Cleo Abram is a producer on Explained on Netflix, a documentary series from Vox, and dog mom to Thor, a toy Australian Shepherd, whom she co-parents with her partner, Zachariah Reitano, co-founder of healthcare tech company, Ro. The former model and D.C. native moved to New York City for college in 2011 and has been a prolific content maker since then—she wrote an explanatory newsletter called The Short Version and currently makes a YouTube series, Hey Kid, in which she shares stories about her daily life for her future (non-canine) children.
Did you grow up with any pets?
I had two dogs growing up. One was a family dog that we got before I can remember. Another is a dog who followed me home when I was in middle school. I was walking home from school, which was only a few blocks away, and I noticed that this pup was following me—and he looked a little bit like a mix between a Golden Retriever and a fox. He was small and had the build and fur of a Golden Retriever, but he was pointier and redder. So I called my mom and I told her about this dog, because at this point I’d gotten home and he was very close to me and adorable, and clearly wanting attention. And she told me, “Cleo, do not bring that dog inside the house. First of all, he might have all kinds of diseases and I’m not home. Don’t bring that dog inside.”
It was winter and when she got home, she found me sitting outside with the dog, and I’d been there for hours. Following instructions not to bring him inside, but wanting to stay outside with the dog, and the dog came inside and he stayed with us until he passed away when I was in college. His name was Moosi.
Our other family dog was named Magellan because he was a Portuguese Water Dog, for the Portuguese explorer, and we called him Jello.
Brilliant names. Let’s talk about Thor. How did Thor come into your life, and where did Thor’s name come from?
Thor came into my life because my partner, Z, got him a few months after we started dating, five years ago. I became his mom when we moved in together two years after that. Zach named him Thor—he’s a small guy, so he needed a big name.
“I do not literally consider him my son, but I do think that dog parenting is a real and hard thing. I think that people care about their dog’s happiness in the way that they do when they’re caring for another living thing, and that’s a great thing.”
Do you recall the first time you met Thor?
It was only a couple months into our relationship. Zach had gone to Y Combinator at the time and then he came back to New York, and shortly after that he got Thor. So, I met Thor when he was just couple months old, right after Zach got him.
And now you’re Thor’s mom! Love it. Tell us about a day in the life with Thor.
Every morning I wake up to Thor walking right up on top of me and asking for breakfast. He knows who feeds him in the morning. And after that, he’ll wait patiently while we get ready, and Zach will take him on his regular walk to work. One of my favorite things we’ve noticed that he does, when we’re getting ready, is while we brush our teeth, we usually also pet Thor. Now it’s a Pavlovian response. Every time he hears the electric toothbrush, his butt starts wagging and he comes over for his pets.
It’s adorable. And then after that, Thor isn’t allowed at my office unfortunately, but Zach runs his own company, which is called Ro. And they have a dog friendly office, of course. Thor goes with him to work everyday and acts like he runs the place.
Since Thor entered your lives, have you found yourselves making friends with other dog owners?
Thor is the shy kid in the playground. He’s very cute about it, but he gets nervous around other dogs and—he’s better with dogs that are his size. I mean, I don’t blame him. If everybody was twice as big as I am, I might get a little intimidated.
So we meet other dog parents at the park sometimes, but I think the bigger social effect of having a dog, actually, is the way that we spend time with other people who we already know. We invite friends over a lot because it’s easy, and that means that we have long extended times with friends in our apartment, which I think has been really wonderful. We form routines around that. When it’s warm, we go hang out in parks. We take long walks together with Thor. So, the larger social effect that I’ve noticed since having a dog has been the way that we act in our everyday life, with the friends that we already have.
I love it. So it’s like, Thor’s become part of your social life and part forming closer bonds with your people, I guess, if that makes sense. What are some of your nicknames for Thor?
I call him Peanut or Bunny. Bunny because he looks like a bunny from behind sometimes. And Peanut—I have no idea where that came from. That’s just what seemed right.
I feel you. It’s funny how the nicknames come out naturally and stick. Do you ever talk to Thor like he’s a baby?
Sometimes. You can tell if I’m talking on the phone to Z, or he’s talking to me, and then one of us starts talking to Thor—like, we know that we’re talking to Thor. Apparently, even when I’m holding Thor and talking to Z, my voice is different!
And then we also have a voice for Thor.
Right. How do you identify with Thor?
The main way I think we do that is, we speak in his voice. Mostly, it’s just a way to be funny, but sometimes, it definitely is what we are really thinking. It’s like saying that he’s sleepy when we really are, or things like that.
What does Thor’s voice sound like?
He’s very direct. He repeats things a lot, like, “Feed me, feed me, feed me!”
He’s enthusiastic, it seems.
Yeah. He speaks in full sentences.
Oh, that’s really interesting. Because I’ve noticed on Instagram, a lot of dogs don’t…
Yeah, they do the dog voice.
I know you call yourself a “dog mom,” but do you think of Thor as your son?
I do not literally consider him my son, but I do think that dog parenting is a real and hard thing. I think that people care about their dog’s happiness in the way that they do when they’re caring for another living thing, and that’s a great thing. So, I don’t think of it in a kitschy way. I do take being a dog parent really seriously, and I think that people should. It’s far more on Z because he spends more time with Thor, and Thor’s with him in the office everyday, but it requires time and attention, and parenting. It’s a real thing!
I love that, and Thor’s so lucky that he’s surrounded by his parents all day.
He’s a herding dog, so he cares a lot about his specific people and keeping his people together, and he really doesn’t like it when someone leaves. It’s actually pretty amazing how he’s never been trained to do any of that, but he has these baked-in behavioral traits. It’s really fascinating.
