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.

Livin’ That Multihyphenate Life

New gig, who dis?

Starting today I’ll be in available in your feeds every weekday, hosting the daily TED talk podcast, which is the fittingly-named TED Talks Daily. It’s one of America’s top 20 podcasts and downloaded a million times a day, all over the world. Not only do I love working with the good folks at TED already and love being able to host this from anywhere with an internet connection, I can’t wait to connect with the global TED community. From the TED announcement:

 TED Talks Daily, which is downloaded one million times per day, is one of the most downloaded shows, and not just in the US — it’s been featured in Apple Podcasts’ top ten charts in 130 countries around the world (more than any other podcast)…

TED Talks Daily has long been a favorite way for audiences to engage with TED Talks, so we’re looking forward to adding onto the format,” said Colin Helms, head of media at TED. “What listeners have come to know and love about TED Talks Daily will continue, but with Elise as our host, we can build a richer backdrop for our talks.”

Ever since moving here I’ve craved and sought LA’s multi-hyphenate, project-based way of life. (Which is to say, I wanted to be job promiscuous instead of contractually locked down to one single employer.) So in addition to my other hustles, my dear friend Rachel and I co-founded a media company, and brought on another rad mom friend, Meghan. Reasonable Volume (yes named after Milton’s riff in my fave film of all time, Office Space) is already off & running and making bespoke pods & projects, so let’s make something together.

It probably goes without saying that I left my full-time role at NPR but in true LA-style, I am staying “attached,” like they say in Hollywood, to NPR projects as a roving host at-large. Public media remains vital and maybe now more so than ever.

And with guidance from my smart, savvy agent/friend/life coach, Howard, I sold my book project, Flawless, examining K-beauty, gender & power to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House. This year I have to actually write it.

OK that’s the update. Change is hard but constant. I’m trying, like everyone else, to keep my head above water and stay open to all of it. My cadence these days is every other day or so I’m totally fine and find a lot of joy in my quotidian quarantine life, and every off day I’m in total despair and think of all the calamity and uncertainty nonstop. The only way through it is through it, but I hope that we can all stay connected and supportive to one another during this wild time to be alive, a wild time to be a human.

Chicago in January

“So I gotta ask, why Chicago? Is it the rampant gun violence? Or do you just like seeing improv actors who weren’t good enough for LA?”

— Bojack Horseman, on Chicago

What is the snow/slush mix falling down outside!? It is not pleasant.

To be fair. when I arrived on Thursday night the weather was downright balmy in Chicago, for January. But my youngest cousin, Stephanie, was getting married (today) and so I trekked it out here to rep her father’s side of the family. The rest of my family (Matty and girls), and the one into which I was born — the Hu’s, couldn’t make it for various reasons.

Hosting a Chicago edition of It’s Been a Minute, at WBEZ with Greta Johnsen and Peter Sagal. Photo credit: Emily Cummings

Since I was going to be here anyway, I was able to see my Chicago-based buddies AND bring the podcast/radio show I sometimes host, It’s Been A Minute, to WBEZ Chicago, the NPR member station here. It’s located (thanks to a $1 a year, 99-year lease) on the storied Navy Pier, home of tourists wearing MAGA hats, the Chicago Children’s Museum and a ferris wheel I could not see through the morning fog yesterday. Peter Sagal, who hosts the quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me from Chicago, came on to be a panelist. We got to catch up and hit him with the “patriarchy stinger,” which is a jingle that interrupts him every time he’s mansplaining.

On a whim, I decided to reach out to my high school social studies teacher, Mr. Coates, who has been living and teaching in Chicago for 20 years now. I know the exact number of years because he left Texas right after I graduated from high school and this year is my 20 year reunion. (CRAZY!) And I hadn’t seen him since I was 18, but he and his wife, MRS. Coates, met up with me for dinner on Thursday — the first time I’d ever hung out with Mr. Coates, actually. Enjoyed them both. Special night. And since my daughters (who usually introduced the podcast) didn’t tape their show intro in time, I was able to ask Mr. Coates to do it, and he makes an appearance on the podcast itself! He quipped that this is going to do wonders for “his brand.”

Cousin Stephanie and my new cousin-in-law, Josh!

