The woman sitting next to me in Row 14 smells like old tobacco smoke. It feels like the smell of casinos, the smell of endless rows of unsmiling, disheveled folk whose yellowed eyes and clothes suggested they really had better use for the money they were pouring into the blinking, cajoling, seductive chrome automata siphoning off everything they’d brought under the guise of “entertainment” and the impossible promise of striking it rich.
The smell is bothering me now more than the smell of tobacco usually does. It’s not a visceral distaste of the smell, which is only somewhat unpleasant – it’s the reminder of what I saw last night. For some reason, hours and hours after The Talk, I found myself wandering through one of those places, and was appalled. Appalled in the way that a visit to a slaughterhouse often turns people into vegetarians. Very much in that way.
I can’t really explain what I was doing there, last night, other than attempting to lose myself in the noise and lights and crowd. Happens every time after a talk. Spend a week or two gearing up to stand in front of a classroom or lecture hall of strangers, to pontificate about something that’s come entirely out of my head. It’s an act of art, of creation, and I’m supposed to be able to do that because, after all, I’m The Guy From Google, and by dint of magical branding, whatever I say is supposed to be brilliant.
Sure, I’ve got slides and data to fall back on, and this time, I think I’ve actually hit on something important, something worth sharing. But going into it, any talk like this, you can’t ever escape the fear, the deep primordial fear, that what you’re about to say is utter crap, and that you’re going to find yourself, fifteen minutes in, staring out into the sea of eager faces who are wondering the exact same thing you are: “What the hell is he talking about?”
So when you drag that sort of emotional manacle along for the weeks it takes to put a talk like that together, then actually stand up there and face the crowd, you’re going to be pretty well toast when it’s all done.
Ended up being a perfectly adequate talk after all. Not great, by any stretch of the imagination – presentation was all over the map. But I think I managed to bracket one or two really important insights that needed to be said, and now I’ve got something to work with if I need to pull it out of the shed and rework it for a future occasion. It was a first time for this talk, and as Tom Mitchell, with his irrepressible impish sense of humor, once confided, one should if at all possible never give a talk for the first time. Took me embarrassingly long to get the joke.
Anyhow. (Have I mentioned already that, at times, I think this blog ought to be called “Anyhow”?)
Once The Talk was done and handshakes and thanks and promises to follow up were exchanged, I stepped out into the impossibly bright Albuquerque afternoon and wandered, truly without aim, back across campus in the general direction of my car. My steps felt weightless, and an atonal melody buzzed through my head. I admired, as if through thick glass, the various pretty co-eds cruising by on longboards, and felt the sun on my back.
Then, I was at the car. Unlocked it and dropped my bag into the back, then slipped into my seat with the unnerving realization that I really had nowhere I needed to be. Just sat there with the door open and my legs out on the pavement . There in the drivers’ seat of my little white tinbox rental car in a vast visitor parking lot on the University of New Mexico campus, somewhere in the heart of Albuquerque. It was a nice feeling, except for the buzzing in my head.
The Talk notwithstanding, it had been a long day, and it had started early. Alarm had gone off at 5:45, as I’d promised Brent that I’d be ready by 6:15. I’d only actually met Brent for real the day before, but he’d been a pivotal part in my life for a couple of years already. You see, Brent was the friend of a friend who’d wintered over at Pole a couple of times way back in the dark ages of the USAP, back when you might not have any contact, radio or otherwise, with the world outside for weeks on end. When I first posted my Hey-I-want-to-work-at-the-South-Pole confession, my grad school officemate Elizabeth (thank you thank you thank you!) recalled that one of her buddies from her undergrad days had a South Pole connection and put us in touch. Turns out that Brent was also a pilot, so we had a great chat on the phone and exchanged a bunch of email. I didn’t know it at the time, but that chat was effectively my first interview; you see, when Brent “retired” from Antarctic life, he’d hired Bill, and Bill was the guy I was applying to work for. Apparently, I’d come across well enough that Brent relayed a thumbs-up to Bill that yeah, I might be worth meeting in person.
We kept in touch after that conversation and throughout my Polar sojourn, but never actually met in person. But Brent, his wife and kids relocated to Albuquerque a couple of years ago, so when I agreed to give the talk here, I knew I was going to have to work in a chance to meet my benefactor.
Brent had reserved a 172 for a couple of hours the morning of my talk. Air gets bumpy around here once the sun gets warm, so we aimed for a wheels-up time around 8:00 a.m. But before that was a chance to meet Brent’s father over breakfast. Captain Casey Jones (Grateful Dead references aside) is somewhat of a legend, with a distinguished Naval Aviation career topped by a stint as Blue 1, Flight Lead for the Blue Angels back in the 70′s. Couldn’t pass that up, so working backwards meant that I’d be getting up waaaaay too early.
Breakfast and the flight were great fun, puttering low over the desert, sightseeing around the back of Sandia Mountain, circling a few places here and there – Brent’s house, the Balloon Festival fairgrounds, then back over town and out to KAEG for a perfect squeaker of a landing.
There are a lot worse ways to start a day than this, I assure you, but it meant that by the time I made it to my car after The Talk, 12 hours later, I was doubly drained. It occurred to me that, maybe I should get some dinner (not hungry) or take a nap (maybe a little sleepy – maybe), so I started the engine and drove aimlessly in the direction of my hotel.
The singular deep impression Albuquerque gives me is of the color turquoise. The color of an unnaturally vivid blue-green paint set against the brown-gray of the adobe, and the earth below it. It stands out as a statement, a protest against the desert, saying “This wall, this archway, this mark – they were put here by man. You can erode them away and they will be gone, but for now, for now at least, they are here.”
It’s everywhere, the color is, where you least expect it. In the raingutters, and on trelliswork. A few spatters on the trunk of a limbless tree behind the old church. Looking closer, the tree’s cleft has been carved into an unmarked saint. Who knows which, but she is – predictably – resplendent in turquoise robes.
At some point in the meander, evening had set in, and I found myself staring out at the enormous edifice of the Sandia Casino, on the horizon just north of the city. We’d seen it from the air that morning. What the hell – I had nowhere to be, and in terms of losing myself in light/noise/crowds, it was significantly lower risk than some other ABQ venues I could imagine. So off I went.
And so there I was, wandering the bizarre landscape of these machines, the precisely-engineered pay-attention-to-me-now blinking, cajoling, threatening barrage of these machines, each attended by an unblinking, unsmiling soul feeding coin after coin to keep the stim going. It was unnerving – it felt like I’d stumbled into an alternate vision of life outside the Matrix, where these thousands – I’m not kidding, thousands; this place was big – of poor souls had been consigned as fuel for the money machine.
I never have been a gambler. And now, with the reminder of that faint scent of old tobacco from the woman in Row 14, I don’t think I need to worry that I ever will be.
BTW: on a more cheerful note, some pictures of atomic bombs, from the National Museum of Nuclear Science and Technology on the outskirts of town:
|Inside the business end of a Titan ICBM launcher|