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.

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.

Hotels For The Homeless

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.

Back On The Streets

Rolling deep with Team Vice in LA.

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.

At work in Santa Monica.

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!)

“But I love plastic” was part of a mural on the wall and photog Zach got it in frame, making for a fun joke.

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.

Sound engineer Defari working the boom

Two Take Jake

This summer I reported and hosted a series of podcast episodes about travel for our life hack pod, Life Kit. Audio isn’t the most ideal medium for packing tips, so I flew up to New York to visualize the tips at the Away store with Away’s editorial director, Ally Betker. Huge thanks to Liz Gillis for shooting and putting this together with only two takes (because I had to get to the airport).

Enjoy the condensed version of the podcast episode, with this video…

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).

30 Years Since Tiananmen

The crackdown started, infamously, on June 4, 1989. But the movement had been swelling by this point, made so tragically clear as we revisit images from that time and remember.

“We know now that one side was arguing for restraint towards the demonstrators and for wider reforms, while hardliners pressed for a crackdown. It was almost unbelievable to witness the open massive challenge to the authority of the CCP. It went on for days, then weeks, numbers growing. But something had to give.”

Greg Girard, China-based photographer who spent weeks documenting the movement and the massacre. He’s been posting his film photos from thirty years ago on his Instagram, which you should check out.

For further reading, I recommend my former colleague Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia