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.

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.

Topsy Turvy

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used.”

–The President of the United States of America, last week, in a letter to Kim Jong Un

I slipped away to Hong Kong Friday night, after a topsy turvy week on the peninsula. North Korea hosted international journalists to show the destruction of its main nuclear test site only for American President Donald Trump, in a fit of pique a few hours later, to cancel the big Singapore summit he had abruptly agreed to in the first place.

In the hours since, the President has signaled the summit is back on and is acting like the letter never happened. He also tweeted that one of his aides who argued June 12th might be too soon to pull off “didn’t even exist.” Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise secret Saturday summit inside the DMZ to try and keep diplomacy on track. I have been on the radio basically every hour in one form or the other and have subsequently lost my voice. 

All I’m saying is thank god I got to get away to beautiful, balmy Hong Kong for delicious dim sum and Canto food and drinking with my fellow foreign correspondent Ivan, who lives on the far Western edge of Hong Kong Island, which means when you wake up at his place all you see outside is water and lush green islands. Also, he plays piano and I realized how much I miss dwelling in a home with the sound of piano music in it. (Note to self: Move my piano back from Uncle Jim’s house after repatriation.)

Anyway. Friday night we went to sleep thinking the summit was off and awoke Saturday to cryptic notes that the summit was maybe back on, something we both reacted to with an instant expression: “Fuck!” Casting those feelings aside, we hiked the virgin mountain behind his place, got rained on at the top, then made it down the mountain back into bustling streets to squish ourselves at a table with strangers at a local dim sum joint where no plastic stool goes unoccupied.  (This is the only real way to do it.) Before I came home, I made sure to stop by a traditional bakery to load up on egg custard tarts and every carb stuffed with char siu inside.

When you’re on the second most relentless beat of the year (just as it intersects with the first most relentless beat), you really have to snatch those small pleasures when you can.

Springtime in A Coupla American Cities

Caught Janeane Garofalo, doing some standup, in Brooklyn.

Shooooooot, if I don’t start speeding it up I’m not going to be able to keep that New Year’s Resolution about blogging a certain number of times a month. One day, the relentlessness of the North Korea beat will end, but not before it ends me, first.

I took a sojourn to the states last week (DC and then New York), which at first was awesome but now that I am back and only sleeping in three hour bursts, and only sometimes at night, my despair is rather acute. My brain feels like a bowl of soggy instant oatmeal. I took very few photos, so there’s really nothing to aid my collapsing memory of many things that happened last week.

There was plenty of patio-drinking, random run-ins in the street and lingering breakfasts. Also: trying our friend Rose’s new restaurant, reunioning, making the rounds of the think tank circuit, speaking about sexism in South Korea to young policy wonks, a comedy show where I discovered the knock-down hilarious Michelle Butreau, a board meeting for Grist and a last minute meetup with Texas friends weekending in New York thanks to Instagram.

In an embarrassment, I set up my friend Matt on a blind date and then ruined my own matchmaking by bringing him to a party the night before the date. At this party he met SOMEONE ELSE that he decided he liked so much that he canceled the date. I am awesome.

Felt a lot of highs and lows and now I’m just feeling really, really exhausted.

Danang!

The lantern-adorned streets of Hoi An

North Korea news has been relentless all of 2018 so far, and frankly it was relentless last year, too, under Year One of Trump. So I find myself constantly needing to take holidays in order to keep my brain from short circuiting.

How special a place is Vietnam, amirite!? Gah, I love Southeast Asia. In the end, nothing crazy happened, but there was a visa f-up that wasn’t discovered until we were at the airport with 30 minutes before boarding, so it required some unconventional problem solving. Thanks to surprisingly great service from a mysterious middleman in Danang, not only did we get into the country with some insta-visas, but we got to skip the hourlong queue to get through immigration because … I’m not going to ask about it.

Together with the squad, we learned how to wrap a lot of fresh meat and veggies into rolls at every meal and drink nonstop Vietnamese iced coffees and every day, everyone of us had an hour of spa time to use or lose so our main priority each day was, WHAT OTHER SERVICE SHALL I GET?

The two cities make for an excellent one-two punch because they’re such a paradoxical pair. Hoi An is so well-preserved and untouched by time and war that you could wander the streets and really feel a sense of history and international influences. Danang is discoed out with neon and over-the-top wedding venues and scooters buzzing way-too-close. There was a place on a main drag called Dirty Fingers, which, c’mon. Terrible branding decision. But it seemed like business was doing all right.

The view from our back balcony, Danang

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!

