Friday, June 27, 2014

The Travails of Toothless Ed

At first, unbearable pain sent me to a dentist in Berlin, Dr. Basic. Which is how the friends who took me there pronounced his name, like basic training or something. But when he talked, it was obvious that he was from Eastern Europe and his name was really pronounced BAH-sitch. His office was scary. So was what he said to me.

"There will be danger. There must be danger." I didn't like the sound of that. I stayed just long enough to ascertain that it was his accent. The word was "dentures."

But, at that time, there would be no danger, and no dentures. There was no money, and even scary Eastern European dentists in bad neighborhoods in Berlin have to get money for their services.

Then the pain got worse. Somehow I was referred to another dentist, an Australian in a somewhat better neighborhood. It was between him and an Orthodox Jewish woman in a really bad neighborhood -- hell, I used to live there -- who'd gone to the same dental school as my maternal grandfather (just joking about the bad neighborhood, folks). What they all had in common was that they spoke English, something I require for overseas medical problems whenever possible.

The Australian's was the highest-tech dentist's office I'd ever seen. We did X-rays and I handed him my Röntgen-Karte, a government document that keeps track of how much radiation you've absorbed. He looked at the results. "See this here?" he said, noting some white clouds where my gums were. "That's pus, and it could go any minute, into your bloodstream, into your heart or your brain and bingo! You're dead!" The solution, it appeared, was to get rid of the rotten teeth that were causing it to exist. He gave me a quote. Okay, let's do it.

There are neighborhoods in Berlin that go on and on and contain nothing edifying. Kebab stands, hairdressers, bars, dentist's offices. That's where he was, a subway ride with transfer and another transfer to a bus. No particular landmarks. Just undifferentiated ugliness, with him somewhere in it. He'd given me a prescription for some kind of antibiotic to clear up some of the infection, which meant that on my first date with the woman who was to become known as Lady Drunkula, I had to abstain. (You know the type: only drinks white wine because you can't be an alcoholic if you only drink white wine, right?) So when that was over, I made my way back to his office, my pockets stuffed with €50 notes. It was time.

He prepared a couple of needles. "This," he told me, "is a great anaesthetic. Developed in Finland. You Yanks can't get it. FDA hasn't approved it. Fools." But it was. Seconds later, my entire head was numb, but I was perfectly conscious. "Right," said the doctor. "Let's see the money." That was rather abrupt, but I pulled it out of my pocket and he snatched it from me. He snapped each bill from the roll, loudly, and held it up to the light. Then he did it again. And a third time. He handed two of them back to me. "Here. A discount for cash." And without changing his rubber gloves, he got to work. It was amazing.

Close your fist around a finger. Pull the finger out. That's what it felt like. Seven? Eight? I don't know how many teeth he pulled. Once I felt a twinge of pain. But just a twinge. The teeth were gone. Then I chomped down on some goo. "You'll have to do without your teeth for a couple of days, but we'll have your bridge ready by the end of the week, so I'll make you an appointment and you can come in and we'll get you straight." So I left, numb head and all, waited for the bus, got on, made my transfers and soon enough I was home. A couple of days later, I went in, he looped some metal around two of my molars, and there were my falsies. We shook hands and I was out the door.

Over the weekend, they snapped in two. I called him on Monday. "Get in here," he growled. He was livid. Unbelievably angry. He took the bridge, disappeared for a while and came back. "Here, this'll work. I don't want to see you here again." Fair enough: this one held except for one tooth that snapped out. I could deal with that. I was more concerned with my growing relationship with Lady Drunkula, anyway. She lived right around the corner. "Plastic teeth," I warned her before the first time we kissed. "Aaaah, I've dated older men before. C'mere."

The teeth worked out far better than the relationship. At least they hung around and never tried to kill me. About six months later, I got a postcard with Garfield on it. It was from the Australian's partner, Dr. Schreck. (This was another thing that gave me pause about him: Schreck means horror in German. The star of the incredibly creepy 1921 German vampire film Nosferatu was Max Schreck, which I'd always figured was a made-up name to capitalize on his role in the film, but it was apparently his real name!) It reminded me it was time for my checkup, which I didn't remember having been told about, and a subsequent check revealed that the Australian had vanished utterly.

The teeth and I got along well for the next few years, but I knew there was more disease to deal with. I had other things on my mind, though, not least of which was leaving Germany for France. Of course, as this blog has documented, not long after I got there, I lost my sense of taste and smell to some sinus polyps, brilliantly diagnosed and treated (although it took a year to get back to normal) by the great Dr. Jean-Claude Marrache. In 2013, though, I had a recurrence and went back to see him. He wrote a prescription, said "I guarantee you'll be back to normal in 48 hours" (it turned out to be more like four), and, when I asked him if there were any relationship between the gum infection and my problem he paused a moment and then said "Duh." He sat down and wrote a name and an address on a scrap of paper. "This guy's office is literally around the corner from you, and he's a friend of mine. Every year he goes to America and rides a Harley down Route 66, so I assume he speaks English."

But I'd already decided to move back. A couple of years ago, unfortunately, both of the molars anchoring the bridge had fallen out, so I had to be careful eating. Then two upper teeth began to hurt and push themelves out. I looked awful. Then I moved and one day one of the uppers fell out at my desk. The next morning, the other fell into my orange juice with a pretty clink as it hit the glass. I now looked like someone's meth-addicted hillbilly cousin.

This was me on Sunday. I had an appointment on Monday. Just in time: I had another tooth threatening to leave, I had only two teeth to chew with, and I was a mess. I had been to see Dr. Shane Matt and his crew,  bit down on some allegedly blueberry-flavored gunk several times and waited over a month for some dentures to be made. I was about to lose every tooth in my head, and I was glad.

I won't pretend it was fun. It was worse than the Berlin experience because some of the teeth really, really didn't want to come. A couple shattered. And when it was over, they slapped some dentures on me. A friend came and drove me to Costco to buy the antibiotics and pain-pills I'd been prescribed, and I was drooling blood all the way. Naturally, they didn't have the pills ready, so I wandered over to Whole Foods next door to see what was available in terms of bottled smoothies. Some good stuff, actually. A company with the unpromising name of Bolthouse Farms makes interesting combinations, like the breakfast smoothie I had this morning. A company named Evolution Fresh makes a delicious product called Protein Power that I bought despite the note from the founder, one Jimmy, on the side which says, in part, "You deserve to drink something you feel good about, because it makes you feel good." Nobody who puts something that stupid on packages of his product deserves to get rich.

