Yesterday, A Behind-The-Scenes Memoriam

Melbourne street art, shot by Edward H Blake

The lead parent of our children is off in America so I have been really getting my momming on over the past few days. (Y’all know how that usually goes for me. VERY laissez faire.) Being in charge of my two children and a baby while also working from home was already going to be daunting in it of itself, but the despot Kim Jong Un decided to throw in an extra challenge! He invited President Trump to meet face-to-face, and Trump accepted, in an announcement that came down at 9am yesterday morning. A bona fide news bomb.

This is what I remember: I thankfully awakened slowly rather than suddenly because somehow there were no screaming fits or random sibling throw-downs to break up at the break of dawn. Since November 2016 I have avoided news inputs until I am fully awake and ready to take in whatever inevitably shocking alert is on my phone. Yesterday was distinct in that news hadn’t actually broken at 7:30am when I woke up. News ABOUT news was filling my inbox because POTUS DJT had popped his head in the White House Briefing Room (a room he’s never been seen in) and said there was a “major announcement” coming in 90 minutes. The countdown began.

Our helper Yani served breakfast and braided hair. I made sure the girls got on their buses. Baby Luna slept through all the way until 8:30am when both older girls were off for school. I hate having to feed her and read at the same time a furious feed-and-read situation followed in order to finish both in time for the announcement. By then, we knew that the news had to do with North Korea, and that the South Korean envoys who had just met with KJU on Monday went to Washington an invitation from Kim to Trump, to meet. This would be unprecedented and incredible on many, many levels. The craziest thing was that, at the 9am/7pm EST announcement, we learned Trump just accepted this invite immediately! It breaks with decades of U.S. practice but this is Trump and really, are there norms anymore?

From a windowless, carpeted room that serves as a perfect home “studio,” got on live with our program All Things Considered right after the announcement, at 9:30am Korea time. But my kindergartner Eva’s monthly school assembly was at 10am! I am her only parent in the country right now. She expected me to be there and I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I rushed to her school by cab, stayed through to her performance (last because they’re the oldest) and then made sure she saw that I was there and had to go, then ran to hail another cab to take me home, making it with four minutes to spare before my next live conversation with All Things Considered, at 11am. That could have really gone the other way for me so, thank you God.

Later I delivered a stroller to a friend who needed to borrow it, ate lunch on base with some USGOV guys who joked around about this rather stunning news with me (I’m leaving the jokes out of this blog post), and because I don’t like to cancel appointments at the last minute, I took a cab all the way to my pedicure place only to realize that because I jumped into the cab while conducting a phone interview*, I forgot to bring any forms of payment! We had to turn around and return to my home, get my wallet, drive back to pedicure place only for me to realize, by then, that I didn’t have time for the appointment because there were many more live conversations to have and the web post to write-through. At some point I needed to sit down and speed read and correspond with more people, which is what those of us in the biz call “reporting.” In the evening when the girls had to be bathed and put down for bed, I was on Morning Edition twice. In between the two hits, Eva, who is starting to read, read to me (this felt interminable because I was on deadline) and we completed the True/False questions in the back because she loves True/False. Then I recall putting a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on for them in lieu of any more books.

I got the girls tucked in and put down for bed and then got my ass to a friend’s Pyeongchang Paralympics Opening Ceremony Watch Party, because YES THAT WAS YESTERDAY, too.

Behind the scenes, twenty minutes before the Up First podcast taping.

Here are the conversations, as they appeared in the course of this string of events:

All Things Considered after the feed-and-read with Luna (no link because it was replaced with the next one)
All Things Considered in the nick-of-time after making it back from Eva’s assembly
Morning Edition/Up First podcast after my failed pedicure attempt but got a giant cookie for Isa (she loves cookies)
Morning Edition after the True/False questions
All Things Considered after being awakened this morning with a 6:30am call to talk again. My voice is noticeably lower here because I’d just woken up. Sorry.

