2021 In Review: Learn To Lose

Off to unchartered waters. The Pacific Ocean. April 2021.

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…

Stories I loved telling: The history of fetishization of Asian women on stage and screen. Life inside the most COVID-stricken LA County hospital. The shipping crisis, as seen outside North America’s busiest port.

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 interview: Debbie Millman

Fave TED talk: Hrishikesh Hirway: What You Discover When You Really Listen

Fave Selfie: Strawberry fields forever, with the girls

Strawberry picking with the girls, May 2021

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.

Really listen. November 2021, Palm Springs

*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.

Previous Years in Review

2020 |2019 | 2018 | 2017 2016 | 2015 | 2014 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010|2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004

I Wrote Everywhere, Man

(A fuller, edited version of this post appears on npr.org)

The letters addressed and ready for delivery. My first letters were affixed with Santa stamps because that’s all I had left.

On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.

When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.

It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.

Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.

I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.

Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.

It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.

When I ran out of my personal stationery, I tried to maintain a personal touch by writing on pages of kid doodles.

I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.

And how writing these letters filled up my emotional tank, even though we didn’t know one another.

A letter than got to the other side, complete with the Santa stamp

I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.

Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”

He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.

In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”

In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.

People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”

I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”

A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.

So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.

Robert in Austin, who received my letter and wrote back to share the news he and his wife were having a baby in three days

Resolutions for 2018

The fake shrimp tempura that I sent Harper in the mail, after the international
journey to Chicago.

Last year my key resolution was to read 52 books before 2017 was out and by golly, I did it. So I’m gonna get ambitious and write down a LIST of resolutions this time. Let’s check back on these at the end of the year:

Hire a financial planner
I’ve had an accountant for a few years (hi Richard!) but no financial planner, because even though I am 35-years old and a slumlord two times over, I still have my bestie Sudeep hop into my TD Ameritrade account every once in awhile and just make sure my money is still there. He and my accountant both agree this is not a grown-up way to handle finances.

Start a book club on Slack so we don’t have to meet in real life
It’s not that I have a huge issue with the real-life book clubs of which I’ve been a part, it’s that I don’t like any structured socializing, including meetup groups, Bible studies, mommy yoga, etc. So, I want to start a Slack for my cleverest, book-loving friends to tackle a different book every month and have a running Slack conversation about it. And if you don’t read that month’s book, whatever, it’s your loss. The rest of us will be snarking on Slack about it. Hit me up if you want to do this.

Stop drinking as much flavored tea and drink more water
I don’t know that this will happen because spending $4 on a sweetened green ice tea at Starbucks almost every day is the kind of time, money and energy waste that has been written into my routine since I was 16 years old. But whatever, this is my intention list and I’m leaving this in.

Get an accurate bra measurement
I have fears that my boobs are going the way of my great-grandmother’s after she breastfed seven, SEVEN children. I realize bra technology can’t really solve for this, but either way it’s good for every woman to know what bra size she actually wears.

Write handwritten letters and cards to people for no reason
This is a perennial resolution. Last year I did a twist on it, which was “send rando packages.” It was all working out well until the unfortunate melted wax that Friend Harper received, so I’m going back to letters and cards.

Blog at least five times a month
This is my version of the clichéd “write an hour a day” resolution because there’s no way that I DON’T write an hour a day as a function of my job. But I have been trying to get back to non-work blogging as a discipline, and to have the written record of the absurdity or outrage or gratitude of the moment.

See more movies at the theatre
This is one of my favorite things to do, period, especially at Alamo Drafthouse. But in South Korea I have barely gone to the movies and I’m lesser for it. Please note this is a resolution that I’m gonna be better at keeping after we repatriate.

Other intentions:

Keep my credit card balance at zero
Spend more time in Texas
Wean Baby Luna from nursing
Have no more children


Year End Update, December 2018

Hire a financial planner
Failed: I actually started working with a guy named Bob to try and do a tax deferral thing from selling my Austin house and to get my money in order but never followed through, so, fail.

Start a book club on Slack
Failed: Took steps to start this and strangers even wrote me saying they wanted to do it but I had too much going on in the early months of this year (mainly with the Olympics and North Korea) and never got it off the ground. Now I just joined a new “Asian Americans read Asian Americans” book club in LA that has yet to meet (but we have chosen ONE book) so I think I’m giving up on this.

Drink Less Flavored Tea and More Water
Marginal, as Trump would say

Get Accurate Bra Measurement
Success: Squeezed this in before the end of the year when I realized it was a resolution!

Write handwritten cards and letters for no reason
Partially fulfilled: This is a consistent hit or miss, but a perennial resolution. Last year I gave up writing people and replaced it with the “send rando packages” thing, but now that I’m back in America it’s much less hassle to mail things to Americans. Sent Christmas cards, but that’s not for “no reason.” I have no excuses!

Blog at least five times a month
Partially fulfilled. The months I made it to five: January, March, April, December

Other intentions of 2018: Keep my credit card balance at zero, spend more time in Texas, wean Baby Luna from nursing, have no more children. ALL ACCOMPLISHED!