Children’s Books I Love

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My chunkiest baby, Baby Eva, pant-less, planking and reading at once, 2013.

A commenter on my recent book post asked about children’s books and surprise, I read a lot of them. It’s a crucial part of the girls’ bedtime routine, and Isa, my second daughter, always wants more stories than reasonable. I wind up spacing out while reading because at some point I go into the zone of thinking, JUST GO TO SLEEP, CHILDREN, SO I CAN GO OUT AND EAT SECOND DINNER.

That said, quality children’s literature is so delightful. Here are few of my favorites to read with the girls:

A Squash and a Squeeze,
Monkey Puzzle,
Room for a Broom, all by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
This author and illustrator combo are best known for The Gruffalo, a modern classic. Julia Donaldson’s rhymes are brilliant and the hidden lessons in these books tug at my heart. The first time I read Squash, which is an allegory about abundance, I teared up a little bit. I love Monkey Puzzle because it’s a quest to find the small monkey’s mom and at the end there’s a happy reunion. We always really over-dramatize the end and do big hugs once the monkey dad takes the monkey child home to mom. And Room on a Broom is just an awesome story with an adorable dragon at the end. Also they made it into a perfect half-hour length film to show your kids if you need to distract them for 30 minutes.

Triangle, by Mac Bennett and Jon Claussen
Triangle is the first in an the immensely popular series that’s followed by Square, also by this duo. I like the relationship between Triangle and Square, as well as the subversiveness of their behavior.

The Knuffle Bunny Trilogy, by Mo Willems
Each of the Knuffle Bunny stories builds on the previous one. The main character, Trixie, grows from blathering baby to an elementary-aged child. Together, they comprise a love letter from father to daughter, and the last one, while the longest, also feels most close to our family, as Trixie goes to visit her Oma and Opa in Amsterdam, which is also where the girls’ own Oma and Opa called home for five years.

Lucia the Luchadora, Cynthia Leonor Garza and Alyssa Bermudez
In the Lucia books, heteronormative notions about who can be a luchador are subverted and Lucia and her sister Gemma are such little firecrackers that the girls can’t get enough of these stories. They also utilize a lot of onomatopoeia, which the kids get into.

Poppy Pickle, by Emma Yarlett
I got this from one of the free book shelves we have at work, which are the overflow copies of the stacks and stacks of books sent to us by publishers. It’s a fun tale about a girl with an outsized imagination. You can read it the fast way by skipping all the things she thinks up, or the slow way by identifying all of them.

Chu’s Day, by Neil Gaiman
A lovely board book by the great author. So good to read aloud because of all the AAAAAAHHHCHOOOOOOS!

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst
A classic! I heard this as a child and my friend and mentor Kinsey would read it to his (now adult) children when they were little. He and his wife sent me this and some other classics to Korea after Isa was born. You don’t appreciate the smooth writing of these sentences until you read this aloud.

The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak
It’s true, there are no pictures are in this book. It doesn’t need them. The girls love it so much they memorized it.

Asides:

I read all Peppa Pig books in a British accent.

Anything by Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss are easy wins at our house.

When I am in airport book shops I always pick up a book that’s location specific, so we have a ton of board books like, “Good Night St. Louis” or “San Francisco Baby.” They are hit-or-miss in terms of quality.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales was among my favorite children’s books as a child. I was so excited to read to the girls my original copy (which I kept in pristine condition because I was a very organized small person). But they were not impressed and did not think it was half as funny as I did. Bummer.

I love that children always, always notice more little things in the illustrations than you will. Eva was tracking a tiny snail that was hidden on every single page of one story one time and I didn’t realize it was even there until one time I turned the page too quickly and she freaked out because she hadn’t located the snail yet.

I also love how they bring the stories to life with their imaginations — the questions I get about the reading material remind you how constrained and boring adult frameworks for thinking can get.

What are YOUR favorites to read to children? Please share, as I am always trying to find new stories that won’t have me spacing out. 🙂

Vogs

Yesterday my favorite culture critic, Chris Vognar, got laid off by his employer of 23 years, The Dallas Morning News. He’s a casualty of another round of cutbacks at the paper, which has been bleeding out for my entire adult life.

I can’t overstate the loss for local readers and for all film/book/music lovers who followed him. He is a sensitive dude with a thoughtful way of explaining his taste, his contextual knowledge of film and books is deep and wide and Voggie* is just one of the best contemporary writers that I know, period. He’s concerned with truth and how art can get us closer to it. I loved seeing things anew after reading one of his interpretations. I rely on his annual “best” lists and his film festival coverage because I trust him implicitly.

