My 2019 Year in Review: Mind Games

Spent much of this year with some sort of brain booster zapping my head, for journalism!

What a time to be alive. The House just impeached the US president. Brexit really is going to happen. Big Tech has finally revealed itself to be far more nefarious than nice; and some of its darling companies (cough WeWork cough) laid bare as just giant Ponzi schemes that fuel capitalism’s excesses while promising “community.”

I am still living in the sunshine and swimming in the sea — spending my first full year back in America in the freaky paradise that is Southern California, where there’s no real winter or hot summer. Reality interrupts sometimes — we felt the long, rolling earthquake on July 4 and much of California’s brush and forests caught fire in the fall. A reminder that this state, like the rest of Planet Earth, is increasingly unsustainable.

This year felt like my real re-entry, a transitional period in which I had to learn how to live a more quotidian and (literally) domestic life after all the nonstop absurdity and madness of living abroad. My intention at the outset of 2019 was to be still and look inward, and I’m one for two — lots of looking inward, but not so much stillness.

I learned constantly, mainly in the service of my central creative project and raison d’etre at NPR for the past year — Future You.  It explored how emerging technologies are changing what it means to be human. We asked philosophical questions but packaged them in lightweight videos, playing with the long game in mind. In all, I had some 124 electrodes gelled to my head in all this year, plus an untold amount of wattage sent to my brain to show a future of mind-machine melding. I also learned how to extend my life, thanks to the Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, one of the world’s leading experts on aging. We became fast friends.

External circumstances interrupted during the back half of 2019 to force me to think more deeply and weigh what matters most. I’m reflecting now after an autumn of tumult. Everything felt triumphant and purpose-driven the first half of the year, then my shoulder dislocated at the end of June and I was down an arm, homebound and feeling crippled and useless. Then, to all of our surprise, my team got laid off in August. This meant the cancelation of the show, without consultation. I struggled for a few months with what I wanted to make — and be — next.

I’m finally out of my malaise, though. New things abound! Can’t wait for 2020, a chance for a buoyant new beginning.

Culture That Made 2019 Bearable: Fleabag, Lizzo, Parasite, Succession, the cringeworthy L to the O-G rap on Succession, Deadwood: The Movie, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the writing of Rebecca Traister, The Cut on Tuesdays, the newsletter Ask Molly

Drink of the Year: Black Sugar Iced Milk Tea, or Tiger Boba Tea — same thing, different names, delicious whatever you want to call it

Noteworthy Food Discovery: Trader Joe’s Coffee Ice Cream

Live Shows I Was Glad To See: Amanda Seales, John Mulaney, the countertenor John Holliday, Pod Save America, mainly for Jon Lovett

Memorable Interviews: Noho HANK, aka Anthony Carrigan, whose character Hank really makes Barry shine. Jenny Odell, on how she finds meaning while wandering. Alicia Menendez, with whom I really could relate on the topic of likeability. Tristan Harris, for video and separately for the pod, about our attention-fracked media culture.

New Practices: Epictetus said, “Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” So to lean into my 2019 goal of looking inward, I kept a daily, hand-drawn checklist to make sure I did (or tried to do) the following — meditate, journal, take a vitamin and exercise. The visual representation really shows consistency and lack thereof. Sometimes I just ran out of vitamins, okay? I do most things last minute.

I just colored in a square if I did the thing and over time, I had my own handmade data viz.

The Year’s Firsts: A night at the Magic Castle. Giving a commencement speech at the Missouri School of Journalism, my alma mater. Shoulder dislocation. Irish hospital treatment. Opioids. Drag racing with a professional stunt driver. Brain stimulation. Being monitored in a sleep lab while getting brain stimulation. Getting all three daughters to introduce one of my podcast episodes. The tedious experience of lice removal for my older girls.

New Places: Albuquerque, NM. A few Hawaiian islands I’d never visited before — Kauai and the Big Island. Ireland, where folks kept telling my fair-skinned baby Luna, “Welcome Home” and whose National Ambulance Service I am eternally grateful for. Never did get to visit the Blasket, though.

MVP New Friend: David Sinclair, aforementioned

MVP Old Friend: Harper Reed, who, while helping me through my doldrums randomly introduced me to his friend Michael, with whom he was developing a TV pilot. Serendipitously, Michael goes, “Oh hey do you have a reel?” A week later, I was on a set, shooting a real life commercial, the first since I was a teenager and appeared in commercials for places like Sonic Drive-Ins. This entire sentence just sounded ridiculous when I read it back.

MVP New Sandwich: Popeyes lives up to the hype

Disappointments: The short-sightedness of the newsroom “reorganization” this August and the way it happened. The current era at NPR. Not keeping up with my newsletter. My poor posture, in general — Dr. Raj, my PT, says I had shoulder impingement a long time before my injury.

