Saturday, December 29, 2007

Holiday Forgiveness

I was unexpectedly forgiven twice this Christmas.

Among the list of people I thought I could never face, the one that tops the list would be college mentor. This woman put up with all my failed experiments in college, my pleas for recommendation letters, and several drafts of my thesis since I was around 19 years old. I was supposed to do cancer research, you guys, not go on this odyssey of, ugh, “soul-searching.” (I hate this term.)

The despair of letting a mentor down is just incomparable. Parents will forgive their children because they only passed on their genes, but mentors, I believe, transmit their ideology and beliefs. The thought of showing my face at her doorstep with a black belt in taekwondo instead of a Ph.D. in neuroscience was turning into an ugly (although potentially hilarious) scene in my head.

You can imagine the confusion in my head when, instead of a note of disappointment, I got this e-mail from her in my inbox:

“I'm soooooo happy for you because you finally did it. I'm equally proud of you for having the guts to do it …and do exactly what you like. That's my girl!!!!!”

“That’s my girl?” Wait a second. You’re OK with this? Wow. Yet another thing I didn’t see coming at all.

On a lighter note, I finally discovered why the Mexican delivery boys at my favorite restaurant in New York, Gobo, have been snubbing me for months. I hang out with their waiters, chat with their cashiers, high-five the chefs, and learn Polish from their manager, but this group of Latinos, alas!, I’ve never gotten close to, which is strange because I usually get along with Hispanics. I was always under the impression that they thought my Spanish was bad, but hey, I’ve only gotten through Spanish 2. I think it’s safe to say that I speak the language like a four-year-old, but I curse like a native without meaning to.

Christmas day, the answer finally came to me. Looking at my account when I paid, there, in my account, was the reason for my scarlet letter:

Catherine Young
Delivery Notes: horrible tipper

Oh God. The cashier was mortified, and so was I, but frankly I was relieved that it all became clear. To be honest, this is the only place in the US where I’ve had food delivered, and I remember some medical student telling me that tipping for delivery is “only a dollar.” I knew the 15% rule applied to all services, but I thought that I could, as a poor grad student, can get away with this if people usually did it. Or so I thought.

Suffice it to say that they’re talking to me again. In espanol. It’s good to start 2008 clean.

Coming Out to My Parents

Telling my parents I’m not a scientist anymore was like coming out of the closet. Like a gay guy, it took a while to tell the truth. I started with a common intro: “Are you sitting down?” My mother felt like it was coming, since she knew how unhappy I was. Manipulative words were coming out of my mouth before I could stop them: “I came out of your uterus and I’m the fruit of your loins! You have to love me!”

There were extraneous apologies, too: “I’m sorry that I disappointed you and that I’m still single.”

I remember this commercial of a phone company I saw in Manila about this student in medical school who called his father to tell him he wanted to go into fine art instead. I can totally feel this guy’s pain. The ending was similar, but it’s not the fairy tale you guys think. There was acceptance, but I didn’t get it in one go.

My biracial upbringing also became obvious in this situation; initially, the Filipinos and the Chinese were polarized, with the former being cool with it and the latter feeling that this rocked their world. When my Filipino uncle picked up the phone as I was calling my Chinese aunt, I shrieked, "Oh God, I am so glad it's you because the Chinese are not ok with this." They were upset I didn’t tell them sooner. “I didn’t want you freaking out when I was freaking out,” I said.

Argh. This is not the Joy Luck Club.

The profound joy I feel working for WYA is very telling. When you are stuck in a horrible situation for a year, all that repressed creativity and happiness is suddenly oozing out of your pores like a bad breakout. I discovered graphic design skills I never knew I had. I love the intellectual independence I have now, when I can just do my thing instead of having to see what other people are doing all the time. More importantly, I realized that the environment is just as important as what I’m doing; I just can’t work with boring miserable and/or obnoxious people all the time. It was sucking the life out of me.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: "If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to turn homosexual, at least go into the arts." It’s not too late for me to turn lesbian.

It could be worse. I could have left my Ph.D. program to work for non-profit.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

La Vida, en Espanol

I’ve finally found the answer to the question: What do people do when they’re in a big life transition?

The answer is this: They learn a new language.

