The Fun We’re Supposed to Be Having
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The idea was simple yet absurd: Live in an airport for forty-eight hours to promote my latest book, The Fun We’ve Had. This would be long enough to feel stranded, and more than enough to feel distanced from the blasé of daily routine. At the time, I didn’t know how long that would actually be.
I feared that I’d barely make it past the twelve-hour mark.
I would remain online and available, tweeting and posting for the duration of the performance. It sounded like fun, maybe, but it helped that I wasn’t alone at the airport, joined by Kyle Muntz, a good friend and author of a number of books, including his most recent, Green Lights.
It helped that the airport functioned as a suitable metaphor for the book’s setting, given that being in an airport is a lot like being lost at sea. So many places and possibilities to drift, but not if you don’t already know where it is that you’re going. In the case of Kyle and I, we weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t actually getting on an airplane. We remained in stasis, disconnected from all tethers except the digital variety for the entire duration of the performance.
This was a performance.
This was an experiment.
And it was also a sort of nontraditional celebration of a book’s official publication because, in theory, I wanted to do something totally different, even if it ended up being a failure.
But I was worried. I was worried in the week or two leading up to performance. I had trouble sleeping and had begun to view May 14th, the day when the performance would begin, as a sort of blockade, that one precise moment in the future where everything would stop. Something entirely final.
I thought about how plausible it could be living in an airport for two days. I thought about how social media would be the one buoy for the performance, and whether or not Kyle and I would discover the airport Wi-Fi to be inferior. I couldn’t fathom how the entire performance would play out, but figured, at the very worst, we’d get kicked out or abandon the entire thing a couple hours in. It would be fine — we could always ditch the entire thing in the first few hours.
I kept telling Kyle, “It’ll be great.”
Not that he doubted the performance. Kyle was far more optimistic than I was.
Really, I was trying to convince myself that it’d be okay.
“If it sucks, we could tell people that we decided to leave the country or something.”
Yeah, I was definitely worried. Kyle and I met up about a day before the performance to hang out and, ideally, to plan out how the hell we would survive living in the airport. But instead of planning, we amassed a modest selection of local craft brews and started on washing away the worry with a nice calming beer buzz. It seemed like a good choice at the time; besides, we were two friends eager to talk shop and catch up on what had consumed our creative lives since our last discussion at AWP. It seemed right that we went into the performance low on sleep and hungover. Now that I look back, I’m not sure I could have gone into this any other way but tired and drunk. Seems like most situations of mine begin with one and/or the other. Anxiety would have murdered me.
May 14th, early morning, around 9AM, we walked into Arrivals and spent ten minutes dazed, scanning the big digital screen listing out all of the arrivals and departures. I’m not sure why we bothered since we knew about the particulars of the flight — its departure at 9:55AM, its destination, John F. Kennedy International Airport — and it would depart with at least two empty seats. I wonder if JetBlue employees bothered calling out our names over the terminal speakers, figuring Kyle and I for yet another example of poor traveling, late and in dire threat of being left behind.
The truth is, I needed a moment to soak in the atmosphere. I needed to let the confusion pass. I needed to stand still and stare to keep the waves of nausea from mounting.
Man I was hungover.
We were able to print our boarding passes without speaking to a single airline employee, which helped because I wasn’t sure I would have been able keep a straight face. If anyone asked, I’m sure we would have been found out right from the start. But no one bothered to look. Every step had become like anything else: a casual encounter with technology.
When you’re rushed through security, no one pays attention to anyone else. No one wants to take off their belts, their shoes, have their items scanned and judged, while they too are forced through a comprehensive check.
“I hate having to take my laptop out of the damn bag.”
“Yeah man,” Kyle yawned.
“I have this irrational fear about how their scanners will erase everything on my hard drive.”
“Do you have your work-in-progress on the laptop?”
Kyle laughed harder.
“Okay it’s a little funny.”
Kyle and I waited in that line like everyone else, already worn down, most definitely uncomfortable, and, most of all, absolutely uninterested in anything other than getting past this point. Afterward, we were packed in with the crowd being shuttled toward the terminals. We spilled out into a long concourse, full of so many stores and other services, it would be quite easy to mistake the airport for yet another shopping mall.
