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.
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.
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.
This morning I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Osaka, happy to be here. I made some coffee and decided to write by hand in my journal, to add to the 3,000 or so pages I’ve filled with fodder for future stories in recent years. Pen selection of every entry is a delicate process, subject to several variables. The thickness of the ink is dependent on my environment—am I on a bumpy train and require greater precision? Am I writing while leaning on one arm on a bed and need something with low resistance so my hand won’t get tired? Or is there a desk so I can use a thicker, felt-tip pen with a feather-light touch?
I picked one from the arsenal and decided yes, it would be the one for today: a Pilot P-700 Fine with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.
When I was in elementary school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the school would host seasonal sales. Cookies, wrapping paper, and other various items from catalogs, the school would give to the children to peddle to our families, neighbors, and whoever else we could convince to buy, in exchange for points that could be redeemed for prizes. An ideal American business transaction: convince child laborers to flip stuff that had no value to them to adults, in order to receive things kids would actually want that were of exceedingly less monetary value. But I was never allowed to participate. These sales were, my mother explained, a scam, exploitative, demeaning, or some other reason (she never really explained her decisions for such things in a way I could understand as a kid), and she wouldn’t have me involved in that racket.
Every year I would watch with jealousy as the prizes came back to reward the burgeoning entrepreneurs of the class. I wanted some fucking prizes too. By fourth grade, I decided to take things into my own hands. I can’t remember what I sold or to whom, but somehow I snuck that catalog behind my mom’s back and sold enough goods to amass approximately 500 points by the end of the allotted time period. I turned my order forms in to my teacher after scouring the rewards sheet for the thing of most point value to my 9-year-old self.
When the day came for the prizes to be delivered, I waited patiently while the big ticket prizes were delivered to the kids with hyper-competitive parents who probably dumped hundreds into the catalog just so their kid could be the class winner. When the small package was placed on my desk, it was a triumphant moment. I unwrapped it and my little hands, for the first time gripped that which, 20 years later, would help to draft the culmination of my life’s work: a Pilot P-700 Fine pen with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.
That pen, nobody could borrow. I had my decoy pens for that, and still do. No, the Pilot was my professional tool. It signified sophistication and professionalism. I remember the feeling when it ran out of ink after pouring its contents on the pages of my notebooks: the slow death of an old friend. I kept that empty pen in my desk for years even though it was useless; it became its own memorial. Whenever I use the new version, I remember what it meant to me back then: defiance, self-sufficiency, creative endeavor against all obstacles.
You may classify my association with this pen, something many would easily discard, as overly sentimental. But if the objects in our lives are symbols, what better reason to posses them than the direct memory link to the moments in which they were acquired?
There is much envy directed at the perpetual traveler. I get messages from people all the time wishing they could live like me, moving “freely” across the globe. But sometimes, the highlight of your day is finding a roll of toilet paper where the perforation on the two plies line up exactly, instead of being offset so when you try to tear it with one hand while you hold the strings of your temple pants in the other so they don’t drag along the dirt floor of the hole in the ground you are pissing into, it rips vertically in thin strands like a cheap packing tape you pick at for ages just to find the proper edge again.
Everyone who travels wants something, even if that wanting is to give. I do it for that, but also because I want, I need, to understand what places are like. It isn’t a vacation. Places aren’t always good, and some places are rarely comfortable. They just are. I will feel what I’m inclined to feel about them from moment to moment, given the world from which I came and the body I inhabit, how my body is different from the bodies around me and how that shapes the perception of the me and the them. But my feelings won’t change the place around me. It’s neutral. It just is. People adapt to any place over time. That’s how we made it this far.
You might look at the pretty pictures from around the world and think you want to go there, to consume the vision with your own senses. Maybe you should. But maybe you also shouldn’t. Just remember: often times, that picture is the crown jewel of a laborious experience. Unless you’re willing to sit in the dirt and eat bugs with people, if that’s what they do, to understand why the thing in the picture means anything to anyone, why not just look at the picture and appreciate it for its aesthetic value? Appreciate your own life and all the comfort you have in its stability as well. So many people would kill for that in this world, and they do. If you would trade it in pursuit of all the unanswered questions in the world, even if it means being attacked by a swarm of dragonflies on a 105 degree train while fluorescent lights beam down at you at midnight, maybe it is time for a change. Nothing ever changes unless the cost of maintaining the status quo outweighs the benefits. But do the potential benefits of the lifestyle you fantasize about outweigh the potential costs?
For me, they did and do. Even as I lie happily in a room the size of a coffin typing this blog post on my phone in hopes the internet will transmit it where it needs to go, I’m content with this wild life I’ve chosen. You don’t have to decide right now what you want to do. In fact, you don’t have to worry at all. Just be. If you do one thing a day to move your life along in a positive direction, that is enough.
While I’m out here though, eating bugs and eliminating 10 liters of water a day through my skin, and finding paradise and writing a novel sometimes in between, I hope you’ll think about how to really support the people in pursuit of the unanswered questions in the world, so they can share with you what they know. I’ve had a lot of support along my journeys, and I’ve got a lot of stories to tell as a result. So, ya know, show your favorite castaway you care or something from time to time, virtually or even by paying them a visit.
This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.