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

Talked about my Dad’s epic freedom swim in public
Took the OJ Simpson tour
Lost the door to the minivan after my husband nearly got hit by the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus
Hired a garage organizer and got organized
Received a message from another person’s brain with computer-assisted telepathy
Moved a robot with my mind
Increased my vertical jump by 11 percent
Went under the care of a celebrity longevity doctor; he told me to stop eating so much orange dust
Lowered by biological age by five years
Got my long term memory boosted in a sleep lab
Appeared on The Today Show as B-roll
Shot a commercial
Saw Idris Elba in real life
Partied at Lawrence Welk’s former house
Inadvertently became a Flonase “influencer”
Saw Adam Driver on Broadway, he was riveting
Saw an otter feeding at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Stayed at an entirely wolf-themed lodge
Breathed the same air as Beyonce
Ate breakfast back-to-Harrison Ford’s back, and no one told me for most of this time
Became an Annenberg Innovation Lab fellow
Potty-trained Luna, my last baby
Spent more time with mom and dad, who moved to Orange County for part of the year
Reunited our fellow Asia expat travel squad when the Wan Yau‘s returned to the states
Went to Palm Springs, twice
Went back to Seoul, twice
Went to DC 4X
Went to San Francisco 4X
Went to New York 4X
Wrote and hosted a bunch of podcast episodes on how to travel better
Nearly went broke after having to cough up a bunch in capital gains taxes (thanks, selling the Austin house)
Took a morphined-out Irish ambulance ride with medics named Owen and Paddy, natch
Spent a month in a sling
Spent a month without eating sugar
Spent six months in physical therapy
Watched members of my team get laid off in a parking lot while on the job, and on vacation
Decided to leave NPR after that happened
Took part in a little non-violent resistance
Celebrated my parents 40th anniversary in Hawaii on an epic trip with 20 other family members
Started a new small business with my girlfriends
Fit in reading 52 books, barely
Flew 180,846 miles to 28 cities, three countries and spent 99 days away from home. Next year I’m getting carbon offsets and undertaking an effort to cut this down significantly, because it’s so terrible for the planet to fly this much. Like everything else about my 2019, it’s been a year of reckoning.

Previous Years in Review

20182017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

The Most Memorable Stories I Got To Tell In 2016

“Being a journalist … it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. I mean, it beats working.” -The late, great David Carr

Sake from paper cups on the Shinkansen with my mom, photog and fixer, in February.

Nostalgia is probably my favorite emotion, even though it’s not an emotion. I love it so much that it is a blog category here, and I also feel pre-nostalgia, or what the Japanese call 物の哀れ, mono no aware, a longing for the present — missing a moment even before it’s even gone. (I think this might explain why I started keeping a journal when I was five years old and have a career that’s essentially just documenting things.)

Anyway, in order to indulge in this nostalgia and to escape from the reality of the news each day, I have resolved in this new year to read more books (predictable) and blog for myself more. One thing I wanted to time capsule while it’s fresh is my first full year of reporting since 2013. (I spent the back half of 2014 prepping the international move and then several months of 2015 on maternity leave).

I looked at the list of 50-something stories I reported last year from scattered places: South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos and twice from Hawaii, thought back on what was most memorable — behind the scenes — about reporting and writing them. So instead of being a list of the “best” stories in terms of traditional metrics like listener engagement or impact or whatever, these are the ones I really remember telling.

Preserving the Tradition Of Kabuki-Performing Kids In A Japanese Mountain Village
Memorable because: This tiny town is a special place that took a long drive to get to, but I was joined by my good friend Ben, who I knew from Washington and speaks near-perfect Japanese. He used to live in this village as an English teacher, so it was a homecoming for him. The night before the kabuki festival we ate a family dinner with his Japanese mom friends from his old English-practice group.

We passed by rice cleaning machines on the side of the road to get there, a first. Watching the dedication of kids as young as six perform this ancient Japanese art was magical and inspiring. I’ll never forget how backstage, the littlest ones just wanted to play with my fuzzy microphone.

Fukushima Evacuees Are In Temporary Houses … Five Years Later
Memorable because: My mom decided to come on this reporting trip with me and my fixer, Akane, and the photographer, Kosuke Okahara. Kosuke was a get because he is usually in Europe. But owing to his devotion to the Fukushima survivors, he returns to the area each year. He came with us to neighborhoods of temporary trailers that nuclear meltdown evacuees have been in for five years now, cramped but making homes and community from them.

I was still breastfeeding, so I had to pump every few hours for Baby Isa, who was at home in Korea. This meant pumping in the backseat of our tiny rental car, so poor Kosuke, essentially a stranger, had to get a glimpse of that. On the Shinkansen ride back, my mom announced she had swiped a bunch of paper cups from the car rental place when we returned our car, which allowed us to down a bottle of sake while on the bullet train. We were all wasted by the time we got back to Tokyo.

Obama Visits Hiroshima
Memorable because: I’ll never forget the quiet on the lawn of that memorial park before Obama arrived. It was stunningly quiet, a heavy quiet I’d never experienced. And then the Obama speech was pitch perfect for the moment, a speech that was appropriate for history and poetic in its affirmation of humanity. I’ve never gotten emotional while covering a politician’s remarks; this was the first time I teared up during a speech, ever. Read the whole thing, or watch it. I broke down somewhere around “So that we might think of people we love — the first smile from our children in the morning; the gentle touch from a spouse over the kitchen table; the comforting embrace of a parent…” Then I had to pull it together and go live on Morning Edition right away.

