As the science of human behaviour, psychology is a fascinating field that allows you a window into others’ lived experiences. We try to capture what we see and hear through these glimpses by asking good questions and interpreting the results. Perhaps more vital, we try to build connections that give us the invitation into one of the many rooms in which a person lives.
Of course, there are still many misconceptions about the discipline, though; more than once have I been asked about “mind reading” or “telling what the person is thinking”. (Typically, it has been cab drivers and US border security that ask me that follow-up question.)
I mean, I wish. It sure would be easier if I could step inside someone else’s head, and push through all the coloured filters to the bare light of our truths. A crude proxy to getting a different (more honest?) reaction from others is through masks, physical or metaphorical, but hasn’t that been taken to unsavory excess in the digital age? Catfishing is no longer a wholesome outdoor pursuit.
In the early 2000s, the city I live in was granted an expansion team of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, one of three Canadian minor hockey leagues that funnel the best athletes into the prime time. The Saint John Sea Dogs took to the ice for the first time in the 2005-2006 season, and continue to play today. The team has won two national championships (Memorial Cups in 2011 and 2022), and became a source of pride and high-level sports entertainment in a city mourning the loss of its NHL farm team (for the Calgary Flames) only a few years prior.
At the start of the Sea Dogs’ tenure, a person I dated took a job as a designer (e.g., creating in-game graphics and promotional materials), which came with perks like comp passes for games and other events. Being a cash-strapped grad student, I was not inclined to say no to these freebies, especially one that got me away from the library or office for a few hours.
It was during one of these escapes from the books, while I hung around the front office for the boyfriend to finish up one post-game, that the office manager approached me with a casual job opportunity. Now, I was already working as an undergraduate teaching assistant and doing data entry for a government department’s annual tourism surveys. But I was curious, and figured I could probably fit in some casual copywriting for a new team likely in need of marketing materials.
“We need another person to dress as Splash. Are you interested?”
As I later sat in front of my computer screen, I had no idea where to start. How does one be a mascot? When do you dance? When do you interact with fans, versus not? Oh no. It’s a hockey team - do I need to improve my skating? I kept searching the web for advice, but was overwhelmed at the interviews done by handsomely-paid professionals who train in stunts and gymnastics.
I couldn’t do a cartwheel, let alone backflips.
I logged off, and went for a run. Then I emailed the manager back, and said, “Sure.”
Being Splash was a team effort. I joined a roster of three actors who would don the costume in order to fill the many community engagements befitting a large anthropomorphic seal in hockey gear. Home hockey games were a given, but there were also public skating sessions for families, visits to schools for a literacy initiative where players would read to kids, and local hockey tournaments.
My inaugural outing as Splash was one of these tournaments in the suburbs. All I had to do was walk around for about 45 minutes, make a few token appearances in team locker rooms, silently mime my support for them, and, inexplicably, sign autographs.
“Wait, what?! Um, okay. How do the others sign for Splash?”
A puzzled look from my handler - one of the front office staff driving us to the rink - then a shrug.
So much for continuity of storytelling.
We arrive and enter the chaos that is a kids’ hockey tournament. My handler liaised with the organizers while I dragged a large hockey bag into the referees’ changing room.
I open the bag and am hit with the stench familiar to all hockey parents. I wasn’t a hockey stepparent just yet, so I wasn’t yet accustomed to the perfume of worn hockey gear and, apparently, a black furry seal costume. The jersey, hockey pants, boots and head with a screen in the mouth for my navigation was just damp enough with sweat, but smelling a little like fabric softener sheets tucked into the crevices of the bag.
A few minutes later, a few inches taller and smelling like everything else in the cold rink, I emerged to make my rounds. I was no longer a sleep-deprived student, a studious wallflower, an introvert.
No, I was weirdly kind of a hit. Kids began to squeal and run up to me. Some wanted a hug (toddlers). Others wanted to goof around or taunt me (older kids), so I’d steal their hats or snacks and pretend to run away. A couple of kids tapped me on the shoulder endlessly, and I would spin around in circles in search of the mystery person. Laughs and mounting dizziness.
Music would play during intermission, and I began to shimmy. More laughter.
After some time, my handler led me to a boisterous dressing room. I high-fived the coaches and nodded sagely during their post-game pep talk. Serious stuff over, the kids became rowdier as they shoved all manner of hockey paraphernalia in my face for an autograph: sticks, shirts, skates and eventually bare arms.
Eventually, the engagement over, I was led out of the arena into the team van. Driving away, I pulled off the helmet and just started to laugh.
Holy shit, it was kind of fun.
I mainly helped at these local community events, but also had a few Sunday afternoon games.
The catfishing incident came at one of these Sunday games. Having now had several games’ experience under my belt, I was pumped and ready when the main doors opened. A rush of fresh air entered the rink as spectators began flowing in. I start jamming out to Enter Sandman and look up.
My PhD supervisor, with his girlfriend and his son.
Now, save for a few close comrades and my immediate family, I never told anyone about my part-time proclivities. The last thing that I needed was grief over “squandering” my daytime hours on something frivolous and very non-academic. (To the school, you shouldn’t work at all unless they gave you the work. How can you be serious about your studies if you don’t study all the time?) And I wasn’t willing to give it up. It was freeing.
So this was indeed an opportunity. And gentle reader, I hope it’s clear to you by now that I seize opportunities.
I marched on over to him with all the authority mustered by a six-foot anthropomorphic seal and began jamming out to excess: flippers flailing, tail shaking. I cajoled him to high-five me, then patted him on the head. He searched for his seat quickly and scurried away.
The torture in having to hold my laughter for a full pre-game and first period was painful. Finally, on the first intermission break, I made my way down under the bleachers to the officials’ dressing room, took off my head, and laughed.
Grabbing a water, I was still laughing as I found a chair to sit on - in front of my old high school gym teacher, who was a penalty box official.
“So, is this what you’re up to now?”
“Well, not just this,” I laughed sheepishly. “I’m also working on my psych PhD at the university.”
He burst out laughing. “What is this, then, a psychology experiment?”
I smiled, and replied, “I suppose it is, in a way.”
I did confess, by the way. (I mean, after I got my degree.) But he thought it was hilarious.
I admire you so much for that. Iconic.
Oh, this is WONDERFUL, Bryn - I laughed out loud when you - as a seal - referred to your 'handler'! SO impressed with how you interacted with your PhD supervisor! 🙌