My 2019 Year in Review: Mind Games

Spent much of this year with some sort of brain booster zapping my head, for journalism!

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

Drink of the Year: Black Sugar Iced Milk Tea, or Tiger Boba Tea — same thing, different names, delicious whatever you want to call it

Noteworthy Food Discovery: Trader Joe’s Coffee Ice Cream

Live Shows I Was Glad To See: Amanda Seales, John Mulaney, the countertenor John Holliday, Pod Save America, mainly for Jon Lovett

Memorable Interviews: Noho HANK, aka Anthony Carrigan, whose character Hank really makes Barry shine. Jenny Odell, on how she finds meaning while wandering. Alicia Menendez, with whom I really could relate on the topic of likeability. Tristan Harris, for video and separately for the pod, about our attention-fracked media culture.

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.

I just colored in a square if I did the thing and over time, I had my own handmade data viz.

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 bunch of podcast episodes on how to 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.

Previous Years in Review

20182017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

Trying to Exit LAX-it

Uber, Lyft and taxi pickups were banned from the curb at the infamously congested airport. Photo credit: Rennett Stowe

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.

30 Years Since Tiananmen

The crackdown started, infamously, on June 4, 1989. But the movement had been swelling by this point, made so tragically clear as we revisit images from that time and remember.

“We know now that one side was arguing for restraint towards the demonstrators and for wider reforms, while hardliners pressed for a crackdown. It was almost unbelievable to witness the open massive challenge to the authority of the CCP. It went on for days, then weeks, numbers growing. But something had to give.”

Greg Girard, China-based photographer who spent weeks documenting the movement and the massacre. He’s been posting his film photos from thirty years ago on his Instagram, which you should check out.

For further reading, I recommend my former colleague Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia

Millennial Midlife Crises

Something is happening in my friend circles, and I believe it’s called midlife. Last month, one of my best friends, who is the most outwardly successful of my squad, had a mental breakdown requiring hospitalization. This month my college roommate, who works insane hours and is always in a rush, slipped down a flight of stairs and broke her face.* Another close friend called recently to say his partner has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease — at age 38 — and he’s in a tailspin. Several friends whose weddings I attended ten years ago are divorcing, or it already happened and I only just learned about it because you don’t advertise these things.

For me, my main issue is I don’t know what to do next — I already did the things I wanted to do “when I grow up.” Now I’m off the breaking news treadmill, which I wanted, but it removed the constant external reward system of deadlines and delivery that journalists get fixed on, so it requires me to be ALONE WITH MY THOUGHTS, shudder.

It feels dissonant to be going at a moderate speed, but also satisfying, as I get to reconnect with … me.

A couple weeks ago I was in Sonoma Valley with old, hyper-smart friends. I’ll shout out in particular Colin Maclay, who lives in LA but on the East side of town, which feels like such a hurdle that we hang out more when we’re both in a city we don’t live. And Eli Pariser, who I’ve known since the days the filter bubble was just one of his brain’s many thought bubbles.

Eli told me he pitched an idea to his therapist about “The Millennial Midlife Crisis.” The idea is not about a generation of us feeling burnt out, while that may be true. He wants to explore what a midlife crisis looks like — how it manifests — in those of us now in our mid-to-late-thirties.

“It’s not muscle cars or superficial stuff like trophy wives,” he says, of the stereotypical boomer midlife crisis.

Instead, he posited, it looks exactly like what many of us are doing: a bunch of meditation and therapy and time away from striving and screens. (I realize that to have resources and time to do this is a privilege in it of itself.)

I decided to try slowing down and looking inward because midway through last year everything felt like it was going too fast and I couldn’t reflect and process what I was going through, emotionally. It was like a Shinkansen of new assignments and stupid bureaucratic fights and constant change, a train I couldn’t get off until I moved back home.

Two thoughts about this, early into this chapter of stillness. (Well, relative stillness.)

One, we have got to be brave enough to lean on one another for help. And to reach out when you sense someone you love might need you. The only thing that’s gonna get us through the challenges that come our way is our relationships, which give us meaning. It’s the timely and evergreen message of the Netflix show Russian Doll, which you really should watch if you haven’t.

Two, we should be more curious about our feelings. I’m coached to do this, but I’ve also learned from my own parenting. When I have a child in meltdown mode, I’ll try to empathize first and say, “You are really angry, I see you’re so angry” so the child is heard (this works to varying degrees). But then I try to get them to talk about it and dig in, so they can learn to be self-aware.

I realized sometime along the way that I hardly ever do this for my own anger or dread or whatever it is, so now I’m doing the work on myself. Especially during my quarterly existential dread.

SCENE

Me: [In tears, playing Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’ in a loop]

Stiles: Ahhhh, is it time for your quarterly existential dread?

