Courtesy of Katherine Tsai
When Katherine Tsai ’05 first entered law school at Duke University, she decided that she needed a new hobby. And so, she began to rock climb. Even after graduation, Tsai continued the hobby, initially a stress-relieving outlet from the competitive world that is law school. And she still continues it today — or, at least until less than a month ago.
When Tsai speaks of her life today, there is a sense of a divide: a before and after. BQ and AQ: Before Quarantine and After Quarantine. Or, even more accurately, BR and AR: Before Rock Climbing and After Rock Climbing. When I asked her how her life has changed after quarantine, that was her first consideration — “Gym, totally shut down” — before pivoting to working from home.
Listening to her speak, it is easy to understand why. Tsai works as an attorney for Quora, a question-and-answer forum whose headquarters is located in Mountainview, California. On weekends, she and her boyfriend would often travel to Yosemite or other nearby national and state parks to climb. During the week, she would often go climbing before work at a nearby climbing gym, called “Planet Granite.”
“Rock climbing for me has always been really challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she explained. “It’s really problem-solving. The solution is how you regulate your breathing, how you shift your body, how to work on fear.”
When Tsai started to describe her life before quarantine, there was a long pause. “Honestly, I’m trying to think of my life before this.” Ultimately, she described it as “boring.” Rock climbing and work dominated most days. Twice a week, she and her boyfriend would visit her parents, who lived close, for dinner or a hike.
Without rock-climbing, Tsai and her boyfriend, who live together, have still found ways to stay active, even following YouTube exercise videos — specifically the New York City Ballet Company’s workout series — and going on long walks and runs.
Work still dominates most days, oftentimes even more so than before. Tsai spoke about the drive home from work as a clear boundary separating her personal and professional life. Now, with those boundaries no longer distinct, “you wake up and have your coffee and you start working and you realize it’s bedtime already.”
As far as adjusting to remote work goes, Tsai’s company was ahead of the curve. Before California’s official stay-at-home order occurred, Quora was already encouraging people to work remotely, going so far as having a company-wide “work from home” day to see how the adjustment would work, Tsai said.
Even so, work now is “super strange,” she said. Trying to get the approximately 250 employees together for company-wide meetings, for example, necessitates a complete redoing of processes. And, there’s the little things — the water-cooler conversations that just can’t be replicated online, for example. Still, she and her coworkers have taken to Slack in order to try and mimic those informal moments, such as a thread where people just post their lunches every day, ranging from multi-course gourmet meals to a single slice of bread.
Although Tsai isn’t able to visit her parents anymore — and doesn’t want to, due to their older age and the fear that she might give them the virus — she has “unilaterally” hosted a virtual dance-off every night with her parents, siblings and family members in Taiwan. “I think it’s really funny,” she said, “when I was a teenager and in college, my parents would not want me to be going out and to come early. Now, I’m the one yelling at my parents to stay inside.”
Tsai’s love of the outdoors, exemplified through her rock climbing pursuits, extends to nonprofit work, serving on the Board of Directors for both the Outdoor Alliance and Sustainable Learning, organizations focused on environmental conservation and education. Nonprofits, she said, are particularly struggling right now, being that the funding market is so uncertain.
Adam Cramer, executive director at Outdoor Alliance, acknowledged that “things have changed.” But, even so, the nonprofit plans to continue working, both through the pandemic and afterwards. In demonstrating how this work will occur, Cramer spoke of the intersection between conservation, human-powered experience and social distancing. In other words, it is very possible and even encouraged to go outside and enjoy nature, but it needs to be done safely. Outdoor Alliance has changed its immediate operations to focus more on educating the public on how to do so.
In order to continue working, however, there needs to be funding, which Cramer hopes will be partially supplied by donors and supplemented by the CARE Act, the coronavirus relief bill, which has a provision for NGOs. Cramer seemed confident that Outdoor Alliance would make it through, going so far as to talk about the future after the pandemic — where engaging people virtually might be something that they permanently add to their work.
As for Tsai, she is acutely aware of the lasting ramifications that the virus can and will have for nonprofits, small businesses and others. But she can’t wait for the immediate quarantine to end.
“I just hope that we can rock climb after this, that it doesn’t last too long,” she said.
Madison Hahamy | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, April 13: A previous version of this article misspelled Cramer’s last name.
This story is part of a larger series profiling Yale and New Haven community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more, click here.