Lessons on Humanity From a Cheetah

With the spots of a Dalmatian, the build of a Greyhound, and the paws of a Great Dane, Savanna is clumsily put together but unbelievably cute. She’s also entirely feline — a cheetah cub, about 7 months old and 38 pounds. (Full grown, she could weigh double that.) I met her at the zoo, but not with bars or glass or a moat between us. No, she stood less than an arm’s length away at times, restrained by a simple leash.

This happened at an event for Andy’s work, hosted at the Cincinnati Zoo. As part of their “Ambassador” program, Savanna has been acclimated to a variety of human sights and sounds so that she can attend functions such as our party that night, or more importantly classrooms, to help teach people about wildlife studies and conservation efforts. Savanna stayed with us for nearly an hour, during which time she calmly sat for pictures, climbed on a table to monitor the room, and even nuzzled her 3 handlers like a house cat. With such affectionate gestures, and some of her baby fuzz still visible, it was easy to forget Savanna’s true nature.

Despite her training, Savanna is still a wild animal, ruled mostly by instinct. She was one of two cubs born to the zoo, but her brother didn’t survive. Apparently cheetah mothers won’t raise just one cub, because after 18 months cubs are left to fend for themselves, which would be hard to do on their own without siblings. Thus Savanna’s mother abandoned her, and Savanna became an orphan.

That’s when the zoo stepped in. They hand-raised her, secured her a spot in the Ambassador program, and even partnered her with a puppy of similar age and size to be an adoptive playmate and brother. The two will be best friends until she matures, at which point instinct will kick in again, because female cheetahs live alone. Fortunately one of the handlers is already eager to adopt the black lab, Max, when Savanna outgrows him.

The push and pull between the laws of nature and the intervention of mankind has defined Savanna’s life, and in some ways it defines ours too. Do we let things occur as they may, or should we step in and control when we can? That’s what I kept thinking about later that night, long after Savanna had left our party. It’s a pretty philosophical takeaway from a mere hour with a cheetah cub, but then, hanging out with Savanna was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I both enjoyed and was affected by.

And that, to me, is the mark of a great ambassador.

Our Holiday Break

Kristan

While there was no snow or sleigh bells, my holiday was otherwise fairly traditional. I flew home to Houston and was greeted with lots of hugs from my parents — as well as lots of kisses from mosquitoes.

That first weekend, we battled the crowds to do our last-minute shopping. Funny enough, nowadays my parents and I tend to buy our own presents and then wrap them as a surprise to everyone else. It may sound weird, but we enjoy it. Makes Santa’s life easier too.

After Christmas, my half-sister came to visit with her granddaughter, and we showed them a few of Houston’s highlights: Moody Gardens, Kemah Boardwalk, NASA’s Space Center, the Galleria and the Waterwall. We also drove around nice neighborhoods to look at their sparkling holiday lights. Though I had done it all before, it was fun to see my hometown through a newcomer’s eyes.

For me, the new experience was babysitting my cousin’s daughter for 3 nights. She’s now 5 years old, which is a fun but exhausting age. We colored Hello Kitty activity books, read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and watched My Little Pony. I gave her a bath and brushed her teeth. She ate the ham and eggs out of my kolache. I felt like I was playing Mom for a few days, and it was… illuminating.

Now it’s 2013, and I’m back home, back to my regularly scheduled life, back to work. I don’t have any specific resolutions, but I would like to continue applying a few themes across all areas of my life: (1) Don’t try to do/have it all; (2) Don’t worry about what people think; (3) Keep It Simple, Stupid; (4) Push yourself; (5) Be more assertive/decisive; and (6) Don’t aim for perfection, just keep getting better.

Angie

My parents and I always celebrate Thanksgiving in a big way — lots of friends and a massive feast — but for whatever reason, we don’t do any of the December holidays. So after a wonderful extended stay at home in November, I decided to do something different this winter: Freeze my butt off in Canada. At –10°F to be precise!

Why give up the balmy Texas climate for arctic Canadian weather? I wanted to learn how to ski. Also, as a child I had visited Banff National Park, a World Heritage Site notorious for its scenic beauty, in the summer. Now I wanted to witness firsthand its breathtaking views in the winter.

I was not disappointed. I spent a couple days touring the towns and then three full days skiing the popular sites: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay. Each day as I arrived on the slopes, with an instructor leading the way, I ooo-ed and ahh-ed – even falling once because I was so captivated by the view.

Needless to say, I fell quite a few more times trying to complete a green (“easy”) run on the second day. Although I picked up the basic skiing techniques quickly, gravity sometimes won. Nevertheless, I slowly but surely conquered the mountain, turning and braking my way down the steep inclines. By the third day, I felt confident on the slopes, and eager to return for more someday.

