Sunday, February 24, 2008

Freeze Tag on Wall Street

Ah, New York City. Land of Broadway, Lady Liberty, and The Naked Cowboy (who currently has legal issues with the makers of M&Ms). There is something for everyone here – careers for the ones driven by ambition, education for those driven to learn, and sheer happy nonsense for those who want to take a break from the clutches of adulthood.

Perhaps because silliness is part of my job, I was ordered by President Mary to participate in something we got from one of our mailing lists – Freeze Tag on Wall Street. That’s it, no cover charge, no solicitations – just a bunch of yuppie strangers hanging out on a chilly Sunday afternoon, playing childhood games.

And so after art class at The League, I, armed with my sketchbooks and Mary’s hideous beer goggles that she dared me to wear in public (heck, I’ll try anything once), rushed to Wall Street and patiently waited for complete strangers to have a little fun while hearing the following words in my head:

“Please God, don’t let me regret this.”

A few seconds into the game and we were stopped by the cops. Matt Levy, who has organized this game for four years in a row now, vainly argued for our right to play, but apparently we were risking homeland security through freeze tag. Undeterred, still enthusiastic, and wanting to stick it to The Man, we continued the game a few blocks away.

While playing, it became immediately clear to us why adults don’t do this anymore: Freeze tag is exhausting. Towards the end, when it became too tiring for one person, we ended up playing “blob tag” – as the “It” catches you, you link hands and tag another person, until the last one who isn’t part of the “blob” wins. As the “blob” grew to six people, we screamed, “Mitosis!” and divided into two groups to catch the remaining runners. We had hot apple cider to toast the day.

Tourists would stop and stare, a couple of reporters were taking pictures, and a group of brazen breakdancers were a few steps away and encouraging us to join their gig instead, but we didn’t care. We were happy and silly and probably too old to be playing freeze tag in the snow, but for that one beautiful day in New York City, all was right with the world**.

But yes, thank God, we weren’t arrested.

** Until we see nutty photos of ourselves in The New York Sun.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From Pipettes to Pencils

To make myself better at my job, I have decided to go back to art classes. Ok, it’s also a good excuse for me to do one of the things I’ve always wanted to, but never had the motivation before. Only for art class will I wake up early on a Sunday morning with a smile on my face, and only for the Alliance will I do it for seven hours a day, every week. The class I am taking is Comics and Sequential Art at The Art Students League with Jamal Igle and Steve Walker, professional comic book artists.

Walking into a studio was a bit disconcerting for me. For years, I held a pipette in one hand and beaker in the other. To replace those with a graphite pen and a sketchbook was quite unsettling. On the first day, Jamal actually came up to me and said, “You have to relax. You’re a bit tight.” They taught me how to sharpen my pencil.

Years of art classes as a kid all came back to me. Illustration is definitely one of the earliest skills a person acquires. For three hours each class, we do figure drawing with different time limits. I’ve since taken it to the next level and started drawing friends and subway riders during the rest of the week. It’s quite fun; it’s one of those things where time just flows for me.

In addition to reclaiming my drawing skills, I also wanted to have my WYA cartoons critiqued. I’m glad I have the perfect excuse (human dignity! Whee!) to doing one of the things I’ve always wanted to do in life: make my own comic strips.

One major apprehension I’m getting is that I still have to learn all the software that artists of this century have to know. I didn’t even know that Illustrator existed until I came to WYA. Now, when people ask me how I learned it, I would respond honestly: “I pressed a button and saw what it would do.” My friends in their late twenties have told me repeatedly that I have “a long way to go” in life. I guess that is true in the Adobe context.

After showing my designs to my class, the first reaction I got was one of collective disbelief. “You did this on POWERPOINT? Are you crazy?”

“Give me a break,” I retorted. “I was decapitating rats before I met you!” I need one of those fancy graphic design gadgets. I don’t even remember what it’s called. A graph pad? Or at least learn to master the Pen tool. On the bright side, my stuff will only look better if I learn how to do it the easy way.

