WHERE DO AUSTINITES COME FROM?

Austin

Source.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking about Austin this way: that living here is like being married to a celebrity who got famous while you were married.

In this analogy, you and your spouse (Austin) meet, you fall ludicrously in love with their (Austin’s) quirks and charm, and you – but only you! – know intimately how special this soul (Austin) is.

That is, until your beloved (Austin) suddenly gets scouted by oh, say, Quentin Tarantino. And seemingly overnight, they (Austin) are a celebrity. Now everybody knows how beautiful, quirky, and special your spouse (Austin) is!

You’re happy to share their attention with adoring fans – at first. Because after a while, those at-home, two-spoons-in-one-spaghetti-bowl dinners are interrupted by their (Austin’s) cell phone constantly dinging with crazed fan tweets, calls from their agent, and Facebook push notifications that their millionth like just went through.

And it’s cool, you’re happy for them (Austin). They’re making more money after all.

Only, you’re worried that soon they (Austin) will be a little too fabulous for you, that their (Austin’s) tastes will change, and soon, this adorable little ragamuffin will be transformed into a slick, tanned, bleached-teeth copy of any other successful celebrity (wealthy city).

Also, they have less sex (water) to offer you. Their sex appeal (water reserves) is (are) being depleted by a ravenous public, and sometimes they’re just so tired (water levels so low) that they’re like, “not now baby, I’m just in a low energy (Stage 2 drought) place right now.”

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I think that’s the visceral fear, anyway. Austinites old and new looooovvvee to get riled up about our city’s increasing popularity, becase like the non-famous spouse above they are worried, some with reasons completely valid, some less so.

Here is what Austinites are worried about:

1. Rising cost of living. (Valid.)

2. Diminishing water. (Valid.)

3. Sudden glut of condos. (Valid, but if the alternative is sprawl, I think I’ll take vertical growth. Condensed cities = walkable cities.)

4. Nefarious Californians eradicating our local culture. That Angelenos or other outsiders are moving here simply because it’s a scene, and as the theory goes, they’ll move on when they’ve sucked all the cultural life out of us. (BS. Let’s have a talk.)

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That #4 link above is from this past week, when Reddit users jumped all over Lauren (Hipstercrite’s) post about living in Austin. Which to my mind, was a refreshingly balanced and non-cynical post, so the reaction surprised me. The whole thing got me thinking, what is my favorite thing about Austin? The easygoing people.

And I wondered [Carrie Bradshaw voiceover]: Where did my favorite, big-hearted Austinites came from?

From here:

Willie Nelson: Abbott, Texas.

Ann Richards: McLennan County, Texas.

Richard Linklater: Houston, Texas.

Leslie: Miami, Florida.

Molly Ivins: Monterey, California.

Mike Judge: Guayaquil, Ecuador. (Cool!)

Evan Smith: New York.

Kinky Friedman: Chicago.

Sarah Bird: Ann Arbor, Michigan.

So, if you were born and raised in Austin and are mad about new people coming to live here…I’m sorry.

This idea however that new people (particularly the LA boogiemen) are all opportunistic douchebags is just not accurate. You can move here from a different locale, and be invested in Austin. You can contribute enormously to the local culture.

But whining on Reddit does not further our local culture. Whenever I hear an Austinite mock newcomers just for not being from here, it makes me want to tweak their ear like an east Texas grandma and threaten to get the switch out. Didn’t your mama teach you any manners?

Population growth scares me too, but what scares me more is Austin’s spirit – that of a sweet island of misfits – evaporating. That, like the non-famous spouse above, our fear morphs into resent, leaving a bunch of cynical ass people walking around. Because who would be the douchebags then?

Us.

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OUR NIGHTLY VISITOR

Late at night and sometimes during the day, we face an intruder in our home.

He stares at us through the windows with hungry eyes and a cloudy visage, waiting until we’re gone so he can sneak in. And once inside, he steals things. Things whose absence is readily missed, things we paid good money for. Usually this happens while we’re asleep, but he’s even gone so far as to break in while Ross was minding his own business, sitting in the living room. He just strode on by, acting like he didn’t even see him.

