Monthly Archives: April 2013

Why people are the way they are

I think this is the single most fascinating topic. Sometimes you can spend an entire lifetime researching why someone is the way he/she is, but you can never fully know the answer. True friends are infinite quests.

I get drawn in to a lot of weird situations because when I first meet someone and they come across as mean or cold, instead of not interacting with them, I make it my quest to figure out why they’re acting like that. I can never resist a think wall. Ironically, most of the time, these countenances are a subconscious manifestation of a fear that people don’t want to talk with them, or won’t like them if they do. Sometimes these people are the best, the rare earth gems invisible to amateurs but treasures to the true people connoisseurs. It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface and peak at what’s underneath — a single contextualized question will usually do it. There are plenty of duds, but there’s nothing like seeing that sparkle and embarking on a psychological journey to the center of a person’s being.

Even connoisseurs can be fooled though, as the world is full of con artists. You usually don’t have to look too hard for them, they conveniently pop up near you by a seeming stroke of luck and look pretty close to the real thing. They do such a good job convincing you that you stop digging. You trust them. Then one day, you observe a crack in the varnish, so you peel back another layer and discover they are not who they have been pretending to be. They’ve been playing the part of, a genuine person, a true friend, but deep down they’re a fabrication. Funny how the appearance of these cracks often coincides with the other person getting something they’d been desperately wanting, something you helped them obtain.

It’s kind of like how in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is enchanted by Dr. Elsa Schneider, but she turns out to be a con artist Nazi who was really just using Indy to find the Holy Grail. These discoveries hurt, but whatever, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later. People who use other people as stepping stones to get what they want generally seal their own fates.

Ok, I’ve taken this metaphor far enough. The moral of the story is that even though the fakes can be disheartening, the real gems make it worth the dig.

Isolative tendencies

I’ve been sort of withdrawing from Twitter lately. I’ve been closing Tweet Deck for days at a time, only tweeting from the web browser or my phone if I need to. I guess it’s because I’ve been more focused on productivity and other adult things lately, and it’s just so busy and blinky that I can’t focus. But also something feels different lately. It’s not as fun anymore. Or maybe I’m not as fun anymore, or drawn to the fun. Maybe I’m taking it on as my responsibility to focus on serious things. I just don’t geek out like I used to on Twitter, mainly just in person, with people. I feel like Twitter has become this frantic ego-stroking competition. Maybe I’m noticing more because it’s my job to be a front-facing journalist instead of a back-end editor. I worry that I’m being judged, and the more I worry the more I want to give the finger to the judgers. How dare they.

Maybe I just need a break from Twitter. Who me? Queen of the Internet? Nobody’s called me that in a while, The science bloggers used to, back when my entire life was devoted to getting their work out into the world. I miss being able to do that for the scientists. Everything’s changed so much.

But I digress. The whole point of this was to remind you that 40% of Americans never leave their home towns. Can you believe it? A friend told me that on the road trip we took to Pittsburgh last weekend. It’s places like that that make you remember how true it is, when you walk into a diner and everybody knows you’re not from around here. It’s kind of like how the majority of Americans have never used Twitter either, or use it once and think it’s stupid and never use it again. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ll allow it to comfort me about closing Tweet Deck for a few days so I can write, and think.

Spring hot dog contemplation

Tonight I went out to celebrate the 3rd year anniversary of the first email sent on Rachel Sklar’s XX in Tech listserve. There was an open bar, but I drank only water. I think this may have been a first for me. It wasn’t hard or anything. I’ve had a few debates in my day with people who were looking out for my well-being and those who were simply self-righteous hypocrites about whether or not I was an alcoholic. I’m not, I just like to drink. But I like not drinking just as well.
When I was at this open bar I didn’t get cravings, I didn’t sit in the corner isolating myself from all thoughts of alcohol. I happily drank water and said no thank you whenever anyone offered me a drink.

