Category Archives: Personal

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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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On exquisite isolation for literary purposes

Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time alone.

I was the youngest person in my class, and therefore the last person to get my driver’s license in November of my junior year. In high school I kept a hand-written list of phone numbers tacked to my bulletin board. Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons I would go down the list, contemplating the likelihood that each number could provide an escape from my teenage prison. Methodically, I would pick up my translucent, purple cordless phone, hold my breath, and dial.

Occasionally a friend would drive over and pick me up, and we would gleefully attempt all the debauchery we could fathom (which usually amounted to no more than a car ride in search of phantom parties casually mentioned in notes passed by boys desperate to impress us). Most nights though, I would sit alone in my room with my books and my TV/VCR combo and my journals.

It was in these moments of agonizing boredom and loneliness that I began to really process the world. It was also in those times that I allowed my mind to spiral into the pits of despair, taunted by the false certainty that everybody else was out doing something exciting and I was the only girl in the world steeped in isolation. Other factors compounded what some might call “normal teen angst” and at times I resigned into pure hopelessness, unable to anticipate the freedom that I now enjoy, certain that I would be alone forever.

So I wrote, and I poured all my anger toward my oppressors, my disbelief at the lack of justice in the world, my innocent but burning desires into the blank pages that I would hide in the deepest crevices of my 100 square-foot bedroom. My mother would periodically hunt them down and read them, then use their contents as evidence for why I should sit and stew in loneliness for my own protection. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she would say. One day after I discovered this violation I burned an entire journal and buried the ashes in the backyard (since igniting any type of flame, including the stove, was an offense punishable by further imprisonment). “Never write anything you don’t want other people to read,” she would taunt me, dismissing my outrage. Even at age fifteen my insomniac habits were fully-formed and I would stay up all night writing fictional tales of the life I imagined I was supposed to be living at the moment while catering to an imaginary audience of nosy and sadistic adults.

When I left home for college at seventeen, my writing habits stayed with me. I would pour over journals with all the bottled-up intensity of a shaken jar of kombucha, reflecting on my youth and disregarding all lessons of discretion my mother had advised. The only person I cared about reading what I wrote was her because she was the only person with the ability to censor me in the pre-production phase of writing. After a few successful stints with literary pseudonyms, I finally decided to live my life as an open book (which isn’t to say that I don’t have my secrets but they’re only secrets because I haven’t gotten around to writing about them yet).

I never set out to be a writer. It’s always just been something that I’ve compulsively done. But now that I am a writer, I won’t permit those moments of torturous youth to have been in vain. Though I am now surrounded by friends who gladly remedy my slightest twinge of loneliness with the greatest of adventures, I make it a point to isolate myself every now and then, mining that past agony and tapping into it only so much as to benefit my current productivity. It’s taken a while to hone it, and I’m sure I haven’t yet completely, but I’m getting closer. I think that soon I’ll be able to control it entirely, whereas once it controlled me. It’s washing over me now, and it’s divine.

Leaving NYC

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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.

My Mother’s Disorder

I turned 26 in November. Most people don’t relate anything meaningful to this age but being able to rent a car without having a negligent teenager fee imposed, but as any psychology major will tell you, this age marks one of the most significant factors in life: The age where people who later grow to have recurring psychological problems tend to have their first psychotic break. Twenty-six, as Norah Vincent says in her book Voluntary Madness, is “that age when all well-loved children of the upper middle class begin to discover that the world is not made for them, that all meaningful questions are rhetorical, and that the term ‘soul mate’ is, at best, a figure of speech.” I wouldn’t lump myself in that group like most of my peers, and learned this all at a much younger age, but for a while now I’ve been waiting in suspense just the same for my world to come crashing down because of factors beyond my control.

