Mr. Fenney

My zero hour geography teacher in 11th grade was Mr. Fenney. Mr. Fenney — late thirties at the time — was a hipster in Texas, before hipsters existed. He liked to talk about Italian art films to high schoolers, explain why the colonists had completely fucked Africa for forever, and treated us teenagers as far more enlightened than we really were.

We were also basically never able to get a rise out of him for anything. One afternoon, after a particularly difficult exam that morning, I busted into his 7th period class and announced to the whole class of mostly strangers, is this the Europe exam?! “That test raped me in the ass this morning!” Mr. Fenney just sort of chuckled and then went about his test proctoring. (Side note: What was I even doing?)

As these things go, I don’t remember any of the book teaching that Mr. Fenney did. Just the asides and random tidbits about the world that he would teach us, like showing us how nonsensically Africa was carved up. And since we had to memorize some land masses and rivers after coloring unlabeled maps as homework, I might be able to identify Laos on a map today (maybe).

The most salient memory I have of Mr. Fenney is what he slapped up on the overhead projector on the first day of class. It was a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It’s a famous T.S. Eliot missive, as I know now. But to my 17-year old self, this was revelatory. And it’s largely guided my life, it turns out. So I think of Mr. Fenney fairly often, and the esoteric — but crucial — impact he made on me. Thanks, dude. Sorry I was such a pain in the ass.

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On My First Female Role Model Besides My Mom

Last night I fell down a rabbit hole on Medium (usually it’s Wikipedia) and found a list of writing prompts that friend-of-a-friend Nicole Zhu used in order to keep up a daily habit of writing. Between sometimes writing here on this blog but mostly posting on my work Tumblr and a mandate to write for my day job, I don’t think the world needs more of my words. But I felt inspired by the prompts and realized I don’t sit down and reflect as often as I used to, because the explosion of social platforms means I do my sharing in pieces, in snapshots or Snapchats rather than wordier reflections. 

Anyway. I have kept up this blog and its previous incarnations for all these years, so I might as well take some of the prompts and give them a whirl every once in a while, eh? It’s certainly something to do when I am avoiding doing other tedious things, like paying the bills or whatever. [Clears throat.] With that, here’s a musing on female role models.


Let’s get this part of out of the way: My most influential role model, female or not, is my mom. My mom is pure love. She makes me feel safe always. “Listen to me and you can’t go wrong,” my mom says, confident in her wisdom. And she’s right. She is unapologetic about who she is, realistic about the world and her confidence gives me confidence. We laugh about inappropriate topics, since she shares a subversive, macabre humor. We cry together because we wear our hearts on our sleeves (unapologetically). We never want to stop exploring, a value she instilled in me long ago. She told me as a child, “Never live your life for someone else’s gaze,” a lesson that shaped me. She also explained to me when I was quite young the quiet cruelties of being a person of color in a pasty white St. Louis suburb, making it easier for me when I did feel different.

It took awhile before I found other female role models. I grew up surrounded by boys. My only sibling is a brother. My childhood memories of Roger are of our forceful physical fights (I learned how to always go for his nuts when kicking or punching), building homegrown skateboarding ramps on our driveway and buying Fun Dip in between innings at his little league baseball games. My entire neighborhood peer group was also made up of boys; in the four houses closest to mine were each kids in my grade, and all those kids were boys: Ryan, Craig, Tommy and Craig. We waited for the bus together each morning. After school, thanks to huge fenceless yards, we stayed outside playing until dark almost every night. We built forts, played Ghost in the Graveyard and Kick the Can, or wandered to the neighborhood creek where the rocks were jagged and the water could start rushing dangerously quickly when it rained.

Jenny! (Using her current Facebook profile photo, so that I know this is a Jenny-approved photo.)

Jenny! (Using her current Facebook profile photo, so that I know this is a Jenny-approved photo.)

So my closest female relationships didn’t really come together until 5th or 6th grade, when I formed a bond with a fellow subversive — Jes Ingram. I remember going to Jes’ house to play Sim City (which might have been V1), sleepovers watching/reciting Ace Ventura Pet Detective word-for-word and hanging out around her house with her older sister, Jenny. I think she was my first female role model besides my mom. Jenny never passed on words of wisdom in the way moms do, but instead led by example. Jenny was class president and much-admired and beautiful but effortlessly so. Unlike the other popular girls who spent a lot of time primping for boys or to pickup boys at the mall (yes my middle school friends did that back then), Jenny was ‘whatever’ about her place in the preteen hierarchy, and even cooler for it. She seemed to have deep, authentic friendships, which in 7th grade felt sorta hard to come by. But mainly I looked up to Jenny because I find being bored pretty much anathema to existence, and Jenny was never boring. She has so much personality that it oozes from her like the cheese of a four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich. Jenny’s Personality and her personality are innate and not replicable, but for acolytes like me, thankfully she read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies and listened to a lot of music, so at least through all that time with the Ingram’s I got to be inculcated with her cultural influences. (And her sister Jes’s, of course, who I will always trust implicitly.)

