Author Archives: Arikia

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Snake oil enchantress

Yesterday I was wandering around Barcelona getting lost accidentally on purpose, and I walked past a store filled with little jars. As soon as I passed it, I got a whiff of all the good smelling things inside, so I backed up and went in. Immediately this woman approached me. She was pretty but not striking, but she was jubilant in her demeanor. To her, I was the only person in the room, possibly the only person she cared about in life. A similar approach executed in a different scenario would be terrifying. If someone came up to me like that while I was at the gym or something, I would be super creeped out. I suppose there’s a fine line between being creepy and completely mesmerizing, but she was on the safe side. She asked me if I wanted to try some. I didn’t even know what it was, but yes.

Turns out she was selling a variety of different sea salts. She led me over to a circular sink with foot pump levers in the middle of the room, never once breaking the lazer-like focus of attention on me. She picked up the jar and waved a scoop of the oily mixture under my nose. It probably wasn’t the smell, but something about the way she offered it to me that made the serotonin release in my neck, the way it does when you get a back rub, or do hot yoga, or are in the womb. She scooped out a clump of each different scent of salt and presented it to me in that way until I was basically putty in her hands. Then she took me through the actual tutorial of scrubbing my hands until they were baby soft.

So I wound up buying like €30 worth of patchouli lavender vanilla-scented bath items. And you know what?

I just took a shower and I smell like fucking heaven. But that women could have been selling snake oil, and I’m sure she has and would. I probably would have been able to tell the difference, but maybe I wouldn’t have. It made me realize what a valuable human skill this economic seduction is, especially in areas where the economy is in the gutter.

It also reminded me that I am a horrible salesperson. If something doesn’t have a purpose, and the transfer of its possession from one human being to another wouldn’t result in a substantial net positive effect, I have no desire to spend my time convincing someone else they should acquire the thing. There is already too much worthless crap taking up space in the world. If I know of something you should want in theory, that I am able to provide to you, I will recommend or offer it to you. If you can’t see it’s appeal, its quality, its substance, even after a short explanation — you’re clearly not worthy of the thing being offered, and I will move on.

So here we are, in a world where less and less people focus on making things of quality and more and more people focus on improving their ability to sell crap. Then more and more consumers emerge not being able to tell the difference between what is crap and what is quality, reinforcing the value of crap and prizing the ability to sell crap as the most worthwhile skill of all. We’re tending towards a society where there’s no point in playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma because we’ve already lost. Default or deal with it.

But building a life (or a company) on snake oil is risky, because when the bubble bursts and the illusion dissolves, it will all be worthless. Things of substance, and people of substance will be resilient to environmental turbulence, but the phonies will be screwed. So I’m going to keep doing what I do, and trying my best to resist the charms of enticing salespeople. Or maybe I’ll give in long enough to convince them to work for me so they can fool the people who are used to buying snake oil into buying something of substance.

Julia Stiles is my spirit animal

Exhibit A: Running the newsroom (and attempting to find inner peace via computer)

Exhibit B: Asserting oneself in the classroom from an early age

Exhibit C: Leisurely reading

Exhibit D: Taking care of business

Exhibit E: Attempting to make deadline

Exhibit F: When I walk into the party like

Exhibit G seems to be missing from the database, but I’d imagine it would look something like this.

Pattern recognition and Icelandic Lady Gaga imposters

A few weeks ago I noticed my brain doing something weird. I was in Iceland at a Steed Lord show with two of my favorite Icelandic tech lady friends, and we’d had a few beers and a shot they call a “magic carpet” (Redbull and Amaretto, actually pretty good). I was in a crowded room and knew nobody, but those two, had never seen the band before, but I kept thinking that the performer’s look and everything about her was terribly derivative of Lady Gaga.

street-lord-interview-live-show-2013I started thinking about the fact that the people of Iceland really did not give a fuck about Lady Gaga, just like very few Americans probably knew who Steed Lord was except for maybe some of the Williamsburg types I used to order coffee from. I contemplated how where I was was as west as I would be, geographically and otherwise, for the next 10 months; that as I carried on eastward, my surroundings and cultural references would become dimmer and more removed from the reality that I’ve known my whole life.

