I Wrote Everywhere, Man

(A fuller, edited version of this post appears on npr.org)

The letters addressed and ready for delivery. My first letters were affixed with Santa stamps because that’s all I had left.

On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.

When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.

It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.

Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.

I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.

Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.

It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.

When I ran out of my personal stationery, I tried to maintain a personal touch by writing on pages of kid doodles.

I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.

And how writing these letters filled up my emotional tank, even though we didn’t know one another.

A letter than got to the other side, complete with the Santa stamp

I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.

Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”

He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.

In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”

In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.

People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”

I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”

A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.

So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.

Robert in Austin, who received my letter and wrote back to share the news he and his wife were having a baby in three days

The Week We Thought Kim Jong Un Died

North Korean state media showed images of leader Kim Jong Un appearing at a fertilizer factory ribbon-cutting today, 20 days after he was last seen in public. During his “disappearance” we learned he was maybe in “grave condition” (CNN), possibly “braindead” (Weibo chats and MSNBC) or fully dead, and/or maybe just avoiding COVID19 by holing up in Wonsan, his resort town. The night the news spread about his “grave condition,” I was putting the kids down for the night and both spouse and I sprung into action to try and figure out what was up, instinctively. Neither of us had any responsibility over North Korea coverage anymore but raced to figure things out as if we had an audience to satisfy. Chasing down KJU rumors — what a weird thing one’s mind and body learns to do automatically.

Now he’s apparently back or resurrected. Suddenly April 2020 is behind us.

I read today an idea about the passage of time that really resonated, from Ann Friedman:

“Apparently when everyone’s routine disappears and gets remade at the same time, weird things happen to our collective sense of momentum. Novel experiences slow down our perception of time (aka March), while repetition speeds it up (ahem, April).”

THAT EXPLAINS IT!

To catch up: I spent a lot of the month writing letters and then receiving letters, from strangers who only knew me from Twitter and DM-ed me their addresses. I can’t wait to blog about that nourishing, connective experience. It filled my tank when I needed it the most.

What else can I say? Everything feels fraught and chaotic. I feel lonely and despairing a lot, despite the small children shouting and jumping on me all the time. I binge-watched Normal People the TV series (based on a book I devoured last year) and cried every episode. Last night I zoned out in the frozen food aisle, breathing faintly into my mask and staring at taquitos for too long. I’m trying to remember compassion, compassion, compassion, including for myself.

As for family, we are all grateful and privileged and so lucky to be living well enough to enjoy the sunshine of Southern California, to have each other to dine with and feel with and fight with and push against. We are all, collectively, in our cocoons, in the midst of a grand metamorphosis. I don’t know what world we’ll emerge into, but we’ll be wholly changed. We certainly won’t be caterpillars anymore.

George Saunders’ Heartwarming Email To His Students During This Anxious Time

The writer Cheryl Strayed has a new podcast with The New York Times, Sugar Calling. It debuted maybe a week ago, but who knows, because I can’t feel time anymore. Anyway, today I listened to an episode featuring her mentor, the prolific and talented writer George Saunders. His collection, Tenth of December, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I like to re-read his commencement speech, “Congratulations By The Way,” for a pick me up.

In the podcast episode, he shares a letter he wrote to his graduate students at Syracuse during this terrifying time. It felt so affirming and nourishing to hear it, just as I’ve been really hitting the wall with this kind of contained lifestyle. Here it is, but not in its entirety.

“Dear S.U. writers —

Geez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew.”

But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards. What new forms might you invent to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.

Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, ah, so this is happening now. Or hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth — did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker. And then I real quick tried to pretend I didn’t just call the universe a stinker.

I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity, non-change, that we get taken by surprise. And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.

Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice — at all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I’m doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on — no walk? Again?

But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger, and we tend to live our lives there on its back. We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger. Now and then, that tiger wakes up, and that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up when someone we love dies or someone breaks our heart or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always, there have been writers to observe it and later make some sort of sense of it — or at least bear witness to it.

It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting — warts and all.

All of this to say, there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever. “

Hear Saunders read the whole thing, and talk with Strayed, in the episode.

Bruises That Won’t Heeeeaaaal

If you’re not still in shock, you’re probably grieving the way things used to be. Life as we knew it melted away so fast we didn’t even get to say goodbye. My four-year-old asked me permission to touch her face today — she had an itch. My next door neighbor, who managed a high-end Venice restaurant called The Tasting Kitchen, has already lost his job and filed for unemployment. I am settling into a new normal of “working” while “teaching” homeschool. I taped an hourlong special that will air on NPR airwaves later this month from under a baby blanket in our guest room closet.

The older girls take a watercolor class via Facebook Live. God bless all the creatives who gave generously of themselves to teach via video.