Not included in this post: All the stress eating and Starbucks green iced teas. By the end of the day there were just plastic Starbucks drink vessels strewn all over my desk.

*It was John, a friend/source of mine who is a China historian and North Korea watcher based here in Seoul. We spend half of our phone calls just mercilessly making fun of each other. A running gag is we our phone conversations by performing the phone greetings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese obnoxiously: (Roboseyo? Roboseyo! // Wei? Wei? // Moshi Moshi!? Moshi Mosh.)

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Great, or The Greatest, “Fan” Mail?

I have been working in journalism for my entire adult life and while most of the time the engagement with our listeners, readers and viewers is totally awesome, every once in awhile I get hostile feedback with picayune complaints that invariably include a personal dig. This absurdly rude type of “reader mail” has uniformly come from men. And it always includes some patronizing, preachy component.

There was that voicemail about jail versus prison, in 2015:

Last week, I got another classic one that I had to share with folks, because it was a) so absurd that it circled around to being funny b) the sender entered his name as “First Name Last Name” c) his email was an address and d) it so amused Friend Reeve that he spent his precious time helping compose a long-ass response (which I edited considerably before sending).

Here’s the listener note, which was, I kid you not, triggered by the fact I say “You bet” instead of “You’re welcome” sometimes.

And here’s the director’s cut response, of which only about five percent wound up in the actual response.


I’m sorry to hear that you have emailed management repeatedly and have yet to receive a response. As a reporter, I know how frustrating it can be to reach out and not know if your message was received. Somewhere in Kim Jong Un’s inbox, there is probably a whole folder of my unanswered interview requests. So, I hope you didn’t lose any sleep wondering, “Did she get my message?”  You bet I did!

You’ll have to bear with me, Gnarlee. Usually I am pretty casual. But since I know you’re a stickler for these sorts of things, I looked up the top ten email manners tips on, and I intend to follow them very closely as I write this response.

The first tip is to always respond, and to try and do so within 24 hours. Check! The second is to use the subject line to alert the receiver to the substance of the email, relieving them of any suspense. As you can see, I have done that. I hope you were not kept in suspense too long. I know you are very sensitive!

The third tip, which I think is a very good one, is to “consider using an address book function that doesn’t list all recipients in the ‘to’ header.” Accordingly, I have bcced numerous people on this email. The fourth — and I bet you can appreciate how relevant this was, Gnarlee! — is to not respond when you are “hot under the collar.” I followed the internet’s advice, and I let this sit for awhile before deciding that I would, in fact, send it.

Tips five, seven, nine and ten don’t really have any bearing on our correspondence. Tip eight is to keep it professional, by which they mean don’t talk about personal stuff. I would imagine following the standard letter-writing format I learned at Babler Elementary School — like making sure you have a salutation and a closing, using proper punctuation,  and things like that — could also fall under the idea of “keeping it professional.” So, even though I notice this was not a priority for you, I have made sure to do that, because as I said, I really want this email to demonstrate basic manners.

Finally, Gnarlee, that brings us to tip six. And I fear that this is where this whole project might fall apart, because tip six is “know your audience.” And even though your email clearly identifies you as “Full Name,” I feel like I just don’t know you, Gnarlee. And I feel like you don’t know me. And that makes this difficult. For all I know, your upbringing was completely different from mine. It’s also likely that our current lives don’t look all that similar (unless, of course, you are also a one-woman foreign bureau for NPR — in which case, way to go!). So unfortunately, though as you can see I came pretty close, I fear I may not be able to adhere to all of the top ten etiquette guidelines. Not because of any deficiency in my education, but just because they turned out to be a bit too rigid for our current context. No doubt, this has disappointed you, Gnarlee. I am sorry for that. The last thing I would want to do would be to write an email just to needlessly upset you.