As I surveyed the crowd of dancing bodies, singing along with lyrics that I didn’t know, my eyes caught on someone who looked like a friend of mine, tall with dark hair piled on top of her head in a loose bun. She has a face that’s unique when you’re the only half-French, half-Chinese chick in NYU, but in Iceland that kind of Bjorkish facial structure is quite common. I realized it wasn’t her in a split second, but the disappointment lingered. Because in my previous life, it could have been. Even though there are 8.2 million people in NYC, I developed patterns of behavior similar to so many of the ones I liked the best such that by the end of my time there, I ran into someone I knew almost every time I went out.

For the rest of the set, everywhere I looked I saw someone who could have been someone I knew, fully knowing that it wasn’t, that it couldn’t be. Some logical part of my brain had grasped my new-found geographical estrangement, while some mechanical pattern-abiding part couldn’t yet accept it. It was sad, exhilarating and scary all at once. Could I really last 10 months without seeing a familiar face in familiar places? I’d have to, so yes. I remembered that I went through the same thing when I first moved to New York. It took time, but gradually that strange and intimidating cesspool of human struggle and triumph transformed from an overwhelming blur into something so normal I couldn’t be bothered to look out the window of my airport cab upon returning home from a short business trip.

In that club, the reason I saw my friend in that setting is because she would be in a setting like that. Thinking about it now, the brain does this in so many ways — it looks for people and things to fill the roles we expect of them. It didn’t take too long to stop expecting to see my friends in Iceland, and to focus on meeting new people in the moment. So now I realize I have quite a bit of unraveling of expectations to do on many levels. The whole world is at my feet right now, and I can redefine my expectations of new people however I see fit. And so can anyone, no matter where they are. It’s all a matter of perspective. Because hey, I take spontaneous and sloppily planned trips to Iceland to encounter fake Lady Gagas and write about it so you don’t have to.

 

Into the unknown

I leave for Iceland tomorrow. My AirBnB just fell through so I only have my first night’s stay planned out of 5 total. I guess this is where my problem-solving abilities will need to kick in. I’m not feeling super comfortable. I’m tired from sleeping in various unfamiliar (though lovely) places for the past 10 days. I feel like when I get there, I’ll be fine, but right now the prospect of the unknown is looming over me like a dark cloud. I just have to keep remembering that this is the easy part of my journey. This is touristy Iceland, not the middle of the desert or the jungle in the Central African Republic or any place high on the human suffering scale.

I’m thinking about why I’m doing this in the first place (venturing so far from home, just because), and I’ve traced it back to a conversation I once had with one a documentarian friend. I told him I had been thinking about being a foreign correspondent for a while. And he looked at me and kind of chuckled and said: “If you want to be a foreign correspondent, go somewhere foreign and correspond.”

It was such a simple statement, one of those realizations that’s just so true, but the precipitating logic that finally causes the thought to take hold is so rare. Also, I just watched Inception so now I’m thinking about all the reasons people have told me to see it over the years and am trying to remember what they were trying to tell me in telling me to watch it. I think it must be the part about the way ideas take hold once they are seeded. I tend to grab hold of good ideas and run, consequences be damned. I mean, I hope that I will continue to run to good places where I don’t have to worry about consequences.

This is the easy part. I must not fear.

Bees!

I’m almost ready to emerge from my writing prison! So close, I can taste it, and it tastes like the entire jar of raw honey I ate over the past week.

oprah-beesH/t Adrienne LaFrance for this GIF excellence.

In related news, I love my @LadyBits! Seriously, I’ve somehow managed to assemble the best group of writers ever. I’ve never been so all-in with a project before, and it’s awesome to see it grow.

Also related, I’m working on one of the craziest feature stories I’ve written to date. I won’t say what it’s about quite yet, but I will tell you that it’s tangentially related to this oldie but goodie: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/i-am-a-cyborg-and-i-want-my-google-implant-already/63806/

Soon, all will be revealed.

soon