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.

Odyssey to Bali

These guinea hens were just hanging out by the pool

Eva has this exaggerated, four-year-old way of asking “what’s happening” by punching each word out: “What. Is. Happening.” She never uttered it yesterday, but it would have been appropriate for every travel snafu we ran into starting from the moment we arrived at the airport check-in counter at 10 in the morning. First, our noon flight had been pushed back by four hours. Then, I realized I left baby Luna’s passport at home, because I packed passports still thinking we were a family of four. Whoops. Then, a more severe passport snafu for her dad: Matty didn’t have six months left on his passport before its expiration date, so the airline straight up would not let him fly. The Matty situation required a lift from the embassy (which, thanks to having friends who are in consular affairs at the embassy, got him on the access list to get a new passport within hours). But even still, we had to leave him behind.

The Luna situation required calling back the driver who brought us to the airport, driving an hour+ through typical maddening Seoul traffic back HOME to get the passport, turning around and taking a train to the airport, get to the security checkpoint and have Eva’s boarding pass not clear due to a hyphen, walking her BACK to the counter on the other side of the departure hall, getting the hyphen fixed, going through security as a family of five (since Matt’s left behind, I have our helper Yani THANK GOD), then getting to the airport tram.

We had Isa in a stroller so this required an elevator. After attempts to take three different elevators — none of them air conditioned — all were out. We finally get to the gate via escalators and tram and that’s when Eva starts tantruming out because she’s hot and tired from all the walking. Our flight’s delayed another hour, Isa needs snacks, I have three-month-old baby Luna pressed on me the entire time with a look of “What. Is. Happening.” We finally get on the plane and amazing, have two empty seats next to us in our row, but before we can snag them to allow Isa and Eva to stretch out across them to sleep, Koreans rush up like they’re fleeing a war and belt themselves in them, leaving Yani stuck holding 30 pound Isa in a single seat while Isa sleeps for HALF THE FLIGHT. By the time we arrived at midnight, after first leaving the house for the airport at 9am, the girls were frayed but holding it together, I was sweatier than I’ve ever been and sleepy, Yani was just relieved to have Isa’s hot body not pressed against her and Luna was wishing she was back in the womb, I imagine.

Anyway I’m writing this down so I won’t forget yesterday. It was our first trip as a family of five and only four of us actually made it on the journey. (Yani became our fifth yesterday, and it was and is absolutely critical to our functioning.) And while we ran into annoying frustrations, it comes with the territory. (Ahem, like how our flight to leave the US and move to Seoul became several flights after the first attempt to move from our home country was aborted after we’d boarded and sat on a tarmac in Dulles for six hours. And still not nearly as bad as the night I slept in the baggage claim of DFW Airport.) Frankly it was an awesome day depending on how you look at it. But for that super long delay, we wouldn’t have had time to get Luna’s passport. But for our amazing friend at the embassy who we could just call up and get on the American Citizen Services access list, Matty wouldn’t have a new passport so fast, fast enough to get on a flight tonight to see us tomorrow.

And the destination after our arduous march was Bali — paradise! Over mango juice this morning at breakfast al fresco, Eva said to me unprompted, “Momma, Bali is so beautiful. Like 100 beautiful,” awarding imaginary points to it on her arbitrary (but valid) Eva scale.

Seoul -> DC -> NYC -> London -> Seoul … In Seven Days

Attempting to come out of a jet lag blur to say that I spent an incredible week in the Western hemisphere, which included a lot of time on planes and briefly, a train to New York. (After getting used to the bullet trains of Asia, the Amtrak feels like a damned stagecoach, not gonna lie.)

The notable thing about this trip was the lack of group activities; it was a lot of one-on-one dinners and breakfasts and coffee meetings with friends for whom I care deeply. And it all included a lot of freaking out about what is next for us in America and the world.

Things that common-law work spouse Matt Thompson said to me over burgers will stay with me, about how we need to lean more heavily into our archives and history, in general, to better understand what’s going at the dawn of Trump. And the work advice from people like Kate (who used to work with me) and Chuck (who is about to not work at NPR anymore) will make me feel better about the state of things in my career. Ultimately, the time in DC was so compressed that I had to fit in time with my BFF Sudeep by straight-up scheduling a walk together to the Triple A office, get a coffee to-go, walk to Treasury to get something back from an official, and then walk partially back to his office. That was the sum total of our reunion. For my other BFF, Sara, we scheduled a Chik-Fil-A dinner followed by a trip to Target. No joke. There was just no time.

On the flip side, the days lingered and melted into each when there were fewer people to see — in London, for a weekend with Friend Matt (seems everyone is named Matt, it’s all very confusing, but at least I can’t trip things up this way). He wanted to get to a top-ranked restaurant he hadn’t been to yet, and to go to an all-night barn party/jazz jam session out in the country, and since I was going to spend my final time in America just gorging on the fast food I’ve missed (Whataburger, where have you been all my life), it wasn’t too much of a burden to join Matt on his more classy trip to London, instead.

Serendipity and luck were in our favor all along: We almost missed our flight but didn’t, no belongings were left or lost, and little things happened to time out just as needed. We stayed at a flat* in Covent Garden near the theater district, and while walking home from a late night dinner we saw signs for a show featuring Sir Ian McKellen(!) and Patrick Stewart. When Matt checked about getting tickets the next day, he learned it was closing night, snagged two tickets and we got in to saw the dense and (obviously) well-acted show. I joked that it was about the frailty of existence for rich white men, and then we read a review, in which the reviewer explained that essentially the play was about the existential ennui of rich white men.

