TED 2021: Veni Vidi Vici

Sitting under the outdoor simulcast tent with my chin diaper on is basically how I spent most of the TED sessions. Credit: Gilberto Tadday, TED

TED hired me to be the voice of its daily podcasts at the start of the pandemic, so that means this year’s in-person conference was my first chance to attend a non-virtual TED conference. To be fair, I’d been to TED Women in 2013, but this was the flagship co-ed TED. It was held in Monterey for many years until it moved to Vancouver and the organization started inviting 2,000 attendees, up from its much smaller origins.

Because of the pandemic’s continued foothold and worrying trends, this year TED’s main stage returned to its roots with a 500-person event in Monterey, California, a seaside hamlet where the skies are royal blue, the ocean water is crystal clear and the centuries-old cypress trees look like they jumped out from the pages of a children’s book. All attendees were required to show proof of vaccination upon check-in and immediately led to rapid testing. Once we had proof of both vaccinations and a negative test, we could participate.

Assorted notes and thoughts:

Idea Worth Spreading: I can’t stop thinking about a Canadian-woman named Isha’s talk about how we can raise meat CELLS in a lab instead of full-on chickens or livestock for protein consumption. That this would be so much smarter and sustainable and less cruel to animals, and the earth. Can’t wait for her talk to go up online, because as she says, “We are all philosophically vegetarians. We just don’t want to give up the tastiness of actual meat.” She has a solution for this.

Talk That Made Me Cry: Hrishikesh Hirway, the composer and musician who hosts Song Exploder. His podcast has musicians on to take apart their songs layer by layer and talk about them so that the final product gives us greater meaning and we can understand it more at the musician’s level. He did this for one of his own songs, on stage, and damn we all had chills.

Most Common Refrain: Some variation of “Oh wow, you are way taller than I realized,” which is what happens after I have only met so many people on Zoom over the past 18 months.

Snooty Snacks: Would it have killed them to have a snack station with just Wonder Bread and a bunch of Cheez-Its? Every snack was made of cauliflower or otherwise grain-free, and the drinks were all infused with gut-healthy tumeric or this or that.

Snack selection

Biggest Celebrity Sighting: Lizzo. I mean, obviously. She gave a talk about the history and the cultural importance of twerking and then got a bunch of boomers in the front row to try and shake their asses, which was really a thing to behold.

Most Meaningful Meeting: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. Maybe I had four tequilas in me, but I started crying when I got to meet “Wendy Mac” in person. She leads “Draw Together” art classes for kids, which I think she started rather impromptu as a way to give parents and kids something to do in the early weeks of the quarantine. I and our girls found it so meaningful and I’m so inspired by her energy, pluck and her brain. To meet her meant so much because I could thank her in person and she was every bit as gracious and fun as you would expect.

With Wendy Mac!

By the end, I was volun-told by the TED senior leadership to take part in the town hall, summarizing our takeaways from the conference. So I got to take the TED stage while super hungover and unshowered and stand inside the famous red dot on the stage, where speakers must stand in order to have the cameras capture them just right.

My Meta Takeaway, Shared From Stage: In one of the final sessions, the thinker and author Steven Johnson recounted how there was a fifty year(!) gap between Louis Pasteur’s breakthrough, lifesaving discovery of milk pasteurization and the wide adoption of it. That’s because it took fifty years of journalists, lawmakers and activists working to PERSUADE the public to buy into this. “Science on its own won’t produce meaningful change,” he said. “You need persuasion.” And if there’s a theme that emerged from many of the talks, it’s that the way we contextualize and explain information, the way we try and bridge individual differences or collaborate as a group to communicate, all of that is really important to cultural, societal solutions to problems.

The other metanarrative I am feeling is this: We should never take for granted the serendipity, surprise and connection that come from gathering in person. I met so many people in elevators, sitting under the simulcast tent and in the coffee line (I never drink coffee but made an exception at TED because the pour overs were so damn good). These connections will end up being longtime friends, in many cases. That’s so nourishing.

