It goes without saying 2020 was a Vegas buffet of awfulness and suffering. But damn, there were a few video snippets that brought me such joy when I saw them that I made a note to round them up at the end of the year. Herewith:
The moment these two kids discovered the drum solo in the middle of “In the Air Tonight”
This genius Yakult+Sprite+soju smoothie demo, on TikTok:
BTS’ “Dynamite” dropped sometime in the summer when we were in a curfew (for the protests and potential police violence) in the midst of a stay-at-home order (for the plague). And damn, it is still such a bop.
And of course, this moment at an LA gas station, the night the election was finally called for Biden.
“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:
HOW RAD is Korean film director BONG JOON HO!?!? He was already considered one of the greatest of all time in his native Korea, but after last Sunday’s historic Oscar wins for Parasite, he’s now an international superstar. What I have loved about all of this is how lovably human and honest he is the whole way through, which has only earned him more fame, which makes him feel “super awkward.”
First off, we delighted in his delight:
Then, the more I read about his personal sensibilities and style, the more I adored him as a person living in a complicated world (and not just for his art, which is so distinctly him and on point). So in the same vein as the “7 Steps to Living a Bill Murray Life” piece from Vulture that I took to heart (because I want to live a Bill Murray life, obvi), I decided to mine Bong interviews to curate a how-to on living a Bong Joon Ho life.
The story of how this came together was, I was all wrapped up in my Bong obsession during the run-up to the Oscars anyway, as he ran the award season circuit. Then on Oscar night when he became so meme-worthy, it became obvious he was a lifestyle guru. My editor at NPR didn’t get back to me when I pitched a piece so I just pitched it straight to my friends at my employer-in-law, the Los Angeles Times. They wrote me back right away, and the next night I came home punch drunk and knocked out the post. Very happy that it saw the light of day in a legit publication, but I would have done it for free.
We were so so so proud on Oscar night for South Korea, and Asians writ large, and for international film. Matty almost cried, hearing all that Korean being spoken from the stage.
Me: That makes me think of that Philip Roth passage, the one from American Pastoral. John: I don’t like that dude. Me: Oh right, you went to Vassar. John: I think he’s a misogynist. Me: Well, he has misogynistic viewpoints but I choose to see that as one of his many parts.
I’ll always stan Philip Roth. I realize he has his detractors, but he is smooth as glass and his observations just cut right to the heart of things, don’t they? John and I were chatting about something that went down with his wife, which reminded me of the beloved American Pastoral passage that flattens me every time. It’s about unpredictability, and never really knowing how our relationships will unfold, because the people in our lives are essentially unknowable:
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
I grew up with Mister Rogers and PBS in general. PBS played an outsized role in my childhood because my mother didn’t speak English with me at home, so a lot of my early understanding of the world came from what I saw on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers Neighborhood. When I was in elementary school, our family went to Pittsburgh and got a tour of the studio where they make the show. We got to see the puppets from the land of make believe and I was star struck. I think Mr. Rogers was my first celebrity crush, and always in my heart. When he died in the early aughts, I grieved. And since then, I have kept a book of his quotes and wisdom with me wherever I live, so other people can read him when they come over.
Last week while guest hosting It’s Been a Minute, I spoke with Carvell Wallace, the host of Finding Fred, a podcast that deep dives into Mister Rogers’ life and lessons and legacy.
Our conversation brought me to tears. This is the part of the transcript that hit me hard, though, it’s best heard rather than read. The Mr. Rogers conversation is in the middle of the show — it follows the “three words” A segment.
WALLACE: So he was really swimming upstream in almost every sense. And I think people – because we have unhealed children that live in us that we’re not seeing and that are not loved, I think we’re still looking for a child’s solution to being an adult. So perhaps what he might tell us is that – and he said this – this is something that he said in the last thing he ever did in television, which was a PSA after 9/11:
ROGERS (archived recording): I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us. And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead.
WALLACE: And he talked about two very important concepts. One is the idea that – it’s a Jewish concept – tikkun olam, which means to be repairers of the world.
ROGERS (archived): I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.
WALLACE: And the second concept that he talked about is that he spoke to adults. And he said, I’m so proud of you and who you’ve become.
ROGERS: It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.
WALLACE: And so even there, he’s saying to people, you are free from the burden to have to prove yourself. And so with that out of the way, perhaps you can focus on repairing the world.
GAAAHHH it hit me so hard in the feels when we played the tape of Mr. Rogers in the interview, and then again when I listened to the mixed version for edit/review, I started bawling all over again.
HBO’s Barry is back for season two! The premiere just aired last night.
