In the megalopolises of Asia, experiences are often marked by their scale — a health scare happening in a “small town of two million people,” or how one protest can draw 300,000 into the streets on short notice.
In Los Angeles, experiences are marked by the random intersections of cultural touchstones: That book party on Sunset to talk foreign policy, featuring the Obama national security guy and some former spies, which was at a clubby Soho House because Ron Burkle owns it. Or last night’s salon for NYT film critic Manohla Dargis at Lawrence Welk’s sprawling former home where an Indian-American musician entertained during cocktail hour by playing “Old Town Road” on the sitar. (That song lineup, which included sitar arrangements for A-ha, and Coldplay, and Marvin Gaye, was wholly delightful but Old Town Road marked the high point, IMHO.)
Also all the caterers were clearly male models, which a Swiss one admitted when I confronted him over his serving platter of mini chicken and waffles about how ostentatiously good-looking the bar and waitstaff was. I mean, it was almost obscene to have all that bone structure tending bar.
I grew up only coming to know Southern California from the movies and TV, so living here in real life is a mix of recognition and surprise. Almost a year in, I really just love it. Not because of the randomness of the parties but primarily because it’s a place of many cultures, many peoples — and they meet-up and mix-up in interesting ways.
When LA campaigned for the Olympics, the organizers talked about it as “the Northern-most city in Latin America and also the capital of the Pacific Rim” — LA is how America faces outward and into the future rather than inward and back.
Friend Liz now comes to mock me when I say I feel like my soul was always here and now my body just caught up, but I mean it! I am feeling more at home here than anywhere else I’ve lived, and it’s taken such a short time, thanks to the weather (I am perpetually high on vitamin D) and the way the place embraces its cultural quirks and collisions. How nice for a place to be so many things, and to encourage that its people be so many things, too.
The crackdown started, infamously, on June 4, 1989. But the movement had been swelling by this point, made so tragically clear as we revisit images from that time and remember.
“We know now that one side was arguing for restraint towards the demonstrators and for wider reforms, while hardliners pressed for a crackdown. It was almost unbelievable to witness the open massive challenge to the authority of the CCP. It went on for days, then weeks, numbers growing. But something had to give.”
My entire team at work is reading/read Homo Deus, which is about post-humanism, the central topic of our video show. Despite its weight, the book is a pretty smooth read. The most interesting thing I learned from it is about the narratives we create around pain: Nobel-prize winning research found that in our memories we average the peak pain point and final pain point of experiences. So when given a choice between a shorter experience of moderate pain and a longer painful experience with a higher peak pain point, we choose the longer experience, so long as the ending was not-that-painful.
So if you’re getting a colonoscopy and your peak pain was an 8 and your final experience was a 2, you’d choose a long colonoscopy over a short procedure with a sustained pain level of 6. Ditto childbirth, etc. Harari:
“Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the ‘peak-end rule’ – it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average.”
This reminded me of an interview that director Mike Nichols gave about his film Closer, which follows a quartet of miserable relationships, or they end up feeling that way, anyway. He talked about how he wanted to bring the play to film because it features only scenes of the beginnings and the ends of relationships — that’s all the audience gets to experience — you don’t get all the quiet mundanity in between. Nichols said something about how that’s exactly how we remember our romances, too. The peak pain and the bliss at the beginning; but not much in between.
Science seems to bear out the play/film’s idea … about the end points, anyway.
Like everyone else, I think Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius and recommended Fleabag to every reader of my newsletter when season one came around a few years ago. I did not expect a second season (season one was so self-contained) so when it dropped a few weeks ago and was PERFECT, it was like finding a twenty in a purse you hadn’t used in months and then having a friend come by to offer you an ice cream sandwich.
Kristin Scott-Thomas guest stars in an episode and gives an epic speech about a woman’s pain:
“Women are born with pain built in,” she says. “It’s our physical destiny: period pains, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives, men don’t.
“They have to seek it out, they invent all these gods and demons and things just so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby.
“We have it all going on in here inside, we have pain on a cycle for years and years and years…”
Audiences loved it.
I recently started reading the work of Leslie Jamison, a writer who is my age but writes like she’s been alive for 200 years and has all the wisdom and experience to show for it. Her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, ends with the essay “A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which catalogues her own pain, examines the pain women carry, and the literary trope of the wounded woman. “I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. If you don’t read the book, here’s the piece.
It raised a lot of questions for me but a key one is this: When a woman’s pain and suffering is so often expected and cliched, how do we best carry our actual wounds? She riffs on the notion of the “post-wounded woman,” a generation of us who grew up doing everything we could to avoid the identity of a wallowing victim/woman. I recognize this in myself:
“Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood. Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, apathetic, opaque; cool and clever. They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect. I should rather call it a seam. We have sewn ourselves up.”
Then, she asks, What if some of us want to take our scars seriously?