Artists are definitely so much nicer than scientists. I figure it’s the nature of the job. We’re all drawing the same thing, but we bring so much of ourselves into it that competition doesn’t predominate. There is always room for another person’s way of seeing the world. There’s less gossip, too; we’re just so busy talking about ourselves and our projects. I’ll take artistic narcissism over spiteful cattiness any day.

Maybe I am meant to do something artsy with my life. God knows I already dress like an artist; I’m always in black. (It’s a slimming color.) The era of lab coats and yoga pants is so over.

So after a few weeks of art class, a number of naked people, several episodes of carpal tunnel syndrome and me wrestling with my computer mouse, meet my latest character design:

Emily. b 2008

I named her Emily in honor of (what else) taekwondo. My first master, Lee, has this weird problem with names and called me Emily for months. It’s become a joke with us now; I still sign my e-mails as Emily. With her, I am immortalizing his amnesia.

One hilarious thing I did find out while working in an organization with a lot of women is that I will always get Fat Comments on my designs. I design a T-shirt: “Wait, that makes me look fat!” I propose a certain fabric: “No, that will add pounds!” This body image thing apparently extends to my illustrations.

To my blog readers,

Do you think Emily is fat? And should this matter at all?


Leaving the Quarter Life Crisis

You know you’ve grown up a lot when you read your writing that must be about two years old, and the first thing that pops into your mind is: “Oh my God. I’m an idiot.” Looking back at my old words, I see a kid who was half-terrified, half-excited, and eager to see what the world was like beyond the home territory.

I think it’s a reasonable fear to reach 30 years old and feel like you haven’t done much with your life, and I’ve seen it manifested enough to know exactly what I don’t want to be, six years from now. I’ve observed that people who are bitter end up more materialistic and nitpick on the pettiest of things. They are obsessed with making sure that they do not end up with the shorter end of the stick. They become close-minded, ensuring that their opinions will be the loudest and therefore the accepted, hanging on to hot air because that’s the only thing they have. They end up being nosy, listening to other people’s conversations and make sure that they know what everyone else is doing instead of concentrating on their work.

I think the most important thing I learned in the past two years is that in whatever you do with your life, it should be based on something solid that you can bring. To have nothing else but good intentions isn’t enough; I think it’s better to have a concrete vision of what you want to do, and have visible output to back it up – to do what brings you joy and what is based on actual talent. Looking back, I wanted a Ph.D. for the wrong reasons -- I thought that it would make me something I was not.

Second to this is the realization that how you do something is just as important as what you do, or possibly more. I think what ultimately got me was being so enthusiastic about working with all these famous scientists whose work I read about, then meeting them and realizing that “Oh lord, you’re a jerk. I can’t believe I wanted to meet you. Crap.” But such is the case for most professions when you end up in the wrong places.

I’m traumatized enough by bitter angsty people that I mostly hang out with creative people now, and avoid those who base their life’s work on empty blabber. I’ve observed that creative people are the happiest and the most independent bunch, because they have something tangible that only they can make. It is their take on life the way no one else can replicate, and because of this stake of authorship, they can confidently move on with life knowing that they can do something worthwhile. The hubris of man entails the desire to matter, to know that one lived and the world was the better for it.

I’m happy that I am able to laugh about what I’ve often referred to as the Incredibly Horrific Yet Oddly Hilarious Scientific Nightmare. Years ago, I would have flipped out irreversibly when something that was Not In The Plan would transpire. In another life, it would be downright humiliating to be shunned by the herd. Now, I am ecstatic! Whee! I’m not afraid of what conservative people may think! I finally have my own voice! I can now be original! I finally have an actual shot at succeeding in life! Yipee!

I hope this new perspective in life is really what the point was of traveling halfway around the world, starting life from scratch and enduring horrible 24-hour international flights, breaking out in adult acne thousands of feet above the ocean.

