Tuning out

I’m riding in the back seat of my aunt’s SUV, swaying along dark country roads while I try to focus on what I need to do to ensure my survival across the Atlantic this winter. She chats with her friend from down the street and my cousin next to me in the back seat talk about this television show and that, and I may as well be an alien in a pleated skirt and lipstick posing, poorly, as a suburban human. They talk about the newest episode of blah-blah-blah as I sit quietly, watching the rain cling in droplets to the window, grudgingly fracturing off into various paths and I think of Jeff Goldblum flirting with Laura Dern and chaos theory. They discuss which actress was good and which was bad while my mind drifts back to something my aunt said over dinner: about why the public discourse has shifted so drastically to the Syrian refugees when the Haitians have been coming over in boats and drowning trying for decades; about why there is such a debate about helping the Syrians when we haven’t even helped our next door neighbors living in the worst poverty one can imagine, before the subject was strategically changed by her friend who is of the opinion that politics should be avoided during meals and especially meals with family members from New York. I overhear so-and-so won the Emmy for something as I stare off into the woods watching the trees slice through the floodlights of faraway houses, and I am back in Haiti smelling the burning garbage and feeling my combat boots rub my heels raw while I walk with the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Haiti for miles, past the markets where the sellers tirelessly flip the produce and descriptionless pharmaceuticals stuck to cones that brings in the $2 they need to survive for the day. They laugh at the screen death of a B-actor but I am standing with my nonchalant little sister over a mass grave filled with the bodies of victims of poverty, of America’s refusal to take responsibility for the power it has accrued, which led to the lack of help for our neighbors near and far, which led to the lack of stable concrete that burst into powder and smothered everything and everyone beneath it the fraction of a second the tectonic plate nobody had ever thought was a risk slipped beneath the hellish island from where my life snapped into existence on this plane. I exhaled sharply.

“Riki, are we talking to much about TV?” my aunt asks.

“No,” I say pleasantly and smile, loving her so much it overrides my building anxiety over the futility of our day’s events to change any bit of what is wrong with things.

“Are you thinking about all the work you have to do?”

“Yeah.”

Cirrhosis of the heart

love4dummies

I’ve been writing a book proposal. My handwritten copy comes from a totally different part of my brain than my typed copy, so I’ve been going back through my old journals, through the trenches of my psyche, fishing for the repetitions and the points of lucidity that I could only write knowing they were for myself and no one else. It’s hard. It’s hard to face those old parts of me.

Our brains repress things for a reason, sometimes the good with the bad. There were many parts that would have been better off buried, but the ink on the page is like a time machine. All the heartache comes back just as vivid, even though now I’m enough removed that can view it like a movie. It’s no wonder so many writers went insane.

I used to believe that nobody would ever love me. I was told this so much when I was a child that I really, deep down, thought myself incapable of being a beloved, well into adulthood. Too weird, too wild, too quick to see the endpoints and paint pictures of an extended reality for those unwilling, or so I thought, to look beyond the painted veil. But they weren’t unwilling, they were incapable of seeing—at least in that moment in time. This has taken years to unlearn, and I’m still not so sure there is anyone out there who can handle all of me, as is.

One of my exes once shouted at me in exasperation that being with me was like looking into a mirror. I didn’t understand why that was problematic. I tried to give him the things he wanted that he hadn’t yet acknowledged to himself. Ego dystonia. I have a knack for sensing repressed desires. I someone that stranger tell their darkest secret to within ten minutes of meeting, if you can imagine what comes out within a month of dating me. They always ran away. But they always came back around, eventually. When I was younger, I thought I’d wait, but now I know it will always be too late. I have pages and pages of unsent “I told you so”s, and unsent they’ll stay.

I wonder if all that running has hardened my heart. If all the wounds from the pieces they took when they left have created scar tissue, and that when someone comes along who has the ability to pierce through all the damage, he’ll break it for good when he eventually runs away too, afraid of his own reflection. Perhaps this is my armor now. It’s heavy, but I built it myself because I know I need it.

If 29 year old Arikia had 19 year old Arikia in a room, I would grab her and shake her and tell her that someday she will be loved as I disappeared. Isn’t that how time travel works? I wish 39 year old Arikia would come back and tell me that now.

