“So I gotta ask, why Chicago? Is it the rampant gun violence? Or do you just like seeing improv actors who weren’t good enough for LA?”
— Bojack Horseman, on Chicago
What is the snow/slush mix falling down outside!? It is not pleasant.
To be fair. when I arrived on Thursday night the weather was downright balmy in Chicago, for January. But my youngest cousin, Stephanie, was getting married (today) and so I trekked it out here to rep her father’s side of the family. The rest of my family (Matty and girls), and the one into which I was born — the Hu’s, couldn’t make it for various reasons.
Since I was going to be here anyway, I was able to see my Chicago-based buddies AND bring the podcast/radio show I sometimes host, It’s Been A Minute, to WBEZ Chicago, the NPR member station here. It’s located (thanks to a $1 a year, 99-year lease) on the storied Navy Pier, home of tourists wearing MAGA hats, the Chicago Children’s Museum and a ferris wheel I could not see through the morning fog yesterday. Peter Sagal, who hosts the quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me from Chicago, came on to be a panelist. We got to catch up and hit him with the “patriarchy stinger,” which is a jingle that interrupts him every time he’s mansplaining.
On a whim, I decided to reach out to my high school social studies teacher, Mr. Coates, who has been living and teaching in Chicago for 20 years now. I know the exact number of years because he left Texas right after I graduated from high school and this year is my 20 year reunion. (CRAZY!) And I hadn’t seen him since I was 18, but he and his wife, MRS. Coates, met up with me for dinner on Thursday — the first time I’d ever hung out with Mr. Coates, actually. Enjoyed them both. Special night. And since my daughters (who usually introduced the podcast) didn’t tape their show intro in time, I was able to ask Mr. Coates to do it, and he makes an appearance on the podcast itself! He quipped that this is going to do wonders for “his brand.”
And up in the ‘burbs, my cousin Steph is now lawfully wedded. Given my inability to handle anything below 65 degrees, I cringed in horror as the wedding party braved the falling snow and 30 degree F/-1 degree C, windy outdoors to get a photo outside the church. But so glad to be here, to celebrate the wedding of my final unmarried cousin (who, incidentally, is only 24), and ready to get back to the sunshine, so long as the gods of O’Hare airport let me.
Now that 2019 is over, it’s time for my annual look back at my year in books. Man, there was so much great new fiction and nonfiction this year, and many titles remain on my “to read” list, which have rolled over to 2020. My favorites represent a mix of 2019-released books and modern classics. I struggled to prune it to ten, because I loved SO MUCH of what I read:
Book I Did NOT Like: The New Me, by Halle Butler, even though this was well-reviewed by critics. I think it was too nihilistic for me.
I didn’t have any new reading objectives this year. I tried to keep 52 books, stay committed to my book club and keep prioritizing works by women and people of color.
Picking ‘Em: Generally, I pick books by simply reading authors I already like, i.e. Roth, Jamison and Shteyngart. I also read books that publicists send me* that look different or interesting — this year, a poetry book on surveillance, Swedish lit and a lovely graphic novel by my friend Malaka. The bulk of my reading list represents recommendations from friends. It felt like a fiction-heavy year, but the data surprised me.
I spent a month in a sling and a lot of that month proned out after my shoulder injury, so that led to a burst in reading time. I also read a lot on planes, so when I was on planes more, I seemed to enjoy more reading.
I still read on my Kindle, to which I really need to attach a tracking device, because I turn places upside down looking for my Kindle WAAAAY too much. As a regular habit, I try to read a chapter or a unit (story, essay etc) in a collection of a book when I first wake up in the morning, instead of first checking my phone upon waking. I binge-read a lot on planes (when I’m not watching terrible movies), in cabs and while getting pedicures.
Credit to Nicole Zhu, a friend and fellow book-lover who inspired me to start the 52/52 challenge a few years ago. We finally hung out, in Atlanta in August, and spent hours talking about books we read! A dream. And big thanks to my perpetually grumpy-yet-weirdly-generous spouse, Matty, who made this post’s dynamic charts in Python this year, a first for him. The code behind this is available, so you can do this with YOUR reading data. too.
*This is a perk of being an NPR journalist/host. Free, new books get mailed to you all the time by publicists.
Stand up straight.
Sit up straighter.
Spend uninterrupted time thinking.
Explain the why.
Carry a book at all times.
Carry a notebook at all times.
Write down everything.
Cross things out.
Make more time for others.
Make more room for others.
Make things — in collaboration with others — that didn’t exist before.
Remember that maintenance is also productivity.
What a time to be alive. The House just impeached the US president. Brexit really is going to happen. Big Tech has finally revealed itself to be far more nefarious than nice; and some of its darling companies (cough WeWork cough) laid bare as just giant Ponzi schemes that fuel capitalism’s excesses while promising “community.”
I am still living in the sunshine and swimming in the sea — spending my first full year back in America in the freaky paradise that is Southern California, where there’s no real winter or hot summer. Reality interrupts sometimes — we felt the long, rolling earthquake on July 4 and much of California’s brush and forests caught fire in the fall. A reminder that this state, like the rest of Planet Earth, is increasingly unsustainable.
