto, and a love so intense that it makes a father turn to a life of crime to save his daughter, well, here’s your chance.
And if you feel like reading it on the old paper method, well, that’s still available, too.  And if you feel like ordering the sequel The Flux, about which my editor just told me “I shudder to think what Book 3 will be like if you keep this up,” well, you can do that too.
Or you can spend no money on anything at all!  That’s cool, too.
Hey, how you doing?

The Invisible Provincetown

Every summer, my grandparents took the family to Provincetown for a week’s vacation. And I wonder:
How the hell did that happen?
If you’re not familiar with Provincetown, Massachusetts, it is one of the brightest gay hot-spots in the nation. In the early 1980s, when gays were so downtrodden as to be nearly invisible, you could see happy gay couples holding hands as they walked down Provincetown’s streets.  There were all sorts of gay pride paraphernalia for sale tucked in among the T-shirt shops and ice-cream stores, if you knew where to look – to my cousins, they were pretty rainbow flags.
And, in fact, being the eldest of a large number of cousins, I could tell when each of them hit puberty.  Before puberty, they viewed Provincetown as a happy beach resort with fudge stores and glass statues of lighthouses – and then they noticed the women cuddling on benches, and the men hugging in groups, and you could watch the lightbulbs going off.
But my grandparents, man, I can’t understand how they found the place.  They were simple people, allergic to politics in all but the most general of terms – people should work hard and be rewarded, God was generically good although we didn’t discuss what kind of God He might be – and while they loved beaches and lighthouses with an almost fetishistic quality, I keep oscillating back and forth between whether my sainted Grammy and Grampop were progressive or oblivious.
Which led to an interesting discussion with my eldest daughter last night, who in her late twenties has grown up in a world where Will and Grace had put gay people on prime-time television before she hit puberty.  For her, gay people have always been a part of the national discussion, and maybe some folks hated gays, but certainly they were aware of them.  People were fighting for gays in the military!  There were gay rights movements in her high school!
Whereas the truth is, for long years gays were kind of a hidden Easter Egg, stashed in movies discreetly where those who had the knowledge could pump the fist and congratulate themselves at having picked up on the subtext.  But it was entirely possible to watch whole films as a kid and not understand that those were gay people, that that masculine woman who didn’t want a boyfriend didn’t want a boyfriend for entirely different reasons.
Gays weren’t talked about in mainstream culture for the longest time.  The whole point of a gay person was to blend in – maybe you did a couple of gay things, but you made damn sure to provide plausible deniability: No, no, those overly-tight pants and Queen-style mustache were just a fashion statement, not a hidden signal to those with the eyes to see.
These days, thankfully, “Coming out” has become a ritual to demonstrate to recalcitrant family members that Hey, I’m gay, and all those shitty things you’re saying about gay people apply to me.  But back in the day, “Coming out” may have been your family’s first real exposure to gays in any significant form. There was a good chance that they’d never had an actual conversation with anyone they’d identified as gay – which is very different from never talking to a gay person, but by God American culture did their best to make gays something you didn’t have to notice.
Gayness was an opt-in culture.  You had to educate yourself to spot the gay things.  And if not, you cruised past it blissfully, quietly painting the entire world as straight, with maybe a couple of creepy queers hanging out in bathrooms, but those people had no lives aside from perversions.  They existed, like spiders or cockroaches, merely to creep you out.  They certainly didn’t play frisbee or drink milkshakes or do anything that wasn’t related to carrying on their secret gay agenda.
And yes, I do realize there are conservative places in Western culture where there’s a similar vibe – but that was the whole world back then, except for a couple of embattled enclaves like Provincetown and Fire Island and San Francisco.  It was as though the entire world had decided to just pretend gays didn’t exist, and maybe you’d have an occasional gay person appear on television – watching Billy Crystal on Soap caused headlines – and they’d make magazine covers for a bit and then we’d all go back to forgetting that gay people existed again.
It was a chronic amnesia, a kind of Quiltbag Memento, where we kept looking at an individual gay person but could never connect that into a collective understanding that if that gay person existed, maybe some people we knew were also gay.  That knowledge never transmitted.  Somehow, every time a gay person appeared it was a total surprise to American culture, some unfathomable outbreak, like a pimple popping up and how did that happen?
Which was fucking terrifying, really.  I remember meeting my Uncle Tommy’s gay friends in New York (during what I realize now was the height of the AIDS crisis, and I wonder how many of those vibrant, happy people I have inadvertently outlived), and thinking how horrible it must be to have to encode your life so that other people could purposely overlook you.
So it’s a weird thing.  I’m sure my grandparents must have known later in life that Provincetown was a gay capital, and decided that was okay with them.  Which was progressive, and laudable, as it set the tone for much of my LGBT politics.
But looking back with the weight of history, I can easily see my Grammy and Grampop going  to Provincetown and seeing the beaches and the lighthouses and the seagulls and deciding, What a great family vacation spot.  We have to bring the kids. And I can see them walking obliviously past the hundreds of gays who lived and loved and died there, not even recognizing the culture because they didn’t have the education to attune themselves to these homosexual-friendly signals, and they were walking through a Provincetown that was a little more muted to ensure that straight people could put their blinders on.
I don’t know. Maybe they did see.  But the terrifying thing is that when I was growing up, it was equally plausible that an entire lifestyle had blended into their view of the world, like a chameleon altering its color so as to not be spotted except if you were hunting for it, and frankly the idea that this wasn’t so long ago makes me both happy at how far we’ve come, and sad at how many people died before we got here.