After I moved here last September, I finally got around to binge-watching Barry, a show produced and written and sometimes directed by my friend Alec. It stars Bill Hader and features a lot of standout performances, but for my money the biggest breakout is the delightful Anthony Carrigan, who plays the Chechen mobster Noho Hank. If you watch the show, you know how loveable he is, even (and perhaps especially) during scenes of torture and death.
It was the highlight of my week when Carrigan came in to let me just talk to him, about him, for more than an hour. I enjoyed it so much. Can’t wait to bring it to y’all in a full episode of our pod It’s Been A Minute, which I guest host for a week later this month.
The O.J. Simpson spectacle is the defining news story of my childhood, a series of events so indelible in my mind that I still recall even the minor characters, like Faye Resnick (Nicole’s friend) and Dennis Fung (one of the investigators accused of mishandling the crime scene).
I remember where I was when Al Cowlings led police on the white Bronco chase. I remember where I was when Judge Lance Ito asked for the trial verdict heard ’round the world — in school, in a class called “Academic Stretch,” where a television was wheeled in on a cart so we could watch the conclusion of a trial that had been televised every single day.
The O.J. story is American history, one I experienced by virtue of being a middle school student exposed to television in the 90s. Because it happened during formative years, it’s remained a constant current in my consciousness, irrespective of the recent film/TVreboots. Friend Sarah, with whom I’ve gone on some eight vacations since we met in 2015, once pointed out there isn’t a time we get together in which I don’t somehow bring up O.J. Simpson.
Now I live in LA, so for my first birthday as an Angeleno, my husband got me…THE O.J. TOUR, where you’re driven to the victims’ homes and OJ’s stops on the night of June 12, 1994, when his ex-wife and waiter Ron Goldman were brutally knifed to death in front of his wife’s condo. The tour is run by Adam, who grew up in the area and went to grade school with O.J.’s son, Justin Simpson. Adam picked us up in a 1994 white Ford Bronco (natch) and leads the tour with precision and speed, stopping only for questions at the very end.
“This was not my aspiration,” he says, of his O.J. tour. “I was not like, this is gonna be a small business one day.” But interest in this case is enough to keep it going.
You can take the tour during the day or at night, but Adam recommends the night option, “Because that’s when all the crime happened.” It starts and ends at a McDonald’s in Santa Monica where O.J. and Kato Kaelin grabbed food just before the killings, according to the prosecutor’s timeline. (O.J. ordered a Big Mac. Kato got a takeout grilled chicken sandwich, which he planned to eat from O.J.’s guest house while watching The Larry Sanders Show on HBO.)
“Whatever you think about the verdict, O.J. is a wife beater at least,” Adam says, as we cross San Vicente Blvd., a dividing line between Santa Monica and Brentwood.
The school where O.J. and Nicole’s daughter Sydney had her dance recital, which the whole family and grandparents attended
Waiter and victim Ron Goldman’s apartment (still exists, completely bro who waved at us from his window)
Nicole’s place on Gretna Green, where she first moved when she separated from O.J.
Nicole’s place on Bundy, where she and Ron were slashed to death (doesn’t exist in the same form but there is still some of that Spanish tile that was in the crime scene photos)
The alley behind it where O.J. is believed to have parked during the double murder
O.J.’s house on Rockingham (torn down in 1997, but you can still visit the lot which is now behind tall hedges)
The site of the long-closed Mezzaluna, the restaurant where Ron worked and Nicole ate her last meal (she had rigatoni). We learned of rumors Mezzaluna was a drug front because another waiter who worked at the restaurant was also killed in years following Ron Goldman’s death, coincidentally.
The best part of the tour is when Adam wrapped everything up at the end, telling us about the time a Danish school teacher booked the tour for his thirty students. Adam chartered a bus to take them around and asked the teacher why he was so interested in the O.J. case.
“Oh I teach a whole unit on it,” the Dane said. “It’s the perfect introduction to America. It has race, police, celebrities, sports, crime, the media, the legal system, the freeway, McDonald’s. Everything about America, distilled into one story.”
Endnote: In the car on the way to the tour starting point, Matty proposed a self-amusement mess-around scheme: “Do you want to pretend we’re from Arkansas and act like we don’t know anything about this case?” Good thing I forgot about it when we got on the tour, because that was when a third eager O.J. tourist joined us and hopped into the Bronco. I introduced myself, asked him if he lived in town and he goes, “No, I’m visiting from Arkansas,” in the deepest drawl I’ve heard in years.
