Monterey Park, California, USA, is the heart of the Chinese/Taiwanese/Cantonese American diaspora in Southern California. I know it because my parents know it. Because they have friends there, or friends of friends there, because first generation immigrants either settled or found community there. As The Washington Post put it:
“Here between the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains and downtown Los Angeles is a place that decades ago made history, becoming the nation’s first Asian-majority city after years of determined emigration from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Now its history includes a grimmer development, one it shares with an increasing collection of American cities and suburbs.”
On Sunday we were planning to go there — my younger daughters were performing in their Mandarin language choir, as part of day two of the biggest Lunar New Year festival in the area. It was the first time Monterey Park was putting on the festival in three years, given all the COVID-related closures.
That “Monterey Park” and “massacre” are now in the same sentence, and that 20 people were shot at a ballroom dance studio where boomers were enjoying movement and community on Lunar New Year’s Eve, is absolutely gutting. It was the 33rd mass shooting in America in 2023.
The LA Times covered how we talked to our kids about it and snatched a little meaning and togetherness in a time of sorrow, as the moms who also had kids performing decided to come together and grieve together on Sunday with a play date and lunch at the park. It felt bonding, having to hold this difficult tragedy and our fears and grief about it, alongside the more mundane daily rituals of care. Today I appeared on a panel for MSNBC about what happened, with a gun control activist mom who discussed what to do now.
My youngest daughter, the five-year-old Luna, was the most sanguine about the cancelation of the festival, reminding the rest of us, “Don’t worry, there are LOTS of Lunar New Year performances, we’ll perform again!”
I abandoned the book-a-week pace of earlier years once the pandemic came for us. 2022 was a year I spent writing and revising, revising, revising my own book, which is now ready for preorder. I hope you will reserve a copy, and if you do, please write me a note or comment that you have done so, if only to spare you my reminders to preorder. 🙂
Much like last year, work assignments are responsible for selecting much of my 2022 reading, since author interviews comprise many of my ongoing contributions to NPR Life Kit, It’s Been a Minute, and I drop in for guest appearances on the Nerdette podcast for WBEZ.
Other recommendations from my book-devoted friends led to nourishing and surprising reading in 2022, though it was way too heavy on non-fiction. I’ll balance it out more in 2023.
My 2022 list:
The Four Agreements
Don Miguel Ruiz
The Power of Regret
You Sound Like A White Girl
Atlas of the Heart
Imagine If: Creating A Future For Us All
Sir Ken Robinson
How to Tell A Story
The Team at The Moth
All About Love
Sorrow and Bliss
This America: The Case for the Nation
Out of Love
Our Missing Hearts
Lark and Kasim Start a Revolution
The Art of Love
Fave Nonfiction: This America: A Case for the Nation. This slim, breezy, engrossing tale of America is one that I wish I would have been taught in school. It helped root so much of the fissures and struggles we see in today’s headlines in history and an unvarnished version of America. It is realistic and hopeful, though, because I believe the difference between patriotism and nationalism is that patriotism honors love in a nation’s possibility — which means critiquing it — over simply accepting it as it is. Runner up: Laurie Penny’s Sexual Revolution is a must-read especially as bodily autonomy and abortion rights were stripped from people who can become pregnant in half of the United States.
My Fave Fiction:Sorrow and Bliss, a love story that reminded me of the Sally Rooney bestsellers which evoke such feeling from small moments and the rich inner lives of characters.
This was the year the pandemic felt “over” enough that everyone I know began jet-setting again (curiously it seemed like the aforementioned “everyone” summered in Italy?). For me, as accustomed as I am to constant movement, I spent much of 2022 alone, writing from my bed. The deadline to turn in the book nearly flattened me and I wrote much of FLAWLESS in what felt like a semi-conscious state. But for the tireless researchers and interpreters and fact-checkers who kept me going, that book would not be finished.
I turned 40 in the small window of time after a major Omicron wave and before Russia waged an unprovoked war on Ukraine. Friends from seven cities across the country flew in and donned costumes for my 1994-themed party, because in retrospect my 6th and 7th grade years represented points in culture that lasted with me a lifetime. (Yellow Ledbetter, anybody?!) In the final minutes of that most merry and warm celebration, the lights went out on all of Abbott Kinney, the much-frequented, boutique-filled party drag in Venice. We read it as a sign that we properly captured all the energy on the block that night. I desperately clung to that serendipity and energy through 2022, especially the night of the midterm elections which … hoo boy, what a relief.
There’s so much I wish I would have captured better, but I really spent so much of this year just participating in life as fully as I could, and trying to keep up with my children after losing my long time nanny and friend and housekeeper, whose absence is felt every moment in our house.