And so was the nature. We made time to go on a big group bike ride outdoors and see the host town. Felt like riding around in a postcard.

A small group bike ride was one of the off campus events offered for attendees in Monterey.

Thank you to everyone who pulled off the event this year and the science — testing and mRNA-powered vaccines — that made it possible for us to gather, together.

With my TED 2021 squad minus Harper, who took the photo. Xiaowei Wang, Tony Conrad, and moi.

Commonlaw Cousins

“Cousins” growing up fast.

We have been on so many squad vacations together, in so many places and across so many continents, that today when our family parted from The Wan-Yau’s of San Francisco, Isa said, “They’re not friends, they’re our cousins!”

COVID-19 kept our families from coming together at all in 2020, and Sarah had worried that maybe the kids wouldn’t gel quite like they always have, especially now that our oldest ones are nearly nine years old. (Eva and Jonah have been close friends since they met in Seoul at age 2.) But nope, they were as thick as thieves within a half an hour of arriving at El Capitan Canyon, a bougie campground in Santa Barbara. It has its own spa. Need I say more?

Sarah has been hard-core into camping and fishing for who knows how long, and the family is from Northern California so they fit my stereotype of being more granola than we gas guzzling, single-plastic-using Southern Californians. We always count on her husband, Joe, to do all the grilling and he did not disappoint. The best part of the nonstop weekend of eating was Sarah’s insistence on having instant ramen while camping, so we tried three different kinds of instant ramen, either for nighttime snacks by the fire, or for breakfast, with our second-day fire-grilled ribeye.

Yeah this post is mostly reminiscing about eating.

El Capitan Canyon at night.

Oh wait, I did play a lot of “GoodMinton.” The paddle says “The world’s easiest racquet game.” Verdict: Not that easy! Probably not the world’s easiest!

Goodminton

We did not spa but we did hike to the llama farm in the canyon, where almost everyone got to feed those furry beasts. We swam in the pool on the grounds, and made lots of fires, and the kids huddled around a single laptop for movie nights.

Eva spent the weekend contorting her body in weird shapes and trying to do a handstand without a wall. She and Jonah also did a lot of role playing and “scenes” that they directed as if they were filming movies. Jess taught Isa how to use the Rainbow Loom™ to make bracelets, and a bracelet young Jess made me will now be part of my TED conference fashion as I head to TED tonight, in Monterey. Luna, who was previously too small on the squad trips to be fully part of the kid clan, is now full on inserting herself and included in everything, especially finding sticks and other flammable items for the fire. Sarah could not stop telling us she brought four bowls of microwaveable Bibigo rice.

Due to my brief stint in the Girl Scouts and my general love of graham crackers, I took charge of the s’mores station each night and taught the kids how to wait for their marshmallows to achieve peak swollenness in order to yield optimal gooeyness when smashed down into the sweet sandwich. This was my greatest contribution. Otherwise, I just laid around a lot.

Smoosh

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.

New York in a Time of Coronavirus

I covered MERS, which was killing some 10 percent of people who got it, when it spread to South Korea in 2015. The scare led to a run on medical products and face masks, hospitals became overtaxed and the government took a big credibility hit for not reporting numbers transparently over the first few days. But life as we knew it continued apace. For some reason the fact I had a new baby that MERS summer doesn’t register at all; I guess we were completely unconcerned that random strangers were touching and holding newborn Isa all the time? Weird, now that I’m looking back on it with a different perspective.

In late January, when my ancestral home region of Wuhan became the epicenter of what’s now called SARS2 or COVID-19, it became clear to those of us who cover China that this outbreak could be not only deadly but widespread; that life as we knew it in Asia would slow or change dramatically. I didn’t know the seemingly logarithmic spread of this new, still mysterious virus would affect the entire globe as it has.