It won’t though, and I’m over bracing myself for this. I don’t know if I have depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADD, or if I’ve ever had a psychotic break, but I have confidently self-diagnosed myself with Medical Student Syndrome (and a touch of The Barnum Effect). Medical Student Syndrome is a sort of hypochondriac state that medical students experience where they “perceive themselves or others to be experiencing the symptoms of the disease(s) they are studying,” because they are afraid of contracting the disease in question. In the field of psychology, where the criteria for mental illness are so loosely defined, this affliction is rampant, as we were all warned in Intro to Psychopathology. To top it all off, most people who choose psychology as a field of study do so for a reason, as either they or close relatives have some psychological affliction. This makes us especially susceptible to The Barnum Effect, which, named after P.T. Barnum encapsulates the tendency of people to over-fit tailored but general descriptions to themselves. When it comes to mental illness “we’ve got something for everybody!” At least everybody who is willing to pay to fix it.

For me, my fascination with psychology began from growing up with a single mother who went completely insane after menopause and has always refused any kind of treatment. I went to an author panel last Valentine’s Day where David Dobbs discussed his short story, My Mother’s Lover, which is his account of uncovering his mother’s lifelong affair post-mortem. Afterward I asked him if he would have written that story if his mother was still alive, and he said no — you need to wait until your parents are dead to write anything potentially unflattering about them. I took that advice to heart, but in the past year I realized that I don’t need to wait to write about her because, to me, and to most of the people she has known, she is already dead. Every attempt to reach her is as futile as shaking a corpse, and probably a little more disturbing. Reading this as someone who comes from a loving family, you will likely not be able to empathize, but do try to sympathize rather than judging me. I’ve done all I can to help her, but unfortunately, nobody can.

This isn’t a sob story though. This is the story about how I finally learn to help myself after living in the shadow of a Class A narcissist with severe sociopathic tendencies, who continues to spiral into a state of schizophrenic dementia. When I was in high school, the first boy I fell in love with gaslighted me by telling me that “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” He is now a line-cook at a chain restaurant in Gainesville, Florida, and I am here in New York, doing what I do. And I know for a fact that it did — it fell incredibly far away, and it is still rolling.

To be continued…

Barfly reminiscence

I went to my old wagon wheel bar tonight. The place I’ve gone more consistently than anywhere else in the city on Tuesday nights these past (almost) five years. The place I’ll take my kids when they’re 21 and I’m 51, where I’ll get drunk like I did when I was 23 and complain about how much things have changed since the good old days and the kids will have to figure out how to navigate a cab through New York while I’m pretending to be passed out, but am secretly just closing my eyes and listening to them try to handle themselves.

My bartender was there. His new girlfriend was sitting in my seat at the end of the bar, so I sat at the opposite side with my friends to avoid her. I felt a tad dethroned, but only a tad, as we were always better friends than lovers. I felt a nagging twinge of annoyance as she sat there and watched me with laser eyes, not just because she was doing that, but because she didn’t have anything better to do. I did, but I was choosing to be there despite. I was in full judgment mode, ignoring her and him until she finally retreated off into the night.

“Girls do that to each other, way more than guys do,” my bartender said, once I finally had him to myself and I asked him if his girlfriend still hated me for knowing what we were. “Perhaps,” I said, thinking of Lana Del Rey.

With her away, he engaged my friends and poured me drinks when I wasn’t looking, like he used to do. He was mine again, only insomuch as he ever was from moment to moment, which was barely. But it was relieving to have my friend back. I’d worried that he’d changed.

He told me he did, that he was thinking about quitting the bar, as the hours were wearing on him and his new domestic life.

“I’m getting old, babe, ” he said, smiling. Smiling the friendliest smile in the world that so quickly twists into a grimace when the switch flips come 5am and he acts like he hates everyone including me, but secretly just himself which is why I never take it personally. I looked at him with my ‘whatever I don’t see age’ eyes, and initiated a thought experiment.

“What do you think I’ll be like at your age?” I asked.

His eyes widened and he replied all too quickly: “Scary. And smart. And smart. Scary smart.”

“Better keep drinking then to balance it out,” I said, and he poured me another glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

A brief history of my bird obsession

I woke up thinking about something sad today, so I immediately thought of parrots, as my therapist has instructed me to do. I imagined I’d been admitted to the MIT Media Lab to study African Grey parrots in Irene Pepperberg’s lab where she trained Alex and the others. Then I started to think about what in the world I would ever do to get to such a place, ie: how I would translate my good parrot handling abilities into something academic that could benefit the world?

