Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Goulston asked me to be a guest on his show, and I never turn down time with therapists. So we ended up having a wide-ranging (and rather discursive) conversation about this once-in-a-century global pandemic we’re all enduring, the roots of my identity, how to pay better attention and deepen our relationships and a lot more.
After Trump was elected, I made it a goal to spend more time reading books, as an escape from the ephemeral headlines that were zapping my brain and frying my soul. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 I read at a pace of a book a week.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Wow, No, Thank you, Samantha Irby
The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House, Audre Lorde
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, Danez Smith
Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates
Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong
Someone Who Will Love You In All You Damaged Glory, Raphael Bob Waksberg
The First Bad Man, Miranda July
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
How Much Of These Hills Is Gold?, C. Pam Zhang
Started but Didn’t Finish: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know, such a classic. I just got too distracted. The Night of the Gun, by David Carr. I am a great admirer of that late journalist, and he signed Stiles’ copy of it, but neither of us had gotten around to reading the book. I made it about halfway through but lost interest. The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which the poet/artist Maggie Smith cited as an inspiration for her work. I don’t know if it was the translation from French or the lack of a structure but I just could not get through it.
Picking ‘Em: I had been prioritizing works by women and people of color, but this year I just read anything I was reviewing for work, books my friends recommended, or art by artists I already like. For example, the end of Bojack Horseman swelled and broke my heart, so I had to read its creator’s short story collection. In the fall I reconnected with Matt Weiner, a hypersmart dude who wrote Mad Men, so a couple of the books at the end of my year were from his recommendations.
Books by Author Gender
Books by Classification
I still read on my Kindle, and got a second one this year because I misplace my Kindle so much. Recall from my previous years’ posts that I read the most on planes. This year I spent less time on planes than I have since I was maybe 18 years old. So that evaporated my dedicated book reading time. I still love it, though, and just need to be more disciplined about reading at home.
If you’re curious, here’s my full 2020 book list.
Previous Years in Reading
Credit to Nicole Zhu, a friend and fellow book-lover who inspired me to start the 52/52 challenge a few years ago. And big thanks to Matty, who makes the reading post so pretty every year. The code behind my books visualizations is available, so you can do this with YOUR reading data. too.
It goes without saying 2020 was a Vegas buffet of awfulness and suffering. But damn, there were a few video snippets that brought me such joy when I saw them that I made a note to round them up at the end of the year. Herewith:
The moment these two kids discovered the drum solo in the middle of “In the Air Tonight”
This genius Yakult+Sprite+soju smoothie demo, on TikTok:
This breakdown of Rudy Giuliani’s COVID-spreading ways on TikTok:
This recounting of a beach date is my fave TikTok of the year:
BTS’ “Dynamite” dropped sometime in the summer when we were in a curfew (for the protests and potential police violence) in the midst of a stay-at-home order (for the plague). And damn, it is still such a bop.
And of course, this moment at an LA gas station, the night the election was finally called for Biden.
this was the first time i heard this song in 2020 and it was absolutely the best possible occasion 🎁 pic.twitter.com/Fb5fd2cDCH
— adri ♛ (@adriofwands) November 8, 2020
“It felt vaguely like being forced to live in a building splintered by a wrecking ball before the rebuilding had begun. Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed — with a harsh, unrelenting clarity — what had already been lost.”
This year forced us to our knees. Like so many others, I found myself disoriented and trapped inside, falling to my emotional nadir. We lost Kobe Bryant. John Lewis. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And some 300,000 Americans to the plague. We yearned for the days when the rule of law was a given. America as we know it came apart at the seams. Even our best efforts to bridge differences won’t work by themselves, they require that the digital platforms shattering reality in the name of “consumer choice” will have to dramatically change or be regulated into doing so.
I experienced COVID year primarily as a loss of innocence — the year I finally, finally had to grow up. At one point this summer, we were under stay-at-home orders (for rioting) in the midst of stay-at-home orders (for coronavirus). Did we ever think we’d miss each other like this, that we’d yearn for the joy of company and coincidence, serendipity and surprise, the magic of sharing poorly ventilated spaces with strangers? Grief, loss and identity shift defined 2020, both in the universal sense, and in a personal one.
Despite a year of radical change, I write this post feeling privileged and contented. The threat of the virus took away so much — loved ones, freedom, hugs, travel, an entire way of life I took for granted. But it gave, too. A return to nature. A stillness in which, egad, we could be alone with our thoughts. Time for introspection! And for me, a real deepening of my relationships. Because there were no longer the “friends” you just run into at a drop-off, or at conferences, you had to be intentional about how you spent your time and who you reached out to check-in on. I was more deliberate with my friendships than ever, and I felt that intention among the loved ones who supported me.