If we’re walking down the street and we’re a group of three, he’ll sort of walk behind us in an arc to make sure that we’re all going the same way. And then if someone tries to leave the group, he’ll get very upset.
What are some of Thor’s favorite toys for playtime?
What about playtime for you? You’ve talked about getting into video games before. What are you into right now?
So, I’ve been playing video games only within the last year or so—maybe a little bit longer. And the reason was because Z’s best friend, Greg, moved to San Francisco, and they played video games together occasionally, but when he moved, it became this routine that they had in order to spend time together. And what became really clear was that what they were doing wasn’t catching up like I might with a friend on a phone call. It was hanging out remotely. As though you’re sitting on the couch next to someone. And that’s a really special way to spend time with someone.
I couldn’t figure out what the equivalent was for me. Especially for women and long-distance female relationships, I still can’t think of another replacement. And so, a couple of my friends had also recently moved away to San Francisco, and D.C., and Cape Town, and Zach could tell that I was feeling a little bit jealous of that. So he was the one who really encouraged me to try playing video games. He got me the Nintendo Switch and I became really obsessed with it.
The other thing that I noticed was, I had always been a little bit intimidated by video games. Like, the Xbox control is not complicated, but if you didn’t play it as a kid, it’s not second nature. It’s not obvious. It’s not intuitive. And so, by using the Switch first, I got to play on a similar set of controls, and get a feel for how you play on my own little screen. I wasn’t embarrassed. So, I could spend time on my commute, or just sit on the couch in my own little space and just mess up a lot and play around without anyone looking.
I played a lot of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I love the game, but also more importantly, it’s an open world game. So you’re not constantly failing. You can just run around and explore things. I got very into that and now my friend, Katie, the one who moved to Cape Town, and I play Mario Kart together and have the same ability to just hang out, that I saw Z and Greg have.
And I gradually worked my way up through the Xbox controls. I’m not great, but there are some games that I think are really beautiful and fascinating that you can only play on a larger piece of technology. The one I have been most interested in recently is Red Dead Redemption 2. Just gorgeous—if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out.
I will look it up, thanks! Does Thor watch you while you play?
Whenever either of us, Z or I, are playing video games, Thor sits on the back of the couch or the armrest and he likes to watch. Maybe he’d be a gamer if he had thumbs.
Are you into dog tech accessories at all?
No, I guess we’re a “no tech for the kids” household.
So you recently became a producer at Explained on Netflix, which is totally different from what you were doing before at Vox. What’s really interesting is that on your Instagram, you show yourself building and learning skills, showing that it wasn’t something you could do overnight. How do you recommend other people do something like this?
There’s two things. First, a year ago, I was just starting to write scripts for short form explainer videos, and I had never edited any video at all. To get where I am right now, there are a couple of concepts that helped me.
The first was: Make learning technical skills a part of your identity. It’s really easy to learn things. It’s harder to learn technical, specific skills over a long period of time when you’re not being paid to do it. But that also means that other people will get lazy and stop, and you won’t. So, the advice that I would give is, figure out what technical skills matters in the industry you want to work in. For me, that was editing, and to some degree animation. But maybe it’s programming, or design. And then, just dive in and learn it. Even if it seems like the longer way to get to what you want to do. There’s really no shortcut to being actually capable of doing the hard things.
For me, I’m still not great at the technical skills I was trying to learn. I can edit pretty well in [Adobe] Premiere, but I’m only starting to feel comfortable in After Effects. I am still very visibly working on improving.
Which brings me to the second thing: Make things, and do it publicly. I think that has been very, very important for me, to show other people what you’re learning by making literal things that they can see. People love to see other people honestly, and earnestly, trying to do something hard. They’ll probably cheer you on, and if they don’t, they suck, and I’ll cheer you on. And I think that’s one thing that really kept me on track of learning the skills. I created a YouTube channel with a little vlog series so I could keep working on my editing and my storytelling, and really make sure that I was working on those skills in the way that I said that I was.
And then, it you’re doing those two things, time will be your friend. I think that skill building is an exponential curve. It’s much harder to start than it is to improve later. And so, in the same way that it’s shocking how quickly two to the power of X grows on a graph, you’ll be surprised at how fast you can get good at what you want to do, once you put in the leg work at the beginning
I wasn’t being paid to [make videos] for a long time. I think it can feel like nobody wants you to be doing the thing that you want to be doing. At the beginning, that’s kind of true. You don’t have the skills that you want to have, and at the beginning, it was true that the things that I was doing were not part of my job. But over time, you get more and more opportunities, and if you take each one seriously and you do a really good job, you’ll get another one. Then, those will get exponentially more exciting as you go.
Let’s talk about your YouTube channel, Hey Kid. How are people engaging with you?
It’s actually been a wonderful experience that I didn’t expect. I started a series called, Hey Kid, which is meant to be a time capsule video series of my life today for my future kids, because I have wondered for a long time what my parents life experiences were like when they were my age. You know, whether or not we would’ve been friends, and what their personalities were and how they changed, what their major challenges were when they were in their mid-20s. So the goal of this video series is to show some of that. It’s been a joy, not only because I got to learn and improve on the technical side, but also because you walk around your life and you find all kinds of little stories that you think are worthwhile, and you get to see them. So that’s the point of the YouTube channel.
It seems to have really hit a small audience, but a very empathetic and joyful one. People tell me that they’ve sent it to their kids. People tell me that they want to do the same thing. And I don’t have kids yet. I’m making this because I want to, and because I think it will be a wonderful thing to look back at in the future.
Do you talk about Thor in your videos?
He’s in a bunch of the videos, but I’ve been meaning to formally introduce him.
Photography by Tayler Smith