Unconventional COVID-19 Workouts, A Zine

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!

Epochs

“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?

What To Read During A Pandemic

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

Eat Me

The Elise Hu at Found Coffee, available for $11.50

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.

The Wax Paper Company sandwich features radish, lemon vinaigrette, dill and miso butter.

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 Anthony Kuhn: Spanish chorizo, quince mostarda, green apple, curly parsley pesto! 🥪

The Long Night

Snacks for election watching

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.

And steaks

Birmingham, In the Before Times

On stage with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay at the Alys Stephens Center in Birmingham

We’ve finally put out the hour-long radio special on bridging social divides that I hosted earlier this year. It’s an adapted version of a live stage production that NPR, StoryCorps and WBHM put on in Birmingham, Alabama in the Before Times.

That trip to Birmingham was one of my last trips out of town, though none of us knew it at the time. The interviews, with everyday folks from various walks of life, and researchers and neuroscientists, taught me a lot about contact theory and the psychological and sociological importance of coming into contact with those who you consider quite different from you. It also taught me about cycles of “high conflict” and the only way to step back from the brink — embracing complexity. The interview with journalist Amanda Ripley, in this special, is most illuminating and I’m privileged and proud to have been a part of it.

My Homie David Greene, An Appreciation

Today my friend David, who co-hosts the program Morning Edition and podcast Up First, announced he was leaving NPR after 16 years. I’m so excited he is joining the ranks of the revenue promiscuous, like me. And his news gives me a reason to give him a much-deserved shout out not just for being a tremendous, curious and thoughtful journalist who I learn from constantly, but a most loyal friend. David is the kind of friend I want to be to others.

But for David, I might have not wound up at NPR West from my posting abroad. As I said on Twitter, he’s a co-conspirator and cheerleader, encouraging me to push for a West coast post, when it was extremely rare for an NPR international correspondent to return to the states and wind up anywhere besides the DC headquarters. David made the NPR West office, and life in Venice, sound so idyllic and collegial. And he was right.

The man doesn’t sleep. He works from midnight until 8am and due to a bicoastal marriage and a relentless wanderlust, he travels every week. But he always makes time for his friends, consistently taking charge on planning drinking get togethers and having people over (his wife Rose is a well-known restaurateur so they know how to host) and just checking in and being supportive, always.

David hooked me up with Howard, his literary agent and now mine, he muled my favorite eye makeup remover pads all the way to Seoul in the first months of my posting there, and he is always available to lend an ear despite a schedule that is more crammed with activities than there are hours in a day.

So cheers to you, David! America will miss waking up to your voice every morning. But for your sake, I’m so happy you’ll finally be able to sleep in.

Hug A Tree, Or, Everything Is Always Changing

Photographer Nate Anderson shoots the remains of a burned out Eastern Joshua Tree in the Mojave National Preserve.

I learned Ruth Bader Ginsburg died while I was standing outside LAX, just back from my first flight since March 12 and waiting for the annoying LAX-it shuttle to the Uber lot. A friend simply texted, “RBG. Fuck” before I received a series of similar texts with just the single word.

A conversation with conservationist Brendan Cummings.

This gutting news came at the end of a four day trip to the Mojave Desert for VICE, where we drove past mountains on fire to see the burn scar of an August wildfire that killed tens of thousands of trees in the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.

Team Vice among the dead trees. L to R: Curtis Mansfield, Sam Rosenthal, Nate Anderson, me, Sarah Svoboda

Climate change was in the haze and the heat. Climate change was under our feet, in the scorched earth on which we stood. Reporting this devastation — and efforts to do something about it — is crucial and I’m pleased we got to get the exclusive footage up there in the Mojave National Preserve. I’ll share this visual, heart-breaking story on Monday. Behind-the-scenes, it meant briefly returning to BC — Before COVID, when I took long road trips or hopped on planes all the time for these intense reporting trips.

First flight since pre-quarantine

Everything is changed. Driving out to Joshua Tree, the sound guy and I avoided stopping anywhere. Hotels don’t do cleaning service because COVID. Everyone is fortified with their masks and clear plastic shields. We wore masks in all the interviews, even though they took place outside, because of the optics and for the extra protection.

Flying for the last leg of the reporting made me feel anxious and suspicious. I was scared to sneeze. In the Sacramento airport on my way home (from the one interview we flew into town for), only one restaurant in the food court remained open — the vegetarian one, natch.

But we also found joy and serendipity on this trip. As a VICE team, we ate and drank together outside by the pool after long days, sunburned from the desert and pricked by burrs at our ankles. Producer Sarah got a chance to see her sister, brother-in-law and toddler niece for the first time since Christmas when we did a drive by their balcony in Sacramento. My friend Rachel and her new baby, Simone, are also staying in Sac during COVID and the ladies drove out to our interview location so I could sneak a moment with Baby Simone. My little brother, Roger, had come to LA to help care for the girls while I was away, and we siblings were able to reunite for the first time since December at LAX for a mere moment, as he was headed home to Dallas and I had just landed from Sacramento.

When Roger and I reunited at LAX for two minutes before he took off. We snapped a photo for Mom and Dad

After I got home and got the girls down, David Greene, one of my most reliable drinking buddies and closest friends from NPR West, gathered a few of the regular friend squad for a night out of drinking and revelry like the old times. Only, we were always outside and we hugged with masks on and with our faces turned as far away from one another as possible. We used to go drinking together at least weekly, and we hadn’t since March. Finally we were all together again which felt restorative after a nonstop reporting trip and given the news, a tough, tough day.

I got home just before midnight and the earth shook. At first I thought, oh, maybe I’m drunker than I thought but nope, nope, it was an earthquake. Magnitude 4.8, and no damage or injuries here, but a reminder the ground beneath us is always changing.

The Big Idea

If there is one big idea I have really spent the year interrogating and emphasizing through my work this year, whether it’s my book (which is about capitalist-driven definitions of beauty that drive an endless cycle and competition toward unachievable standards), or through my newish social science and parenting podcast, Labor, it’s about the fallacy of emphasizing personal responsibility over systemic fixes.

Whether we’re talking about climate, health and caregiving policies, how we treat poor people or reckon with race, it all boils down to this: The US consistently asks individuals to take both the blame for systemic problems and the responsibility for solving them. This strain is synonymous with neoliberalism, which dominates the globe’s economic systems, and especially so in American society and culture.

The toxicity of this idea is made tragically clear in our largely preventable COVID hellscape this year. Ed Yong writes:

“Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says.”

I also serendipitously got to reinforce this idea in a TED Talk I introduced this summer, from the journalist George Monbiot.

“Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but I think the most powerful of them is the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.”

Worth a watch.