A commenter on my recent book post asked about children’s books and surprise, I read a lot of them. It’s a crucial part of the girls’ bedtime routine, and Isa, my second daughter, always wants more stories than reasonable. I wind up spacing out while reading because at some point I go into the zone of thinking, JUST GO TO SLEEP, CHILDREN, SO I CAN GO OUT AND EAT SECOND DINNER.
That said, quality children’s literature is so delightful. Here are few of my favorites to read with the girls:
A Squash and a Squeeze, Monkey Puzzle, Room for a Broom, all by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
This author and illustrator combo are best known for The Gruffalo, a modern classic. Julia Donaldson’s rhymes are brilliant and the hidden lessons in these books tug at my heart. The first time I read Squash, which is an allegory about abundance, I teared up a little bit. I love Monkey Puzzle because it’s a quest to find the small monkey’s mom and at the end there’s a happy reunion. We always really over-dramatize the end and do big hugs once the monkey dad takes the monkey child home to mom. And Room on a Broom is just an awesome story with an adorable dragon at the end. Also they made it into a perfect half-hour length film to show your kids if you need to distract them for 30 minutes.
Triangle, by Mac Bennett and Jon Claussen
Triangle is the first in an the immensely popular series that’s followed by Square, also by this duo. I like the relationship between Triangle and Square, as well as the subversiveness of their behavior.
The Knuffle Bunny Trilogy, by Mo Willems
Each of the Knuffle Bunny stories builds on the previous one. The main character, Trixie, grows from blathering baby to an elementary-aged child. Together, they comprise a love letter from father to daughter, and the last one, while the longest, also feels most close to our family, as Trixie goes to visit her Oma and Opa in Amsterdam, which is also where the girls’ own Oma and Opa called home for five years.
Lucia the Luchadora, Cynthia Leonor Garza and Alyssa Bermudez
In the Lucia books, heteronormative notions about who can be a luchador are subverted and Lucia and her sister Gemma are such little firecrackers that the girls can’t get enough of these stories. They also utilize a lot of onomatopoeia, which the kids get into.
Poppy Pickle, by Emma Yarlett
I got this from one of the free book shelves we have at work, which are the overflow copies of the stacks and stacks of books sent to us by publishers. It’s a fun tale about a girl with an outsized imagination. You can read it the fast way by skipping all the things she thinks up, or the slow way by identifying all of them.
Chu’s Day, by Neil Gaiman
A lovely board book by the great author. So good to read aloud because of all the AAAAAAHHHCHOOOOOOS!
The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak
It’s true, there are no pictures are in this book. It doesn’t need them. The girls love it so much they memorized it.
I read all Peppa Pig books in a British accent.
Anything by Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss are easy wins at our house.
When I am in airport book shops I always pick up a book that’s location specific, so we have a ton of board books like, “Good Night St. Louis” or “San Francisco Baby.” They are hit-or-miss in terms of quality.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales was among my favorite children’s books as a child. I was so excited to read to the girls my original copy (which I kept in pristine condition because I was a very organized small person). But they were not impressed and did not think it was half as funny as I did. Bummer.
I love that children always, always notice more little things in the illustrations than you will. Eva was tracking a tiny snail that was hidden on every single page of one story one time and I didn’t realize it was even there until one time I turned the page too quickly and she freaked out because she hadn’t located the snail yet.
I also love how they bring the stories to life with their imaginations — the questions I get about the reading material remind you how constrained and boring adult frameworks for thinking can get.
What are YOUR favorites to read to children? Please share, as I am always trying to find new stories that won’t have me spacing out. 🙂
I committed to reading more books instead of periodicals in the haze following the 2016 election. It began as escapism and now, a couple years into it, I think it’s actually helped me grow as a thinker/feeler/human stumbling through life. As Matt Haig wrote, “The process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea.”
This year, I liked most everything I read, which included a heavy dose of contemporary fiction and more science fiction tales and genre romance than before. I continued to select non-white and/or non-male authors, which paid off. My book club kept things in balance with random nonfiction picks, like the Patagonia founder’s business book-slash-memoir, which really affected the way I think about consumption. Now I buy so much less crap!
I also got back to reading classics from giants — Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. I had to read them in school but appreciate them much more as a grown-up.
Here’s how this year’s book reading breaks down:
This year’s timeline shows I pretty evenly distributed my reading, though there was a big gap in which I read no non-fiction. Last year’s timeline was more interesting because I had a baby and that affected things.
I am deliberate in choosing more fiction than non-fiction, generally.
To chart “pages by month,” we used the page sum of all books finished in a month. (I don’t have a count of daily pages I’ve read, so this should really be called “Total-number-of-pages-in-a-book-by-month-finished.”) Note that June was when the Trump-Kim Singapore summit happened and my life was held together by duct tape and gum. It shows in the leisure reading completion.
