The Juggler’s Act

Several weeks later than I intended: hello again, dear readers.

My blog posts about my summer job, working on conservation and elephant research at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, have come less frequently than I had wanted. To be frank, ever since my introductory post, they haven’t come at all.

That drought, however brief and unnoticed, stems from how busy I feel. I work less than most adults; still, this job is the closest I’ve had to a full-time position.

I wake up at 8:00 a.m. every weekday morning so I can start driving to the Zoo by 9:20. It takes more than half an hour to get door-to-door: from my house, in Shaker Heights, to my desk in the Zoo’s veterinary hospital, the Sarah Allison Steffee Center for Zoological Medicine.

From 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., I work steadily. Until recently, I spent between one and two hours outside most days conducting surveys with zoo visitors about conservation. I also spent about an hour and a half outside most days observing the Zoo’s African elephants and recording their behaviors.

Those two responsibilities have since changed. I finished conducting the surveys, so I can cross that duty off my list, and I’ve passed reliability testing for elephant observations. That means, actually, that I’ll formally observe the elephants less often. I’ve observed the elephants every day during the last month as practice, to learn to identify the elephants and their behaviors with speed and accuracy. Last week, my practice paid off: my research supervisor, Bonnie Baird, decided I could reliably record the elephants’ behaviors by myself. Now, I observe the elephants in accordance with the department’s schedule, which only gives me time slots two to three times per week.

I still see the elephants every day, though. I can take my lunch breaks in the African Elephant Crossing; I watch the elephants any time I walk through the Zoo. Not doing elephant observations every day merely means that I fill my six hours-per-day with other work.

And believe me, there’s plenty of that. To my surprise, most of my assignments come from the Conservation Department. I’ve been thrilled to find the Cleveland Zoo dedicated to national and international conservation efforts, led by Dr. Kristen Lukas, the Zoo’s Curator of Conservation and Science, and Kym Gopp, the Curator of Conservation. With Bonnie, Kristen and Kym round out my supervisors this summer.

When asked what I do for the Zoo, I often say, “Everything.” That’s not true, of course — I have no role in the vast majority of the Zoo’s activities, including those in the conservation department. But I’ve gotten so many conservation assignments, it can be hard to keep track of them.

My work may make the most sense as a list. So far, I’ve…

  • written content pages about the illegal wildlife trade for FutureForWildlife.org, the Zoo’s conservation website;
  • designed pages for FutureForWildlife.org about opportunities to take action for conservation;
  • helped plan World Giraffe Day, which was June 21 (the longest day of the year — yes, that’s on purpose);
  • consolidated and organized the Institutional Conservation Strategy;
  • started designing a new bulletin board for the public area of the Steffee Center;
  • written social media posts and an in-the-works proposal for future social media accounts;
  • created a framework for Future For Wildlife events and activities; and
  • begun planning a possible collaborative program about illegal wildlife trade and wildlife trafficking in cooperation with other zoos and international experts in 2017.

And that’s just what I’ve started. I’ll also help plan activities for World Tiger Day (July 29) and World Elephant Day (August 12); continue work on FutureForWildlife.org; create a mini database about the Zoo’s conservation partners; help identify ways to communicate Future For Wildlife; and draft a pre-proposal for a possible collaborative initiative for Association of Zoos and Aquariums zoos to collectively communicate about and combat the illegal wildlife trade.

In addition, I learned how to record elephants’ behavior from their nighttime videos Thursday. So even though I’ve finished the surveys and I’m doing fewer daytime observations, I have plenty of work to do.

That’s been more stressful than I’d anticipated. As most of you know, I fit the textbook definition of overachieving. I’ve never shied from working hard, I get good grades, and I get less sleep than I should. Even so, this summer has been a new kind of challenge for me. I’ve never held a full-time job before, and I’ve been able to spend most summers relaxing until now. (My summer commitment to getting healthier doesn’t help in that respect: I spend about two hours exercising after work each day. That’s not exactly an afternoon cat-nap.)

But that new responsibility is a big reason why this job is so important for me. The work I’m doing, in addition to teaching me new skills and information, comprises a leap forward in what I call Adulting: the quasi-imaginary journey more than five billion people around the world embark on every day, with a range of failures and successes.

I may be writing blog entries later than I’d wanted, and I may feel like a juggler sometimes. Overall, though, a month into this endeavor, I’d call this step in Adulting a success.

Psalm 23: A Psalm of Cleveland

LeBron is our shepherd; we shall not want.

He maketh us to scream in amazement: he leadeth us on the banks of Lake Erie.

He restoreth our hope: he leadeth our Cavs in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though we walk through the valley of the Lineup of Death, we will fear no evil: for LeBron is with us; his blocks and assists they comfort us.

He preparest triple-doubles before us in the presence of our enemies: he has anointed our city with championships; our cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives: and we shall dwell in the house of LeBron forever.

Composed by my dad, Joe White, and I in honor of the Miracle at the Oracle.  

Cleveland, the Beautiful

I’ve had a night’s sleep since The Comeback, and I still don’t quite believe it.

My Defend the Land T-shirt, my 2016 NBA Champs hat — they feel soft and light in my hands. They’re as oversized as all unisex clothing is for 5-foot-2 women. They smell of cotton and capitalism, like such mass-produced items do. Yet a part of me has yet to grasp their realness. I feel like I’m wading through a dream, unusually sharp-focused but no less surreal.