We’ve been friends for 20 years and have yet to take a decent photo together. 

While I’m thinking about Voggie I might as well keep riffing because this is my blog and no one will stop me. Our friendship goes way back, to when I was 16 years-old, a junior in high school. He’s a fair number of years older than me, so he was already a film critic at the DMN at the time. My 11th grade English teacher was BEYOND excited to learn CHRIS VOGNAR talked me through some ideas in Ellison’s The Invisible Man during our African American lit unit. Many years later I was at his apartment and tickled to discover he keeps the Norton Anthology of English Literature (which you might recall, weighs about four tons) on his john for light bathroom reading.

When I lived in Waco for my first job out of college, we went to a lot of movie screenings together as I frequently fled to Dallas to hang out. Usually these films were good, though I have never let go of the time he dragged me to a snooooozefest indie Korean flick about a Buddhist monk called Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring or something like that. Or was it Summer Autumn Winter Spring Summer? Groan.

We subsequently spent a lot of magical SXSW nights together while he covered the fest each year. At one SXSW, we both instantly bonded with fellow Dallasite, Scoot McNairy, which I will forever remember as “that time I became briefly obsessed with Scoot McNairy.”

He introduced me to Lakewood Landing, probably the best bar in Dallas, and Cosmo’s, the setting of dreamy memories of my youth. Later he battled an alcohol addiction and came out the other side, so we don’t go drinking together anymore. But we do still hang out and talk about culture a lot — so much so that we almost got kicked out of a listening party in Dallas last month because we were gabbing when we were supposed to be listening intently to music.

Bottom line, the man is a marvel. Vognar’s way with words, wit and the output of his brilliant mind are now for hire — so challenge him to do stuff, people!

BTW if you’re looking for films to watch, here are his picks for best films from the first decade of this century. I wish I could find his original review of one of his favorites and mine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because it was beautifully written and displayed what he gets about love and what he gets about art.

*Don’t try to call him that, btw. It’s my nickname for him and someone who isn’t me tried to use it once and he snapped at her, true story.

All My Favorite Foods Live In Texas

We spent the last day of 2018 on the lake. There’s my eldest, Eva, and the three Strama girls.

Oh man, I got so stir crazy after vowing not to go anywhere in December that I made an impromptu trip to Austin mainly so I could separate my family. No school meant we were nearly murdering one another.* Eva came with me, Isa and Luna stayed in Cali.

Things that brought me joy during this trip:

— Breakfast tacos
— Lunch tacos
— Dinner tacos
— Central Market flour tortillas
— Torchy’s green chile queso with the magic avocado middle
— Friend Virginia’s gumbo (she’s a Louisianan) and fried chicken at the welcome home party she hosted at her house, featuring old pals sitting around, snarking.

— Lawrence left NPR playing on his sound system when I walked in to stay at his empty house. <grin>

— Morning coffee run by boat, on Lake Austin. (My good pals the Stramas live on the lake.) This way my eight-year-old goddaughter, Marion Cass, could show me her deft wakeboarding skills. She is the coolest. She’s now replying to things by saying, “Yeah, girl” in a “yeah girl get it” type of encouraging way and I love it so hard.

— My eldest daughter immediately becoming tight with the Strama’s second-born, Kate. They got so close, so fast that they both had their first ever sleepover on New Year’s Eve, which meant I had free babysitting!

— Friend Jimmy’s tapas and killer paella. Jimmy and Skyler hosted New Year’s Eve at their new compound in Westlake and he did the cooking, which meant a Spanish feast. Jimmy trained in the kitchens of somewhere-in-Spain and in Charleston, SC and he loves cooking for me because I love to eat so much. There’s plenty of evidence of our shared gluttony from over the years.

No animals were harmed in the making of this post, but I did get smacked in the wrist by one of those horns and it left a mark.

— Going “full country” in rural Texas. BFF Justin‘s Aunt and Uncle bought much of the town of Fayetteville, including a big farm, where they raise cattle (and so many cute new calves), a pair of donkeys named Ben and Jerry and rent out adorable cabins. We rode around in John Deere’s like we knew what we were doing.

— A late night P Terry’s run because P Terry’s has the best veggie burger, hands-down, and I’d spent the earlier part of the day hanging out with majestic longhorns, so I wasn’t about to eat a Whataburger.

