First of the Murdery Woods Weekends

As the Asian driver in Family Guy says, “Sorry, everybody else!”

This October I’m spending three weekends in a row in bucolic, woodsy communities where few people live and fewer cell phone signals exist. At night the roads are pitch black. If you were to get lost, you’d have to attempt the horror movie trope of pulling over and going to some stranger’s house to ask for directions or ask to use their phone. No one wants to do that in real life.

I am back from Murdery Woods Weekend One: CJ and Kat’s Wedding in the Catskills. The most frightening part of the whole trip ended up being when I just landed a few hours ago and due to the remnants of a cold, couldn’t equalize my ears, giving me that “OMG MY HEAD IS GOING TO EXPLODE” fear.

The wedding venue was in Mount Tremper, outside Kingston, New York. I rode an Amtrak up from the city, right along the Hudson, to get to Albany, which is the closest major city to the venue. Kingston, which was one of the first American settlements by the Dutch, is today blossoming with bearded Brooklynites who have moved in, lots of new artists and music festivals and cool murals on its buildings all over town. I tried the best tamales I’ve eaten in years at the Kingston Farmer’s Market downtown on Saturday, er, yesterday. The horchata was not bad, either. Old Friend Reeve, who conveniently moved to Upstate New York LAST WEEK, came through as both a dependable driver/wedding date (since Justin was unavailable). I enjoyed spending our car time together hearing his strong, highly specific opinions again, like the good ol days when we set out to run three miles but accidentally ran six because we were too busy making wisecracks the whole time.

Anyway. We got sublimely photo-bombed by a New York Assemblyman who was so expert at photobombing that by the time we noticed it happened, he was gone. Poof!

New York Assemblyman Kevin Cahill is the most natural, stealthy photobomber of all time.

Kat is the little sister I never had, or my fourth daughter who I’d be biologically incapable of having, depending on who is making the reference. That she is marrying/married her love of many years, CJ, who makes her feel so supported and encouraged all the time, made all of us cry happy tears during the whole ceremony. The ceremony you will not see in photos (see above).

Saturday afternoon, Reeve and I took the Clinton “Peg Leg” Bates Memorial Highway out to the mountain house where all this was going down. “Bet he never thought he’d have a highway named after him,” Reeve said.

Cocktail hour

Besides all the love in the air, the occasion also allowed for my favorite thing about weddings, which is reuniting with old friends and meeting new, interesting people. (My next favorite thing is messing with strangers by pretending to have a totally different identity.) My bestie Matt Thompson and his bear beau Bryan drove up from DC, we made inappropriate jokes the entire time we were together and ate a lot of food. “We are very food oriented people,” Reeve had to explain to someone in CJ’s family who couldn’t understand all my strategic positioning for the doughnuts.

By the time I was halfway home today from the other coast (I do enjoy the East coast, just not living there), I had a message from Matty saying, “I am going to murder the children. They are demons.” So it turns out the closest thing anyone came murder this weekend was not in the woods, but back in LA in my own home.

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My Mentor Marty And The First Time I Learned About Sinclair

“Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.”
-John Oliver

Marty at his desk with his firstborn, Andrew, in the late eighties.

I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would not still be in journalism today had it not been for the mentors I met along the way. One of the most important was Marty Haag. He warned me about Sinclair 15 years ago.

Marty was a legend by the time I first heard his name, which was sometime in 2000 when I went to intern at WFAA, the ABC affiliate which Marty led as news director for more than a decade. He turned down numerous job offers to lead TV networks because he was committed to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, a fact we all only learned of after his death. He was an executive at the station’s parent company, Belo, when I was at WFAA. But because of his focus and exacting leadership, that station was known across the country as a powerhouse and representative of the highest values in journalism. Marty had clear vision, creativity, encouraged risk-taking and empowered his reporters. He is the kind of boss that all his employees wanted to make proud. It’s rare — I have been in the business for a long time now and I have only come across people like that two times since.

I came to know Marty only by chance. I was interning that summer of 2000 and his son, Andrew, decided to intern, too. Andrew and I became friends and together, we went with the WFAA team to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to do tasks such as picking up lunch and cutting tape and running scripts. I was headed off to college that fall (incidentally also Marty’s alma mater). During my senior year a few years later I asked Andrew if, when I came home for the holidays, whether I could meet Marty. He connected us and we all went to eat at their country club because that’s where people from Dallas eat lunch. (True story: When I was on the golf team in high school we were expected to just practice at our own country clubs because it was assumed that everyone had one to go to.)