My pleasure,


The New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner put it well, when she explained why she shares this kind of stuff:

“The biggest thing: I think it’s important for people who don’t get (or send?!) notes like these to see what the costs are for publicly being a certain type of person. Journalists need to see this, because while lots of us get stuff like this, PLENTY MORE don’t. And for many who do, the hostility is not gendered/racist/intimately personal in this way. It’s also important for journalist/public actors who DO get these notes to know they’re not alone. If you’re getting garbage hurled at you, know you aren’t the only one.”

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A K-Pop Boy Band Is A Tough Act To Follow

Speaking to some students.

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to “speak to some students and other young people,” to which I responded, okay, sure, because I try to say yes to events that involve young people. Pay it forward and all that. Little did I know until I got there this past week that it was a MAJOR PRODUCTION involving an audience of 4,000 people in a sports arena.

I am really grateful and relieved that they asked me to send in a slide deck before the Olympics onslaught so that by the eve of the forum, I didn’t have to prepare! My past self had already sent in some kind of deck that I could just generally follow when I took the stage. But man, what a crowd they had kickin’ in there.

It turns out many of the students had camped out overnight to catch the opening act, a K-pop group called Wanna One, a boy band put together on a reality TV show. You know, like O Town, or Danity Kane, the girl group P Diddy put together. Anyway, it was AFTER those boys, plus the Korean speedskater who won the first gold medal for South Korea in Pyeongchang, that the “anchor show” was programmed. That’s when a BBC documentarian, a CCTV anchor and I had to take turns giving short talks.

There really weren’t any parameters to the remarks except to help motivate young people about the profession, so I just riffed on my work here in Korea in a generally chronological order and ended with some tips on how to not suck in journalism. It felt pretty much like talking to a college class, except with simultaneous translation devices available for each audience member (like they have at the UN), much brighter lights, louder feedback from the sound system and hugeass screens to see yourself beamed at billboard size. (Newsflash: I do not lint brush myself often enough for giant high definition projection).

The craziest part was after the speech when I got swarmed by Koreans from the audience who wanted to take selfies together. This is so different from speaking in the US, where people usually come up to you afterward to challenge you on your remarks, trade business cards, see if you want to drink later, etc. These Koreans barely even spoke to me. They just held up their phones next to my face so we could squeeze in a shot together. I would say half of the selfies were normal and without filters, but the other half had Snapchat/Instgram like insta-face filters where we would be selfie-ing with animated hearts or our faces with auto-blush and auto-long lashes and such. It was sort of insane but also an incredible experience to see what young Korean selfie culture was like. Some people wanted to do the straight peace sign, others went for the pinched heart fingers, some just wanted a straight smiling selfie … so much variety. Kept me on my toes. Thanks, Korea!

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Pyeongchang Winter Olympics: Cheers and Jeers

Covering curling with my friend Jonathan Cheng of the WSJ, who is now OBSESSED with curling.

It’s the final day of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang and Gangneung. Covering these games was crazy intense, the whole way through. I can’t reflect really well without hindsight, so instead, here’s a round of cheers and jeers.


The sports. What I love about the Winter Olympics is how utterly death-defying all of the events are, maybe with the exception of curling. But for basically every other event (skeleton, anyone?), a mere mortal would DIE trying it. I am exactly the kind of person who cannot maintain my cool when watching things like figure skating jumps. I cringe and audibly react with an “OH OWWWWW” when someone falls on the ice.

Curling. There’s something so magical about the perfect stones and the special shoes (one glides, the other doesn’t) and the terminology like “hog line” and “hammer.” I have come to really enjoy going to see curling more than anything else. The best night of curling happened with WSJ’s curling aficionado and sportswriter Jim Chairsumi happened to come have dinner with us and came with me to catch some curling. He gave the play-by-play and context, making the whole experience that much better. Thanks, Jim!

