Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why I Did Not Want a Liberal Arts Education

(This essay was recently published in "Learning for a Lifetime" by Lawrence University Press. Admittedly, this is not the usual fare for this blog, but additional cat stories will soon follow as per usual.)

I did not actually want a liberal arts education prior to coming to Lawrence. Like most teenagers, my definition of success was myopic in scope, and as an aspiring opera singer I could not fathom the need to study statistics, psychology, or any other subjects that were not immediately applicable to getting on a stage, singing loudly in a foreign language, and wearing a fabulous costume.

I ended up matriculating to Lawrence for two main reasons: Lawrence offered enough financial aid to compensate for my family’s severe lack of resources, and because after visiting all of the other campuses where I had been accepted, none of them felt quite right. Calling it intuition now would be a stretch given the long-term decision-making capabilities I had at age 17, but my gut steered me to Lawrence. The first time I visited the campus was the same day I moved into Plantz Hall for freshman year.

Like most Lawrentians, my four years in Appleton were full of activity. In addition to my requisite music courses, I took additional classes in German and French literature, statistics, graph theory, psychology, and statistics. I wrote features and opinion pieces for The Lawrentian, volunteered at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, sang at both Episcopal and Christian Science churches, and served as the president for Concert Choir and for Mortar Board.

To fulfill my work-study requirements, I worked at the Career Center and attended to important tasks like selling resume paper, editing cover letters, and gently reminding graduating seniors not to cuss whilst in a job interview. I also took a Saturday morning shift at Downer Commons and made omelets for hundreds of students in varied states of sobriety.

I left Lawrence wiser, certainly, but with my original goal of singing professionally in tact. Two hours after graduation, I removed my cap and gown and drove 23 hours to Boston where I would eventually earn my master’s degree at New England Conservatory of Music. Yes, I was grateful for my myriad experiences in a liberal arts environment, but weren’t they were just time-fillers until I started a professional career singing all over the world?

Two more years of conservatory training and hundreds of auditions led to some nominal successes, but in 2004 I started having trouble controlling my voice. First came tuning issues that were never present before. Next came the inability to consistently make sound on command. Chalking it up to acid reflux, a common plague for perpetually anxious singers, I tried every remedy: acupuncture sessions that depleted my already meager wallet, Chinese herbal teas that tasted like old paper and smelled even worse, prescription strength antacids that left me perpetually thirsty, and any number of meditation DVDs.

Finally, in 2005, otolaryngologists discovered varicose veins on my vocal cords and determined that I needed to undergo laser surgery to prevent my cords from hemorrhaging. Distraught, I made my appointment at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary knowing that a minor miscalculation could render me speechless.

As I donned blue construction goggles to protect my eyes from the laser, I regretted not taking the option of going under a general anesthesia. Now I would be forced to watch my own vocal surgery on a giant plasma TV like I was starring in a bad reality show on TLC. For nearly a decade, singing opera wasn’t just what I did but it was who I was, and now I was in jeopardy of losing access to this world in the span of a few minutes.

Rehabilitation included not speaking for a month and then slowly integrating speech back into my life for five minutes an hour for the first week, ten minutes an hour for week two, and so on. Subsequent speech therapy lasted a year until it was finally realized that my vocal cords would not be reliable enough to consider pursuing a career.

I was at a lost. My conservatory training of voice lessons, Czech diction, and stage make up seemed of questionable value now, and it took me a while to realize that my other arsenal of skills, less tactical but definitely more adaptive, were available thanks to my liberal arts education at Lawrence. My writing skills, rigorously honed during Freshman Studies and Psychology helped me earn my first grant-writing job in Boston at the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. The communication and problem solving skills acquired while running campus organizations helped me lead future staff meetings with a firm command, and my ability to conduct a successful and efficient job search was enabled by that $6.25 per hour work-study job at the Career Center.

Most important, when my career path veered in unexpected ways, my former professors from Lawrence were not just empathetic, though they were; they helped me by serving as references to employers because they had seen my non-musical abilities tested in class and on campus. My various jobs as an artist representative for modern dancers, grant writer for opera companies, consultant for an experimental theater, and now as a fundraiser for a New York City-based media outlet that keeps state and local government accountable would not have been possible were it not for the informed habits and skills I acquired during my liberal arts education.

