The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Tiny Tornadoes

SXSW time allows us to go soaring fearlessly into our imaginations

By Louis Black, February 20, 2009, Columns

We are well into the final stages of South by Southwest preparation, having exited the more distanced, fog-cloaked territories (where one could fool oneself into believing there was still plenty of time). Having now emerged into the too sunny, dead-ahead, ever-shrinking final stretch, we are strapped in, helmets on, speeding toward the start, just three weeks away. The marker here is always the first weekend in February, when the all-SXSW-staff Saturday meetings begin. Time itself changes, especially the normal 24-hour structure of the day, vanishing into a kind of violently racing, white-water rapids – it exists; it just doesn't make any meaning. There were years when I would have already been writing about nothing but SXSW for a couple of weeks by now. But times change.

Last week's column was a bit of a misstep – well, maybe not exactly a misstep, but, if nothing else, it was a slide off to the side. And not a graceful slide, either, but rather an unusually clumsy one ending in an embarrassing pratfall. I pretty much had figured out what I was going to write about: the law (and the rule of law) and knew what I wanted to say. Unfortunately, I've always been one of those writers who has to write his way through points, it being not enough to just reference the bits of thinking that led to a particular conclusion. Instead, the movement forward is plodding: In trying to get to D, even if A, B, and C have already been beaten to death in previous writings, I'm still going to have to cover them again. This is the only way that where I'm going and how I am going to get there make sense to me.

What was to be a few quick sentences on the way to a different destination ended up being the column. Once again, I was stuck in the mud, my tires furiously spinning without finding any traction, just flinging mud all over the place. In this muddy stretch at a turn in the road, I have already dawdled away at too many columns, ultimately filling them with the overly familiar and too-oft-cited.

Friends who once had kind words to say about much earlier columns on the Constitution now beg me to stop. Some even go so far as to threaten violence. After last week's column, one friend became particularly vehement, seeming to relish overly her description of the physical brutality she felt should be visited upon me.

The last half-dozen or so "Page Two" columns have been not merely random outbursts but actually constitute a planned progression: I am going somewhere with all these children's alphabet building blocks I've carved out and accumulated over a number of weeks now. Even though this movement is aimed at what seems to me a very clear goal, it's probably not apparent to the casual or even more serious reader. Regrettably, I fear that any assertions of clarity I might make are denied by the fog, haze, dust, and smoke emanating from these columns.

There is a definite point that these columns are supposed to be building toward – a very small one, high on a mountain above our lives. Arriving there does not only offer one a terrific, seemingly endless view of the landscape below but should provide the tiny seed of a revelation as well. Maybe calling it a "revelation" is to imply a grandeur that it doesn't possess; maybe better to say it's just an arrangement of thoughts – one that I hope will lend meaning to a large, expansive, extended population, one that is related in certain basic ways, though often dissimilar in many others. There are basic values shared by almost all, but they are articulated and conceived in such radically different ways that their commonality is hidden rather than apparent.

This population is one of survivors, of people who have lived their lives valuing hope over cynicism, who are street-wise but steadfastly poetic: people who live for some sense of art (with the meaning of that word not limited but ever-expanding), though they are not above politics. Privileging vision over hiding one's head in the sand, they insist on belief over despair but hold rock-steady to their determination to never be fooled again, never misled by a government, never conned nor sold a bogus bill of goods.

Gently, they should be reminded that just because life has hardened them, they shouldn't harden others. Youthful, naive beliefs and philosophical optimism led most of them to crushing disappointments later in life, when they came to the awful realization of just how doomed are the pure and holy. With the best of intentions, they now seek to spare the younger generations by dissuading them from investing too much, if anything at all, in raw hope.

The tiny seed is just to remind all that the journey from youth – when one has a strong belief in trust, purity, and faith – through aging – which leads to disillusionment and the loss of those beliefs – is not a transition between two conflicting, contradictory experiences. Rather, it is only one interrelated, organic whole, with the pain as much a part of the revelatory as the revelatory is part of the pain.

