Culture Corner: Stories of Individual Change and Redemption in Movies

Bernie Langs

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” The scorpion replies: “It’s my nature…”   – The Fable of The Scorpion and The Frog

Spoilers ahead!

There are countless films and television shows that document the trajectory of characters initially introduced with overbearing and seemingly insurmountable negative qualities in their personalities who, over the course of the story, gradually morph into more ethical and better versions of themselves. These tales of self-discovery deliver positive, hopeful affirmations that we are all capable of making changes amid newfound understandings of our inner natures.

The King of Staten Island (2020), directed by Judd Apatow, follows a 24-year-old man (played by Pete Davidson) struggling with Attention Deficit Disorder and frequent flare-ups of mental illness. Amid life’s pressures, he is unable to control his inner demons and transition from an adolescent mindset to that of a responsible adult. Davidson’s character, loosely based on his own experiences after the loss of his firefighter father in the 9/11 attack, never accepts and comes to terms with the death of his dad (also a firefighter in the film) at age seven, arresting his growth and development. While continuously making a mess of his own life, he drags down the life of his well-adjusted, academic sister and sabotages his mother’s first relationship since the death of her husband. He also takes advantage of the young woman who loves him as she tries again and again to make him realize his potential and do something productive with his talents. As I watched the movie, I kept wondering if he’d ever change for the better and fix the terrible mess he’d created. I also speculated on how a shift in personality would be presented believably by Apatow, given the massive scope of the protagonist’s destructive behavior. When Davidson’s character finally begins to mature and comprehend the depth of what he’s done to family and friends, it’s cathartic to watch him succeed in making believable amends.

Pete Davidson on the Staten Island Ferry with Bel Powley in The King of Staten Island (2020); photo: Universal Pictures from:

The late German philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno, mocked American movie culture for providing plot lines where the audience knows either from the start or quite quickly how it’s going to turn out in the end, which he believed showcases the simplicity and mindlessness of the genre. I don’t mind realizing where a movie is heading, the beauty for me is in the details and originality of how each director presents stories of love, drama, laughter, and action, and at times, salvation. Films using admittedly well-worn concepts can be viewed as uniquely conceived if they present new twists and turns to tales of our timeless struggles, providing fresh emotional expression of our common humanity.

Some of my favorite movies depicting unique characters who change over the course of the story include: Blood Diamond, 10 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lord of the Rings, American Hustle, Star Wars, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. I find the greatest and most stunning moment of terrific self-knowledge initiating a reversal of ideals occurs in the ending sequence of the 1957 epic war film directed by David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai. In this moment, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) mutters with horror, “What have I done?”, comprehending that the bridge he’s helped construct with fellow prisoners of war during World War II has value only in terms of “aiding and abetting the enemy.” The boastful pride of what they’ve created turns to horror when he finally understands what was obvious all along: the bridge will be used for troop and weapons transport by the Japanese and will cost Allied lives—and that it has to be destroyed immediately.

Alec Guinness asks himself “What have I done?” in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

My favorite story documenting an admirable progressive inner change is Groundhog Day, the 1993 classic fantasy featuring Bill Murray as an acerbic, jaded television weatherman forced to reckon with himself as he’s stuck in a time loop of endless repetition of the same day, February 2. In addition to being extraordinarily funny and downright clever, the movie points to larger truths and lessons. The understandings that Murray slowly fathoms are presented in a manner that make them plausible and believable, even within the ridiculous parameters of the outlandish surreal world he inhabits. It’s a beautiful thing to behold as he finally emerges, embracing life and new-found love.

Bill Murray with Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day (1993); photo: THE KOBAL COLLECTION –

Life differs from art, but many of us have long-time friends we’ve seen grow out of their more destructive traits to embrace better ones, resulting in a less stressful relationship and a renewed bond. As individuals, it can be very difficult to forgive ourselves for things we have said or done in the past that leave us with deeply-held, often bitter, regret. To change one’s life and personality for the better can at times be a slow, difficult process taking years of struggle and constant self-awareness, while keeping a diligent eye out for relapses to past destructive patterns of behavior and thinking. Storytelling can provide an almost magical and profound hope that we can change our inner being, our unique natures, arresting the unfounded belief that our worst faults and actions are genetically impossible to prevent from expression, and the idea that at times we can’t help but act solely with innate and fixed responses, impossible to unlearn. The “nature” aspect of the “Nature or Nurture” debate should not be used as an excuse to acquiesce and surrender to the notion that we carry personality traits beyond the control of free will, choice, and reason.

Rare is the case of a human soul that behaves as the Scorpion, knowingly and unremittingly taking himself down to a watery grave along with the kindhearted frog. It is worth remembering that as murderous and unchangeable the nature of the scorpion is in the fable, the frog displays the characteristic of trust, and we should not lose heart that this inner purity of spirit finishes him off in the end. Our movies, television shows, and novels are filled with countless tales of “scorpions” who end up reversing course midstream to save the day in creatively wondrous, exciting, and moving ways.

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Pets of Tri-I: Remy

Audrey Goldfarb

This month, I interviewed Remy, a spunky and fashionable one-year-old French bulldog. We met for the first time on the lawn of the Graduate Student Residence on a particularly frigid February afternoon. Remy’s curious and energetic nature was undeterred despite the temperature, and also despite the fact that he has probably explored that patch of grass hundreds of times previously. His genuine enthusiasm for his surroundings reminded me to appreciate the mundanities of everyday life. And his chic red jacket and adorable booties inspired me to dress for the job I want, not for the job I have. Remy lives on campus with his doting parents, Rockefeller University Ph.D. candidate Nicole Infarinato and her partner, Ryan Platt.

Audrey Goldfarb: How did you first meet Nicole and Ryan?

Remy: We met when I was just a little puppy in New Jersey. They wanted to take me home that minute, but I had a hairy mole on my eyeball that needed surgery. I guess no one is perfect! I had to stay in a cone all by myself to heal, but I am tough as nails. Mummy and Daddy came back to pick me up during a snow squall. What is a snow SQUALL!? It took hours to get to NYC, but I loved my new home and all my new toys.

AG: Have you trained your parents to do any tricks?

R: If I huff and go under the table, that’s how they know I need to go outside, immediately. Once they understand, I do downward dog stretch to show them I’m limbering up for our walk. If I bark and gurgle at them, it means Mummy or Daddy need to stop what they’re doing immediately and come throw my tennis ball or dragon, Puff. When I drop my toys off the couch, I stamp my feet and curse in dog so they know I need immediate assistance. I do not like waiting.

AG: Have you seen any good shows lately?

R:  I always start my day with the weatherman Erick Adame on New York 1 News. I love Erick Adame! Then I watch Hoda on the Morning Show. I love Hoda! And also, have you seen Paw Patrol? It is riveting and profound.

