I read the fewest books in years in 2021. It makes sense, as I spent much of the year heads down, writing my own book.
The bulk of the reading I did wasn’t books. It comprised of chapters of academic texts, research studies and a lot of interview transcripts and news stories. That said, thanks to my ongoing contributions to NPR Life Kit, a request to appear on the Nerdette podcast for WBEZ and really solid recommendations from friends, I was fortunate to encounter books I would have never picked up on my own.
Also I am part of a book club called Literati, in which you choose one of their famous curators to send you a selection per month. I love it! Susan Orlean is the curator of the “club” I joined. This has been the source at least a few of the books on my list this year.
My 2021 list:
My Inner Sky
Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change
Come as You Are
Lynn Steger Strong
How to Change
Let’s Face It
Rio Viera Newton
In The Dream House
Carmen Marie Machado
RO Kwon and Garth Greenwell
The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin
The Soulmate Equation
The Family Firm
Laziness Does Not Exist
I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud
Anne Helen Petersen
Love in the Big City
Sang Young Park
Must-Read Memoir:Seeing Ghosts, by my sister from another mother, Kat Chow. Kat is really the closest person to a younger sister that I have in my life, and I look to her for advice constantly. She is wise and thoughtful and the kind of writer that pierces straight through you. I read her book en route home from Mexico and bawled my eyes out on the plane.
My Fave Fiction:Love in the Big City, a nostalgic trip back to Seoul for me, but also a glimpse into life in the gay scene in Korea, which deserves a lot more rich storytelling like this. Luster, whose set piece at the end was so well earned. Beautiful World, Where Are You, because Sally Rooney still knows what’s up.
Fave Non-Fiction: Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, by James Hollis, who is my go-to Jungian author. Read him or listen to him on podcasts, that man makes complete sense.
We started the year in the strictest of lockdowns, as Los Angeles County faced such a wave of sickness and death that even outdoor dining (which had re-opened in fall 2020) was again shut down. We end this year with a COVID19 death toll of 800,000, a breathtaking, heartbreaking casualty number, triple-vaccinated (a miracle of science) and calculating risk as Omicron, the latest variant, spreads like a California wildfire.
Time collapsed. It seems impossible the January 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol and the Biden/Harris inauguration happened this year. It feels like so many lifetimes ago. At the same time, it seems impossible that this year is already coming to an end.
I started the year married, I will end the year divorced. Sorry to those we didn’t get to personally tell, and a reluctant thanks to the very expensive LA lawyers who got it done and took all our money. Matty and I have adjusted from husband+wife to game co-parents of the girls, whose inner lives I cannot know, but they sure seem to be shining on, expressing their sassy selves in their friendships, school and activities as the family has shapeshifted.
These past two years have presented an extended lesson in the importance of pain for living a good life. “Learn to lose,” my Jungian analyst Jonathan said to me. So accustomed I am, as a high-achieving millennial in late capitalism, to the notion of career and life only going in the direction of more, more, more … that I didn’t question it deeply. But the cascading turbulence of pandemic extremes and mid-life upheaval underscores the cheesy-yet-true play-on-words: There’s no growth in your comfort zone, there’s no comfort in your growth zone.
Put differently, we’re too conditioned to see our lives as linear stories of constant progress. That perspective makes any texture or loss in our personal or professional lives seem like failure or a sign of doom, when messiness is truly transformative, depending on how you metabolize it. Orienting ourselves to perpetual “wins” cuts off our ability to experience the fullness of the human experience; the range of the seasons and cycles. I wrote, perhaps presciently, in a 2020 new year’s intention that “maintenance is also progress.” I appreciate with so much more clarity now. I have adopted a more seasonal mindset, knowing winters come, and that we find rich wisdom in darkness.
For me, learning to lose, and rearrange, and adapt, has unlocked a version of me that’s the most whole and clear-eyed as I’ve ever felt. I was contented in my long-term relationship, I’m as contented and more individualized out of a partnership, with thanks to the cocoon of love and support of my village.