We don’t want to be wounds, but we should be allowed to have them, to speak about having them, to be something more than just another girl who has one.
The pain is what you make of it. You have to find something in it that yields.
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’ve been all over California this month — work trips to San Francisco and San Diego, shooting the video series and hosting It’s Been a Minute episodes from both places, and made it to Palm Springs for the first time for spring break with the family.
The new series has a name, Future You with Elise Hu, and we’ve been heads down on getting the first two episodes ready for an early May release. We also need to get ahead of ourselves in filming them, so this week a crew from DC came out to work with me on Venice Beach, and then we all went to San Francisco together for a harried schedule of more interviewing and filming.
Lots of bright sides: The DC ladies got to thaw out (because apparently it’s still cold out East), and I got to have my collaborators with me in person, instead of over the video chats we do all the time.
What else do I have to say about April? I potty trained Luna using the Potty Training Boot Camp method (two days, it’s amazing). She turned two years old, so I REALLY have no more babies.
I went to San Diego for a few days to speak at a member station gala and do other assorted speaking activities.
For the older girls’ spring break, we took everyone to the desert (everything went smoothly until one of Eva’s friend’s, Brandon, accidentally ate walnuts to which he is allergic and wound up in the hospital).
Also I’m spending an inordinate amount of time training on vertical jump, so I’m ready for the NFL combine. Hehe. Actually it’s for episode three. It will all make sense later.
Friend Harper gives a goody bag to his guests that stay over at his place in Chicago. In the canvas tote are cool things like Harper-branded stickers and … a black and white disposable film camera, which I managed to use until Harper came to LA last week and I could hand off the camera to him to develop.
I love the hard-won look of these. And the time capsule element – there’s something special about film because it gives you such a finite amount of photos you can take. I wasted a lot by just taking nonsense photos of things like takeout boxes, for fun, but I also found this exercise in limits (only 24 chances) and patience (had to handoff the film to be developed, and then wait) really lovely. Baby Luna looked hot, as usual.
HBO’s Barry is back for season two! The premiere just aired last night.
After I moved here last September, I finally got around to binge-watching Barry, a show produced and written and sometimes directed by my friend Alec. It stars Bill Hader and features a lot of standout performances, but for my money the biggest breakout is the delightful Anthony Carrigan, who plays the Chechen mobster Noho Hank. If you watch the show, you know how loveable he is, even (and perhaps especially) during scenes of torture and death.
It was the highlight of my week when Carrigan came in to let me just talk to him, about him, for more than an hour. I enjoyed it so much. Can’t wait to bring it to y’all in a full episode of our pod It’s Been A Minute, which I guest host for a week later this month.
Washington D.C. is a place where people say, “I have a hard stop” at the start of meetings, unironically. It’s a place where the day starts with policy breakfasts at 7am, and the barbacks can name all nine Supreme Court Justices. As a new Californian, being in Washington in the days before the Mueller report dropped felt like culture shock, one in which I was bemused to discover photographers staking out to shoot photos of the Mueller lawyers picking up lunch, as if they were paparazzi staking out Harrison Ford.
Speaking of Harrison Ford, I had to get up for one of those early AF breakfasts to prepare for a white paper release event (Washington is also a place where there are white paper launch events). And I’m sitting there with the authors of the report, having breakfast and talking nuclear deterrence and sanctions sequencing when I casually look to my right and HARRISON FORD was sitting there, an arms length away, eating breakfast. Just like us.
I turned back to the table, made a crazy eyes face, and the others whispered, “Oh you’re just realizing this?” And then they dissuaded me from telling him I love him saying anything to him because they’d already observed him waving others away. Man, too bad. That is probably the biggest celebrity I’ve ever sat a foot away from at breakfast. He had the pleasure of hearing us go over a proposed policy toward North Korea that acknowledged it would not soon give up its nuclear weapons.
“I would come to learn, slowly, is that community is about a series of small choices and everyday actions: how to spend a Saturday, what to do when a neighbor falls ill, how to make time when there is none. Knowing others and being known; investing in somewhere instead of trying to be everywhere. Communities are built, like Legos, one brick at a time. There’s no hack.” — Jenny Anderson
I miss Korea sometimes. In the winter, I miss the heated floors. On elevators I miss being able to change my mind and press a button to reverse it. But mostly I miss my Korea friend squad.
Everywhere I’ve lived, the key measure of whether a place felt like home was the people, and the sense of community we created, together.
To that end, Austin feels homiest. And Los Angeles came to feel like home almost instantly. I have the ride-or-die kind of friends here, dating back as early as high school, plus newer friends from the school community and work friends that are among the most creative and hilarious talents at NPR.
Recently Friend Janet and I spent a late Friday night at a Korean spa (these places are open 24 hours), and I thought, wow, I’ve got a little Korea right here in LA, with a pal that had no qualms about sitting around naked together for several hours. Home!