And up in the ‘burbs, my cousin Steph is now lawfully wedded. Given my inability to handle anything below 65 degrees, I cringed in horror as the wedding party braved the falling snow and 30 degree F/-1 degree C, windy outdoors to get a photo outside the church. But so glad to be here, to celebrate the wedding of my final unmarried cousin (who, incidentally, is only 24), and ready to get back to the sunshine, so long as the gods of O’Hare airport let me.

My 2019 Year in Review: Mind Games

Spent much of this year with some sort of brain booster zapping my head, for journalism!

What a time to be alive. The House just impeached the US president. Brexit really is going to happen. Big Tech has finally revealed itself to be far more nefarious than nice; and some of its darling companies (cough WeWork cough) laid bare as just giant Ponzi schemes that fuel capitalism’s excesses while promising “community.”

I am still living in the sunshine and swimming in the sea — spending my first full year back in America in the freaky paradise that is Southern California, where there’s no real winter or hot summer. Reality interrupts sometimes — we felt the long, rolling earthquake on July 4 and much of California’s brush and forests caught fire in the fall. A reminder that this state, like the rest of Planet Earth, is increasingly unsustainable.

This year felt like my real re-entry, a transitional period in which I had to learn how to live a more quotidian and (literally) domestic life after all the nonstop absurdity and madness of living abroad. My intention at the outset of 2019 was to be still and look inward, and I’m one for two — lots of looking inward, but not so much stillness.

I learned constantly, mainly in the service of my central creative project and raison d’etre at NPR for the past year — Future You.  It explored how emerging technologies are changing what it means to be human. We asked philosophical questions but packaged them in lightweight videos, playing with the long game in mind. In all, I had some 124 electrodes gelled to my head in all this year, plus an untold amount of wattage sent to my brain to show a future of mind-machine melding. I also learned how to extend my life, thanks to the Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, one of the world’s leading experts on aging. We became fast friends.

External circumstances interrupted during the back half of 2019 to force me to think more deeply and weigh what matters most. I’m reflecting now after an autumn of tumult. Everything felt triumphant and purpose-driven the first half of the year, then my shoulder dislocated at the end of June and I was down an arm, homebound and feeling crippled and useless. Then, to all of our surprise, my team got laid off in August. This meant the cancelation of the show, without consultation. I struggled for a few months with what I wanted to make — and be — next.

I’m finally out of my malaise, though. New things abound! Can’t wait for 2020, a chance for a buoyant new beginning.

Culture That Made 2019 Bearable: Fleabag, Lizzo, Parasite, Succession, the cringeworthy L to the O-G rap on Succession, Deadwood: The Movie, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the writing of Rebecca Traister, The Cut on Tuesdays, the newsletter Ask Molly

Drink of the Year: Black Sugar Iced Milk Tea, or Tiger Boba Tea — same thing, different names, delicious whatever you want to call it

Noteworthy Food Discovery: Trader Joe’s Coffee Ice Cream

Live Shows I Was Glad To See: Amanda Seales, John Mulaney, the countertenor John Holliday, Pod Save America, mainly for Jon Lovett

Memorable Interviews: Noho HANK, aka Anthony Carrigan, whose character Hank really makes Barry shine. Jenny Odell, on how she finds meaning while wandering. Alicia Menendez, with whom I really could relate on the topic of likeability. Tristan Harris, for video and separately for the pod, about our attention-fracked media culture.

New Practices: Epictetus said, “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” So to lean into my 2019 goal of looking inward, I kept a daily, hand-drawn checklist to make sure I did (or tried to do) the following — meditate, journal, take a vitamin and exercise. The visual representation really shows consistency and lack thereof. Sometimes I just ran out of vitamins, okay? I do most things last minute.

I just colored in a square if I did the thing and over time, I had my own handmade data viz.

The Year’s Firsts: A night at the Magic Castle. Giving a commencement speech at the Missouri School of Journalism, my alma mater. Shoulder dislocation. Irish hospital treatment. Opioids. Drag racing with a professional stunt driver. Brain stimulation. Being monitored in a sleep lab while getting brain stimulation. Getting all three daughters to introduce one of my podcast episodes. The tedious experience of lice removal for my older girls.

New Places: Albuquerque, NM. A few Hawaiian islands I’d never visited before — Kauai and the Big Island. Ireland, where folks kept telling my fair-skinned baby Luna, “Welcome Home” and whose National Ambulance Service I am eternally grateful for. Never did get to visit the Blasket, though.