There was also delicious food, libation I so longed for and trips out into the English countryside, one night for the most random, bohemian jazz jam session-cum-birthday party filming. I can’t quite describe it except to say there were some ballerinas and lots of soldier costumes, plus a gong bath. My first gong bath!

* I try to code switch to British terms like flat and queue and crisps where appropriate.

Roger Gifs, Day 2: Roger Wears Suits On Long Flights

For the latest in my series poking fun at my little brother (but also not-so-secretly being jealous at his lifestyle), I chose a clip of Roger flying to Indonesia with a camera crew in tow. He seems to lounge and sleep with his bespoke suit on. This seems crazy to us lay people, but it’s become a joke in our family that every time we pick up Roger at the airport, even if it’s a flight from Beijing to Washington, he comes off the plane in a suit.

those noodles look good, actually.
Those noodles look good, actually.

23 Air Travel Tips From Super Frequent Fliers

One of my views out the window, though I can’t remember where.

I’ve been logging a lot of time in the air in the past few years, training and working with NPR member stations, shooting a political video project, hanging out my Europe-dwelling parents, freelancing for the Knight Foundation and just plain ‘splorin.

But my road warrior days are coming to an end next month, when I’m banned from flying due to the spawn in my system. So I thought I’d share some of my rules for the road in case you’re about to, say, be in five cities in eight days and want to avoid spending the night in a freezing cold baggage claim.

Below are my tips, along with travel advice I solicited from friends who log Hillary-Clinton-level frequent flier miles: John Bracken (professional innovation agent), Brad Willis (international poker blogger), and Matt Mullenweg (international man of mystery). Please send me yours or leave them in the comments and I’ll update this post.

UPDATE April 2013: Reader Alex Volnyak found this post useful and he took the time to translate it into Czech for any of you Czech readers out there. Please check it out if you’re interested. And thanks, Alex!

Continue reading “23 Air Travel Tips From Super Frequent Fliers”

2011 Year in Review: Up in The Air

In transit at the Warsaw Airport. (October 2011)

 

My friend Patrick Terpstra wrote this of his year: “‎2011 was like riding a tilt-a-hurl after eating seven corn dogs. But it sure beats watching from the ground.”

I can’t disagree. I did plenty of plane riding, which is the most consistent memory of this year, besides saying goodbye and hello to a lot of people I really love. To rewind:

The Year I Flew Around the World, Twice: After saying goodbye to Texas and The Texas Tribune, I spent 99 days this year away from home, logging 78,931 miles in the air to 29 locations including places like Warsaw, Poland (for fun) and Boise, Idaho (for work). Not proud of the carbon footprint but I can now glide through security like Ryan Bingham.

Don’t Look Back in Anger (I Heard You Say): It felt like a pretty angry and destructive year, didn’t it? My second favorite emotion*, outrage, seemed to abound. I write this as tens of thousands of Russians protest in the streets, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya take their shaky steps toward self-rule, and socioeconomic dissatisfaction continues at home. We said goodbye to Osama bin Laden, Amy Winehouse and Steve Jobs (none of whom were picks in my clearly talentless celebrity death pool), an earthquake-tsunami combo led to radiation disaster in Japan, and we experienced a rare earthquake in my new hometown of Washington, D.C.

Favorite Video of The Year Is Also My Favorite Song: “Ching Chong (It Means I Love You)”
After a UCLA student went on a crazy rant about Asian people in the library, she faced a backlash so large she had to quit college. But Jimmy Wong turned his rant response into art — one of the catchiest songs of the year, and an instant viral video. It will get stuck in your head, so if you haven’t seen this, you’ve been warned.

Speaking of Asians, My Most Memorable Welcome to Washington: The Crazy Guy in Starbucks
There was one morning after the devastating Japanese earthquake when I went into Starbucks in Chinatown, natch, when a random guy off the street wandered in, started yelling at people in line, stopped at me, and said this, to me: “Fuck you, go home. You deserved the earthquake.” Then he told the rest of the line we were all going to die. Yep.

Continue reading “2011 Year in Review: Up in The Air”

Purgatory

The more I travel, the less I expect a smooth trip or a even a mildly pleasant one. It’s almost inevitable that your flight will be delayed (if not canceled), that you get to your destination but your bags will not, or you will be flying back from Amsterdam when a dude in the rear of the plane decides to light his balls on fire in a failed Al Qaeda plot (we think).

So here we are, in Dallas (when we were supposed to be connecting in DC), headed to London (though the destination is Amsterdam), hanging out in the “DFW Comfort Lounge” (I suppose they’re trying to be ironic). Our first attempt at leaving Austin failed. We were re-routed since our aircraft was stuck somewhere in the tundra. Drove home. Drove back to airport to take off on re-routed itinerary. Made it to Dallas. Found out flight to London was delayed a few hours. Consumed some subpar tacos. Considered the “three tequila flight”. Opted for a post-meal fro yo instead. Found out our flight was delayed again. Now sitting in this so-called “lounge”, watching a retrospective on the “We Are the World” concert from a few decades ago.

Chuck Klosterman said something last year at a book signing about how airports are purgatory — an in-between place where everyone’s waiting to go somewhere but at the mercy of higher powers. Couldn’t have said it better.

UPDATE 9:17pm: Just learned both airports in Europe we must stop at (Heathrow and Schipol) are going to be quagmires… heightened security after the pants-on-fire-security-threat. Time to take that tequila flight.