The Garlic Girls, aka Team Kim. The breakout sensation of these Games are four girls from the sticks, a garlic-producing town called Uiseong, which charmed the nation with their improbable victories in curling over the world’s best. Friend Jon (from the WSJ) and I accidentally stumbled on these women when we went to curling with the aforementioned Jim. They were mesmerizing to watch, and interesting off the ice, too. They have nicknames based on their favorite foods (“Steak” is my fave), a skip who is stone-faced, which inspired hella memes, and an excellent curling strategist. That they made it to the gold medal game at all was in the face of 50-1 odds. Rock stars, pun intended.

USA Women’s Hockey Team Beating Archrival Canada was the most exciting hockey game I’ve ever attended and maybe the greatest Olympics hockey game ever, according to veteran sportswriter Christine Brennan. It was sort of a fluke that I wound up covering it, meaning not only did I get to enjoy it, I got to file my first (and probably only) hockey results piece ever.

Reunions. The last time I was in the same place as Nigel Robertson I was 24 years old and he bought me a Wonder Woman shirt for my birthday that year. We have celebrated one another’s successes from afar for years and his energy is infectious. NIGEL is at the Olympics. So is Friend Juliet, who I haven’t seen since we moved away from Washington, Friend Alex, who I haven’t seen since the Nieman thing in Boston in 2013, and so many coworkers who I really never even worked with before, like our sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Getting to laugh with these folks makes the Olympics really special.


Overheated buses. We constantly go from standing in subzero temperatures in a fierce (sometimes as fast as 50mph winds) to buses heated like they’re in the inside of a Korean sauna. One time my colleague Bill got into a bus that was actually heated just the right temperature and he decided to ride it to wherever it took him just to stay on the bus and not get stuck on a different one.

Wind. Wind gusts reached Cat3 hurricane speeds, destroying pop-up food stalls, security screening posts and wreaking havoc on the alpine schedule. For those of us who had to walk around in the wind, the big problem was trying not to be picked up by a strong gust. Also debris. I ended up having to irrigate my eyes numerous times after specks of gravel flew up into my peepers.

Food that tastes like despair. I feel it’s a travesty that the food in the concessions and tents here is so bad, given that there are such culinary delights across the rest of the country. Breakfast is sad, concessions which consist of “nachos without cheese” or “sandwich” (no details about what’s in it) taste of despair. Even things you can’t screw up, like fried mandu, aren’t served with condiments, so you can’t adjust anything. No hot sauce or soy sauce for you! Outrage.

The schedule. It is nonstop grinding-it-out, around the clock, since we work our daytime, and then by nighttime we begin working America’s daytime. The result is my alter ego comes out. Her name is Denise and she is a bitch. Denise has been making regular appearances in recent days, being all sorts of grumpy, uncompromising and picking fights. My mom thinks I’ve gone temporarily insane and told me I should not make any decisions right now, to which I responded by hanging up on her. Blame Denise, she’s horrendous.

Media Village Housekeeping. The apartments didn’t have do not disturb doorhangers so I’d often be awakened by or disturbed by the loud electronic voice of the teched-out apartment bell, which yelled, “YOU HAVE A CALL. YOU HAVE A CALL.” The other issue is that they bring you fresh towels every day, but never put them in the bathroom. So you’d come out of the shower or finish handwashing and have to trudge over to the bed to dry off. Because of language barriers, this situation could not change. I end my Olympics tenure supremely annoyed by this. Or is it Denise being annoyed? Hard to tell.

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Where I planted by incense after doing my countermeasures.

I gotta hand it to my mom and dad for putting up with my variable obsessions. This year it is the beng ming nian situation. I am overly fixated on how to prevent mishaps and general misfortune since it is the Year of the Dog, my zodiac year. Chinese tradition holds that every 12 years when your hit your zodiac year, accidents and misfortune can befall you. Since I am not able to celebrate the Lunar New Year with the “core four” Hu’s because I’m covering the Pyeongchang Olympics, I rushed over to my parents’ place in Taipei a couple of weeks ago so mom could roll my birthday egg in advance and settle my anxiety by taking me to do some beng ming nian countermeasures.

