Author Archives: Arikia

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Consider the moth


Today I was in the kitchen when I heard water splattering in my living room. This happens every day when my upstairs neighbor waters the plants hanging off her pseudo-balcony. And like I do every day, I rushed over to close the sliding door separating my unit from the courtyard so the water wouldn’t splash onto my desk.

With the slam came a fluttering of wings, and a disoriented moth landed on the glass inside my apartment. Over and over, it thrust itself at the glass. I watched its futile attempts with pity as the water cascaded down the other side. 

Oh to be that moth: jolted out of your reality, fighting to get back to your place of contentment, but there is an invisible barrier between you and your preferred state of being. Everything is blurry and you don’t understand why, but you suspect maybe this is the end. Life is life.

Also, there is also a giant monster behind you.

I waited until the water droplets stopped falling and slid the door a little bit open, but the moth remained fixated on its point of reference on the glass. Its delicate body bounced off it over and over as it tried to pass through, as if hoping its own confusion of the physics at work would give way to an equally confusing but advantageous escape.

I slid the door further open, but didn’t want it to get stuck between the doors, so I grabbed a piece of paper and gently encouraged it to move to the left, toward freedom. Not trusting the monster, it kept trying to exit through the glass with greater urgency. The more I tried to help it walk onto the paper, the more it went the other direction, until it flew to the top pane of glass, exhasperated. 

I stared at that moth and considered the implications. Overwhelmed by its most basic instincts for survival, the moth was actually increasing its chances of death. And sometimes life is like this. Perhaps it is like this for all creatures living in artificial worlds. How ironic that the behavioral traits which would have ensured our survival in a world without man-made constructions, that the behavioral impulses that would have deemed us most fit, are sometimes the factors that can now put us at the gravest disadvantages.

I pitied the moth because it did not understand its condition. It could not sense that the path to freedom was only six inches away, an exit well within its physical capability, but far outside its reality. I don’t know what the world looks like to a moth, but I would imagine it knew that the bright, tree-filled, outside world in front of it would lead to the fulfillment of its moth life goals, and the dark, enclosed box of concrete behind it would lead only to death. How to get through the glass and return to its habitat? This was the impossible problem the moth was facing. 

In order to address the correct problem– which for the moth was: How to get around the glass and return to its habitat?–the moth would have first had to have posessed some understanding of what glass was. Absent this critical knowledge, the moth was left with a set of all bad choices, as is the case for people facing problems involving factors beyond their knowledge and control.

Obviously, I was trying to help this creature, but the moth didn’t see it that way. It saw my actions as a threat, so it did what it thought was best for it. And maybe that was what was best for the moth, for the time being. Through forces of the universe far beyond its control, it found itself in an unfortunate situation, and that situation sent it into life preservation mode. It needed to calm the fuck down.

As an outside observer with knowledge of the delicate consistency of moth wings, an understanding of glass, and of insect cognition to some extent ( I used to work in a government entomology lab), I recognized that I might be in a better position to help the moth than it was suited to help itself. Moreover, I was now the moth’s only hope. 

It was up to me, so how best to help it? I thought of what some people might do: 

Some people would kill it. They would kill it simply because it was a bug, inside. It was just a moth, and there are millions of them. To some, the death of a moth would seem inconsequential. On a different day, it might have to me.

Others would kill it because they enjoy harming things that are weaker than them, because it makes them feel more powerful. Like a game where violence earns you points, or a country where you’re born into royalty and being ruthless to the poor gives you klout. I will never relate to this.

Many, I suspect, would keep swatting at it with the paper to shoo it out, and maybe would accidentally kill it or injure it. Or grab it with their oily hands, rendering its wings useless. What a life then. And what a shame when people with the best of intentions wind up harming the object of their goodwill efforts. We do this to each other constantly. You can hold a butterfly and want to preserve its beauty so hard that you crush it to death, because in your brutish selfishness you can’t gauge your impact on a creature much more delecate. You can do this with a woman too. 

Still others would forget about the moth, because it’s a moth and who cares? Who cares enough to think about it for a minute, let alone write an essay abouy it? This would also result in its death since it had now given up all hope and had resigned itself to life on the other side of the glass, unable to move.

I almost forgot about the moth. My roommate was on his way home and I wanted to cook him dinner, so when I left the moth to chill I got distracted with my own life and forgot about this life-or-death situation on my window. I wouldn’t have killed it, but my negligence would have resulted in its death all the same, and a much slower one at that. Luckily when dinner was ready and I was waiting for my roommate to finish a phone call and come eat, I noticed the moth, still huddled there in the same place. 

Finally, I got a glass and I slid a paper under it, and I set this unlucky or lucky (or both) creature free. At first it clung to the rim of the glass, no longer trusting its own perception. So I gave it a shake. “Be free,” I whispered to it.

I didn’t have to help the moth. Nobody has to help anybody. Many people live in a state of convenient obliviousness, not recognizing when another is in need of help, let alone knowing the correct course of action to effectively provide help. I think that’s probably the most adaptive trait for living in New York. Being aware, I assure you that the suffering is deafening here. I helped the moth because once I became aware of its predicament, I couldn’t ethically let it die, when it was so easy for me to help it live.

