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.
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
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
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.
Here it is, my latest with Producer Sarah for VICE News Tonight.
Adrienne Rich has a poem that goes like this, which is appropriate for this piece.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
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.
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 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.
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