After my skiing adventures, I spent New Year’s Eve in Seattle with one of my best friends, eating and exploring the city. We even toured the old city underground and then watched the fireworks shoot off around the Space Needle.

On January 1st, I flew back to New York City, with sore legs and a clearer mind, ready for change in 2013.

After the storm

We Houstonians are no strangers to hurricanes. Living in former swamplands about an hour from the Gulf Coast, we’ve had to stock up on non-perishables and supplies, fill our bathtubs with water, board our windows, and evacuate. Our city has experienced major flooding, power outages, and even the loss of homes and lives. Recently, those on the East Coast experienced similar devastation. Sandy caused enormous damage, and some people lost everything.

The New York City area was hit particularly hard. Living next to Times Square, I was very lucky. While my office was closed for three days, other than flickering power, my apartment was fine. It was surreal, however, to witness for the second time since moving here, how empty and quiet the City That Never Sleeps had become because of a hurricane.

When we finally returned to work, one of my friends set up a volunteer effort for my team. With the little gas that we had, four of us made it down to the Rockaways early in the morning, with hot food and supplies – all generously donated by a local diner and colleagues.

We walked amidst the destruction, amazed not only by what was lost, but also by how many others had come out to help. We spent the day at a local church where the National Guard was also present, all of us organizing, distributing and delivering supplies. Despite being inside the building, we were very cold, which led us to worry about the dropping temperatures and wonder how residents would stay warm.

I have only these few words and pictures to share from my experience volunteering in the Rockaways. It will take a while for everyone to recover from Sandy, but what I saw growing up in Houston is very present here in New York: People helping people.

All photos taken and copyright by Angie Liang.

To Russia with love

Michael* and I went to school together for a decade – middle school, high school and even college – but we were mostly acquaintances who rarely talked. It wasn’t until two years after we got our diplomas that Michael and I really connected, when he asked me one day about a picture on Facebook from a recent trip I had taken.

From there, we started talking, and our conversations quickly grew more personal, philosophical and profound. We began to meet over tea, then dinner just to talk. In just a couple of weeks, we had become true friends and surprisingly close.

During that brief time, I received and accepted a job offer in New York City, giving me only one more month in Texas.  Normally, I would have found it silly to continue a relationship with someone when I was on the verge of leaving, but Michael insisted that we should make the most of whatever time we had left together. So we did.

I don’t think Michael will ever know the impact he had on my life. Perhaps part of it was the timing: I was graduating, growing up, and taking that large step of moving to a different city. Life was messy and thrilling, and I thought, how lucky I was to find a friend who understood my messy, thrilling self. Through the chaos, that enormous transition, Michael was there to offer calm and practical guidance. He never attempted to solve my problems, but he listened as I rambled on, confused and overwhelmed by all the possibilities in front of me.

Of course I also had my wonderful family and best friends, who have always provided me with support and love. But looking back, I believe I was supposed to grow close to Michael at that particular time in my life, a time when everything was changing. He opened my eyes with a fresh perspective to help me navigate.

Thanks to Michael’s different way of thinking, I started to understand multiple sides of a situation and became more open-minded. I tried to step outside the borders of my cookie-cutter life, and I even learned to embrace my mistakes – because, as Michael convinced me, they can help shape you into a better person if you make the most out of them.

After I moved to New York, Michael and I talked less and less. We went from phone calls to emails to eventually just text messages a few times a month. Recently, through one of those texts, Michael informed me that he would be moving to Russia – a dream of his – where I know he will flourish, after a roller coaster career in Texas.

I wished him well and meant it – hopefully conveying my hope, love and excitement for him – but I am unable to hide the sadness in my own heart at this new chapter in his life. We have grown further apart with time, and the physical distance will only deepen the space that separates us.

No matter what happens, I’m grateful for the impact Michael has had on me. He supported me during a critical time in my life, and now I have the opportunity to do the same for him. Maybe we’ll go back to the edges of each other’s lives, the way we were for so many years in school, but we will always have the memories of a closer time.

And maybe that’s just what some people are meant to do. They are here to guides us during a chapter of our lives, so that we will meet the people we’re supposed to meet and become the people we’re supposed to be.

*Name has been changed.

For love of travel

After days in and days out behind a desk, there is nothing better than to wander with curiosity in a new place. This is the gift I can give myself: Exploration. Learning history, experiencing new cultures, tasting different cuisines, and breathing a different life.

Most importantly, when I travel, I take time to reflect on my life and understand who I am at the moment. I want to share some of my recent experiences. I hope that you, too, can look within yourself this summer.