Firsts: Consuming an ostrich egg, encounter with a Zonkey (a zebra-donkey), Costco vacation, becoming an NFT, selling my own NFT, fight with Hot Rob, having a back house, visiting TV writers rooms, attending the big TED.
In no particular order, this year I…
Attended three weddings, in person
Swam with dolphins
Bought a house and sold a house in the same week
Ripped and replaced the insides of the house inside of a month
Made back-to-back trips to Texas and consumed so much queso and P Terrys
Talked TSA into letting me take 16oz of queso through in my carry-on
Read books with second graders every Tuesday
Took tennis lessons every week
Sprained my foot, but just at home, not from tennis
Glamped in the Santa Ynez Valley Hard launched my man/mancrush of 2+(!) years by having him play Who Said That? on NPR
Hung out with my parents a lot — they lived in the guest house for four months of the year
Saw our podcast company double its revenue
Got an electric car
Learned how to TikTok from my child
Advised two TV writers rooms
Enjoyed a lot of live music again: Leon Bridges, DEVO, Lisa Loeb, The Violent Femmes, even … Wilson Phillips(!), a real full circle moment since its greatest hits figured in that 1990s-themed birthday party, naturally
Adjusted to parenting alone after our nanny of seven years went home
Traveled 25,228 miles to three countries, 13 cities, and spent 40 days away from home Became a set mom and hung out in motorhomes on location for a week, wondering what I’m doing with my life
Read 19 books in full, but started six others
Finished writing my book, oh my god. Saw it in print, as a galley anyway
People I’ve met in LA just going about my regular life, and not because I was interviewing them:
The guy who did the movements for Lyle Lyle Crocodile The guy who did the movements for Jar Jar Binks (Different guy) Someone who runs Dua Lipa’s foundation Someone who runs Mandy Moore’s production company Someone who slept with Flo from Progressive Bruce Willis’s personal chef An editor who retouches Beyonce’s ass for her videos A music editor who curates playlists for Target One adult film star Matt Weiner Gary Busey AND Tom Hanks, in the same encounter
There is a real tedium and grinding labor to parenting small children. It involves hassles like bottle washing, endless loads of laundry, or contorting your body to pick up the crayon that fell underneath the plane seat in front of you, again and again and again. For the past seven years, most of that labor has been borne by Yani, our caretaker, cook, cleaner, pet sitter, gardener, travel companion, and friend.
Born and raised in East Java, Indonesia, on lush farmland that grows bananas, papayas and other fruit, Yani moved abroad when she was 18 to take on more lucrative work than she could find near home. She worked as a domestic helper in Singapore, then returned to Indonesia briefly to await another placement, which led her to Taichung, Taiwan, caring for my grandparents. My grandma taught her to speak Mandarin and to make all kinds of Northern Chinese dishes and dumplings from scratch.
She ended her stint in Taiwan after a few years to return to Indonesia, where she got married and eventually had a baby, in 2015. That year, I gave birth to Isabel, in Seoul, and, given my unpredictable travel schedule as a foreign correspondent, needed additional help at home. We filed papers to sponsor Yani’s visa and boom, one day she arrived at Incheon, dazed and confused from a long flight, moved in with us in our 35th floor apartment, and instantly charged with the most tedious tasks of caring for a newborn, save for nursing, which only I could do. Luna arrived less than two years later. Yani has nurtured Luna since before she was born.
She makes all the lunches, mops all the floors, cooks all the dinners, puts away all the groceries, waters all the plants, changes the litter, makes all the beds, and always knows where all the loveys are. She is the night time sitter when we all go on vacations, unpacks my suitcases every time I return from a trip, makes all the scallion pancakes from scratch.
She embodied so many different and significant roles, during the years I really built my career towards greater flexibility, and during crucial developmental time for the girls. It is no stretch to say my career, my children’s perspectives, and my life as i know it would not be possible with Yani. No one asks me “How do you do it all” because the answer is simple: Because I have Yani.
Thanks to my stint at NPR a few Thanksgivings ago, while I was nursing Luna, Yani was granted a business visa to come with me to the states, and it had five years on it, so she could come again when we moved here as a family. She has encountered so many places and people that she would never have otherwise, something she appreciates, as she likes to explore and expand her horizons. Quick to pick up languages, now she speaks Indonesian, and Mandarin, and English. But being with us has meant being away from her own family — namely her daughter Intan, who is seven, the same age as Isa. Yani’s visa is up next month, so Friday she goes home. My sadness that she’s leaving our family is streaked with a happiness she will reunite with her own.
My loved ones all worry for me, saying things like, “You are going to need to be on lithium” without “ayi,” which means auntie. I have stayed up late at night, wondering, how will we cope without her? Luna was so overwhelmed at our last Thanksgiving, knowing it would be Yani’s last, that while sharing our gratitude for Yani, Luna crawled under the dinner table and silently sniffed her stuffed bunny lovey.