AG: What are your favorite foods? 


AG: Where do you like to take Nicole and Ryan on walks?

R:  Off campus! Must escape!

AG: How do you help out around the apartment?

R:  Moral support and entertainment. I have been saving the year, really. I also keep watch in our window in case something very interesting is happening that we must not miss out on.

Some days are slower than others, but my attention never wavers!

AG: Have you been enjoying the snowy weather?

R:  Yes, it’s 100% different from rain. Daddy bought me a big red coat and snow boots. This is normal and not weird at all. I am a fashion icon. Stay tuned for my spring season looks!

It’s not normal for anyone to look this good.

AG: Have you witnessed anything interesting lately?

R: Yes! There are some shady snowmen that have been popping up around campus. I do not trust them. Where are their masks!? I pull out their stick arms to defend us.

AG: What is your astrological sign?

R: Virgo, but I’m really a Taurus. I am a little bull! My birthday is September 14. Please send gifts!

AG: What is your biggest fear?

R: Missing out. I have serious FOMO.

AG: What is your love language?

R:  Popcorn.

AG: What is your greatest strength?

R: Keeping everyone happy during the pandemic. Also, walking in doggie boots. I slay!

AG: What is your biggest weakness?

R:  Popcorn.

AG: Describe your perfect Saturday.

R:  After sleeping in, having brunch, and surveying campus, I watch Manchester United with Daddy. Then we all go on a long walk and explore NYC. I find a new tennis ball and am delighted. Maybe I even get to go into CVS. We end the day with cuddles and popcorn on the couch. I get many cookies and take many naps.  

It’s a good thing the players can’t see how much better I look in this uniform than they do

AG: What would Nicole and Ryan do without you?

R:  *Huffs and curses in dog*

Pet owners who would like their furry, feathered, or scaly companions to be featured should direct their correspondence to

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Natural Expressions: Gracie

Kristina Hedbacker of the Friedman Laboratory at The Rockefeller University would like to share her artwork, “Gracie.” This piece is a 16 x18 mixed media collage.


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Natural Expressions: Digital

Bernie Langs and Mary Jane Folan of The Rockefeller University Development Office announce the re-release of the novella, The Isle of Souls. The book, written by Langs with new edits provided by Folan, follows the pursuit of the mysterious “Isle of Souls” in the East China Sea. This 2020 edition of The Isle of Souls is available now on Amazon.

Email Megan E. Kelley at to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.

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February 2021 Cover

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Support for Students Did Not Waver in 2020

Audrey Goldfarb

Flexibility and individualized support are major strengths of Rockefeller’s graduate program and have been especially beneficial to students in 2020. The Dean’s Office is one of Rockefeller’s most valuable resources for students. Dr. Emily Harms, the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, discussed her experience supporting the student body this year.

Virtual meeting with the Dean’s Office. Photo courtesy of Emily Harms.

Harms and her colleagues in the Dean’s Office played an invaluable role in mitigating the impact of this past year’s extraordinary events. “We thought our fundamental responsibility was to provide support to students and postdocs professionally and personally,” she said. “To try to alleviate as much stress as possible by being flexible and understanding of individual circumstances.”

Harms said that many students expressed concerns about meeting deadlines after campus shut down. Almost immediately, the Dean’s Office suspended automatic email reminders for Faculty Advisory Committee meetings and other deadlines. Harms and Dr. Sid Strickland, Dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, sent an email in May to reassure the student body that nearly all deadlines would be flexible and individual circumstances would be taken into account. “As we heard from students about things that were stressful to them, we tried to be very clear about expectations and flexibility,” Harms said. “People could come to talk to us about individual issues at any time.”

The Dean’s Office was proactive in making sure students were set up to manage their time most effectively. For one, they shuffled the curriculum to shift some fall courses to the summer, when labs were at limited capacity. Harms said students appreciated the opportunity to focus on coursework while stuck at home.

“I also think that people just need to take time for their personal wellness,” Harms said. The Dean’s Office discussed strategies with Rockefeller’s mental health providers, in order to better advise students who were struggling.

As the year progressed, discussions and concerns expanded beyond the pandemic to include the movement for racial justice and the divisive presidential election. Harms and her colleagues are heavily involved in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice initiatives on campus, many of which are student-led and developing rapidly. “I think it’s great that it’s becoming part of the fabric of university operations and our day-to-day discussions, which it should be,” Harms said.

“There are a lot of committees doing work behind the scenes to work on increasing diversity and inclusion at Rockefeller,” Harms said.  For example, the University is seriously considering hiring a Chief Diversity Officer.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Dean’s Office was set up to accommodate unique situations and difficulties in 2020, because this was also their pre-pandemic policy. “Because of our small size, we have the luxury of being able to deal with circumstances on a case-by-case basis,” Harms said.

This year has highlighted, not changed, the care with which Rockefeller supports its students, postdocs, and staff. “What the last year has shown me is that one of the things I value most about Rockefeller is the sense of community and support for one another,” Harms said. “I feel grateful to work at an institution where people value the truth and have each other’s backs during challenging times.”

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The Last Mass Vaccine Campaign in New York City

Aileen Marshall

There has been much news coverage lately about the distribution of the new COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned a previous campaign to inoculate New Yorkers against smallpox in 1947, which supposedly covered six million people in just about a month. It was the last mass vaccine campaign in New York City. There are similarities and differences between these two incidents.

Smallpox, like COVID-19, is caused by a virus, in this case the variola virus. It is a DNA virus, a single linear double strand. It is unusual in that it replicates inside the host cell’s cytoplasm rather than in its nucleus. It also makes a unique DNA-dependent RNA polymerase, and its outside is made up of Golgi body membranes, an organelle that is normally found inside a cell. Smallpox, like COVID-19, is transmitted through the air by droplets from an infected person coughing or sneezing. In some cases, although less likely, it can be transmitted by the used clothing or bed linens of an infected person. It presents as a full body rash that turns into blisters, as well as fever, body aches, and fatigue. There is no cure for smallpox, only management of the symptoms. While its mortality rate is 20-30%, people who survive smallpox are left with severe scars and sometimes blindness. It can only be definitively diagnosed by the detection of clusters of proteins called Guarneri bodies, from a skin biopsy.

The world experienced isolated outbreaks of smallpox like the one in New York City in 1947. On March 1 of that year, Eugene Le Bar, a Maine businessman, and his wife got off a bus from Mexico. They checked into a Midtown hotel and did some sight-seeing. He soon developed a fever and a rash and was admitted to Bellevue Hospital. Three days later, he was transferred to Willard Parker Hospital, the city hospital for communicable diseases at that time, on East 16th Street. His initial diagnosis was an adverse reaction to the drugs he had taken for his fever. But two days later, he died. On March 21 and 27 respectively, two other patients came in with similar symptoms who had been at Willard Parker at the same time: a 22-month-old girl from the Bronx and a 25-year-old hospital orderly, Ishmael Acosta, from Harlem. At that point, the Health Department began to suspect smallpox.