In a time of globalism (and as is always true for epidemics), nation-state borders mean nothing. Following its initial bungling of this outbreak, China’s unprecedented lockdowns of entire cities bought time for the rest of the world to prepare. The US appeared to have done nothing with the extra weeks and now it’s too late. By the end of last year, ennui about how digital life disconnected us IRL set in collectively. Now coronavirus is forcing life in 2020 to become one of further and deeper social isolation. I imagine this will be the case for another few months, at least.

I flew to New York yesterday on a plane where everyone had his or her own row. Surprisingly few people wear masks around the Western world, so the only reason I wore one was to protect others from my nagging cough. Coughing-while-Asian is quite problematic and even scary in the swirl of COVID19 xenophobia.

By the time I landed, a British health minister was infected. New York announced its first “containment area,” and the National Guard moved in to help. We made a point last night to eat at Chinese storefronts, where foot traffic has so slowed that restaurants have had to close.

My workplace and so many others implemented work-from-home plans, a dreaded situation in a period in my life that’s been chock full of dreaded situations. I fear it’s only going to exacerbate my existing feeling of alienation and sadness. I want my mom … but she won’t get on a plane, for obvious reasons.

Less road traffic, and less foot traffic, than normal

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.

Korea’s Coated Almond Craze

Annyeonhaseyo from Seoul. I am going cuckoo for South Korea’s latest craze, coated almonds!

There’s the standard bearer, honey butter almonds, but this almond flavor innovation continues way beyond that. There are cookies and cream almonds, wasabi almonds, dried seaweed-coated almonds, tteokbokki (spicy, saucy Korean rice cake-flavored) almonds, hot and spicy chicken flavored almonds and … wait for it, STARLIGHT PANG PANG ALMONDS.

Starlight Pang Pang is an electric blue ice cream with POP ROCKS inside, so these almonds are inside a blue, sugary coating and pop rocks so that after you get the crunch of the almond, you have the pop rocks exploding in your mouth.

I tried them all and these almonds are crunchy, they are creative, they are addictive. I tasted ’em at an E-Mart 24 convenience store (where they trial bowls of each flavor out) before dropping a bunch of money to buy bags and bags to bring back to the US as gifts.

And for my own snacking, let’s be honest.

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…

Gifts I Received In Austin, An Incomplete List

These are the things my Austin friends gave me when I went back this week:

Never boring.

— Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller-branded bandanas (red and pink)
— 12 oz of green chile queso, HOT
— Two Longhorn candies
— Campaign button: “Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy”

“I thought this was perfect for you,” said Friend Blake.

— One Topo Chico
— One P. Terry’s Veggie Burger and fries
— Two zines: “The Teeth of The Great British Bake-off,” featuring illustrations of every participant’s teeth, and “Sexy Patents,” a compilation of actual patents for crotchless underwear and such

Part of a zine by Chris Chang

Went back to ATX at the invitation of UT’s Moody School of Communications and the Annette Strauss Institute, which hosted press critic Jay Rosen and me for its annual Denius Symposium on News Integrity. Jay’s really good on the historical context of the industry and talking things out helped me sort through some of the thornier questions about the role of the press in these challenging times.

Austin. You were so gridlocked but still so … Austin. Toddy got a cocktail at an old firehouse-turned-bar-and-hostel, which releases 12 bees for every drink you order. I think that’s what the deal was?

Jimmy made us all eat endlessly at a new upscale Shanghai-style Chinese place on West Sixth. Melissa and I perused a badass new consignment boutique on South Lamar called Rags. I put down nearly a pound of brisket, the moist kind, and sausage, plus a bunch of Friend AmZam’s hearty sides when she showed up to dress a baked potato with … more brisket. The thought of running Town Lake’s hike and bike trail, like the good ol’ days, crossed my mind but I did not.

As usual, the first stop after leaving the airport

I ate P. Terry’s two days in a row. The second time it was on the house, thanks to Friend Todd (different from the aforementioned Todd) who has somehow gotten to lead the trifecta of iconic Texas fast food brands — Whataburger, Taco Cabana and now is CEO of P Terry’s. (What!? Crazy, right?!) I introduced him to my goddaughter Marion Cass, who picked up from school as a surprise, and Todd  introduced me to the actual Patrick Terry, who started my fave Austin burger chain in 2005.

