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

Memory Boosting A Difficult Day

We had the wind at our backs in early August, when my scrappy team of video producers convened to shoot this Future You episode on memory. It just came out this morning…

Things changed by the time we flew home.

The night after my head was stimulated with tiny bursts of electricity (for the video), I awoke in a sleep lab to find out that our photographer and friend, Kara, had been laid off over the phone while getting her gear ready, in the parking lot. My other lead producer, Beck, got a call with the same news while she was with her parents, on vacation.

In ABQ with Kara, before the troubles.

Their layoffs were part of a handful that included the cancelation of my series when the run is finished, the end of original video out of the news department, and executed at the direction of our new news chief. We got no rationale except that she’s “prioritizing other things.”

Suffice to say, I’d been blessed that nothing like that has ever happened in my professional life. This felt even worse and more harsh because of the way it went down, mid-stride on a Tuesday morning during a difficult shoot.

Kara didn’t even have time to properly process before we went straight back into finish the final interview of the shoot. She was so, so professional and demonstrated the kind of grace under pressure that I can only strive for. Because Kara moved onto her next job before getting to finish the edit, our New York-based colleague Nickolai finished the edit so that we could put it out today. Big thanks to everyone involved for not losing heart and seeing it through.

As for me, I’m not sure what’s next. The end of original news video also means the end of my role, though we haven’t finalized how that is going to look. Change is a constant, I certainly know well enough not to resist it.

Adventures in Age Reversal

Man, this summer was rough. Not only did my arm fall out of its socket, altering my shoulder ever since, but my video producers on the Future You team were unceremoniously laid off WHILE WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF AN OVERNIGHT SHOOT. The fallout isn’t quite over yet.

All the while, I was starving and super tired! I had to eat right and exercise more, for work. An actual exchange at Harvard Med:

Me: Will I have to stop eating McFlurry’s for breakfast?

Researcher: You eat McFlurry’s for breakfast? How old are you!?

For the Future You episode on life extension, the oncologist and longevity doctor Peter Attia worked with Harvard geneticist David Sinclair to give me a longevity regimen to reverse my inner, or biological age. They were trying to help me make my cells read as if they were young again.

Sinclair’s research in recent years has isolated the molecule thats help repair cellular damage from aging to give mice better blood flow, stronger muscles — the general benefits of exercise and eating right — in pill form. Now it’s being tested on humans. And I tried testing it for myself, along with the other age-reversing techniques we know of like diet changes, for the back half of the summer.

The end result? Catch it in the latest Future You (thank god we finished shooting this before my producers got the axe).

May is Mayhem

When I look back on 2019, I hope that things never get as chaotic as May, when everything I agreed to do back in, I dunno, the fall, converged in one month. We launched Future You with Elise Hu, my new video series for NPR, which was supposed to be ready earlier but as with many of these creative projects, a lot of twists and turns happen along the way.

 

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Plus there’s Mother’s Day, my two wedding anniversaries (legal and observed), end-of-school obligations, my brother’s birthday and my spouse’s birthday, which we had to skip over last weekend because, well, I couldn’t be around. Eventually we are going to have to find a day to celebrate “Matty’s Birthday, Observed” because there’s so much to do, there’s never enough tiiiiime … I sound like Jessie Spano in one of the most unforgettable episodes of Saved by the Bell, but it’s true.

Just after we started rolling out the first episode, I flew to New York where we do our annual meeting for the non-profit news org, Grist, where I’ve been a board member for many years. New York is so fun this time of year; it pulses with a kinetic energy, it smells of all the smells, there’s a sense that anything in the range of human experience can happen RIGHT NOW, on the very street corner on which you’re standing. It’s like being in Shanghai, where really, anything and everything could just pop off, right then.

One of my closest girlfriends in the whole world, Mari from Tokyo, happened to be in New York this month so we had a date night on Thursday featuring a lot of eating and drinking and meandering from one West Village place to another. This was the first time we’ve hung out OUTSIDE of Japan and just one of the best gal pal get togethers … she’s an actress and writer for whom all sorts of new projects are coming her way and I’m so proud. I love how New York is just full of possibility; it makes it magical.

I stuck around for more magic. And more reunion dates, and an Adam Driver/Keri Russell play and most importantly, for Friend Alex’s wedding. Friend Alex is my partner-in-jet-lag. Both of us were Asia correspondents at the same time (she for CNN, I for NPR) and so one of us was always up at some strange hour for rapid fire text banter. She taught me not to wash my hair for days, which ends up building great volume (you just have to use good dry shampoo to keep it from getting gross). And she’s the classiest, New Yorkiest of my girlfriends, so she threw the classiest, New Yorkiest of weddings overlooking Central Park, from one of those exclusive Upper East Side clubs that didn’t let women become members for most of its history. The affair was black tie and beautiful, and she wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Alex and Andrew, a modern wedding for a modern couple.

California … Knows How To Work You

I’ve been all over California this month — work trips to San Francisco and San Diego, shooting the video series and hosting It’s Been a Minute episodes from both places, and made it to Palm Springs for the first time for spring break with the family.

Humans helped act as reflector stands for us. That’s video producer Kara Frame there, on the right.

The new series has a name, Future You with Elise Hu, and we’ve been heads down on getting the first two episodes ready for an early May release. We also need to get ahead of ourselves in filming them, so this week a crew from DC came out to work with me on Venice Beach, and then we all went to San Francisco together for a harried schedule of more interviewing and filming.

Lots of bright sides: The DC ladies got to thaw out (because apparently it’s still cold out East), and I got to have my collaborators with me in person, instead of over the video chats we do all the time.

These ladies were producing me for video and radio. L to R, Beck Harlan, me, Kara Frame, Anjuli Sastry.

What else do I have to say about April? I potty trained Luna using the Potty Training Boot Camp method (two days, it’s amazing). She turned two years old, so I REALLY have no more babies.

I went to San Diego for a few days to speak at a member station gala and do other assorted speaking activities.

For the older girls’ spring break, we took everyone to the desert (everything went smoothly until one of Eva’s friend’s, Brandon, accidentally ate walnuts to which he is allergic and wound up in the hospital).

Luna, at werk werk werk werk werk.

Also I’m spending an inordinate amount of time training on vertical jump, so I’m ready for the NFL combine. Hehe. Actually it’s for episode three. It will all make sense later.