My story could easily be miscategorized as a cautionary tale for aspiring artists--as a warning to make a “Plan B” just in case a career in the arts doesn’t work out. On the contrary, a liberal arts education does not negate one’s unique capability or potential of being an artistic practitioner. Indeed, the kind of education that is taught at Lawrence, liberal arts education, sparks the requisite creativity, adaptability, and self-awareness that anyone, in any profession, needs to thrive.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Catmen Cometh: Part I

(Pictured: Not our cats)

In the face of incessant mocking from the decidedly cooler A-List gays in my circle of friends – you know, the ones that go to parties hosted by GQ or “celebrities” from RuPul’s Drag Race -- *Einstein and I did the unthinkable for any gay couple still pretending to hang on to a shred of coolness: we adopted not one, but two adult cats.

In our defense, we did not name them Emily Dickinson and Virginia Wolf. We opted for ironic names derived from Arrested Development and remnants from childhood, Buster and KitKat. Still, we get it – the cats plus our obsession with Orange is the New Black plus my propensity to fall asleep at 9pm on the couch with an uneaten cookie in my mouth equals nerddom.

We opted to adopt two adult cats that were already bonded for pragmatic reasons. We aren’t home regular hours, kittens are a lot of work, they are used to entertaining themselves, etc. And adoption, more broadly speaking, has an important place in my family history: the three eldest in my family were all adopted and two of them were sent over from Korea when Korean babies were en vogue. Somehow we became yesterday’s news when Romanian, Russian and Chinese babies hit the scene. Never mind that for now. I’m over it. Really.  

Staying on trend, we opted for an open adoption and had two encounters with the previous foster parents. A sweet, cool couple from Brooklyn, they were very much in love with the cats but had developed severe allergies that could no longer be tolerated. That we, like them, were an interracial Asian and white couple added a certain level of levity and relief that the cats would remain progressively minded.

I have often joked that Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the TigerMother” was my philosophy, in essence, of great parenting. I was not raised by a Tiger Mother, but at one time I harbored a not-so-secret fantasy of becoming the stereotypical Asian parent that, through motivation/control, unleashes the full potential of my progeny.

In reality, I believed that Einstein’s Irish-Catholic upbringing, with its requisite tempering of extraneous emotion, would allow me to be the cool, fun parent and he the disciplinarian. It took less than 24 hours to disprove this theory.

Coming Soon…
The Catmen Cometh: Part II - The First Night or Why Self-Soothing Does Not Work on Cats

*Pseudonyms are used to protect the anonymity of all parties. Never mind the fact that the three people reading this blog know all the key players already.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Million Dollar Listing

A wise old friend told me that prior to beginning my apartment search I should preemptively apologize to my boyfriend for any future altercations because the process was going to bring out the worst in both of us. Said friend tends to be a bit of a curmudgeon so I disregarded his advice; it turns out he wasn’t as crazy as I thought.

After viewing 17 apartments together – not including ones that we vetted on our own – working with half a dozen realtors, sending nearly 100 e-mails, fielding endless phone calls and re-budgeting our New York existence down to a nub at least 50 times, we finally signed a lease this week.

In addition to the challenges that are just part of doing real estate business in New York City (read The Apartment Games), we had a philosophical hurdle from the start. My boyfriend, who shall be granted the pseudonym Einstein, was used to living within an arms length of every convenience possible – grocery stores with real cheese (not like the government cheese in my neighborhood), multiple entertainment venues, doormen, you know…things worthy of the hashtag #whitepeoplestuff. In exchange Einstein was willing to give up solitude, fresh air and a little sanity. His pick: Midtown.

I, on the other hand, will never shake my Midwestern roots and actually believe that a “spacious one bedroom” does not exist in New York City and that vomit-free sidewalks the day after St. Patrick’s Day are a right, not a privilege (as opposed to spandex which is a privilege and not a right). I also tend to go “Jet Blue” when surrounded by too many people. My pick: Not Midtown. What to do?

I had heard of this concept called “compromise” once, but having lived on my own for such a long time I couldn’t tell you much about it. I had already crafted a fantastical story in my mind about how living on the brownstone-lined streets near Lincoln Center would position us to bump into someone like Tina Fey who would in turn invite us to her apartment for a quick drink, become enthralled at our wit, style and grace and earn us a permanent place on her Polish doorman’s “it’s-ok-to-let-them-in-without-buzzing” list.

It was also a dream, seemingly no less fantastical after trudging through myriad failed relationships, to meet someone like Einstein who would, while being incredibly intelligent and handsome, be able to spin out a politically incorrect joke at just the wrong moment and offend everyone in the room - except me. He would also have to possess the patience of a saint to want to live with me at any juncture, survive a few of my occasional hag-storms (both public and private) and tolerate going to the opera, a lot…and not fall asleep…usually.

Looking for an apartment together brought up a lot of touchy topics that we hadn’t discussed before: money, future career plans, past relationships, money, negotiation styles, money. It gently reminded me to take the long view of what’s truly important, which is always a good lesson, and actually listen to someone else’s position instead of trying to hard sell my own. 

