The Zen of Beige Motels

For my friends on the circuit.

Yes, I’m aware of the irony.

I’m a person who loves quirkiness, originality. Clothes made by local designers that you can’t get at the mall. Food you can only get in that one restaurant in that one city. People who say things I never in a million years would have thought of myself.

And because of my work — work that, in large part, is about quirkiness and originality — I spend several days a month in what may be the most sterile, bland, “exactly the same everywhere” physical environments that humans have created for ourselves: airports, airplanes, and business travelers’ motels in strip malls and main drags and off the highway.

I am trying to learn to love it.

When I first started my speaking tours, I saw the airports and airplanes and beige motels as something to be gotten through. An irritation to be endured; a noble sacrifice for the cause. But as I spend more time on the road, that position is becoming increasingly untenable. Airports and airplanes and beige motels are no longer where I pass through on the way to my real life. They are, for several days every month, where I live. My second home.

And I want to find a way to actually live in my home.

As Thomas Disch wrote, “If there’s something you’ve got to do and a way to enjoy it, you’d be a fool to do it any other way.” I am trying to not be a fool. I am trying to not talk myself into despising the place where I live for close to a week every month, simply so I can maintain my credentials as an effete urban snob.

So I’m finding a strange sort of peace with it, and in it.

Let’s start with quiet. Beigeland is quiet. When I’m on a plane or in an airport or a hotel room, I can work or read or simply think, without distraction. You can’t exactly meditate in an airport — not if you don’t want your bag to be stolen — but you can stare blankly into space for long periods of time, which is sort of almost as good. If what you’re lacking in your life is long, uninterrupted stretches of quiet time… well, it’s not a beach house or a cabin in the woods, but there are worse second homes than Beigeland.

And Beigeland is restful. It’s designed that way on purpose, and it works, and the more time I spend there, the more I appreciate it. The work I do is inspiring and invigorating, but it’s exhausting as well. It’s intellectually hard. It’s emotionally hard. I have to think, a lot. I have to be present, really present, with dozens and sometimes hundreds of strangers at a time. I have to think about their questions, and listen to their stories, and not tune them out. At the same time, I’m separated from the people I’m closest to, for days at a stretch. It’s a hard, weird combination: it’s socially overwhelming, and at the same time deeply lonely. It’s exhausting. And the bland sameness of Beigeland lets me rest. It gives me long stretches of time to simply sit still — an increasingly rare commodity in my life — and it gives me a peaceful place to do it.

Yet at the same time, it gives me the feeling of forward motion in my life. When I’m in an airport or on an airplane or in a beige motel, I don’t feel like there’s something else I should be doing, someplace else I should be. I’m already doing something. I’m already going somewhere. Even when I’m sitting still in a chair, reading a book or surfing the ‘Net or just staring blankly into space… it counts as work. It counts as action, and motion. When I’m in Beigeland, I can sit still, and still feel like I’m moving forward.

There’s the stillness… and in the stillness, there are opportunities for human connection. Even just in smiling and saying a genuine “Thank you” to the person working the counter at the coffee stand. The person who gets treated like an invisible robot by 95% of the people they encounter, and who, often, will wake up when someone looks them in the eye for two full seconds and smiles. I like that. I like waking up from my own beige narcosis, and remembering that the people swarming around me are, in fact, people, with lives and selves and consciousnesses, and I like making some small connection with a handful of them.

And there are pockets of oddity and life buried in the blandness. The gypsy violin at the Portland airport. The sound sculpture at the drinking fountain in the Seattle airport, the one that plays an amplified recording of the sound of gurgling water. The exhibit of art by airport employees at the Minneapolis airport: much of it trite and kitschy, but with pieces of real artistry tucked in. Pieces I never would have seen in any other circumstance. And I find myself being more receptive to these pockets, and more appreciative of them, because they’re framed by acres of blandness, and take me by such surprise.