Yes, I'm drinking three meals a day, dammit. (Please spare me the jokes.) My gums are swollen, the teeth don't fit quite right, and more importantly they don't meet right, which means I can't chew. Biting, too, isn't going to happen for a while because of tenderness. It pisses me off: the refrigerator is filled with leftovers of Indian, Chinese, and Italian food I'm going to have to throw out because no way I'll ever get to them in time. But I keep telling myself I'll be able to eat stuff I haven't been able to eat in years -- this story began over ten years ago, after all -- and that's going to make a difference. And hell, I might just be losing weight with all these damn smoothies and stuff.

But although I'm not any prettier, I do know I'm already healthier: all my nose issues have started clearing up ("Duh" -- thanks, Dr. Marrache) and my digestion will improve once I can chew thoroughly again.

Definitely no prettier
I appreciate having friends close enough by that they haven't minded taking me to the dentist's office and shopping for liquid food, and once I'm cooking real food again, they'll be glad they did. As for me, I gotta go slosh some saline solution around my mouth again and take another antibiotic.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Midyear Migas

Sorry about the long silence. It's been over a month since my last post. At first, I was holding off until the second half of the dancehall tour happened, but circumstances intervened (Steve's now got his own dancehall to manage!), so that's on hold. Then things started going south around here, and since I like to keep the tone of this blog away from complaining and doom and gloom, I (wisely, I think) refrained from posting any of it. Suffice it to say that the book I spent a year researching and writing a proposal for, a proposal my agent loved and submitted over the course of nearly a year and a half to over 20 publishers and imprints, failed to find favor with any of them. Since one reason I moved back to Austin was that the arts library at the University of Texas has much of the stuff I'll need to write this book, I began to wonder why I moved back. I don't have much in the way of a social life here, I've lost all interest in live music, and only one of the people I've invited over for dinner accepted.

But there are things that'll be turning around in the next 30 days, unless my landlord decides not to renew my lease (somebody tell me why I took the 8-month option instead of the 12-month option, please). In that case, since I still don't have a credit rating and nobody will rent to you without one, I'll be on the street, my stuff in storage. I'm hoping that doesn't happen: my course at UT starts up again on August 1, and there are already six people signed up, and there's a project in the works that should be unveiled before that that I hope will solve all the current problems. But more on that when I'm ready to unveil it. All I know for certain is that on Monday I go to the dentist and wind up with new teeth, so for the first time in a decade, I'll be able to bite and chew like a normal person. Which means I can take on some barbeque and not have to arrange dinner around its chewability factor.

Anyway, excuse the absence, and let's move on to the very few things there are to write about here.

* * *

First, yes, food. I continue to navigate my way around American foodways, and continue to be confused. Not, of course, that anyone seems to cook any more. Too many times, I've headed off to the supermarket and returned with stuff that's already prepared, or half-way so, and heated it up and dumped it on a plate. That's in part due to the fact of the audience of one, but also due to the fact that too many times I head to the market with no idea of what I want to make. See dental problems, supra.  Now, I'm writing these words after returning from the closest farmer's market, Sunset Valley, which is held on Saturdays. To someone who went twice weekly to the market in France, it's a huge disappointment in terms of variety. Of course, I'm grumpy enough to wish that the musicians would just go away, ditto the handcrafts people and the prepared-foods people. I've heard that Tacodeli is a fine place indeed, but I don't go to the farmer's market for tacos.  Or kombucha on tap or all the other gluten-free, vegan, blahblah stuff. I want fruit and vegetables. 

Of course, I may not know the cycles of the growing season yet (and the Austin Chronicle discontinuing Kate Thornberry's farmer's market because the crazy dame asked if she could be paid for it doesn't help), so every couple of weeks I head up there to look around. Occasionally I get eggs, and then I walk around seeing who's got what. Lotsa squash today, and some of the most overpriced tomatoes on the planet: so-called heirloom tomatoes were €3.50 a kilo in France, and here they're $3.95 a pound.  Plus, nobody seems to know what kind they are. Bah. Looks like there's some okra already, but that's not high on my list at the moment. At least the ragged grey bundles of kale are gone. So the result of today's expedition is shown below. 

One humongous bundle of basil ($3.50!) and one tiny melon ($3!). But some of that basil will become pesto, and the main reason I bought the melon was because it was the first one I saw that wasn't the size of a basketball (you think I'm joking? Okay, a soccer ball. Seriously). Those cost a buck more, but I doubt they have much flavor. At any rate, there's far too much of them for me to use up, so later this afternoon, I'll go buy some Mexican ("key") limes to squeeze into the center of half of that some morning for breakfast. Still, compared to the bounties I used to photograph in France, this ain't much. 

Next impossible-to-figure question: why is there only one kind of juice in the store (orange), which exists in about 40 different forms (with pulp, some pulp, no pulp, added calcium, etc etc)? What's the deal with pulp? Who cares? Why put calcium into orange juice? Why can't I buy less than 1.75 liters? I sit back and remember being able to get mandarin juice, pineapple-lime juice, strawberry-orange juice, blood orange juice, and many other flavors, all in one-liter containers, made by Tropicana, an American company. Ah, well, maybe some day. 

* * *

Speaking of cooking, since I notice that Mick Vann has posted a couple of long pieces on his knives (here's the first of the series; there are two more), I'll post a shorter one on mine. When I left France, I was using three knives, two Henckels, a big chef's knife for chopping and a smaller one for mincing up garlic and carving tomatoes and the like, and a beautiful Japanese knife that was razor sharp, which I used for turning, for instance, herbs into powder. The Japanese knife had a serious injury early on in France as I cut into a saussicon sec from the market and hit the metal brad that's used to seal it closed, which had inexplicably migrated into the meat. This hurt, I gotta say. I'd bought this knife in the market in Kyoto at the legendary Aritsugu store, and I'd taken exquisite care of it up to the moment when it hit that metal and the edge got dinged badly. 

Then, when I moved, I wrapped those three knives up and shipped them with the rest of the kitchen stuff, which, since it took months for the movers to get here, meant I needed knives in Austin. Fortunately, in King Tut's Tomb, aka the stuff I'd had in storage for ages, there were two Chinese knives, bought years ago and almost never used. One was a cleaver, the other a flesh-cutting knife.

Meat knife, cleaver (L-R)
Now, there had been times when I wanted a cleaver, and all of a sudden I had one. To my great surprise, it did great service when it came to, for instance, chopping stuff really fine: ginger, garlic, onions, etc. I haven't dismembered a chicken with it yet, and I don't know if it'll do that, but I use it pretty much exclusively for chopping at the moment. And since I've been doing a lot of Chinese food here since I moved back, it's come in very, very handy. Enough so that the big chef's knife more or less just sits there.

