Columbia, Missouri is vintage shops and cheese-laden appetizers and the state’s flagship university columns at dusk. It’s downtown streets no wider than a driveway. It’s ice cream shops with so many yarn dolls as decor that the ones that aren’t on display are “sleeping” in an extra fridge. It’s hair stylists from Utica.
I called Columbia home for only a blink of time, so few semesters that I really only remember the final one, and the summer that followed it which my tribe refers to as “the lost summer.” It was wedged in between a time of school responsibility and work responsibility. For that summer, there was neither. I never have spent a summer like that since.
You do get to go home again, and ideally it’s under the circumstances I went back this weekend, as a sage advice-giver type. The new dean, David Kurpius, asked me to be the commencement speaker for the Missouri School of Journalism’s May graduating Class of 2019.
My remarks focused on things I’ve learned in the 15 years since leaving Columbia. The main thrust of anything I talk about regarding my adult life is how accidentally lucky I’ve been; how timing and circumstance have collided to go right, without much planning at all.
Being back after so much time away meant a nostalgia tour of the things that I loved eating and doing, so, to review:
Toasted ravioli (many times) ✔️
Lakota coffee ✔️
Tiger Stripe ice cream ✔️
Chokes ‘n cheese at Flatbranch ✔️
ΠΒΦ house ✔️
Drunkenly leaving wallet at Harpo’s ✔️
(Country Kitchen is closed, so, sadly, that couldn’t happen. Never did get drunk enough for Gumby’s Pokey Sticks, but thought about it.)
Friend Liz, who has a history of gamely going on random weekend trips, is also a Mizzou alum and a former Pi Phi, so she joined me in the trek to the middle of Missouri (and the arduous journey back home, which required extra nights in sad hotels and a lot of time sitting idly on tarmacs).
I can’t express how meaningful it was to be back in Missouri, and have Liz there to enjoy the old haunts together, to marvel at the newness of the student center and rec center (which is basically a five-star resort now), and to share the memories of yesteryear.
I wouldn’t go back in time if you offered, because I did as I said in the speech and inhabited those moments fully when I lived them. But it’s nice to drop in on the past when you can, especially if it involves toasted ravioli.
When I look back on 2019, I hope that things never get as chaotic as May, when everything I agreed to do back in, I dunno, the fall, converged in one month. We launched Future You with Elise Hu, my new video series for NPR, which was supposed to be ready earlier but as with many of these creative projects, a lot of twists and turns happen along the way.
Plus there’s Mother’s Day, my two wedding anniversaries (legal and observed), end-of-school obligations, my brother’s birthday and my spouse’s birthday, which we had to skip over last weekend because, well, I couldn’t be around. Eventually we are going to have to find a day to celebrate “Matty’s Birthday, Observed” because there’s so much to do, there’s never enough tiiiiime … I sound like Jessie Spano in one of the most unforgettable episodes of Saved by the Bell, but it’s true.
Just after we started rolling out the first episode, I flew to New York where we do our annual meeting for the non-profit news org, Grist, where I’ve been a board member for many years. New York is so fun this time of year; it pulses with a kinetic energy, it smells of all the smells, there’s a sense that anything in the range of human experience can happen RIGHT NOW, on the very street corner on which you’re standing. It’s like being in Shanghai, where really, anything and everything could just pop off, right then.
One of my closest girlfriends in the whole world, Mari from Tokyo, happened to be in New York this month so we had a date night on Thursday featuring a lot of eating and drinking and meandering from one West Village place to another. This was the first time we’ve hung out OUTSIDE of Japan and just one of the best gal pal get togethers … she’s an actress and writer for whom all sorts of new projects are coming her way and I’m so proud. I love how New York is just full of possibility; it makes it magical.
I stuck around for more magic. And more reunion dates, and an Adam Driver/Keri Russell play and most importantly, for Friend Alex’s wedding. Friend Alex is my partner-in-jet-lag. Both of us were Asia correspondents at the same time (she for CNN, I for NPR) and so one of us was always up at some strange hour for rapid fire text banter. She taught me not to wash my hair for days, which ends up building great volume (you just have to use good dry shampoo to keep it from getting gross). And she’s the classiest, New Yorkiest of my girlfriends, so she threw the classiest, New Yorkiest of weddings overlooking Central Park, from one of those exclusive Upper East Side clubs that didn’t let women become members for most of its history. The affair was black tie and beautiful, and she wouldn’t have done it any other way.