A (Semi)-Rhyming Prayer from One Who Went Through Her Quarter Life Crisis before Her Quarter Life:

Please God, do not let me be a bitter power-tripping person pushing 30 with manic obsessive tendencies and bad skin. Please help me maintain my joy and hyperactivity in whatever environment I’m in. Please don’t let me crack under pressure, or act like a prick when seeking tenure.

And above all, please don’t ask me to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Amen and namaste!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The First 60 Days

So it’s been a while since this official break-up with cancer research and I am still stunned. It’s like getting hit by a truck and learning, much later, that I’m still alive. But the Pipette Itch is slowly but surely subsiding, and I am really glad that the era of lab coats is so over. My petri dishes have been replaced with sketchbooks; my beakers with acid-free portfolios. The only other person that comes to mind who has done this much self-reinvention is Madonna.

I guess when one comes out of what she perceives is her biggest failure, she will do everything in her power to make up for it. I’ve gone through a big slice of my Strategic Plan (I had to submit one before I got here) and it’s only been a few weeks. It has become clear to me that the past couple of months have been of atonement, of reassuring myself that this was not a mistake, that I am finally doing what I am supposed to do at this point in time. It is a bit like making up for lost time, since I was so unproductive yet exhausted for a year in the Lab from Hell. To slack off at this point would only prove them right.

I’ve often wondered why I chose the lab in the first place, when creativity is something that came naturally. I guess I thought that science was more original than it is now. I believed that I would be able to do something far more inspired when I chose research over the typical medical school track, which I’ve often viewed as a box. Instead, I ended up jumping from one box to the next. The ivory tower of the academe is still a box, only bigger yet oddly with less space.

I like to think that my time in science served as a phase to toughen me up, such that almost everything else is a walk in the park. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times once said that “One of the best preparations of life is a strong dose of humility.” Man, is that ever true. When you think you know where you’re going, then the path shifts unexpectedly, the feeling of enlightenment is incomparable. It makes you release all inhibitions and just take whatever added challenges that come your way. Hell, everything else went to blazes, what’s another bonfire?

Here at WYA, I keep asking for more work, and repetitively ask, perhaps to their consternation, if there’s anything they’re displeased with. I’ve become less afraid of criticism. “Trust me, you guys cannot do anything to me that they haven’t done to me already.”

There are times when I feel the need to slow down. Once, after a long Sunday of art class boot camp and yoga, I accidentally tossed my iPod into the laundry. Miraculously, it’s still ok. (If this happens to you, don’t panic. Let it dry, then charge it again.)

When I’m meeting Mary (WYA Prez), I would bluntly ask her, “Are you sure I’m working hard enough? Because I’m really not dying here.” They respect my desire for balance, and I am relieved that I don’t have to feel apologetic every time taekwondo hour draws near and I run off because I don’t want to do extra push-ups. I’m glad I can live my life without having to apologize for it.

I’m a bit disconcerted that I am labeled as the creative one here, mainly because I’ve been the scientific geek all my life. It’s just weird. Everything I’ve done here so far, I’ve done without much strategizing or long hours of brainstorming; I just do them. It’s fun. They seem happy with it so far. I think I’m mainly disturbed by the fact that they appreciate what I do, which didn’t really happen when I was in science.

I’m also wondering whether I’m having way too much fun here. As I write this, Phil, our IDO is on the phone, working on some financial project that has been going on for more than week now. Behind me is Maria, our Director of Development, who is busy meeting deadlines and following up her fundraising events. Meanwhile, I am busy tweaking my sketches on Adobe Illustrator, learning how to draw cartoon hands and wondering if my African cartoon character would look better if I painted her skin Cappuccino.

It feels a bit funny to live and work with the same people in the same place. On the positive side, I get a lot of cardio in this house. I am finally building my upper body strength the way taekwondo doesn’t do, for the simple reason that it takes all my energy to launch my ass up to the top bunk of the bed. Bulging biceps, here I come.

The people all think I’m nuts here. And liberated, too. I’ve been voted Most Likely to Do Co-Ed Naked Yoga over and over again, perhaps due to the combination of my sarcasm, yogic lifestyle, and interest in Gael Garcia Bernal’s films. This is very refreshing, considering that people thought I was going to be a nun back in high school.