The other knife, though, its acquisition lost in the haze of time, was a revelation. When I was at Aritsugu in Kyoto, there was a saleslady who spoke impeccable English. I was admiring a number of knives there because I was looking for, well, what I got: a fine-chopper, but razor-sharp enough to cut tough stuff like meat. She explained that the vast majority of what they carried was for sushi, and so the blades were shaped for that: |/. The straight edge helped cut thin, even slices. (For comparison, a French chef's knife would be \/, and the cleaver ||.) They only had one or two French-style blades, and she showed them to me and I chose one, which she sent back to the master to hone perfectly. (She also asked if I wanted my name in Japanese for free and for reasons I still can't figure, I declined). Anyway, this knife-of-unknown-origin is clearly a |/, and when it comes to slicing meat for Chinese food, it just glides through it. Flank steak is no problem, and it laughs at chicken.

If it helps, the meat knife seems to be a Shigemitsu from Sakai, Japan, which means I probably bought it in San Francisco's Japan Center in 1970. The cleaver is a Three Rams brand, no doubt acquired in San Francisco's Chinatown at some point, or maybe at Austin's legendarily smelly, cramped Oriental Market on Airport Boulevard.

And a little secret: I had a friend who was a chef for many years, and every day he took to work a nice selection of really beautiful knives, all in a cloth doohickey with slots for each of them that rolled up and was tied shut. Then he would proceed to use two, maybe three, of them. "They don't respect you if you don't have an impressive collection," he said, "but hell, how many do you need?" Exactly.

* * *

Finally, a cretur update, which the delicate may wish to skip. 

As the weather warmed up, I began to notice a small grey gecko living in the wood trim of the garage, who'd walk around close to the house and gorge himself on ants from one of the anthills near the front door. He'd disappear fast when I walked by (although one time he was so busy gobbling ants I almost stepped on him). But he vanished, and one morning I found an odd turd in the driveway. Not quite an inch long, but pretty fat, and in the shape of a J. I wondered if that might have been the gecko, but also worried what kind of animal might have deposited it. I do have something of an attic in this place, and would prefer it keep devoid of opossums, raccoons, and squirrels, not to mention rats. 

So imagine my alarm when another, identical, J appeared on the back deck. I enlisted some more savvy friends to help me figure what it was, and it took no time at all: toad. Really? A toad with an intestine big enough to leave that? Dang. Anyway, I haven't yet laid eyes on Turdy, as I've been calling him, but it did remind me of the evening I was sitting on my porch in my old place here, enjoying a summer storm passing over, and listening to the stereophonic frog chorus that lived in two nearby culverts. One was tenors, one basses, and they'd alternate and then sing together. I can't imagine any female frog in Texas resisting them. Anyway, my ears were open, and I heard this intermittent squeaking sound, like someone making annoying noises on the outside of a balloon. Squeeeek. Long pause. Squeeeeeeek. What was weird was that my ears told me it was coming from a few inches away. The next time it happened, I found it: there was a crack in the concrete of the porch and something was emerging. More of it appeared with each squeak. Finally, there was a huge push and a toad emerged, fully three inches long. How it had pushed itself through that crack I don't know, but I saw it happen. It sat there, inflating a bit and, after a couple of tentative steps, hopped off to the nearby creek in search of what the frogs were in search of. I've since read about toads who've lived in suspended animation for upwards of a century, sometimes put as a joke in a cornerstone of a building. Many of the ones who do this are the famous Texas Horned Frog, or horned toad, as depicted on Texas license plates. What's ironic about that is they're just about extinct. I've been in their habitat a lot and never seen one outside a zoo.  Anyway, Turdy likes it near lights that attract bugs, evidently, so he's welcome to hang, even if I don't see him. 

And, just to reinforce stereotypes, I found another cretur a couple of weeks ago. When I moved in here, I sprayed the garage with some kind of fog that, it alleged, stayed live for months. Sure, I told myself, as long as it kills what's already there I'm cool with it. But it appears that it does work, because one fine morning I found this dandy, who hadn't been there the day before. 

Yes, that's a quarter
Everything is bigger in Texas! Admittedly, I drove over him with a handcart as I was trying to get a bookshelf into the house, but it didn't hurt him much except to detatch one of those huge antennae. These roaches are so-called tree roaches and are much happier outdoors than they are in your kitchen, and will frequently run for an open door or window if given encouragement. You do not want to smash one, since they contain, um, plenteous soft filling. 

* * *

So there we have three short items on the year's longest day. Wish me luck for Monday, and stay tuned; there's about to be some action around here. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

More May Migas

I had what I can only describe as a stupid revelation the other day when I realized that the main reason I was eating as well as I am is not because of the quality of the ingredients I was buying (when it comes to fruit and vegetables, after all, France led in that area most of the time) but the fact that 99% of the cookbooks and recipes I use were written for Americans using American ingredients. After all, I struggled for years to make cornbread in Europe, trying this version of cornmeal and that version and failing over and over, and eventually smuggling back bags of cornmeal from Texas or whatever US destination I'd been in and parcelling it out like a precious substance -- which it was! -- and never, for instance, using it as the sliding medium on the pizza peel, in favor of semolina.

But now I can get it whenever I want, and my preferred kind (Lamb's) is available in the supermarket down the street for two bucks a bag. (I have no idea why this kind is so much better than everything else I've tried, but all I know is that I asked a friend to mule me some cornmeal when he visited from Texas one time and the results were stupendous).

Diligent research had settled me on the Northern Cornbread recipe from The New Best Recipe, but I was mooching around the Internet one day after I moved back to Texas and found one that looked pretty good. Hey! I told myself. That sounds good -- and I can easily make it. So I did.

Last Sunday's sunrise
The picture here fails to get the intense yellow of the cornbread and cheese, but it looks even better if you click the picture and make it bigger. The recipe is here (scroll down some), and if you play around with it a bit (ie, I omit the garlic, which made no difference whatever in the taste last time, I remembered not to stick the cheese in the batter, which made the cornbread almost indigestible, and I trusted my eyes and nose to warn me when it was done, because I think he has you bake it too long) you, too, may make perfect Texas cornbread. It also freezes perfectly, and if you wrap a defrosted hunk in foil and bake it at 350º for around 15 minutes, you'd almost never guess it was leftovers.

I guess as far as revelations go, that one's sort of a "Duh" moment. Still, at my age you take the revelations you get and are happy you're still getting them.

* * *

I forget who's directly responsible for this, but at long last I have a concise explanation for what it was about living in France that bothered me and why I finally had to move. I do know that it came about because I had read and enjoyed a book called Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr, who's Fisher's great-nephew. The book's kind of inside baseball for anyone not fascinated by the subject, but it did remind me that Fisher is a fascinating character. At any rate, someone recommended Two Towns in Provence by her, commenting that I might get more out of it than the average person. 