So in my breakup with academia and my pre-WYA days, a full month of not knowing what life had in store for me, I made myself useful by learning Spanish and French (which I dropped after three classes because I felt that the former was more useful in New York City). In both classes, the most commonly uttered sentences were, hands down: “Je ne travaille pas” and “Yo soy des empleado.” I do not have a job.

When a group of people feel alone and uprooted, they will bond. During breaks, I would put together my journalism and photography portfolio, have a meltdown in front of my classmates, or write and doodle frenetically in my journal and sketchbook. It was at the Instituto Cervantes, which was a lovely place with a historic landmark (Amster Yard), so hear hear! for questioning the meaning of life with a pretty backdrop. Plus, conjugating Spanish verbs over and over again was very calming.

Being Filipino, Spanish was relatively easier to learn. A few months’ worth of Spanish classes was more effective than 13 years of studying Mandarin. The alphabet was essentially the same as Filipino, as was the pronunciation. A lot of words were similar. Some words, however, mean things that are completely different, and there are words that I don't think I can say anymore because apparently they mean something bad in espanol.

When life changes so drastically, some days are better than others. I can go from being inexplicably happy to listless and depressed. I knew that it was for the best, but I was in an awkward stage I didn’t want to be into. I cried myself to sleep when my Spanish professor told me I had “the profile of an artist.” I was using pipettes instead of paintbrushes, decapitating rodents instead of writing stories. I nearly burst into tears in front of the cashier at a downtown art supply store when buying calligraphy pens. (This has been happening a lot. I call it my Shots of Artistic Epiphany.) Why didn’t I see this coming?

I’ve always envied the artistic life. In many ways, artists are unique in their detached independence from the rest of the world. It’s like science, only you don’t have to read other people’s papers all the time to “keep up with the field.” You can get inspired anytime, anywhere. It’s perfect for me, who shuts out the world most of the time.

A part of me reveled in being in this limbo phase. I had absolutely no responsibilities to anyone, leaving me free to do as I please without thinking of the consequences. I could learn anything I pleased and be anywhere I wanted to be. It was a strange mix of existential inertia and endless freefall. The future, because it was blank, looked brilliant. My life was very linear before; the plan was:

Get a Ph.D. --> Do a postdoc --> Head my lab --> Die

Now, the possibilities seem endless. The hyperactive Gemini in me with the really short attention span is loving this new nomadic life.

Three Scenarios I Can Think of Ten Years from Now
1. I join the circus where my flexible yoga-fied ass will be paired with my juggling skills, and I live happily ever after with a Spanish-speaking trapeze artist who caters to my vegetarian dietary needs.

2. I live in a Shaolin monastery where, in exchange for martial arts training and rent, I bake vegan cupcakes to feed the bald monks.

3. I write novels and cartoons in the quiet European countryside and moonlight as a teacher of taekwondo to juvenile delinquents. Occasionally I may cross paths with Peter Mayle and Carolina Herrera while shopping for organic food, and we high five each other for choosing the creative life.

Dios mio. If this is denial, then I hope it lasts forever because it feels so damn good.

Altogether now: It's ok to make mistakes. As long as you come out of them wiser and thinner.

Vegan Cupcake Domination!

Like the movie, Waitress, where Keri Russell plays a woman who goes through her emotional crises by baking pies and christening them with different names, I went through my WYA internship by stuffing my fellow interns and staff with my now-notorious vegan cupcakes. Recipes are all straight from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.

The kitchen is one of my favorite things about the WYA house. I can fit two cupcake pans in the oven. They have nutmeg, cinnamon, and apple cider vinegar! They have a dishwasher! Whee! I am so happy! Therapy sessions have never been so well-equipped. What was supposed to be a one-time thing (I wanted to welcome my fellow interns, who came from all over the world), became a weekly, and sometimes twice-weekly affair. Maria, who is our Director of Development and has excellent taste, tried all of these first as a means of Quality Control.

Being Filipino, I naturally took pictures of everything I've baked before handing them to people:

Vegan Organic World Youth Alliance Smore's Cupcakes
The lettering alone took two hours since I had nothing else but a teaspoon to use. I wanted to do the logo as well, and after three attempts, I got so frustrated that I ate them. This explains why there are only 21 here.