On my way home I stopped at a hot dog restaurant because all the windows were open and it was nice outside, and also because I wanted a hot dog. I sat down in the far corner with the latest edition of n+1 and began reading about our post-sociological society, when a woman sat down next to me, also by herself. I told her I liked her skirt. “Thanks, it’s actually a dress,” she said. We chatted intermittently while I waited for my hot dog and she waited for her beer. I learned she was from Russia and worked at an Irish pub on the West side. It was pleasant conversation, but I kept burying myself into my reading material. I like n+1 because it’s the kind of text that makes you get lost in thought. I read a sentence, and then zone out for a minute thinking about what I just read until I realize I’m making some start realization about my life, so far away from the content that I snap my attention back into it to digest. It’s kind of like how dolphins sleep, I’d bet.

Then I realized that this was the first time I’d read printed material for my own intellectual enjoyment in a while. Something besides the news, or research for an article. I’ve had that edition of n+1 for two weeks now, and I’m still only on page 10. The Russian chick kept chatting at me. She was trying to make friends, and five years ago maybe we would have become best friends. Five years ago, I met my best friend in a similar way when she spilled coffee on me at Atlas. But now, I’ve long past that theoretical capacity where you can’t mentally add anyone to your social circle. I love making friends and having friends, and it’s not like that number actually exists in a rigid way. I just have no time for myself lately which lowers the quality of friendship I can offer, so I try to resist unless it’s so compelling I can’t resist (which still happens at least once a week).

Two of the Russian’s friends walked up just as I was finishing my hot dog. She asked me if I wanted to go to a show down the street with them. Five years ago I would have. But I told her I had to go home and work, and referenced my n+1 like that had anything to do with it. In a way it did. I needed to go restore my sanity by sitting alone in my apartment on Friday night, practicing the flute and going through my starred email list and doing the things I needed to do so I don’t have anxiety dreams. Those are the worst.

But I’m glad she offered to be my friend. It makes me all the more certain that I can go anywhere in the world and experience the best of the place, because something about me makes people want to invite me to experience things with them. I haven’t quite figured out what that is yet, but I’m glad it’s this way and not the other way around.

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An open letter to the individual who first prompted me to contemplate law school

Dear Kelly,

How time flies! It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since you were doing everything your scheming little mind could conceive of to prevent me from exposing the administration’s corruption at my good old alma mater, the University of Michigan. We had some fun conversations back then, didn’t we? Me attempting to uncover the truth about unlawful transactions, you blatantly lying to cover it up, me filing FOIA requests to catch you in your lies. You were such a prankster back then, too! Remember the time you walked over to the Michigan Daily and held a secret meeting with my editors threatening to stonewall the entire publication’s access to members of the administration if I was appointed news editor? You sure got me that time, Kelly.

Out of all the memorable encounters we had though, I’d have to say the one that stands out in my mind the most is when you gave me a bit of unsolicited advice. My memory is a bit hazy on this one (getting old!), but I believe we were in the midst of a conversation about the proposed construction project to renovate the football stadium. You were telling me all about how the project would be economically sustained by the athletic department. I listened to you lie through your teeth for a few minutes, and then I surprised you with proof the athletic department was actually skimming money out of the University’s general fund — a fund strictly reserved for academics.

I’ll never forget the look on your face! It was priceless, Kelly. Even you have to admit, I got you there. But what you said to me in response really struck me. You didn’t address my point, you just looked at me with an expression somewhere between disgust and defeat and said: You should be a lawyer.

Well, Kelly, after all these years, you’re still wrong. Some things never change! Navigating the world of freelance journalism has provided ample opportunities for me to experience institutional corruption, abuses of power, breaches of contract, and even discrimination — just like old times. No, Kelly, journalism is the career for me, but I still think about your suggestion from time to time, especially when I triumph in tough negotiations. In fact, just this past week I encountered three instances of people trying to screw me out of money, and in each situation, I considered that maybe I should quit journalism and go to law school. I can’t imagine what kind of a soulless bitch I’d turn into if I had to deal with that every day, though. You were a practicing lawyer for a while, weren’t you? Maybe you can tell me what that’s like sometime.

