This year, I came back from Austin to New York, from SXSW to the workaday world, thinking, "The parade's already begun to pass me by. I'll have to run to catch up." I mean, I can work in a paperless world, a world of virtual connectivity, and look, I've got an iPhone and an iPad, and using them doesn't upset me too much, although I don't particularly like to, it feels a bit like being unmoored on a seething sea and trying to cope with the drift, but when did I ever navigate in tranquility? I remember seeing pictures in the Boy Scout Manual of a young lad treading water and absorbing the lesson of survival: don't panic, learn to float, breathe normally. And what if you feel your body coming apart? It's just an illusion. Hah.
But that was forty some odd years ago. This year, I wasn't so sure that it was just an illusion. My kidneys were sore and my nose bled every morning. Everybody wanted some meaning out of life.
In the Austin Convention Center, SXSW monitors worked at the escalators, allowing only so many people to ride up and down at the same time. The place was jam-packed with attendees and clearly there was some fear that the narrow structure's weight-bearing load might be exceeded if limits weren't imposed. I thought back to 1981 and the famous skywalk collapse in Kansas City that killed more than 100 people. I had just stayed at the Westin Crown Center there, in the Paris of the Prairie, two weeks earlier while attending the ABA Winter Institute, not a thousand feet from the site of that disaster. People like a herd standing above the dancing crowd, drinks in hand…then the silence before the chaos. Reagan was President.
Part of the Austin scene was simply craving company, but one had to be careful -- there was a lot of company to be had. The kids were full of life and full of questions. How was one to make a livelihood in the present environment? Not everyone had money to burn, although there was a lot of money being thrown around. Who knows where it was being funneled to. I was spending company cash, not my own. And I was not alone. It was a junket. Listening to panels all day, drinking on into the night, coming away thinking how complex marketing has become because the channels and levers have changed. And yet. The customers have stayed the same -- their wishes, lies, and dreams haven't changed. Their behavior in the bars and in the buses, their lining up in queues outside theaters and nightclubs, their picture-taking and tweeting -- it was beautiful to behold, their normalcy was reassuring. It made me feel young and foolish again. Everybody wants some meaning out of life, yes.
Like me and my jejune pals in the old days, they wanted stories with heroes and villains. Effin comic books. They wanted a narrative thread to string their pearly days upon. Screw salvation -- salvation was gonna have to wait till another day, maybe when they were hunchbacks afraid of dying. If there even was such a thing as salvation. The last thing they wanted was to have some gray-haired geek like me tell 'em, "I told you so."
The things they were after, I knew them well -- sex, food, companionship, an exultation of the irrational (call it drunkenness or forgetfulness), but, above all, some kind of meaning -- something you could carry with you all the days of your life. And not just biology. It was impossible to walk through life as though it were a maze without a center. Novelty would come and go, though this year there was little to remark, no new Twitter, no new Facebook. Lots of people were trying on Google Glass but it wasn't gonna change the game. It was more of the same, a speeding up without giving new meaning to anything.
I looked around me in the Austin airport. The game wasn't changing. We were still entering the theater of the absurd when it came to security, we were still sheep, inwardly seething at our obeisance. The game wasn't gonna change all that much just because we changed the equipment. Why? Because the participants stayed the same, trying to account for their brief lives in a nervous world devoid of inherent meaning. These people waiting for the plane didn't look like they were up to the task. Then again, neither did I, on my way back to the workaday world.