The book is actually two books, the first, Map of Another Town, about her time(s) in Aix-en-Provence and the second, A Considerable Town, about Marseille. Both are fairly close to where I lived, in Montpellier, although I never visited either during my 20 years in Europe. So I went down to Book People and picked up a copy (which I had to special order, but hey, the  price was the same as Amazon and they're an indie bookstore). One evening I started reading it, and immediately fell under the spell of her prose. All I'd read by her up until then was her food writing, collected in the classic The Art of Eating, and the prose there was also magnificent. But this, this was a different matter. 

The basic story is that as a young woman, Fisher had lived in (and, I think, studied in) Dijon, and had discovered France and its ways there. The man she was married to at that time died young, and she had two daughters to look after. But when they were old enough, the three of them went to France and stayed for a while in Aix, where the girls went to school and Mary Frances Katherine...observed stuff. She talks of this as a map, an ordering of her surroundings that permeates her consciousness, just as Dijon, which still showed up in her dreams, did. Living in a boarding house, she isn't exactly a resident of Aix, and in a chapter called "The Foreigner," she nailed something I'd certainly experienced, but never managed to solidify into words. Here's the passage. The second paragraph, in particular, made me sit up straight and re-read it several times before I could go on. 

In Aix, I came in for a certain amount of the old patronizing surprise that I did not have an "American accent," which I do; that I did not talk through my nose, which I don't; that I knew how to bone a trout on my plate and drink a good wine (or even how to drink at all), which I do. I accepted all this without a quiver: it was based on both curiosity and envy. 

What was harder to take calmly, especially on the days when my spiritual skin was abnormally thin, was the hopeless admission that the people I really liked would never accept me as a person of perception and sensitivity perhaps equal to their own. I was forever in their eyes the product of a naïve, undeveloped, and indeed infantile civilization, and therefore I was incapable of appreciating all the things that had shaped them into the complicated and deeply aware supermen of European culture that they firmly felt themselves to be. 

It did not matter if I went four times to hear The Marriage of Figaro during the [Aix] Festival: I was an American culture-seeker, doing the stylish thing, and I could not possibly hear in it what a Frenchman would hear. This is of course probable; but what occasionally depressed me was that I was assumed to have a deaf ear because I was a racially untutored American instead of simply another human being.

This wall never falls, yet she persists. To do so, she has to create a shell which practically nobody but her girls gets through. She's forced into a selfishness in her relations with others, while accepting that this diminishes her in some ways. But it also allows her to deal with France on her own terms, to do the things she wants to do, and, in its egotism, perhaps makes her the amazing writer she was. France's loss, by all means.

There's still the second half of the volume to go, and I'll jump into it soon. But it's a relief to be reminded that it's not just the draconian demands Americans have to satisfy to get a visa, not just the absurd banking regulations (on both sides) that prevents them, effectively, from having a bank account, not just the absurd bureaucracy that stymied me. No, there was, as they say, something in the water.

I fully intend to go back to France as many times as I can in the future, but I know I can never live there. It was there, after all, that I learned an important lesson: that beauty is as important a factor in making me happy as accomplishment and love and good health, and that, furthermore, it's far easier to make happen. I suspect I'll find that principle espoused in pages of Mrs. Fisher's that I still haven't read because a lot of the time, I think we're on the same road.

* * *

Incidentally, one of the really rewarding things I've done since I've been back has been teaching a history of Austin music course at the University of Texas' "Continuing and Innovative Education" program. I learned a bunch of stuff myself, and not just about how to teach it far better the next time around. I'm teaching it again in August, and I guess enrollment is open, because two people have already signed up for it. I know: Texas in August. But the room's air-conditioned, and there'll be neat photos you've never seen, cool music you've never heard, and UT's air-conditioning, which they're paying for. If you've got to be in Austin during August, it's a great way to spend Wednesday evenings.  Sign up! See you there!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tanz(hallen) Im Mai

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, although I hadn't really been aware how much I'd wanted to do it. I've known Steve Dean for a long time, ever since he and his mother were running the Aus-Tex Lounge, one of innumerable clubs that I used to stop into on my rounds as the music guy for the Austin American-Statesman 35 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I've discovered his fascination with old Texas dancehalls and their preservation, and when I was teaching my history of Austin music course through UT (and I'll be doing it again in August), I had him and a friend of his come in to talk about the 1950s country dance hall scene (and the formidable Harold McMillan to discuss Austin's East Side blues scene, but that's another blog-post).  I was astounded by how much he'd learned, and discovered that he had a book coming out, the first of several volumes that'll cover the entire state.

So when he announced he was doing a tour of central Texas dancehalls on May 10, I got on board. Originally there were going to be something like 15 people, but the larger block of participants had to change to another date, so I was told to be at the Midway Food Park at 9:30 am.  And I would have been, if Google Maps hadn't decided it was just over a cliff about six miles from where it actually is. I burned up a lot of gas finding it,  but just as I gave up and was on my way back home, I realized I'd driven past it almost an hour ago, and found my way in. Fortunately, problems at the vehicle rental company delayed things, and I drove up to find Steve and his friend Sherry (who was going to drive) helping a pair of documentary filmmakers pack their gear into a Ford Explorer. At about 10:15, we hit the road.

First stop was Hye, population maybe 105, owned by two entrepreneurial brothers who have decided to turn what there is of it into a roadside attraction. It's mostly a footnote of American postal history, in that Lyndon Johnson, who grew up nearby, is said to have mailed a letter there when he was four years old, no doubt asking someone to vote for him for something. There was a chili cookoff setting up when we got there and the air smelled great.

Steve hustles to get into the Hye Market. Must've been the bacon bread
Inside the market was a cornicopia of food and drink all laid out for tasting -- and sale, of course. I took a pass on the craft beers, locally-distilled whiskey, wine, and vodka, but checked out the salsa, spaghetti sauce, and barbeque sauce, all sopped up with the excellent breads (overpriced at $6.75 a loaf) on sale there.

What we were there for, though, was this:

Hye Dancehall, fallen on hard times
As there would be at most of the halls we subsequently visited, there was someone to let us in and reminisce about childhood nights spent falling asleep to the music from the stage. There are plans to rescue this hall and turn it back into a venue for music in about two years. Hye's on a well-travelled patch of highway, so unlike so many of the stories Steve tells, this one has a shot of success.

Our next hall was in beautiful downtown Albert, where a renovated hall awaited us next door to a tiny beer-joint.