We call this intruder Gray Cat.

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Gray Cat, as you might imagine, is no friend of Claudia’s. Here is Claudia, being an adorably cuddly kitty, the way she acts with most humans:

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And here is Claudia when she encounters Gray Cat.

When we moved into our current home, it came with a doggie door that leads from the kitchen to the outside, or as Gray Cat has learned, the other way around.

This is perfect! we thought, because Claudia, always an indoor/outdoor cat, never really learned how to use a litter box. When we first moved in we kept her inside for two weeks, against her door scratching and yowls of protest, to get her used to the idea that we were in a new place now and she couldn’t just go wandering off. During this period we hauled out a cat box, which Claudia regarded with a bathroom instinct of zero. We’d see her prepare to go poo somewhere, then have to pick her up and physically place her inside the box, where she’d stand, confused, until she eventually did her business. When it was finished, instead of burying it, she’d just kind of paw around it, like…is this right? After I go poo I just move some dirt around, right? Sort of like a human going poo, then wiping the toilet paper on their arm. She had all the right steps, but didn’t ascertain what the end goal was.

So it was a great relief for everyone when we un-barricaded the doggie door, and Claudia could go outside to wander, explore, and go to the bathroom in a less mysterious environment. I’m free! she thought. Until, that is, Gray Cat came around.

You have to understand that on our street, there’s a hierarchy of animals. On top is a black German Shepherd mix a few houses down that any small child could ride as a horse. But even though he’s enormous, he’s also on a leash, so he almost doesn’t count. Next is Orange Cat, who prompts the sad meow in Claudia: that low, throat-resonant sound that sounds like a concerned kitty cry. Orange Cat is like a big, fat mafioso who could certainly take Claudia, and likes to wander into our backyard from time to time just to show her what’s up.

And finally there is Gray Cat, who doesn’t scare Claudia, BUT PISSES HER THE EF OFF.

Why? Because he constantly comes into the house and eats her food. Poor Gray Cat is skinny, probably wild, and a total scavenger. Claudia gets the mad, high-pitched screech going whenever she sees him, as if to say, “bitch!!!! Get outta my yard!”

This phases Gray Cat not at all.

We’ve started feeding Gray Cat, leaving out bowls of dry food, so as to discourage it from coming inside. We’re not sure if it’s the right approach or not. We also have been barricading Claudia’s doggie door at night, which is fine until she starts frantically pawing at doors and windows like, “hello? Have to pee! And there’s no weird box of dirt around for me!”

It’s a classic Mexican standoff between us, Claudia, and Gray Cat. Mostly, we and Claudia are a united front. But sometimes we have to limit her independence to salvage her food bowl.

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No one is sure what to do. Some have suggested we take Gray Cat to a shelter, so that if he and Claudia ever did get in an actual scrape, at least he’d be clean and have his shots. That seems reasonable.

What Claudia’s dream scenario would be, however, would be to live in a world where there are no other cats but her. Which is the bizarre thing about cats: their supreme lack of camaraderie with their own species. Can you imagine what a weird existence that would be? To actively hate your own kind?

Fortunately, Claudia likes people. She may never understand that other cats are her, that she is in fact what she despises. But until that day comes, we’ll barricade the doggie door, chase Orange Cat away, and generally be her human protectors, because we love her. And also because she’s trained us well.

6
 

THE SILENT TREATMENT

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“You hate the cold, and the forest, and heights, and silence. What the hell are you doing here?”

It was a good question, and contained within it, the majority of words Ross and I would exchange for days. At 9,000 feet in terrestrial elevation, we were engaged in a weeklong, silent, meditation retreat, the first big adventure we had taken in a long while. I stared up at the lone skylight in our yurt, and wondered the same thing.

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For years, I’d been craving both a vacation and a road trip through the American southwest. Why? Well. As a person whose profession it is to be on a computer every day, I had this romantic, Thoreau-like vision of leaving all my gadgets behind and becoming One With Nature. To unyolk myself from the iPhone, to replace text dings with birdsong, to not Google!