Israel Weinstein, the New York City Health Department Commissioner, received lab results that showed the presence of Guarneri bodies from Le Bar’s skin biopsy on April 4. He realized that the traditional Easter Parade was only two days away. With those massive crowds, smallpox could spread quickly. Along with Mayor William O’Dwyer, he held a news conference urging every New Yorker to get vaccinated. Even if you had gotten vaccinated as a child, he suspected that immunity may have waned. “Be safe, be sure, get vaccinated!” was the slogan. They immediately set up free clinics in hospitals, health departments, police and fire stations, and schools. They recruited volunteers from the health department, the Red Cross, off-duty police and firefighters, and the still existing World War II Air Raid Wardens to help run the clinics. The mayor received his injection on television. People lined up by the hundreds. There were only about half a million doses of smallpox vaccine in the city’s stockpile at first. Some doses were distributed to private physicians. Weinstein reached out to the seven smallpox vaccine manufacturers in the country, who promised around two million doses. He acquired another approximately 800,000 doses from the military, for a total of roughly three million doses. On April 11, The New York Times reported that 600,000 people had gotten their shot.

Carmen Acosta, Ishmael Acosta’s wife, died on April 13, the only other death in this outbreak. The story appeared on the front page of The New York Times. This drove people out to the clinics in greater numbers. The city’s tracking and tracing program concluded on April 15 that all of the traced contacts with Le Bar had been isolated or vaccinated. This practice is called ring vaccination. Some sources say that this is what eventually ended the 1947 New York  City smallpox outbreak.

On April 16, the Times reported that the city had run out of vaccine doses. Police had to break up crowds who were told that there were no more shots after waiting in line. The next day, the city received another million doses from private labs. The Times daily tally on April 21 stated that a total of 3.4 million New Yorkers had been vaccinated. The next day, the tally was another 200,000.

The city declared the outbreak over on April 24 and started closing clinics two days later. The last clinic closed on May 3, and the city said that they had vaccinated six million people. If one adds up the daily counts from the Times, the total comes to 2.5 million. It is not clear which number is accurate, but the lower number is still an impressive feat in just one month. In the end, there were twelve confirmed infections and two deaths. The city had an advantage in 1947 as opposed to now in that the smallpox vaccine already existed, and only one shot was required. Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 by the 33rd World Health Assembly. As for COVID-19, as of January 14, 2021 the city had administered 303,671 shots since December 15, most of which were the first dose. The daily number of doses administered  has been as high as 24,289. If this rate increases, and our vaccine supply is sufficient, it is possible that we may have all ten million New Yorkers vaccinated in a little over a year.

This transmission electron micrograph (TEM) depicts a number of smallpox virus virions. The “dumbbell-shaped” structure inside the smallpox virion is the viral core, which contains the viral DNA. This DNA acts as the blueprint by which the virus replicates itself once it is released into the host cell. Credit: This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #1849.

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2021 Fitness Resolutions

Anna Amelianchik

In the pre-COVID world, if you had seen me running down the street, it would have almost certainly meant that someone was chasing me down with a machete. As an avid dancer, I took my cardiovascular fitness for granted and snubbed every other form of cardio, including running. This all changed in March 2020 when I took to running up and down the East River Esplanade to appease my stressed-out and sleep-deprived brain. Day by day and mile by mile, I became faster and stronger. With an improvement in fitness came an increase in confidence, and with it—the incessant need to keep on moving, no matter what. And then it got cold. Cold weather running is a reprieve for the restless, and, with the right gear, it can be safe and pleasant. However, my biggest challenge was overcoming the activation barrier that keeps you from stepping outside and doing something that is objectively hard while battling the elements. This is where the tradition of New Years’ resolutions came in handy.

Browsing through upcoming challenges on the fitness tracking app Strava one day, I came across a “New Year 90” challenge sponsored by a certain high-end athleisure retailer. All I had to do was workout for ninety minutes a week for the first twenty-one days of 2021, clocking in four and a half hours in total. And although any workout could count toward the goal, I decided to make it all about running. This resolution is not going to carry me through all of 2021, but it will certainly allow me to start the year with the right attitude. As a bonus, completing this challenge on Strava would give me a 30% discount on purchases made with the certain-high-end-retailer, and who doesn’t need another pair of $100 leggings in their life?! While I made the resolution to stop being a baby about the cold weather and run consistently, other members of our community decided to run smart:

Audrey Goldfarb, graduate student and member of the Natural Selections editorial board:

“My resolution is to run less and to avoid overuse injuries, which were a major problem for me in 2019-2020. Broadly, I want to balance out running with other kinds of exercise and listen to my body more when it’s hurting.

So far, that’s meant doing two to three shorter runs during the week and a longer run on the weekends, doing a short yoga/stretching routine when I have time in the morning or evening, and cross training (lifting, climbing, or biking) on the other days. I’m also working on making peace with rest days.”

For those of us who want to stay active but avoid going outside, online spin classes are a great option and one that is easily accessible on a variety of platforms. Our former editor-in-chief and a recent Rockefeller University graduate is partial to Peloton Digital, and app that gives you access to spin classes even if you don’t own a Peloton bike (yet!):

Sarah Martini (Baker), Ph.D., Rockefeller University graduate program alumna:

“I recently made the decision to try to mimic the Peloton experience without the Peloton price tag and got a basic spin bike which I have paired with the Peloton app. My goal is to go on 300 rides throughout the course of 2021. As winter has set in and work-from-home fatigue has dragged on, I have found that having a new fitness goal and a variety of classes to take is helping me to stay excited to work out each day. Plus, following my former colleagues’ fitness journeys through the Peloton app is helping me stay connected and motivated. Feel free to add me on Peloton @skbake!”

In 2020, many more people experienced the excitement of digital spin classes, and a lucky member of our community even got to take home the most coveted e-bike that she happily shares with her family:

Erin Norris, research assistant professor in the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Genetics:

“After sitting around for months in quarantine and literally watching my physical fitness plummet, my husband and I decided to purchase a Peloton. Several of our friends have done the same. Having the bike to ride (in addition to strength, yoga, and meditation classes) has been amazing for multiple reasons. I can already feel myself becoming fitter, my energy and mood are better, and my sleep has improved greatly. Sharing this experience with my husband has helped encourage both of us to exercise every single day, and we communicate with our friends about favorite rides and instructors. My daughters have also joined me in yoga sessions! It’s become a fitness resolution for my whole family, which is very exciting and a lot of fun!”