Albert Hall. There will be no Beatles jokes, please

Albert Hall, interior
The whole town was sold to an Austin businessman ten years ago, and he put it up for sale on eBay, only to get a winning bid from an Italian who never paid up. Like most halls, this one has live music on a regular basis, usually once a month. The Albert Ice House next door is a popular hangout for locals and passers-by, but I remain suspicious of the food trailer parked next to it, which offers french fries with goat cheese. Although, come to think of it, goats do feature on some of the farms we passed.

Next up was a place I'd as soon have missed, but the film crew obviously needed it. Luckenbach, Texas, really does exist, and Waylon Jennings' hit song put it on the map shortly after I visited it in September, 1976 and interviewed Hondo Crouch, its alleged only inhabitant and front-man for its legend. I don't remember where we sat and had our chat, but he did his charming thing, there was nobody else around except for a friend of mine who'd driven down to Texas from Alaska when she'd heard I was doing a story on Texas and would be seeing Willie Nelson in the process, and who burst into tears the next morning at the La Reyna Bakery on S. 1st in Austin as I was reading the paper: apparently not long after we'd left Hondo had succumbed to a massive heart attack and died, and his obituary was on the page facing her.

Today, it's the Central Texas tourist trap to end all tourist traps (if only!),  although for some reason there were only a couple of hundred people there yesterday.

Luckenbach Hall from a distance. To the right, parked motorcycles, tourists, food trailer not featuring goat cheese. 

Interior. Rosie Flores had played the night before
Somehow we temporarily lost our documentarians there, so it took us nearly forever to get out of Luckenbach. If you're planning on visiting the Hill Country, I hope you can take some hints from this post to find other places to visit.

Steve was a little concerned at this point because we'd told the folks in Grapetown that we were going to be there at 3, and it was that time when we pulled out of Luckenbach. Despite there only being 76 people in Grapetown these days, the reason for the dancehall is still active:

Shootin' at stuff since 1887
This whole part of Texas is rich in Texas-German history, since a bunch of settlers started arriving from Germany in the 1840s and only increased with the failure of the 1848 revolution, when many families wanted to escape mandatory conversion to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, the Prussian state religion, and the military conscription that went with it. All manner of religious nonconformists flocked to Texas and, being Germans, immediately started building breweries, making sausage, and forming singing and gymnastic and shooting Vereins, or non-profit organizations. Each year, the Grapetown Eintracht Schuetzen Verein (United Shooting Club) held a massive fund-raiser/dance/shooting championship/barbeque that lasted an entire weekend, and built a dancehall to go with it, which was used for weddings and other celebrations during the summer. It's still in pretty good shape, but so is the Verein.

Steve gets the story from a Verein vet

Grapetown School

Grapetown's other building
Bikers love the Hill Country, so just down the road from Grapetown a guy from Austin who had the brilliant idea of opening a Hooters clone called Bikinis decided to build a Bikinis in a town which he bought and renamed Bikinis, building a dancehall there. To the credit of the motorcycle enthusiasts of the world, they rarely seem inclined to stop for a beverage there, and the locals don't seem to be in mourning over this. Recently, his Bikinis location in San Antonio burned to the ground. If, for some reason, you want to experience Bikinis, Texas, I suggest you do so very soon.

Steve's been booking shows in Twin Sisters Dance Hall. so that was our next stop after a very late lunch or early dinner at a place called Hillbillyz, which featured wooden doors leading to the kitchen and prep area made out of a 1941 or 1948 Oldsmobile woody, some rather provocative taxidermy involving two coyotes, some relaxed bikers, and some okay barbeque. Twin Sisters is named after a pair of extinct volcanoes visible from the highway as you approach, and its dance hall is amazing.

Twin Sisters Hall
The inside is capacious, and Steve managed to talk a couple of the guys standing around to get out a couple of ladders and put down the curtain in front of the stage for the first time in ages.

Wanna buy a Hudson? A Kaiser? Go to your eternal rest in a Packard hearse?
This is the first curtain like this I've seen outside of a museum in decades. Each of those boxes or circles advertises a local business, who helped pay for the painting and manufacture of the curtain (made out of duck cloth in Mexia, Texas in this case). From the phone numbers and goods listed for sale, this would appear to date back...well, several years. Early '50s, to judge from the automobiles listed. The board above the stage lists some somewhat newer merchants, but it, too, has some age on it. The place needs some work, but it's getting it, and the folks who run it are as nice as can be.

Steve had deccided on a magnificent finale, so we drove to Anhalt Hall, which is officially in Spring Branch, and is a mammoth facility overseen by the Germania Farmers Verein. Apparently there was once an actual Anhalt, Texas, and this building, on the edge of the Verein's property, may be what's left of it:

The building is huge, and has been added onto many times since the first structure was built (for a whopping $344) in 1879. Steve had a key, but most of the lights weren't accessible, so we poked around in the dark. The main hall is, as you'd expect, cavernous.

The bar area was also huge (as is to be expected: the Farmers Verein lobbied heavily against Prohibition, as did much of German-Czech central Texas)

I'll have a Grand Prize, please

and the kitchen was finally outgrown a decade ago and housed in another building entirely. The stage (on which Asleep at the Wheel performs at a yearly benefit for Texas Dancehall Preservation) has a fence in front of it, and the fact that old-timers continue to dance there (also obvious from the performers for the Maifest currently up on the hall's website) is seen on this sign.

But if you look above that sign (there's another banning t-shirts and bluejeans, among other clothing), you'll see a truly remarkable sight: curved beams made from timber left to soak in the river and gently coaxed into the arches that still support the roof today.

The sun was setting as we began the journey home, but my head was buzzing with Texas history and amazing scenery (which I didn't photograph because we were in the car when it was surrounding us). It was, as Steve noted earlier in the day, a perfect time to be in the Hill Country, with relatively low temperatures, moderate breezes ventilating dance halls, beer joints, and biker barbeques alike, and the last cycle of the wildflower season, with firewheels (a daisy-strawflower-like plant), poppies, thistles, and especially prickly pear cacti in riotous bloom. It was just icing on the cake that, as I left Midway, I discovered a way to get home in about ten minutes. To hell with Google Maps.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Maytime Migas

Creturs: I've always loved the way Davy Crockett spelled this word, which gives a clue as to how he pronounced it, most likely. (It's also a reminder that, as a semi-literate backwoodsman serving in the Tennessee Legislature, he was most likely more intelligent than most of the creturs currently serving there).