I’ve seen a lot of movies in which young protagonists are somehow let down by their role models in the end. But some 20 years after first looking up to Jenny, I can report that she has only exceeded my stratospheric assessment of her.

Last year, Jenny learned she had breast cancer. She’s sadly not my first friend to fight cancer at a young age, but she’s fought it with the most humor and moxie. (Because, of course.) A few days ago, she lost her boobies, as she decided that getting a double mastectomy was the best way to prevent a recurrence. She’s been chronicling her journey on her blog, appropriately titled “Check Those Titties.” Reading it regularly has reminded me of many things (to check my titties, for one), but also how exceptional she is. And that maybe I should reflect and write about these personal memories, because it’s a way to thank people like her, to whom I’m eternally grateful.

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Three-Way Birthdays To Remember

My last night in Austin was in February 2011, a week before our birthday. The karaoke goodbye at Do512 HQ was thrown in part by John and April, so this was our de facto final three-way party.

My last night in Austin was in February 2011, a week before our birthday. The karaoke goodbye at Do512 HQ was thrown in part by John and April, so this was our de facto final three-way party.

There is no annual gathering that’s more special to me than the now-defunct “Three-Way Birthday” parties of my Austin years. For five years in my twenties, I celebrated my birthday with two other Texas politcal reporters who also were born on February 17th — my besties April Castro and John Moritz. We are the dancing-on-bartops together (April) and buy-homes-from-one-another (I bought John’s house) kind of close friends. Our friendship was born out of many inside jokes, lunches at the Texas Chili Parlor (which makes a CHEESEBURGER SALAD), drinks at the Stephen F. Austin hotel, and long nights at the Texas Capitol, staking out one politician or another, or listening to the endless chubbing of lawmakers stalling votes or adding amendments to amendments to the budget bill. And, of course, our annual birthday ritual fueled memories for always.

I suppose I moved away first, so maybe it’s all my fault, but now we are in three different countries. John remains in Austin, Texas, but I weirdly live in South Korea and April recently relocated to Canada. I think of them often, and miss them often, but never as much as I do on our birthday. (This just reminded me: One year, a Texas lawmaker who was ALSO born on February 17 did one of those honorary resolutions on the House floor to recognize us for our birthday, probably just because it was also his day, but anyway, it was pretty amusing.)

I met April in a committee room at the Texas Capitol, and John on my first day on the beat as a Texas political reporter. We quickly learned we shared a birthday. This is a snap from our very first joint birthday party, in 2007.

I met April in a committee room at the Texas Capitol, and John on my first day on the beat as a Texas political reporter. We quickly learned we shared a birthday. This is a snap from our very first joint birthday party, in 2007.

The 2008 party is memorable because it didn’t happen, and we can blame Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for that. We were political reporters, and Obama and Clinton were locked in such a tight battle at that point because Obama hoped to lock up the nomination in Texas/Ohio, that we were working nonstop. On the night of our party, Obama held a rally in downtown Austin in which something like 30,000 people showed up. We had to cancel the party at the last minute because we had to cover the rally.

The invite to a party that didn't happen. When we made the invite campaign-themed, we didn't know that the Obama campaign would be the reason our party got canceled.

The invite to a party that didn’t happen. When we made the invite campaign-themed, we didn’t know that the Obama campaign would be the reason our party got canceled.

Every year for the big party we'd send out invitations in which we'd combine our three ages. In 2009, we turned 112.

Every year for the big party, we’d send out invitations in which we’d combine our three ages. In 2009, we turned 112.

In 2010, we threw our swankiest party, at a bungalow that's part of Hotel St. Cecelia. After years of throwing "three-way's," we actually had a bed at our party venue.

In 2010, we threw our swankiest party, at a bungalow that’s part of Hotel St. Cecelia. After years of throwing “three-way’s,” we actually had a bed at our party venue.

Happiest of birthdays to my partners-in-mischief and fellow February 17thers. I miss you and treasure our shared birthday memories.

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A Sendoff Song, Written From Lines In A Korean Phrasebook

Sample lyrics.

Sample lyrics.

We are (finally) leaving on Sunday to open the aforementioned NPR Seoul bureau. The absurdly talented Adam Cole decided to try and challenge himself to write a K-pop style ballad using only words from a beginner’s Korean phrasebook. The results made me cry with laughter … and delight. So, so overwhelmingly awesome. We need to make this a K-pop hit, y’all.