A few hours after signing the lease I realized that while Tina Fey might have to come downtown a few stops on the subway to become our best friend (which is still going to happen, mind you),  any home where I get to  start a life with Einstein is the right one for me. Vomit be damned.

Coming Soon…

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Apartment Games

“May the odds be ever in OUR favor…”

The emotional fuzzies that were produced after my boyfriend and I decided to move in together were quickly eviscerated when the reality set in that apartment hunting season was about to hit full swing in New York City. Much like Katniss in “The Hunger Games,” I would prefer to run away from the cornucopia of annoyances, hide in the woods, hope for the best and get a financial sponsor (or two).

Moving in general is stressful enough, but anyone who has been through it in New York understands that there are a host of additional complications like mafia-trained brokers, 1% vacancy rates, realtor fees as high as 15% of your yearly rent (plus first month, plus last month and plus a security deposit), “charming” apartments as small as dollhouses and hidden idiosyncrasies that brokers call “personality “ but really just mean no heat in the winter, garbage trucks outside your window at 3am Monday through Friday and an old bedbug problem that has “most certainly” been resolved.

One learns to read into real estate listings like horoscopes. I have learned that the following words and phrases should be avoided: junior, alcove, cozy, up and coming, easy approval, money saver, big bang for the buck, commuters dream, and safe neighborhood…we promise.

Whenever you tell a fellow New Yorker you are looking for an apartment, you usually get one or two leads, but mainly you get a lot of “shared experience” horror stories. One friend was recently offered a $2,800/month one bedroom apartment in the East Village that did not have a bathroom. Another friend found a gem of an apartment that conveniently placed the bathtub in the kitchen and was told by the broker, “I hope this isn’t a deal breaker for you.” It was.

When I first moved to New York five years ago, I landed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its abundant hipster population, patchouli-scented streets and a less-than-stringent hygienic code. I realized that wearing a suit to work and listening to Mozart on my iPod made me look like a Log Cabin Republican to these kids. Without the requisite tattoos, piercings, fixed-gear bike and skinny jeans, I would always feel like an outsider. Never mind the fact that a one-bedroom apartment started at around $1,800/month – the illusion of living like a bohemian was important and something I couldn’t afford to pull off while working as a modern dance agent.

I then moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a neighborhood so far south on the subway that its location necessitated riding the R-line for one stop, transferring to the N-line for 7 stops, transferring to the 2 –line for 3 stops, and then transferring to the 1-line for 4 stops to get to work. Much to my horror, a new reality show, “Brooklyn 11223,” was just piloted to mock all who preferred to dwell here. When the Oxygen network starts to feel superior to you and your surroundings, it’s time to reevaluate your life.

My boyfriend and I began our search in the East Village in a residential community that houses 30,000 young adults and much of the NYU population. Much like trying to choose a prospective assisted living home, group tours were offered on the hour to show off three model units and to explain the advantages of communal living.

A slightly manic and very loud woman who bore a startling resemblance to Bette Midler’s body double in “Hocus Pocus” monopolized the sales associate and tried to prove her social standing by referencing her two nannies and two housecleaners who would need 24-hour access to her apartment. Who was she kidding? By virtue of the fact that she was looking at the same apartments as we were, and ostensibly aiming for the same price range, she was more likely working as nanny than employing the services of one. While communal living has its advantages, a 5-minute ride on the subway provides me with enough crazy for one day; I don’t need it at home too.

We decided to leave the fake grunge of the East Village and search the suburban-esque Upper West Side. After viewing a few apartments, our broker cleared his throat, and awkwardly asked, “Um…I don’t mean to pry…but are you two…partners?”

Given the fact that we had only looked at one-bedrooms that day and accounting for my general flamboyance, I didn’t think he needed to ask. When we answered affirmatively and asked if that was going to be a problem, he sighed relief and said, “That’s GOOD. The owners love gays. You guys take such good care of your apartments.”

Then, after a momentary pause, he looked at my boyfriend conspiratorially and added, “…and Orientals pay their rent on time!” Good thing my English is so good, otherwise the compliment (?) might have slipped by.

Much like a Real Housewife, had I a glass of Pinot Grigio to throw, an airport table to tip or, at the very least, a cheap weave to pull, an altercation certainly would have ensued. However, since none of these items were readily available and I needed to fool my boyfriend into thinking I was sane at least until we started cohabitating, I bit my tongue. I cannot promise I will be so restrained next time.

Coming Soon…

Million Dollar Listing

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wheels on the Bus

Last summer, a few friends from my running group and I decided to defy Father Time, turn back the clock and act like little kids for a day. In light of our tight budgets, a trip to Disney World was out of the question so we racked our brains for an economical alternative.