This year felt like my real re-entry, a transitional period in which I had to learn how to live a more quotidian and (literally) domestic life after all the nonstop absurdity and madness of living abroad. My intention at the outset of 2019 was to be still and look inward, and I’m one for two — lots of looking inward, but not so much stillness.
I learned constantly, mainly in the service of my central creative project and raison d’etre at NPR for the past year — Future You. It explored how emerging technologies are changing what it means to be human. We asked philosophical questions but packaged them in lightweight videos, playing with the long game in mind. In all, I had some 124 electrodes gelled to my head in all this year, plus an untold amount of wattage sent to my brain to show a future of mind-machine melding. I also learned how to extend my life, thanks to the Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, one of the world’s leading experts on aging. We became fast friends.
External circumstances interrupted during the back half of 2019 to force me to think more deeply and weigh what matters most. I’m reflecting now after an autumn of tumult. Everything felt triumphant and purpose-driven the first half of the year, then my shoulder dislocated at the end of June and I was down an arm, homebound and feeling crippled and useless. Then, to all of our surprise, my team got laid off in August. This meant the cancelation of the show, without consultation. I struggled for a few months with what I wanted to make — and be — next.
I’m finally out of my malaise, though. New things abound! Can’t wait for 2020, a chance for a buoyant new beginning.
Culture That Made 2019 Bearable:Fleabag, Lizzo, Parasite, Succession, the cringeworthy L to the O-G rap on Succession, Deadwood: The Movie, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the writing of Rebecca Traister, The Cut on Tuesdays, the newsletter Ask Molly
New Practices: Epictetus said, “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” So to lean into my 2019 goal of looking inward, I kept a daily, hand-drawn checklist to make sure I did (or tried to do) the following — meditate, journal, take a vitamin and exercise. The visual representation really shows consistency and lack thereof. Sometimes I just ran out of vitamins, okay? I do most things last minute.
The Year’s Firsts: A night at the Magic Castle. Giving a commencement speech at the Missouri School of Journalism, my alma mater. Shoulder dislocation. Irish hospital treatment. Opioids. Drag racing with a professional stunt driver. Brain stimulation. Being monitored in a sleep lab while getting brain stimulation. Getting all three daughters to introduce one of my podcast episodes. The tedious experience of lice removal for my older girls.
New Places: Albuquerque, NM. A few Hawaiian islands I’d never visited before — Kauai and the Big Island. Ireland, where folks kept telling my fair-skinned baby Luna, “Welcome Home” and whose National Ambulance Service I am eternally grateful for. Never did get to visit the Blasket, though.
MVP New Friend: David Sinclair, aforementioned
MVP Old Friend: Harper Reed, who, while helping me through my doldrums randomly introduced me to his friend Michael, with whom he was developing a TV pilot. Serendipitously, Michael goes, “Oh hey do you have a reel?” A week later, I was on a set, shooting a real life commercial, the first since I was a teenager and appeared in commercials for places like Sonic Drive-Ins. This entire sentence just sounded ridiculous when I read it back.
MVP New Sandwich: Popeyes lives up to the hype
Disappointments: The short-sightedness of the newsroom “reorganization” this August and the way it happened. The current era at NPR. Not keeping up with my newsletter. My poor posture, in general — Dr. Raj, my PT, says I had shoulder impingement a long time before my injury.
Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:
Talked about my Dad’s epic freedom swim in public
Took the OJ Simpson tour
Lost the door to the minivan after my husband nearly got hit by the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus
Hired a garage organizer and got organized
Received a message from another person’s brain with computer-assisted telepathy Moved a robot with my mind
Increased my vertical jump by 11 percent
Went under the care of a celebrity longevity doctor; he told me to stop eating so much orange dust
Lowered by biological age by five years
Got my long term memory boosted in a sleep lab
Appeared on The Today Show as B-roll
Shot a commercial
Saw Idris Elba in real life
Partied at Lawrence Welk’s former house
Inadvertently became a Flonase “influencer”
Saw Adam Driver on Broadway, he was riveting
Saw an otter feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Stayed at an entirely wolf-themed lodge
Breathed the same air as Beyonce
Ate breakfast back-to-Harrison Ford’s back, and no one told me for most of this time
Became an Annenberg Innovation Lab fellow
Potty-trained Luna, my last baby
Spent more time with mom and dad, who moved to Orange County for part of the year
Reunited our fellow Asia expat travel squad when the Wan Yau‘s returned to the states
Went to Palm Springs, twice
Went back to Seoul, twice
Went to DC 4X
Went to San Francisco 4X
Went to New York 4X
Wrote and hosted a bunchof podcast episodeson howto travel better
Nearly went broke after having to cough up a bunch in capital gains taxes (thanks, selling the Austin house)
Took a morphined-out Irish ambulance ride with medics named Owen and Paddy, natch
Spent a month in a sling
Spent a month without eating sugar
Spent six months in physical therapy
Watched members of my team get laid off in a parking lot while on the job, and on vacation
Decided to leave NPR after that happened
Took part in a little non-violent resistance
Celebrated my parents 40th anniversary in Hawaii on an epic trip with 20 other family members
Started a new small business with my girlfriends
Fit in reading 52 books, barely
Flew 180,846 miles to 28 cities, three countries and spent 99 days away from home. Next year I’m getting carbon offsets and undertaking an effort to cut this down significantly, because it’s so terrible for the planet to fly this much. Like everything else about my 2019, it’s been a year of reckoning.