The people here have to control me sometimes, because I am just way too happy for a normal person. I freaked out our entire executive board with my Extremely Exuberant E-mail (see the inaugural entry of this blog); Mary had to do some serious damage control. (I know they are traumatized, and trust me, so am I.) In another lifetime, however, I would be completely mortified, but now, it just makes perfect sense:

Only I can freak out the entire executive board of an international organization that represents a million people on the first week on the job.

I’m sure the fact that this has happened before doesn’t ease their worries.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Blue Sugar and Pink Farming Equipment

At an event we had at the WYA house last night, I figured out a way to take the WYA logo to the next diabetic level: by stenciling it onto cupcakes with blue sugar.

It's sad, but this isn't the nuttiest thing I've ever made.

The fanciness of the evening was only rivaled by the pain that my shoes were giving me. As the night went on, I came to the horrible conclusion that I need to brush up on etiquette and table manners. Years of being on the rush, all the time, have crippled my fine dining habits -- I barely know which glass is for which wine, never mind from which side of the person I should serve the food. I don't even think I know how to operate a coffee machine; I normally microwave water for two minutes, dump two teaspoons of coffee, and off I go. For someone who has plucked out brain cells, dissected embryos, and worked on complicated microscopes for hours, I found this night a bit disconcerting and educational.
I should have done what most aspiring actors do: take a waitressing job.

Later, in possibly one of the funniest snapshots of pathetic-ism, behold, WYA staff and interns (I had to hold the camera), holding the coats for the guests on their way out:

We waited for quite a while downstairs, and, feeling restless, started singing and horsing around:


The next day, I crawled out of bed long enough to watch one of my taekwondo teachers take his test for his fourth degree black belt. Whee! I am so inspired! He did a form with a pair of
kamas, which are, hands down, way cooler than my sai. I cannot wait to get my own! They're even available in pink! This is so exciting!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

WYA Seminar/Workshop Series #2: Juggling!

WYA International kicked off 2008 with a juggling workshop hosted by Viveca Gardiner, president of Playful Productions and co-founder of
Check out this extremely happy invitation:
Why juggling? It's one of my favorite activities to date. I met Viveca and the other Carmine Street Jugglers right after I was out of grad school, so juggling was major therapy for me.
The diversity of jugglers easily made them my favorite group of New Yorkers. How else can you find scientists, mathematicians, ex-rabbi clowns, teachers, artists and geeks all gathered together? Viveca herself has an interesting background: She was a literature major in Harvard, and has a business degree from Yale.
A few sessions with the Carminers made me realize that people juggle for a myriad of reasons. It's very therapeutic; there's something about rhythmically tossing stuff in the air that just eases headaches and stress. It's one of those exercises that integrates the right and left brain. It's a moving meditation -- yoga for the brain.
Here, some WYA members and friends begin their first juggling class:
For the workshop, I was excited because Sean, probably the best juggler I've seen in NYC, was coming. I've seen him juggle probably 10 or 11 rings at once. He never disappoints:

Here, he is demonstrating his trademark trick, the Chandelier:

I was impressed by how young they can be. Our third speaker, Kyle, is still in high school, but is already set on joining the Cirque du Soleil. Give him some clubs, and it's hard for him to stand still:

In her talk, Viveca spoke about how juggling is one of those things that no one can give to nor take away from you. It's one of the most joyful and rewarding activities. The ability to go from three balls to four depends solely on one's determination. I guess that it is for this reason that there is a lot of camaraderie among jugglers; everyone is usually more than willing to teach you, or even better, demonstrate. It's extremely addicting.

Did I mention that it also makes the brain bigger?

Meet three of the most coordinated, skilled people on the planet (From L-R: Sean, Viveca, Kyle)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cavorting with the Carminers

New York City is home to a variety of characters, a lot of whom I’ve become quite good friends with. Martial artists, yogis, performers, visual artists, fellow vegetarians – all have been sources of comfort as well as fodder for my stories. None, however, can compare to the diversity and nuttiness exuded by one of the coolest, most skilled groups I’ve met: the Carmine Street Jugglers.