Me: Oh, god. Don’t talk to me. [Eyeroll, more tears, more Radiohead]

I find it’s useful to be less hard on myself when I’m cycling through my ennui. I’m trying to be more curious about my feelings and what they’re saying. While we all have an internal voice, we get a little disconnected from it sometimes.


*This did not stop me from sending her flowers with this card …


I’ll show myself out now.

2018 Year in Review: Don’t Look Down

Trying not to fall off what’s left of the Jinguashi Gold Mine on the Northern coast of Taiwan, July 2018.

You know how when Wile E. Coyote is chasing the roadrunner off the cliff and there are a few moments when he’s just running on air before dropping precipitously to the ground? That’s how 2018 feels, for America and the existing world order, anyway. This year was such a trash heap that the thing I most look forward to every Christmas, the Hater’s Guide To the Williams Sonoma Catalog, couldn’t happen because the author nearly died.

Despite the persistent ennui about global issues, this year was jam-packed personally and I avoided calamity (a heightened concern due to it being the Year of the Dog). Started the year in Sydney, then February away from home covering the Olympics, springtime was all nuclear rapprochement, got in a last gasp of Asia livin’ before a big repatriation at the end of the summer and filled the fall with hellos, reunions, and settling into being a Californian for the first time. All the while, there was drama at work I eventually learned to navigate, and many dumb dramas at home.

I feel so grateful to be in Southern California and to live on LA’s west side, where you can feel that cool sea breeze and are never more than a 16-minute ride to LAX. I love the multicultural, pluralistic, chilled-out populace. Every time I’m at a school assembly for one of the girls, I look at the faces of the kids performing and they are almost all brown or biracial. It makes me feel so hopeful about the future.

Most LA Thing To Happen: I was chatting up Gary Busey in my work lobby because hello, Gary Busey was just sitting in the lobby, when Tom Hanks walks by. Tom double-takes and says in his TOM HANKS voice, “Gary Busey? My god, how you doin’ man?” And he stops to chat with Gary Busey, introduces himself to me by going, “Hi, I’m Tom,” and then suddenly I’m sitting there talking with Tom Hanks and Gary Busey.

This Year’s Firsts: Moving to California. Going on Anderson Cooper. A real Hollywood movie premiere. Speaking to an arena. Being in the same room as Kim Jong Un’s sister. Being on the same street as Kim Jong Un. Olympics. Curling match. Gracie Award. Japanese robot hotel, where the receptionist was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Controlling robot legs with my MIND! Hosting Here and Now. Hosting It’s Been A Minute.

Products I Now Swear By: Posie Tint lip tint (I really embraced the Korean “barely there” makeup look), hay straws, reusable straws, SmartWool socks.

Most Relied-Upon Services: Reggie, the guy who washes our cars while parked in the NPR lot, and Drybar. I almost completely stopped doing my hair this year and farmed it out. Combine that with having three daughters who all need bang trims or cuts on a regular basis and I feel like I’m always in one salon or another. This is less about vanity and more about laziness.

Service I Miss the Most: KakaoTalk. One day I needed to access my Kakao from a desktop, which meant wiping all my previous conversations tied to my now defunct Korea phone number. I mourned for an entire afternoon. So much animated sticker-laden banter, GONE, GONE. I love Kakao so much that our goodbye party from Korea was Kakao-themed, as in, people came dressed up as Kakao emojis.

Best Live Sports Experience: The gold medal women’s hockey came between the US and Canada at the Winter Games. Women’s curling — the journey of the ‘Garlic Girls/Team Kim’ — is a close, close second.

The world famous North Korean singing/cheering troupe. Their minders were closely minding this moment.

Favorite Selfie: The one with all the North Korean cheerleaders in town for the Olympics

New Places: Danang/Hoi An, Vietnam. Mount Hood, Oregon. Sydney, Australia. Singapore.

Most Valuable New Friend: Tiffany, our realtor, who instantly made me feel at home (and went above and beyond in helping find us a home). Or Janet, the mom friend I made in the dropoff line at kindergarten. We learned our younger kids go to the same preschool and our older kids are obviously in the same kindergarten, so she’s my go-to for emergency “HEY CAN YOU WATCH OR PICK UP MY KID?!” calls.

Regrets: Not getting to go to Japan all the time anymore. Not talking to effing Bradley Cooper while he was just sitting there in the lobby of my office for 15 minutes, with no one to talk to. Friend Tim quipped, “You should just say to him, ‘Hey’ and when he turns around go, ‘I just wanted to take another look at you.” LOL.

Favorite Stories/Interviews: Steven Yeun, for sure. Amy Westervelt. The Singapore Summit, which was a blur but a memorable blur. The summit before that — the inter-Korean one, which we covered from the most giant press file I have ever seen.