However, cardiovascular exercise is only a small part of the journey that leads to improved physical and mental health. Equally important are other forms of physical activity, well-balanced diet, and quality sleep. A member of our community who chose to stay anonymous has made the resolution to prioritize restful sleep in an effort to make full recovery from COVID-19:


“My fitness goals this year are quite modest—I spent the majority of last year struggling with symptoms of “long COVID,” and I am hesitant to physically overextend myself and relapse. I’m working on my posture and occasionally taking the stairs or walking around campus when I have the energy. I’m not sure if sleep is a fitness goal, but I’ve prioritized getting enough rest and I can say it’s already having a positive impact.”

Whatever your destination may be, you have no choice but to start from where you are. That New Year’s resolution might be just the first step, but isn’t that where every great journey starts? At Natural Selections, we are happy to cheer you on as you embark on your fitness journey in 2021.

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The Curious Appeal of “The Innocent” in Film: Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump

Bernie Langs

The 1994 film Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis, focuses on the life of a supposedly simple-minded man who manages to constantly find himself in the center of many historically turbulent moments during the 1960s and 1970s. Along the way, the Greenbow, Alabama native meets several presidents, sees combat action in the Vietnam war, founds a highly successful shrimping business, and literally jogs across the entire expanse of America. The movie, which won numerous Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Tom Hanks as Gump, and Best Director for Zemeckis, is also a touching love story that tracks Gump’s childhood love of the kind-hearted and rebellious Jenny (Robin Wright) to their cathartic yet heartbreaking marriage.

Forrest Gump movie poster

Hanks’ Gump, with his melodic southern twang and amusing range set of sayings and vocal mannerisms, is best described as an “Innocent.” He is marvelously good-natured and a steadfast friend to his war buddy Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) and the formidable Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), saving the latter’s life during an intense napalm bombing during the Vietnam war. Lt. Dan later descends into despair as a double amputee war veteran, and it is through Gump’s dedication to him over many years that he emerges once more a renewed man with a fresh lease on life. Gump encouraged a similar transformation in Jenny, who struggled with disastrous self-hatred and drug abuse before finally realizing, like the savvy Lt. Dan, what is of real importance in life. Their understanding is gained by slowly awakening to the consistent, exemplary behavior of Gump, an expression of his quiet, “God-given” instinctive ethical wisdom. Gump has, through the thick and thin of all his extraordinary experiences, remained consistent to his unique self, and has the uncanny ability to brush aside constant insults and abuse about his intelligence, which he hears and quickly dismisses as of no real relevance.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released in 2008 and was directed by David Fincher. Fincher’s movies always take chances and films such as Mank (2020), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and The Social Network (2010)  stand up to repeated viewing. Benjamin Button received numerous Oscar nominations, but won only three in minor categories. Brad Pitt, perhaps the most underrated and underappreciated actor in movie history, is absolutely stunning in the lead as Benjamin Button, a native of New Orleans raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) as her own. Button’s Louisiana accent is a completely different Southern vocal characterization compared to Gump’s. Pitt’s character speaks with intonations and inflections that are music to the ear, akin to the flow of a melodic ballad softly performed by a New Orleans jazz band. Pitt masterfully rises and falls on the waves of his character’s unique and amazing life, as we witness how he is welcomed into the hearts of those he encounters on his journey.

Benjamin Button movie poster

Benjamin Button is a difficult movie. The story maintains a disturbing undercurrent leaving the viewer feeling almost guilty in finding it so troublesome. Based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Button is a lifespan fantasy of, for lack of better words, a “freak of nature,” who biologically ages in reverse, from old to young. He is born to this world and immediately abandoned as an infant-sized, shriveled, old man with the neurology of a baby. He ends his days plagued with dementia and senility in the body of a boy, finally retreating and passing away as a newborn, perhaps in his 80s or older.

Benjamin Button is presented as the most kind-hearted of “Innocents,” with quiet smarts as well as powers of observance far beyond the capabilities of Gump. Like Gump, he faces the turbulence and tumults of history, some of which are played out in the 1940s. Both characters come into their own in the 1960s and both not only survive war, but are present at the moment of the violent deaths of their closest friend in battle. Gump expresses regret that the last words he says to his best friend Bubba as he dies in Vietnam border on absurd. Captain Mike is blessed to die on a small boat at sea during a fierce battle during World War II with Button grasping his hand to comfort him. Both scenes are tearfully and emotionally staged by the two innovative film directors.

Each film was highly praised on release for its innovative use of special effects, especially Zemeckis for how he magically interjected Gump to meet three United States presidents and the late recording artist, John Lennon, using historical footage. Critics also praised Fincher’s ability to physically change Brad Pitt’s body over his trajectory from old age to youth.

Gump had his Jenny, while Button was enamored by Daisy, portrayed by the brilliant Cate Blanchett. When Button meets Daisy, they are both young children, and it’s disturbing to see the extremely old man that Button’s body maintains at that time playing with a little girl—however, the viewer is reminded that they are actually close in age and that he poses no unnatural danger to her. Their dynamic changes and evolves as they approach physical parity as she grows up and he “grows down.” Daisy’s rebellion is completely different from Jenny’s when she leaves her New Orleans hometown, but both are motivated by the enticement of discovering a larger world and embracing opportunities for excitement. Daisy enters a bohemian life as a celebrated ballerina, and her unexpected encounter with Button in the arts scene of Manhattan is reminiscent of Jenny accidently reuniting with Gump at a Washington DC anti-war rally in the 1960s. Both relationships take many more years to come to fruition as Daisy and Jenny seek out other lovers and pursuits.

Jenny chooses to run from Gump after she’s come out of her self-destructiveness. She emotionally restores herself in Greenbow at Gump’s home. When Forrest proposes to her, she softly declines:

Forrest Gump: Will you marry me? I’d make a good husband, Jenny.

Jenny: You would, Forrest.

Gump: But you won’t marry me.

Jenny: You don’t wanna marry me.

Gump: Why don’t you love me, Jenny? I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.

It’s one of the few vocal inflections Hanks uses in the entire movie with an edge to it. The viewer is left to note, “Perhaps he is not such an ‘Innocent’ after all.” Jenny abandons her own self-hatred, and their reunification towards the film’s end comes at a bad time: after finally settling down, Jenny is doomed by what is most likely a deadly AIDS diagnosis and Gump is left to raise their child alone.

Daisy reunites with Button when her dancing career is halted after a tragic car accident. They begin a deeply loving relationship, but ironically it is Button who decides to steal away for good after they have a baby and he becomes disturbed by the idea that he, as a father, is destined to physically morph over the years to having a child-like appearance and an aging mind. The scenes Pitt subsequently traveling to obscure spots of the world and the Indian subcontinent in a spiritual quest reminded me of the adventures of the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer that Pitt portrayed in 1997’s Seven Years in Tibet.