Let's Talk About How We Talk About Abuse

A friend posted this amazing link on Twitter from this TED talk. In case you’re too lazy to click through to some animated GIFs, I’ll summarize:
“I did not know the first stage in any domestic violence relationship is to seduce and charm the woman.
“I also did not know the second step is to isolate the victim.
“The next step in the domestic violence pattern is to introduce the threat of violence and see how she reacts.
“We victims know something you non-victims usually don’t. It’s incredibly dangerous to leave an abuser, because the final step of the domestic violence pattern is ‘kill her.’ Over 70% of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has ended the relationship.”
All true, in my experience. And worth knowing. If you didn’t know this fact, then make sure to absorb that, because it’s not quite as simple as leaving someone who’s going to feel very betrayed when you leave.
Yet what struck me about this talk beyond the obvious horror – “Hey, I think of you as such an object that I’d rather kill you than see you live without me” – is how she’s talking about the domestic violence pattern.
She’s talking about it like it’s a stratagem one uses. Like the way Pick-Up Artists do, with classes they can take. They decide “Hey, I really need a woman I can beat the shit out of,” and they read some books online – “How to Find People With Bad Instincts” – and then they enact their four-step program very carefully.
Some do set out to be abusive explicitly, of course. I’ve heard too many stories to deny that. But with the abusers I’ve known personally, they don’t have a plan per se – they’re too emotionally incoherent to have a plan for anything. They’re asocial louts who get enraged that the world is not attending to their desires, and they don’t have many friends who aren’t total sycophants because they creep normal people out sooner or later, and when they find a victim they’re isolating them because they’re terrified of any competition. (And often such a sad-sack case that the victim stays once that vulnerability is revealed: “He needs me.”)
Now, keep in mind, that’s not all abusers: there are “successful” folks who have good-paying jobs and many friends and still abuse the shit out of their partners. (Nor are all abusers invariably men: the same issue applies to abusive women, of which there are probably a lot more than you hear about because of the toxic masculinity that scorns a guy who’d “let” his wife beat him.) Abusers come in all shapes and sizes.
Yet the problem I have with the “abuse == intent” model is that it implies to people who do get involved with this “reclusive loser” style of abuser that “If s/he doesn’t mean to do it, s/he’s not really an abuser.”
And the problem with that model is then victims often stay because they’re convinced their abuser doesn’t intend to be an abuser. They just lose control sometimes. They drink a bit much. They had a bad childhood.
They mean well. God, every abuser I’ve ever heard talked about meant so fucking well.
So I think it’s worth noting that lots of people stumble dimly into the patterns of abuse – maybe acting on instinct horrifically gifted to them by abusive parents, maybe because domestic violence breeds in isolation. But not everyone had a plan to be an abuser, going in, and every day people who mean very well (I’m told) are rediscovering a pattern as old as time: isolate, hurt, kill.
They may not know where they’re headed.
But you should.