You can’t help everyone. But, once you become aware that someone needs your help, if you can help them, you should.

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The Tidal Pool Treasures of Thailand

There is a place in Thailand that, to me, is the most magical place on Earth. I found it by accident, but I think I’d like to die there someday. I won’t say where it is, but if you ever want to go, tell me and if you’ve been kind to me over the years I will hand-draw you a map. In the mean while, I think we could all use a little magic during these tough times, so I’ll show you what I found there.

It all began when I woke up in my cliff-side bungalow the morning after I arrived, and looked out the window. By the first light of dawn, I saw something interesting outside:

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It looked like the entrance to a cave off in the distance. I’d stayed here once before but this was a new bungalow—two years ago the jungle was covering this particular view and I didn’t know the cave existed.

While eating  breakfast I chatted with an adventurous Slovakian couple. After finishing, the man hopped over a low rail partitioning off the dining area from the rocky cliff, and waved goodbye. I turned to his partner, and asked where he was going. She pointed to the rocks below. I was amazed they were going down there, because not once had the idea occurred to me last time I was there. I assumed it was too dangerous and stuck to the several sandy beaches, each offering its own slice of nature that was more than fulfilling for me. Minutes later, she finished her yogurt and prepared to walk down to find her mate. Knowing nothing about them I thought perhaps they were the rock-climbing type, and asked about the decent. “Yeah the path is kind of treacherous but it’s worth it,” she said, climbing down in flip flops.

Surely if she was wearing flip flops, I could do it in sneakers. But she wasn’t lying about it being treacherous. When I climbed down later there was barely a path through the jungle overgrowth, and I crabwalked and bouldered down most of the way. When I finally reached the bottom though, it was magnificent peaceful rocky heaven.

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Rainy day wander in Kyoto

Nijo castle garden | Olympus Pen EP-5 | Arikia Millikan

The rain sounds different when it hits the tops of houses in Kyoto. I woke up and listened to it for an hour today, then went downstairs and watched the turtles in the inner garden pond. Animals here are not afraid of people. They don’t run and hide the way animals who have learned the hard way what humans are all about do. Even the little birds don’t mind. The only ones who run from people, my house mate told me, are the cats. Given the obsession with cats here, this strikes me as wise behvior.

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On honor culture in Japan


I arrived in Kyoto today around 7pm. I should have gotten here earlier but I went the wrong way in the Osaka Loop train, which didn’t really matter, I just had to wait for the longer side of the loop. When I finally got to Osaka Station, I switched to the Kyoto line, tossed my bag on the subway rack and just zoned out into my headphones.

A nice thing about Japan is that people don’t steal things from other people here, at least overtly and rampantly like they do elsewhere. I learned from my friend who’s an English teacher in Osaka that kids get moral training in elementary school, where they are given different scenarios and have to pick the more ethical choice. It permeates the culture.

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“You picked your mother”

When I was in Thailand, I studied Buddhist meditation in the jungle with a runaway princess. There are many stories to be told about what happened there, but today is mother’s day so I will tell you just this one.

In the US and other Western cultures, we sometimes say “you can’t pick your parents.” It comes up in times of familial strife, when things aren’t all Hallmark ad-like and you wish you had a different life with different people in it. It’s to remind us that, nope, we can’t. Our lives come pre-fabbed with certain people in certain roles, and nothing can ever change it. You have to deal.

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My Devil’s Advocate Moment

APTOPIX Mideast Bahrain Oil Prices

(AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Two weeks before I left the US to travel in April of 2013, I was pursued by a headhunter. She was representing Exxon Mobil, and she wanted to bring me on as a senior copywriter.

“Why me?” I couldn’t help but ask her. She told me their current talent pool was only trained in soundbyte-level messaging; there were few writers able to create the kinds of long-form technical pieces they could display in full-page magazine spreads—the ones designed to make people think they’re reading the most juicy features produced by the actual magazine, until they get to the part about how Exxon cares about the environment, and Exxon makes the world a better place for everyone.

It was a six-figure salary above what even veteran journalists make. I would enter as a senior copywriter—as Don Draper, not as Peggy. This job would have resolved all my debt and financial worries.

I told her I’d call her back, and I never did.

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The Plight of the Permalancer

The following text was originally published on Facebook. I am reposting it here at the request of a friend who wanted to send this to John Oliver.

I’ve recently been informed that I owe a couple Gs to the IRS from when I was working at Wired full-time. I was the youngest editor on the masthead, running not one but three online verticals of Wired.com, sometimes not leaving the office until midnight and commuting an hour to get home alone through the subways of NYC at night. I was being forced to spend my time dealing with eye-gougingly incompetent adsales people from corporations who were making probably 4x as much as me but couldn’t think of a new idea to save their lives.
Meanwhile Wired was using its own editorial employees to pressure me and other editors to be more lenient in allowing them to insert advertiser messaging into content so as to not disrupt these big ticket ad sales that would let our thick-necked jock of a VP win his internal betting ring against GQ and other Conde Nast publications. I thought I was working for a technology magazine, not a sportsball team–I turned in my cheerleading uniform years ago. But when I protested my editor yelled at me, the only time he ever has, and told me to just “keep my head down.” So I did what he said.

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