Sharia cigarettes

Author’s note: I wrote this after consuming a substantial amount of whiskey, then edited it sober. Best read with a fake NY accent.
So I’m in my favorite bar in Brooklyn. It’s 2amish, when the regulars from my first Brooklyn neighborhood come in to get rowdy. They say the Subway is the great equalizer of New York City but we’re not allowed to drink alcohol on trains here. This cavern of debauchery—my Tuesday night worship center tended by Metalhead Jesus who serves whiskey instead of wine—doesn’t quite draw a random sample of city-dwellers; set back a considerable distance from the street with nothing but three stenciled letters reading “b-a-r” to identify itself, I suppose it self-selects for those inclined to be trusted with secrets; it transcends class, race, and income, while running the gamut of big city personalities.
This is the place that keeps me grounded; it’s how I make sure I never get sucked too deep into any particular bubble, my portal back to ordinary life—whatever that means in NYC.
I was at the far end of the bar laughing with Lily*, a woman who befriended me years ago by telling me all of her girlfriends hated me, then being impressed when I didn’t give a shit about who or why (because their boyfriends tend to get drunk and send me naked pictures, I guess). She asked if I wanted to go out for a smoke with her, so I broke out a pack of my duty-free Camels from Istanbul.
“You know these only cost $2 a pack in Turkey? Why are they so expensive here?” I complained rhetorically.
Unexpectedly, the guy sitting next to Lily, a “regular” so she claimed when she introduced him to me, uttered to no one in particular:
“Sharia.”
A record screeched inside my head and I let out a scoff.
“What?” I looked to Lily seeking some further context about this person, this statement, but with a subtle shake of the head as she turned away, she removed all ties and responsibility from this person.
I observed him as he started straight into the bar shelves. He nodded, one emphatic nod, and looked at me sideways as if to say, “you heard me.”
“Wait, what? Did you say ‘sharia’?” He sighed, seemingly exasperated that I didn’t get the connection, and sipped his drink. He expected me to drop it and go away. But sometimes I like to argue for sport, so I decided to call his bluff.
“No no, how would sharia law impact the cost of cigarettes in New York?” For a moment as he sat there looking annoyed, I doubted my own skepticism. I bended my mind to consider this new conspiratorial option. At the very least, I wanted to hear the punchline of a joke I didn’t get.
He made the face of a know-it-all fifth grader, and for a moment I thought I was about to get schooled. Then, all at once, he resigned, hunching forward.
“Yeah, I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about,” he admitted. “You got me!”
Lily gave me a congratulatory glance. I laughed. He was too drunk to care, but I could sense the onset of embarrassment seeping through the whiskey, so I said: “OK, well you wanna know my theory?”
“Yeah, what is your theory,” he said, finally turning to face me.
I said something about how the American public’s complacency with monopolistic industries that are capable of manipulating governmental regulatory entities has resulted in bulk inflation of goods that holds no bearing on the actual cost of the items outside of this legislative zone. Cigarettes were an easy target here because of the additional “sin tax” factor. Just a theory. I don’t really know, but at least I know what I don’t know.
He faux proposed to me, and Lily and I finally went outside to smoke.
I wonder in what other circumstance he might have blurted out an Islamic buzzword as an explanation for some other minor first world injustice, and how maybe another time no one would have called it out. Someone listening may have thought “yeah, that Muslim thing, that sounds right,” and inflated the image of Middle Easterners as abstract demons coming for every last one of our freedoms. After all, how many Americans believe that Islam started and is the present cause of all our problems? I would think there is some substantial overlap with the ones who think a set of religious laws that are used to generally oppress women and free thought, has anything to do with the price of cigarettes anywhere in the US.
I don’t really know who else would care enough to call out a drunk stranger at a bar. I hope a lot of people. I personally do it all the time, for practice and amusement. There’s an art to engaging with people who automatically assume themselves more clever than you, to setting them straight without pissing them off, to doing it in a way such that they respect you after. I wish more people would do it. This city is built on bluffing and bullshit, but what it really needs is a whole lot more caller outers.
Back inside, we all continued drinking whiskey around our corner of the bar and navigating other shaky political ground and laughing. If you want to kick it in the great equalizer, you can’t be so PC all the time. I’ll forever be baffled by the dumb shit Americans say. But I’ll keep listening to it.

On editor’s block, the corrosive effects of the advertising industry, and the dismal state of journalism