Woodworking Wednesdays: What Are We Doing Now?

Every Wednesday for the past few months, my friend Eric and I have gone out to my garage and honed our woodworking skills.  First we built an inset bookcase for Eric’s house, then a firewood box, then a smaller bookcase, and last night we finally finished the drop-down workbenches we’ll need to refit my garage.  WITNESS ME!

Last night, two things happened that really made me feel like we’d levelled up:
First, we had a problem with the chopsaw – the motor seemed to be going, because it kept whirring for minutes after we stopped the saw, and couldn’t bite through the wood.  We got out the manual and started looking, and I properly diagnosed the problem before we got at the internals.
Seriously, me actually troubleshooting a power tool is major biz, folks.  (For the record, the arbor nut holding the saw tight had loosened, so it was spinning semi-freely upon the motor.)
But more importantly, we started working in parallel.  Eric and I are choosing projects to hone our skills – first a screw-together bookcase, then a firewood box with some angled cuts, then a (small) bookcase that involved routing and dado shelves, and finally this drop-down shelf, which involved using the Kreg jig and applying hinges.
Until last night, basically, if one of us was doing something, both of us were doing it.  If Eric was measuring a piece of lumber, I waited patiently, watching Eric to try to determine why he’s so damn good at measuring accurately.  (He has exceptional spatial skills;  I have very sub-par spatial skills.)  If I was using the router, Eric was watching me use the router, scrutinizing my technique to see how we could improve it.  (And in case you’re curious, Eric has written up his side of events over at The Pastry Box.)
But last night, we’d already built the left half of the table, and we knew all the skills involved. So after a while of watching Eric put up the pegboard – a job where there wasn’t room for two people to help, really – I said Why the hell am I waiting around, anyway? There are boards that need to be cut. So while he put up the pegboard, I chopped the shims and the 2x4s down to size.
Essentially, we’d gotten comfortable enough with the work that we could accomplish separate tasks, him handing off to me, me to him.  That will doubtlessly change on the next project, when we try something different – man, I wanna try dovetail joints – but it points at a larger effort, where eventually we’re both skilled enough to work as a team as opposed to one guy alternately learning from the other.
And it’s exciting, transforming the garage.  Eric and I decided that it would be a shame if we only did this during Cleveland’s highly-limited run of good weather, so we’re making the garage into a fully-kitted tool shop – a place where we have shelves to hold the tools and lumber, racks for Gini’s bikes, and enough room in the center that we can park the car.  It’s not just woodworking, but carpentry we’re also learning –
– And it doesn’t stop, as Eric’s family came over for my birthday brunch last Sunday and Eric and I went out to the garage and, completely without meaning to, spent an hour tracing wires to determine that yeah, we could probably extend from that overhead lamp socket to create another power outlet, and now I’ll probably be buying a book on wiring this afternoon.
There’s learning new skills, yes, but part of what I find exciting is discovering how malleable the world is now.  Before, when I’d condemned myself to being “not handy,” the garage was this immutable object – it came with crappy shelves and lights that didn’t work, and I couldn’t afford to hire a guy to do it all.
Now?  The garage is a toybox, ready to be changed for our convenience.  Oh, it’ll take some work, of course, and some planning, and God, another run to Lowes, really? – but in the end, with some elbow grease and a bit of consulting with each other, we can pretty much do anything with this space.
Or any space, really.  Eric’s wife is mentioning some work she needs done around the house. I keep looking at my house and going, “Wow, there’s no light in this ceiling – but you know, we could probably fix that.”  The bathroom is a major expenditure, but now I’m starting to do the foolish guy thing and go, “Huh, I wonder how much effort it WOULD be to replace the bathtub.”
All I need is a friend to work with. It’s good to have a friend to work with.
(EDIT: And because I forgot to post this this morning like I’d set up to, have some photos taken of the workbench in daylight:)
Woodworking Wednesdays: the double drop-down workbench.
Woodworking Wednesdays: the double drop-down workbench.