I am writing, writing, writing ALL THE TIME because I have a book to finish in the spring. It’s already pandemic-delayed by a year. It explains why I’ve had to hiatus from blogging, but I always do one of these yearly recaps, so I wasn’t about to break my streak. Herewith, the superlatives, and then a list of things…
Pandemic MVPs: Store brand jugs of peach oolong iced tea from Von’s/Pavillions, or what you might know as Albertson’s, depending on your geographic region. A simple black jumpsuit from Natori, which I practically lived in. Airpods for phone calls. Liz Taylor, Pamela Boykoff and Skyler Bentsen, who I called the most from my runs and they’d reliably pick up. Joke’s on you, ladies!
Pop culture that got me through 2021: Succession. The NYT Britney documentaries (both), Minari, Ted Lasso, The Split, Sex Lives of College Girls
Fave Selfie: Strawberry fields forever, with the girls
Notable New Friends: Xiaowei Wang, who became my TED conference buddy after we met in Monterey. I love their ideas and verve and vibe so much.
And Craig Mazin! I watched his acclaimed project, Chernobyl, after our mutual friend Alec introduced us so we could beta-test a video chatting app where you have a back-and-forth asynchronous video chat in front of anyone who wants to watch. As a result, I got to joke around with Craig and get some useful writing tips from one of the great screenwriters.
Firsts: Stand-up paddleboarding. Post-COVID international trip (Mexico). Quarantine exemption (Korea). Vertigo. Divorce. Hosting a Council on Foreign Relations white paper drop, featuring a dude who inexplicably sometimes comes up in my dreams, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
In no particular order, this year I…
Added dill to scallion pancakes, felt like a genius
Got the Pfizer vaccine (3x)
Got vertigo (1x)
Got a birthday song from Kato Kaelin
Bought a new car
Got my bike stolen
Reunited with my dad and mom for the first time in 1.5 years Said goodbye to Caesar
Lost an extraordinary friend to COVID
Lost another extraordinary friend to a pulmonary embolism
Learned I have trypophobia, which unlocked a lot
Got a questionably-named BBQ sauce, We Rub You, to change its name
Sprained my foot playing tennis*
Took a yacht to all the container ships docked in the ocean
Tried injections on my face (Botox, skin botox, hydroinjections)
Reported on skincare, fast fashion, laziness and more all thanks to my NPR work Glamped in Santa Barbara
Glamped in Napa Valley
Went to Kauai with the fam
Introduced 200+ TED talks, watched 300+
Ran 235 miles
Read 23 books, a real low, but hey, I’m writing one
Finished half the manuscript(!) of my book
Hosted a new podcast for Microsoft
Hosted a new podcast for Accenture
Sent a tip that inspired a Simpsons episode**
Made lots of podcasts with my partner Rachel, as part of our company
Attended in-person TED conferences again, in Monterey, and Palm Springs
Broke through the layers and layers and layers of bureaucracy to get into Korea, felt like a dream
Flew 22,775 miles and spent 40 nights away from home, another low year and hopefully, for climate and sanity reasons, I’m keeping things that way.
*Friend Jenn says I look like “an octopus being electrocuted” when I play, so, this is all for the best
**Episode to come in 2022. It is already voiced. My friend Tim (longtime writer for Simpsons) wrote a script inspired by an Atlantic article I sent him and it’s going to be a MUSICAL episode. I can say no more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Caesar Hu-Stiles, born July 2004 in South Carolina, died this morning in his sleep in Southern California. He was gentle giant with the loudest purr.
Caesar was my very first cat — I only had dogs growing up. He came to me as a soft, black kitten with soft medium-length hair and a long poof of a tail. My friend Myra had originally bought the kitten from a breeder and suspected he was weaned from his cat mom too early, so Myra fed him from a tiny bottle until he was old enough to join me. She named him Caesar because he behaved so imperiously — always quietly surveying the situation and benevolently lording over us like a wise old man, even though he was just a kitten back then.