The Best Advice I Got Last Year

One of the most pleasurable aspects of having brilliant coworkers is basking in the wisdom, knowledge and good-humored counsel of said colleagues. I am lucky to count among my people Shankar Vedantam, who, among many other things, is the social science correspondent for NPR and author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

It goes without saying that it’s pretty sweet to have this guy around when I’m in the middle of a professional or personal crisis and just need some sage advice.

Last year I was considering another job offer, since I had just hit my three-year-mark at NPR and three years was the longest professional association I’d ever had. I was feeling anxious to do something new, maybe just for the sake of the stretching and growing that comes with leaving your comfort zone. The role being offered was pretty great and something my 29-year-old self would have leaped at, but I was at the much-better-cooked age of 31 by then. I worried about the organization of the other place — was the leadership stable? Did it have a sustainable business?

Shankar said none of it mattered. What mattered most, he said, was passion and what we feel most passionate doing. Which gets to the best advice I got last year:

He said, we tend to make personal decisions with our hearts and work decisions with our minds, but it should actually be flipped.

It makes more sense, he said, to make work decisions based on emotion because so much of professional fulfillment — and success — flows from passion, and the other details (who owns a company, the board, etc) are out of our control. But interpersonal relationships are dependent on far more than passion, because of our children, homes, etc. So it’s better to make those decisions practically and not emotionally.

Shorter Shankar: Professional decisions? Heart. Personal decisions? Head.

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The Long Goodbye From DC, Part One

When leaving town, why have one big final blowout in which you accidentally consume too much marijuana and find yourself throwing up the entire way to the airport the next day (I’m just saying hypothetically, cough cough) when you can have a string of smaller goodbyes over the course of three weeks?

My former common-law work spouse Matt started his new gig at The Atlantic this month, our former boss Kinsey starts his new job in New York next month and my own move to Korea is imminent, so the first in the goodbye string was getting some of our old NPR colleagues together for drinks the same night the Packers showed America how to lose a football championship.

So many smiling faces. I already miss a lot of these colleagues so much.

So many smiling faces. I already miss a lot of these colleagues so much.

The other memorable part of this long goodbye tour is the DELICIOUS ETHNIC MEALS PEOPLE ARE MAKING FOR US. Eyder and his wife Cynthia dropped off authentic Texican enchiladas — Cynthia makes the verde sauce from scratch — and I ate three in one sitting. Chris Howie’s mom-in-law makes the most incredible Indian food ever and they had us over for a feast of I don’t even remember how many dishes. I got lost in a dream scenario of homemade naan, butter chicken, saag paneer, daal, oh man I can’t even describe.

Next, we wanted to see lots of DC drinking buddies and needed to get rid of a lot of random items in our house, like Magic Mesh, which Nick Fountain apparently wanted “real bad.”

So Friday night we had people over for a Hu-Stiles House Cooling, so that I could see lots of awesome people and give away items which included:

– Mark Sanford’s early book, The Trust Committed To Me
– A George W. Bush action figure
– A travel music stand
– Half a bottle of Jameson
– Some kind of Dutch knife sharpener
– A leftover party favor from my bridal shower in 2010
– A cat scratcher
– A screener of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood
AND SO MANY MORE AWESOME THINGS FOR YOU TO REMEMBER ME BY!

I mean, look at the excitement on their faces to leave with this bounty.

I mean, look at the excitement on their faces to leave with this bounty.

Last weekend we partied with the NPR  "olds." This weekend it's partying with the NPR "youngs." The olds definitely got drunker.

Last weekend we partied with the NPR “olds.” This weekend it’s partying with the NPR “youngs.” The olds definitely got drunker.

More goodbye-ing to come…

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Saying A Proper Goodbye

Kinsey had to listen to a lot of speeches about him on Tuesday. (Photo by John Poole)

Kinsey had to listen to a lot of speeches about him on Tuesday. (Photo by John Poole)

We didn’t want it to happen, but it did. Our boss Kinsey, who headed all NPR’s content and technology, got re-organized out of a job a few weeks ago. There is a longish take on the situation (reported here) which includes elliptical language about a stunningly Game of Thrones-ey situation, involving decades-old fiefdoms and fights among NPR and its stations over the network’s direction.

Since it happened so abruptly, we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare the tribute. But I thought the best way to show him our appreciation was by making something, because in all the talk about his visionariness, the reason he was so effective because made visions reality.