An “Innocent” maintains an easy, positive attitude and optimism through all of life’s trials and tribulations. Such an individual cannot waver from their path because it is seemingly embedded in their DNA and naturally expressed in their unique nature. Gump and Button touch the lives of the many people they encounter with magical ease. Their relatives, lovers, and friends stand in awe and respect of the power of how a simple, easy personality is profoundly rooted in ideals, ethics, and morality, which is endearingly miraculous. Gump meets Lt. Dan in Vietnam as his war-wise, superior officer who will eventually berate him for not leaving him to die on the field of battle. In their last scene together, Dan is a surprise guest at the wedding of Gump and Jenny, and you can see the esteem in which he holds Gump. Button’s biological father, a wealthy businessman in New Orleans, surreptitiously befriends his son. He soon reveals his paternity and admits the cowardice of leaving him on Queenie’s doorstep after seeing his appearance at birth as a tiny, shriveled old man. Benjamin displays a moment of frustrated despair and anger, but soon returns to reconcile in a most wonderous way as his father is dying, carrying him to a bench where he can gaze in peace at the rising orange sun on the distant horizon across the waters of the Gulf. The way that the elder Button glances at Benjamin reveals his silent understanding of how his son has “grown down” to be a man of profound kindness, permeated head to toe by what can only be described as the natural good of “The Innocent.”

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Pets of Tri-I

Audrey Goldfarb

Happy 2021! 2020 saw a surge in pet adoption and foster care, emptying shelters across the country. You may have noticed new furry faces around campus, or maybe you yourself are enjoying the company of a recently adopted companion. We at Natural Selections are eager to meet the new kids on the block this year, and we hope you enjoy reading about them, too! Pet owners who would like their furry, feathered, or scaly companions to be featured should direct their correspondence to

For this issue, I interviewed Yofi the dog, the best bud of Dani Keahi (Rockefeller University Ph.D. Candidate). Every encounter I’ve had with Yofi in the three years that I’ve known him has centered around fetch. Although this is always a treat—his athleticism is remarkable—I was curious to delve into more serious topics. Yofi is a tough nut to crack but at his core is a tranquil and thoughtful soul.

Photo courtesy of Dani Keahi

Audrey Goldfarb: How old are you? In human years?

Yofi: 4 years old!

AG: How did you first meet Dani?

Y: We met in Hawai’i where both of us were born. I was the size of a guinea pig when I met mom, she bought me my first ball, and I knew I’d follow her anywhere! I was also very good and quiet on the long flight to NYC at only 12 weeks old. 

AG: Is there a story behind your name?

Y: Yofi means beautiful or good in Hebrew, so you could say that Yofi is yofi.

AG: If I promise to play fetch after this, can you sit still for 10 minutes?

Y: I will TRY. But please hide the ball for the duration or I will go nuts.

AG: Do you have a favorite ball?

Y: ALL balls are my favorite and ball is life!

AG: What are your favorite foods?

Y: WET FOOD. But also, mom and dad give me a bit of filet mignon on my birthday.

AG: I hear you’re moving soon. How do you feel about that?

Y: I’m excited to try new and exotic balls in Seattle. What will it be like to fetch in the rain? 

AG: What will you miss most about NYC?

Y: So many friends who indulge me by throwing the ball! Shoutout to Uncle Isaac, Uncle Samer, and Uncle Phil for taking such good care of me when mom and dad travel.

AG: What are your top three favorite things to do/places to go in the city?

Y: 1) Outdoor dining, 2) Fetching the ball at Carl Schurz dog park, 3) long walks around Central Park.  

AG: Do you ever get tired?

Y: Not really. I’m actually a very capable hiker and have summited Mt. Marcy, Mt. Algonquin, and Big Slide in the Adirondacks.

AG: What is your biggest responsibility?

Y: Letting people know if there is an idle ball present in any room I enter. 

AG: What is your biggest weakness?

Y: I do not like music. I do not like anything with violins, “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey, big band, jazz, or orchestral movie soundtracks. Makes me howl.

AG: What is your favorite thing about yourself?

Y: My passion for ball! It makes mom more motivated to pursue her favorite things in life with a dogged determination. Hopefully this means more balls for me in the future. 

AG: What is your favorite thing about Dani?

Y: We go together like peas and carrots.  

 AG: How do you feel about other humans? How about other non-human animals?

Y: I love all people and very much miss when many humans can gather around me indoors and take turns throwing the ball. I like most other dogs, but puppies sometimes freak me out. I tolerate my guinea pig sister, Bernadette.

AG: What would Dani do without you?

Y: She wouldn’t know what to do with herself!

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New York Rhymes

Poetry: Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou (instagram: @newyork_rhymes)
One line art: Mikaella Theofanopoulou (instagram: @m_theta _art)

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Natural Selections: Digital

This month, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office announces the release of his latest song, “Arms Aloft.” Originally written and recorded by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros for their 2003 album Streetcore, Langs lends his voice and musical vision to this rock cover. Check out Langs’ performance on his SoundCloud page.

Email Megan E. Kelley at to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!

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December/January Cover

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Culture Corner: An Interview with Jonathan Klein, former President, CNN/U.S.

Bernie Langs

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Klein

Jonathan Klein is the former President of CNN/U.S., having filled the position from 2004 to 2010. A 1980 graduate of Brown University, his interest in media and news started at the respected student-run commercial radio station in Providence, Rhode Island, WBRU-FM, where he worked as news director and, eventually, general manager. He began his professional career in television news in 1980 at a Providence-based station and by 1982 was working as a writer and news editor for Nightwatch at CBS News. Over sixteen years as a producer for several CBS News broadcasts and documentaries, Klein eventually rose to executive vice president, overseeing prime time programming including 60 Minutes and 48 Hours.

Klein has won multiple Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont-Columbia Awards for outstanding news and documentary coverage.

A serial entrepreneur who founded the first video aggregation site, The FeedRoom, after leaving CBS, Klein has launched and run several media/tech ventures since his CNN tenure, including TAPP Media and Vilynx. He serves on public and nonprofit boards of directors, is a consultant for the hit HBO series Succession, and currently is developing the new nonprofit, Unite, with Timothy Shriver and others.

During his tenure at CNN, Klein changed the direction of how cable news networks and other news outlets report the most important issues and stories facing America and the world. Klein answered questions via email for this interview:

Bernie Langs: In 2008 you spoke about the growth of integration of user content and how producers had been forced “to think multi-platform in everything they do,” observing “it doesn’t matter how good your content is if no one is going to see it.” Your ideas may be truer than ever and seem prophetic in hindsight. This balancing act between advertising revenue, adapting content to user platforms across demographics, and packaging the news so it gets noticed—would you agree that in the end, the raw, objective story cannot help but suffer in some way, when news becomes another commodity?