It was all very lofty.

So I Googled (heh) “spiritual retreats,” and found one just outside of Taos, New Mexico named Vallecitos Mountain Ranch. It looked great! I signed us up, and three months later, we waved goodbye to our cat and our house sitter, and set forth into the west.

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We drove over this gorge on our way there, which, OK – freaked me out. I do other recreational things in my life that involve heights, have always loved roller coasters, blah blah, but something about seeing an 8,000 foot (guesstimating) GORGE is enough to give a native, plains-loving Texan pause.

“C’mon, Tolly!!” Ross jeered at me, standing in the middle of the bridge with arms spread wide, Rose Dawson Calvert-style. I took a few cautious steps, just enough to take this picture, and ran back to the car.

“We are on a schedule,” I said when he got back, pointing meaningfully at the iPhone map and implying that we didn’t have time for things like silly 8,000 foot gorges! I mean, honestly.

[Five minutes passed]

“STOP THE CAR,” I said:

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Ladies and gentlemen, are you familiar with “earthships?” Neither were we! Apparently they are built all over, but headquartered in Taos. We pulled into their subdivision of freaky, Gaudi-like dwellings made of adobe, glass bottles, tires, and found objects. Earthships were started in the 1970s (of course they were!) and originally carved into hillsides for natural insulation, but have since evolved into these weirdly beautiful things. Scattered all over the desert, they look like The Flintstones on an acid trip.

Soon, we arrived to our destination:

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Home sweet home!

Now I’ve meditated before, but I’ve never been on a silent retreat. And specifically, this retreat was for vipassana meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique designed to help you see things as they really are. Which I think we can all admit is incredibly refreshing. And at times, terrifying.

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The first day was hard. I had this aching loneliness in not being able to talk to anybody, including Ross, even while curled up with him at night. Our little yurt was about five paces across, with a gas heater and that pretty skylight at the top.

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These were my perfect conditions for that Thoreau dream. Ensconced in nature, up so high our phones didn’t work and with no electrical outlets in sight (seriously – this place is solar-powered), it was an ideal spot to withdraw from technology and all its shiny distractions. We were even encouraged by our teachers to not write, or read, so as to stay in the present moment as much as possible.

[Record scratch]

NOT READ OR WRITE?! Not escape to a nice story? Not record all my very important thoughts and feelings??

No, no, they said. You can, but you’ll be giving such a gift to yourself to really release all distractions, and give way to the full meditative experience.

On the second day, I cried.

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Every morning, we woke up at 6:15am, and headed out to the lodge for our first meditation. It would be the first of four daily, each about 45 minutes long and punctuated by meals, meditative hikes or walks, and dharma talks. And the thing is, cognitively, I totally got the benefits. I too want a free mind! I’d silently scream, squirming in my chair.

But experientially, I was in a state of withdrawal. I had questions, questions that desperately needed Googling. And I had a personality, a personality that wanted to burst forth and mingle with other personalities.

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Me on a meditative hike, making my “Dear surgeon, if I get mauled by a bear, here is what I look like for the cosmetic reconstruction” face. 

But we’d all agreed to tuck our social selves away for the week, and away they went. During meals, our silverware clattered loudly against our dishes, with no chatter to drown it out.

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One morning I woke up, my breath misting the cold air, and saw a tiny cottontail rabbit hop across the path down to the lodge. For the first time I walked into meditation with a smile, buoyed by the simple (irrefutable?) joy of cute baby animals.

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A gorgeous river that I saw on one of my hikes.

I wish I could tell you that this was my big turning point, that the rest of the retreat was easy for me after encountering my spirit animal: the cottontail rabbit.

But even though it was still hard, I did begin to have tiny breakthroughs. During our sits, I started tuning into this subtle vibration in my body. I loved our savasanas (lying down meditations), and experienced a particularly magical one in the forest under a canopy of pine trees. And I was thrilled, positively THRILLED, when Ross did something so significant as look at me.