I remember him playing inside cabinets when he was small, and taking languorous naps slumping his body over the corner of the beds, like a sloth.
He is the only cat I’ve ever known who always came when we called, like a dog does. He could be outside with his brother cats, as far away as down the block, but when I called him from the porch and he’d instantly come trotting home.
He spoke often with his distinctive meows, seeming to be in dialogue with us, and he could call us at a high volume when he needed attention.
He loved basking in the sunshine, lazy afternoons, and napping with other creatures, including the human babies that appeared over the years. When we held him, he liked us to drape his body over a shoulder — that brought on the loudest purrs. He never scratched, he never made messes, he never tried to run away despite having outdoor-indoor privileges. He was so accommodating and easy as a pet that I once forgot to trim his nails for so long that they wound up growing into his nail beds. It’s illustrative of our relationship, about which I feel so heart-broken today. I took Caesar, and that he’s always been at my side, for granted.
He was my constant companion. He lived 17 years, in two different countries, three US states and the District of Columbia, and on both American coasts.
He put up with chaotic children and a series of my other cats, the beagle dog Saidee and a few other creatures we’d pet-sit, each who would compete for food and attention and love.
He loved me fiercely. One time he showed it by bringing me home a bird he killed while I was at work. When I came home he was splayed out on the living room floor behind the bird, like Kate Winslet ready for Leo to draw her. Stunned and recoiling, I had to have a friend rush over to remove the dead bird, but I understood the significance of the gesture.
It guts me to have an animal by side for so long — through my entire adult life — and to lose him. There were three pets that had been with me from young adulthood into middle age — Saidee the beagle (died 2015), Cheese the cat (died 2017) and Caesar, who died this morning. Now there is no four-legged connection to those halcyon days of my youth. That trail has ended.
He died sometime overnight, at home and at peace. Yani, our indefatigable nanny and helper, slept on the couch to be near him and make sure he was comfortable since he had stopped eating and used all his strength to meow loudly to each of us on Tuesday, which I knew in my gut was a goodbye.
The girls examined his body before I drove his body to the vet for cremation.
“Look at his eyes,” I overheard daughter Eva, saying to her sister. “He was looking up at the sun one last time.” Eva has called on us to eat Caesar salad, Little Caesar’s Pizza and give a loud family meow together for dinner tomorrow, in his honor.
Rest in power, Emperor. Your quiet presence made every house we shared a home. Thank you for tolerating me. I miss you so much already.
There was a fleeting moment in the middle of the first lockdowns, when everyone nurtured sourdough starters and kitchen gardens, when I thought we’d emerge from the pandemic more human, more connected with nature, more deeply connected with one another.
Instead, as my kids returned to school in real life this week (first time in 13 months) and I returned to flying for work, I felt thrust back into the capitalistic machine, a robotic cog, moving through the airport at the highest efficiency and working my various jobs until late at night each night, because there were not enough hours in a day.
How’d we all get knocked to our knees, our lives so small and contained, social justice reckonings in every direction, but not try and interrogate or upend America’s workism, nay, workaholism? If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that nothing about the way we live is inevitable. So why not collectively live better, do better, and be less beholden to profit, growth, status, wealth? We can individually opt out, sure, but the larger systemic forces remain so stubbornly the same.
It exhausts me. I am so tired already, after just a week or so of being fully vaccinated and a handful of days no longer being a teacher and caregiver at the same time. It feels like the companies I work for and the clients we’re chasing and the objective standards for “success” are all unchanged, despite the fact I am walking around in new skin.
Me: Weren’t we supposed to get a reset of our values?
Friend Tim: Nah, we just have to work harder to make up for the past 13 months.
Following the Atlanta tragedy, so many stronger writers than me took on the exhausting task of making visible some of the previously invisible traumas of living as an Asian woman in America. But I wanted to do something, contribute something useful to help better explain this moment.