MVP New Friend: David Sinclair, aforementioned

MVP Old Friend: Harper Reed, who, while helping me through my doldrums randomly introduced me to his friend Michael, with whom he was developing a TV pilot. Serendipitously, Michael goes, “Oh hey do you have a reel?” A week later, I was on a set, shooting a real life commercial, the first since I was a teenager and appeared in commercials for places like Sonic Drive-Ins. This entire sentence just sounded ridiculous when I read it back.

MVP New Sandwich: Popeyes lives up to the hype

Disappointments: The short-sightedness of the newsroom “reorganization” this August and the way it happened. The current era at NPR. Not keeping up with my newsletter. My poor posture, in general — Dr. Raj, my PT, says I had shoulder impingement a long time before my injury.

Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:

Talked about my Dad’s epic freedom swim in public
Took the OJ Simpson tour
Lost the door to the minivan after my husband nearly got hit by the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus
Hired a garage organizer and got organized
Received a message from another person’s brain with computer-assisted telepathy
Moved a robot with my mind
Increased my vertical jump by 11 percent
Went under the care of a celebrity longevity doctor; he told me to stop eating so much orange dust
Lowered by biological age by five years
Got my long term memory boosted in a sleep lab
Appeared on The Today Show as B-roll
Shot a commercial
Saw Idris Elba in real life
Partied at Lawrence Welk’s former house
Inadvertently became a Flonase “influencer”
Saw Adam Driver on Broadway, he was riveting
Saw an otter feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Stayed at an entirely wolf-themed lodge
Breathed the same air as Beyonce
Ate breakfast back-to-Harrison Ford’s back, and no one told me for most of this time
Became an Annenberg Innovation Lab fellow
Potty-trained Luna, my last baby
Spent more time with mom and dad, who moved to Orange County for part of the year
Reunited our fellow Asia expat travel squad when the Wan Yau‘s returned to the states
Went to Palm Springs, twice
Went back to Seoul, twice
Went to DC 4X
Went to San Francisco 4X
Went to New York 4X
Wrote and hosted a bunch of podcast episodes on how to travel better
Nearly went broke after having to cough up a bunch in capital gains taxes (thanks, selling the Austin house)
Took a morphined-out Irish ambulance ride with medics named Owen and Paddy, natch
Spent a month in a sling
Spent a month without eating sugar
Spent six months in physical therapy
Watched members of my team get laid off in a parking lot while on the job, and on vacation
Decided to leave NPR after that happened
Took part in a little non-violent resistance
Celebrated my parents 40th anniversary in Hawaii on an epic trip with 20 other family members
Started a new small business with my girlfriends
Fit in reading 52 books, barely
Flew 180,846 miles to 28 cities, three countries and spent 99 days away from home. Next year I’m getting carbon offsets and undertaking an effort to cut this down significantly, because it’s so terrible for the planet to fly this much. Like everything else about my 2019, it’s been a year of reckoning.

Previous Years in Review

20182017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

Memory Boosting A Difficult Day

We had the wind at our backs in early August, when my scrappy team of video producers convened to shoot this Future You episode on memory. It just came out this morning…

Things changed by the time we flew home.

The night after my head was stimulated with tiny bursts of electricity (for the video), I awoke in a sleep lab to find out that our photographer and friend, Kara, had been laid off over the phone while getting her gear ready, in the parking lot. My other lead producer, Beck, got a call with the same news while she was with her parents, on vacation.

In ABQ with Kara, before the troubles.

Their layoffs were part of a handful that included the cancelation of my series when the run is finished, the end of original video out of the news department, and executed at the direction of our new news chief. We got no rationale except that she’s “prioritizing other things.”

Suffice to say, I’d been blessed that nothing like that has ever happened in my professional life. This felt even worse and more harsh because of the way it went down, mid-stride on a Tuesday morning during a difficult shoot.

Kara didn’t even have time to properly process before we went straight back into finish the final interview of the shoot. She was so, so professional and demonstrated the kind of grace under pressure that I can only strive for. Because Kara moved onto her next job before getting to finish the edit, our New York-based colleague Nickolai finished the edit so that we could put it out today. Big thanks to everyone involved for not losing heart and seeing it through.

As for me, I’m not sure what’s next. The end of original news video also means the end of my role, though we haven’t finalized how that is going to look. Change is a constant, I certainly know well enough not to resist it.