We went to a Buddhist temple that was teeming with people and followed the instructions to an tai sui, which translates to “Taming Tai Sui.” Tai Sui is supposedly a deity and you are supposed to make an offering to it to dissolve bad luck. (This is some real Taoist stuff but we’re doing it, okay!) The ritual required lighting exactly three incense, praying and showing gratitude to Buddha, and then taking my “receipt” for my an tai sui and waving it over the sticks of burning incense (“be careful not to set the paper on fire, Elise,” my mom said, knowing how klutzy I am). I have sought purification and peace for the new year and offered incense to tame Tai Sui. The temple gave me an omamori (a charm, or amulet) for protection, too. I feel better.

Then mom and I went and bought a giant Taiwanese iced milk tea. This Lunar New Year is getting off to a solid start.

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First Dinner & Second Dinner, Exposed!

I grew up reading The Dallas Morning News, so it’s very weird to be the subject of a story in it. But Byron Harris is the reporter on it, and Byron is a living legend. So you know I wasn’t ever gonna say no to anything he wanted to do.

Rest in Peace, Cheese

Cheese, on his last day at home with us. We are all missing him so much.

By Tuesday, after being hospitalized and on an IV for an evening, Cheese‘s condition hadn’t improved. The vet said Cheese was in advanced renal failure. He was in and out of consciousness by the time my spouse and spawn went to say goodbye. (I couldn’t bear to see him again, after I’d shuttled him to the vet and back on Sunday and again on Monday, when they decided to hospitalize him.)

Cheese was one cool cat. Probably the coolest dude in our whole family. He only lost his cool on the day we moved into the new house in Washington, when he went missing for the entire day. We went running up and down the streets in our new neighborhood, asking anyone if they’d seen Cheese, trying to call for him but he’s a cat, so, that wasn’t gonna work. We thought we lost him, back then. Anxious and dejected we returned home at dusk and heard a few meows from somewhere upstairs. Cheese had hidden behind the washer dryer all day. That memory just came back to me this morning, when I was getting dressed and found a stray white hair on my dress. Our other cat Caesar is all black, so it had to have been Cheese’s.

Matt, who started his career at The Dallas Morning News as an obituary writer, wrote one for Cheese. It’s a moving tribute to our furry friend.

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Please, Cheese

Cheese in 2009, at home in Austin.

Cheese is sick. His eyes and nose are snotty, he stopped eating a few days ago — a big deal since he jumps up on the table after dinner every night to try and find a stray piece of salmon, and is known to squeeze in to share beverages with whipped cream. Today he’s barely moved from a single position. The vet (who happens to be the great-nephew of Sam Moon of those Dallas discount stores), says it’s probably pneumonia but he can’t rule out organ failure because Cheese is 15 years old.

Cheese is not my most unusual cat (that would be Fitz), or my most affectionate cat (that would be Caesar). Cheese is my husband’s cat, and he has tolerated — without fully accepting — me living with him for the better part of his life.

I am Cheese’s stepmom. Despite Matt Stiles’ preference for grey tabbies, his ex-girlfriend picked him out from the Dallas SPCA in 2003 because she liked Cheese’s black-and-white tuxedo look. His asshole tendencies showed even when he was a kitten, but Matty and Cheese became best buds. When I met Cheese a year later, he instantly gave me side-eye that has lasted for FOURTEEN YEARS.

Cheese with Miguel, a kitten we fostered for a few weeks.

Note: For a couple of weeks in the summer of 2004 I tried to win Cheese over because I was at Matty’s apartment a lot when he was at work. This resulted in Cheese taking approximately two (2) naps on my legs which amounts to our peak affection level. After that, I moved to South Carolina, got Caesar and Fitz, and only saw Cheese every few weeks during visits back to Texas.