I often get asked about how the girls are adjusting to living in the US, and whether they miss Korea. The answer is, they just hit the ground running/gliding. Already veterans of international travel, the girls don’t seem to need adjustment to new time zones or contexts like we grownups do. They didn’t experience the international move as major transition, but rather, as just one of the many new things in their young lives. For them, I don’t know whether a new country is internalized that much differently than a new school.
Isa (the three year old) misses her old teachers and said to me this week, “I will go back and say hi to Miss Hailey” as if it did not require a 12-hour flight to the other side of the world.
Eva, the eldest, is imprinted with some internationalism: She can hear the difference between Chinese, Korean and, of course, English. Today she said she needed “two green monies” because she experienced having currency that wasn’t all green. When we talk about what day of the week it is, she will note, “It’s Sunday afternoon here which means it’s Monday in Korea.”
Luna’s Korea references are all superficial: She sleeps with Kakao character pillows (Ryan the Lion and Apeach the peach) and her Pororo characters, Poby and Krong-Krong. But she and I have maintained the tradition in which only Koreans cut our hair.
The joke goes that for the New York Times to consider something a trend, all it takes is three instances. I don’t know how many times it takes to make a tradition but after Friend Matt dropped down to Costa Rica for one night for my 30th, and I went to Las Vegas for one night for his 29th, I suppose it became a fun trend/tradition/trendition(?) to skip town for a night for one of our birthdays. This time we’re all older, as Young Matt’s already 35.
Popping up to a SF party from LA was a snap compared to the time Eva was 10-weeks old and I’d leak milk if I wasn’t near enough to feed her but Friend Liz and I still spontaneously flew across the country for for the Vegas shindig. There was a moment at the club at 2am when I yelled over the music to Liz, “WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE OR ELSE I WILL HAVE TO PUMP IN THE BATHROOM OF TAO.”
Matt has collected an eclectic bunch of high-achieving friends in his 35 years. Being San Francisco, a lot of them work in fields like venture capital or tech or finance. A few of his friends are actors. So there’s a certain amount of posturing at these parties, but the posturing is more merry and less irritating than it is in DC. (If I never go to another book party where everyone I talk to is looking over my shoulder to find someone cooler to talk to, I will be just fine.)
For Friend Erin and me, the crowded soiree became an experiment in trying to learn interesting things about a string of strangers as quickly as possible because there were a lot of awesome people to squeeze in. An incomplete list of them, by the shorthand names we gave them:
The scuba-diving neuroscientist
The “lesbian” who’s actually not a lesbian
Something about robot waiters
(Not) Tom from MySpace
Lawyer who rode a horse that was on The Bachelor
97.9 percent back-in-the investment guy
Dude who runs a high tech circus: “It’s a micro-amusement park”
My high point was probably when we started talking to a guy with a British accent and I wasn’t sure if he was faking it, so I decided to fake a British accent in case he WAS trying to mess with me. This went on, an absurd conversation in a British accent, until he proved he was actually British and I had to give up. He was impressed I used the term “lorry” though.
Anyway. San Francisco is special because I got to squeeze in one-on-one time with people who have known me for 20+ years. Not one but BOTH high school besties — Erin and Wade — now work and live there with their respective husbands. So does my old Plano Senior High School golf teammate, Chris, who I later became closer with, in college. “I’m playing the best golf of my life these days,” he reports. “I could join the tour. I think it’s because I stopped giving a damn.”
Erin and I partying together again marked maybe the thousandth-or-so party we attended together since we first met in 9th grade. Being from Texas, those parties involved a lot Taco Cabana, Aaliyah music and dark fields with kegs in the backs of pickup trucks. And for some reason we saw Sister Hazel live three times in high school, even though they really only had that one hit song.
“Finally I figured out, but it took a long long tiiiiiime….”
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.
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 lotabout 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.