Juggling is amazing because of the diversity of people in terms of culture and career. I’ve met jugglers who are also school administrators, animators, computer geeks, mathematicians, businessmen, scientists, designers, etc. The first night I went out with these guys, I sat at a table with a nomadic delivery boy, an animator, and a depressed clown who used to be in rabbi school. I met someone who was the first woman to win the International Juggling Association's Championship. Her dad is a physicist who plays the piano, her mom is a music journalist who is a stand-up comic, and her real name is Cindy Marvell. I think I’ve found my people.

Where else can I find odd characters such as Fernando, whom I apparently first saw two years ago, in front of the American Museum of Natural History? Déjà vu ensued the moment he introduced himself to me at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center in downtown NYC, where Carminers hang out every Thursday to toss some balls.

Fernando, circa 2005

It’s incredible to see jugglers in action because they all look so happy while doing it. You can see it in their eyes, how they can shut out the rest of the world while tossing stuff in the air, be it clubs(don’t call them pins), rings or beanbags (my personal favorite as they remind me of Chinese jacks).

I learned to juggle when I was about 11 or 12, although my skill level reached a plateau of three balls for a while. (One of my many New Year resolutions is to make it to four.) There is something very calming about it, and it helps stymie my afternoon migraines somewhat. It improves coordination, and heightens my sense of balance and symmetry. Plus, it just feels so good to learn one trick then move on to the next. Juggling has been proven to increase brain mass as well, which probably explains why a lot of mathematicians do it. As my fellow Carminer Viveca said, juggling is one of those things where we seek to make things more difficult.

Beyond the fancy tricks and the equipment jugglers are among the friendliest people. Most are willing to teach you how to perform that extra trick, or how to add another ball to your cascade. I have, however, encountered people who take it way too seriously. I will never forget the time when a ball rolled towards me, and as I bent over, this person screeched, “I’ll get it, Cathy, I’ll get it!” The polite idiot in me still picked it up and handed it to him, whereby he grabbed it from me without a word, roared “Argh!” and stomped away. This was a very valuable lesson; in some instances, be forewarned:

Never touch a juggler’s balls.

WYA Seminar/Workshop #1: Fear, Instincts and Self-Defense with’s Ken Gibson

One of the best things I love about WYA is that they can use absolutely everything I am interested in. I love learning things, especially if it’s something I can’t find in a regular school. One of my projects involves holding a seminar/workshop here in the WYA house, in which I get to apply a lot of things I’ve learned in the past two years, and where my long list of interesting acquaintances comes in handy.

The World Youth Alliance Seminar/Workshop Series (I will have to think of a catchier name for this) has the following goals:

1. To gather speakers who love what they do (i.e. live in dignity!) and let them pass on that joy to others
2. To go beyond the traditional lecture-style event and make have audience members participate by learning how to do something (no more Powerpoints, for the love of God.)
3. To gather members for a night of learning and fun

For the first workshop, held last December, one of my martial arts teachers, Ken Gibson, agreed to teach us self-defense. With two black belts – one in hapkido and one in farang mu sul, Ken has had a lot of training and experience in defending oneself. Incidentally, he was the person who inspired me to start eating healthy after attending one of this retreats. His book, “What to Feed Your Enemy,” should be out soon, and I can’t wait to get one.

As an aside, I also love how this project is allowing me to play around with graphic design again:

Learning how to defend oneself is one of the more important skills I’ve acquired since coming to NYC, where muggings are common and the detritus of humanity come out at night, preying on unsuspecting victims. I think it’s also a great thing to pass on to WYA interns who have come from all over the world.

When defending yourself or your loved ones, all inhibitions should be eliminated. All the four-letter words you know will aid you in making your attacker realize that you are not one to be messed with. The throat is one of the most sensitive areas of the body, as are the groin, and the eye (push your finger in, bend it, then yank it out). Biting, calling out for help – all the primal instincts we have are brought out once we experience fear.

