Monday, January 5, 2015

Keeping Austin Weird

It will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I have loved Austin, Texas since I was about nine years old.  When I was in middle school and we would come to Austin for back-to-school or holiday shopping, it always seemed like this magical place.  My sister graduated high school and went to UT, and her stories of the crazy happenings in her dorm, and the places she took us to visit when we came, all reinforced my belief that Austin is magic, that somehow everything is possible.

Eventually, my life brought me here, and the last ten years have been incredible.  It really is all I had hoped.

But...a lot of people seem tremendously invested in an Austin That Was.  The Austin of Slacker, the Austin of the 70s, the Austin of ten/fifteen/thirty years ago, the days 'when it was still cool'.

They say 'Keep Austin Weird' and damn, people do try.  They wear funny hats and they take pictures of the funny things they see and so many of them strive for something special, something different, something 'Austin Weird.'  Everyone seems to have a perception of what 'Austin Weird' is, and for many people I know, it's past tense.  They say to me, "Oh, ten years?  Then you missed all the good stuff."

This city was never the weird, bright, bold, beautiful place it is simply because its residents saw everyone else wearing stripes and wore plaid on purpose to be different.  What's made this place great and beautiful isn't the fact that people are deliberately seeking out the untrodden path.  It's that we have not crushed those who choose it, and the key to 'preserving Austin' lies in that.

So when I hear how 'Keep Austin Weird' is a pale shadow of itself, how it's all ruined now, how this place and that place have closed and we've lost so much of what made Austin Austin, I just want to stop and shout this at the top of my lungs:

Stop.  Stop that.  Stop it right now.  What makes this city an incredible place, what makes it weird and unique and lovely, isn't that we have collected and preserved a quirky heritage, in cultural amber, a time capsule of that most perfect moment you remember, that glorious summer sun just before you hit the water in Barton Springs, that exquisite taco you once got on South Congress, that night that started with a crazy live show and ended up with you and your favorite band climbing to the top of Mt. Bonnell to watch the sun come up.  Stop loving a collection of moments you believe will never come again.

What's hurting this city the most is the perception that somehow its best and most beautiful days have passed, that it's better to sit and remember those moments than it is to go out and find the people who are making them now.  Things can never be what they were, and if you waste your energy lamenting what's gone you will miss the beauty right in front of you.  Every night of the week, people are singing and dancing and performing and cooking, and they are making amazing things they want to share with you.

Find them.  Accept the creativity and the gift of their passion with you, and support them in that pursuit however you can.  When your friend says, "I'm thinking of this kind of crazy thing I want to do," say, "How can I help you do that?" instead of "Are you really sure that's a good idea?"

It starts with supporting local businesses, but it doesn't stop there.  We must understand the importance of supporting local PASSION, and do it.  This city is still a place where people who want to make things, all kinds of things, from software code to beer to music to pottery, can find a community that will honor what it means for them to put that piece of themselves out into the world.  Bluntly put, give them money, if you can afford to do it, because if passion will pay, then it spreads out beyond itself to inspire others and it supports a culture where people are encouraged to believe in their dreams.

Not everyone has the means or the courage to follow a dream.  Some folks have responsibilities or obligations, or they're just not ready to leap.  Some folks' passions lie closer to home.  But when we encounter someone who does, who has said, "against all the odds, I am gonna try to find a way to share this thing that I love," then the best thing we can do, to make the world a better place and really keep it weird, is to stop worrying about if it's the next big thing or if it's better or worse than the world that lives in memory and just revel in it.

It can be hard to face someone else's passion.  It's easier to reach for what's familiar, and that's where the influx of new people in the last twenty years (including me) has created some conflict, because how do we tell whether a newcomer is bringing a passion to life or reestablishing the comfort zone left behind in another city?

There really isn't much way to do that objectively, so make a practice of seeking out, in every aspect of your experience, the people who are doing the things that bring them joy, that make them sing, that really feed their souls.

So I say to you, who mourn that Lost Better Austin (and really anyone else), that I have a challenge for you.  This year, in 2015, make it your active mission to seek out and support those who are doing the things that make them come alive.  And before the end of the year, if you're not already doing the thing that feeds your deepest heart, I challenge you to take one single step, no matter how small, along the path that leads to it.

I love you all.

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