The only option is to take it one day at a time. Though I will say, we’re so blessed to have had her for this long. The youngest is now five years old and can fend for herself in ways that were impossible just a year ago. And we’re beyond privileged to have had Yani at all.
On June 1, I got a new house on a whim. It has a giant deck out back, a gorgeous master bedroom retreat upstairs with 30-foot high ceilings of natural wood. The whole house is flooded with LA sunshine. The back house used to be an artist studio, and is large enough to be renovated into a two bedroom guest house.
It was a miracle to even win a bidding war for the place BUUUUUUTTTT it needed new plumbing, electrical, roofing, floors, central HVAC installed, a total kitchen renovation, a new master bath, a complete exterior paint, lots of interior paint jobs and deck staining, termite fumigation with a three-day tenting, and window coverings for its many, many windows.
All of this needed to happen inside of one month, because my former home, the townhouse on Maytime Lane, sold in one day. So I wouldn’t have had a place to live unless the contractors moved fast.
The master bath demolition
Rutilio, who used to just be my electrician back when we lived in the last place, also turned out to be a plumber. Then it turned out he could be a general contractor, too. So he somehow enlisted a team of people to solve the plumbing, electrical, assorted issues plus other dudes to demolish and retile my master bath and install central AC from scratch.
Then, my friends with renovations under their belt introduced me to Jairo the cabinet maker, who built kitchen cabinets inside of a week, and Jorge the counter stone cutter, who was able to cut stone and install inside three days. Rafael my painter came in and worked for a couple weeks straight with his son Ronaldo. They were sometimes managed by my partner Rob because I was away in Seattle for some of this chaos. Rob tried to speak Spanish with Rafael since he’s pretty proud of his Espanol skills but then while I was out of town, Rafael texted me going, “Hey you know he can just use English with me, right?” BURN.
In the frenzy of getting everything done in a month, Rutilio and I ultimately ended up going through the rollercoaster of an intimate relationship — I actually wound up writing him a text one time saying, “Sorry I yelled,” and he got exasperated with me after my uncertainty about how I wanted my shower doors ended up costing him extra money to the glass guy.
But, we made it! Friend Justin came in from Austin for moving weekend to caulk tubs and bolt children’s furniture to the wall and help me move, while Hot Rob brought us food and put together my new furniture. Our family’s longtime helper Yani was the clutch nucleus of the whole operation, making sure everything was packed, and unpacked, and even now she knows where every random thing is (today I needed very particular lightbulbs, for instance, and she remembered the ones we brought back from Korea). It was a gallant team effort. I’m so grateful for every single contribution, every human, who put their sweat into making this place liveable by the moment we moved in, like we were on some episode of an HGTV show, but with a dysfunctional band of misfits.
By the time I sent off Justin at the airport, after a weekend of nonstop fixing and installing things for me, he said, “I want to say it was a fun time,” and then got out of the car. We did it, though! We did it!
Nearly 2,000 participants took part from all over the world, dozens of speakers and performances enchanted, empowered and enlightened us, an endless series of off-campus sessions, dinners and parties forged new connections, re-ignited old ones, and gave a lot of us COVID. I suppose the COVID part was to be expected.
As a TED podcast host, I was in Vancouver to work rather than simply watch and enjoy, so it meant not missing any talks, since we will be featuring them in the weeks and months to come on the podcast. I also conducted a series of behind-the-scenes conversations with this year’s speakers, which we will append to the end of their talks when they’re on the show.
But there was plenty of time open in the schedule for partying and reuniting with friends, too.
This year, my former NPR colleague and life advice guru, Shankar, spoke on something called the illusion of continuity, which is also the subject of one of my favorite TED talks of all time. I was mainly happy just to see Shankar and hang out with him, as well as make a new friend in the former newsman, Dan Harris, who now runs the meditation app, 10 Percent Happier. Dan really crushed it on the TED stage, too.
My man Hot Rob came out to Vancouver to hang out with me and that was a balm, because these giant conferences where you’re surrounded by a sea of humanity have a way of making me feel really alienated and lonely. (I also felt like this when I covered the Olympics in 2018).
So I’m grateful he was there to kick it and make jokes about rich people like Elon Musk, who showed up on the last day. We squeezed in some Vancouver sightseeing, like a freezing cold bike ride along the sea walk and around Stanley Park. If not for the extremely helpful boost from electric bikes, I would not have made it back.
Ideas I’m excited about spreading: Universal basic services instead of universal basic income, a proper accounting of the climate benefitting labor that whales and elephants and other creatures do just by existing (so that they can be considered worth more alive than dead), and the work of the choreographer and animator Nina McNeely, whose stage production mesmerized us.