Anyway, Kelly, it sure was fun reminiscing. I hope those college journalists aren’t giving you as hard of a time as I did. I wouldn’t want to lose my edge in the industry ;)

Best,

Arikia Millikan, c/o 2008

Thinking about writing

They say those who can’t do teach, so when a writer writes about writing, you know something is awry. At this moment in time, I am generally happy: I’m healthy, I have great friends who have gone out of their way to do incredibly sweet things for me ever since I announced I’m leaving New York, and I just spent a lovely evening coordinating a fundraiser for the Museum of Math at Science House and was able to come home and put the money I earned in my parrot fund. However, there is a cloud that has been looming over me for the past month — the deadline cloud.

While I was an editor at Wired, I gave my freelancers deadlines all the time. Miraculously, I picked amazing writers who turned in quality work on time with only a few exceptions. But actually being on deadline is pretty new to me. I wrote articles at Wired, but they were never on deadline because it was understood that my writing was basically free time work that came secondary to my editing responsibilities. Nobody was going to ask that I put their request for me to write above my own job, so the things that I’ve had published at Wired were all kind of random passion projects.

Now though, I do have deadlines. Deadlines given to me by editors I respect just as much as my freelancers respected me. I’m not complaining about the fact that I have deadlines. I love deadlines. I love them because writing is fun and all but publishing is the really rewarding part. I mean, I write on this blog and sometimes it’s good and makes sense, but I’m mostly writing to think here. That’s probably the core of why I’m a writer, because writing helps me think. All my life I’ve been getting into these confusing situations and I can’t make sense of them until I write them down.

Which is the whole stupid conundrum I’m having lately. Writing helps me think, but when I think too much about writing, I can’t write.

I never understood why print magazines let their writers take so long to write feature articles. I figured the writers had to be milking the system — jerking off, playing games on their computers or something while they were supposed to be working. But now I get it. When someone gives you a topic and tells you to write the best thing that you possibly can in an hour, that’s easy. You just do it, and it’s done in an hour. But when someone gives you a 2,000 word goal and wants you to write something epic and evergreen what will withstand the scrutiny of millions of misogynist commenters and reddit trolls, that requires a lot of thinking. I mean, is there ever really enough thinking to prepare one for that?

I’m sorry I doubted you, feature writers! It’s true, writing feature articles takes a long time. I just wrote this essay about cholera in Haiti, finally, after thinking about it for a whole year. A year. And when I actually sat down to write it, it took a day. But it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t on the page for a year, so it took a year to write. That’s what most of writing is for me: thinking.

Often times when I’m working on a story, I’ll tell people about different parts of it first. Friends, strangers, doesn’t matter. They’ll ask “what are you working on?” and I’ll say “a story about so-and-so,” and they’ll say “oh, what about it?” and I use that prompt as my test bed. I’ll tell them about it one way, and if it makes sense than I remember the explanatory process I used and incorporate it into the narrative thread that exists only in my head. I weave these threads in my head constantly. There are thousands of them, all tangled up with each other, waiting for the moment I find the end and tug it out of my head onto the page so it can exist there forever. When I finally find an end, it just comes out like a spool unraveling. It’s just a matter of looking for it, and getting it, and sometimes it takes a really long time.

Sometimes though, things stop me from looking. It’s an irrational fear. A fear that maybe the thread that exists in my head isn’t worthy of paper or even internet space. Like my new boyfriend David Foster Wallace once said, people who worship intellectualism are always worried about being found out for being some kind of fraud. But then most of the writers I respect say they constantly worry about being found out and this is how they know they’re good journalists. They say that if they every stopped worrying about that, they would then know that they’d lost it and should quit the profession immediately.

I think that good editors know this, because they have all gone through it, which is why they’re considerate with writers going through it. But how does one learn how to stop thinking about writing and just fucking write? How do I put aside all the little things that are easier and more immediate and less about fulfilling of my own professional desires, and work that thread into something awesome without thinking about it until I go insane with deadline-pushing guilt?