Eventually Cheese reluctantly moved in with me in Austin. He and Caesar became brothers and united quickly. We lived together in Austin, then Washington, then Seoul. In Washington the boys would use Saidee‘s doggy door to sneak out at night, and one morning at dawn when I was sitting on the front porch waiting for my buddy Wes to show up for a run, I caught Cheese and Caesar stroll down the sidewalk together, jump the fence in our yard and then head back into the house. Who knows what those two were up to all night. I sincerely hope they led the underground rebellion in the otherwise staid DC cat world.

He’s always had a heart murmur. His tummy isn’t too tough. The vet reports his weight is down more than a pound. Today he’s letting me pick him up, which he almost never, ever lets anyone do. He probably still doesn’t consider me his mom and I mean, I get it. Think about it from his point of view: He was living large with his road dawg, Stiles, doing the single cat sidekick thing until some rebound girl showed up and stubbornly never left, adding extra cats, a beagle and eventually three (3) small humans to his world. It’s not cool!

He still merely tolerates me but I love him deeply and want so much for him to pull through this.

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Settlers of Seoul Podcast

This week I sat down with Arius Derr of a local podcast called Settlers of Seoul to talk about A LOT OF STUFF. Things I never thought about before, like the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. We did about an hour together, so I think this is officially the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent answering questions about myself. It was super fun, despite my being stumped a lot. Show notes are here.

Thanks, Arius!

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Texas sunset just outside Fort Davis.

For the second time in three months, a distant friend has died by suicide. Both outsized personalities are being mourned by their outsized communities. First, in November, the Houston super-lawyer and Democratic donor Steve Mostyn left us at age 46. This week I learned designer and writer Dean Allen, who was just in his early 50’s, left too. They were from different countries — Texas and Canada — but in their self-possession and their wit and their size, remarkably similar. They were both “magnificent bastards.”

On Steve, longtime Texas journalist Davey Joe Montgomery wrote the obit for The New York Times. His friends, meanwhile, rather than make too many public statements, are part of a big group text chain wherein they send one another photos of sunsets that Steve would have loved. Steve was prolific but he always seemed like he still lived in East Texas. My memories of Steve are watching him in court, confront opposing counsel with his size and his smarts. He had cool comebacks most of the time, but when his temper flared it erupted. In 2010, he bought controversial full-page newspaper ads against Rick Perry during Perry’s gubernatorial re-election race against former Houston Mayor Bill White. That led me to sit-down with Steve for an interview at his home in Houston. But the timing was tricky. Steve was on hella painkillers after a near fatal accident on his ranch. (He flipped his four-wheeler and it pinned him.) I remember him being more lethargic than usual but still displaying his trademark quick intellect. He was generous with his time and with his stuff. Unlike other political donors, access wasn’t difficult with him. He was easy to text or call for an interview or background. When a group of us did July 4th in Marfa one year, Steve wasn’t there but he let us onto his giant ranch near the Marfa Lights Observatory to hang out.

For Dean, his friend Om captures him movingly, and so did Jason Kotkke. (Update: Friend Matt, without whom I wouldn’t have met Dean, just shared this remembrance.)

I hung with Dean only once and didn’t know him in his prolific blogging days. We shared an email back-and-forth for the better part of last year which I enjoyed so much because he gave such good email. I knew immediately that I would like him when he criticized a book by calling it “just a series of podcast notes.” HA! Succinct burn. And he would know, he was a big podcast listener! He said he listened to FOUR pods a day, which has to put him on the top end of listenership, right? In one of his final emails to me, he said we would have to hang out again, “if only so I get to do the Glen Weldon impersonation I’ve been honing.” (That’s a reference to one of the hosts of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, in case you’re not a supergeek.) Dean was culturally literate about what seemed like everything, asked biting questions and never held back his opinions. And why should he have? He was usually right.

“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to life up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” -Charlotte the spider, in Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

Steve, Dean; we are all lesser without you and your friendship. Thank you for helping so many people in your short lives. I wish you peace, wherever you are.

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