Meanwhile, there’s another breastfeeding story here; I pumped in the bathroom and then the Peace Park restaurant had to pack and freeze my milk for me while I was working.

The Sacrifices Women Make To Be K-Pop Stars
Memorable because: I wrote the piece in Washington after doing the reporting in Seoul, because I was home for two weeks to host Weekend Edition Sunday in July. Being at the NPR HQ to put this together meant a more collaborative effort in making the final product. But this was also memorable in its insanity. During the interview, this Korean K-pop star was not introspective at all about what she had put herself through in order to “make it” in an industry where beauty standards are completely determined by middle-aged men.

The Cup Noodle 45th Anniversary
Memorable because: Of the fun fact we learned about Cup Noodle and how it is tailored differently for different consumers. In Asia, it’s a compliment to slurp your noodles, in America, people think it’s rude. So Cup Noodle deliberately cuts their noodles shorter for American audiences so that they don’t have to make slurping sounds to eat them.

Obama’s Final Summit With Japan, At Pearl Harbor
Memorable because: It was my last time with the White House press corps for awhile, because Mr. Trump is not likely to come out to Asia anytime soon. And it was the end of an era — the Obama era — and the culmination of his years long friendship with Japan. The Japan tribute to Pearl Harbor victims was an answer to Obama’s tribute to Hiroshima earlier in the year, so I was glad to be able to bookend the spring experience with this trip. A fitting end to an era of covering President Obama, which dates back to his days as a candidate in the Texas Primacaucus, when I got a one-on-one interview with him in a bathroom.

Saved By A Stranger, Hawaii Edition

Last shot of President Obama on my phone. He’s speaking at Pearl Harbor, framed by his traveling press.

I was woefully unprepared for work on Tuesday. After living Monday, December 26 twice — once in Seoul on one side of the international date line, and for the second time in Honolulu after going back in time 18 hours — I had to start Tuesday at 4am to follow around President Obama for the final time as POTUS.

Everything started out smoothly despite the early hour. Eating places weren’t open, but I discovered an uneaten KIND Bar that Friend Matt bequeathed me and put in my bag from the previous week in London, so I didn’t starve. And then all the logistics to get to President Obama’s vacation residence before he woke up in the morning were flowing. We loaded on to the press bus before 5am and took the journey to the residential neighborhood where the Obama’s stay.

Predawn, holding in a Hawaii rental home with the rest of the White House press pool.

Because POTUS wakes early for his morning workout, the press pool (charged with following his every move) had to hold in a rented, Japanese-style guest house during the wee hours, just waiting for him to get up. That’s when I discovered my lack of preparation: my audio recorder didn’t have the memory card in it. I left it in the computer back in the hotel. I also didn’t bring a backup. This meant I wouldn’t be able to record all the sounds and speeches of the day, which would include Obama’s final meeting with another global leader as president, and Japan’s Prime Minister’s key visit to offer condolences for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Photographers usually have extra SD cards on them (that’s the type of card our NPR recording devices use). But their cameras save to compact flash cards most often and SD cards are a touristy camera backup. So the still photogs weren’t able to help. Bloomberg’s Justin Sink happened to have an SD card, but it was a half-sized one, so it would have required an adapter. No one else in the 15 journalist pool was able to turn anything up, and the pool is so closely watched and wrangled because it has to stay with the president all day that I had NO freedom to break out and try to buy one.

President Obama then awoke for his workout at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Once his motorcade is rolling, the press bus joins in and we suddenly found ourselves on base. While POTUS worked out, the pool waits at a nearby base McDonald’s.

Waiting at a McDonald’s while POTUS worked out, with WH correspondents Justin Sink of Bloomberg (L) and Josh Lederman of AP (R)

My mind wheels were turning, trying to figure out how to procure this card before the next morning stop — the bilateral meeting with Japan. So I went to the base PX store, which is like a Walmart for military. But they wouldn’t open for another three hours. Then I tried the open gas station at the Firestone Tire service center, which a White House press wrangler had to follow me to because you can’t go off on your own. They were selling an assortment of Haribo Gummi Bears, wart bandages and all sorts of car fresheners, but NO SD CARDS.

That’s when I mention to the Hawaiian store clerk at the gas station that I need an SD card badly. She says she could call a friend (this is 6:30am mind you) to drive off base to the open Walgreens and get me one. The press wrangler, who has followed me, rules this out. He says Obama could be finished up working out soon, and when he’s moving, we’re moving. We leave the store in defeat.

Another 20 minutes pass at the McDonald’s, waiting for POTUS to wrap up. Then we are told to load up and move out. As the van parks across the street to await folding into the motorcade, the gas station clerk RUSHES ONTO THE VAN out of breath, waving two SD cards that she had a family member drive and procure for me despite us giving up earlier. The whole press van (which has dealt with my whining for the past few hours) erupts in crazy applause. She straight-up saved the day. I don’t even know her name. I’m ever indebted and so, so grateful.

I will forever think the best of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people.

The press pool on the move.