Jonathan Klein: I think the past four years have demonstrated the exact opposite—that the unadorned, cold, hard truth shines through no matter the platform it is delivered on, and cuts through the clickbait more effectively than any gimmicky gif. Look no further than the brilliant reporting on the Trump Administration by TheNew York Times and The Washington Post—people lapped it up eagerly whether via Maggie Haberman tweets or Phil Rucker appearances on cable or the digital or print editions of those papers or the books that some reporters published. The more noisy nonsense is out there, including chaff purposely scattered by deceptive politicians and apparatchiks, the more news consumers hunger for reliable information, in whatever form they can get their hands on it. That’s why those outlets are seeing such a boom in their business, even getting people to pay for content that they’d been used to accessing online for free. Fresh information from a trusted source is the opposite of a generic commodity—it has proven to be more vital than people had realized.

BL: One of the first things you did at CNN in 2004 was deploy an unusually large number of U.S.-based correspondents to cover the Boxing Day tsunami in Asia instead of using local reporters.  It became CNN’s strategy for other major stories as well. What concerns me is that over the years, the major cable all-news stations stick to one story obsessively for many days, repeating “breaking” reports or devolving into minutia that isn’t classically “news worthy.” Has this phenomenon known as “flooding the zone” morphed at CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News into around the clock U.S. political coverage that leaves no room for extensive international news coverage?

JK: The idea behind flooding the zone was to leverage CNN’s advantage in field reporting and analysis—we had vastly more skilled reporters, producers, and photojournalists to commit to stories around the world than our competitors, which meant that we could provide depth and insight on important stories that the others couldn’t, stories such as the Haiti Earthquake and Gulf oil spills, where we deployed more people faster, and stayed on the story weeks and months longer, than any other television or digital news organization. We won Peabody and Emmy Awards for that in-depth coverage, and to this day I’m so proud of our teams that took such personal risk and threw themselves into revealing dimensions of those stories that no one else did or could. That same approach could be applied to political coverage if the networks chose to abandon horse-race coverage that obsesses over political strategy (which 99% of viewers do not care about) or polling (which has been thoroughly discredited now) and instead focused on the impact of policies on peoples’ real lives—flood-the-zone coverage on the pandemic, or systemic inequality, or solutions for reviving the economy, would be fascinating to watch because they would be so much more relevant to viewers’ lives than the Beltway inside-baseball or Trump tweet du jour coverage. As a result it would generate higher ratings. We know this because this is closer to the NPR approach, and they get thirty million listeners per week, which the networks would love to have.

BL: One of your accomplishments was to end programs at CNN that had overrun their course, such as Larry King’s show and Crossfire. Yet, some of what King had become remains all over television and the bickering, ridiculous Crossfire model is equally prevalent. Was your intention to stem the tide of shows like these because they represented a trend of lowering standards in cable news?

JK: One of the reasons I had been hired to run CNN/U.S. in late 2004 was that our presidential campaign coverage that year had been so lackluster—in content, presentation, and ratings. I cancelled our three main political programs—Crossfire, The Capitol Gang, and Inside Politics—almost immediately, without a firm plan for what we’d replace it with, because had I simply told our Washington producers that we needed to do things differently they would have nodded and then done nothing. We needed to create a gaping hole in the schedule—because institutions understand filling holes better than they understand evolving. Riding the subway back to the startup I was running following my first job interview at CNN, as I began to think about what the network could do to climb out of its woes, I wrote down two words on a notepad: “Situation Room.” Because CNN is a big brand that can make bold promises to the audience, and deliver on them—the same thinking that went into flooding the zone in our field reporting. So we really could be the world’s Situation Room—it’s what the world expects of CNN, actually. Then and now.

Stepping up and being the thing your customer wants you to be—is rooting for you to be—is usually a good business practice. So when I took the job and blew up those political shows, I handed those two words to our Washington bureau chief, David Bohrman, who I had known to be a creative force from our days both running Internet startups. I said “go figure out what a CNN Situation Room could look like.” To his credit, and that of his deputy, Sam Feist, who is now CNN’s Washington bureau chief, they took the ball and ran with it. They created a high-energy, tech-fluent, two-hour daily nexus of everything worth knowing about around the world that became the talk of TV news and best of all it galvanized our overall political coverage, leading us to win the Emmy for coverage of the 2006 midterm elections and go on to top all the cable and broadcast networks in our 2008 presidential coverage, which CNN had never done before or since. That surge of creative energy led to the introduction of John King’s Magic Wall at this time, and a joint presidential debate with YouTube that allowed ordinary citizens to ask questions of the candidates for the first time, and launched the first-ever Facebook livestreams. It turned out that the moribund coverage of 2004 was not due to lack of talent—it was due to the immensely talented CNN political team not having been asked to be as great as they could be. It was the same exact group who so dominated political coverage as soon as they were given the challenge.

The cancellation of Larry King’s show was due simply to plummeting ratings, which was not Larry’s fault at all. I think the network just evolved beyond that show, which had been on for twenty-plus years—we had come to be symbolized by the dynamism of Anderson Cooper, and Larry’s show—despite some extremely creative new approaches adopted by their production team—no longer fit. It was tough to say goodbye to a legend and a good guy with a phenomenal staff, who had been the mainstay of the network for so long.

BL: In 2005, you promoted Anderson Cooper to a prime anchor slot. He remains at CNN fifteen years later, and his talents have grown tremendously over this time. There are anchors on cable news who maintain some of the traditional approach and emotional empathy of past greats such as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and Peter Jennings. Brian Williams and Willie Geist stand out on MSNBC and on CNN Wolf Blitzer, Cooper, John Berman, Poppy Harlow, and John King. Brianna Kielar conducts no-nonsense interviews and Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo are major talents. Is the anchor “personality” of 2020 partially a result of your decision to elevate and stick with Cooper? How do you feel about the pool of on-camera talent at this time?

JK: Television news has always revolved around commanding personalities who are able to present their authentic selves on camera. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the all-time greats—including Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer, and Meredith Vieira—and one thing they all have in common is that they are not that different off camera from who you see on air. I was the executive in charge of 60 Minutes for a few years, and when I asked Don Hewitt, the genius creator and executive producer of that show (he made all the brilliant editorial decisions; my main function was to approve his expense reports and screen the pieces before they went on the air as a final editorial/legal backstop. In that order [sic]) why the show was so visually…vanilla…with no flashy graphics or zippy video, he told me something I’ve never forgotten: “Kid,” he said (I was 36, he was 75), “television is not a visual medium. It’s a means of connecting one human to another.” The best personalities in television news are able to connect. On top of that, journalists like Anderson and Poppy Harlow are phenomenal reporters, able to find things out because they know what to ask and they get people to answer.