But I've always been aware that with living in Texas comes creturs. Some are vertebrates, some aren't, some are pests, some aren't. All of 'em have to be dealt with. The largest one I was ever near was one I didn't see. My old house here had a porch screened-in on two sides, a sleeping room that I used for its intended purpose. One morning about 6 my dog leapt up off the floor and started growling oddly. Then he puffed out his fur and started walking on tiptoe, still growling and hyperventilating. I heard something crashing around outside and figured it was another dog, although this was peculiar behavior. No problem. It went away and I went back to sleep. Later, I was walking the dog on some land at the end of my street and there were two men on horseback with rifles. A couple of little Hispanic kids were hanging around near them, and one of them, a girl, came running up to me. "Did you see it, mister?" she asked. What? I asked. "La pantera!" And sure enough, a circus train on the nearby railroad tracks had had a breakout. No, I told her, I hadn't seen it, but I'd heard it a few hours ago. The men confirmed that they thought it was long gone, but it had left a trail over here and their dogs were investigating.

And although the next-biggest would have been the armadillo the lady next door swore was digging up her garden, the actual next-biggest mammal would have been squirrels. I have them here, too, brown ones that I don't encourage, since with luck there will be a modest garden happening here before long. More on that in a minute.

Further down the scale of vertebrates are amphibians and reptiles, and with the proliferation of neighbors' cats, these are rarer and rarer. Which, since it's currently rattlesnake mating season, doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise caution outdoors. In my old neighborhood, that patch of land at the end of the street was part woods and part UT student housing, brick cubes baking in the heat and parking lots. These were beloved of a cretur I had heard called the Texas Racing Lizard, dark green with lighter green stripes on its side, and the ability to really haul ass when it was time to leave where it was. It would start to run and then, to run faster, raise up on its hind legs when shelter was in sight. Honestly, it was as close to seeing a dinosaur as I've ever come. But most of the lizards have been anoles, probably America's most common lizard.

Photo: Wikipedia
The pink sac means it's looking for a mate, and its other mating behavior is doing pushups with its front legs. I once sat on my porch and watched a female watching a male. He was on a tree limb some ten feet above her and he'd do his pushups and then blow out his sac, then walk a little further out, do it again, and...finally, one set of pushups caused the tree to flip him into the air. The female watched the arc as the male soared up, then down. Time to look for another boyfriend. From that same couch on the porch during a cleansing summer rainstorm, I heard a creaking sound very near me, becoming more and more urgent. I looked around and it was coming from a crack in the concrete. Something brown was stuck there and, as I watched, a large toad pushed itself out of the crack, stood there for a moment, and then ambled off. I later learned he could have been down there for 50 years or more.

I've seen a couple of tiny anoles around here -- it's kind of early for them -- but the star reptile so far has been a complete surprise. I walked into the bathroom with the bathtub (yes, I have two bathrooms) and a motion in the corner of my eye made me look into the bathtub where a very odd being was wriggling. It was about two inches long, had no legs, and had a body made up of alternating rings of black and gold. At the end was a black bead. Had to be a worm, I thought, and turned on the shower just long enough to get it down the drain. Then, the other night, it was back -- or one of its cousins. At that point it occurred to me that its motion, making S's, was that of a snake, not of a worm, which undulates its belly and moves in a straight line. This time the cretur was wriggling towards the hall closet, and I picked up a piece of paper, caught it, and flipped it out the front door. Casting around on the web made me realize it was a Texas Blindsnake, identical except for markings with the one in this account. They're also known as Flower Pot Snakes, because they're frequently dormant in commercially-sold plants. And they eat ants, which is fine by me, as well as by my flipped visitor, who should have landed near a couple of anthills. Every specimen ever examined has been female, incidentally, which means they reproduce by parthogenesis.

Birds, of course, are vertebrates, and here's where I'd like pictures, because one very noisy daily visitor is a woodpecker. He's pecked a hole in one of the backyard trees that looks like it's been there forever. He stops by to peck it out a bit, so that the moisture from the tree trunk attracts insects, but he's also canny about visiting at times when the light is bad, so I haven't taken a picture. I *think* it's a Ladderback Woopecker:

Wikipedia again: obviously I don't have cacti in the back yard.
Austin is on two major migratory flight-paths, and yet the birds I've seen have all been locals: cardinals, jays, mockingbirds, grackles, grey doves, and the odd cowbird. Beats the city pigeons I had to stare at in France.

It's the invertebrates you have to worry about, though. Until the last year I lived there, my last place had an awful lot of cockroaches. Then a couple of those transparent geckos moved in and ate themselves silly. I didn't even see another cockroach that whole year. And (knock on wood) I haven't seen many here, and the ones I have seen have been either logy with the cold or dead. Mostly, though, I've had pill bugs (which turn out to be wood lice), who all seem to have an appointment with one of two spiders who hang out in dark places with a litter of pill bug corpses around them. Oh, and just recently, as the sun goes down, waves of fireflies in the back yard. I hadn't seen fireflies in decades: I don't think they even exist in Europe. I have a ceiling fan with lights under it in my office, and that seems to be flickering at a frequency they like, since they keep flying past the window and lighting up. And yet, in all the years I've been seeing fireflies, I've never yet seen the earthbound female glow-worms they're signalling to. Weird.

* * *

And yes, I'm going to try gardening, at least on a small scale. I have a huge deck out back which a friend calls the "mosquito feeding station," which explains why, even if another friend gives me his dad's old grill, I'll be eating indoors. I have some jalapeno and New Mexico Sandia chile seeds planted, and although it's been weeks, it's only today that I spotted a touch of green in the planters. I was pretty impatient with them, but then I realized that in New Mexico, where these seeds came from (thanks, Carol!), the Hatch Chile Festival is held on Labor Day weekend and that's only the start of the harvest. Plenty of time, which is good since I don't have planters and enough soil yet. 

A friend who drives to Dallas a lot stopped in at a nursery and got four tomatillo plants which I'm going to have to re-pot, along with some cilantro, which has bolted, meaning it's time for me to dig it up and harvest what leaves are there plus the all-important roots, which figure in some Thai recipes I've got here. Funny: the whole time I lived in Germany, cilantro plants came with roots, which I threw out. Now that I live in a place with a huge East Asian supermarket and have at long last bought what I'm told is the definitive Thai cookbook, all the cilantro is rootless. Nor have I seen the roots being sold separately. But the bolting indicates that it's already getting hot, that it may be too late to plant or repot basil, and that I'd better rely on the farmer's market (if I can afford it: these people are very weak on the concept, I think) or the supermarket for tomatoes. Anyone with big pots they're not using, get in touch. 

* * *

Same for shelving: I need to get these books out of their boxes and organize my CD library. Yes, some of the crisis is over, and I'll be here a while. Not too long: I won't want to live in Austin more than a couple of years, the way things look now. Where next? Who knows? One fun at a time, please. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pardon The Gap

You know, you're not supposed to go months at a time without posting when you have a blog. But since February, I've been reluctant to post because I wasn't sure what, exactly, to write about. SXSW gave me an excuse last month, but it's been touch and go since then. Let's just say there are people who can't be trusted out there, and they promised help and money and didn't deliver. If you need to know who I'm talking about, you already know. If not, not. I'm still desperately in need of paying off some of this back rent, but the day-to-day bills seem to get covered for the most part by Social Security.