Because we had no other destination, Kyle and I stumbled towards gate B70, which had already been boarded upon our arrival. In that numbing haze of a hangover, I walked towards the gate, stopped only by the sudden glance of one of the Jetblue employees, figuring me for the type that gives flight attendants a hard time. I nearly boarded that plane. I know, so stupid. Not quite the best start. But it was the beginning.
After that, we became cautious. I didn’t want to commit to any particular location. We walked the concourse once, twice, three times, stopping only for coffee and accessible power outlets where plugging in the laptop, our phones and other devices became a sort of checkpoint, a consistent choke point, and an act that ultimately became the bulk of the performance. At the start, I intended on live-tweeting the entire performance. It seemed like a good idea going in, only to be abandoned after walking the concourse once.
When you enter an airport, there’s the immediate response, an imperative to flee. You don’t want to be here, not in this setting full of repeated landscapes and muted situations. There’s the feeling of being watched while, at the same time, washed out, sapped of any and all energy you may have had. Sometimes there’s a layover, but in the case of why I was there, it was living, attempted living.
For the most part, our minds were blanketed by the dull hum and constant rush of wave after wave of people hurrying to leave, looking to disappear from the very setting that I’d become well-accustomed to over the duration of the entire performance. But we were here, and besides coffee, liquor, and social media, there wasn’t a whole lot to be desired. I guess that’s what nudged me in the direction of seeing the irony of the entire experience.
It wasn’t supposed to be ironic, not initially. However, when the first day sped by quickly as a mixture of moving from terminal to terminal, meaningless locations that served only as places where we could remain online and out of the way — not at all suspicious given that the majority of customers and travelers surrounding us did exactly the same — the performance revealed its true form.
Having fun at an airport? Surely that’s ridiculous.
I mean, really: People stuck at an airport between flights typically turn to their computers and their phones; they pass out on terminal floors, smoke cigarettes and pipes in the provided smoking lounges; they spend more than anyone ever should on overpriced meals at strategically placed restaurants and eateries.
The irony could be seen in the exaggeration of people’s attempts to deal with such an unpleasant setting. But here we were, two writers stranded by choice. We saw the humor in the performance, and turned a blind eye to anything else, becoming like journalists in mock wonder, studying the satire. Any tweets, pictures, or posts turned into those sorts of declarations of the aforementioned irony. But Kyle and I were fine with that. We knew it would be a risk. We were open to evolving alongside every new discovery.
Because we had figured out what we were actually doing here, we turned our attention to blurring the hours, speeding up time. It was barely 5PM when we honed in on the airport bars. A drink here, one there, we let the hours fade by nursing what would have been gulped down quickly. We had to make each drink count, given the expense. We had a chance encounter with friend and author, Amber Sparks, who had stopped by one of the bars to waste away the hour or so before her flight.
Amber opted for a drink, much like we did, to shorten the hour(s) of waiting. Exhaustion started to set in by nightfall. The bartenders were intrigued and mystified by the performance. They let us stay, going so far as to offer the place as a “safehouse” if we felt like we had nowhere else to go, or needed to hide from airport security. Too bad airport bars close at 10PM. If you keep drinking, you can prolong the inevitable threat of fatigue setting in. Keep the buzz from fading. We drunkenly walked to the international terminals, where flights from Paris, Korea, Japan, and one from Italy, would give us enough of a pocket of time to doze. I’m positive that we wouldn’t have made it to the second day if we weren’t able to sleep without disruption until shortly after dawn.
It’s interesting to see how prices become sensible after drifting between the airport’s various absurdities for over eighteen hours. When we found a concourse liquor supplier offering two bottles for forty-five dollars, we couldn’t resist the purchase.
Kyle observed the available options.
“Damn, not bad.”
I agreed. The prices weren’t that bad.
“We’ve been in this airport for way too long.”