Let’s suppose I was running and a bug flew into my eye, smacking straight into the eyeball at high velocity. Surely the bug is no longer there, but the pain, irritation and some blurriness and eye discharge remain. Could I have an eye infection from this harrowing collision between my eye and a bug? This is so crazy. HELP?
Annyeonhaseyo from Seoul. I am going cuckoo for South Korea’s latest craze, coated almonds!
There’s the standard bearer, honey butter almonds, but this almond flavor innovation continues way beyond that. There are cookies and cream almonds, wasabi almonds, dried seaweed-coated almonds, tteokbokki (spicy, saucy Korean rice cake-flavored) almonds, hot and spicy chicken flavored almonds and … wait for it, STARLIGHT PANG PANG ALMONDS.
Starlight Pang Pang is an electric blue ice cream with POP ROCKS inside, so these almonds are inside a blue, sugary coating and pop rocks so that after you get the crunch of the almond, you have the pop rocks exploding in your mouth.
I tried them all and these almonds are crunchy, they are creative, they are addictive. I tasted ’em at an E-Mart 24 convenience store (where they trial bowls of each flavor out) before dropping a bunch of money to buy bags and bags to bring back to the US as gifts.
I grew up with Mister Rogers and PBS in general. PBS played an outsized role in my childhood because my mother didn’t speak English with me at home, so a lot of my early understanding of the world came from what I saw on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers Neighborhood. When I was in elementary school, our family went to Pittsburgh and got a tour of the studio where they make the show. We got to see the puppets from the land of make believe and I was star struck. I think Mr. Rogers was my first celebrity crush, and always in my heart. When he died in the early aughts, I grieved. And since then, I have kept a book of his quotes and wisdom with me wherever I live, so other people can read him when they come over.
Last week while guest hosting It’s Been a Minute, I spoke with Carvell Wallace, the host of Finding Fred, a podcast that deep dives into Mister Rogers’ life and lessons and legacy.
Our conversation brought me to tears. This is the part of the transcript that hit me hard, though, it’s best heard rather than read. The Mr. Rogers conversation is in the middle of the show — it follows the “three words” A segment.
WALLACE: So he was really swimming upstream in almost every sense. And I think people – because we have unhealed children that live in us that we’re not seeing and that are not loved, I think we’re still looking for a child’s solution to being an adult. So perhaps what he might tell us is that – and he said this – this is something that he said in the last thing he ever did in television, which was a PSA after 9/11:
ROGERS (archived recording): I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us. And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.
WALLACE: And he talked about two very important concepts. One is the idea that – it’s a Jewish concept – tikkun olam, which means to be repairers of the world.
ROGERS (archived): I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.
WALLACE: And the second concept that he talked about is that he spoke to adults. And he said, I’m so proud of you and who you’ve become.
ROGERS: It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.
WALLACE: And so even there, he’s saying to people, you are free from the burden to have to prove yourself. And so with that out of the way, perhaps you can focus on repairing the world.
GAAAHHH it hit me so hard in the feels when we played the tape of Mr. Rogers in the interview, and then again when I listened to the mixed version for edit/review, I started bawling all over again.
This summer I reported and hosted a series of podcast episodes about travel for our life hack pod, Life Kit. Audio isn’t the most ideal medium for packing tips, so I flew up to New York to visualize the tips at the Away store with Away’s editorial director, Ally Betker. Huge thanks to Liz Gillis for shooting and putting this together with only two takes (because I had to get to the airport).
The new “efficiency” move at LAX to clear up curbside congestion is to make passengers arriving from longass flights wait for a shuttle to take them to a lot to then wait for a rideshare vehicle to take them home.
This has been such an unmitigated disaster in its first week that when the LA Times tried it, for a video, it took a full 52 minutes to get a ride home. And this is AFTER winding your way off the plane and out of terminal in the first place.
In these destabilizing times, the exhaustive effort it must have taken to make an already not-great situation substantially worse sums up my feelings about the global economy, internet commerce, telling my kids to stop yelling, and so much more.
Tonight someone died by stabbing when an argument broke out in a line for the much-hyped Popeye’s spicy chicken sandwich. Felt related somehow.
Sylvia Plath’s 1956 program “to win friends and influence people.”
I really needed the last line in there: “Write — you have seen a lot, felt deeply and your problems are universal enought to be made meaningful — WRITE —” (How perfect that it ends with an em dash, pregnant with promise…)