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.