I’m also fortunate to be surrounded (more than ever, since they aren’t in school) by my loud, vibrant, healthy kids who remind us how adaptable humanity is at its essence. To borrow from Des’ree’s anthem from my millennial coming-of-age, we gotta be a little bit badder, a little bit bolder, a little bit wiser, harder, tougher.
Culture That Got Me Through 2020: Bong Joon Ho (just his entire energy), PEN15, Run, I May Destroy You, Younger, BTS’ “Dynamite,” Palm Springs, Dave Grohl’s epic drum battle with a 10 year old he met on social media, the series ending of Bojack Horseman, this TikTok about Mitch McConnell
MVP New Friends: Jenn and Drew, who are the parents of my daughter Eva’s good friend Leif. They were rocks as we made Sunday pool time a regular thing to get through this hell year. Sarah Svoboda, who is my producer at VICE, became one of my closest girlfriends overnight. Rob, with whom I’d split giant breakfast burritos after five mile runs. I am now simultaneously fatter and in better cardiovascular shape.
Big Ideas: The fallacy of emphasizing individual responsibility over systemic fixes. We’re in a care crisis that connects to everything else in our society — the economy, gender, education, politics. The nuclear family ideal is not workable on its own. Neoliberalism failed.
MVP Snack: Brown sugar boba popsicles saved my 2020. I became an accidental boba pop influencer! My only other influencing was for the Saved by the Bell pop-up in West Hollywood, which was a special treat.
Firsts: Book deal. Hosting an hour-long nationwide radio special. Global pandemic. Shelter in place order. Wearing a mask every day. Not leaving the country all year. TV work for VICE. Homeschooling my children. Social distancing. Going a year without being with my parents.
The Energy To Bring To All Things: It’s what I call the Michaela Coel energy, after reading this landmark profile of the singular artist who brought us Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. We say this, from here on out: ‘This is what I need. Are you good enough to give it to me?’ Not ‘Am I good enough to deserve the kind of treatment that I want?’
Regrets: Never did learn how to play the ukulele. Barely made progress on my book, which was supposed to be mostly done by now, in a parallel universe. My relationships felt very COVID-blocked, to different degrees.
My Gamechanger: Jungian depth psychology with a dream analyst. This is the most woo-woo I’ve ever sounded, I realize. But after dipping in and out of traditional, more conventional cognitive behavioral therapy for most my adult life, Friend Jenn told me about her dream analyst and I started seeing him over Zoom and I have never had a clearer and deeper understanding of my inner life. I feel more whole and more grounded in an organizing philosophy for meaning than, well, ever. I credit it with keeping me contented through the crucible that was 2020.
Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:
Wrote letters to more than 50 strangers, got the most moving responses
Got to know all the parks around here
Ran 301 miles
Held a squat for 15 minutes while conducting an interview
Watched 252 TED talks
Gained five to eight lbs, depending on the day
Never once got to hug my mom or dad
Signed my first book deal
Went to so many Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom milestones and Zoom conferences that I never tracked it
Helped link doctors so they could share COVID lessons in its earliest days
Started hosting TED Talks Daily
Didn’t go to TED (the conference, because the plague canceled it)
Started working as a freelance correspondent for VICE News Tonight
Signed with my broadcast agent in January, who negotiated a lucrative deal by December
Co-created and hosted Labor, an indie podcast about why motherhood’s messed up
Meditated more than ever before
Drew my first zine
Got a new cat, Abe
Did not get COVID19, at least not yet
Volunteered every Tuesday in the summer, delivering meals to neighbors in need
Got to know the homeless community in Venice
Went drinking with my high school economics teacher, Mr. Coates, 20 years after being his student. He re-explained the Laffer Curve to me at a punk bar in Chicago!
Reconnected with Matt Weiner
Read 39 books, a far cry from the 52 books of previous years
Moved into a new town home
Got a sandwich named after me — The Elise Hu, which is, shockingly, vegetarian
Flew 24,469 miles to 10 cities, never once left the country and spent only 29 days away from home — all of it, before March 13.
Previous Years in Review
Watching TED Talks is my day job, so I did a quick tally and it turns out I watched at least 252 TED Talks this year. They covered topics far and wide, and come from the main TED stage, TEDx stages around the world and other TED programs, like TED Salon and TED-Ed.
I have such breadth of random knowledge now that it’s a shame there are no parties anymore, because I keep thinking I will be amazing at cocktail chatter.
