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.

Exiting the Pandemic

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.

TOO REAL.

My 40 Books of 2020, A Look Back

From the lobby of Penguin Random House, New York.

After Trump was elected, I made it a goal to spend more time reading books, as an escape from the ephemeral headlines that were zapping my brain and frying my soul. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 I read at a pace of a book a week.

This year I signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House, to write my own actual book! But when it came to reading books, I didn’t do much of what I intended.

Non-Fiction Favorites:

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Wow, No, Thank you, Samantha Irby

The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House, Audre Lorde

Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, Danez Smith

Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates

Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong

Fiction Favorites:

Someone Who Will Love You In All You Damaged Glory, Raphael Bob Waksberg

The First Bad Man, Miranda July

Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold?, C. Pam Zhang

Started but Didn’t Finish: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know, such a classic. I just got too distracted. The Night of the Gun, by David Carr. I am a great admirer of that late journalist, and he signed Stiles’ copy of it, but neither of us had gotten around to reading the book. I made it about halfway through but lost interest. The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which the poet/artist Maggie Smith cited as an inspiration for her work. I don’t know if it was the translation from French or the lack of a structure but I just could not get through it.

Picking ‘Em: I had been prioritizing works by women and people of color, but this year I just read anything I was reviewing for work, books my friends recommended, or art by artists I already like. For example, the end of Bojack Horseman swelled and broke my heart, so I had to read its creator’s short story collection. In the fall I reconnected with Matt Weiner, a hypersmart dude who wrote Mad Men, so a couple of the books at the end of my year were from his recommendations.

Books by Author Gender

Books by Classification

Reading Habits

I still read on my Kindle, and got a second one this year because I misplace my Kindle so much. Recall from my previous years’ posts that I read the most on planes. This year I spent less time on planes than I have since I was maybe 18 years old. So that evaporated my dedicated book reading time. I still love it, though, and just need to be more disciplined about reading at home.

If you’re curious, here’s my full 2020 book list.

Previous Years in Reading

2019 | 2018 | 2017

Credit to Nicole Zhu, a friend and fellow book-lover who inspired me to start the 52/52 challenge a few years ago. And big thanks to Matty, who makes the reading post so pretty every year. The code behind my books visualizations is available, so you can do this with YOUR reading data. too.

2020 Year in Review: Brave New World

“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.”

—Leslie Jamison

Into the unknown. L to R: Eva, Luna, me, Isa

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. 

Culture That Got Me Through 2020: Bong Joon Ho (just his entire energy), PEN15, Run, I May Destroy You, Younger, BTS’ “Dynamite,” Palm Springs, Dave Grohl’s epic drum battle with a 10 year old he met on social media, the series ending of Bojack Horseman, this TikTok about Mitch McConnell 

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.

Big Ideas: The fallacy of emphasizing individual responsibility over systemic fixes. We’re in a care crisis that connects to everything else in our society — the economy, gender, education, politics. The nuclear family ideal is not workable on its own. Neoliberalism failed.

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.

Firsts: Book deal. Hosting an hour-long nationwide radio special. Global pandemic. Shelter in place order. Wearing a mask every day. Not leaving the country all year. TV work for VICE. Homeschooling my children. Social distancing. Going a year without being with my parents.

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?’ 

Fave selfie. Celebrating Luna’s 3rd birthday, at home.

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.

One of the year’s proudest achievements, squatting for around 15 minutes straight to conduct an interview with a man experiencing homelessness.

Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:

Wrote letters to more than 50 strangers, got the most moving responses
Got to know all the parks around here
Ran 301 miles
Held a squat for 15 minutes while conducting an interview
Watched 252 TED talks
Gained five to eight lbs, depending on the day
Never once got to hug my mom or dad 
Signed my first book deal
Went to so many Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom milestones and Zoom conferences that I never tracked it
Helped link doctors so they could share COVID lessons in its earliest days
Started hosting TED Talks Daily
Didn’t go to TED (the conference, because the plague canceled it)
Started working as a freelance correspondent for VICE News Tonight
Signed with my broadcast agent in January, who negotiated a lucrative deal by December
Co-created and hosted Labor, an indie podcast about why motherhood’s messed up  
Meditated more than ever before
Drew my first zine
Got a new cat, Abe
Did not get COVID19, at least not yet
Volunteered every Tuesday in the summer, delivering meals to neighbors in need
Got to know the homeless community in Venice
Went drinking with my high school economics teacher, Mr. Coates, 20 years after being his student. He re-explained the Laffer Curve to me at a punk bar in Chicago!
Reconnected with Matt Weiner
Read 39 books, a far cry from the 52 books of previous years
Moved into a new town home
Got a sandwich named after me — The Elise Hu, which is, shockingly, vegetarian
Flew 24,469 miles to 10 cities, never once left the country and spent only 29 days away from home — all of it, before March 13.