A friend of mine was once telling me about his surpassingly ordinary week, a week of work and commuting and mucking about on the Internet with no significant surprises or variations, and he referred to it as “the quotidian march to the grave.” I get that. There is a “What the hell is the point?” quality, sometimes, to the sameness of the daily grind: a sense of marking time with no real purpose, and a yearning for more meaning, more rich content.

But if life were all rich content, we’d be exhausted. We need blank space around the richness, so the richness doesn’t overwhelm us. Or worse — dull our senses, and make us immune to it.

And that’s not just true of the richness of strangers and art in airports. It’s true of the actual work I’m in Beigeland to do. Public speaking — especially the kind of public speaking that I do, the kind where I talk about seriously intense and personal shit, and where intense/personal Q&A and intense/personal hanging out at the pub afterwards is part of what I’m paid for — that’s some very rich content indeed. It needs space around it. It needs quiet and stillness and peace, in order to make the connection.

And that’s the thing I’m finding about Beigeland. The airports and airplanes, the conference centers and motels, are indeed bland and sterile and interchangeable, to the point of being surreal. The people I meet? Not so much.

No matter where I travel, no matter which region of Beigeland I’m in, the people are different. They ask different questions at the Q&A, and at the pub after the talk. They come at the ideas from different places; they look at them from different angles. In Champaign-Urbana, the questions were dark and morbid to the point of being Gothic. In Vancouver BC, the questions were thoughtful and serious and difficult, and every third one I had to answer with, “Here’s my best guess, but I really don’t know.” In Cedar Falls, the crowd was sweet and a little shocked and excited just to be talking about what we were talking about. In Bloomington, they were hip and urbane and way, way ahead of me.

They ask questions I’ve never considered before. They ask questions that make me go back to my beige motel room and re-write my talks. They ask questions I’ve answered a dozen times — but to them it’s new, and that makes it new to me, too.

I sometimes think about the enormous role that luck plays in our lives. I think about how easily I could have ended up in a dozen cities other than San Francisco, and I think about the people in those dozen other cities who would be my best friends if I lived there, and thinking about these people gives me a sense of yearning and loss… because I’ll never even get a chance to meet them.

Or rather, it used to give me a sense of yearning and loss. Because I am now meeting these people. I am meeting the people who would be my best friends if I lived in Vancouver, or Detroit, or Pittsburgh. On every trip I take, there are a bunch of people I like, and a few people I really like, and — usually — there is one person who wakes me the fuck up, one person I could talk with for hours, one person where every question we ask each other leads to a dozen more. There’s a sense of loss and yearning with that as well: I meet these people, and connect with them intensely for a few hours, and then I move on and in most cases I never see them again. But they aren’t ghosts anymore. They’re flesh and blood.

And the blandness of the airports and airplanes and motel rooms gives me room to see them. The blandness is the negative space that makes the image pop.

And maybe most importantly:

There are people in my life now — not strangers I connect with intensely for a few hours and never see again, but colleagues and compadres and genuine friends — who I only see in Beigeland. Beigeland is their second home, too, and it’s the hometown that we share. In the same way that San Francisco is the city I share with Tim and Josie and Laura and Kanani, Beigeland is the city I share with JT and Jamila and Debbie and Jen. It’s a little disorienting — I never realized how much I associate my friends with the places they live in until I started having friendships conducted entirely in the non-place of hotels and conference centers. But any city that’s home to people I care about is going to become a city that I love. And that’s just as true for the sprawling, diffuse, invisible non-city of Beigeland as it is for any real city.

Would I choose to live in Beigeland if I could? Probably not. Give me a choice, and sure, I’d take the luxury hotel or the quirky bed-and-breakfast over the beige motel by the highway.

But I don’t have a choice. The beige motel by the highway is my second home. For several days a month, it’s the place where I have to live. I see no reason not to find peace in it, and to love it if I can. If I’m going to do the work I am so freaking fortunate to be doing, then this is something I have to do. There’s a way I can enjoy it. I’d be a fool to do it any other way.

