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.
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.
I can’t explain why, but I’ve felt a connection with birds (all birds, but parrots specifically and much moreso than birds of prey) my whole life. Nothing really makes me happier than parrots. Some of my friends call me “the parrot whisperer,” and I somehow always manage to find the wild parrots in the most unexpected urban areas. So far I’ve tracked and observed flocks in Brooklyn (NY), Austin (TX), Barcelona, Paris, Dubai, and more.
A few days ago a friend and I were walking around The Hague, a city in the Netherlands perhaps most known as home to some of the foremost international peacekeeping organizations int he world. After leaving an artist co-op, when we happened across a park neither of us had before been. The entrance caught my eye the previous week when it was pouring down rain, but I was too wet to explore. That day the skies were gray but the weather was calm, so we wandered in and found ourselves amidst a Dutch wonderland—a juxtaposition of carefully spaced trees and rugged overgrowth, bell-shaped flowers and purplish leaves smearing color across the green backdrop. Cubed metal sculptures doubled as a play gym for kids, imposing modernity upon the aged backdrop of regal brick buildings bordering the park.
We walked along the path and through the grass, admiring nature, when I started to tell my friend about the wild parrots of Paris. Seconds after the words left my mouth, a flock of green parrots flew directly over us, chattering distinctly, and landed in a tree next to the path ahead. I stopped in my tracks and pointed up.
“OMG they’re here too!” Their squawks were unmistakable.
“Yes, look!” We watched them swing around the branches and fly onward. Looking up to the trees, we noticed new flocks joining, dozens of little green rose-ringed parrots.
Though I hadn’t consciously heard their calls before spotting them, maybe part of my brain is always listening for them, a remnant of growing up with a little flock of my own.
A smile spread over my face as my eyes darted around the sky, observing these carefree creatures in their pre-dusk clamor to regroup the flock and discuss an impending rain cloud over a rare assortment of tree nuts. They swung upside down from tree branches, chasing each other flirtatiously, finally landing in groups of two. I was momentarily jealous of the simplicity of their courtship rituals: pick your most genetically compatible bae and snuggle up on a branch for eternity? If only it was that easy.
My friend and I perched on the stone steps leading down to a pond patrolled by a fanciful duck, the parrots flying overhead in coordinated formations like miniature fighter pilots. It was as if nature was giving us a private show in our own secret amphitheater. We watched them until we felt rain drops and then moved on, passing cotton-tailed bunnies on the way out.
I’m beginning to notice a pattern of parrots picking the lushest and most serene environments to gather within urban landscapes—something noticeably lacking from my life, spent mostly online and within the confines of human architectural creations. I think I’ll make it my goal to find the parrots in every city I visit.
I will leave you with this video, shared with me by three people independently of each other this morning (thanks Dave, Evan, and Pilar!), featuring a member of the Saskatoon Parrot Rescue and his friend Pebble making a statement about confining captive parrots in circular cages. It may seem a bit extreme, but it is well-documented that parrots, if contained, prefer rectangular or other polyhedron-shaped cages so they have corners to retreat into. A circular cage can actually be quite damaging to a parrot’s mental health, as they leave the birds feeling exposed and deny them agency over their interactivity with the surrounding environment.
“I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Ten years ago on Valentine’s day, my high school prom date fell asleep at the wheel and wrapped his Geo Prism around a tree. Miraculously he survived, but I will never forget spending that February 14th huddled in a hospital waiting to hear if they were going to pull the plug on poor Sam. It’s odd to mourn the living, but sometimes I still do, as much as I celebrate him in his new form.
Once, before the accident, I went over to his house and we watched Fight Club. People always ask “you know that scene in Fight Club when…” No. I don’t. I haven’t been able to watch it since. The only thing I remember about it was the solidarity I felt with Sam during the ending scene, and considering for the first time that there might be a guy on this earth I could be compatible with in some kind of intellectually stable way.
I’m finally watching Fight Club again now and thinking of Sam, letting go of the alternate reality in which he woke up in time to swerve.
The Zika Virus is getting real, and lines are getting blurry for pro-life advocates, who are now forced to face the undeniable validity of the necessity of some abortions. -Via the Washington Post newsletter
Something to put that all in historical perspective and a great read regardless: It’s Spreading: Outbreaks, media scares, and the parrot panic of 1930:
The experts who descended on Annapolis in early January, 1930, weren’t half as baffled as the Washington Post made them out to be, but the reading public must have been at least twice as confused. Was parrot fever really something to worry about? Reading the newspaper, it was hard to say. “NOT CONTAGIOUS IN MAN,” the Times announced. “Highly contagious,” the Washington Post said. Who knew? Nobody had ever heard of it before. It lurked in American homes. It came from afar. It was invisible. It might kill you. It made a very good story.
But the parrots were innocent then, and they are innocent now. If you want to know why I love parrots, read that. – NY Times Magazine, via Rick Kot.
If you think the superbowl is all just fun and games, consider that repeated head trauma can lead to neurodegeneration and forces many football stars, such as Ken Stabler, to live out the rest of their lives trapped in a mental hell. I’d like to see a halftime commercial about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). – Via NY Times Breaking News alerts
A cool way to search flights if you want to find the cheapest route TO a certain city. Just input get a list of airport codes separated by commas and you can see where the cheapest connections are. – Via @markmadsen
Turns out a media industry that favors talent inclined to sell out as quickly as possible results in a lot of bad editors. This guy has some words for them. Don’t be this kind of editor.
Tabs staying open:
“An Equal Difference” Intellect & Gender Equality in Iceland, by Gabrielle Motola. Gaby and I met over cocktails in Iceland. The next day, we hiked a volcano with some badass Icelandic women. We met up later and traveled through England, Spain, and Morocco together. She taught me everything I know about photography, which is but a drop in her bucket of knowledge.