Blog, Project

Kansas

I’m moving to Kansas.

When I tell people this, the response is fairly consistent. Their mouths form a partial frown, their eyebrows drift downward, and their heads tilt back and a little to the side in confusion. “Kansas?” they exclaim, not sure if I’m joking. “Why Kansas?”

One person added, “Kansas is a place you leave, not a place you go.”

This warrants an explanation, and there is one, so let’s back up.

For seven years, I’ve moved to new homes around the world on a regular basis, generally a few times a year. When I go to these places, I’m free to explore and learn about the culture. I rent a furnished home and focus on my writing and building new relationships. I’ve had my readers vote on where I should go next, which has led me in some directions I wouldn’t have chosen myself, which proved to be super-valuable.

That’s seven years, mind you, of doing more or less the same thing. It’s different each place I go, but my world, the preferences and connections and work I bring with me, is largely the same.

I conducted an experiment to shake things up not long ago. This took the form of a two-month jaunt around Europe, during which I stopped for just a few days in each of 20+ countries, doing a little exploring, seeing what I could accomplish. This is a method of travel I’ve seldom done, because although I’ve been able to visit a large number of countries, I’ve mostly opted for longer stints. And before I started traveling full-time, I’d never left the US. There are many aspects of travel, as a result, that are still quite new or unfamiliar to me.

I enjoyed that trip, and started to think about what other things, what other projects and adventures, I’d been putting off. What else I hadn’t done yet that I wanted to do.

That thought was spiraling around my brain when I decided, after a great deal of hesitation, to start a podcast.

I didn’t want to just add to the noise in an industry that has been ballooning like crazy, but I thought up a format that I felt was quite novel, and one that I thought I myself would enjoy. I decided to work my way through a handful of episodes and see how I felt about it from there.

After the first episode of Let’s Know Things, I was hooked. The concept of the show has me adding context to current events, which means I get to geek out about all kinds of topics, drawing lines between seemingly disparate things and sharing that information with people who want to hear about it.

What was truly shocking to me was the response the show garnered. I’ve produced and published eight episodes thus far, and have already breached the iTunes Top 10 News & Politics podcast list, the Top 100 overall list, and spent four weeks on the New & Noteworthy section, which positioned me on the front page of iTunes for the duration.

I was, and still am, agog about all this. I was ranked number 70-something out of around 200,000 active podcasts on iTunes. I still can’t believe there are so many people who want to geek out with me about this stuff.

Before the podcast, I was already starting to commit more time and thought to my YouTube series, Consider This. I attempted to shoot a few episodes while in-transit in Europe, and found that the quality steeply decreased, rendering the episodes unusable, if I wanted to maintain any semblance of standards.

The realization that I’d need studio space somewhere only increased once I added the podcast into the mix. Writing is something I can easily do from anywhere — be it from a bus stop in the Balkans, crammed into a budget airline seat, or from the middle of nowhere in the Philippines during a blackout. Producing audio and video is a different creature altogether.

So the question became, “Is this something I really want to invest my time in? Do I want it enough to derail this lifestyle I’ve been engaged in for seven years?”

That question helped me realize that, wow, I’ve been doing this same thing for seven years. Isn’t it time for a change? Isn’t it time to try something else for a little while? Shake things up?

I visited a friend in London a few weeks ago, and on the way out of the US I stayed with some friends in Chicago. I mentioned that I was thinking of finding a flat somewhere, setting up an in-home studio and focusing on that sort of work for a bit. I’d want to be able to roadtrip regularly, though, and that meant buying a car.

Getting rid of my car when I left LA was one of the most psychologically memorable moments of my early minimalist experience. The impact of getting rid of my CR-V cannot be overstated.

The idea that I would need to buy a car, my first in seven years, was stressing me out. There were things I wanted to do that having a car would enable, but I don’t know about cars, don’t particularly like cars, and it grated that these tentative plans were so dependent on finding one; on navigating the ‘buying a car’ process.

The friends I was staying with looked at each other, then back at me, and said, “We have a car we’re not using.” They asked me what I would give them for it. When I returned to the US from London, I got a refund for my train ticket and drove my new-to-me car out of Chicago.

So why Kansas?

When I was in the UK, the Brexit vote took place. This was a vote that everyone was certain would go one way, but on the strength of rural Britain — farmers, the lower economic classes, anti-immigration nationalists — it passed, surprising everyone.

I’m not the only one to have noticed the parallels between what’s happening in the UK and what’s happening during this US presidential election cycle. There are forces in play that have been oft-ignored throughout history, and those groups are in direct conflict with establishment players.

I find this play-by-play fascinating and in some ways existentially terrifying, in the sense that it’s good to see tired old walls rupture, but that we can’t be certain what we’ll find on the other side when they do.

When I was in Boston for a movie premiere recently, I had someone ask me where, of all the places I’ve been, was the most exotic? I answered, half-joking, “Wichita.”

Looking back at that later — thinking through the rural vs. urban and isolationist vs. global dichotomy — I realized that it was barely even half a joke.

In fact, visiting parts of Kansas and other portions of rural America has sometimes been a more foreign experience for me than time spent in, say, Prague. Yes, there are many, many cultural differences between cities in Czech Republic and cities in the US. But there are just as many — and some very striking — differences between coastal US cities and cities found in the US Midwest and South.

I decided that if I was going to do this thing, settle in and try some stuff out, I might as well ensure that I have valuable frictions in my life, as well.

I knew I could go to a place like Missoula, Montana and enjoy myself, because it’s a place with a culture I understand and largely agree with. I’ve lived there several times, and always found it to be calm and lovely.

The culture in Kansas wouldn’t be so easy to grok, for someone with my background and predilections. Living there, I would struggle and be forced to bend, and that’s why I travel to begin with: so that I have no choice but to see the world from different angles for a while.

The last time I had a non-furnished apartment, a car, and a consistent home for more than a handful of months, was in 2009.

To help put that time period in perspective: in 2009, Barack Obama had just been elected for the first time, the iPhone 3GS (which introduced a new, 3 megapixel camera and the ability to shoot video) was released, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was in theaters.

A lot has changed in the meantime, in terms of who I am and how I see the world, and in the world, itself.

And so, I’ve rented an apartment in Wichita, Kansas. For a year.

I bought a car, which I will use to roadtrip around North America as regularly as possible (I’ll be asking for suggestions of where to go and what events to attend, so there will be still an interactive component to my travels).

I’ll be setting up my flat as a home-and-studio, where I can focus on projects that would otherwise be difficult to work on consistently.

I’ll also be using the opportunity to learn to cook, decorate a place of my own (for the first time in seven years), and challenge my perceptions about society, culture, and myself.

I’ll be watching one of the biggest political throw-downs in US electoral history from unfamiliar ground. I’ll also be reminding myself, daily, that there are plenty of good people in the world with whom I strongly disagree about any number of things.

It’ll be an adventure. And I still cringe a little just thinking about it — I’m disconcerted as hell. Moderately frightened that I’ve committed to too much. That I won’t enjoy it, won’t learn what I want to learn, won’t be equal to the challenge.

And that’s why I’m doing it.

It feels good to have these kinds of unknowns in my life again.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.