Organic Semi-Vegan Pistachio Rosewater Birthday Cupcakes for Theo

From this fall internship of eight people, 43% were Sagittarians and I had to whip up a batch for every celebrant, and the unwritten rule was that it had to match the person's tastes and personality. This batch was for Theo, a lit major from Canada. I thought that it was a very poetic and romantic recipe, and I never realized that rosewater could be used for baking before. It was also at this point where I realized that margarine really is bad for you, hence the term 'semi-vegan,' because I switched to butter.

Organic Semi-Vegan Coconut Lime Foiled Kidnapping Cupcakes for Andreas

This was the most painful of all cupcake recipes, since I had to squeeze out the lime juice by hand, and I just had a manicure the night before. (Geez, that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.) These were the prettiest cupcakes from the book, which I thought were perfect for a guy who was the gourmet chef in the house. I say "foiled kidnapping' because we were supposed to kidnap the guy on his way back to the WYA house, but we chickened out at the last minute.

Organic Semi-Vegan Banana Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cupcakes with Color-Coordinated M&Ms for Patrick
These are hands-down the happiest cupcakes I've ever made. I was mercilessly mocked for arranging the M&Ms in my naturally obsessive-compulsive fashion. Altogether now: Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green, Red, Brown. Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green, Red, Brown. I made them for Pat because like him, they're crazy, happy, maybe a little bad for you, but they're so damn good that they're worth every calorie.


Ten weeks later, I wanted to mark the end of the internship by another batch of cupcakes. To demonstrate democracy, I held a Cupcake Elections to hear the voice of the masses. Man, what an indecisive bunch! Three elections, later, it was a tie between Coconut Lime and Banana Peanut Butter.

Let us try a new literary device. Below are some e-mails we send out when we're not covering UN Commissions, arranging conferences, and doing research on stem cells and HIV:

To: WYA New York Office

Dear WYA Interns and International Staff:

It is with great pleasure that I announce the first Cupcake Floor Debate! Due to the unprecedented impasse brought about by yesterday's Cupcake Elections (and Re-elections), I am allowing the following representatives to submit, in writing, why I should bake the said cupcake:

The Honorable Andreas Pergher, representing the Great State of Indiana, "a shining jewel in the Union," will represent those in favor of the Banana Peanut Butter Chocolate Organic Vegan Cupcakes with Color-Coordinated M&Ms


The Honorable Philip Hunt, representing the great Mother England, will represent those in favor of the Organic Semi-Vegan Coconut Lime Foiled Kidnapping Cupcakes

No more than 100 words please, and submit them to me before Thursday's wine-tasting party. After the party, we will have an oral debate between the two representatives, to be presided by myself and mediated by my colleague, Carlos David Aguilar, our Ad-Hoc Adjudicator.

Don't kill each other.

Cupcake Power! Bring It On!

Catherine Sarah Young
Cupcake Caucus of the WYA Senate*

*I just got promoted! Yay!

P.S. Please don't rip my cupcake cookbook apart.

From: Andreas
On behalf of the great state of Indiana, crossroads of a nation, and land of amber grains, let me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing such a distinguished body on the hotly contested topic of cupcake reform. It saddens me greatly that the Honorable representative of England would risk both the well-being and treasure of his fellow colleagues in a shortsighted attempt to achieve meager tropical gains. I urge my fellow coworkers to vote NO to the proposed "Limey" Amendment. Let us strive to create a more perfect union at the World Youth Alliance, one that embraces the culinary harmony of both peanut butter and banana.

From: Philip
My esteemed colleagues, cupcake lovers, and fellow housemates, it is with great urgency and a profound sadness that I write to you today. For many years World Youth Alliance has been a peaceful coconut lime foiled cupcake loving community, however there are some among us who would forsake our proud tradition of cupcake sophistication for gaudy, banana-flavored, color-coordinated imitations. Let us not bow to their demands, let us not abandon our heritage, we will stand proud and firm, and we will not rest until this scourge has be purged from our society. Long live World Youth Alliance!


The debate never happened, because they settled for something completely new:

Organic Semi-Vegan Maple Cupcakes with Creamy Maple Frosting and Sugared Walnuts

I missed taekwondo class to bake these. It must be love. Yay! I love these wonderful happy people who don't want to kill each other for tenure!