Stopped by my NPR member station, KUT-Austin.

A great trip. I’m so grateful.

 

Seoul Much Fun, Seoul Little Time

Quiet Tuesday night Insadong

I am back in Seoul to speak at a conference on North Korea and not only is it a short visit, I’m losing a bunch of time from jet lag, so everything’s happening in hyper-speed.

Loose Notes:

— While delight is my overwhelming feeling, a sense of emotional constipation has returned, because I can’t properly communicate. There’s so much I want to know and understand and say and I just … can’t. I have really taken for granted how easy my life has become in California because I speak English in an English-speaking place.

— The trend food item right now is a twist on milk tea: “Black sugar pearl milk tea.” The “creme brûlée iced milk tea” is a second. They have existed before, I think, but are currently riding the Seoul trend wave. This means when I showed up at a coffee shop at 1pm trying to get one, the place was sold out. Incidentally, a black sugar milk tea has been my personal go-to drink back home in LA. The ones in Korea are not shaken before they’re served, so they look marbly. The creme brulée iced milk tea has a layer of creme brulée foam at the top of the drinks, which I didn’t try but they looked pretty sugary, rich and delicious.

— This happened, of course:

— I am struck by how quickly I felt unattractive from the abundant messages about how to improve my appearance. Including but not limited to: The ads for the same doe-eyed, V-line jawed women everywhere, the endless, looming multi-story cosmetic surgery centers, one of which unabashedly emblazoned itself with an English sign for “Cosmetic Laser Vaginal Surgery.” Racks and racks of products to make you sit straighter (posture corrector), your toes straighter (toe aligner), your breasts bigger (waterproof chicken cutlet-looking bras), your “problem areas” smoothed out (flesh-colored sticker patches). It goes on. I stopped in a great Garosugil clothing store and as it is with all those Gangnam boutiques, the clothes come in “free size” which means, “one size.” Free size isn’t free, it’s limiting.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

— A lot of our old friends have moved because they, too, were foreign correspondents or diplomats on three-year postings. But my Korean native friends still here have been taking me on a nonstop eating bonanza. For breakfast I’m making bulgogi and scrambled eggs, a twist on steak and eggs. Grandma Jin Ok’s #1 chicken cauldron soup? First stop after getting off the plane. Shabu shabu that you roll into Vietnamese wraps? Yes please!

The calm before.
Midway through the chop chop

— Reunited with Ju Hee, my Seoul hair stylist, and had her chop off 12 centimeters (we need to get on the metric system, people). Ivanka did it, so did Shiv Roy on Succession, and both those ladies are such great role models, amirite? JK I really just cut off my hair because September is the hottest month in LA, we live in a neighborhood close to the beach so we have no central AC, and my neck was hot. I do think Shiv Roy’s hair looks amazing

International SOS

We were somewhere near the town of Dingle, taking in these breathtaking sites and letting the girls slide down steep grass-covered boulders at a prehistoric fort on the edge of the land jutting into the Atlantic when I slipped, my right arm overextending back behind my head. I heard two cracks in my shoulder before ending my slide and losing my vision briefly because of the excruciating pain.

There was not a prettier place I could have dramatically dislocated my shoulder, requiring an ambulance ride and copious amounts of morphine. Eventually an x-ray revealed a full dislocation but not fracture, sparing me surgery and allowing the doctor, Tricia, to pop my shoulder back in while I was breathing in huge gulps of some sort of gas to “take the edge off.”

Before and after.

My right arm spent hours out of socket so I’m going to be recovering for several weeks. The health care I received was nothing but caring and thorough and considerate. The doctor even got me tea and toast after popping my arm back. Thank you, Ireland.

A limerick:

To Dingle town we herded the crew
To take in spectacular views
I slipped down a grass boulder
Dislocating my shoulder
Now it’s opiates for the black and blues