— Sausage, jalapeno and cheese kolaches! Aforementioned farm is conveniently located behind Hruska’s, which anyone who’s spent any time driving between Houston and Austin knows well because its kolaches are on the level of Little Czech Stop’s in West, Texas, which anyone who drives between Waco and Dallas knows well.

Yeah…. so, I’ve spent most of this post rambling about food. #sorrynotsorry

“You come to Austin and people give you their houses and electric cars, cook delicious food for you and deliver beer on demand — it’s not a bad racket,” Justin said, after showing up with said beer.

*Speaking of near murder, I got back to Austin after living abroad for a few years, and half the couples we used to go on holidays with had split up, which was news to me. “This is a clear sign we’re in middle age,” Friend Mark said. “Also, I don’t go to second weddings.”

Resolutions for 2019

“If nothing else, the routine of aspiration, disappointment, and rebirth gives him a sense of purpose. There is an essential reward in the circular struggle to create a better self, even if…we’re making up that better self as we go along.” —John Teti

Orchid buds. I won’t even try to keep alive an orchid this year. (Photo credit: Robert Mitchem)

When I reviewed how I did with last year’s intentions, I questioned whether I should even keep doing new year’s resolutions. I mean, so many hopes at the start of the year went by the wayside almost faster than I could say “Oh it’s February!”

We are nothing without some measure of hope, however, so here I am with a list of resolutions again.

Take a daily vitamin
This isn’t hard, but I still don’t do it. Having to put down any pill on the regular is a big mental block for me that must have something to do with my father being a pharmacist. You know how the rap on preacher’s kids is that they rebel? Well, pharmacist kids rebel by being anti-drug, I guess.

Get organized, aka, finish moving
There is still a garage full of boxes from the move that have yet to be dealt with, and this is what I’m tasking an organizer with once I hire one. Very excited to do this. If you’re interested, there is a whole association of professional organizers who can come and make sense of your stuff.

Look inward
For a good six years, I was almost nonstop giving myself over — literally — to other humans. No joke, between January 2012 and March 2018 I was either a) pregnant or b) nursing. During that time we also moved internationally, opened a new bureau, covered three countries with dominant languages I didn’t understand and criss-crossed East and Southeast Asia to chase the news. So often I felt disconnected from myself because I was just constantly onto what’s next, what’s next, what’s next. Now that I’m integrated again and in sunny California, I don’t even KNOW what I want to do next. So I shall devote time to being still and meditating so I can hear myself better. 

Learn to surf
Also file under: I live in Southern California now! Friend Nate at work has a live cam on his second monitor of all the beaches nearby so that when he sees really good surf he can escape early to hit the waves. I would really like to join him.

Learn to play the ukulele
We got Eva a ukulele for Christmas, which I am more into than she is, so I’m going to go ahead and teach myself by watching YouTube instructional videos and THEN teach Eva. I think this is doable, but then again I always think resolutions are doable at the beginning of the year.

Blog at least four times a month
I’m glad this self-hosted blog is still around since letting Facebook “connect the world” or whatever has proven so pernicious. Last year my goal was five posts a month, which I only did for four months of the year. So I’m lowering the bar in hopes of actually passing it.

As for my 2018 list, I added the final progress report to last year’s resolution post.

If you have any resolutions of your own that might be worth adding, leave them in the comments. And look, if things don’t get to a great start in 2019 we have about a month to screw up until we can claim the Lunar New Year as a fresher fresh start.

2018 Year in Review: Don’t Look Down

Trying not to fall off what’s left of the Jinguashi Gold Mine on the Northern coast of Taiwan, July 2018.

You know how when Wile E. Coyote is chasing the roadrunner off the cliff and there are a few moments when he’s just running on air before dropping precipitously to the ground? That’s how 2018 feels, for America and the existing world order, anyway. This year was such a trash heap that the thing I most look forward to every Christmas, the Hater’s Guide To the Williams Sonoma Catalog, couldn’t happen because the author nearly died.

Despite the persistent ennui about global issues, this year was jam-packed personally and I avoided calamity (a heightened concern due to it being the Year of the Dog). Started the year in Sydney, then February away from home covering the Olympics, springtime was all nuclear rapprochement, got in a last gasp of Asia livin’ before a big repatriation at the end of the summer and filled the fall with hellos, reunions, and settling into being a Californian for the first time. All the while, there was drama at work I eventually learned to navigate, and many dumb dramas at home.