Rome

In a roaring crowd of Italian spirit — the flag waving frantically back and forth, green-white-and-red colored wigs, soccer jerseys, and giant television screens — I’m standing sheepishly with my friend looking for a sign. We’re in the middle of Circo Massimo, an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium that houses hundreds of thousands of people. After we searched from the Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps, a kind police officer told us this is where we can watch the final Euro Cup game.

At last I see it — the Spanish flag. My friend is from Spain, so we will not be cheering for Italy, despite traveling in this beautiful country. Instead we find comrades with whom she can support her home team. Before the game, they exchange teasing boasts with the Italian crowd about whose side will win.

The next two hours are filled with shouts, groans, and excitement. Our group becomes family as we cheer together. My friend links arms with a fellow Spaniard as they wave the flag, while another jokes around with me. After Spain scores two goals, we are met with a little jeering and multiple bouts of water thrown at us. No matter, in this heat. We only cheer harder.

At the end of the game, we come out victorious, unscathed, and with a once in a lifetime experience.

Brussels

My day trip to Brussels was a whim. A good one. Everything about this city is pleasant — even how I got there. On the train, the man next to me is also from New York, and he’s listening to Tim McGraw. Once we arrive, I ask the station manager and helpful strangers how to get into the city center, beginning my adventure with really only one goal: Eat well.

After an amazing seafood feast, I’m standing near Saint Katherine’s with my map, confused. Behind me an elderly man named Rafael asks if he can help me locate something. I graciously accept, and then for the next couple of hours I’m given an unexpected local tour of the city. I learn about how many of Brussels’s famous buildings were constructed, where the best chocolates are, and even a “secret oasis” that once was the site of a Dominican church.

Rafael, an avid traveler who knows several languages, owns an antique crystal shop. His tiny store is filled floor to ceiling with crystal glasses, many from the early 1900s. He shows me some of his favorite pieces and explains their origins. He even demonstrates how to evaluate them. Piiiiing — the clear ringing sound assures me this is true crystal.

Upon my departure, Rafael gifts me a pair of port glasses. A keepsake from Brussels, so that I will return again.

Progress

Back in March, I fell and injured my knee. There was no bruising or swelling, but I couldn’t straighten or bend my leg all the way, and everyday movements caused me significant pain. At first I feared that I would need surgery, and I spent a lot of time and tears worrying about that possibility. But after several hospital visits — and even an MRI — my doctor could find nothing to operate on.

To my surprise, I was disappointed by that news. As much as I had dreaded surgery, I appreciated the concrete-ness of it. It was a solution. Once it happened, I could heal. Instead, my injury remained a mystery, and the only “remedy” my doctor could prescribe was time.

My doctor did suggest that I try some physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in my leg and ease the burden on my knee. Half a dozen basic exercises to be done for 30 minutes twice a day. How could this possibly help? I wondered. But after just two weeks, my range of motion improved, and the frequency of my pain decreased. On the outside everything looked the same, but on the inside things were happening.

It occurs to me now that much of life passes in this way: below the surface, making progress that can hardly be noticed, much less quantified. How close are you to getting that promotion? How much longer until you’re over that breakup? When will your panic and your joy over having a newborn settle into a comfortable rhythm?

Of course it would be great if there were clear, concrete actions that we could take to speed up these processes, but in most cases all we can do is press on and hope for the best. We may feel like nothing is changing, because we have no proof, no measurements. But even the tiniest of improvements add up, like grains of sand, building upon each other gradually, until one day you’re on a beach.

Even though I can’t see it on an X-ray or calculate it in numbers, I know I’m headed toward that beach. Someday I’ll be running across the sand full-speed, with no pain in my knee. I just have to trust that I’m making progress each day. I just have to give it time.

Scenes from my aunt’s house

One tree in the front yard, or two? Wood siding, or brick? Have I ever even set foot in the backyard?

These questions roll through my mind during the drive to Dallas. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but 4 short hours later, here we are. The front walk is like memory lane, leading me to answers I didn’t realize I had forgotten.

* * *

I’m 7 years old, sitting at the dining table, legs tucked underneath me. I hold out one finger, my body tensed in fear of being bitten. Inside a brass cage, yellow and blue feathers rustle, punctuated by twin chirps. My aunt opens a little door and slips her hand in. Next thing I know, tiny claws are dancing across my pointer finger. I relax and smile.