From then on, Marty and I began one of the great email correspondences of my life. He was quick with the wisecracks and always generous with his advice and wisdom. We met up IRL around graduation to talk about my job hunt. He was retired by then, and teaching at SMU. I had harebrained ideas about maybe just packing up and moving to Nepal to make a documentary. He never seemed to shoot down ideas like that, always willing to imagine what was possible instead of what was not. My more “traditional” notion was to find a job in television news. This is the part of the conversation I remember vividly, and it shaped my trajectory.

Me: Should I just send resume tapes* everywhere throw everything up against a wall and see what sticks?

Him: No. Be targeted in your job hunt. Work for newsrooms with integrity because they will make you better. Don’t work at companies that don’t value journalism. I wouldn’t work at any Sinclair stations, because they only care about the bottom line.**

Marty then proceeded to write down on a Post-it, in pencil, the specific call letters of stations I should work at for my first job and their respective cities. One of them was KWTX-TV in Waco, where I wound up. When I wrote him telling him of my troubles at work (the kind of pedestrian problems the likes of a senior reporter being mean to me), he wrote, “Just keep your head down and work hard and let the work speak for itself.”

I still hear Marty’s voice as clear as day, in my head. It’s powerful how people’s voices really stick with you.

Epilogue, aka, this is no longer about Sinclair

Not more than three months after I started that job in Waco, Marty died suddenly of a stroke over Christmas/New Year’s break. I spent several days afterward at the Haag house with his sons and his beloved golden retrievers and a steady stream of loved ones who flowed in and out of that place. Marty is the first (and only) mentor I’ve had who died and while it cannot compare to what his sons and wife must have gone through, this loss hit me hard.

What I remember about those days at the Haag house was his younger son, Matthew, playing a lot of chess. And at some point when his brother was taking a long time to consider a move, Matthew, then just a teenager, recalled what his father often said to him. “Just make a decision and move forward,” Matthew said, recalling his dad’s advice. He was talking about chess but also about everything.

So many journalists-who-you-know were nurtured, shaped and guided by Marty: Scott Pelley, Russ Mitchell, Andrea Joyce, Leeza Gibbons, Paula Zahn, Verne Lundquist, Dale Hansen (who still talks about him in interviews), hundreds more. A few years after Marty’s death when I ran into Matthew at a bar, he introduced me to his girlfriend and told her, “This is my dad’s last protegé.” There was no one behind me, as Marty died when his son Andrew and I were both only 21.

With Andrew at CNN in New York last month.

Today Matthew is a reporter at The New York Times, Andrew is a producer at CNN, and two weeks ago I got to see Andrew in person when I was in New York. I’m sure Marty is so, so proud of them.

Most of the time I find it a huge privilege to do what we do but over the years I have often gotten down in the dumps and unmotivated and plainly just want to do something else. But I often think, what would Marty say, and I either keep my head down and work hard or just make a decision and move forward.

I have never worked at a Sinclair station.

*These were actual VHS tapes, kids

**Now we know Sinclair cares about not just the bottom line but also conservative orthodoxy. Trivia: Marty fired Bill O’Reilly for breaches in journalism ethics back when O’Reilly worked for him in the 1970s.

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26-36-48

Doing the dive bar thing with my NPR brethren in LA. L to R: Kirk Siegler, Kelly McEvers, me, Nate Rott and David Greene

Home from 26 hours in DC, 36 hours in New York and 48 hours in LA. I needed to go home to the US for face-to-face work meetings about my “future,” since our time in Seoul is going to come to an end at one point or another. This trip did not include nearly enough sleep but it was rad because so many inspiring friends are in America! Our conversations over meals and drinks were the kind I like the most — the ones you need to make footnotes for so you can check back later. Here are some of the people from the week, and the links and culture they shared:

Friend Tim
Tim made five flight connections and took a sad bus in the snow — NEVER GIVING UP — in order to get to my Amsterdam nuptials, so, obviously, he’s a generous friend. Despite our close bond, we hadn’t seen each other in person since 2014, when I ran into him at Lambert St. Louis Airport after I almost got shot in Ferguson. Tim has moved to LA. He got there like, last week. So for my last night in America I went to Tim and his wife Rachel’s, where we sat amidst stacks of unopened boxes of their stuff to eat tacos and Salt and Straw ice cream. Tim and Rachel recommended the writer Mary Choi and her new YA novel, which is debuting this week. “She’s the voiciest writer I have ever known,” he said. When Tim was design director at WIRED he brought on Mary to do a column, which she rocked.