gonewriting
This weekend a friend gave me something I needed very badly. It was something I never would have bought for myself, but didn’t have the audacity to ask anyone for. And he just knew, and he could, so he did. If you ask me, that’s the way gift-giving should be done, not in the context of some capitalistic ritual.
This friend was an instant friend, the kind of friend I don’t need to use falsities or filters with. He is also one of the original architects of the internet. When it comes to publishing, and most other stuff, I trust him. He knows my style, knows my flaws, knows that I care deeply about improving the condition of this world if it is within my reach. So when we got up to leave his favorite Ukrainian diner, and he asked me to something, I listened.
“Just write,” he urged me. “No matter what else you do, just keep writing.”
So I am. This is me writing.
As he and others have aptly noticed, I haven’t been writing much lately, for publication, and there are three main reasons for this. Better to be a writer who writes about writing than a writer who doesn’t write, I suppose.
For one, I have, not writer’s block, but editor’s block. I used to publish something every day, for fun, for justice, and for the sake of writing. But when you spend so much time editing and processing and publishing other people’s work, your own becomes but a shadow of a priority, the last thing on the to-do list. I enjoy helping people publish the best possible version of their writing, so it’s easy to feel that I am doing something meaningful *enough*. I am not immune to the illusion of productivity. In working behind the scenes, like a ghost, with authors whose ideas I support, and who have a bigger megaphone than I, I have been able to feel content in a way. But, as my friend told me the day we met, if I don’t act now while I’m young, I could wind up content—or worse, married. I’ve luckily dodged the later, but the former is a work in progress.
The second reason I haven’t been publishing much lately is that the process is unpleasant on the whole. Publishing tech still sucks, despite all its promise, and writing professionally involves doing many (IMO) degrading things that have nothing to do with writing at all. Sometimes by the time I “sell” my writing, my initial idea has been bent so far away from its original orientation that I don’t even know how to write the new thing it is supposed to become.
My ideal editor just says “Yes. Assigned,” to good ideas, and offers the support to help elevate a work from draft to ready-for-publication quality. That is the kind of editor I have always tried to be. I still know a few good ones, and they are prepared to ditch the click-driven jobs they hate and work with me on the kind of writing we believe should be produced as soon as the option presents itself.
Our publishing industry in the United States, in its current iteration, doesn’t incentivize the publishing of ideas that are worthwhile of being discussed in and of themselves. There is a capitalistic undercurrent to almost every form of paid writing that selects for things that exploit the reader using all the original tools of captivation (comedy, sex, violence), refined into the art of public manipulation as described by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. This is, of course, until you’re able to break through to the literary level in which you can write whatever you want because you’re a “thought leader.” But by that stage, you probably don’t need to be paid to write. It’s probably more of a hassle invoicing through the archaic payment systems in “modern” media than to just call it a trade, your work for their platform. I find it a serious conundrum that the people who should be writing the most, are the least incentivized by the industry to do so.
An essay shouldn’t be a vessel for ads. It should be a tool of transformation in and of itself.
Finally, and frankly, I am disgusted by the state of the world. As I have observed in my travels over the past three years to 30 different countries, the dismal state of human affairs is directly connected to the state of the publishing industry—globally, but driven by the failings of the American media.
I have made my career out of creating jobs for myself and other within institutions I wanted to believe were good and just and shared my ideals for producing the kind of journalism that fuels democracy. But it has never taken more than a month inside each institution for me to understand the flaws, the poor decision-making, and ultimately, the greed that corrodes its editorial goals in practice. I have made it my hobby to usher talented individuals around the industry, plucking them from toxic institutions and placing them in places that are at least a step up, where they may have the opportunity to gain control. But something always stops them from truly breaking through.
If my experiences over the course of my career in media, which include founding and operating a media company, have led me to one conclusion, it’s that the advertising industry is a plague on the journalism industry, and on humanity itself. I won’t contribute to it any longer (in so much as that’s possible while still remaining connected to my peers on the internet). And I don’t need to.
I’ve tested my limits of existence and I know what I need to survive in this world, and it is not much. I won’t waste a day of my time doing something I don’t believe in. And who on the publishing side wants to work with a journalist who can’t be bought and owned? I’m not good for your business models. But that’s OK because I’m creating new ones.
If only the our government took care of us all so we could focus on improving the world through our art. Absent that in American society, we must rely on each other.
So I will write. But I won’t write for the advertising industry, or for capitalism. I will write for my friend, and for fun, and for justice. I will write. No guarantees on what about, but I’ll keep doing it.
And if I don’t, I don’t. But the only way I’ve ever done anything in this life is by lighting a fire under my own ass. So here’s hoping.

Altering course

space

I had dinner with an amazing couple in their 70s tonight, a former NASA scientist from Turkey and an English teacher from Tennessee. They’ve had so much time to read books and process information about everything from ancient civilizations to the cosmos, and it was an honor to sit across the dinner table with them and observe them delight in teaching me so many things I didn’t know. So much of what I’ve been doing with my life these past few years has involved managing, teaching, editing other people—and that’s been important work that I’m glad I did and wouldn’t trade. But I’m 28 and I don’t know enough to be teaching people all the time. I need to balance the teaching with learning from those who are older and wiser than me. The reason I got into journalism in the first place was to enable myself to continuously learn. The fact that I write things down for other people to read is really just a byproduct of my own quest for knowledge; it is as much an exhibitionistic display of my ability to synthesize the nuggets of information I gather as it is a compulsion of civic duty—because it sure isn’t for the money. Observing the current trajectory of the journalism industry, it having been pressured by capitalistic forces to all but abandon the pursuit of knowledge in exchange for the factory farming of entertainment, I am starting to think that I need to find another outlet in which I can funnel my skills and creativity.

Ideas welcome.

A lesson in Slovenian culture from my new friends in Ljubljana. Ramstein has nothing on this guy.