Category Archives: Musings

Leaving NYC

MarcyAve

The Subway stop I’ve waited at the most. Photo by Arikia Millikan

I moved to New York when I was 21 with two suitcases and a credit card. I had zero savings, zero checking, and didn’t know very many people in the city. I had a job lined up writing copy for exhibitions at the New York Hall of Science, but they called me the day before my flight to tell me that they’d just been notified they’d had a half million dollars of funding cut by the NY state government and couldn’t hire me after all. I had two choices: to get on the plane and figure it out, or stay in Ann Arbor, Michigan and figure it out.

In retrospect, there was only ever one option. I came here, clueless, nervous, broke, scared, but with a lust for life so great it propelled me past all the inhibitory emotions. I told myself from the very beginning that I would stay for five years. It was a seemingly arbitrary goal, but one that has never stopped making sense to me. Only after living here for five years, I told myself, could I say that I “made it” in New York City. But upon reaching five years, I would go, so as to not become jaded by the city. I didn’t have any ideas about how this would happen, but I had an image in my mind of the stereotypical New York spinster woman, hardened by success and embittered by all she’s seen. I decided this wouldn’t be me.

My first apartment was a second story walk-up on S. 4th street in Williamsburg with my very own fire escape outside of my bedroom window. Late at night, I would sit out there and smoke cigarettes while watching musicians move their instruments in and out of the practice space across the street. I wondered if I would ever be cool enough to hang out with them.

"I can't pay my rent but I'm fucking gorgeous." -Justin Tranter, Semi Precious Weapons. Photo by Arikia Millikan.

“I can’t pay my rent but I’m fucking gorgeous.” -Justin Tranter, Semi Precious Weapons. Photo by Arikia Millikan.

I had no idea what I was going to do for money or work, so I just began exploring. The guy I sublet the room from recommended a temp agency, so I decided to apply, but first I needed to make a copy of my passport. I was told I could do at a place called The Internet Garage.

For the first month I lived in NYC, I had no idea where I was going. I didn’t have a smartphone then (it was 2008 but I was poor), so I would look up my destination on Google Maps on my computer (a 4-year old Adveratec which needed to be kept on life support with an external keyboard, hard drive, and cooling pad) and write it down on paper or just try to remember the directions. When I would walk out of my apartment, sometimes I would walk the wrong way wind up making three more turns in that same direction so as to not get completely lost and go home, defeated. The first time I tried to find The Internet Garage, I went to South 5th instead of North 5th and wound up in a slightly sketchy area thinking maybe I wasn’t cut out for New York.

Me in the public gardens on S. 2nd Street, my first month in NYC. Photo by Jamie Killen

Me in the public gardens on S. 2nd Street, my first month in NYC. Photo by Jamie Killen

The next day I tried again, with my hand-written map, and I found the Internet Garage, right off of Bedford Avenue. I suddenly understood what Williamsburg was all about. It was a bunch of creative misfits fitting in amongst their peers for the first time in their lives. I asked the tattooed guy wearing a Yankees hat who helped me scan my passport behind the desk if I could work there. I told him I’d gone to school for engineering and was a fast learner. He arched an eyebrow at me and said most people who have worked there probably couldn’t do high school math, but if I really wanted to work there he’d think about it.

I applied with the temp agency and got hired at the world’s largest stock holding company, as a secretary. They told me I was to be an envelope-stuffing office monkey from 9-5 every day and must abide by their dress code by wearing corporate attire. I shuddered to think. The night before I was to go in for fingerprinting and processing in the financial district at 9am, I went out with my pseudonymous blog stalker and wound up getting wasted and staying up until 7am making out on a rooftop overlooking Manhattan.

My Hope Street roof in Williamsburg, before the luxury condos obscured the view.

My Hope Street roof in Williamsburg, before the luxury condos obscured the view.

I just looked up the actual email I sent to the agency when I woke up and realized I’d slept through the meeting, and it is pretty hilariously Arikia-ish:

Dear Camille,

I just woke up and realized that I missed my meeting. I don’t really know how it happened – I remember setting my alarm last night before I went to bed – but I have some idea as to why it happened. I don’t think I want to work at DTCC, and my subconscious mind made that happen. Actually, I don’t want to work at any corporation. I’m a writer and I want to write. I ‘m done doing meaningless work just because someone said so. That’s what a lot of college was, and I graduated.