Those bottles became a lifeline, much like social media, the only other thing keeping Kyle and I from giving up. Sure, the fun existed, but we never lost sight of the fact that we could do what we were doing somewhere better. Drunk, soon to be hungover, we did what you’d probably expect: we turned to those screens, the mobile device, the laptop screen, only to find dozens upon dozens of Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter messages, not to mention a dizzying amount of unanswered emails.
They were from friends interested in receiving updates, wanting to know what the hell we were thinking. They wanted to talk, to see if we were okay. But as the night of the first rolled into the morning of the second, the names became unfamiliar. People I’d never spoken to before contacted me. Some of the names I’d seen across social media but we’d never spoken.
<span class=”right” style=”font-weight: inherit; font-style: inherit;”>The audacity and absurdity of this performance gave people seemingly a reason to reach out </span>
, and what transpired over the last day was not only reassuring but also the perfect remedy to exhaustion. It felt a lot like reacting to an audience, in a situation where there was no actual stage, only the performance, a bizarre scenario of being stranded. And yet, the audience responded to our S.O.S. signal, wanting to become a part of the adventure, if only tangentially.
Day two. 9AM turned to 11AM turned to 3PM without so much as a single change. Time felt like it stood still and yet, the clock continued to tick. Every time I’d check, Kyle and I were getting closer to the end. Suddenly we felt like we could actually make it. We felt horrible but we held on. We didn’t move around much on the second day, opting instead for empty terminals near power outlets, putting headphones on even if we didn’t have music playing. Sure, we bought coffee, a bagel, going through with a dare by someone that prefers to remain nameless: eating a Cinnabon, which nearly brought me to my knees.
We took photos from around the concourse, anything that seemed to accentuate the irony that had now become brutally close and painful. Our pockets were empty — the meager budget we’d allotted long since spent, and yet we mustered up the funds to go for broke on a much needed airport massage.
After the massage, I asked Kyle, “What the hell did we pay for?”
“Yeah, I fell asleep.”
I felt dizzy, more nauseous than relaxed. “I think I did too.”
“Let’s not mention this to anyone.”
We were out of cash and had to wait out the rest of the day with none of the usual options. Every dollar set aside for the performance gone, but we still had those two bottles left, some empty coffee cups, and an airport terminal floor to sleep on.
Fun fact: Add “airport” in front of any word and instantly it loses all meaning.
I didn’t care anymore. I remember telling Kyle, “Photos man. Take photos of all the trashcans. Anything.”
The previous night, it had been easy to remain undetected; yet on the second night, the night of May 15th into the 16th, Kyle and I discovered that we had to be far more selective. We couldn’t venture into just any concourse or store. We couldn’t afford any more food or coffee, and by the time we started to suspect that we were becoming a little too odd, a little too obvious, most of the stores had closed for the evening. We had nothing else left but to leave. We left the concourse area for the baggage claim, staying the final four hours in the drowned out glow where travelers wait to be picked up. Kyle and I sipped from those coffee cups and chatted online with those that had become invested in the performance no matter how distanced and remote they were from the actual adventure.
At one point, Kyle and I reflected on the events, the relative ease of the first day, countered by the horrible drawl of the second; we thought about the metaphor of an airport as being “lost at sea.”
Kyle spoke about that the first day, “It went by so quick, man. It felt like we had only been here for an hour but when I looked at the phone, eighteen hours down.”
“It’s the booze.”
He agreed, “It’s always the booze.”
“Look at us now…”
Yeah we were a wreck, but it was almost over. We talked about the performance as a whole, which brought up the question, the one that started it all:
<span class=”left” style=”font-weight: inherit; font-style: inherit;”>“Are we having fun?”
It’s here that I can finally say it in clear confidence: Yes. Despite the dreaded lows, the answer is a resounding yes.
While ambling around crowded bars and sneaking into empty terminals, I had at least one screen by my side. Be it via mobile or laptop, I had an audience; I had acquaintances and friends, old and new. There’s absolutely no point in having a screen to look at if there isn’t a voice, an image, a personality or two blinking and twinkling from behind that screen. Knowing well that that those voices were people seeking out the latest update, the situation, the happenstance of the airport performance piece, was reassuring. It’s still interesting, thinking about how I had people staying up later than anticipated to help keep me stay awake while I nodded off in an airport terminal at 4AM. They cared. They had fun, wanting to talk a bit longer. In the relative insanity of the performance, there was something to be had, an odd form of fun.