Squad in Sydney

Harbour

From previous posts you may recall the Wan-Yau’s of Burlingame, California and now of Singapore, Singapore. We have gone on six squad holidays together now. The latest one, to Australia to ring in the new year, was the first to include Luna. We would have squeezed in a lot more in 2017 had Sarah Wan not faced unexpected family tragedy. But because of said tragedy we decided it was key to start the new year fresh, in the summertime because warmth > subzero temperatures.

After a freezing and quiet Christmas in Seoul we took the 10-hour flight down under, where the sun was out and everyone was sweaty, which was exactly what I was going for. The only notable stumble during the nine days down there happened at the beginning, when I was confronted with the reality that my family is too large for a standard SUV and I had to drop an additional thousand dollars at Hertz to upgrade to a giant seven-seater. (But before this happened I engaged in an irritated, aggressive-aggressive complaining to Matty about his inability to adequately squeeze all our stuff plus car seats into the regular-sized SUV. This happened out in the parking lot as he wore the baby in the front, sweat soaked through his dark blue polo shirt in the back and he was feeding hash browns to the older girls by stuffing them into their mouths. “YOU’RE WELCOME TO TRY IT IF YOU WANT,” he yell-whispered, of the luggage. How did we wind up with so many children!?!)

The rest of the vaca was a mix of beach time, pool time, green spaces and amusements for the children, afternoon cocktails, book reading, kid feeding and dominated by consumption of Tim Tams (original, dark chocolate and mint are my faves) and Australian avocados, which are a mystifying six dollars each. Joe also grilled out a lot for all of us in our lovely backyard high atop a hill where you could see Balmoral Beach, which is on the harbour. (Please note the harbour with a u — don’t want to make the mistake of leaving it out, y’know). One morning we gave Luna a leftover Australian beef rib and she chomped on it like a CHAMP even though she only has two teeth.

A final note, just because I can’t let this go: Why and how did passengers who used the lavatory on the Airbus 380 we flew home on decide that the toilet seat cover dispenser was the trash can?! When I went to this loo, I stood there staring at all the dirty paper towels stuffed into the cover dispenser for an inordinately long time as Isa giggled at herself in the mirror.

Oh, also, our Airbnb hosts had a bunny, “Hops,” and we got to feed him all week. He was adorable, except when he got out of his hutch and the dads had to set up an elaborate fort/trap to catch him so he could return to his little home.

Jess, Jonah, Eva. Isabel follows the beat of her own drummer so she’s always off doing something different.

2017 Year in Review: “Provocations”

True story: I would have posted this before the end of 2017 had my computer not died on the last day of the year. I guess 2017 wanted to get in one final disappointment. Don’t let the door hit ya!

Awaiting a Trump press conference in Tokyo at Akasaka Palace, during his first trip to Asia as president.

“We worry, all along, that we are being buffeted about by forces beyond our control, because we are. The world is wheels within wheels within wheels, but so are we. Everything is under control, and nothing makes sense.”

-Todd Van der Werff, on 2017

To ignore the unsettled feeling brought on by the changes to America and the world under the least popular American president since modern polling began would be irresponsible, but I also find it infuriating and exhausting to think too hard about it. For example, I cannot bring myself to look at starving polar bear photos even though philosophically I think we all should.

This year I tried to focus on individual objectives and tasks in order to keep my sanity. Like trying to teach the girls how to live with kindness and consideration of other people. (A work in progress, as they aren’t even that nice to one another!) At work, I’m trying to do some good with the pretty significant microphone that we have to shine a light on ourselves and our times and to agitate for improvements to my organization (e.g., to try and make it more inclusive). To say I haven’t been in and out of ennui would be a lie. I was unable to consume alcohol for all of Q1 and finally I started doing so with abandon as soon as Baby Luna was out of me. There was a lot of catching up to do.

That the final two months of the year brought down so many sexual predators/misogynists and Alabama elected the guy who prosecuted the KKK instead of the guy banned from the mall represents some cautious hope that a corrective for these misshapen times will eventually come. And the year wasn’t all bad. The Houston Astros won the World Series, the aggressively exuberant baby Luna is here and Matt Lauer is gone from the airwaves. Reliable year-enders that I cherish, such as The Hater’s Guide to the Williams Sonoma catalog, still showed up.

Firsts: Getting lost in a go-kart on the streets of Tokyo. Being with Donald Trump in person. (And Melania.) Making wax food. IUD! Fareed Zakaria GPS. Potty Training boot camp (NOT FOR ME, I was the drill sergeant, okay?!). And a first (and last) — co-hosting All Things Considered with the man the myth and the legend, Robert Siegel, before he retires.