I feel so grateful to be in Southern California and to live on LA’s west side, where you can feel that cool sea breeze and are never more than a 16-minute ride to LAX. I love the multicultural, pluralistic, chilled-out populace. Every time I’m at a school assembly for one of the girls, I look at the faces of the kids performing and they are almost all brown or biracial. It makes me feel so hopeful about the future.

Most LA Thing To Happen: I was chatting up Gary Busey in my work lobby because hello, Gary Busey was just sitting in the lobby, when Tom Hanks walks by. Tom double-takes and says in his TOM HANKS voice, “Gary Busey? My god, how you doin’ man?” And he stops to chat with Gary Busey, introduces himself to me by going, “Hi, I’m Tom,” and then suddenly I’m sitting there talking with Tom Hanks and Gary Busey.

This Year’s Firsts: Moving to California. Going on Anderson Cooper. A real Hollywood movie premiere. Speaking to an arena. Being in the same room as Kim Jong Un’s sister. Being on the same street as Kim Jong Un. Olympics. Curling match. Gracie Award. Japanese robot hotel, where the receptionist was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Controlling robot legs with my MIND! Hosting Here and Now. Hosting It’s Been A Minute.

Products I Now Swear By: Posie Tint lip tint (I really embraced the Korean “barely there” makeup look), hay straws, reusable straws, SmartWool socks.

Most Relied-Upon Services: Reggie, the guy who washes our cars while parked in the NPR lot, and Drybar. I almost completely stopped doing my hair this year and farmed it out. Combine that with having three daughters who all need bang trims or cuts on a regular basis and I feel like I’m always in one salon or another. This is less about vanity and more about laziness.

Service I Miss the Most: KakaoTalk. One day I needed to access my Kakao from a desktop, which meant wiping all my previous conversations tied to my now defunct Korea phone number. I mourned for an entire afternoon. So much animated sticker-laden banter, GONE, GONE. I love Kakao so much that our goodbye party from Korea was Kakao-themed, as in, people came dressed up as Kakao emojis.

Best Live Sports Experience: The gold medal women’s hockey came between the US and Canada at the Winter Games. Women’s curling — the journey of the ‘Garlic Girls/Team Kim’ — is a close, close second.

The world famous North Korean singing/cheering troupe. Their minders were closely minding this moment.

Favorite Selfie: The one with all the North Korean cheerleaders in town for the Olympics

New Places: Danang/Hoi An, Vietnam. Mount Hood, Oregon. Sydney, Australia. Singapore.

Most Valuable New Friend: Tiffany, our realtor, who instantly made me feel at home (and went above and beyond in helping find us a home). Or Janet, the mom friend I made in the dropoff line at kindergarten. We learned our younger kids go to the same preschool and our older kids are obviously in the same kindergarten, so she’s my go-to for emergency “HEY CAN YOU WATCH OR PICK UP MY KID?!” calls.

Regrets: Not getting to go to Japan all the time anymore. Not talking to effing Bradley Cooper while he was just sitting there in the lobby of my office for 15 minutes, with no one to talk to. Friend Tim quipped, “You should just say to him, ‘Hey’ and when he turns around go, ‘I just wanted to take another look at you.” LOL.

Favorite Stories/Interviews: Steven Yeun, for sure. Amy Westervelt. The Singapore Summit, which was a blur but a memorable blur. The summit before that — the inter-Korean one, which we covered from the most giant press file I have ever seen.

Life Theme: 50/50! We are all becoming more woke, as a society, and for me it’s given me a deeper appreciation of how equitable my marriage has been, and how frustratingly unusual it is, STILL, for women to get to live the lives of this brilliant Garfunkel and Oates feminist love song:

I’m gonna make your dreams come true
As long as they don’t interfere with mine
I’ll always be here for you
For methodically allotted amounts of time
I’ll be there to hold your hand
If I happen to be in town
And any time you need me
There’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be around

Stiles and I saw them together and cheered obnoxiously because IT ME. Guiiiiiiilllty!  

Also this year, in no particular order….