Adventures in Age Reversal

Man, this summer was rough. Not only did my arm fall out of its socket, altering my shoulder ever since, but my video producers on the Future You team were unceremoniously laid off WHILE WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF AN OVERNIGHT SHOOT. The fallout isn’t quite over yet.

All the while, I was starving and super tired! I had to eat right and exercise more, for work. An actual exchange at Harvard Med:

Me: Will I have to stop eating McFlurry’s for breakfast?

Researcher: You eat McFlurry’s for breakfast? How old are you!?

For the Future You episode on life extension, the oncologist and longevity doctor Peter Attia worked with Harvard geneticist David Sinclair to give me a longevity regimen to reverse my inner, or biological age. They were trying to help me make my cells read as if they were young again.

Sinclair’s research in recent years has isolated the molecule thats help repair cellular damage from aging to give mice better blood flow, stronger muscles — the general benefits of exercise and eating right — in pill form. Now it’s being tested on humans. And I tried testing it for myself, along with the other age-reversing techniques we know of like diet changes, for the back half of the summer.

The end result? Catch it in the latest Future You (thank god we finished shooting this before my producers got the axe).

Ghost Month

Chinese folk legend holds that in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, the gates of hell open up and the ghosts come out to torment the living. There are all kinds of rituals you can perform to try and keep the darkness at bay, or preventative measures like not letting your kids go out at night and being very careful. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing until my mom and dad, who were in town this summer, said, “Of course you’re having a run of bad luck, it’s ghost month!”

August actually started triumphantly, with an affirming trip to Atlanta where I saw old friends from AAJA and got to talk a little about my dad. Since then, my producers were laid off while we were in the middle of a field shoot, the minivan’s door was ripped off by a Santa Monica Big Blue bus and my spouse narrowly escaped injury and last week I learned a skunk has made a home in the crawlspace under my house! Dealing with him is very tricky since you don’t want him to spray under your house and leave a stink there … FOREVER.

The good news is, we’re almost at the end of the month, and things are supposed to improve once the ghosts go back to their lair. Here’s hoping.

 

May is Mayhem

When I look back on 2019, I hope that things never get as chaotic as May, when everything I agreed to do back in, I dunno, the fall, converged in one month. We launched Future You with Elise Hu, my new video series for NPR, which was supposed to be ready earlier but as with many of these creative projects, a lot of twists and turns happen along the way.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Elise Hu 🌭 (@elisewho) on

//www.instagram.com/embed.js

Plus there’s Mother’s Day, my two wedding anniversaries (legal and observed), end-of-school obligations, my brother’s birthday and my spouse’s birthday, which we had to skip over last weekend because, well, I couldn’t be around. Eventually we are going to have to find a day to celebrate “Matty’s Birthday, Observed” because there’s so much to do, there’s never enough tiiiiime … I sound like Jessie Spano in one of the most unforgettable episodes of Saved by the Bell, but it’s true.

Just after we started rolling out the first episode, I flew to New York where we do our annual meeting for the non-profit news org, Grist, where I’ve been a board member for many years. New York is so fun this time of year; it pulses with a kinetic energy, it smells of all the smells, there’s a sense that anything in the range of human experience can happen RIGHT NOW, on the very street corner on which you’re standing. It’s like being in Shanghai, where really, anything and everything could just pop off, right then.

One of my closest girlfriends in the whole world, Mari from Tokyo, happened to be in New York this month so we had a date night on Thursday featuring a lot of eating and drinking and meandering from one West Village place to another. This was the first time we’ve hung out OUTSIDE of Japan and just one of the best gal pal get togethers … she’s an actress and writer for whom all sorts of new projects are coming her way and I’m so proud. I love how New York is just full of possibility; it makes it magical.

I stuck around for more magic. And more reunion dates, and an Adam Driver/Keri Russell play and most importantly, for Friend Alex’s wedding. Friend Alex is my partner-in-jet-lag. Both of us were Asia correspondents at the same time (she for CNN, I for NPR) and so one of us was always up at some strange hour for rapid fire text banter. She taught me not to wash my hair for days, which ends up building great volume (you just have to use good dry shampoo to keep it from getting gross). And she’s the classiest, New Yorkiest of my girlfriends, so she threw the classiest, New Yorkiest of weddings overlooking Central Park, from one of those exclusive Upper East Side clubs that didn’t let women become members for most of its history. The affair was black tie and beautiful, and she wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Alex and Andrew, a modern wedding for a modern couple.