Recurring Themes: North Korea. Russia. Being frightened to see news alerts in the morning.

New Person: Little Luna Lee, our third human child, who weighed 8 pounds 6 oz., or as they measure it in Korea, 3.9 kg. The heaviest crotch nugget yet, and I whined about it heartily in her final weeks of incubation.

ahhhhhhh!!!

Favorite Selfie: On the streets with crowds of South Korean, with crack assistant Jihye the moment South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, was formally removed from office after being impeached by a constitutional court. (She’s now in jail on a slew of charges.)

Most Unintentionally Famous Friend: Bob Kelly, aka “BBC Dad,” after his hip-hoppity kids made the best ever appearance in this BBC interview, followed up by his stealthy-smooth wife, who came to yank them out

New Friend of the Year: Alex Field, who is Hong Kong-based but spent so much time in Seoul for various North Korea-related news that she started working out regularly with my pilates instructor. Women need women friends and she’s become a close one, as we whine about our jetlag together following our trans-Pacific journeys and commiserate by text — and in person — over being overworked.

The Year of the … Hobonichi Techo: I tried going fully analog for my calendar and diary like the Japanese do, and it was awesome. The Hobonichi Techo was bullet journaling before bullet journals, and the pages, after writing in them, take on this delicious crinkled quality that’s oh so satisfying. I didn’t write a journal entry each day, so it’s largely full of to-dos and footnotes from phone calls that help me look back, and monthly calendars that show my travels and meetings.

Most Satisfying Habit: Monthly calls with Matt. After we went my first year in Seoul without talking on the phone, MThomps put recurring calls on both our calendars, dates which we got really serious about keeping no matter the hour or where we were. (He was often running, so our phone calls followed a  bouncing up and down kind of rhythm.)

Close Calls: When Matty had to bribe his way into Indonesia just in time to make it for Isa’s 2nd birthday.

New Places: Indonesia, Guam, Hokkaido, Australia

This year I…

Had third baby and she is the bomb
Read 52 books, most of them fiction and the vast majority by badass women authors
Became a member of the Council on Foreign Relations
Found out I’m Wikipedia-cited on the topic of “asian fetishes,” yikes
Kpop dance class #humiliation
Got in trouble with standards editor for saying “awesomer” on the air, but “y’all” was cleared
Got sketched at a wedding by a random stranger (literally sketched, not a play on words)
Got a bandaid nearly applied to me by a stranger on the Tokyo subway
Launched Elise Tries, an irreverent travel video series
Started sleeping two rooms away from my phones because news alerts were anxiety-inducing
Showed up in a stock image
Showed up in an online textbook
Showed up in Austin to surprise my goddaughter
Lost my grandma, my hero, a rock
Ran successful potty training boot camp, training Isa in two days
Accidentally injured my cat Caesar out of negligence
Drove a go kart around the streets of Tokyo
Drove into oncoming traffic in Hokkaido
Threw a bunch of ceramics at walls in a “rage room” with my brother
Room-mommed for my two year-old, who started preschool
Co-Hosted All Things Considered
Sent a lot of random packages (my fave was melted wax that Friend Harper received, long story)
Spent July 4th covering an ICBM test
Spent Labor Day weekend covering a nuclear test
Spent too many weekend mornings covering other missile launches
Dressed family up as sushi for Halloween
Popped in on lots of podcasts: Sweet and Sour FM. It’s Been a Minute. Divided States of Women. Lots of Up First.
Logged 59,861 miles to go to six countries and one US territory, and spent 78 days away from home, a much more homebound year this year thanks to Baby Luna.

Previous Years in Review:

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

Temporary Duty Yonder

Reported to duty.

The military term for a long stint elsewhere is TDY, which the armed forces like to joke stands for “Temporary Duty Yonder.” I’m not even sure what it really stands for, TBH. There I go with the acronyms again!

I went to Washington for most of November, coming off a blistering week-and-a-half reporting in advance of — and during —President Trump’s epic trip to Asia. (Nothing substantive was really achieved for the US but he commanded a lot of attention and resources in the region.) Thankfully, our afternoon program, All Things Considered, sent me a producer for the Asia trip — Becky — and we reported at a breakneck pace while sneaking in delicious meals. From the Tokyo leg, I came to Seoul for one day with Trump and covered a bunch of right-wing Koreans who welcomed him, then grabbed my baby and a suitcase and got on a plane to Washington. Then, Becky and I had to re-live Wednesday, November 8 due to the time difference. The first Wednesday November 8 was already exhausting; you can imagine having to do it again, but in Washington. I ended my second Wednesday November 8th with my former editor, Uri, at the “sad Hilton Garden Inn” bar, which is really, really sad. But I enjoy the kitsch of it.