Attended three weddings
Lost my cat, Cheese
Mostly survived my ben ming nian
Got a 15-year-old car accident blemish lasered off my leg
Got a ‘local gal makes good’ piece in my hometown paper
Discovered the best discount kaiseki lunch in Tokyo (thank you Japanese diplomats)
Accidentally locked myself in my Olympic apartment
Survived an international move, in the other direction
Won a Gracie Award
Keynoted the Journalism and Women Symposium confab
Visited the set of Barry
Stopped nursing Luna, celebrated her first birthday
Didn’t get pregnant again, whew
Saw Lauryn Hill live, finally
Had an authentic Hong Kong dim sum weekend
Talked a lot about sexism
Completed the cable news hat trick — Fox, CNN and MSNBC in a single day
Didn’t work at the Washington Post, again
Took my girls to Disneyland
Sold my Austin house
Coached first daughter through losing her first teeth
Covered the worst wildfire in California history
Accidentally stumbled upon the Korean curling “garlic girls” on a hot streak and followed it through to their appearing at the gold medal game, ultimately winning a silver
Covered the Kim-Moon summit
And the surprise Kim-Moon summit
The Trump-Kim summit in Singapore
Saw Reese Witherspoon in the flesh
Spent three murder weekends in the woods
Had epic Kakao-themed goodbye party in Korea
Appeared in a documentary that is not the air sex one
Spent 15th Christmas with Stiles, in which we avoided murdering one another
Squeezed in 54 books
Met the famous foodcam of the MIT Media Lab
Flew 233,340 miles to 31 cities, eight countries and spent 113 days away from home. This was crazy in it of itself but especially given the small children and their assorted activities/needs. Next year I’m staying put more so I can be alone with my thoughts — FRIGHTENING. I’ve already said it but I’ll say it again: Thank you thank you to my misanthropic husband and our live-in helper, Yani.

Previous Years in Review

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

The 54 Books I Read in 2018, Charted

A few of my faves this year, even though they didn’t necessarily come out this year.

I committed to reading more books instead of periodicals in the haze following the 2016 election. It began as escapism and now, a couple years into it, I think it’s actually helped me grow as a thinker/feeler/human stumbling through life. As Matt Haig wrote, “The process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea.”

This year, I liked most everything I read, which included a heavy dose of contemporary fiction and more science fiction tales and genre romance than before. I continued to select non-white and/or non-male authors, which paid off. My book club kept things in balance with random nonfiction picks, like the Patagonia founder’s business book-slash-memoir, which really affected the way I think about consumption. Now I buy so much less crap!

I also got back to reading classics from giants — Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Joan Didion. I had to read them in school but appreciate them much more as a grown-up.

Here’s how this year’s book reading breaks down:

This year’s timeline shows I pretty evenly distributed my reading, though there was a big gap in which I read no non-fiction. Last year’s timeline was more interesting because I had a baby and that affected things.

I am deliberate in choosing more fiction than non-fiction, generally.

To chart “pages by month,” we used the page sum of all books finished in a month. (I don’t have a count of daily pages I’ve read, so this should really be called “Total-number-of-pages-in-a-book-by-month-finished.”) Note that June was when the Trump-Kim Singapore summit happened and my life was held together by duct tape and gum. It shows in the leisure reading completion.

These subgenres are sort of arbitrary, they are just what the Goodreads crowd classifies the books as, following the fiction or non-fiction categorization.

On Choosing Books

I still continually quiz people for recommendations but settled on a few people I really trust for recs, based on what they recommended before, or what they themselves have written. For example, last year I liked Sally Rooney’s book Conversations with Friends so much that when she wrote a positive review of An American Marriage, I made it a priority. Ditto the author Celeste Ng, who alerted me to Rich and Pretty.

My sister from another mother, Kat Chow (who is currently writing her own debut memoir), is a reliable recommender. She is behind many of my choices this year but notably Severance by Ling Ma, and poet Ocean Vuong’s novel (which comes out next summer — we are lucky to work at NPR because publishers are always happy to send us galleys).

I also trust Japan analyst Tobias Harris, who reads prolifically about subjects besides Japan. When he was in Seoul earlier this year, I asked him to tell me the best new books of 2017 he read and he chose Exit West and Pachinko, which became two of the best books I read in 2018.

Of course, NPR’s annual book concierge is an always helpful, delightful tool for choosing what to read next.