* * *

I’m 9 years old, playing Hearts on my laptop. My cousin, older and wiser, leans over and shoulders me out of the way. “Have you heard of an mp3?” he asks. As I shake my head, he is already typing and clicking and downloading a few things from his server at MIT. “It’s the future of music,” he assures me. Soon we are listening to some song called “Sweetest Thing” by some band called U2 on some program called Winamp. Impressed, I nod to the beat and try to sing along with the chorus.

* * *

I’m 10 years old, knocking tentatively on my cousin’s bedroom door. He doesn’t say to come in, but he doesn’t say to go away either. I close the door softly behind me. He’s sitting on the bed, face red with anger, eyes wet with tears. I sit down on the floor in front of him, but he just keeps staring hard at the opposite wall.

After several minutes of silence, I ask if he wants to play Connect Four. He still doesn’t say anything, but he scoots off the bed and slides the board game out. We’re dropping our red and black checkers into place when his father comes in to apologize. But he never actually says he’s sorry. He just holds his arms out and waits. They hug silently, my cousin’s small body stiff, my uncle’s hand heavy on his back.

* * *

I’m 12 years old, up late for no real reason. While the rest of the house sleeps peacefully, my typing fills the darkness. A childhood friend is teasing me over chat, but I feel something else coming. Something exciting and frightening.

Oh god, there it is. But what do I do now? What do I do with those three little words? I want them — of course I want them — but not from him, not right now.

Joy, regret, and panic churn inside me. With tears in my eyes, I type, “I’m sorry.” I hit send. I sign off.

I don’t sleep that night.

* * *

I’m 26 years old, sharing a mattress with my mother. In the morning we wake to soft light filtering in through the windows. Still half-asleep, we stay in bed, lying on our backs and talking. Catching up, sharing stories.

Memories layer one on top of the other, new on top of old, hers on top of mine. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but pieces of me linger, hanging on the walls next to the photographs. I collect them now, questions and answers no longer forgotten.

One tree. Brick. Still not sure.

On resolutions and the new year

Kristan

Sometimes turning the calendar to a new page isn’t enough. For a fresh mindset, I need a bigger, bolder signal of change. So I pick a different desktop picture for my computer; I rearrange the furniture in my living room; I cut my hair.

Still, the world is not new, and I don’t have a clean slate.

Every January, I have to come to terms with this all over again. I have to remind myself that the new year isn’t about a new me. It’s about a better me. Resolutions are meant to build upon the foundation we already have — to improve it, not erase it.

I think the best resolutions are small and simple. Something like “Become a millionaire” sounds great in theory, but it’s too big, too vague. Resolutions should be achievable — with clear, actionable steps that are completely within your control.

I prefer to make just a couple resolutions each year, in order to set myself up for success. After all, if these things were so easy to do, wouldn’t I have done them already?

This year, one of my resolutions is to make better use of my to-do list. I read somewhere that the best to-do lists have no more than 5-6 items per day. More than that and people start to feel overwhelmed. If/when they can’t cross everything off, they feel like they have failed. Plus the unfinished items carry over into the next day, along with their negative outlook.

So I plan to assign only a handful of tasks to each day, and to tackle them one at a time in an efficient and timely manner. It may sound small, but I think the ripple effects will be far-reaching.

Angie

Since moving to New York, I started recording my new year’s resolution as a pithy statement on my cell phone. The first year I moved here it was “Don’t forget about you,” to remind myself that I should stand up for my own decisions. Last year it was “Help others.” For 2012, I chose “Dream big. Act bigger.”

There are many things I would like to learn this year, from expanding my skills at work, to learning how to surf and ski. I also would like to continue traveling to other countries, seeing new sights and experiencing different cultures. Do I need a resolution to accomplish these goals? Of course not. But it helps.

Unlike Kristan, I find the point of a resolution is not to set measurable goals, but instead to shape your values and beliefs into something important. Resolutions create a focal point, and they represent your commitment to accomplish something you never thought you would. Seeing my new mantra on my cell phone every day helps frame my thinking and influence my actions in the right direction.

For example, there is a particular goal that I’ve had in mind since last year. “Dream big and act bigger” is a promise to myself that I will work hard to achieve it, continuously pushing myself out of my comfort zone without comprising who I am. That may mean I accomplish the goal, or it could mean along the way I change my course. But as long as I try, then I know I’ll be happy.

It also means I will look beyond myself and understand my impact on my peers. My decisions may be for myself, but we only reach them with the help of others.

This past year I have been very grateful for the faith that my family, friends and colleagues have in me, along with the opportunities I’ve been given. But I know there is more that I can learn as well as contribute. So I can’t settle for the status quo. I have to dream big and act bigger.

