Saturday, September 5, 2020

Texas notes: Real life

     As the COVID crisis unspools, month after month, rather then get more ordinary, it seems to get stranger, a quality that Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey elucidates in today's report.

     The world around doesn't seem real. It's like we're living in a version of "The Truman Show." No hint as obvious as a huge stage light marked SIRUS (9 CANIS MAJOR) falling out of the sky, revealing our reality to be false, like in the movie. But that sense of falseness is real, ironically.
     There's a vague sense of disconnection from your surroundings. Maybe you are on an evening walk and see your neighbors in their lit-up homes, watching TV or sitting at a kitchen table laughing together. You feel so far removed it’s as though you are looking into a Hollywood set. Everyone daydreams and wanders off in their minds from time to time. With COVID- stress and a surreal time in history, I’ve been noticing this sense of separation between myself and the world more often. It’s a somewhat comfortable place to be, as though I am in a bubble or a glass jar where I am safe and protected from all outside influences. I no longer try to keep up with the Jones’s or feel my life is less than it should be. COVID solitude— living a simple life untethered by fear of missing out, or pressure to get dressed up for an imaginary audience of strangers, has proven to bring me closer to myself.
     I’ve thrived in the peace and quiet of the 2020 world. I can simply put one foot in front of the other (last night it was about 20,000 steps) and exist in the moment with less pressure from the outside. I wonder if I will ever be able to rejoin a bustling society again?

  I didn’t realize this new reality was forming until last night. I was on a walk and became acutely aware that I was in the middle of a serene and beautiful neighborhood. I felt I was seeing it for the first time even though I’ve lived here for over a year. Most of the lawns are well manicured or have an intentionally funky style, and the homes are lovely—older models with wooden porches and Adirondack chairs in sets of two, as well as brand new sleek designs appealing to the California crowd who are infiltrating trendy Austin.
     Some of my neighbors don’t like the gentrification and that makes sense to me on a sociopolitical level. As a newcomer it doesn’t really rattle my chain like it did to watch Bucktown do the same in Chicago where folks I knew were being pushed out with rising property taxes. Instead, it’s soothing to see the austere minimalist landscapes of bonsai-like bushes and strategically placed cacti amidst crisp white gravel, and hear the sounds of families splashing around in chlorine-free saltwater pools, unseen behind repurposed barnyard-wood privacy fences.
     There is enough of an eclectic flair that still permeates the neighborhood to make it feel like weird old hippyish Austin of Richard Linklater days. His 1990 movie "Slacker" perfectly encompasses the original Austin vibe. Joseph Jones, in the movie, is a skinny gray haired man who aimlessly meanders around near the University of Texas campus in central Austin, recording his thoughts into an old fashioned, corded and battery operated device. “The more the pain grows, the more this instinct for life somehow asserts itself. The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely. Only later will it clarify itself and become coherent.”

      After I first started visiting Austin in the '90s when my sister moved here, downtown was still a ramshackle haven for wandering beatniks. It’s hard to believe how much this town has grown and changed into a thriving urban mecca of start-ups with a skyline that might rival Chicago’s one day. Keep Austin Weird tire covers still pepper the roads on the backs of old beat-up jeeps as well as brand new hipster models, the same words making very different points— one says “I am an original therefore I belong,” and the other says “I want to belong here too.”
     When I first moved to Austin in 2014 I noticed lampposts papered with “Don’t Move Here” stickers. I felt a little guilty but I also felt the right to be here since I was grandfathered in by an almost-original, my sister who’s cool enough to have discovered this place when it was still a frontier. I overhead everyone taking about how much they hated the insurgence of city-folks flocking to their special southern town. At this point there’s no sense in complaining anymore—we have become little California and some West Coast kids are just figuring out that Austin is the place to be and they are still coming in droves. As of last year we were seeing about 150 people move here per day—that’s about 55,000 per year. Hold onto your hats cowboys, the city folk have arrived and they are not going anywhere. The housing market is booming.

     These days it’s normal to see Teslas nestled between pick-up trucks the size of small houses, and somehow we are (kind of) sharing the roads. Things seem a bit friendlier with less traffic during this semi-shutdown. Previously we were a daily parking lot that could actually compare to New York traffic nightmares. I wonder if this will change, and the terrible road rage and regular accidents I saw on the roads before the pandemic will resume. I hope not. Perhaps we will have learned about the precious nature of life when this is all over. I know things won’t be the same as they were before as we get on the other side of this crisis, but they will be a lot closer to normal than they are now. Let’s look to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, to guide us out of this strange alter reality and back to a simpler life as we once knew it. A life where we automatically flipped each other off as we raced to and from overcrowded restaurants and fought each other for the rare Saturday night movie seat at the theater. One can only hope.


  1. It’s just a matter of time before you seemingly idyllic neighborhood will succumb to the big bucks of gentrification. That is one thing that will not change.
    What may change is friendships. Once having a large group of what I considered good friends, I’m watching it dwindle as the pandemic has spawned an untoward side effect: Divisiveness.
    Of course much of it is due to our fearful leader but how people address the pandemic says a lot about them. How can one not resent someone for flaunting their unsafe behavior? How can one support a business whose employees are not wearing masks?
    Not very positive today. I am optimistic things will get better whenever this is over.

  2. Yes- you are right, the gentrification has a form hold already. I guess I still take solace in being in a safe and quiet place to walk off reality.


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