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The Zen of Beige Motels
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13 thoughts on “The Zen of Beige Motels

  1. 2

    Great post.

    Two thoughts it inspired:

    I have always like hotel rooms. As you mentioned, they are deliberately restful places. A few years ago I was spending every week day in a not-very-fancy motel in a beach town while I worked on a project. Once they got high speed Internet access I didn’t mind it at all. In fact I think my abandonment of TV as a white noise in my life happened there, because their cable was so limited. These days I rarely watch tv, even though I have a great cable system (that the other members of my family like).

    As for actually engaging with people at fast food/coffee shops, I live in San Antonio, which is, in my considerable experience, the least overtly racist place in the US (this does NOT mean there is no racism, far from it, but the racism not nearly as overt here, possibly because the largest minority in this town is Anglos). After living here for many years, I visited my son in Virginia. The fact that virtually everyone working in fast food/coffee shops was black was enough of a difference that I noticed it almost immediately. And I certainly noted that most were incredibly rude. Now I realize that the jobs in question are mindnumbingly boring and the interpersonal connect involved is usually pretty minimal, when it is not flatly abusive, everywhere, but the difference between Virginia and San Antonio was striking. At best I was treated like part of the machinery in a factory job.

    After noticing it, I decided to try something, so I did what you suggest, I looked them in the eye, smiled, and said “thank you” as if I meant it, not just making the noise that the machinery makes.

    The results were startling. I got happy grins, delighted smiles, pleasing remarks. I got treated like a human being. It made me realize that the rudeness was defensive, that these people were being abused even more often than similar people in San Antonio were abused.

    Since then I make it a point of making eye contact with the person handing me my chai latte (of whatever ethnicity). It is such a simple thing, and it makes a huge difference in how they relate to you and how you feel about the whole transaction.

  2. 3

    A number of years ago my kids moved about 1300 miles away. At the time I had a good job w/ lots of time off, so I was able to got visit 3-4 times a year. If I had enough time, I’d drive using the back roads and a different route as often as possible. Sometimes a beige motel was all I wanted. Some place to shower and relax after 10 hours of diving. Some of the best meals were at the little diner down the road were you could talk to the locals while you ate. Not always the best food, but something that you walked away relaxed and ready for sleep. Its amazing the kind of service you can get when you look tired but are friendly.

  3. 4

    In the last half-decade of the 1980s, I was on the road more than I was at home, installing flight simulators on military bases. Talk about living in Beigeland! Get to work at 8 am after maybe a half-hour commute (they don’t build motels next to military runways for good reasons), grab coffee and a “gedunk” at the honor-system coffee/junkfood table, nuke frozen meals for lunch and dinner, get back to the motel at midnight, repeat for several days at a time. The quiet of that beige motel was heaven. The last few trips on my long Pensacola, Fl. gig, when the Navy was using the systems and I was part of a team that cleaned up remaining problems on weekends, I’d go out to Pensacola Beach on Sunday late afternoons when the work was done and just walk along the sand, enjoying the waves, the quiet, the occasional exuberance of a family dog in the surf.

    Do I miss that working environment? Sometimes I do. We were solving the really tough problems, the intractable ones that get put off because “nobody can fix them”. I miss the high of the good problem fixes. I miss Pensacola Beach.

    But I really like home, family, decent meals, exercise, and living where I do in California.

    The notion that I’ll probably never walk Pensacola Beach again, though, is a sad one.

  4. 5

    My only issue with Beigeland is lack of comfy chairs.

    All the chairs seemed designed to scrub all of the skin off your ass and double the size of your hemorrhoids. And the desks are all at precisely the height designed to aggravate your carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Also, being in a Beigeland hotel room actively encourages you to get out and look around. I would have missed the last solar eclipse had I not gotten bored in Beigeland and walked outside to get some air. And there were a bunch of people looking up.

  5. 6

    How lovely and thought-provoking.