Overview: Whenever I meet people for the first time in a new place, they assume I’m “on holiday.” Sometimes I have a hard time explaining that I’m not on holiday—that I live life on the road, and to do that I have to always be working. I’ve gotten a variety of reactions to this disclosure, but none quite like this…
Last night I was writing on my laptop, sitting cross legged on the floor of one of the wooden bungalows atop top of a cliff on an island somewhere in Thailand. I’ve been writing a novel and was deep in thought, when all of a sudden a little boy walked over and set a plate of squid on my table. I tried to tell him I didn’t order it, but he just smiled and ran away.
I looked around, confused. To my right I saw a table of heads looking at me from a across the deck. A shadowy hand waved. Then a woman got up and came over to me, I assumed to reclaim her misappropriated order, but then she explained it was for me.
“He want to give to you,” she happily articulated with carefully calculated English.
“He ask his mother: ‘why she so quiet?’ And his mother say: ‘because she working.’ And he said ‘ohh.’”
She made a forlorn face to signal the little boy’s contemplation about the matter.
“Then he say: ‘Can I take squid for her?’ and his mother said ‘yeaaaas, go.’ So he came to give squid to you.”
My jaded little heart just about exploded. I laughed and awww’d and thanked her. She motioned to the boy to come back over, and he came shyly with his father who said something to him in Thai. The little boy stuck out his right hand and looked at me, hopefully. I shook it heartily and said “kap kom khap,” thanking him in my best attempt at Thai.
He looked elated and bowed deeply, thanking me (for accepting the squid?) with his hands pressed together. He turned to run away again, overwhelmed, but his father spun him back around and readied his tablet cam. I posed for the picture, draping one arm around the little boy’s shoulders and making a peace sign with my other hand. (In Asia, there is no shame associated with the peace sign, unlike in US where it has become a sort of pasé hippies-only gesture.)
The three thanked me and went back to their sunset dinner, leaving me to my work.
I’ve never even really liked squid, but I ate that whole damn plate, except for the heads, which I discretely gave to the resident kitten who has taken a ferocious liking to me as well.
When I was done writing for the night, I went over to the family dinner table where the owner of this glorious place was also seated, and they all beamed at me. I thanked them again and asked the women to translate for the little boy that he made my happy night working even more happy. He smiled and hid in his father’s sleeve. I bowed to the table with my hands pressed together and told them all goodnight.
What a perfect gesture of childlike innocence and compassion, to attempt to improve my, what to him must appear to be a very odd and solitary way of life, with the gift of squid.
Of course I am quite happy here in my literary paradise, where I can explore nature and focus on my art undisturbed, and at the same time remain connected to the ones I love around the world via a pretty solid internet connection. How heartbreakingly funny that being quiet and working, the very things I have traveled so far to do, seem like the pits to a 10-year-old Thai boy used to seeing tourists in a temporary state of elation and excitement-seeking.
I considered that he may have had a point. I was already wearing my little black dress, so I put my computer away and walked down the hill with my Thai bartender friend to the beach bar where a band that covers Bob Marley and various other songs with beachy vibes plays every weekend, and watched the crazy French tourists dance until they were covered in sweat and falling over. It was arguably a better use of a Saturday night in paradise than sitting by myself and writing. Maybe if it weren’t for that plate of squid, I would have just gone to bed.
Three years ago I wrote this essay, right before I left NYC. Since then, I’ve traveled to:
Canada, Iceland, England, Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Hawaii, Norway, The Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey—and some of those places for second, third, and fourth times. I’m going to Stockholm on Tuesday. Then Bangkok. Beyond that, there’s a lot of blank space on this map that has yet to be filled in with stars. I’m game for it all.
I’ve never been very good at living according to conventional standards. Some people consider the height of accomplishment making it onto one of those 30 Under 30 lists. You probably won’t ever see me there, but by the time I turn 30 I will have traveled to 30 countries. Why be concerned with other people’s standards when you can create your own?
When I wrote this essay, I was being grated by the forces of NYC living. I knew something needed to change, and nobody was going to change it for me. So I decided to do what I like to call “shaking the Boggle board of life,” in the biggest way I’d tried yet. This essay was, in effect, me lighting a flame under my own ass—putting my resolve out there in public so I couldn’t back out. It was the best decision I ever made. Please don’t misunderstand me: my life is a roller coaster, and it’s not something most people would want, which is why they don’t choose to live this way. But it’s working for me, for now, and maybe forever. Maybe not, but I doubt any regrets I may have about spending my 20s in a state of manic orbit around the earth would outweigh the regrets I would have had if I’d stayed home. And honestly, I may not have made it to my 30s if I’d stayed home.
So here it is again, because something made me look for it today and I realized it wasn’t published on my own blog, but on Medium where, you never know, it might just evaporate. I wanted to preserve it on the (sort of) open web. I needed to remember my scrappy New York beginnings, because the things that happened there and the people I met still follow me around the world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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 had a half million dollars of funding cut 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 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 that 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, kept on life support with an external keyboard, hard drive, and cooling pad. I’d write the directions down on paper, or just try to remember them. When I would walk out of my apartment, sometimes I would start walking in the wrong direction. I’d 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.
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 the place where a bunch of creative misfits could fit 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 a job, 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 9 o’clock in the morning, 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.
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:
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,
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my real life “The Devil’s Advocate” scenario, and my decision set me on the trajectory that would fulfill all of my New York dreams.
Later that 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.
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?
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 myself for so long makes me think I could be tossed into any environment and somehow figure stuff out. 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.