I have spent too much time writing about the sad Hilton Garden Inn bar.

During said time in America, this what I remember: I interviewed the surgeon general, the former FCC Chairman, the head of Canada’s only HIV/AIDS treatment hospital, David Brooks, EJ Dionne, NPR’s East Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton three separate times about the fall of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik about more sexual harassment trouble at NPR, author Megan Hunter about her dystopian novella, comedian Hari Kondabolu about what’s wrong with The Simpson’s character Apu, my friend Megan Garber about why women don’t speak up about sexual harassment, wrote and put into the world longer-length pieces about the meaning of statues in the ongoing Korea-Japan conflict and the decline of the golf industry in Japan, and narrated as my cohost Ari put leftover Thanksgiving stuffing into a waffle iron.

The panel! Richard Haass, Ian Bremmer, me and Fareed

I ate dinner and drank cocktails with so many old friends because I tried to do a different dinner reunion each night. This made for meaningful conversations and catchups and meetings of new family members (babies and children, natch).

CNN also flew me up to New York one Sunday morning to do Fareed Zakaria’s show from the actual set, which was fun because I missed my Council on Foreign Relations orientation and I got to apologize to the CFR president about it in person (he was fine so long as I paid my dues) and before I went home Friend Kat came to meet up for about 20 minutes before I trained it back to DC.

There was other stuff, too, but this blog is full of contemporaneous (and therefore incomplete) accounts.

Notes of extreme gratitude go to:

  • Sudeep and Hun. My friend Hun gathered up baby things so that Luna would have a car seat and bouncer and Bumbo seat and pack n’ play while she was with me during TDY. Then she dropped off said stuff at Sudeep’s, who then pre-furnished my AirBnB with the baby items so that they were there and waiting for us when we arrived. How amazing are these people!?
I got to be the guest of honor at Marcus and Maggie’s amazing table
    • Marcus, who, upon learning I’d be coming to town, decided to host a dinner at his home for me and my friends. WHAT?! His house is decked out in fabulous modern Chinese art from his stints in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and every piece had an incredible story. His wife Maggie made paella in those glorious cast-iron skillets that are actually meant-for-paella, and the dinner included my work spouse for life, Matt, singing us some numbers from his New York Times-themed musical that is in the works. (I am not joking.) This night was really fantastic.

 

    • David, who was in Seoul with me with the President and invited me over to Thanksgiving at his house when he found out I’d be without my family this year. Luna, her helper Yani and I joined in and it ended up being just like the Thanksgivings in my own Asian-American family: loud, lots of code-switching, food and taking pictures of food.

 

  • Robert Siegel, Kelly McEvers, Ari Shapiro and the whole staff at All Things Considered, which let me guest host on their program during some of the hardest weeks to be at NPR headquarters, because there’s sexual harassment stories hitting our own workplace in a widely public way. The co-hosts were exceedingly patient with me not knowing my ass from my elbow or a “line” from a “nipper”, which are shorthand terms for things that hosts say on the air. What a huge privilege to get to say “It’s All Things Considered from NPR News, I’m Elise Hu” for several days in a row. I will never, ever forget it.

    In the host chair with Ari, who is pretty much a perfect human

First Time To Trump’s America

Friend Reeve meets baby Thomas, one of many babies born since I’ve been gone.

My experiences during short bursts of time in the states are reliably memorable because they are so abbreviated, and therefore I have to really make the most of every moment. In my downtime I a.) kept going to the Au Bon Pain next to my DC hotel to get giant iced teas and breakfast sandwiches and b.) watched some domestic cable news, which let’s face it, is pretty terrifying these days. The programming is interrupted by catheter and other medical device commercials, which are clues I should not be watching.

Highlights that I can piece together through the jet lag:

The Washington Half

Finally visited the Blacksonian — the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — on the day I landed in DC. Eyes still bloodshot from the flight and jet lag setting in, Matt Thompson, his partner Bryan and I powered through and saw crazy amazing stuff like the Parliament Funkadelic MOTHERSHIP. Yes, yes we did.

Friend Claire came down from New York for a hang. We lingered over a three and a half hour dinner at a mezcal place, not because of the meal but because we had some epic catching up to do.

With one of the greats, Don Gonyea, at NPR HQ.

Don Gonyea gave me advice about work and life, which is always much appreciated.