Previous Years in Review

2019 | 2018 | 2017 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010|2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

Epochs

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” — St. Augustine

Friend Jenn is an ER doctor. At the beginning of March, when it was clear the coronavirus would ravage the country and the richest nation in the world couldn’t supply enough N95 masks for its hospital workers, she and the other docs slid their masks into brown paper bags at the end of their shifts and wrote the dates on those bags. The masks could sit for five days — the estimated time for virus to die off — before cleaning and re-using them, if necessary.

“The other day I was marking my paper bag and I remembered writing March 3,” she said. “Now suddenly I’m writing November dates.”

Was this the longest year, or the shortest year? First the toilet paper ran out at Costco. Then I rushed off a New York subway two stops early because I was too scared to cough while Chinese — back then, only Wuhan was locked down and the anti-Asian racism raged. Then yellow caution tape went up around the playgrounds and masks went up on our faces. I picked up Eva from school, and it still hasn’t reopened. Friends started gardens, and sourdough. In June, I started wearing a Christmas sweatshirt that said, “Merry Merry Merry” to try and cheer myself up. QR codes came back, for menus at restaurants only open in what used to be their parking lots. We attended drive-by birthday parades. And Zoom weddings. The three-year-old showed me how to mute and un-mute her Zooms. We got to know the parks and the running trails and everything that could happen outside. I smized as much as I could.

I’m still wearing that Christmas sweatshirt, only, it’s actually Christmastime now.

Time’s elasticity has never mystified me more. The Groundhog Day-ness of our routines, the complete lack of travel, the death of serendipity, surprise and strangers … did it stretch time or compress it?

Neurologists say novelty enhances memory, and while 2020 was devoid of the “novelty” we used to plan for — vacations, milestones, the gatherings where you’d meet novel new people, we got surprises we didn’t want: a public health crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. A presidential election, while resolved, has permanently damaged our already fraught American democracy. Being hyper-alert and anxious all the time would, reasonably, stretch time in the way trauma does. And relationally, I feel as if I’ve known my COVID19 trench friends and “foxhole crushes” for 80 percent of my adult life, despite really only deepening our friendships over the grueling months of the plague.

We wanted the election to hurry up and come so we could be put out of our uncertainty. We wanted this year to hurry up and end. And suddenly it’s almost over and I’m sitting here thinking, WTF happened to this entire year? What have I done with myself, if anything?

Psychologists study the “trip home effect,” an illusion in which we feel like the drive back from a destination is shorter, even when it’s the same distance. The common explanation was that familiarity undergirded that feeling — you recognize the landmarks on the way back, and you’re devoid of the original uncertainty of that drive. A more recent study points at expectation as the reason why the drive home seems shorter:  “Initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected … pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”

Or, it’s about distraction: You’re more focused on a target when you’re going somewhere for the first time, but when you’re coming home, you’re more easily distracted, making the trip seem shorter.

In pondering the elasticity of time this year, and how the trip home effect might relate, I stumbled on perhaps the bigger, more philosophical question: Is life in a pandemic trying to get to a destination, or trying to get home?

What To Read During A Pandemic

Since the 2016 Trump election, I have made it a priority to read at least 52 books a year, and have kept up that pace during the tumultuous years since. I find it a balm to bury myself in a book and do some “deep reading,” as Ezra Klein calls it, and am better for it. I see new frameworks and systems, find myself connecting concepts to life or work, and in general, reading expands me and I love it.

This year is different. (The word “different” is doing a LOT of work there.) I am trying to write a book of my own, which is not going well for all the reasons you can expect. And I find it hard to concentrate long enough to read well. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been impressive creative work coming out this year. So I’ll recommend a few periodicals that resonated with me and might stay with you, too.

Essay: “When the World Went Away, We Made a New One” by Leslie Jamison
(And her NY Review of Books piece on the early days of quarantine while suffering through the virus, single parenting her toddler, is also deeply resonant)

Poetry: The Blue House by Tomas Transtomer

Testimony: 1964 Testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention.

Longform News: The Truth is Paywalled but the Lies are Free, by Nathan J. Robinson

Hug A Tree, Or, Everything Is Always Changing

Photographer Nate Anderson shoots the remains of a burned out Eastern Joshua Tree in the Mojave National Preserve.

I learned Ruth Bader Ginsburg died while I was standing outside LAX, just back from my first flight since March 12 and waiting for the annoying LAX-it shuttle to the Uber lot. A friend simply texted, “RBG. Fuck” before I received a series of similar texts with just the single word.

A conversation with conservationist Brendan Cummings.

This gutting news came at the end of a four day trip to the Mojave Desert for VICE, where we drove past mountains on fire to see the burn scar of an August wildfire that killed tens of thousands of trees in the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.