On my Instagram Stories, I asked y’all to ask me anything about my TED-viewing experience. Since InstaStories don’t last — they disappear after 24 hours — here’s how I answered:
In no particular order…
What was your favorite celebrity TED talk?
I consider psychotherapist Esther Perel a pretty big celebrity these days, so if you haven’t watched her original TED talk, its central ideas will make you think.
The most surprisingly practical TED Talk?
I loved and laughed with Brian Little, on personality.
What was the most valuable thing you learned among the TED Talks you watched?
Actually just last week I watched Lori Gottlieb’s talk from TEDxDupont 2019. She makes a point that will stay with me: That most of our life struggles boil down to two themes — freedom or change. But something we neglect to think through in our quest for change is that it requires an unshedding, an unbecoming — that to grow and change, we must also experience some loss and grief.
The most applicable TED talk?
In 2020, anything about getting better sleep helps. Sleep researcher Matt Walker breaks down some basics.
What’s a talk you wish teenagers would watch?
Tristan Harris, who presents an important intro to the attention economy and the danger of all our social platforms.
What’s a good entry point?
Sir Ken Robinson’s is one of the most popular talks from all time. It’s delightful, thought-provoking and well worth your time.
Which one made you want to drink?
My first zine! Friend Malaka Gharib is a brilliant comic artist & today I took her tutorial on making “quaranzines,” mini-zines about coronavirus life. I wanted to try making one after my friend Amanda and I joked last week about all the unconventional exercise we’ve done this year.
The class was constrained to drawing on one sheet of paper (folded into eight panels) and finishing in 32 minutes. Then I colored it during dinner, which is why there’s a grease stain on a page. 🤷🏻♀️ Thank you, Malaka, for inspiring us to create!
“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” — St. Augustine
Friend Jenn is an ER doctor. At the beginning of March, when it was clear the coronavirus would ravage the country and the richest nation in the world couldn’t supply enough N95 masks for its hospital workers, she and the other docs slid their masks into brown paper bags at the end of their shifts and wrote the dates on those bags. The masks could sit for five days — the estimated time for virus to die off — before cleaning and re-using them, if necessary.
“The other day I was marking my paper bag and I remembered writing March 3,” she said. “Now suddenly I’m writing November dates.”
Was this the longest year, or the shortest year? First the toilet paper ran out at Costco. Then I rushed off a New York subway two stops early because I was too scared to cough while Chinese — back then, only Wuhan was locked down and the anti-Asian racism raged. Then yellow caution tape went up around the playgrounds and masks went up on our faces. I picked up Eva from school, and it still hasn’t reopened. Friends started gardens, and sourdough. In June, I started wearing a Christmas sweatshirt that said, “Merry Merry Merry” to try and cheer myself up. QR codes came back, for menus at restaurants only open in what used to be their parking lots. We attended drive-by birthday parades. And Zoom weddings. The three-year-old showed me how to mute and un-mute her Zooms. We got to know the parks and the running trails and everything that could happen outside. I smized as much as I could.
I’m still wearing that Christmas sweatshirt, only, it’s actually Christmastime now.
Time’s elasticity has never mystified me more. The Groundhog Day-ness of our routines, the complete lack of travel, the death of serendipity, surprise and strangers … did it stretch time or compress it?
Neurologists say novelty enhances memory, and while 2020 was devoid of the “novelty” we used to plan for — vacations, milestones, the gatherings where you’d meet novel new people, we got surprises we didn’t want: a public health crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. A presidential election, while resolved, has permanently damaged our already fraught American democracy. Being hyper-alert and anxious all the time would, reasonably, stretch time in the way trauma does. And relationally, I feel as if I’ve known my COVID19 trench friends and “foxhole crushes” for 80 percent of my adult life, despite really only deepening our friendships over the grueling months of the plague.
We wanted the election to hurry up and come so we could be put out of our uncertainty. We wanted this year to hurry up and end. And suddenly it’s almost over and I’m sitting here thinking, WTF happened to this entire year? What have I done with myself, if anything?
Psychologists study the “trip home effect,” an illusion in which we feel like the drive back from a destination is shorter, even when it’s the same distance. The common explanation was that familiarity undergirded that feeling — you recognize the landmarks on the way back, and you’re devoid of the original uncertainty of that drive. A more recent study points at expectation as the reason why the drive home seems shorter: “Initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected … pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”
Or, it’s about distraction: You’re more focused on a target when you’re going somewhere for the first time, but when you’re coming home, you’re more easily distracted, making the trip seem shorter.