BL: On November 1, Ben Smith of The New York Times wrote, “It’s the End of an Era for the Media, No Matter Who Wins the Election.”    The national obsession with Donald Trump created new and financially lucrative opportunities for old media. Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, said, “we’re in this brave new world of content moderation that’s outside the take-down/leave-up false binary.” As industry executives leave their posts and other “players” jockey for position, there’s a kind of “Wild West” aspect to the news business, with outrageous content, misinformation on social media platforms, and name-calling from all sides. Where do you fit into this scenario?

JK: I’m a news consumer, not creator, now, but the startups I’ve been running since leaving CNN have given me hope that technology—which created the silos that people are now burrowed into deeper than ever—can help lead us out of them as well by highlighting what unites us as much as what divides us. I founded a streaming video platform called TAPP Media, that builds sites that connect super-fans to their idols. And it has surprised me to see how unpredictable people can be, how resistant to pigeon-holing. Our biggest video channel is Bishop’s Village, featuring T.D. Jakes, who runs the second-largest mega-church behind Joel Osteen. Can you guess what the most popular subject is for the subscribers to his channel? It’s divorce. I don’t know why—it just is. Now, I suspect that divorce/troubled marriage is pretty high on the list of subscribers to all kinds of digital media sites that have zero to do with religion. That’s a potential bridge.

In addition to TAPP, I ran an artificial intelligence company for media that recently sold to Apple, and AI has the ability to identify very granular attributes of consumers by analyzing their language, searches, viewing behavior, and more—and to do so while respecting privacy, if the humans behind it are committed to that goal. What I suspect we’ll start to see is that, although we may disagree strongly about the means to our collective ends, we probably share a desire for many of the same outcomes—good health, equal opportunities to improve our lives and those of our children, peace, and more. Media has a tendency to accentuate differences and conflict, because unity doesn’t seem “new” and newness is kind of baked into the word “news.” But I think there’s a path out of that conventional wisdom, if we choose to follow it.

Klein in the 1970s at Brown University’s WBRU FM radio station in Providence, Rhode Island. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Klein

BL: During boardroom tension and staff turmoil at CNN, did you have to sublimate some of the brighter aspects of your personality to get the job done?

JK: The only way to survive a high-stakes environment is to have a sense of humor about it and yourself. Although the head of HR at CNN did once tell me after a weekly staff meeting, “I notice you make a lot of jokes in there.” “Thanks,” I replied, “I’m glad you appreciate that.” “Well actually,” he said with furrowed brow, “I bring it up because a lot of times people make jokes to avoid the real underlying issue.” He was a smart guy, with a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, so I didn’t doubt him, and I tried from then on to make sure I wasn’t sidestepping necessary conversations through humor. But in the end, I mean, come on—it’s only TV.

BL: You’re are on the board of Unite, described on its website as “a growing collaborative led by Tim Shriver [a philanthropist, educator, and Chairman of Special Olympics International] and other Americans from all walks of life, dedicated to addressing universal challenges that can only be solved together.” Unite was founded because there has been a “great loss of faith in the American experiment, and each other,” which has been building for decades. The organization hopes to pull Americans back to reconnect “to what we have in common.” What made you get involved with the group and what do you think it can accomplish?

JK: I’ve known Tim and the entire Shriver family for over thirty years, ever since I produced the CBS Morning News with his sister Maria as anchor. He is one of the most dynamic and inspiring people you’ll ever meet—JFK-like in his mix of intelligence, vision, articulateness, and charisma. I became involved because Tim’s vision of pulling together across geographic, political, ethnic, and religious divides is so critically needed right now, and his determination to make it real so powerful, that I couldn’t resist. The Shrivers have a way of being able to turn pure intentions into reality—whether it’s the Special Olympics founded by Tim’s mother, Eunice; the Peace Corps, Job Corps, Head Start, Meals on Wheels, or VISTA founded by his father, Sarge; or Best Buddies, created by his brother Anthony—and it’s a thrill to be able to help Tim bring Unite to fruition at this urgent time.

As for what we can accomplish—we’re trying to change the narrative of America, to present the nation we believe is out there behind the labels too often affixed by [the] media. As a journalist, I’ve met people at the most extreme moments of loss, fear, anger, and need, as well as those trying to help them—and you know, a firefighter racing to save a family’s home, or a cop trying to find a missing child, or a doctor working to save a struggling newborn baby never ask “who did you vote for?” And I never asked them that question either. That suggests that we share something deeper as human beings and Americans. Unite is focused on illuminating that shared purpose, and encouraging a different kind of discourse. I think there’s a hunger for that out there.

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Pets of Tri-I

Audrey Goldfarb

As loyal fans may have noticed, Pets of Tri-I was absent from our November issue. Pooja Viswanathan is moving on to a postdoctoral position at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and sadly must leave this column behind. But never fear, dear readers; Pets of Tri-I lives on in the hands of fauna enthusiast Audrey Goldfarb! Accordingly, pet owners who would like their furry, feathered, or scaly companions to be featured should direct their correspondence to

For this issue, I interview Sylvia the cat and the rainbow fish, the unlikely roommates who live with our very own Irene Duba (Rockefeller University Ph.D. Candidate). I met Sylvia earlier this year, and we were getting along wonderfully until I accidentally stepped on her tail. I was eager to redeem our friendship after that regrettable blunder as well as to officially meet her new aquatic acquaintances.

Audrey Goldfarb: How old are you? In human years?

Sylvia: Four and a half on December 10! I’m getting stressed about graying so maybe you can print that I’m actually three…?

Fish: We have no concept of the passage of time.


AG: Who was here first?

S: I have been the queen of this domain since the beginning. The others have joined my realm and I do my best to tolerate their presence.

F: This is our tank. There was no before.


AG: Do you have other roommates?

S: My pal Ben and my frenemy Barb the dog. Ben is good at snuggling and chin scratches. Barb just drools everywhere.

F: There are some snails that sometimes live with us, but they’re free spirits and frequently escape the tank to travel the world.


AG: Is there a hierarchy?

S: Obviously.

F: We try to exercise power over the snails…


AG: How do you spend your time?

S: I like to luxuriate in the sun, sniff the city air coming through the windows, and train my 10-meter dash up and down the hallway. Sometimes I pull pranks on Barb. She’s the village idiot.

F: We swim left, and sometimes we swim right.

Preparing to swim left.

AG: What are your favorite foods?

S: I need my daily dose of faucet water—if it’s close to bedtime and I haven’t gotten my slurps in, you WILL hear about it.