Friend Matt
Matt Thompson is a constant character in my life and on this blog because the man is a goddamned inspiration. We snuck in a meal together in DC before I had to go and he was most excited about this data viz on economic mobility from The New York Times, which so painfully and clearly illustrates what is happening to even wealthy black men in this country.

Girls Night: Kat/Pamela/Alex/Claire
Claire is the brain behind Elise Tries, my goofy East Asia-inspired video series. On the same day as we found out some great (embargoed) news about the series, I had plans for drinks and food with Claire and the other aforementioned girls, in New York. A Noreaster came in and lots of them didn’t have to go to work, so they came down to hang and catch up over takeout and wine. Among the recs: Alex recommends traveling with backpackers in Vietnam, which she just did after a grueling time at the Olympics. Kat can’t stop raving about Rachel Khong’s book Goodbye, Vitamin, which I ended up reading on the plane and love, love, loved.

Friend Alec
Alec is either a creative genius or a smug asshole, depending on whom you ask. The person who calls him a smug asshole is TJ Miller, who played “Erlich” on Friend Alec’s television show, Silicon Valley. It’s a long story. I met Alec before the show premiered in 2014, after HBO turned down my request to interview Mike Judge and offered Alec instead. True story – Friday was only the second time I’d ever hung out with Alec but he says he meets a lot of people who are dumb-dumbs on press tours so he was able to glean that I at least was not a dumb-dumb (low bar), and we’ve kept in touch ever since. I revealed I’ve been despairing about all the news and he recommended a twitter feed called @humanprogress, which is full of positive stats about how much more educated and well-fed and resourced the world is today than it was before. He also recommends his new show, Barry, which he created with Bill Hader. It came out this weekend on HBO. Obviously he’s biased, but non-Alec-affiliated people have given it positive reviews. Also, for the record, my take is that Alec is NOT an asshole!

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Sunset

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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Advice, Illustrated

I was just in a regular gchat with my sister from another mother and part of it showed up in one of her drawings. Love!

some advice I got recently on new adult friendships #doodlediary #practicemakespetportraitist

A post shared by kat chow (@katchow_) on

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All Greek To Me

What it’s like to be friends with my friends, a sample conversation from lunch:

Richard: I feel like your Twitter personality is about 30% more pedantic than you are in real life.

John: I traffic in irony. I try to cultivate an ironic personality on Twitter. But I’m told maybe it doesn’t come across.

Me: What is up with you and Thucydides? You’re always bringing him up.

John: It’s not just MY thing. History of the Peloponnesian War one of the foundations of Western thought!

Richard: I didn’t read it just once, I read it TWICE.

John: I taught a semester long class on it. I’ve read several translations, but the Hobbes is the best one. Shoot, I’ve read it in CHINESE! [Pauses.] Of course you should read it in the original Greek.

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The #HyoJam Nuptials At The British Embassy

I love a good wedding and I try to blog about them afterward, emphasis on try. There are some years where we attend so many weddings that I end up without the clearheadedness (cough sobriety cough) to remember to do so. Since I am of reasonably clear mind right now, a few thoughts about this one:

1.) It was a perfect day weatherwise and pollution-wise in Seoul for James and Hyojin (#hyojam) to get married. They’re both English-language journalists in Korea with a lot of international study and work in their backgrounds, so this afforded an opportunity for 200 of their loving family, wisecracking friends and whip-smart coworkers from all corners of the globe to witness their union AND party together on the lawn of the British Ambassador’s residence (which is on the same compound as the Embassy). “This just proves how far you all will come for free booze,” James quipped.

2.) Given James and Hyojin’s vocations, their wedding meant 90% of all the primarily English-speaking people who cover or research North Korea for a living were in the same place. “Thank you to Kim Jong Un for not conducting a nuclear test,” James said, in remarks at the reception. “Because had he done so, half of you wouldn’t be here.” (Tis true.)