How many people have I interviewed in my lifetime? Thousands? More like tens of thousands, surely. One of the conversations that most sticks with me is with artist and author of How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell. We called her up to talk about travel, but really, being the deep thinker that she is, the conversation focused on what it means to be human and savor life. She offered a key travel tip that we can apply whether we’re home or away: Bring the same open perspective that you have on a trip to your daily experience. Be curious and observe.
“It just becomes very quickly evident that I will never really get to the bottom of things that I’m observing, and that is such a delightful feeling,” she told me.
Today after a heavy brunch (featuring the best french toast I’ve ever had — I think it’s made with bits of croissant?!), my friend Andrew and I took a walk through Veterans Park and then along a sidewalk. He looked up and said, “It’s a Cold War Museum.”
What? I looked to my left and saw the lettering on the wall: Wende Museum of the Cold War. I never noticed it before. It’s found inside a former National Guard Armory built in 1949 to defend against an attack by the Soviet Union. Admission is free.
How timely and kismet, on another devastating weekend of a nonsensical invasion of sovereign Ukraine by a Russian leader wanting to return to the past, that we stumbled upon a carefully curated collection highlighting the precariousness and paradoxes of that time.
We wandered in and explored the exhibitions (a current one is on Soviet Jews) and the outdoor sculpture garden, where the activity for kids was screen printing what appeared to be Cold War-era typefaces and designs, before checking out the work of Dutch photographer Martin Roemers, which was on display — photographs of the remnants and relics of the Cold War. This museum was just the right size and a carefully curated, thoughtful collection. I’m so grateful for my friend Andrew and our unplanned post-brunch walk, for I would have missed this neighborhood gem that I really must drive by numerous times a week, if not each day.
I did it! I made it to 40! I feel so feted. As many of you probably know, I love a good theme party. In Austin I used to host a Weenie Roast (get your mind out of the gutter, we just grilled hot dogs and sausages), and in DC my most memorable Christmas party was “Deck the Balls,” a pot luck in which everyone had to bring ball-shaped foods. For my milestone birthday I thought, we have to do a costume party, because I believe every party should be a costume party, but how about one that’s reminiscent of the glory days …. the first formative parties of my youth — MIDDLE SCHOOL MIXERS.
This past weekend, to mark the 4-0, two dozen friends flew in from seven different cities to join my LA homies for totally rad bash, HU40: The Sixth Grade Mixer. (That is, my sixth grade year, so 1994-1995). The period-specific details that friends worked into their costumes absolutely bowled me over: Puka shell bracelets, yin yang chokers, backwards hats, beanies, leather backpack purses, bucket hats, brown lipstick, heavy eyeliner, scrunchies, Doc Martens, a “They Might Be Giants” t-shirt, a Nirvana t-shirt, a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, a DARE hat, a sunflower dress, the list goes on. I wore a cropped argyle sweater vest with a plaid skirt, knee high socks and Mary Janes, but the real piece de resistance was the wide headband that I used to make that hair bump in the front.
We. Had. So. Much. Fun.
The DJ played all the hits. Wilson Phillips. UB40’s Red Red Wine. A lot of Ace of Base. Rump Shaker. And then my unstoppable, ridiculously talented friend and work spouse for life, Matt Thompson, worked it out with the DJ to break out a serenade-turned-group-sing of “Hold My Hand,” by Hootie and the Blowfish. Yes, yes, it happened. He put his whole heart into it.
How long it had been since all of us have been together, and then to be able to sing together, too? It felt like a dream. Then, just as the party was wrapping up, the lights went out in the bar and on the entire block of Abbott Kinney (Venice’s storied and most famous street). Partygoers paid their final tabs by handwriting credit card numbers on Sharpie-drawn forms. What luck though, that the lights went out just as the party was ending instead of the other way around.
Later in the weekend the out of towners joined in for K-town KBBQ (divine), we did “squad fitness” with a hike in Brentwood followed by a trip to the Goop store (an unconventional stop on an LA tour). We have been eating and imbibing and catching up nonstop. No fights broke out, no one got injured, no one got stopped and questioned at the airport (which happened in Costa Rica after my 30th). A success all around.
I am full of gratitude and love and the deepest affection. My squad is the best squad. I’ve added a few photos from photographer Callie Biggerstaff but will update when more are edited and ready.
I’ve arrived! A puzzler let me know that I was a clue in today’s USA Today crossword. (Check out 13 down). This might be cooler than getting that vegetarian sandwich named after me in 2020.
The sentimental part is USA Today is the first newspaper that’s ever published my writing. I appeared in it in 5th grade, after my bestie Jes Ingram and I wrote a letter to the editor about saving the rainforest. It’s the first letter we had ever typed into a computer instead of handwritten, because we’re old. I spent the summer between fourth and fifth grade using “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.”