It was interesting seeing WYA's fall interns, particularly the ones who are usually so poised, get out of their comfort zones.

I only hope they never have to use what they've learned.

Kicking Butt, with Dignity

After a year of living on my own in New York City, I returned to what would be the turning point of my leaving academia: taekwondo. I was about 13 when I last trained. The worst thing that happened to me was falling in line in the back of some kid who looked about eight years old, who was pretending to be the Pink Power Ranger. He turned to me, shouted “Yaahhh!” -- and kicked me in the crotch, forcing me to my knees in unspeakable (!) pain. I imagine it would have been worse had I been a boy.

Fifteen months in taekwondo school and I now have something in common with Sarah Michelle Gellar: we both have brown belts. For me, it wasn’t so much the satisfaction of earning something I literally got my butt kicked for, nor the therapeutic shot of endorphins after yet another day of joyless drudgery at the lab – it was the fact that I finally proved to myself that despite my apparent ADD, I am no dilettante. I can stick to something for a long time without getting bored! I am not afraid of commitment! It’s not me, it’s science! Yay!

When I was in science, I was so depressed in ways I did not think possible that I thought an hour of kicking bags (or men) four times a week would be good for me. I never realized that this would impact my lifestyle more than I expected. Three of my teachers – Lee (a fourth-degree blackbelt), Fabiano (New York State champion 2007) and Calvin (has two black belts) -- influenced me a lot, which just goes to show you that I have to get beaten up before doing things like exercising and eating healthy. When the outside feels very toxic, you will want to cleanse yourself from the inside. It opened up a lot of my interests, too – who knew that I would love training with weapons and such?

Taekwondo is very useful, especially when doing non-profit work, where I sometimes have to travel late in the evening (or generally living in a big city). The knowledge that I am trained to crack someone’s skull makes me stand up straighter and go out into the world with confidence, sprawling in the back of buses when I want to get a good night’s sleep. I am hoping that good posture and self-assurance will somehow convey to a potential mugger: “Attack me, and I will kill you.”

I think martial arts in general make people good-natured and less competitive with other people. All those stereotypes I’ve seen in kung fu movies about being “one with the universe” – Good God, they’re all true, even in a school that’s smack in the middle of Manhattan’s snooty upper crust residences. When I train, it’s just me and the dojang (training space). The rest of the world is shut out, and all life’s issues are whittled down into kicks and punches – it’s just you. As a writer, I think it’s an excellent metaphor.

During my internship with WYA, I had to teach taekwondo to kids for the CityAdventure scavenger hunt, a cultural event which brings teams all over Manhattan to discover the city. Not only did I have to do it for the first time, but I had to do it four times in a row. Needless to say, everyone thought I would screw this up. But a class that had all the potential to go wrong ended up being so much fun, for me and my, ahem, disciples. I couldn't help but feel a pang of regret, that this little four-hour exercise did more good than doing experiments for hours.

This e-mail to my masters might encapsulate this better:

From: Catherine
To: Lee, Fabiano

Leeee! Fabianooooo! Ohmigod, you guys! I taught my first four taekwondo classes in a row yesterday. It was so much fun! It was for a scavenger hunt for the World Youth Alliance, and I was teaching a lot of high school kids. Some of them were a bit hyperactive, but they loved the class and were so behaved. During our team huddle, one of my students poked out my eye and took out my contact lens. We couldn't find it anymore, and I went home half-blind. Eek! I loved them and they loved it and I lost my voice and I totally understand why you guys do this!


Months ago, when I realized that my black belt meant more to me than my Ph.D., I knew I had a problem.

I think the most important thing I learned was that martial arts made me aware of one’s innate dignity. In one of my hysterical e-mails to Lee after leaving the academe, I remember writing that when I was in the lab in such a horrible work environment, the one thing that kept running through my head was, “I can’t believe I’m letting you do this to me when I can kick your ass.” I now know that when this thought runs through my head, it’s time to go, man.