So, please relay my apologies onto Michael and Jamie over at DTCC that I’m sorry for wasting their time. I suppose I’m sorry for wasting your time as well.

Best of luck to you,

Arikia

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my real-life “Devil’s Advocate” scenario, and my decision set me on the trajectory that would fulfill all of my New York dreams.

The next day after my hangover subsided, I went to retrieve my passport, which I had forgotten in the scanner at the Internet Garage, and lo and behold, they hired me. For $8/hr, I got to blog my little heart out while I helped people use the Internet Garage’s ridiculously ’90s machines to get online. And I was happy. Some of my fondest New York memories were made in that place, and it provided all the fodder I needed to find my footing in the online media world.

Me in front of the Internet Garage.

Me in front of the Internet Garage.

With the Internet Garage as my base of operations, I became a fixture among the creative misfits, quickly becoming part of the barter system that propped up the struggling artist class in Williamsburg. If someone identified themselves as a Bedford Avenue vendor, I would give them prints and internet usage with a wink and a smile. To repay me, people invited me into their slivers of Williamsburg, and I got to experience it all. One night, some musicians I met at a bar invited me back to drink beers at the practice space across from my old apartment. I stayed up all night learning how to play piano.

In those days, I would sit on the rooftop of my Hope Street sublet and stare out at the Manhattan skyline for hours, wondering what paths I would take to make my way to the top of one of those skyscrapers. Last year, I would stare for hours out of the window of my office on the 19th floor of 4 Times Square, thinking about how I had managed to achieve my lifelong dream of working at Wired so soon, scared shitless about what that meant for the rest of my life. Had I peaked at 25?

My old office at Wired.

My old office at Wired.

Thinking about my five year quota now, with the deadline approaching July 8, it makes more sense to me than ever to leave. I won New York City. I did, I beat it. I came here with nothing, and I survived. I’m not any richer than I was when I came here, which to some, might not constitute winning. Before I started writing this blog post, I was being kind of mopey about just that — about the fact that five years later I am still struggling to pay my bills every month just like I did when I first moved here. But after reflecting on everything, I realized that what I gained in the past five years is impossible to buy: I made a name for myself.

Now, it’s time to leave. I am tired. The old rooftop where I used to perch is sealed off with fences and motion detectors, and the view is obscured by luxury condos anyways. The Internet Garage moved, and it will never be what it used to be. The way this city chews people up and spits them out is almost vulgar, and I am tired of watching it. I am tired of struggling to stay on top. I can feel my shell beginning to harden, and it’s not a good look for me. Plus the fact that I’ve sustained for so long makes me think I could be tossed into any environment and somehow figure stuff out and be OK. So, I’m going to try that, and hopefully find the same inspiration in new places that I once got from New York. I’m going to take my show on the road and keep looking for the things I didn’t find in New York: love, inner peace, financial success. I know that life may not ever be easy for me, I think I would die of boredom if it was, but right now I need to find environments that will nurture the skills I’ve been developing. I need room to breathe, as anyone who’s ever lived in New York knows, there’s not a whole lot of space here.

So, New Yorkers, you have three months and some change to squeeze the last of the New York hustle out of me, and I do intend to hustle. And then off into the world I will go, testing Frank Sinatra’s theory that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. It’s been real.

Late night lucubrating

I have a shit storm of stuff to write and do tomorrow, so obviously when I drank a cup of Sleepy Time tea and went to bed at the responsible hour of 12:30 my brain was like, “LOL, YEAH RIGHT.” Now the lights are back on and I’m finishing all the good long-form articles I started and never finished in order to eliminate some browser tabs. Starting the week off right.

If you’re interested, they are:

This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day — a NY Times article about positive procrastination from John Tierney which I started the day it was published, a month and a half ago. Go figure.

What Does ‘Getting Laid’ Really Mean? — By Emily Heist Moss on a publication called Role Reboot which I’ve never heard of but looks interesting.