Le sigh. I guess the key is to stop thinking about writing, and blogging about writing, and just write. In the time it took me to write this blog post, I could have written most of the other thing I needed to write. At least now I feel a little more clear on what I have to write. I will hammer it out! Sorry for being so meta.

100 days not smoking

It’s true! I was going to reward myself with something, but I can’t think of anything I want. Everything about manufacturing pretty much disgusts me these days. I think I have reached the end of Capitalism. All I want now is to write, travel, and eventually to come back and get a companion parrot. I guess I’ll just calculate how much money I would have spent on cigarettes and put it in a parrot fund or something.

Since you’re definitely wondering what kind of parrot I would get, I’ll tell you the options:

1) African Gray

parrot-africangrayThey are the smartest of the bunch from a human perspective. They require a lot of attention and can get quite sassy if they are displeased. But their ability to communicate astounds me and I would love to be able to be able to provide an engaging environment for one of these creatures that require so much intellectual stimulation. Most famously, Alex the African Gray demonstrated that parrots aren’t just mimics, and that they think critically to use words in context and apply referential meaning to objects just like humans do. Anyone who’s ever had a parrot knows they do that, but Alex scientifically validated it. And he could do fucking math. He didn’t get nearly as much YouTube fame as he should have in his short life, so I’ll be sure to teach my parrot to do math and make him a YouTube celeb in memory of Alex.

2) Amazon

parrot-amazonThere are lots of variations of Amazons. This one is a yellow-crested Amazon, and it looks exactly like the parrot that first enchanted me in Puerto Rico when I was 8 or so. There was one in a cage in a hotel near where I was playing at the beach, and I went over to look at it. It looked at me, and I don’t think I left the cage for an hour. One of the hotel workers came over to say, “watch out kid, that parrot will take your finger off,” and kind of teased it by flicking the cage. I knew the parrot just didn’t like that particular worker and that he really wanted me to scratch his neck. So I did, and the workers were amazed to find that an animal they assumed was aggressive by nature actually just had standards.

Amazons have a pretty big capacity for human language as well. I used to parrot-sit for an Amazon named Jake when I was in college. Jake’s owner had rescued him from a man who had no idea what he was getting into with parrot ownership, and grew so worn of Jake’s noisy demands that he kept him locked in a dark closet with only sunflower seeds (not at all the kind of balanced diet any kind of parrot needs) for years. Jake was too traumatized to be handled in his new home, but he still delighted in interaction. One time late at night, I got quite a startle to hear a man’s low voice in the house and thought someone was breaking in. Then I realized it was just Jake imitating his previous owner’s voice.

3) Eclectus

parrot-eclectus

Eclectus are just the most beautiful birds in the world, I think. They are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning the males and females look different. Above is a female, and the males are bright green with a candy corn beak. I once knew an eclectus female named Girdy, also a rescue that I parrot-sat. She had also lost trust of humans due to a traumatic past, but she really tried and it was cute. She would sit on her stand and when I would try to pick her up she would have a neurotic breakdown, part of her wanting to step up and be a carefree parrot again, but the abused part of her holding her back. Her eyes would turn frantic and she would start panting a little bit. I succeeded in picking her up a few times, but felt bad stressing her out by the process, so I decided to just admire her from afar.

Someone once asked me why I liked parrots so much. It’s because parrots only care about three things: play time, snack time, and mischief. What better companion animal is there than that? Don’t get me wrong, I love all animals, but parrots are just the best.

My ideal future parrot is one I would raise from an egg, like I did my childhood parrot. That way you become their BFF automatically. The ethical thing to do though would be to adopt a parrot, since there are so many adult parrots out there in need of good homes. Chances are an adopted parrot probably wouldn’t be as nice as one I raised, or have the learning aptitude and vocabulary, but as long as it would let me scratch it’s neck every now and then, I would be happy.