Which all made rolling into Austin on Monday a kind of bright, saturated fantasy. Rolling down Mopac: stimulation everywhere! Colors! People! Starbucks!

The first 24 hours, I talked people’s heads off, read, wrote, and generally uncorked myself. If we met up in real life, I’m sorry for unleashing an unstoppable stream of words in your face.

Still. Cradled up there in that New Mexico mountain valley, I think I did manage to brush away some very old mental cobwebs. I can honestly say that my mind is the clearest than it’s been in a long time, and that as a writer, whole phrases and sentences have shone forth these past few days with a clarity I had suspected permanently dimmed.

Maybe there’s no better cure for writer’s block than to — lovingly and just for a little while — shut up.

11
 

THURSDAY! AUSTIN BAT CAVE!

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In elementary school and junior high, I had a handful of teachers who encouraged me to write. One of them, Mrs. Beeler, read one of my essays aloud to the class, a little piece I had written about flowers in the spring.

“Can you believe these adjectives?” she asked a roomful of bored seventh graders. “And the imagery! Tolly! This is wonderful. Just wonderful.”

Everyone else doodled on their shoes, no one was paying attention. But I was beaming.

“Euphoric!” she cried. “You used the word ‘euphoric!’ Wow!”

Up until, say, the eighth grade, I was a dork with braces who didn’t have a friend clique going yet. I liked theater and English, but I wasn’t a “smart” kid, or a “sporty” kid, or a “pretty” kid. But, writing? Writing made me feel like I had a thing. Even if that thing, unlike A-team volleyball or clothes from Banana Republic, didn’t have any hard social currency yet.

“Tolly, thank you for this essay,” Mrs. Beeler cooed. “A-plus.”

Ok, so that day was a little embarrassing. But Mrs. Beeler, God bless her, entered that essay for a school wide award, which it won. So after that, I did feel kind of smart.

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Good English and writing teachers will always have a special place in my heart, so Thursday night, I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this local benefit: Austin Bat Cave’s Bat to School Bash.

RSVP.

TICKETS.

Just what is Austin Bat Cave, you ask? Oh, only the coolest non-profit ever. They offer free writing classes to kids (including many underprivileged youth), and it’s staffed by volunteer writers! Our dear Lauren Modery of Hipstercrite just started teaching, for example.

Many from Austin’s writing and magazine community will be in attendance, as will Mother Falcon, who’s playing a set. There will also be readings from Texas Monthly‘s Karen Olsson, novelist and J.J. Abrams writing collaborator Doug Dorst, and writer Elizabeth McCracken, who edits one of my favorite authors on the planet, Ann Patchett (drool).

AND! It will be MC’d by me! (Oh dear.)

There are a ton of rad prizes being given away too, including nights at Hotel San Jose, dinners from Qui, and handwritten and illustrated writing advice from George Saunders, who gave that beautiful commencement speech at Syracuse earlier this year (text, video; I recommend both).

If you’d like to support this extremely worthy organization, are a fan of the written word, or just want get your rocks off with famous writers for a night, come on out to the Gibson Guitar Showroom (3601 South Congress Ave) at 7pm on Thursday.

See you there!

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EAVESDROPPER INTERVIEW: LUMIERE TINTYPE

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I first encountered Lumiere Tintype last month, in that mysterious way when a fascinating bit of the Internet bubbles up to the surface, and it’s just perfect for you. Created by two Austin artists, Adrian and Loren, Lumiere is a traveling tintype photobooth that looks like a teeny tiny cabin on wheels. Inside is all this wonderful old wood flooring, enormous photography equipment, and even a darkroom.

Their work reminded me of this “ghost art” exhibit that AMOA hosted years ago, I believe in 2005.  There was all this 19th century photography there, and back then, it was thought that taking someone’s picture was akin to scanning their soul. The images (many of them tintype) were so haunting, that it’s perhaps not so surprising the public came to that conclusion.

I was reminded of that exhibit viewing Loren and Adrian’s photos, and  asked them if they wouldn’t mind swinging by ol’ Austin Eavesdropper for a chat.