There's also my Amazon store, which seems to come and go, where I'm selling books from my days as a book critic, many of them with collectable stuff like press releases, press photos, and reviewers' slips, all of which collectors are looking for. And some day I hope to have the time to sell about 100 t-shirts from the '70s and '80s, which are just the kind of vintage stuff people pay big bucks for on Etsy. But that means photographing them from several angles, entering them in a database, doing some light ironing and packing them in plastic bags. I had a friend who was going to help, but she vanished right around the time I was ready to start.

There have been health issues: I desperately need to get my teeth fixed, and even went to a dentist for an estimate, which turned out to be far less than I thought, but far more than I had. So now I'm going to see what AARP can do about that. I had thought that my voice wasn't going to work on the radio, but apparently some stuff has shifted around, so I'm doing a trial run this week. Let's hope it works: I can definitely use the income.

The main thing is, I don't want to lose this house. It's hardly a mansion, but it's the first place I've felt at home since the place on Borsigstr. in Berlin where I lived for 11 years. It's hardly perfect -- my pet peeve at the moment is this ridiculous touch-to-start faucet in the kitchen that starts spontaneously -- sometimes when I'm not even in the room -- and then won't turn off. But the location is nice, it's quiet, and for the first time in 20 years, I can play records without getting raided by the cops. I sit here in my office and look out the window at the back yard, which is visited by lots of birds, some of which I can even identify -- well, it's hard to get a cardinal wrong. I was worrying about the grass back there the other day, but a guy showed up and offered to mow it, and the result is that now the birds can see the bugs in the grass better than ever, so they hop around dining and hanging out on the fence. I have a deck, but no furniture for it to speak of, so I've decided to grow some stuff in pots there and a friend in New Mexico sent some chile seeds. Two weeks on, they still haven't sprouted, but then, I don't have the pots yet, either.

One thing I really like about the house is that, late at night, trains come through. Now, people in Austin know all about this, because they're forever getting trapped at the railroad crossings while gigantic long trains pass. But the train whistle at the crossing near my house (seen here) is one of those stirring sounds that go way back in American history. (Actually, it reminds me of the time I interviewed Merle Haggard and he told me that the sound of the trains near where he grew up in California made him anxious to leave, and I told him that I'd heard trucks downshifting on the highway near where I grew up and had the same feeling. He replied that I couldn't have understood because he was poor and I, at least relative to him, wasn't. We then got into an argument that got so loud that his bus-driver came with his hand on his gun to see if the boss needed assistance. "Hell no," Haggard said. "I'm havin' fun!" And he was: after all, I never even mentioned "Okie From Muskogee" or any of that other standard stuff.)

Things like that, and the ease of cooking on a real stove and finding ingredients that just didn't exist in Europe and being far enough from downtown that it's quiet, but near enough that I can go there when I have to, and the way that now that it's gotten warmer the air smells like barbeque brisket on weekends (no single source, just a pervasive perfuming) make me hope that I don't lose this place, but it's far from certain at the moment because my book still hasn't sold, and other projects are just hanging fire day after day after day. It's the waiting, the constant treading of water to keep from going under, that gets to me worse than anything.

I'm hoping this turns around before long, but there's no way to tell. I learned a skill when I was 16, got good at it, and watched it slowly become less and less in demand, at least in any way that pays. (I'm outraged that Arianna Huffington's appearing at my favorite indie bookstore here autographing copies of a book she's listed as having written called Thrive. Who can thrive when her whole business model is based on appropriating others' work without paying for it?) Meanwhile, I'm taking every opportunity I can to get myself out there and make contacts: the workshop I did for the Writers' League of Texas, this four-session course I'm doing for the University of Texas (which has been a gas: I'm sorry this'll be the last class on Wednesday, and have asked to do it again), and things like that, although none of them pay a whole lot.

I'm pretty sure by now that moving back when I did might not have been a good idea. I'm not altogether sure that moving back at all was a good idea. But there's nothing I can do about it now, and so I wake up each day, put one foot in front of the other, and walk on, hoping I'm headed in the right direction and that there'll be some good news soon.

And then maybe I can get some more shelves and continue to unpack!

* * *

I should also add that Blogger's gone a bit wonky, and the other day I wanted to revise the blog-list over on the right there, because of a couple of blogs that've come up that you should know about. A friend in Montpellier has one in French that's pretty good, but I forgot to bookmark it the last time I read it, so that's that for the moment. Chris Frantz of Tom-Tom Club (and Talking Heads) fame has a good one, and, on the other end of the superstar spectrum, so does my pal Joe, who finally found gainful employment as a long-haul truckdriver and writes eloquently (and a little crankily) about it on his blog.  I just spent a whole day trying to add them, though, and it didn't work. Be the first kid on your block to read 'em, and I'll keep trying to figure it out. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

SXSW 2014: I Was There (Sorta)

Still am, for that matter: my phone just made a noise and is reminding me that the softball game starts in about 30 minutes. Sometime after that I'll jump in the car and go over. This is one SXSW event that I still wholeheartedly enjoy, seeing the locals who've been hiding while the hordes took over, talking with a few people who know how low-key this particular event is.

There may be some music tonight, but I won't be there. In fact, my ears are purer than they usually are: I saw no music this year, much as I wanted to see a couple of events, and I didn't inadvertantly hear much, either. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, practical: because most of the area in which the event takes place has been torn up (along with a great deal of lower downtown Austin) while more huge buildings are erected, parking got to be enough of a problem that, if you could find it, a day's parking cost between $40 and $50. Last year it was $15, I think, and not too long ago it was $7. I just don't have that kind of money. Thus, I discovered that there's a bus stopping nearly in front of my house that got me downtown in a half-hour or less. Of course, none of the drivers and the Capital Metro website had any idea where the return journey left from, and neither did I until Friday, when they were kind enough to put signs up, nearly a week into the ordeal.