Operation Delirium — A look inside the military’s post-cold war super sketchy chemical weapons tests, by Raffi Khatchadourian

Death Will Tremble — not an essay, but an online sci-fi video series I’ve been meaning to watch, even though I don’t usually watch things especially if they come in a series.

The Ghost Writes Back — Amy Boesky on ghost writing part of the Sweet Valley High book series for Francine Pascal, the series that I was completely and utterly obsessed with as tween.

The Slate review of Domenica Ruta’s new book, With or Without you. Had to check out the competition in the crazy mom contest. It’s really no competition at all.

Many fewer tabs, but still awake. I’d hoped that the insomnia tendencies would subside when I quit smoking and started trying to be healthy, but it looks like this one is here to stay. A few months back I read an essay by Kathryn Schulz called Writing in the Dark, in which she discusses her life as a literary night owl. The first time I read it, I tweeted at her to say I thought we were brain chemistry twins. I’d never heard of my insomniac tendencies described so accurately, and from the perspective of a female writer. I said the word “lucubrate” over and over to myself. I love that she provides an evolutionary explanation, because now I don’t feel so guilty about having such a disposition. If I can’t sleep because I can’t turn my mind off, I’m going to turn the lights back on and hash it out, because this is my productivity zone. If you’re an early bird nine-to-fiver, you have the societal advantage since this country still operates like electricity hasn’t been invented. Good for you, but do me a favor and don’t hold it against the night owls in the workplace. Let them do their thing when they want to do it, and everyone will be better off. And remember — in the caveman days, you would have been eaten by wolves in the middle of the night if it wasn’t for our kind, so show a little gratitude.

I began re-reading this essay before I started writing this blog post and closing the browser tabs, and I will leave you with an excerpt before attempting to sleep again:

There is a word for that, etymologically if not literally: the wonderfully lascivious-sounding lucubrate. It actually means to write in an overly academic fashion, but it comes from the practice of writing at night by candle or lantern. There are, as you might imagine, a lot of lucubrators out there. Proust and Joyce were both self-proclaimed night owls. So was Shelley; so, one assumes, was any self-respecting Romantic. George Sand claimed to routinely start writing at midnight. Edna St. Vincent Millay must have been a late type, with her burning candle and her wonderful “Recuerdo”—surely the best poem ever written about staying up all night on Staten Island. I sometimes make a game of guessing other writers’ hours. Gerard Manley Hopkins: night owl, for sure. Robert Frost: lark, with occasional spells of insomnia. Jonathan Franzen strikes me as a morning bird (and no doubt he knows precisely which species).

As for my own schedule, best to call it like it is: crazy. Those who have shared my bed—when I am in it to share it, anyway—have observed my nighttime habits with reactions varying from indulgence to incredulity. (Almost all of them have been stellar sleepers: not something I actively look for in a partner, but, given my lifestyle, terrifically convenient.) It starts, as I said, around 10 p.m., when something ticks over in my mind, as if someone had walked into a shuttered cabin and flipped all the switches in the fuse box to “on.” For the first time all day, I get interested in writing. As a corollary, I get a lot less interested in everything else. My normal indiscipline, the ADHD-ish inability to keep my head inside my work, finally drops away. For the next few hours, I write steadily, cleanly. If my body is producing a drug during that time, it is a natural methylphenidate—a dose of pure focus, side-effect-free and sweet.

Grapefruit spoon of death

On Tuesday, one of my friends came over to cowork and brought some fruit for us to snack on including two grapefruits. We didn’t end up eating them, and before she left she said she wanted me to keep the grapefruits.

This morning I sliced one in half and was taken back to a time when I used to eat halved grapefruits regularly. My mom used to give them to me when I was a little girl, with sugar sprinkled on top. She would cut the fruit along the radial lines of its membranes and give it to me to eat with a spoon. When I would try to scoop a chunk out, it would cling to the rind and squish the majority of the piece. In the end I would have a grapefruit shell full of juice. This morning when I was preparing the grapefruit for myself, I cut it this way, got a spoon out of the silverware drawer, and looked at it, recalling my longstanding grapefruit feud. I remembered when I finally learned that most people also cut along the inside of the rind so the pieces come out easily in chunks. I’m now wondering if her decision to withhold the circumference cut was one of her many inventive methods of keeping me occupied before I came up with my own ways.