These subgenres are sort of arbitrary, they are just what the Goodreads crowd classifies the books as, following the fiction or non-fiction categorization.
On Choosing Books
I still continually quiz people for recommendations but settled on a few people I really trust for recs, based on what they recommended before, or what they themselves have written. For example, last year I liked Sally Rooney’s book Conversations with Friendsso much that when she wrote a positive review of An American Marriage, I made it a priority. Ditto the author Celeste Ng, who alerted me to Rich and Pretty.
I also trust Japan analyst Tobias Harris, who reads prolifically about subjects besides Japan. When he was in Seoul earlier this year, I asked him to tell me the best new books of 2017 he read and he chose Exit West and Pachinko, which became two of the best books I read in 2018.
1 Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
2 Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew Bose
3 Deception, Philip Roth
4 Chemistry, Weike Wang
5 Outline, Rachel Cusk
6 Sex Object, Jessica Valenti
7 The Boat, Nam Le
8 Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
9 Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
10 Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
11 Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
12 Sam the Cat, Matthew Klam
13 Goodbye Vitamin, Rachel Khoung
14 Hunger, Roxane Gay
15 Emergency Contact, Mary H.K. Choi
16 Fire Sermon, Jamie Quatro
17 The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer
18 The Paper Menagerie (And Other Stories), Ken Liu
19 You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld
20 The Man of My Dreams, Curtis Sittenfeld
21 Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
22 How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee
23 Tin Man, Sarah Winman
24 Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed
25 Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard
26 An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
27 My Last Love Story, Falguni Kothari
28 Pachinko, Min Jun Lee
29 Three Body Problem, Cixin Lou
30 Exit West, Moshin Hamid
31 How to Fix A Broken Heart, Guy Winch
32 How Toddlers Thrive, Tovah Klein
33 The Internet of Garbage, Sarah Jeong
34 The Hike, Drew Magary
35 Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
36 Rich and Pretty, Rumaan Alam
37 Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
38 The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
39 I Want To Show You More, Jamie Quattro
40 Forget Having It All, Amy Westervelt
41 The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly
42 Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday
43 Farsighted, Steve Johnson
44 Norwegian Wood, Haruki Marukami
45 Severance, Ling Ma
46 Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
47 The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
48 The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
49 On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
50 New People, Danzy Senna
51 Us vs Them, Ian Bremmer
52 The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang
53 Crudo, A Novel, Olivia Laing
54 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari
“This is such a nerdy post I do,” I said. “You don’t actually DO any of it,” spouse Stiles clapped back, since he does all the data clean-up/analysis/visualizing for me. (Thanks, dude.)
It turns out we can read 200 books a year in the amount of time we spend on social media, but this would require me ending my Twitter addiction and I have given up enough vices in my life, thank you very much.
Almost a decade ago, at the SXSW film fest, I saw a documentary about a man ahead of his time called We Live in Public. He rigged cameras all over his house and live-streamed his life with his girlfriend, a prophecy of the privacy-rejecting times to come. The film unsettled me back then, and raised a lot of serious questions about the implications of living under a construct like this. Now his avant garde art experiment is reality, especially in China, where people are making $100,000 a month live streaming their most mundane moments.
One of the primary concerns I have about all of us living in a mediated reality (one in which you are aware of an audience gaze) is how it affects identity formation. That is, during adolescence, when developmental science indicates people are quite literally forming their own identities, establishing who they are as adults who are separate from their parents, today’s adolescents are also forming their public identities (on Instagram or what not) at the same time. These two selves may be completely dissonant, and neither is even fully “formed” yet. What a mindfuck!
The summer between 9th and 10th grade, a group of cheerleaders from my high school decided to pose for a group picture topless except for belts they fastened around their chests. They took the film for developing at Eckerd (you see, children, back in those days we would get our film rolls developed at a 24-hour pharmacy). Another high school student worked at the Eckerd photo corner, saw the shot when reviewing the final photos and scanned it. This was 1998, so the photo was passed around as email attachments, and everyone who was anyone saw this photo, but it eventually stopped being a thing. Can you imagine if this had happened in the age of social media?
Had I paid more attention in philosophy classes, I would probably know this problem is as old as time, and it’s just expressing itself in a different way now. But I do think about it a lot because my daughters are post-millennials, and damn, what a world. Even given the minor professional obligations I have to be “in public,” I’m constantly unsure how much/what to share in public spaces. Suffice to say it will not be anything involving topless belt photos.