In pondering the elasticity of time this year, and how the trip home effect might relate, I stumbled on perhaps the bigger, more philosophical question: Is life in a pandemic trying to get to a destination, or trying to get home?
Since the 2016 Trump election, I have made it a priority to read at least 52 books a year, and have kept up that pace during the tumultuous years since. I find it a balm to bury myself in a book and do some “deep reading,” as Ezra Klein calls it, and am better for it. I see new frameworks and systems, find myself connecting concepts to life or work, and in general, reading expands me and I love it.
This year is different. (The word “different” is doing a LOT of work there.) I am trying to write a book of my own, which is not going well for all the reasons you can expect. And I find it hard to concentrate long enough to read well. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been impressive creative work coming out this year. So I’ll recommend a few periodicals that resonated with me and might stay with you, too.
Essay: “When the World Went Away, We Made a New One” by Leslie Jamison
(And her NY Review of Books piece on the early days of quarantine while suffering through the virus, single parenting her toddler, is also deeply resonant)
Poetry: The Blue House by Tomas Transtomer
Testimony: 1964 Testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention.
Longform News: The Truth is Paywalled but the Lies are Free, by Nathan J. Robinson
I’ve arrived. An LA coffee shop is selling a new sandwich — the “Elise Hu.” So exciting!
They’re made by the local sammie startup, Wax Paper Sandwich Company, and feature radish, miso butter, preserved lemon vinaigrette and dill, on Bub and Grandma’s baguettes.
That it’s a vegetarian sandwich with radishes is clear evidence that they don’t know me at all! Comments from my friends ranged from, “You’re more like a muffaleta, something that’s more of a hodge podge of ingredients and flavor explosion!” to “You look like you’re miso butter on the outside, but you’re all roast beef dipped in au jus on the inside,” to Liz Taylor’s spot-on take:
On one hand, I’m thrilled to have a sandwich and be able to tell people to “Eat me,” because, how fun. The Elise Hu sold out today in ten minutes, I’m told.
But damn, I’d like to be a totally different sandwich. I’d like to be Texas BBQ brisket sandwiched between two scallion pancakes, you know? That would be more on point.
I was grousing about this at tennis yesterday and my friend Drew goes, “This is a Curb [Your Enthusiasm] episode.” And lo and behold, it actually is!
The season five premiere, in fact, is “The Larry David Sandwich.” To wit:
At his favorite deli, Leo’s, the owner, Leo has named a sandwich after him but Larry is disgusted by the contents: onions, capers, white fish, sable and cream cheese. He tries to get Ted Danson to switch sandwiches with him but he is unwilling to do it.
The “Elise Hu” came out along with a chorizo-filled sandwich named the “Anthony Kuhn,” after the current NPR Seoul bureau chief, who succeeded me on the Korea/Japan patch. I wonder if Anthony and I could trade?
The smartest takes on Trump and Trumpism have been written and I don’t have anything to add to that canon. And instead of defining the reasons I held hope for this presidential election in the negative, I’ll list some of them in the affirmative: my belief in the power of the vote, the excitement of first-time voters this year, the heroic efforts to expand ballot access despite all the GOP-led suppression tactics around the country, the ritualistic exercise in civic participation that gives us a glimmer of what holds us together (barely).
Our worst-ever week in America for the coronavirus pandemic coincided with our election night-turned-week, one in which the networks still haven’t called a winner despite the result being so clear now that it’s become a joke how long we’ve been held “hostage” by cable news anchors, vamping.
This was my first presidential election night in America since 2012, when Obama resoundingly won a second term against Mitt Romney. Newsrooms (or reporting the news) are my natural habitat on election night but this year, I could just watch. Incidentally this was also the case in 2012 because I was on maternity leave for my firstborn, Eva. Election nights are no time to be alone, but because of COVID — everything this year seems appended with “because of COVID” — we had to make really careful plans for a get together.
Jen and Drew, whose pool hosted Sunday swim dates and brunches all summer, found a way to project the coverage of returns on a big screen in their backyard out by the pool. I brought all the fresh banchan they had left at H Mart and drank soju from wine glasses. Drew grilled ribeye, New York strip and shishito peppers. Jen made a bunch of yummy sides. Good thing so much food and drink was around because anxiety and uncertainty ruled the night, just as it rules this entire year.
And here we are, Saturday morning, still unfinished. I believe the President is currently speaking some more wild falsehoods about “fraud” at a place called Four Seasons Landscaping, not to be confused with the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, which had to issue a tweet to emphasize they are not the same. Anyway none of this week’s “fraud” posturing really matters, in the scheme of things. Joe Biden’s our next president. He’ll have a thankless, terrible job ahead of him.