Inspiration: What I loved and learned in Austin, Texas, at SXSW

Actor, inspirationalist Jeffrey Tambor adding a little human-to-human interactive to the mostly computer-interactive festivities at SXSW in Austin. For examples of his inspiration, see below.

Over the weekend, after a bumpy, scary plane ride in stormy weather, I found myself in Austin, amidst a gathering of about 80,000 geeks, hipsters, techno-geeks, networkers, web designers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, advertising types, actors, writers, directors, film and music enthusiasts and others who came for an incredible event called South By Southwest, techno-affectionately dubbed SXSW Interactive.  It originally started as a film and music festival, but the computer/interactive/startup folk (mostly young people who live, breathe, sleep, and worship at the ALTAR OF TECHNOLOGY), may have in the last few years actually overtaken the film and music folk. I went to support my entreprenadorable husband, Bob Dorf, who with his co-author and partner, Steve Blank, have just released their amazing, erudite new book, a step by step guide to starting new businesses called, THE STARTUP OWNERS MANUAL, which was making its debut there.  They hardly needed my support.  Literally thousands came to hear Steve speak, and to buy the book and get both of their autographs.

Yes, I was a hanger on, an extra, an overwhelmed but fascinated older-person, a wife.  And yes, given my own sensibilities as a writer, therapist, middle aged woman, seeker-of-calm-and-clarity, and only (so far) half-assed dabbler in the techno-arts, my take on the thing and my focus–not to mention my ability to cope with or even understand some of it–is no doubt quirky.  And yes, I do wish all that young brain power could be harnessed toward enterprises that will feed the hungry instead of enterprises like making websites for brides-to-be. Nevertheless, I had a blast soaking it all in, and I mean the soaking part literally since it was freezing and raining all weekend until the sun finally came out on Sunday and the festival started to take on the feel of a real party, a college campus on steroids.

I had a blast because of Austin itself, in which I didn’t see even one ten-gallon-hat, which seemed to me to have literally nothing to do with my vision of the state of which it is the capital, and which aggressively lives up to its motto, Keep Austin Weird, even I suspect when the hoards of youthful techies aren’t in town.

I had a blast because the whole event was part circus and part business meeting, and any time you can use circus and business meeting in the same sentence that’s okay with me.

Fran and Alison at the Museum of the Weird in Austin

I had a blast because I got to hang out all weekend with my friend Alison, Steve’s wife; and of course with my brilliant husband and his brilliant co-author, Steve Blank; and in the beautiful but reputedly haunted Driskill Hotel with a guy named Oren Jacob, filmmaker and “technologist,” who did a lot of the work on the wonderful Pixar film, “Toy Story,” (among others) and is working on a start-up (www.toytalk.com)that I suspect will revolutionize interactive toys for kids; and in a seriously weird Austin restaurant at a table with a guy who funds documentary films about important, profound subjects at the National Endowment for the Humanities; and with a crazy Jordanian cabdriver who kept swerving the cab as he pointed out the window at various freak shots, and shouting, “LOOK AT THAT! CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?”

I had a blast because so many of the young women there were dressed in clothes you’d have to call Hipster-Mismatch-Strange. (As opposed to Tory Burch and Kate Spade, where I live.)  What do I mean by that?   Okay, so picture a skinny twenty-five year old, maybe with dreadlocks, wearing boots, striped leggings, a polka dotted skirt, a paisley shirt, maybe a fur vest.  Now picture another skinny twenty year old with pink hair, a pierced nose and tattoos, wearing red sneakers, green pants, and a sleeveless orange and blue striped dress over the pants. Now multiply that by hoards of girls, each one making her own little Hipster Mismatch Strange Statement and you’ve got it. (Okay, so let’s not even talk about the attire at Woodstock.)

I had a blast because I loved the session by Danah Boyd about the culture of fear in this interactive age, about bullying and fear-mongering by governments, and about the positive vs. negative consequences of our increased ability to connect.  Even though she offered no real conclusions I was happy to see that serious people in the generation that grew up in this teched-up culture are looking at this very scary, upsetting phenom.

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the techno-geek session I attended called “The Secret Lives of Links,” although the guy who presented was quite lively and had great slides. I guess I went because it sounded sexy.

I loved the talk by Rainn Wilson, he of “The Office” fame, who also did a very weird turn as the funereal love interest of the mother, Ruth, in my favorite television show of all time, “Six Feet Under.”  Rainn was talking primarily about his hot and wonderful website, www.soulpancake.com, in which random people post soul-stirring, important questions, such as: “You have five minutes to address the delegates at the General Assembly in the UN.  What do you say?” and “Will technology be used to save or destroy us?” and “Does religion need to be destroyed for spirituality to flourish?” …. And then random others offer answers.  As an example of the power of the internet to stir creativity and self-expression, Rainn’s website is a wow.  I’m thinking on my question right now.

Most of all, I was deeply moved by the combination seminar-theater-stand-up-disguised-as-an-acting-workshop given by the well known character actor, Jeffrey Tambor, (www.http://www.jeffreytambor.net/) who dispensed laughter and wisdom by the bucketful, mostly while “directing” a scene between two young people (possibly actors) who seemed to have been chosen just because they showed up, whose lines were basically:

He: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

She: “Yes, yes yes, don’t tell me no, you motherfucker.”

The wonderful Jeffrey brilliantly coaxed the two to do it as themselves, as bad asses, by yelling, in French accents, as femme fatales, by putting in three “naughties,” as comedy, as tragedy, and with a gun.   He even got them to sing it.

Among the many memorable bits of advice Mr. Tambor dispensed and I wrote down (since my memory isn’t too great) were:

“We’re here to be the enemy of the status quo.”  (This brings me back to my hippie roots, of course. I miss that.)

“The problem is that most of us want to be good.” (This reminds me of my favorite quote in life, from Huxley’s classic dystopian techno-vision, Brave New World, so much of which seems now so prescient: “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Enjoy everything, adore everything.” (Well, we can try, on the theory that everything, even that which is awful, can be looked at a learning experience.)

“If someone goes after your confidence, call them out.” (Not sure this applies to the average person, who could easily be fired for it, but I like it anyway.)

“Confidence is the game in life and art” (I wanted to ask him if that applies to writing too, but I didn’t have the guts.)

“Do what you want. Don’t be scared that people are going to be mad at you.” 

“I get up in the morning with the vultures at my head, and I always make my bed before I do anything else.” (By which he meant he chases away the vultures who attack his confidence.  Hmm. I’m glad to hear that even a highly successful actor with a long and distinguished career has those circling vultures too.  It’s a little more difficult for me to rid myself of them, but at least I strive to be a bed-making vulture-chaser.)

Being a person whose confidence wavers moment by moment, and one who has sometimes worried that people are going to be mad at her, I was not only moved, I fell in love with the fabulous Jeffrey.

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6 thoughts on “Inspiration: What I loved and learned in Austin, Texas, at SXSW

  1. Fantastic Fran! Felt as if I were with you on this fabulously weird weekend. So good to see you got your “freak” out!!!!!

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