The Full List

1 Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
2 Too Much and Not the Mood, Durga Chew Bose
3 Deception, Philip Roth
4 Chemistry, Weike Wang
5 Outline, Rachel Cusk
6 Sex Object, Jessica Valenti
7 The Boat, Nam Le
8 Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
9 Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
10 Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
11 Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
12 Sam the Cat, Matthew Klam
13 Goodbye Vitamin, Rachel Khoung
14 Hunger, Roxane Gay
15 Emergency Contact, Mary H.K. Choi
16 Fire Sermon, Jamie Quatro
17 The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer
18 The Paper Menagerie (And Other Stories), Ken Liu
19 You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld
20 The Man of My Dreams, Curtis Sittenfeld
21 Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
22 How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee
23 Tin Man, Sarah Winman
24 Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed
25 Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard
26 An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
27 My Last Love Story, Falguni Kothari
28 Pachinko, Min Jun Lee
29 Three Body Problem, Cixin Lou
30 Exit West, Moshin Hamid
31 How to Fix A Broken Heart, Guy Winch
32 How Toddlers Thrive, Tovah Klein
33 The Internet of Garbage, Sarah Jeong
34 The Hike, Drew Magary
35 Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan
36 Rich and Pretty, Rumaan Alam
37 Love Poems (for Married People), John Kenney
38 The Proposal, Jasmine Guillory
39 I Want To Show You More, Jamie Quattro
40 Forget Having It All, Amy Westervelt
41 The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly
42 Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday
43 Farsighted, Steve Johnson
44 Norwegian Wood, Haruki Marukami
45 Severance, Ling Ma
46 Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
47 The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
48 The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
49 On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
50 New People, Danzy Senna
51 Us vs Them, Ian Bremmer
52 The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang
53 Crudo, A Novel, Olivia Laing
54 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari

Credits

Friend Nicole has been doing a 52 book challenge for a few years and analyzes the data in a big wrap-up post, so these annual look-backs are inspired by her.

“This is such a nerdy post I do,” I said. “You don’t actually DO any of it,” spouse Stiles clapped back, since he does all the data clean-up/analysis/visualizing for me. (Thanks, dude.)

Epilogue

It turns out we can read 200 books a year in the amount of time we spend on social media, but this would require me ending my Twitter addiction and I have given up enough vices in my life, thank you very much.

Related: 2017 Book Look Back

Back To The … Country Kitchen

Blast from my past. This was taken on a disposable film camera because yes those existed.

In May I will be the commencement speaker for the Class of 2019 graduation ceremony at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism. This is such a special honor because the Mizzou J-School is c’mon, the best, and it’s also my alma mater.

At my own graduation ceremony, the commencement speaker was so breathtakingly bad that my professor Stacey later told me that he saw a department head, who was sitting on stage, driving his thumb into the opposite hand’s nail bed so hard that he started bleeding. All I remember about the speech’s content was that at one point the old-white-dude-in-the-advertising-biz told us to exercise and eat right. Can’t make this up.

My low bar goal is to outperform him. In preparation I need to draw on specific memories and experiences. The problem is, my brain does not work like Jim Comey’s, who remembers everything linearly and with high specificity. My brain seems to remember the past only in general feelings or vibes I had rather than a tick-tock of how things went down and who said what. For example, I still love and have nothing but warm feelings for Mr. Coates from AP Macro and Micro Econ in high school but I don’t remember anything he taught me except the Laffer Curve and how Arthur Laffer had a problematic theory. (BUT WHAT WAS THAT THEORY!?) To remember a tidbit, it has to be super random and often requires some jogging-of-my-memory to access, like looking at whatever I wrote down at that time.

With roomie Fiscus in our halcyon days of youth. I think this was 2005. Also shot on film.

That was a long windup to say that to write this speech, I downloaded MY OLD XANGA BLOG from my senior year of college and imported the posts here to HeyElise!

When I went down the 2002-2003 rabbit hole, I realized a lot of things, like just how much we went to Country Kitchen to “study,” how awful I was at going to class and how my education in that last year consisted of shooting a lot of television news stories about the 2002 Senate race, to the exclusion of everything else, like a solid liberal arts education.

Also I spent a heavy amount of time watching football, some of my time going to an ab workout class, and a stupid amount of time following around a dude named Ryan, which is regrettable, and WHERE WAS MY ROOMMATE AMY FISCUS TO STOP ME?! FISCUS I AM LOOKING AT YOU.

In other ways, I realized some things have never changed: pop culture-laden snark, going on random last minute trips with whomever, being the biggest fangirl of Brad Hawkins.

Anyway my archives are in the footer of this blog and you, too, can do the time warp! But maybe don’t, because I am going to mine this material for the A+ stuff so it can subtly make appearances in that Class of 2019 commencement speech. As I used to say in 2002, “More to come.”