In New York last week, my literary agent Howard and I kept playing Sia music, and I discovered an excellent Sia cover of the Radiohead classic, Paranoid Android. Since then I’ve been back to playing No Surprises on a loop.

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us

From Leah Finnegan:

“We are all now in this boat: people whose daily lives have been obliterated, normalcy and joy replaced with fear and sadness. We will likely get a little sick. We will definitely know someone who gets sick, if we don’t already. Some people will get sicker. Others will die. Children will lose their mothers. And we have no choice but to witness it; we will spend the next few months being suspicious of the air we breathe, anticipating certain pain. We had the nicest plans, but.

If you want you can call this time period The Saddening, kind of like The Troubles. I might do that, treacle be damned, because it’s sad, what is happening, how we are trapped in it, how there’s nothing we can do to get out. So I’m just gonna be sad for a while. It will pass eventually and, when it does, everything will look a lot different.”

Life in Lockdown, The First Sunday

A dispatch from coronavirus social distancing, once in an indefinite series

Fortuitous that the family got me a kitten for my birthday because now I have a new lap buddy for all this time at home.

I have never before in my life eaten so much cheese. I stocked up before the store shelves went empty and now just working my way down through the stash, at rapid speed.

Matty absconded with the two older daughters earlier today and entertained them all day, so we were able to divide and conquer without cannibalizing one another.

The baby of the family, two-year-old Luna, learned how to use the Amazon Echo and has been making Alexa play her go-to jams of “Juice” by Lizzo, “Call Me Maybe” and some sort of “Say Cheese” kid song on repeat. I tried to get her into Radiohead and she indulged me for half of “High and Dry” before calling it quits.

Have been intimidated and would feel guilty about trying to go to Costco for one last run before these stores inevitably shut down, and am instead already bumming toilet paper rolls off my better prepared mom friends who can spare.

Update: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti just announced that LA is shutting down at midnight. Retail businesses, bars, clubs, gyms and fitness centers will all close until March 31, at least. Banks, grocers and pharmacies stay open. Restaurants will be available for takeout only.

New York in a Time of Coronavirus

I covered MERS, which was killing some 10 percent of people who got it, when it spread to South Korea in 2015. The scare led to a run on medical products and face masks, hospitals became overtaxed and the government took a big credibility hit for not reporting numbers transparently over the first few days. But life as we knew it continued apace. For some reason the fact I had a new baby that MERS summer doesn’t register at all; I guess we were completely unconcerned that random strangers were touching and holding newborn Isa all the time? Weird, now that I’m looking back on it with a different perspective.

In late January, when my ancestral home region of Wuhan became the epicenter of what’s now called SARS2 or COVID-19, it became clear to those of us who cover China that this outbreak could be not only deadly but widespread; that life as we knew it in Asia would slow or change dramatically. I didn’t know the seemingly logarithmic spread of this new, still mysterious virus would affect the entire globe as it has.

In a time of globalism (and as is always true for epidemics), nation-state borders mean nothing. Following its initial bungling of this outbreak, China’s unprecedented lockdowns of entire cities bought time for the rest of the world to prepare. The US appeared to have done nothing with the extra weeks and now it’s too late. By the end of last year, ennui about how digital life disconnected us IRL set in collectively. Now coronavirus is forcing life in 2020 to become one of further and deeper social isolation. I imagine this will be the case for another few months, at least.

I flew to New York yesterday on a plane where everyone had his or her own row. Surprisingly few people wear masks around the Western world, so the only reason I wore one was to protect others from my nagging cough. Coughing-while-Asian is quite problematic and even scary in the swirl of COVID19 xenophobia.

By the time I landed, a British health minister was infected. New York announced its first “containment area,” and the National Guard moved in to help. We made a point last night to eat at Chinese storefronts, where foot traffic has so slowed that restaurants have had to close.

My workplace and so many others implemented work-from-home plans, a dreaded situation in a period in my life that’s been chock full of dreaded situations. I fear it’s only going to exacerbate my existing feeling of alienation and sadness. I want my mom … but she won’t get on a plane, for obvious reasons.

Less road traffic, and less foot traffic, than normal

Questions From The Preschooler Upon Learning of Kobe’s Death

The Kobe mural on Melrose.

Can we go there to the crash place?
Who gets to go there to the crash place?
Who was driving the helicopter?
Who will take care of his kids?
How is the mommy getting the information?
Do you think baba* knows?
Can you tell baba?
His daughter’s name was Gigi!

— Questions (and a comment) from four year-old Isa, as she sat in her car seat listening to news of Kobe Bryant’s death.

I think Isa has some real journalistic instincts. Not only does she listen and ask a lot of questions, she is eager to go where news happened and share the answers.

* Baba is “dad” in Chinese, so that’s what the girls call Matty

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