Throughout the day, every time I opened the fridge, I looked at the remaining grapefruit half and thought about my responsibility to not let it go to waste. I can’t remember ever eating a grapefruit in the five years I’ve lived in New York. I stopped buying all high-maintenance fruits a long time ago.

Just now I decided that it would not go to waste. As I prepared it, pondering the circumference cut, I remembered my first job as a server at The Atrium elderly living facility in Gainesville Florida. It was a prime job for blue collar high schoolers, community college burn outs, and a few middle aged odd balls. One evening while my friends and I were getting ready to wheel the desert carts down the rows of elderly people, I was sorting through the silverware bins to find spoons and came across something quite evil looking.

grapefruitspoon“What kind of torture device is this?” I exclaimed, holding it up for my friend Trevor to examine. Also astonished, he dubbed it The Spoon of Death and we showed it to the other employees speculating about who on the management staff was secretly trying to kill the residents. Finally, our manager came to see why we were behind schedule and informed us that The Spoon of Death was actually just an old grapefruit spoon that had gotten mixed up in the dinnerware. From then on, the grapefruit spoon was our proposed solution for senile temper flares and last-minute order changes, though it never left the kitchen. Good times.

Hackers GIFs galore [What the world needs more of]

Today I was working on an article about a new finding in physics that could change everything! I kept thinking of this scene in Hackers, as it’s easy enough to say that but it all depends on the R&D resources in the end. And also, because lol.

Hackers RISC architecture

Since I still haven’t taken the time to sit down and figure out how to make GIFs out of movie scenes, I asked my friend Kat Manalac if her friends at Fancy Hands could make such a GIF, so she used her account and this is what they came up with in a remarkably short period of time (thanks Kat!). I didn’t end up using it in the article, as after interviewing a quantum physicist my head was spinning like a muon in a magnetic field, but I wanted to display the GIF. I mean, if there’s one thing the internet needs, it’s more Hackers GIFs. Personally I find myself searching for them at least once a week. It’d be awesome if someone went through and GIFed the entire movie. If I had a million dollars… I would probably spend half of it on paying people to make GIFs for public use on the internet (the other half would go sustainable energy projects in Haiti).

Here are some more from my collection of Hackers GIFs from unknown sources around the web:

hackers-terminated-dade-murphy

hackers-AcidBurn

Hack the Planet

Hackers-get-a-job

Hackers-gotta-hack

Hackers-the-plague

Hackers-mathew-lillard

Nothing to see here

hackers-party

The incurables

I’m working on the most interesting article ever right now. There’s nothing that gets me going like digging into a sector of really specialized science.

I was 19 when I decided that I wanted to be a science journalist. I’d been told by a guidance counselor my freshman year of high school that as a woman with a high aptitude for math and science, I would make more money than any of my peers if I went into engineering. But I’ve always been a writer and, when I got to engineering school, was quickly disgusted with the way writing was used. We were told to “forget everything you ever knew about writing, because you’re only going to write technical papers now.” And I thought, What? Science is already hard enough for people to digest as is, now they want us to use language to obfuscate it even more form public understanding?

After two years in the biomedical engineering program, I transferred to the Literature Science & Arts college and ended up majoring in psychology because I’d already had a ton of credits from taking those classes for fun. I joined the student newspaper the summer before my junior year. They’d just scrapped their weekly science section because nobody wanted to write about science. So I single-handedly covered all the science I could in this massive research university.

In my run at the Michigan Daily, I tried other kinds of journalism too—political, academic, cultural. I hated all of it, and I suspect the editors used to give me dull assignments like covering the student government’s meetings in retaliation because they would get frustrated trying to edit me on science. They would always try to change my language to make things more sensational or dumb stuff down, but often times it would change the meaning and make a statement inaccurate so I would insist they change it back. I did, however, take in interest in legal and political journalism, and got quite involved in covering a multimillion dollar lawsuit the University was facing for attempting to violate the American’s With Disabilities act to renovate The Big House, the football stadium. I enjoy debating, and the University’s plot was rich with semantical holes and numbers that didn’t quite add up, which I just dug into. I made quite a few enemies, one spectacular one who told me I should be a lawyer. I’m still considering this advice.