The other thinking that went into this was that whatever we built, the best way to pay him tribute was to work as a team, to symbolize our continued support for one another and the ability to quickly organize ourselves. That team had to bring together the people who make stories and the people who make technology, ’cause that’s a huge part of Kinsey’s legacy — making sure that product and editorial were lifting each other up.

From the Infinite Kinsey branding page.

From the Infinite Kinsey branding page.

So in our break times and overnight and on weekends, we made Infinite Kinsey. Modeled on NPR One, a listening app that gives you segmented audio that follows you on any device, the Infinite Kinsey is an endless stream of audio tributes for Kinsey Wilson, about Kinsey Wilson. We collected more than sixty audio tributes in the span of a week. They came from NPR employees past and present, and from all corners of the country. Some audio messages were sent in from as far away as Hong Kong and the airport in Istanbul.

Since it was a product, it needed a launch. Tuesday night at a goodbye gathering, I got epically blasted and we unveiled the player to its single intended user. It has a branding page and even a product launch video, a parody that Friend Claire put together, with great help from a bunch of NPR folks who volunteered to do some really goofy video shoots with us.

Goodbyes are so so hard, especially the ones you never wanted to happen.

But it’s important to put closure on this chapter — not just for KW’s sake, but for those of us who will continue at NPR. With our parting gift to him, we will kinda get to follow Kinsey wherever he goes, a stream of voices telling him he’s rad.

Claire and Becky, manning the tech table for the Infinite Kinsey rollout.

Claire and Becky, manning the tech table for the Infinite Kinsey rollout.

Goodbye Mr. Chips

The Mr Stiles-Chips tribute. Like that scene at the end of A Beautiful Mind, but instead of pens, chips.

The Mr Stiles-Chips tribute. Like that scene at the end of A Beautiful Mind, but instead of pens, chips.

Everyone should be congratulating me today, because starting next week, I will no longer have to work with my husband! We have worked together at two different news organizations now, from 2009-2011 at The Texas Tribune, and after that, here at NPR.  Now he’s leaving me (professionally) and  joining The Wall Street Journal‘s Washington bureau, as a data reporter on their economics team. After being a data editor and news apps creator for the past couple of years, he’s eager to do some beat reporting again.  He is awesome at it — a few months ago a Texas state lawmaker came to visit me at NPR and he ducked to avoid Stiles cause he’s still scared of him.

Anyway, the goodbye note from our boss, Scott, ended this way:

“Matt has worked on numerous interactive projects. Some highlights include a crowd-sourced directory of playgrounds designed for children with disabilities, an interactive that detailed the damage caused by the 2013 Oklahoma tornado and a database of workers killed in grain bins throughout the United States. He  has also championed data-related tools and training for the newsroom.

The list of Matt’s projects is impressive, but it doesn’t entirely capture the value he’s brought to the newsroom and the network. He’s played a vital role in our evolution as a news organization of real depth and expertise in the visual presentation of information. He’s not a spread sheet guy but a very fine reporter who has helped a whole bunch of people at NPR and in our member station universe think differently about their work and what’s possible in their work.”

As for his teammates, the legacy Stiles will leave behind is his inscrutable personality and dark sense of humor. Basically, the opposite of Mr. Chips. Incidentally, Stiles does actually LOVE potato chips. So as a tribute, his teammate Claire O’Neill arranged for his friends to bring bags of chips to pile onto the News Apps table all morning.

“It’ll be like that scene at the end of A Beautiful Mind when all the professors give Russell Crowe their pens. Except better because instead of pens … it’s chips.”

Congratulations, Mr Chips-Stiles.

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Goodbye to Emily, One of My Fave (and Best) Interns

I have a long and storied history with journalism interns. Back when I started as a beat reporter at age 21, sometimes sources would confuse me for the intern, and the intern for the reporter.

During the Texas Tribune early days, “Dan the Intern” became a real team member, so much so that I worked him into my The Office parody video to introduce the TT.

But then, Dan The Intern got back at me by calling me out in the very first HuTube vlog.

So, I tend to have a fun time with prodigious and puckish interns. Which brings me to Emily. Emily Siner started as an NPR intern last fall, but graduated to editorial assistant (a much better hourly rate) when we couldn’t afford to lose her when the semester ended. She’s become indispensable in short order, explaining Bitcoin better than I ever could, being a true partner for our online and on-air work and most importantly, always always asking interesting questions about the world. Curiosity — and follow through — are basically the whole game, in journalism. Emily also has a boyfriend named Matt, and y’all know I basically love all Matt’s.

Emily at her final digital news editors meeting.

Emily at her final digital news editors meeting.

Emily is headed to Nashville Public Radio, which means she’s staying in the family and going to eat delicious food. Wishing you many fun and educational adventures, Emily.

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