3.) Four-year-old Eva went as my date because Matty has a well-documented history of preferring stand-ins for events that require heavy-socializing. Eva got to wear her Korean hanbok, which is what Koreans traditionally wear to weddings. She loved getting dressed up but was not great about sitting still during the ceremony. Thank god my assistant and friend Jihye came to sit with us and entertained Eva with Snapchat face filters during the ceremony’s second-half.

4.) In the time before we headed to the reception on the Embassy compound and after the ceremony, it got super hot and Eva wanted shade. So we found a bench near a tree and sat down. That’s when a random Korean dude came up and asked me to sit still because he wanted to sketch me in profile. My friend Nat, who was in town from D.C., witnessed the whole exchange and said it would make for a great story: “Oh hey remember that time we were sitting outside the Anglican church on the diplomatic compound when a sketchy dude came up and wanted to sketch you Titanic-style?” The drawing only took two minutes and was … all right, I guess?

5.) Mainly this wedding rocked. There was all kinds of free boozing super-interesting guests, owing to the foreign correspondenting and diplomat-sourcing of James and Hyojin. James, for example, is a British national who studied in China and can speak Korean, English and Mandarin, which is an eclectic mix of expertise that can describe much of the crowd assembled.

6.) Some people run in the Las Vegas party circuit, some in the Hollywood party crowd, mine is the diplomatic/journalist/North Korea specialist crowd. It is decidedly wonky and heavy-drinking. Sometime last night at the wedding after-party and after several shots, I wandered to four different clusters of people milling about around on the patio, drinking and smoking. I kid you not, all FOUR groups were talking about sanctions and the ineffectiveness of the sanctions on North Korea, albeit taking different angles in their chatter. I mean, WTF.

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Farewell To My Right-Hand Woman

Trying to hike and conduct interview, with Haeryun, the last time I was eight months preggo.

The toughest thing about being a reporter in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is that functionally, you’re a child. I work without a key tool for reporting — the ability to communicate. That makes my interpreter and assistants in Korea and Japan as important and arguably MORE important than me to tell compelling stories.

Out on the streets of Seoul with Haeryun during the anti-Park protests.

For the past two years (almost to the day), Haeryun has been my right-hand woman. On her first day, when I had only been off the plane from the US for about 10 hours, the US Ambassador to Seoul was stabbed in the face. So there was no easing into the job. Korea news has essentially been non-stop since then. (Perhaps you’ve read about the missile tests, lethal poisoning deaths and impeachments on my patch lately.) To put together coherent pieces for air, not only does Haeryun do critical backgrounding and research, she also broaches sources and lines up interviews and concurrently translates them as I conduct interviews, she also works on her own when I’m traveling and goes out in the field when I can’t.

She acts as my Korean-speaking proxy, making the important human connections with sources that allow us to tell stories for our English-speaking audiences. On top of that, Haeryun also makes sure things run: That our driver Mr. Kim always picks me up at the airport on time, and that our office water delivery comes reliably and that our Foreign Correspondents Club dues are paid, etc etc.

Haeryun is a woman of many talents, here she’s running audio for a video project during a crazy facial procedure.

This week, Haeryun starts a new journalism adventure! She is going to the site Korea Expose, where she will be an editor and help oversee their staff of hungry writers who are diving into stories about Korean society and culture. We are all really excited to see what they will do there.

But that means she is bidding farewell to NPR’s Seoul bureau, the foreign post which she was instrumental in helping found. Together we have binge-eaten in front of thousands of strangers, crashed a Korean wedding, gotten lost on Jeju Island with the worst navigation device ever issued, witnessed the sorry state of caged, endangered bears, consoled grieving moms, followed alongside Korea’s marching single moms, covered way too many missile tests to count and spent way too many hours at the Seoul Immigration Office to make sure I could legally stay in this bureaucracy-loving country.

Always a good sport, she gets dragged into my noraebang (karaoke) sessions.

She is also my friend (one of my closest Korean ones, at that), shares my endless appetite (so she’s always a reliable eating partner) and has always been there for my entire family. So we will continue to hang and see each other, of course. But it’s the end of a chapter, so I wanted to make sure to give her a little blogpost tribute to say goodbye and thank you.

And a funny footnote: Despite all our time together, I still can’t pronounce her name right. This scene from Sisters pretty much sums up me and Haeryun, anytime I try to say her name:

Anyway… None of the Korea stories would have been shaped and told without you, Haeryun! We love you and will miss you.

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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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