Since I’m in LA, I did a Hollywood-related story for VICE News Tonight, about how the makers and shapers of pop culture have perpetuated dangerous tropes about Asian ladies.
We are at a moment in our national reckoning over race in which racism against Asians is finally in the spotlight, despite having existed for ages. I am so devastated by the thousands of racist attacks on Asians in the past year and grief-stricken over the killings of eight people at spas in Atlanta on Tuesday, six of them Asian women.
We have since learned they were former elementary school teachers, US Army brides, mothers and sisters and friends, just like so many of us.
“I cried all day,” my friend Lucy texted me. “They could have been my mom, they could have been my sister.” We Asian Americans and especially Asian women have been reaching out and supporting one another always, but never more obviously and visibly than this week.
These past week was fear, anxiety and hangover symptoms all mixed into one feeling. I was intermittently hyperactive and adrenaline-fueled, despairing and exhausted and fried and scattered in-between. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but some scholars and writers have managed to put the complicated racial dynamics for Asians and Asian women into important historical and socio-economic context. Here are the readings I recommend:
“The act of violence itself is wrong. You cannot excuse it. I think many Asian Americans have never talked about it, and so white people still don’t believe that Asian Americans face racism. Because we’re invisible, the racism against us has also been invisible.”
“Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man’s temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian women, whose value is only in relation to men’s fantasies… akin to ‘I raped her bc her skirt was too short.'”
Long curious about stand-up paddleboarding, I waited until my late 30’s to finally give it a try. And only with the prodding of my Canadian-Californian friend, Janet, who decided to take me for my birthday. (Janet’s daughter: “But Auntie Elise’s birthday was last month! And we already got her a cake!”)
Things that happened:
Serious trouble figuring out how to steer.
Wound up in a little cove with kids on the banks, watching me struggle. Young boy, maybe 10 years old, said, “It’s okay, I was wobbly my first time, too.” He proceeds to coach me from land, encouraging me to think of the paddle as a scoop and use my arms more. I told him, “I hope my kids will be as kind and encouraging as you,” and he goes, “You look so young to have kids of your own!” (I LOVE THIS KID.)
Slow-motion crashed into a boat, almost tipped over. Janet couldn’t stop laughing and had to get on all fours on her paddleboard because she was in stitches. She had to explain to me how steering worked, again.
Got passed by a sailboat called MacGyver.
Something tells me I looked quite ridiculous. The dudes on the motor boats that passed us when we finally got into the channel actually yelled from their boats, “Don’t fall over!”
Hopefully this will be the only pandemic birthday. Seriously. But damn, I feel so overwhelmed by the birthday love.
I have made no secret of my despair and how excruciating I’ve found the past year to be. Knowing this, despite the distance, my dearest loved ones showed up in ways they could. My friends proved how well they know me by making sure my door didn’t stop ringing with food deliveries and found ways to socialize, within limits. Thank you for this haul:
An Olive Garden(!) gift certificate
A whale watching tour (where we saw two whales and HUNDREDS of dolphins when our boat came upon their pod)
A pineapple lychee boba from the San Gabriel Valley
Cupcakes and the best banana pudding, from Magnolia Bakery, delivered to my door
Two mini-cakes from my fave bakery, Angel Maid
A giant box of snacks, also delivered to the door
An outdoor, distanced get together hosted by Jenn and Drew
A second outdoor, distanced bday soiree hosted by Sam Sanders
A sushi dinner on my actual birthday, in Janet’s backyard
A giant strawberry cake from my daughters
A surprise Doordash delivery of seven(!) different boba teas and a shaved ice delivered straight to my door
A book about how to unleash my creativity using the tricks of advertising
Assorted cannabis gummies and chocolate
“Zhong Sauce,” which is apparently some amazing hot sauce you can put on anything
A “morning hangover cure” bottled beverage
To sum up: Enough sugar to plunge me straight into diabetes