What I eventually concluded though is that science journalism is my calling. I never get bored. I never run out of ideas. I rarely get stressed because I can’t find a route to understanding some concept that I must then find a way to explain. And the best part is the scientists. While most people journalists need to interview spend a tremendous amount of effort figuring out how to side skirt questions and hide the truth, the truths that scientists have is already hidden. They are hidden in concrete basement laboratories, behind the wild eyes and bizarre mannerisms of people who care so deeply about one tiny sliver of the physical world that they sometimes find themselves locked away from the rest of humanity behind the same communication walls I saw myself approaching and decided to James Bond it around the ledge instead. Scientists are thrilled when someone has a genuine interest in unearthing their secrets. They are my favorite.

Cyber relativity

I’ve kept my New Year’s resolution, to blog every day, for 13 days now, which I think is the longest I’ve ever kept a resolution before. I think that this time I’ve managed to stay diligent because I gave myself the clause that the post could be anything — a picture, one sentence, a video. And also maybe because I’m a responsible adult now, sort of. I made a dentist appointment for this week, that counts for something, right?

My real goal is to re-train myself in essay writing. I know I am past the point where anyone is going to help me refine my craft in the way that I need to unless I was willing to place myself tens of thousands of dollars in debt to continue my education, and even then maybe not. I wouldn’t trade any of the jobs I’ve had in the past five years since I graduated from college, as I’ve learned a great deal. But I’ve spent far too much time away from writing as a practice.

I always say that my experience in moving to New York when I was 21 with two suitcases and a credit card was my own version of grad school. I’d do my jobs thoroughly but in a way that didn’t require me to write publicly very much. I compared it to being in a lecture vs giving one, and that I wasn’t yet qualified to give one because I was still learning, but really I was scared to put myself out there. I felt like people expected me to be able to do everything perfectly on the first try, so I would avoid trying with the thing that I wanted to do most because that way I wouldn’t risk failing. And I think I expected people to call me out, and push me to write. I thought they would say, “Hey why don’t you ever write anymore? Write 500 words of something about something by Monday.” And then when years went by and they didn’t, I realized it was because what I was doing instead was worthwhile too, maybe even more worthwhile for my bosses. So I refined a bunch of weird skills that are pretty useful in the publishing industry like editing, team management and content curation, but I wound up feeling like a cog most of the time.

Now writing is my full-time focus, and I’m pleased to find it’s like riding a bike, except instead of being in a cycling class you’re trying to meet some personal fitness goal like, I don’t know, training for a bike race, or whatever people who ride bikes do when they’re not just trying to get somewhere.

This was only supposed to be a one sentence blog post so I could meet my resolution, finish this episode of the X-Files and go to bed. I’m weirdly tired for it being only 10:39. I have chronic insomnia but quitting smoking for 3 weeks is resetting my circadian rhythm and it kind of freaks me out being normal. My creativity and energy comes and goes in waves, and I find that when I ride the waves instead of trying to paddle against them I get much more done. Sometimes we put so much pressure on ourselves to be the best, and everything on the internet makes you feel like it’s going so fast, and that you’re slow in comparison. But in reality, you’re going way faster than most people and you should actually probably slow down. Cyber relativity.

What should I blog about tomorrow? Present to-do list is as follows:

  • Describe for Molly Steenson what I would include in a journalism curriculum if I were to teach one.
  • Explain why I can’t bring myself to purchase health insurance.
  • Write some stuff about depression
  • Applications of a mating game we played in my animal behavior class to post-internet-porn dating and sexuality
  • Make fun of that horrible New York Times article on how 20-somethings don’t date
  • Write some stuff about archaea
  • Write about all the things about feminism

That’s all. Here’s something wonderful that my friend Ari sent me: