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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 backyard is home to a guava tree, which gifted us with guava abundance the first fall we lived in LA. And it turns out we have an avocado tree, too, which delivered perfect avocados on Christmas morning last year. And at some point I learned we had two tall banana trees, which led to one of the funnier cultural misunderstandings between me and our Indonesian helper, Yani.
Yani is more than a “helper” — she cooks and cleans and also basically raised Isa and Luna, as she’s been living with us since moving to Seoul to join the family in the fall of 2015. She previously worked in Taiwan to care for my grandparents, so she’s been caring for two different generations of us.
She is from a rural village in East Java, and her family owns a lot of farmland where they grow fresh fruit and vegetables. When she saw the banana tree sprung ripe bananas last year, I found her outside in the backyard taking a kitchen knife to the base of the tree, as it were a machete. She was like, the bananas are ripe, time to hack down the tree!
I had to stop her and explain hey, uh, we don’t need to do that, we don’t need those bananas and this isn’t even our house, we’re renting! This baffled her, as she said it was the best way to get the bananas down.
I’ll miss those trees. I’ll miss toddler Luna walking up and down the streets and making herself at home in random neighbors’ yards, just lounging on their patio furniture or gardens while sometimes wearing nothing but a diaper. I’ll miss hooking on to the Ballona Creek bike path for a run or a ride by essentially just crossing the street. I’ll miss trying to chase Isa and Luna around on their scooters as they raced through the hood. I’ll miss how freely the cats got to roam inside and out. I’ll miss our next door neighbors, the Davidson’s, who we drove to the airport when they made a COVID19-prompted decision to move to DC earlier this summer. And our smart and sarcastic neighbors the Taylors, across the street, who also grew to be close friends.
We moved to the rental on Rubens from South Korea, so it’s my first California home. Now we are headed to a townhouse I closed on a couple weeks ago, three miles away, in Culver City. It’s conveniently located a block down from NPR and across the street from Luna’s ballet studio. I don’t know if it’s smart to buy during this crazy uncertain time, but the monthly payments on a house I own will be way cheaper than rent on the westside of LA, that’s for sure. Friend Skyler is decorating from afar, with a Pinterest board and lots of detailed links and digital drawings and text messages. My guidance for her was to decorate a nest that matched my personality — warm, but with whimsy. Or, “mid-century meets the Muppets.” Her wallpaper choice for the master bedroom went up today and it’s cute AF.
When we landed back in America in August 2018 and I walked around our Venice neighborhood, what struck me was the astonishing number of homeless folks on sidewalks and in tent encampments. The stark income divide seemed unfathomable — just to rent the Airbnb in that neighborhood cost $10,000 a month.
Los Angeles County counts some 66,000 people living without shelter, whether it’s in tents or in their cars. When COVID19 spread, the many agencies trying to solve the problem worked together to get as many at-risk homeless off the streets and into the hotels fast-emptied of travelers. It worked … kind of. Here’s my piece for Vice News Tonight, produced by the unstoppable Sarah Svoboda.
Gulped down my vitamins with vodka
Wiped my own snot onto my shirt sleeve
Wore Sunday Funday shirt on Tuesdays, and Thursdays, but who knows which day it was, ever
Accidentally showed up a day early for someone’s surprise birthday parade
Finally hung that one framed picture
Organized little plastic baggies of toiletries plus money for the homeless
Went to a bunch of drive-thrus, masked
Yelled a lot at my kids, sorry
Got yelled at by my kids, they’re not sorry Wrote fifty letters to strangers
Received so many thoughtful, personal responses from my new pen pals
Helped connect doctors and frontline workers with the tech industry so they could get their own Slack to share information
Let toddler go topless all the time
Read a book that said, without irony, “Have you asked your spirit guides for help?”
Considered dying my hair with Kool-aid, just to try it
Started a food scrap garden experiment
They use the term “the streets” as a catch-all for beat reporters who “work them,” but you don’t actually have to be ON the streets for it. But this week for reporting with my latest new employer, VICE, we were literally on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, with the homeless. The official number of those experiencing homelessness in LA County is something like 66,000.
For me this was a return to the field — or streets — for the first time since the original stay-at-home order hit California in early March. I’m working with VICE News as a correspondent on the West coast now, made possible by becoming a project person earlier this year. (I’m not contractually tied to any org exclusively anymore, wheeeee!)
The crew and I were talking over tacos on Wednesday, saying we were honored to be telling a story about the emergency effort to get vulnerable homeless off the streets as the virus raged, because it’s an opportunity to tell the stories and flesh out those experiencing homelessness. Humanizing people who so often go unseen in our communities even though they live among us and are full and complex human beings, is what journalism is here for.
But of course, reporting during COVID19 is a different, eerie ballgame. We had risk assessment people monitoring us and our reporting environs. We had a doctor who made sure we kept enough distance or that we were never in any indoor space for longer than a few minutes. We were sanitizing nonstop, we were temperature checked everywhere, we were gloved and SO masked that I will technically be appearing on your television but largely unseen, because I and others are all masked, all the time.
So much delight to note from behind the scenes: I love watching documentary camera men do the dance of keeping out of each other’s shots and figuring out who is going to position where, all while rolling on the action. They just gesture at each other and communicate with their silent movements. I love our LA native musician who worked sound, Defari, who made all our mics invisible. I love being with a crew again, especially a producer who handled all the logistics and booking and planning and made sure that if I missed a question, it was covered.
Sarah the producer and I became fast friends and ended up laughing over drinks on patios after each long shoot day; it made this upside down time in our upside down world feel a little bit normal, and that’s a huge gift.