Similarly, my life as led is at best rich in contradictions, erratic and inconsistent, lacking rhythm and harmony, always rapidly shifting from my being focused and purposeful to being dazed and confused. Often, in an attempt to clear my head, I take to bed, sleeping through a couple of days braced by dreams – some of which implode with hallucinatory surrealism, others so vivid that I walk up to people to continue conversations that were never begun in real life. The looks thus accumulated serve as markers to help my memory sort through the mix of dreams and real memories, trying to bring order to chaos, chronology to a daft personal impressionism.

Sleep is the reality and the metaphor. The oppressive but illusory weight of serious contemplation and consideration must sometimes be abandoned just to allow for breath.

SXSW fills days, rends nights, and consumes weekends. The main SXSW offices, just across a volleyball court and field from the Chronicle offices, are now gushing out energy 24 hours a day. The creative steam pouring out of the Chronicle's offices all year intensifies as SXSW approaches, as it brings with it not only three of the biggest Chronicle issues of the year but also the three SXSW daily editions.

Through every fault and weakness in my personality, over the last couple of years I've found myself somewhat inanely defending SXSW rather than celebrating it. It is my favorite time of year, and I am so proud of it for so many reasons. Not the least of these are the extraordinary people with whom I get to work and that SXSW is very much and quite consciously a reflection and refraction of so much of what I love most about Austin. In light of my love and excitement and given the community behind and the source of SXSW, regardless of the intentions behind it and the plan of attack, my defense ends up as just pathetic whining. Rather than enjoying the hyperpumping adrenaline excitement of the ride and the sheer thrill of the experience, I'd become so narrowly focused on trivial explanations and mounting meager defenses. Thus, instead of free-floating in the sky, running with the wind, and drifting up through the stars, I'd ended up in a dirty kitchen trying to feed Mikey his porridge while changing the baby's diapers and cleaning up the spilled orange juice on the floor.

I and only I had allowed what was once transcendent to become tedious, mundane, and soul-sapping. I'd been just too bundle-headed to realize that the vicious missives directed at SXSW were not really about questions or concerns, but rather that the attacks were in and of themselves the purpose. In so many ways, by responding to these sneers and jibes so seriously, I'd been insulting the extraordinary staff, volunteers, and creative communities that make SXSW happen.

SXSW for me has always been about a cornucopia of wonderful cultural events, which combine excited, unlimited, and endless creative possibilities. I had lost that vision for a while, but this year I'll be raising my eyes upward from the dank ground toward the farthest sky.

As I have walked along the everywhere boardwalk that we all stroll down, living the every day to every day of our lives, my gait has always been uneven, rarely displaying the nonchalant grace, or at least ease, of most others. Almost stumbling, I've never been terribly far from slipping off the solid wood boards into the endless sandstorms raging on all sides. Once the solid boardwalk is left, I find myself tossed around at the mercy of the tiny tornadoes of personal instability and an always-shaky grasp on reality.

This tilt, even at its most extreme, is not grandiose enough to call insanity or to find in it any related breed, but it is an overwhelming uncertainty, accompanied by a painful inability to understand the obvious. It is the simple tasks that break the spirit. There is a poem by Charles Bukowski about how what truly finally drives a person mad is a broken shoelace. This sense of impending slippage is always of my breath and on my mind – as when, taking long walks by the ocean, one always can hear the waves, take in the many smells, taste the salt, and feel the wet.

I point this out not to seek pity or to complain. This very uncertainty means I'm constantly open to new and moving experiences. Music, movies, comic books, poems, memories, stories told by friends, interactions between people witnessed from a distance – at any point and every point I'm susceptible to the heightened experience, the more-than-just-normal senses of life.

Falling away from the known and familiar can be distasteful, but it can also be exhilarating. SXSW, by erasing time as it is normally experienced – at the very least substantially changing, if not simply overwhelming, known daily routines and by necessity ignoring the many mundane anchors by which we stabilize our lives – allows us to go soaring off fearlessly into our imaginations. Sometimes, I feel that when this column is awkward, it still may display some grace; when too repetitive, it may at least offer calm; and, at its most unexpected, it just might take us all off into the unknown.  

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.