Cleveland won. I believed in the Cavaliers; I believed in my hometown even more. But somehow, those two words ring strange in my ears. Cleveland won. Cleveland won. Cleveland won.

What beautiful new words.

I have visited Venice, Italy and lived in Paris, France. I’ve biked through fields of bright tulips in the Netherlands; I’ve stood in awe in the Sistine Chapel and Chartres. I’ve gazed, squinting, at sparkling desert sands from the top of Masada and down at treetops from the Great Wall of China. I’ve been blessed to experience more beauty and wonder in 19 years than most people see in a lifetime.

But in the past 22 hours, in Cleveland, OH, I have witnessed the greatest beauty thus far.

I spent last night downtown, at the Game Seven watch party in Quicken Loans Arena, with three of my closest friends. I got in line at 5 p.m. for entry; a half-hour later, the line stretched out the Q’s doors and down the street. The doors opened at 6:30 for the 8:00 game. People waiting in line were indistinguishable for the people who simply waited: the thousands of Cavs fans who flooded the Plaza, turned the parking garage into a theater and crowded the streets until Cleveland closed them. About 30,000 Clevelanders — yes, some people came from out of town, but let’s be realistic — became a united, electrified force.

And the game was happening 2,500 miles away.

We remained one force during all four quarters and beyond. Inside the Q, fans screamed as one, creating the loudest sporting event I have ever experienced. We worried together every time a Cavalier fell; we exploded in “M.V.P.” chants for LeBron James in one voice; when the buzzer sounded, we cried shared tears, 52 years in the making. The floor shook underneath us.

After the game — after our King knelt and cried into his hands, after Adam Silver handed Dan Gilbert the gleaming trophy, after my friends and I waited in line for an hour to buy 2016 Championship gear — we headed outside unsure of what we might find. I thought we might walk into a riot; I expected, in fact, smashed cars and scattered fires. And, indeed, there was at least one police car with a shattered windshield. One firetruck got commandeered.

But the biggest danger I faced was stepping on shards of broken beer bottles that littered the ground. I have never felt safer around my fellow Clevelanders than I did last night. Instead of celebrating with violent outbursts, strangers let themselves become siblings. More than a dozen people who I will never see again high-fived my friends and I walking down the street. We chanted expletives together against Steph Curry and Draymond Green anywhere more than three people gathered. We exchanged giddy grins and cheers with one another, dazed with shock and relief, all of us drunk with joy.

This drunken night has no hangover, though. For the first time in my life, Cleveland has a no-strings-attached happy ending. All of today, it’s shimmered in the air: a bliss that a working-class city, full of loyal, driven, tough people, hasn’t experienced in half a century. It’s not that Clevelanders are never happy — we love our city. We have moments both dark and bright, like anyone. But the shared elation embracing Cleveland now is special. I’ve never witnessed something so pure and wondrous in my life.

That is the beauty which so overwhelms me — the greatest I have ever experienced. Lasting joy.

Cleveland won. Cleveland won. Cleveland won. And we’re all smiling during this waking dream.

Of Pachyderms and Plotzing

The Pachyderm Project: Entry One

Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve hung out with elephants.

Okay, maybe “hanging out” is an overstatement. Usually, the elephants were munching hay; I was snapping photos and plotzing. But for ten consecutive weekdays, I’ve spent between 30 minutes and four hours watching elephants.

I’ll keep up that routine for nearly the entire summer thanks to my work with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

I’m working on the Zoo’s elephant behavioral research projects from May 23 through August 19 as a summer research volunteer. One of the projects involves observing the elephants in person, during the day; the other involves observing the elephants at night, through video footage. I’m also helping launch an awareness initiative around the Zoo’s conservation efforts, Future for Wildlife, and the programs entailed therein.

The whole time, I’ll be writing blog posts about my experience — both by choice and by requirement. To afford to participate in an unpaid program this summer, I applied for and earned one of Columbia University’s Work Exemption Program grants. My WEP grant covers the “summer contribution” — approximately $3,000 — which I would otherwise have to pay as part of my financial aid package. In exchange, I have to complete a reflection project: writing blog posts about my experience as the summer passes.

Luckily for me, I had an elephant-themed blog at the ready. So here we are: halfway through my shoddy first entry, explaining the work I’ll write about for the next 11 weeks.

Because of my lifelong passion for elephants, this opportunity fulfills one of my dreams. I will spend nearly 60 days not just watching elephants, but also helping them. My research will help assess the elephants’ wellness at the Zoo and find ways to improve their environment. My conservation work will raise awareness of elephants’ plights in the wild, in addition to those of other wildlife species.

In brief: if I do my job well, elephants at the Zoo and in the wild will benefit. Yes, I will also learn new research skills — by which I mean all research skills, since I know none. However, the biggest reward of this experience has little to do with my personal betterment. On August 19, I aim to feel that I have made a positive impact for elephants at the Zoo and wild elephants in Africa.

That’s a lofty goal, and one that I likely won’t be able to ensure when the time comes. But at the very least, I will gain tools to keep helping elephants in the future. Although I know little about my career path, I will always advocate for elephants. I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: we cannot allow the extinction of such a beautiful, important species. We must show we are better than that. We must try to match elephants’ humanity.

I’ll get to spend my summer living out that principle. If you’re interested, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.