The second reason is more personal. Since returning, I haven't gone out to see much live music. In the 20 years I lived in Europe, I saw less and less as time went on, largely because there was less and less I wanted to see. I'd go see Patti Smith when she came through if Lenny Kaye were playing in the band, because I've known him for ages. I'd go see Bob Dylan because his bassist, Tony Garnier, is an old friend, and Dylan's usually carrying one or more Austin guitarists I know. Because of noise restrictions (which seemed to apply to me alone in most of the places I lived in Europe) I rarely played music after 10pm, and then only with phones, which I detest. And my day-to-day life required that I listen to less: there was nowhere to write about new music, so keeping up was less of a priority. I liked that. What I didn't like was going out a week or so after I moved back here, only to discover that being in a room with loud music triggered a panic attack. Not just music: I went to a theater performance and could not wait to leave. Seeing the vast crowds surging around downtown Austin, I knew I didn't want to join them. Plus, there was the problem of getting back home on the bus.

The music end of SXSW has become unwieldy. It's out of proportion to the conference end: there were very few panels and the majority of them were underattended. This was nothing new; it's been declining for years. The performance end, though, has metastatized in a very unfortunate way. Let me take a minute to explain.

There's no law that a venue has to allow SXSW to put showcases into it, and every year a large number of bars and clubs choose not to participate. Officially. They're all very happy to rent themselves out to other promoters, and there's basically nothing anyone can do to stop them -- and why should they? It's capitalism at work! But it's gone way beyond alternative programming at night. Lots of downtown businesses rent themselves out for branding events, in which RSVPing to an invitation allows you to stand in line with hundreds of other people, waiting to get into a building where there's a DJ and lots of free stuff all branded with the sponsor's logo. There's usually live music and sometimes free food. It has nothing to do, for the most part, with the SXSW people. And as SXSW has become a Spring Break destination, more and more of this stuff has been popping up.

This year, however, things reached a pitch I've never seen before, mostly because something called the iTunes Festival decided to piggyback on SXSW, renting one of the prime large venues out from under the conference and stacking the multi-day festival with big names. A certain amount of cooperation was worked out -- my phone kept urging me to go to their venue if I wanted tickets to various performers I'd never heard of and show a platinum SXSW badge if I wanted to get in -- but it was also open to the Spring Breakers. And then there was Lady Gaga, who was booked for the Doritos stage, a gigantic replica of a Doritos vending machine that gets erected each year and on which top talent performs. This is a non-SXSW event. SXSW was short one music conference keynoter, and there was apparently much back-and-forth as to whether or not she would be it. Eventually, of course, she was. But apparently in the evenings there was pedestrian gridlock as the throngs went from one venue to another, gorging on music.

I did miss some stuff I'd rather not have missed: the final Austin Music Awards overseen by the mighty Margaret Moser, who is retiring and moving to San Antonio, fed up (although she's been very politic about expressing it) with what Austin has become. There was a day party at which I could have seen Phil and Dave Alvin, but I missed it because I was at the Convention Center. There was a Lou Reed tribute which I kept forgetting about because I hate tribute shows, although Richard Barone seems to have come up with some excellent marriages of performer and material. Lucinda Williams, whom I haven't seen in ages, had several gigs including that one, none of which I saw. The last one was yesterday afternoon, when she was at a venue sponsored by the Miles Davis Estate, because when I think of Miles, I think of Lucinda, don't you? (At least she knows who he is. Not sure I can say the same for the other bands that day). But when I saw it was a block from the Convention Center, and thought of Saturday afternoon crowds, and the time to get up there and the time to get back, I just couldn't do it. It was a panic attack waiting to happen.

And then there was The Incident: the police had pulled over a kid driving a stolen car without lights and the kid bolted and the cops took chase and when it was all over, the kid had sent a couple of dozen people to the hospital and two to the morgue. A friend of mine saw the whole thing from a balcony he was standing on. It sounds like it was pretty bad. But although people were discussing it endlessly and lots of them were blaming it directly on SXSW having gotten too big, the fact is that a drunk running from the police, encountering a crowd, and smashing other vehicles and pedestrians is something that could happen on any homecoming weekend at a college, on St. Patrick's Day, on the periphery of any major sports event, New Year's Eve anywhere at all, or just anytime anywhere. Michael Corcoran has a great piece on it, the kind of sober reporting and analysis he's getting better and better at, and before people start casting blame, they should read it.

Of course, based on his Facebook postings this morning, he also seems to think SXSW has gotten too big, and he may be right. You'll notice I haven't even mentioned the Interactive end of SXSW, the tail that wags the dog these days. I went to a couple of sessions there, cruised the trade show as always, and felt like I was being subjected to advertorials broadcast live, for the most part. But that's when Austin is inundated with people who may not be the 1%, but who are maybe the 5% looking to join the 1%, the people who leave multi-thousand-dollar tips at the bars they party at. This is where there's congestion nobody talks about because it's private and there's no soundtrack. After that's over, there's a day's grace (except for people who attend mostly for the film festival, not a huge number, I believe), and then the Spring Break kiddies and the music people arrive. At this point, the ecosystem seems to break down. From previous years, I remember walking up and down 6th Street and hearing the pounding din of the music pouring out of all of the bars, restaurants, and occasional impromptu venues for several blocks around and wondering how anyone could concentrate on listening to anything. There's nothing pleasurable about this, nothing whatever, as far as I'm concerned. And since nobody's paying me to experience it, there's a bus that stops pretty much in front of my house... In fact, I ate dinner at home every night of SXSW but one, and on that occasion, I was too tired from the day to figure out what to make, so I took myself out for an inexpensive Indian meal.

But there's another thing that I think has become unpleasant about the SXSW experience, and that's the growing commercialization. When I was the panels director, back before the other two pieces of the event happened, the focus was on education, on helping people learn stuff that could help them. The "live infomercial" thing I referred to above is now a factor in the majority of the panels I audited. One panel was nothing but an infomercial, dealing with Converse sneakers and their role in rock and roll and -- oh, yeah -- their branded record label. I got three invitations to attend this from a PR firm that maybe wasn't aware you had to have a badge to get in. I had one, but why on earth would I want to see this? Then there are events like the Gaga Doritos show. Jon Pareles of the New York Times had a fine blog post about what he would have been required to do in order to see it, much of which would violate his journalistic integrity, as well as his terms of employment. Of course, Doritos shot themselves in the foot here because he wasn't able to report on the show, which would have gotten their name into the New York Times.

Every year I go to this event, I come away thinking that some soul-searching wouldn't hurt the organizers, but that it's hard to see where to start. SXSW simply cannot control such things as hordes of college kids who just want to get wasted and listen to free music descending on the town, nor are there any laws that could ensure that a drunk (illegally) guy behind the wheel of a (illegally stolen) car driving (illegally) with his lights off would never happen again. I'm kind of waiting to see what the next year in Austin is like before I complain about what's specifically SXSW-generated that I don't like, because I suspect there's lots going on out there that has nothing to do with the event.

Meanwhile, it's just about over, and I'm going to go network over at the softball field, see some friends, and stay home tonight.
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