    I had a travel job for a few months, and if I hear a song off one of the cd’s I brought with me, I’m transported right back to that extremely specific mix of feelings. Independence and solitude, quiet and the open road, everything financially covered for a couple days. Fear and uncertainty about my future beyond those couple days, apprehension for the unpleasant work I’d being doing at my destination, loneliness.

    I was mostly traveling alone in beigeland. I felt oddly separated from the people who actually lived all those places, like talking through water. I was not doing rewarding and important work. (Also I find hotel rooms by myself creepy.) It was incredibly isolating. I never consider travel jobs anymore.

  6. 7

    Thanks, Greta. It’s convention season at Last Gasp: WonderCon in Anaheim, Chicago last week, Boston Comic Con next week. I like to stay with friends and family wherever possible, but that hotel right by the Anaheim convention center was heavenly. Boring is good. I notice that my 9-year-old (who went to chicago with me) has been very happy playing in her room (even cleaning!) since we got back.
    My dad traveled every week for business, when I was a kid, and I saw Up In The Air in the theater, just to see a side of that weird life (and the St. Louis airport, always an architectural favorite of mine).

  7. 8

    This is a beautiful essay. Quite Zen …. or maybe just humanist.

    I have my own little trick. When I’m ‘forced’ to spend more time than I’d like in the Beigeland of airports — or airplanes or hotels or malls — I sometimes like to use the time to imagine how an ordinary person who lived 100 years ago would feel to suddenly wake up and observe. An average man or woman who lived, say, 200 years ago, or 500 years ago — or a thousand — opening up their eyes and just sitting and looking. Clean, bright, comfortable, soft, busy and filled with an astonishing sleekness of form, a simplicity of function — and food. Flush toilets. Egads. They would think it a paradise. An unachievable and inconceivable dream. Utopia.

    And if I’m in an airplane — look down and marvel at going further in 5 minutes than what once took days, if not weeks, on foot or by cart. It is far easier for us to imagine their astonishment than it would be for them to imagine what they would be astonished by. How grateful they would be … for all of it. How privileged they’d feel to even glimpse it and find out.

    We tend to romanticize the past and forget how dirty and hard and dangerous it was. We also like to romanticize the future.

    But there is no rule that says we can’t romanticize the present for a little while.

  8. 9

    Last November, I found a video of drama that used a famous classical music composition that was set in a “beigeland” world (actually it was closer to grey but it works the same as beigeland). It was a theatrical stage play that uses Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio in a distinctively non-religious way (it’s not about Jesus, Christmas, Easter, etc).

    Instead, it deals about the struggles and aloneness of modern-day life with a story of three brothers — one brother commits suicide when his business fails and his wife has an affair, one brother watches the suicidal brother’s life destruct while he has the affair with suicidal brother’s wife, and one brother who is dealing with anger and addiction along with the loss of his brother.

    Here is a clip showing the angry brother grieving over his dead brother and meeting up with his dead brother’s ghost:

    Here’s a clip of the suicidal brother’s wife and her brother-in-law starting their romance:

    And here’s a clip with the minister dealing with his feelings of frustration due to one brother committing suicide and not being able to intervene:

    The “beigeland” spaces that we inhabit daily are used as the scenery for this drama.

  9. 10

    I love this so much. And I completely relate to it. I find my myself now going to the airport early on these road trips-not because I am afraid I will miss my flight but because I have learned to appreciate the moments of calm meditation before each flight that it brings. I sit quietly in a mostly plastic chair, just my thoughts, my ipad and the nameless travelers that pass me by. Zen indeed.

  10. 11

    Next time you find yourself in a beige motel room, check behind the paintings. There are artists out there dedicated to making those rooms secretly spectacular. ­čÖé

  11. 13

    […] I was able to take some time with old and dear friends and some with newer friends I only see in Beigeland. I enjoyed a parade of cosplay that were works of art and imagination and absurdity, including the […]

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