Team Vice among the dead trees. L to R: Curtis Mansfield, Sam Rosenthal, Nate Anderson, me, Sarah Svoboda

Climate change was in the haze and the heat. Climate change was under our feet, in the scorched earth on which we stood. Reporting this devastation — and efforts to do something about it — is crucial and I’m pleased we got to get the exclusive footage up there in the Mojave National Preserve. I’ll share this visual, heart-breaking story on Monday. Behind-the-scenes, it meant briefly returning to BC — Before COVID, when I took long road trips or hopped on planes all the time for these intense reporting trips.

First flight since pre-quarantine

Everything is changed. Driving out to Joshua Tree, the sound guy and I avoided stopping anywhere. Hotels don’t do cleaning service because COVID. Everyone is fortified with their masks and clear plastic shields. We wore masks in all the interviews, even though they took place outside, because of the optics and for the extra protection.

Flying for the last leg of the reporting made me feel anxious and suspicious. I was scared to sneeze. In the Sacramento airport on my way home (from the one interview we flew into town for), only one restaurant in the food court remained open — the vegetarian one, natch.

But we also found joy and serendipity on this trip. As a VICE team, we ate and drank together outside by the pool after long days, sunburned from the desert and pricked by burrs at our ankles. Producer Sarah got a chance to see her sister, brother-in-law and toddler niece for the first time since Christmas when we did a drive by their balcony in Sacramento. My friend Rachel and her new baby, Simone, are also staying in Sac during COVID and the ladies drove out to our interview location so I could sneak a moment with Baby Simone. My little brother, Roger, had come to LA to help care for the girls while I was away, and we siblings were able to reunite for the first time since December at LAX for a mere moment, as he was headed home to Dallas and I had just landed from Sacramento.

When Roger and I reunited at LAX for two minutes before he took off. We snapped a photo for Mom and Dad

After I got home and got the girls down, David Greene, one of my most reliable drinking buddies and closest friends from NPR West, gathered a few of the regular friend squad for a night out of drinking and revelry like the old times. Only, we were always outside and we hugged with masks on and with our faces turned as far away from one another as possible. We used to go drinking together at least weekly, and we hadn’t since March. Finally we were all together again which felt restorative after a nonstop reporting trip and given the news, a tough, tough day.

I got home just before midnight and the earth shook. At first I thought, oh, maybe I’m drunker than I thought but nope, nope, it was an earthquake. Magnitude 4.8, and no damage or injuries here, but a reminder the ground beneath us is always changing.

The Big Idea

If there is one big idea I have really spent the year interrogating and emphasizing through my work this year, whether it’s my book (which is about capitalist-driven definitions of beauty that drive an endless cycle and competition toward unachievable standards), or through my newish social science and parenting podcast, Labor, it’s about the fallacy of emphasizing personal responsibility over systemic fixes.

Whether we’re talking about climate, health and caregiving policies, how we treat poor people or reckon with race, it all boils down to this: The US consistently asks individuals to take both the blame for systemic problems and the responsibility for solving them. This strain is synonymous with neoliberalism, which dominates the globe’s economic systems, and especially so in American society and culture.

The toxicity of this idea is made tragically clear in our largely preventable COVID hellscape this year. Ed Yong writes:

“Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says.”

I also serendipitously got to reinforce this idea in a TED Talk I introduced this summer, from the journalist George Monbiot.

“Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but I think the most powerful of them is the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.”

Worth a watch.

Online School For Small Children, A Poem

To the parent or guardian of

Student

Know this address, as it serves as the gateway to Schoology

Google Apps

Edgenuity

Benchmark

Zoom

And other tools used by your child’s school

Activate and access accounts to ensure readiness when learning begins

The PIN will be mailed to you in a separate letter in the coming days

The class code is incorrect

Choose an account

627dyze

It wont let me do it

Whenever you sign into Google classroom you have to log in as her mymail credentials 

ihustile0001@mymail.net

This page isn’t working

accounts.google.com redirected you too many times

Reload

During these unprecedented times

Wishing you a successful school year

Things I’ve Done While Quarantined, A List

Topless Tuesday was every day, in quarantine.

Gulped down my vitamins with vodka
Wiped my own snot onto my shirt sleeve
Wore Sunday Funday shirt on Tuesdays, and Thursdays, but who knows which day it was, ever
Accidentally showed up a day early for someone’s surprise birthday parade
Finally hung that one framed picture
Organized little plastic baggies of toiletries plus money for the homeless
Went to a bunch of drive-thrus, masked
Yelled a lot at my kids, sorry
Got yelled at by my kids, they’re not sorry
Wrote fifty letters to strangers
Received so many thoughtful, personal responses from my new pen pals
Helped connect doctors and frontline workers with the tech industry so they could get their own Slack to share information
Let toddler go topless all the time
Read a book that said, without irony, “Have you asked your spirit guides for help?”
Considered dying my hair with Kool-aid, just to try it
Started a food scrap garden experiment