It became something beyond a promotional stunt for a book (not that I’m positive that was ever my sole intention); during its two-day stretch, I spoke about the book perhaps only a handful of times. This experience became something far more personal, something more intimate with the audience that it drew in from the already crowded social media waves. The reason for their interest, I’ve come to understand, was due to the sheer oddity of the idea. It’s simple, yet absurd, completely contrary to the typical promotional venture, and yet, via the irony of the question being asked, “Are we having fun?” It took on an interesting context in relation to its source material, “The Fun We’ve Had.”
I’m not sure I have anything definitive to say at this point, less than a week after the experience; however, I can say that I’d do it again.
<span class=”right” style=”font-weight: inherit; font-style: inherit;”>I would like to do something like this for every book I publish. Not the exact same stunt, mind you, but something, a performance, a declaration… an experiment.
Something that feels exciting, odd, and/or dangerous. Something that connects with an audience beyond the book itself. Since catching up on sleep, I’ve begun thinking about the possibilities, what can be done to not only promote a book but also bring fun and fuel to an audience. A book takes on its own life, but the author, and to a lesser extent, its publisher, has a responsibility to spread word of the book’s existence. It’s becoming more and more difficult these days; people become bored, disinterested after a single glance. What keeps people’s attention? I’m no different from the prospective reader. I get bored easily too. This idea began due to being bored with the hustle of promoting a book. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something fun.
If it’s fun and/or risky for you, if it pushes you out of your element, chances are it’ll be fun and interesting for everyone else that bothers to pay attention. This was risky. I could have been caught. It could have bombed, not even a single response or message from people that could have been watching. The performance could have been excruciating to both me, the one out of his element, and the viewer, who could easily scroll past the post without any concern. Not everyone will look; even fewer will listen, yet for those that fit into the former, it’s a potential fit for fun.
We’re supposed to have fun, right?
I’m certain that I did just that and, for the people that reached out when they could have very well remained lurkers and strangers watching from behind the comfort of their own screens, we rode the digital waves for a spell, letting the fun and confusion, those digital memories, become time-stamped within messages, tweets, and chat logs across all accounts. There’s something thrilling about having shared a moment that might have otherwise never been true. In the blotted-out light of an airport hallway, I had an audience and an audience had me. Kyle and I moved into the dreary deep end of the performance on little sleep and too much liquor, but we kept going because there was never a quiet moment. There was never a moment that didn’t involve inspecting the very act that became true: Why are you staying in an airport? Why bother doing something like this? And, more so, was it worth it?
While writing this essay, I scrolled through all the messages sent and received for some sort of answer. I’m overwhelmed by just how many messages I’ve received. I look at the comments and the likes, the few favorites and retweets, but I keep going back to the correspondence, namely one individual, someone that I’m sure would never have contacted me if it wasn’t for the performance. We’ve since spoken on a daily basis. It’s thrilling to be able to make a close connection with a new reader and, more importantly, new friend. Because that’s where it matters; ultimately, it’s about making contact, finding reason in the stasis of the storm of endless information and chatter. And if you’re stranded and or stuck — think the endless sea from the book or the dreary and dull setting of an airport —
<span class=”left” style=”font-weight: inherit; font-style: inherit;”>it’s fun to see that there are still possibilities for making contact.
There’s a lot of potential out there to try something new. It might not work. It might fail. But what’s important is to try. I encourage everyone to think outside of the box and try something new to help garner a response. It’s not just about marketing. It’s about making a connection, fostering a readership.
“Are we having fun? I’m having fun when I’m with you.”
But I’m not just reciting a few lines from the book. I am speaking in all honesty to the audience that remained by my side. I am having fun when I’m with you. I hope you know that I’m talking to you, every single one of you.
It was a hell of a time, the #funwevehad.