A sweet celebration

Despite fireworks and festivities, the start of 2011 was bittersweet. Shortly after we rang in the New Year, Andy’s younger brother was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines. Their family has a history of military service, but mine does not. This was my first experience worrying about a soldier overseas, and I quickly learned that when someone you care about is at risk, politics and philosophies go out the window. All you want is for them to come home safe.

For months we prepared care packages like it was our job, like our soldier’s life depended on it. Every other week we filled a Support Our Troops box with flavored sunflower seeds, white tube socks, lighthearted DVDs, and lots of deodorant. We wrote letters filled with the most inane details — about dogs and gardens and sports and celebrities — because we wanted to help him stay connected with “normal” life.

After half a year, we got the good news that our Marine was coming home. (“So please stop sending boxes, because by the time they get there, he’ll be gone!”) His first tour was over, and he arrived safely back in the States at the peak of an August heat. After spending months in the Afghani desert, marching for miles under the scorching sun, our soldier didn’t mind the “hot spell.” He barely even noticed it.

To celebrate his return, Andy took his brother, parents, and me to Chicago for Labor Day weekend. We visited Sue the T-Rex at the Field Museum. We shopped the Magnificent Mile. We laughed until we cried at the Second City comedy show.

But the highlight of our trip was a quiet dinner at Joe’s, the renowned seafood and steak house. After making reservations (several weeks in advance) Andy emailed to ask if they could do anything for his brother. He specified that we weren’t looking for freebies; we just wanted a special night. The manager replied that they could only give us their best server, an offer we happily accepted.

And our server was indeed fantastic. Attentive, friendly, knowledgeable, accommodating, and funny. We had a lovely evening, thanks to his witty banter and many excellent recommendations.

At the end of the meal, we decided to order a couple desserts to share. Our server got a twinkle in his eye and said he knew just the thing. A few minutes later, he wheeled out a tray of nearly a dozen desserts, which we figured were for the tables nearby. As it turns out, every single dish on that cart was for us. Andy’s brother was fairly embarrassed, but his mother and I both got tears in our eyes as our server and the manager came over to thank him for his service.

Although we were already full, the five of us ate as much of those cakes and pies as we could. Not because they were free, or too delicious to waste, but because they were all our fears put to rest, all our hopes confirmed, all our pride, gratitude, and good fortune baked into chocolate and iced with sugar. Those desserts were what our trip was all about. Celebration.

We savored every bite.

Happy Anniversary

By the time you read this, my 2nd anniversary of moving to New York City will have passed. Like most weeks, it was rather uneventful and busy with work. Though tired as usual, I couldn’t help contemplating where my life is heading. After two years of working and living in this fast-paced city, I’m surprised to find that I’m still a little uncertain about it.

Moving here was propelled by a great career opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, but my honeymoon period with New York had ended a couple years earlier, during previous internships I’d done here. As I settled into my fourth-floor studio apartment, I no longer felt the excitement and wonder of so many students and young professionals around the world who dream of living here. Instead, I found myself battling expenses, egos, and a dwindling sense of passion.

Before I came to New York, I was active in developing environmental policy on my campus, fundraising for the local children’s hospital, and even planting trees. I danced every week—two-stepping, salsa, clubbing. I went to concerts with friends, hosted dinner parties in my apartment, cleaned up the local river, played piano…

All of that stopped when I moved here.

But it’s not entirely the city’s fault. There’s plenty to do, and a raw energy that radiates through New York’s 8 million residents. Even strangers and visitors remark upon this aura, this vitality that cannot be captured. But it belongs to the city, not to me.

I’ve tried to borrow that energy by tapping into the veins of New York. Walking the grid of streets, I continuously explore and find things to appreciate. I love running my hands through the grassy plants along the Highline, an urban park converted from the old railroad track. I love the tiny, foreigner-filled restaurant in Nolita that exudes coolness but pretends it’s not that hip. I love the farmer’s markets, flea markets, street markets, any market. Most importantly, I love the sassy 13-year-old girl I mentor, and the good friends I have made here.

To help me understand my hazy emotions and desires, I asked some of these friends to explain why they liked New York and whether they’d still be here in two years. Some grew up in the city, others are transplants like myself. The answers I received from them reflects the magic that the city exudes:

“The energy is unlike anywhere else.”

“Always so much to do. Friends are always visiting.”

“Everything about New York is energized, and there are infinite possibilities.”

Yet even with all the positives, most said they did not expect to stay here long-term, echoing my own mixed feelings.

New York has never been shy about its complexity and allure, but I never realized how tough it would be to live in that, day in and day out. I’m here now, but who knows where I’ll end up. That’s the excitement of life. That’s something New York City has taught me to embrace.