Life Theme: 50/50! We are all becoming more woke, as a society, and for me it’s given me a deeper appreciation of how equitable my marriage has been, and how frustratingly unusual it is, STILL, for women to get to live the lives of this brilliant Garfunkel and Oates feminist love song:

I’m gonna make your dreams come true
As long as they don’t interfere with mine
I’ll always be here for you
For methodically allotted amounts of time
I’ll be there to hold your hand
If I happen to be in town
And any time you need me
There’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be around

Stiles and I saw them together and cheered obnoxiously because IT ME. Guiiiiiiilllty!  

Also this year, in no particular order….

Attended three weddings
Lost my cat, Cheese
Mostly survived my ben ming nian
Got a 15-year-old car accident blemish lasered off my leg
Got a ‘local gal makes good’ piece in my hometown paper
Discovered the best discount kaiseki lunch in Tokyo (thank you Japanese diplomats)
Accidentally locked myself in my Olympic apartment
Survived an international move, in the other direction
Won a Gracie Award
Keynoted the Journalism and Women Symposium confab
Visited the set of Barry
Stopped nursing Luna, celebrated her first birthday
Didn’t get pregnant again, whew
Saw Lauryn Hill live, finally
Had an authentic Hong Kong dim sum weekend
Talked a lot about sexism
Completed the cable news hat trick — Fox, CNN and MSNBC in a single day
Didn’t work at the Washington Post, again
Took my girls to Disneyland
Sold my Austin house
Coached first daughter through losing her first teeth
Covered the worst wildfire in California history
Accidentally stumbled upon the Korean curling “garlic girls” on a hot streak and followed it through to their appearing at the gold medal game, ultimately winning a silver
Covered the Kim-Moon summit
And the surprise Kim-Moon summit
The Trump-Kim summit in Singapore
Saw Reese Witherspoon in the flesh
Spent three murder weekends in the woods
Had epic Kakao-themed goodbye party in Korea
Appeared in a documentary that is not the air sex one
Spent 15th Christmas with Stiles, in which we avoided murdering one another
Squeezed in 54 books
Met the famous foodcam of the MIT Media Lab
Flew 233,340 miles to 31 cities, eight countries and spent 113 days away from home. This was crazy in it of itself but especially given the small children and their assorted activities/needs. Next year I’m staying put more so I can be alone with my thoughts — FRIGHTENING. I’ve already said it but I’ll say it again: Thank you thank you to my misanthropic husband and our live-in helper, Yani.

Previous Years in Review

2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

“Sad Story”

Last week at dinner when it was daughter Eva’s turn to share highlights and lowlights of her day,  she was nearing the finish line and then suddenly stops and goes, “OH I FORGOT. There’s a really sad story.”

“What is it?” I said, in a wide-eyed over-exaggerated childlike way, to mirror her dramatic setup.

Then she unloaded with this crazy story she learned from her kindergarten teacher at school.

“One day, there was a bad guy. And he took a plane, and he CRASHED it into a building. And it died so many people. And even people on the ground were died too, because of the building crashing. It’s really, really sad.” [Eva makes face pouty here.]

Upon realizing what she was telling us, Matt and I looked at each other and he responded by saying something like, “Yes that was really really sad. And those people shouldn’t have died.” (I’m not sure Eva realized this was an actual event that happened until that point, in which her dad brought his personal memory of 9/11 into the conversation and made that connection for her, whether we should have or not.)

Then I go, “The guy who crashed the plane into the building died, too.”

And immediately Eva comes back with, “But he WANTED to die. He flew that plane knowing he was going to die.”

A week later I am still stunned to hear the 9/11 story recounted to me by my five-year-old as a distant story, and not something real that she experienced in her lifetime. And also stunned that she processed all of this and they talked about it at school but I guess you’re not supposed to shelter small people from news … but still, yikes. I keepl turning over this whole scene in my head, and the adorable way she said, “And it died so many people.” Because I don’t even know if she has ever used the verb “kill” before. Sigh.

RIP Philip Roth

“Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

—-Philip Roth, in his novel The Plot Against America, 2004

State of the Women

When I was in the states this month I got the chance to meet with a lot of think tanky folks who have been sources and friends for years. One of the groups, Asia Society Policy Institute, even let me talk to young professionals for an event they do called AsiaX, which is supposed to a series of “less boring” talks. I opted to chat about something I wish I had more time to really delve into here, which is the state of women in South Korea and Japan. These are highly industrialized, future-oriented countries, who are holding themselves back because their women don’t have the full range of options in the economies as men do.

Firemen in Hell

“During the reign of President* Trump, doing this job is like being a fireman in hell. No days off. No weekends free.” -Charles Pierce, on being a journalist right now

Everything’s Fine…

“Ennui today is best described as the impossible act of ignoring the sound of a thousand dolphins screaming, which is what I hear when I log online every morning.”

-Leah Finnegan (I recommend the full letter)