Fall Internship 2007 (L-R): Me, Desiree (Philippines), Philip (UK), Andreas (US), Patrick (US), Shannon (Canada), Carlos (Mexico), Theo (Canada), Kris (US)


You have no idea how happy I am to not be decapitating rats at 8:00 in the morning anymore, then get my dignity stomped on 16 hours later.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Home Alone

December 19, 2007

It is 10 pm and I am in the WYA house alone. Phil, our International Director of Operations, was the last to go and here I am, having to face the consequences of my actions after the last taekwondo class before the holidays. This is my second, and hopefully last, Christmas alone.

When you leave me alone in a big house, I will clean it. I will also write in it, do art projects in it, practice my taekwondo poomsae -- all while listening to the Spice Girls. And since I am finally alone, it gives me plenty of time to Think About What I Have Gotten Myself Into.

So in a nutshell:

I came to WYA late last August, in despair and looking for a job. Being out of a Ph.D. program leaves one quite discombobulated and demoralized, as I experienced. What the heck should I do now? Studying to be a neuroscientist ended in a spectacular disaster. The WYA Headquarters was a block away from where I (used to) live, and as the result of a series of cinematic events instigated by WYA President Mary Halpine, here I am, their new Director of Communications, unofficial bodyguard and resident cupcake baker.

What exactly did the Alliance get when they hired me? The shelves beside my desk, which I have colonized with the permission of the staff, will probably give anyone a vague idea. The top shelf has all my molecular biology textbooks from university, and going down, I have my art portfolios and supplies. Further down I have stored the books that would not fit in my room: my vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, back issues of Poetry magazines, and my books on reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. A little box decorated with art from Exupery’s The Little Prince contains my juggling balls and a yo-yo. My weapons, which I had to declare before I signed my WYA contracts, sit innocuously in my bedroom with taekwondo DVDs.

They all think I'm psychotic here. Whee! I don't have to pretend! I see the coming year as one of the most independent and creative phases of my life, a chance to “let it all out” before I do graduate school again. Despite my disillusionments in the past year, I still love science. I believe that science is for everyone, not just for people who need tenure (man, especially those!), or for companies that produce drugs and reagents, or for people competing on who gets their paper out first. I want little kids to appreciate the beauty of DNA replication as much as video games, and the most jaded of people to find awe in things like string theory. Maybe I’ll end up doing science writing, or journalism, or be back on the bench if the trauma subsides, but at this point, I have to take advantage of my youth while it’s still there.

I will probably carry a certain level of guilt for a while, but I still have faith that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Right now, I feel shaken, guilty, light, free, focused, and terrified all at the same time.

But I am finally happy now!

Sending Everyone a Hug in One Go!

To: Everyone I know


I'm sending this now before I lose my nerve...

To the WYA Staff, thank you for adopting me during this really traumatic time and for allowing me to be a part of this wonderful family. No More Evil People! Ever! You guys are so nice, I pinch myself every day to make sure I’m awake. I am looking forward to working with you, baking you cupcakes, and giving you as many hugs as possible.

To my fellow WYA interns, it was jolly good fun baking for you every week, learning Spanish (my second mother tongue! Ole!), going off to the UN and having all these crazy adventures. I’m like a comatose patient who recently came back to life, learning to walk again and assimilating into society. Thanks for putting up with me. You guys make me so happy.

To my dear friends, I’m so sorry this cancer research thing didn’t work out. I did not see this coming at all. I am really happy to be working with these people, and for the first time in two years, I feel like I finally belong somewhere. Help us!
Sign the Charter! Help me do my job by volunteering to teach your craft at my workshop series. Or volunteer to teach me everything you know over (decaffeinated) coffee and vegan cupcakes. I need artistic training now. Lend me your couch! My nomadic life begins! Please be nice to them – we do really good work for humanity and I love them to pieces. Please don’t make me resort to emotional blackmail. I love you!

Much love (and a lot of hugs!)

P.S. This hysterical public service announcement is officially chapter 1 of my WYA-sanctioned blog:, where you can learn about WYA activities and adventures and see links to other WYA blogs. Suggestions, sPeLling and gRammAr corrections, etc. are welcome. See you there!