A few conditions –

1. We wanted to act like little kids by partaking in death-defying rides and consuming copious amounts of funnel cakes without being judged for eating our feelings, but we still wanted to drink like 20-somethings (even though I, being the eldest in the group – shudder — was not and am not in my twenties).

2. None of us wanted to be surrounded by actual little kids while drinking like 20-somethings.

The solution? Gay Day at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey—sort of a poor man’s Disney World. A very, very poor man.

As someone who has had to coordinate group travel as part of a job, I was only too happy when my friend SG volunteered to plan the transportation. While I love SG dearly, this would be the last time I relinquish control of anything ever again.

Since we signed up late for the event, the only group transportation SG could find was something called the “Sober Bus.” We agreed that having to stay alcohol free for the hour long bus ride wasn’t the end of the world, and, in any event, we could always enjoy an adult beverage prior to our boarding. Certainly, others would do the same, no?

The day to celebrate our inner child finally came, and in advance of joining the Sober Bus we thought there would be nothing wrong with grabbing lunch, drinking a few pitchers of sangria (each) and letting the buzz of the last days of summer (read: alcohol) wash over us.

Just then SG noticed an e-mail sent by the bus coordinator. It read:

“Just as a reminder: Although our bus is substance free, Six Flags is not. If you feel yourself slipping today, feel free to get back on the bus and call your sponsor. Have a great day! xoxox”

The realization that we were stepping onto a 12-step bus settled in. I quickly started giving directives.

“Look guys,” I said. “Let’s be respectful, sit in the back of the bus and not cause a scene. Also, eat a mint…all of you!”

While the Listerine Breath Strips might have concealed the sangria on our breaths (but probably didn’t), I could not hide the lovely affliction known as “Asian Flush” unless I had a mask handy or convinced people that I had just gone face tanning. I decided the only thing I could do was get on the bus, head bowed Geisha-style, and stare out the window for 60 minutes. No one would bother me, right?

We sullenly got on the bus like members in a chain gang and made our way to the back. Based on the raucous environment and friendly exchanges between the other bus members, we realized that everyone on the bus knew each other from 12-step meetings.

My plan to fly under the radar was thwarted in about 30 seconds when I felt a tap on my shoulder and a cheerfully manic voice.

“Hi! I’m Timothy! I don’t recognize you from the meetings. How long have you been in CMA?”

Now, being a classical music nerd, the only CMA I knew of was Chamber Music America, but even in my confused and inebriated state I realized we were not talking about the same nonprofit organizations.

I panicked. I looked to my friends to help me justify our presence, but they quickly denied me by looking out their respective windows while snickering.

“Uh…” I stammered. “My name is Jonah…we…I…heard about this bus online…and…thought I would feel…more COMFORTABLE in THIS environment.”

Timothy gave me a look that smacked of “I hear you, my brother,” placed a palm on my shoulder and said, “I see. Well, I look forward to seeing much more of you in the future.”

Just then, the bus coordinator announced that everyone’s name had been thrown into a drawing, and a few lucky riders would be receiving gift bags in just a few short moments.

Now, as many of my friends know, I enter any and all free contests. My borderline obsession with give-a-ways has garnered me a free trip to Atlantic City, two free airline tickets to anywhere in the United States, a 12 ounce Jamba Juice, a box set of The Sopranos among other fabulous tax free prizes. This was one situation where I wanted to lose big.

“Is there a Jonah on the bus? Come on up and claim your prize!!!”

My self-assigned sponsor was elated and yelled, “He’s back here!” while pointing and jumping up and down.

The uber-manic energy on the bus alarmed me as I snaked my way down the tiny aisle towards my gift bag. One man slapped my behind. One man picked me up and spun me around. Only then did I notice that many of the men were missing teeth and had high densities of tattoos. Curious, I thought…

I sheepishly took my gift bag, thanked the bus coordinator and made my way back to my seat. More of the same – behind slapping. Yelling. More missing teeth. What was going on? And the gift bag? It was filled to the brim with tons of candy, coffee and a Hello Kitty keychain.

I recounted this tale to a friend a few days after the trip. Being more familiar with the 12-step world, he alerted me to the fact that the CMA bus was not for recovering alcoholics or people who enjoyed Mozart string quartets.

“Jonah,” my friend chided. “CMA is Crystal Meth Anonymous. Everyone there thought you were recovering from a Meth addiction.”

I suddenly felt stupid for bragging about how many numbers I got that day. No one was trying to pick me up. They were trying to save me!

Coming Soon…

You Are Not from Austria and Other Tales of Travel