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!”
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.
We started the year in the strictest of lockdowns, as Los Angeles County faced such a wave of sickness and death that even outdoor dining (which had re-opened in fall 2020) was again shut down. We end this year with a COVID19 death toll of 800,000, a breathtaking, heartbreaking casualty number, triple-vaccinated (a miracle of science) and calculating risk as Omicron, the latest variant, spreads like a California wildfire.
Time collapsed. It seems impossible the January 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol and the Biden/Harris inauguration happened this year. It feels like so many lifetimes ago. At the same time, it seems impossible that this year is already coming to an end.
I started the year married, I will end the year divorced. Sorry to those we didn’t get to personally tell, and a reluctant thanks to the very expensive LA lawyers who got it done and took all our money. Matty and I have adjusted from husband+wife to game co-parents of the girls, whose inner lives I cannot know, but they sure seem to be shining on, expressing their sassy selves in their friendships, school and activities as the family has shapeshifted.
These past two years have presented an extended lesson in the importance of pain for living a good life. “Learn to lose,” my Jungian analyst Jonathan said to me. So accustomed I am, as a high-achieving millennial in late capitalism, to the notion of career and life only going in the direction of more, more, more … that I didn’t question it deeply. But the cascading turbulence of pandemic extremes and mid-life upheaval underscores the cheesy-yet-true play-on-words: There’s no growth in your comfort zone, there’s no comfort in your growth zone.
Put differently, we’re too conditioned to see our lives as linear stories of constant progress. That perspective makes any texture or loss in our personal or professional lives seem like failure or a sign of doom, when messiness is truly transformative, depending on how you metabolize it. Orienting ourselves to perpetual “wins” cuts off our ability to experience the fullness of the human experience; the range of the seasons and cycles. I wrote, perhaps presciently, in a 2020 new year’s intention that “maintenance is also progress.” I appreciate with so much more clarity now. I have adopted a more seasonal mindset, knowing winters come, and that we find rich wisdom in darkness.
For me, learning to lose, and rearrange, and adapt, has unlocked a version of me that’s the most whole and clear-eyed as I’ve ever felt. I was contented in my long-term relationship, I’m as contented and more individualized out of a partnership, with thanks to the cocoon of love and support of my village.
I am writing, writing, writing ALL THE TIME because I have a book to finish in the spring. It’s already pandemic-delayed by a year. It explains why I’ve had to hiatus from blogging, but I always do one of these yearly recaps, so I wasn’t about to break my streak. Herewith, the superlatives, and then a list of things…
Pandemic MVPs: Store brand jugs of peach oolong iced tea from Von’s/Pavillions, or what you might know as Albertson’s, depending on your geographic region. A simple black jumpsuit from Natori, which I practically lived in. Airpods for phone calls. Liz Taylor, Pamela Boykoff and Skyler Bentsen, who I called the most from my runs and they’d reliably pick up. Joke’s on you, ladies!
Pop culture that got me through 2021: Succession. The NYT Britney documentaries (both), Minari, Ted Lasso, The Split, Sex Lives of College Girls
Fave Selfie: Strawberry fields forever, with the girls
Notable New Friends: Xiaowei Wang, who became my TED conference buddy after we met in Monterey. I love their ideas and verve and vibe so much.
And Craig Mazin! I watched his acclaimed project, Chernobyl, after our mutual friend Alec introduced us so we could beta-test a video chatting app where you have a back-and-forth asynchronous video chat in front of anyone who wants to watch. As a result, I got to joke around with Craig and get some useful writing tips from one of the great screenwriters.