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Eavesdropper Interview | Lumiere Tintype

1. What is Lumiere Tintype?
Lumiere Tintype is primarily a mobile photobooth, in which we shoot and develop authentic tintype portraits of folks while they wait. We use old cameras and make all of our own photographic chemistry. We stick pretty closely to the recipes used by the photographers of the 1800′s, which makes the final image very unique. We also produce commissioned photography for business, weddings, and creative projects of all kinds.

2. How did you both get into it?
Adrian – I got into it as a creative way to spend my time. I had spent many years shooting film of all types, until digital photography swept it all aside. I suppose I didn’t realize how much I had missed being in the darkroom. I really got hooked when I realized that the tintype process is outside the realm of even film photography, since we are essentially making our own film. It was liberating to know that our creativity is not dependent on the big film manufacturers staying in business.

Loren – I do not have a photography background but started to help Adrian out in the darkroom, making and developing the plates. Between the two of us we can shoot much faster than Adrian could on his own. I absolutely love being part of the process of creating tintypes. I enjoy discussing and providing input about what we are photographing, whether it is how a portrait is framed or a creative project outdoors. With every tintype we create I learn something new about both the process and the history of photography. I have started to view and evaluate my everyday surroundings with a new perspective. I constantly find myself awkwardly staring at strangers considering how their facial features would look in a tintype. Although that may confuse the few who actually notice me, it’s an enjoyable new element in my life that I would happily trade a few awkward moments for.

3. Your pictures have a haunting quality to them (they remind me of this exhibit at AMOA a few years ago about ghosts, actually). Do you get that feedback a lot?
Yeah, it’s a strange thing to see yourself rendered in the same medium as all the grizzly, old westerners that we are used to seeing in tintypes. People often look surprised when they first see the image. However, given a few minutes, they start to connect with the image because it removes you from the modern world and all of its bright, digital perfection. It’s an honest photograph and it won’t look dated in ten years. All of our modern photographic technology tethers you to the era in which it was taken. You don’t get that with a modern tintype, it is essentially timeless.

4. Dumb question. Why do people’s blue eyes look almost translucent in your pictures?
Good question! Photo nerd time! The collodion reacts very strongly to the UV end of the spectrum – so blues and whites come out very light in tone.

The opposite occurs with reds and yellows, the collodion is insensitive to these colors and will render them very dark. That’s how we find freckles that you didn’t know you had. Modern photography is extremely good at rendering color accurately, and with a tintype you are seeing the limitations (and beauty) of the early emulsions.

5. I love (really love) your ode to tintype. How has our relationship to photography changed over the past few years?

I’m conflicted here, you might want to take a seat.
Photography has never been more accessible. Everyone has a camera, and that’s a good thing. Every two minutes the world takes more photographs than were taken during the entire 1800′s. That’s incredible, no lover of photography can admit otherwise. However, photography has also become very disposable. Images are rarely printed, shared, held, hung on walls or stuffed in wallets. We have no idea whether or not the digital files of today will survive to be seen by our ancestors. We’ve had customers in the photobooth lament that the images of their kids as babies are stuck on weird disk formats at low resolutions. With a tintype, you get an image that has proven archival quality. The photographs from 150 years ago still look great today. They have been handed down the generations simply because they exist in the physical world, and they have a tangible value.

So, to answer the question, I feel that as photography becomes democratized and universal, yet only ‘exists’ in a digital realm, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on the future of those images. Analog processes allow us that reflection, be it film, tintype, daguerreotype etc. They allow us to hand make a body of work that is produced a little slower, but will last much longer.

6. Are you from Austin, or elsewhere?
Loren – I’m from Conroe, Texas.

Adrian – I was born in Birmingham, England

7. If elsewhere, what brought you here?
Loren – I moved to Austin for school, but stayed for the same reasons everyone does, food, music, culture etc.

Adrian – I came here on my travels, I stuck around after meeting Loren.

8. What is your favorite place in Austin?
Probably out on the Colorado river, east of the city. No one really goes out there. We are lucky to have access to it.

9. Describe Austin in three words.
Small. Creative. Evolving. △

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