My friends joke that I am “the parrot whisperer,” but what is whispering to an animal? I think it’s simply understanding the animal, and most people don’t bother with parrots. Most people look at parrots and go into color shock. They see the colors, and they say “how beautiful,” and they feel jealousy that they can’t have colors like that—endogenous fashion. Then someone says “do you want to hold him?” and they look at the beak, which crushes down on things like walnuts or fingers with up to 700 psi of force, and they say fuck that I’m fine over here. This is because people are afraid of things they don’t understand , including other people.

When I was 5, I wanted to have a zoo full of all kinds of magnificent animals including an orca whale, which I guess was influenced by Free Willie, although I clearly missed the point. At the time I lived in an apartment building in downtown Ann Arbor, so I established that the zoo would have to go in the back parking lot. It didn’t occur to me that this might perturb the other neighbors, or that the Orca would freeze in the Michigan winter. As an only child, I was only concerned about how much fun I would have playing with all these creatures, as the stuffed animals weren’t cutting it. I drew massive architectural plans for this zoo in crayon, and pitched the idea to my mom. In her life, she’d at one time or another possessed: two siamese cats (Sasha and Tisa), two Lhasa Apso dogs (Miel and Sasuk), a large unidentifiable parrot (Caca) that she hated and purposely left outside in some South American country hoping a burglar would steal it, and a spider monkey (name unknown) that flung its feces at her and her guests. It’s anyone’s guess as to what happened to that poor creature.

So, she wasn’t having my zoo, and got me the most low-maintenance animal she could think of: a fire-belly newt.

I was ecstatic!!!! I named this small amphibian Scooter after my favorite Muppet Baby (which according to Wikipedia was “a brainy, computer-knowledgeable child”) and would play with him for hours at a time, as long as I could until his skin dried out and needed to go back in his habitat, which was a fish bowl inside a cardboard diorama I created to mimic the natural habitat of my neon wondered dreams.

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Kicking butts

It’s hard to say what happened in my brain the past month. Yesterday marked one month of me quitting smoking. I feel much more balanced, which was disconcerting at first but now I rather like it.

The first week I quit I stressed out so severely that I broke out in shingles across my back. It was blindingly painful, like how a fresh tattoo feels when the endorphiny numbness wears away. It wasn’t just the smoking cessation that caused it, it was a combination of that, the way I reacted to getting ditched and gaslighted by someone I loved, and trying so hard to taper and contain my stress so that I didn’t upset him further or my family I was visiting for the holidays. The way I allowed myself to bottle up and absorb all those self-injurious emotions drove me to the depths of my depressive capabilities, and all the while I was sitting there in blistering hell I couldn’t help but feel accomplished that I had conducted something like my own version of telekinesis. Like I mentally willed so much death into my being that it actually affected changes to my immune system on a microcosmic level and allowed a latent virus to flourish in my nervous system after being dormant for 22 years.

My academic adviser in college always used to comment about me being a scorpio. He’d say, “you scorpios, when you’re not stinging someone else, you’re stinging yourselves.” He was the only person I ever allowed to speak to me about astrology without starting an argument or walking away because the person was so full of crap. He was a philosopher, but he was well aware of science and used astrology as a way to reroute my frantic complaints. Like I would walk into his office fuming or crying over some unfair situation and pour everything out to him for 15 minutes, and at the end he would just say, “Well yeah you’re a scorpio,” and look at me as if to say ‘DUH’ and move on to the practical solutions. Chalmers Knight forever. But yeah, I do tend to sting myself if there’s no one else to sting, or to sting me.

I’ve always been a night owl for as long as I can remember, at times even keeping completely inverted hours, and I’ve always had wildly oscillating emotions. Lately though, I’ve been able to focus much more, though I don’t know whether it’s a product of my smoking cessation or the fact that I’m working on an article I really like. My mood has been pleasantly stable, though I don’t know whether that’s a product of my smoking cessation or excising a person who, in his unintentional though selfish immaturity, grabbed hold of my neuroses and pulled, stretching my patience to its limits. In any event, I feel pretty energized, and as an individual of scientific principles I think I can safely conclude that at least some of the overall changes in my health and affect can likely be attributed to smoking cessation.