Mind Control

This whole experience was insane. But also really empowering.

We are in the process of revamping my video series, Elise Tries, now that I am US-based and able to work in similar time zones and in the same physical space as the rest of the video team. What we have designed is a dive into a time marker in the future — 2050 — which means we’re essentially doing “Elise Tries: The Future.”

Last week we went to Houston to get a look at the future of the human body and the quest to eliminate disability-as-we-know-it.

With Atilla, one of the researchers at UH, and the REX exoskeleton, which I later powered with my BRAIN

One of the most active spheres for helping augment human capabilities is in robotically-assisted, or “bionic”, limbs. And the latest work in this field is brain-machine interfaces, or mind-control of the limbs. Eventually this invites in all sorts of questions about where man ends and where humans begin, which we’ll get into in reporting.

But first, we have to try stuff! NPR photographers Mito (from New York) and Nick (from DC) joined me at the University of Houston where we visited the lab of Dr. Jose Contreras-Vidal, who is now getting into pediatric exoskeletons, so we also met a 9-year-old boy with spina bifida who is hoping to learn how to use one of these badass exoskeletons. (They are $150,000 each so they really require a lot of grant money and research approval before subjects can join the study.)

The researchers had lots of rules for me so my brain could work unimpeded: Don’t get sloshed, get a good night’s sleep, keep the caffeine to a minimum and absolutely no energy drinks! (This reminded me of the time my running buddy Eddie decided he would drink a 5-hour Energy right before a marathon because he was like, this is gonna be about five hours so it will wear off just in time.)

Then I got measured for the exoskeleton, which required the researchers laying me down and feeling around my pelvis for my hip bones and leg sockets (I hope this part doesn’t make the final video cut), tried walking in it while manually controlled, and then I got into the COOLEST CAP EVER. The cap had 64 sensors connected to wires to read different parts of my brain, and then we could look at a monitor to see the expressions of my brain waves from each sensor. When I blinked, all the squigglies (think an EKG) zig-zagged, etc. It wasn’t until the cap was on and I was all connected to the system that I could get back into the legs and learn to make it move and stop with my brain.

After a few tries, I finally got it to happen. The craziest thing about it was how Atilla the researcher could watch the brain wave monitor and tell me IN ADVANCE that my brain was about to get to the point where I’d stop the robot, even when the robot was still moving. It’s much like how, if you’re in labor, doctors can watch a contraction monitor and see your contractions if you can’t feel them because your bottom half is under anesthesia. (I cannot speak from experience on the contraction thing because I refused to take any drugs and felt EVERY. DAMN. THING.)

Anyway I’m really glad I heeded their advice and didn’t get drunk the night before, because this would have been exceedingly difficult to do while hungover. The next day I rewarded my brain with a proper Texas chicken fried steak. Boy oh boy, do I miss “chicken fried steak Thursdays” at the Texas Capitol.

Sparkles And Potatoes

Finally, my friend Frank was able to track down the episode of “Alien Wire” — yes that’s the name of the show — I appeared on before leaving Seoul. It’s a Korean language talk show with all the bells and whistles — animated pop-ups, sparkles, sound effects, cartoonish captioning. I remember that morning being a blur and the place feeling like a machine. Even the makeup situation was an assembly line, in which women were made as white as possible.

I just nodded along, since I can only understand about every ten words in Korean.

A Few Choice Chats

Earlier this month I traveled to Boston to guest-host our WBUR/NPR co-produced program, Here & Now, and also filled-in on two episodes of my friend Sam’s podcast, It’s Been a Minute. Some highlights, ICYMI:

American Motherhood is Messed Up, a conversation with author Amy Westervelt (who I met at JAWS in Oregon in October) about how capitalism and America’s Puritan roots shaped a motherhood culture that’s bad for our society’s men, women and children.

Steven Yeun on identity (and so much more). Actor Steven Yeun is a big deal in America for his stint on the Walking Dead, but he actually found that experience confining and explained why. He also opened up about the journey he’s taken regarding his identity as an Asian-American and how he learned to feel comfortable in his own skin. I learned a lot!

The Weekly Wrap. Every Friday on Sam’s show, a panel of guests comes in to riff on the week that was. My daughter Eva introduced the show (which was so awesome) and our guests — Peter Hamby of Snapchat and Soumya Karlamangla of the LA Times. We had so much fun and covered a lot of ground, from sausages to tough electoral fights to k-pop.