Hanson, you know, of mmmmbop fame from 20 years ago, played a Tiny Desk Concert on the first day I went back to work in DC. They actually played two, because they recorded their very special Christmas Tiny Desk, too. Taylor (the middle one) and I joked around a bit about how the dinosaur on his Christmas sweater was wearing the same sweater, creating some sort of ugly Christmas sweater matrix.

One of my ex-work spouses, Javaun, took a train up from Lynchburg (where he now lives) to spend Tuesday evening hanging out and eating barbecue and drinking beers together. I can’t even remember all the ground we covered because, beer.

Finally ate at the State Department cafeteria in Foggy Bottom — a bucket list item.

Because I am support the notion of spending money to save time, I hired April Yvonne, friend of my always glam friend Angie Goff, to shop for me. She picked out racks of clothes in a few Georgetown shops in advance, so all I had to do was try things on and make decisions. The whole excursion only took two hours in total and I was hella wardrobed for the weekend and work by the end. Endorse.

The Austin Half

Met the following babies who have joined us since I’d last been in Austin: Baby Adaline. Baby Thomas. Baby Marcella. Baby EJ. Baby Franklin. Toddler Hattie. Toddler Emma. Missed Baby Sam, who is fattening up in a NICU right now, but boy was I overjoyed to see his parents.

Sam’s dad Jimmy is my ultimate favorite eating partner. He also cooks delicious food and personally catered my engagement party with Spanish tapas since he trained to be a chef in the kitchens of Spain and Charleston, SC. Because of serendipity, the weekend I was in Austin was also the Far East Food Festival, in which some sixty Austin restaurants served up healthy portions of various Asian creations and Jimmy was judging the food. He added me as a judge so we CHOWED DOWN until the heat and the food consumption did us in. I had to quit early because I just couldn’t eat anymore. Embarrassing, but true.

Fried kimchi rice balls at Far East Food Fest

Due to the abbreviated time, there were extra meals sandwiched in. On Friday I had a cheeseburger appetizer at P Terry’s while en route to Cooper’s barbecue where we disappeared pounds of brisket, sausage and ribs plus jalapeno mac-and-cheese, potato salad and the standard vat of pickles plus white bread. (Also Cooper’s offers free beans!) This was my favorite meal because of the strong appetizer IN THE CAR ON THE WAY to BBQ and my reliable eating buddies, Blake and Justin, joined to work up some serious meat sweats. I probably could have recovered for third lunch after this but we had do disperse.

Reunited with the dim sum club on Saturday morning to eat our faces off.

Did not see my oracle, Harry Whittington (the guy Dick Cheney accidentally shot in the face) but did see Bachelor Brad, who we seem to run into in Austin pretty much all the time. Is he everywhere? Is it because he’s a twin?

Surprised my goddaughter Marion Cass at her school, which led to second graders drawing me a bunch of butterflies and teaching me how to play a game called Sleeping Queen (need to get this for my daughters). Marion Cass also had me over to her house Sunday afternoon where she showed me how she can do things like SPLITS IN THE AIR because, gymnastics and being seven.

The purpose of this Austin return was to attend Friend Todd’s wedding. Did it, and so glad, because I love weddings! I also get to take partial credit for this union in the butterfly-flaps-its-wings kind of way, because I brought Todd to the Texas Tribune in 2009 as we were starting it. Here’s what happened: He was a weirdo who was teaching me Final Cut Pro as a part of a class I took at Austin Film School. I decided he was adorable even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t wash his hair at the time and was always railing about the dangers of aspartame and fluoride. Started calling him Hot Toddy behind his back (he later confronted me about this and yep, guilty) and convinced our boss Evan to give him a job at the Tribune because we were in wild wild west days of throwing jobs around. It was through this job that he met Carsi, his bride.

Reeve and I ran the hike and bike trail and joked around the whole time, just like the good ol’ days.

Sent up a flare in DC, and again in Austin, for big group happy hours. Both led to the happiest reunions, predictably. In Austin, April, my BFF from those halcyon days of my partying/Texas lege-covering twenties in Austin, HAPPENED to also be back after moving away to Toronto a few years ago. We got to see each other for about twenty minutes. I’ll take it.

The last time I was in America, I was two people. This time it was just me and my pump, which had to be used every few hours for the duration of the nine-day trip, the bottles and bags of expressed milk piling up in my respective hotel freezers until I had so much that I paid $400 in heavy baggage fees to bring all that liquid gold home. In order to keep it frozen while flying, I snuck in a trip to Ace Hardware in DC and got a giant padded cooler bag, which ended up being perfect. Thanks, Ace Hardware.