A Stranger in My Own City

As I have perhaps mentioned a good 600 times, there are drawbacks to a career as a writer. Namely, rejection, ego-bludgeoning, poverty and the realization you may be talking way too much to your cat.

Oh, and don’t let me forget lack of respect, since every other person on the planet seems to feel he has a great book inside him just bursting to get out (remember Alien?). This came to the fore in a recent conversation I had with a woman who introduced herself as a writer. As it turned out, she’d been writing for a whole week.

But more than anything, it’s the sheer isolation of writing that can wear on you. Sometimes — but not often enough — I get a little smarter and break out of my office and join the rest of the world.

That happened last week, when Austin’s South by Southwest opened from March 9-18. Since we already lived downtown, in the epicenter of the festival, my husband and I bought badges this year. We went whole hog, getting admission to the festival’s interactive, film and music sessions.

It’s wonderful to see your city as a stranger would. For the first few days, I wandered around, hunched under an umbrella as the skies opened and a cold wind blew. (I am from West Texas; I can barely open an umbrella.) Like most Austinites, I went around apologizing for the weather and explaining that — appearances to the contrary — we’re in the middle of a severe drought.

I went to talks on newspapers, journalism and the new media. At one, a new media devotee announced that, “I think we can all agree that newspapers are dead.” Everyone nodded portentously. Newspapers are history! We’ll see, I thought, sitting there with waterlogged copies of The New York Times and the Austin Statesman folded on my lap. (In the course of my long adulthood, I remember learning that both God and irony — in separate instances — were also rigor mortis. Look around, listen, read the polls in this country. Are you sure? Remember, just because it’s raining today doesn’t mean the drought is finito.)

I also saw an incredible local documentary, “Trash Dance”, which won a special jury award at the festival. It’s the story of a young choreographer who believes art is everywhere and can enhance all our lives. She spends months working with sanitation employees, rising at 2 in the morning to accompany them on their routes and to get to know them and their work. It ends in an outdoor performance of movement and music, complete with trucks and forklifts.

Other documentaries can take you into strange and exotic places you’ve never been. The genius of “Trash Dance,” I think, is that it makes you see a world around you you’ve never noticed before. Our cities wouldn’t work at all if it weren’t for this almost-invisible army of people who clean up after all of us. “Trash Dance” reminds us of that, creating a lovely work that has heart and humor and humanity.

On the other hand, there was also the documentary, “The Sheik and I.” It’s ostensibly about a filmmaker seeking truth and art and subversive comedy in one of the United Arab Emirates, Sharjah.

How shall I say it? This documentary, with its bogus, ain’t-I-cute cultural naivete and preening ego of its creator, infuriated most of the audience at the premiere. During the apres-film controversy that bordered on fisticuffs, the director got to pipe up something along the lines that art is worth dying for. Maybe so. But this wasn’t art. And it wasn’t even worth stubbing your toe over, much less dying for.

To be fair, as usual, my husband began to point out that we were still arguing about this movie — and isn’t that really the point of art — to get people riled up? He had a point, I suppose, had we been talking about art, or even craft.

All of which leads to my own point. How wonderful to spend several days getting provoked, informed, uplifted, entertained, irritated, out of sorts, out of my office, and/or transported, without going farther than a few blocks. I even got to hear the fantastic Ray Wylie Hubbard. He was so good, he made me proud to be old.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)


18 comments… add one
  • Lorna Harris Link

    Ruth — It was wonderful to see you again and meet James. I can imagine the sheer joy of the Festival coming to an end, after a couple of days we were exhausted and ready to head home. That said, we’d really like to stay longer and enjoy the film section of the festival at some point. It sounds like the documentaries were fascinating.

    Look forward to seeing you next year!

  • It is always helpful to get a change of scenery and to find new things to think about.

  • Austin and its happenings were also featured in Country Living magazine recently. We no longer live in our hometown, but we enjoy visiting it now and seeing it from a visitor’s perspective. I love getting out of my office too and we’re still exploring and discovering our new home in rural towns around NW Arkansas.

  • You make such a good point—about needing to get out from behind our computer screens! Sounds like a stimulating meeting.
    Best, Irene

  • How clueless am I? I’d always assumed SXSW was mostly a web thing. I didn’t realize until this year that it’s a broader media event. One of my NYC pals was there promoting some girl-power movie. I still don’t really get what it’s a about.

  • Yet another story on the slow death of paper (and all the words printed on it, no doubt) is making the rounds on the internet (yes, the internet) today. But should you have been unable to open your umbrella, you could have used those folded stacks of dead trees to cover your head from the rain!

  • Sheryl Link

    How wonderful you had this festival right in your own backyard. And yes, it can get really, really lonely behind a computer screen.

  • I occasionally feel as though I’ve spent several years of my life at SXSW — though it has been several years since I have actually been to the festival. Finding art that says something, truly, as you found through the doc Trash Dance, always seems a lovely surprise.

    One year I got to see folk legend Carolyn Hester play to a very small group at Waterloo Ice House during SXSW. We were talking after the gig, and she said “here, hold my guitar for a minute” while she went away to retrieve another bag — that is the guitar which she’s played on all her albums, at Albert Hall, and Carnegie Hall and in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, the one which is in the famous photos from the 11960s with Dylan, all that stuff. Holding a part of history, it was. As you might suppose, that is one of my best SXSW memories.

  • Every year, I see all the SXSW tweets and feel jealous, despite the fact that it’s my own damn fault for not budgeting for a conference. At least this year, I’ll have a day pass to ASJA. It’ll be my very first conference!

  • Thanks for this on-the-scene report, Ruth. I always pay attention to film fests and events in the first part of the year, to see what might be coming to our Traverse City Film Festival in August. I’ll be on the lookout for Trash Dance and, especially, The Sheik and I. Now I want to see what the furor is over that one.

  • I’m hoping that this is just the start to a few posts that you’ll be doing about SXSW–my understanding is much of the show isn’t what’s going on officially but the energy (craziness?) of everyone attending

  • SXSW sounds incredible. I need to visit Austin in the future. It”s on my bucket list. Thank you for making me realize, it would be a good idea for me to get out of the office, too.

  • I agree that newspapers are hanging in there, horoscopes and all. I am intrigued about this trash film. So true that we don’t appreciate all the people who make our lives worth living–by making sure our water lines work, our area is clean, food is available at the store etc.

  • I would agree with your husband about the conversation about the film, if the conversation were about the subject matter. But if it is about the production–that clearly is not what the makers had in mind. Particularly if there was no one saying, wait a minute, by showing us this, he did so and so….preferably a new thought. Not just “this is not art.”

  • My brother is a reporter who retires in two years. He’s hoping to make it all the way to retirement. I hate reading newspapers online. It will be a shame if the print version really does disappear.

  • Ruth, Did Trash Dance address our waste problem at all? Or just the guys and gals cleaning up our waste problem?

  • merr Link

    Sounds like an incredible week for many reasons, personal and professional – and where the two cross.

  • I have wondered about SXSW. Thanks for the local insight. Trash Dance sounds terrific. And you’re right, of course, it’s always refreshing to get out of the office. As a crusty old-school editor always used to tell his reporters: “There aren’t any stories in the office. Get out there and get some scoops.”

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