F: We go crazy for flakes. Brown flakes, red flakes, you name it.


AG: What did you think of each other when you first met?

S: I thought they looked pretty tasty.

F: We admit we were glad there’s a glass wall between us and Sylvia!


AG: In this time of anthro-polarization, how do you set an example of peaceful coexistence as traditionally antagonistic species?

S: I choose not to eat the fish.

F: We swim left, and sometimes we swim right.


AG: What is your favorite thing about yourself?

S: I’m an excellent singer. Not many people know this about me. I’m a big fan of musicals. When I try to practice with Irene, she just gives me more food…I take that as encouragement.

F: We can swim from one end of the tank to the other at record speeds. You should feel the wake we leave in our path. Not to brag, but we are very good.

Sylvia is also proud of her ability to think outside the box when it comes to sunbathing.

AG: If you could adopt one trait or ability from each other, what would it be?

S: It’d be great if there were eight of me.

F: She is an incredible napper. We wish we could nap like her.

Maximizing surface area is the key to effective napping and basking, Sylvia says.

AG: How did you first meet your human?

S: Irene and her housemates brought me home from the shelter I was living in as a kitten. It was RAINING when we went outside, and I was NOT HAPPY. I still haven’t forgiven Irene for that.

F: We were at the fish store and we got put in a big bag. We sloshed all over inside the bag on a very bumpy bus ride home. But then Irene put us in a tank with fun plants and rocks, so we forgive her.


AG: What is your favorite thing about your human?

S: She’s so warm when she sleeps. <3

F: She brings us flakes and for that we are forever grateful.


AG: What is your purpose in life?

S: To run the household.

F: Keep the snails in order. It’s an endless chore.


AG: If you could write the rules for your apartment, what would you implement or change?

S: Barb should no longer be allowed to use me as a pillow. Oh, and the faucets should always be slightly on.

F: Sylvia shouldn’t be allowed to look at us like food…that would make us feel much better.

“Can you believe this blatant disregard for my authority?”

AG: What is the weirdest thing that has happened in this apartment?

F: Every now and then the tank gets cleaned and it’s absolutely traumatizing


AG: What would Irene do without you?

S: I ask myself that all the time.

F: I guess she’d just give all the flakes to someone else…I don’t like to think about this…next question please.

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New Year’s Resolutions

Aileen Marshall

New Year’s Eve is coming up. Along with the fun of going to parties and drinking champagne, many observe the tradition of making resolutions. Why do we feel we need to vow to improve our lives at the beginning of each year? It turns out people have been doing this in some form for over 4,000 years.

This tradition started with the ancient Babylonians, in what is now southern Iraq, around 2000 B.C. Their calendar year started in the beginning of the spring planting season, approximately equivalent to March 20. An agricultural society, they would bargain with their gods for a successful harvest. They would make promises to repay debts and return borrowed items. If one didn’t keep their promise, they would fall out of favor with the gods.

One of the gods of ancient Babylon, An Auroch symbol of Adad (Hadad) storm and rain god of ancient Mesopotamian religions on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon 575 B.C.E. Wikicommons.

Judaism has had a similar tradition for nearly as long. The Hebrew calendar year begins at the end of the harvest, Rosh Hashanah. The holy days culminate at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and seeking forgiveness. It is considered a time to contemplate the past year and have a fresh start in the next.

The ancient Romans also had their own form of New Year’s resolutions. Julius Caesar established the calendar we use today in 45 B.C. The month of January was named after Janus, a two-faced god always looking forward and backward. Therefore January was considered a time for introspection, sacrifices to Janus, and vows to behave better.

Coin depicting Janus, who is the god of the New Year and the first month of the year.

During the Middle Ages, knights would renew their vow of chivalrous conduct at the end of the year, also known as the “peacock vow.” They would place their hands on a live or cooked peacock, or pheasant, while making this oath, thus the name.

In 1740, the English pastor who founded the Methodist church, John Wesley, started a service called “watch night.” On New Year’s Eve, he would have congregants stay in the church reading bible verses and singing hymns. They were encouraged to reflect on themselves and vow to avoid sin in the coming year. It was offered as an alternative to wild New Year’s Eve parties and is still practiced in some Protestant churches today.

The term “resolution” in this context first appeared in the mid-1700s in an article in Walker’s Hibernian Magazine. The article encouraged people to make their resolutions at New Year’s and gave many suggestions. The phrase “New Year’s resolution” first appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1813. This practice started to become more secular in the 1800s. For example, people in England at that time would vow to have more children or achieve a higher social status. In the early part of the twentieth century, only about 25% of Americans made New Year’s resolutions. Today about 45% of Americans make resolutions, with weight loss being the most common, but only a reported 8% succeed in keeping them.

The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions has evolved over thousands of years from bargaining with a pagan deity for a good crop yield to making promises to ourselves regarding various aspects of self-improvement. Today most Americans vow to improve some aspect of their health, education, finances, or relationships. Perhaps the current global pandemic may evolve this practice even more.

Times Square Ball from above, December 31, 2012. Wikicommons.

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Life on a Roll: Kokopelli

Elodie Pauwels

The least we can say is that 2020 has been quite hectic…for better or worse!

A little silhouette has been watching over me all this time: a metallic blue-painted Kokopelli, a present a friend brought me back from a trip somewhere in the Americas. Let’s listen to Kokopelli’s stories and music, and remain positive 2021 will be a happier year!

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Life on a Roll: An American in Tehran

Nan Pang

Tehran was the city where my two-week long journey in Iran started and ended. The modern day capital city left a different impression on me on my first day versus my last day, since the year I visited Iran also marked its forty-year anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent U.S. Embassy hostage crisis. The vestige of the U.S. Embassy still remains today (as an “espionage” museum), and shows how deep the hostility between two nations runs.

Iran is a nation with rich history and cultural heritage. My previous Life on a Roll photos showed beautiful mosques, places, and sceneries of Iran. Those were the highlights of Iran without a doubt, but my trip was not possible without the locals I met there. The Iranian people I encountered were unbelievably hospitable and welcoming. Whether it was the taxi driver who bought me a cup of chai and pistachio, or the elderly couple who invited me to their home, the people made my trip uniquely memorable. U.S.-Iranian relations have been tense for the past four decades—but the Iranian people give me hope that this can be remedied one day.

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Natural Expressions


Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office has released a new song, “Feel it Now.” The song is a cover of the hit “Feel it Still” by Portugal. The Man, an American alternative rock/psychedelic pop band that’s been playing since 2004. Langs’ rendition can be found online on his SoundCloud page.

Email Megan E. Kelley at to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!

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New York Rhymes

Poetry: Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou (instagram: @newyork _ rhymes)

One line art: Mikaella Theofanopoulou (instagram: @m _ theta _ art)

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