Firsts: Stand-up paddleboarding. Post-COVID international trip (Mexico). Quarantine exemption (Korea). Vertigo. Divorce. Hosting a Council on Foreign Relations white paper drop, featuring a dude who inexplicably sometimes comes up in my dreams, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
In no particular order, this year I…
Added dill to scallion pancakes, felt like a genius
Got the Pfizer vaccine (3x)
Got vertigo (1x)
Got a birthday song from Kato Kaelin
Bought a new car
Got my bike stolen
Reunited with my dad and mom for the first time in 1.5 years Said goodbye to Caesar
Lost an extraordinary friend to COVID
Lost another extraordinary friend to a pulmonary embolism
Learned I have trypophobia, which unlocked a lot
Got a questionably-named BBQ sauce, We Rub You, to change its name
Sprained my foot playing tennis*
Took a yacht to all the container ships docked in the ocean
Tried injections on my face (Botox, skin botox, hydroinjections)
Reported on skincare, fast fashion, laziness and more all thanks to my NPR work Glamped in Santa Barbara
Glamped in Napa Valley
Went to Kauai with the fam
Introduced 200+ TED talks, watched 300+
Ran 235 miles
Read 23 books, a real low, but hey, I’m writing one
Finished half the manuscript(!) of my book
Hosted a new podcast for Microsoft
Hosted a new podcast for Accenture
Sent a tip that inspired a Simpsons episode**
Made lots of podcasts with my partner Rachel, as part of our company
Attended in-person TED conferences again, in Monterey, and Palm Springs
Broke through the layers and layers and layers of bureaucracy to get into Korea, felt like a dream
Flew 22,775 miles and spent 40 nights away from home, another low year and hopefully, for climate and sanity reasons, I’m keeping things that way.
*Friend Jenn says I look like “an octopus being electrocuted” when I play, so, this is all for the best
**Episode to come in 2022. It is already voiced. My friend Tim (longtime writer for Simpsons) wrote a script inspired by an Atlantic article I sent him and it’s going to be a MUSICAL episode. I can say no more.
There was a fleeting moment in the middle of the first lockdowns, when everyone nurtured sourdough starters and kitchen gardens, when I thought we’d emerge from the pandemic more human, more connected with nature, more deeply connected with one another.
Instead, as my kids returned to school in real life this week (first time in 13 months) and I returned to flying for work, I felt thrust back into the capitalistic machine, a robotic cog, moving through the airport at the highest efficiency and working my various jobs until late at night each night, because there were not enough hours in a day.
How’d we all get knocked to our knees, our lives so small and contained, social justice reckonings in every direction, but not try and interrogate or upend America’s workism, nay, workaholism? If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that nothing about the way we live is inevitable. So why not collectively live better, do better, and be less beholden to profit, growth, status, wealth? We can individually opt out, sure, but the larger systemic forces remain so stubbornly the same.
It exhausts me. I am so tired already, after just a week or so of being fully vaccinated and a handful of days no longer being a teacher and caregiver at the same time. It feels like the companies I work for and the clients we’re chasing and the objective standards for “success” are all unchanged, despite the fact I am walking around in new skin.
Me: Weren’t we supposed to get a reset of our values?
Friend Tim: Nah, we just have to work harder to make up for the past 13 months.
We are at a moment in our national reckoning over race in which racism against Asians is finally in the spotlight, despite having existed for ages. I am so devastated by the thousands of racist attacks on Asians in the past year and grief-stricken over the killings of eight people at spas in Atlanta on Tuesday, six of them Asian women.
We have since learned they were former elementary school teachers, US Army brides, mothers and sisters and friends, just like so many of us.
“I cried all day,” my friend Lucy texted me. “They could have been my mom, they could have been my sister.” We Asian Americans and especially Asian women have been reaching out and supporting one another always, but never more obviously and visibly than this week.
These past week was fear, anxiety and hangover symptoms all mixed into one feeling. I was intermittently hyperactive and adrenaline-fueled, despairing and exhausted and fried and scattered in-between. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but some scholars and writers have managed to put the complicated racial dynamics for Asians and Asian women into important historical and socio-economic context. Here are the readings I recommend:
“The act of violence itself is wrong. You cannot excuse it. I think many Asian Americans have never talked about it, and so white people still don’t believe that Asian Americans face racism. Because we’re invisible, the racism against us has also been invisible.”
“Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man’s temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian women, whose value is only in relation to men’s fantasies… akin to ‘I raped her bc her skirt was too short.'”
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.
“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.
Moments of Unadulterated Joy:This gas station in LA, the day the networks finally called the election for Joe Biden. These kids, experiencing the drum solo in “In the Air Tonight”
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.
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.
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:
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.