These are the things my Austin friends gave me when I went back this week:
— Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller-branded bandanas (red and pink)
— 12 oz of green chile queso, HOT
— Two Longhorn candies
— Campaign button: “Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy”
— One Topo Chico
— One P. Terry’s Veggie Burger and fries
— Two zines: “The Teeth of The Great British Bake-off,” featuring illustrations of every participant’s teeth, and “Sexy Patents,” a compilation of actual patents for crotchless underwear and such
Went back to ATX at the invitation of UT’s Moody School of Communications and the Annette Strauss Institute, which hosted press critic Jay Rosen and me for its annual Denius Symposium on News Integrity. Jay’s really good on the historical context of the industry and talking things out helped me sort through some of the thornier questions about the role of the press in these challenging times.
Austin. You were so gridlocked but still so … Austin. Toddy got a cocktail at an old firehouse-turned-bar-and-hostel, which releases 12 bees for every drink you order. I think that’s what the deal was?
Jimmy made us all eat endlessly at a new upscale Shanghai-style Chinese place on West Sixth. Melissa and I perused a badass new consignment boutique on South Lamar called Rags. I put down nearly a pound of brisket, the moist kind, and sausage, plus a bunch of Friend AmZam’s hearty sides when she showed up to dress a baked potato with … more brisket. The thought of running Town Lake’s hike and bike trail, like the good ol’ days, crossed my mind but I did not.
I ate P. Terry’s two days in a row. The second time it was on the house, thanks to Friend Todd (different from the aforementioned Todd) who has somehow gotten to lead the trifecta of iconic Texas fast food brands — Whataburger, Taco Cabana and now is CEO of P Terry’s. (What!? Crazy, right?!) I introduced him to my goddaughter Marion Cass, who picked up from school as a surprise, and Todd introduced me to the actual Patrick Terry, who started my fave Austin burger chain in 2005.
Oh man, I got so stir crazy after vowing not to go anywhere in December that I made an impromptu trip to Austin mainly so I could separate my family. No school meant we were nearly murdering one another.* Eva came with me, Isa and Luna stayed in Cali.
Things that brought me joy during this trip:
— Breakfast tacos
— Lunch tacos
— Dinner tacos
— Central Market flour tortillas
— Torchy’s green chile queso with the magic avocado middle
— Friend Virginia’s gumbo (she’s a Louisianan) and fried chicken at the welcome home party she hosted at her house, featuring old pals sitting around, snarking.
— Lawrence left NPR playing on his sound system when I walked in to stay at his empty house. <grin>
— Morning coffee run by boat, on Lake Austin. (My good pals the Stramas live on the lake.) This way my eight-year-old goddaughter, Marion Cass, could show me her deft wakeboarding skills. She is the coolest. She’s now replying to things by saying, “Yeah, girl” in a “yeah girl get it” type of encouraging way and I love it so hard.
— My eldest daughter immediately becoming tight with the Strama’s second-born, Kate. They got so close, so fast that they both had their first ever sleepover on New Year’s Eve, which meant I had free babysitting!
— Friend Jimmy’s tapas and killer paella. Jimmy and Skyler hosted New Year’s Eve at their new compound in Westlake and he did the cooking, which meant a Spanish feast. Jimmy trained in the kitchens of somewhere-in-Spain and in Charleston, SC and he loves cooking for me because I love to eat so much. There’s plenty of evidence of our shared gluttony from over the years.
— Going “full country” in rural Texas. BFF Justin‘s Aunt and Uncle bought much of the town of Fayetteville, including a big farm, where they raise cattle (and so many cute new calves), a pair of donkeys named Ben and Jerry and rent out adorable cabins. We rode around in John Deere’s like we knew what we were doing.
— A late night P Terry’s run because P Terry’s has the best veggie burger, hands-down, and I’d spent the earlier part of the day hanging out with majestic longhorns, so I wasn’t about to eat a Whataburger.
— Sausage, jalapeno and cheese kolaches! Aforementioned farm is conveniently located behind Hruska’s, which anyone who’s spent any time driving between Houston and Austin knows well because its kolaches are on the level of Little Czech Stop’s in West, Texas, which anyone who drives between Waco and Dallas knows well.
Yeah…. so, I’ve spent most of this post rambling about food. #sorrynotsorry
“You come to Austin and people give you their houses and electric cars, cook delicious food for you and deliver beer on demand — it’s not a bad racket,” Justin said, after showing up with said beer.
*Speaking of near murder, I got back to Austin after living abroad for a few years, and half the couples we used to go on holidays with had split up, which was news to me. “This is a clear sign we’re in middle age,” Friend Mark said. “Also, I don’t go to second weddings.”
Me: I’m selling my Austin House. Kinda sad. Todd: Ah I remember that house fondly, as my breakup regrouping house. Me: You housesat right after the breakup? I do remember you and my pets got tight. Todd: Hanging out alone with your pets, in that fast-fooded part of town…
Eleven years ago, I was 25 years old and new to Austin. I used to eat lunch almost every day with fellow reporter/wise sage John Moritz, then of the Fort Worth Star Telegram‘s Capitol bureau. John became one of my best friends, trusted advisors, birthday-party-cohost, and the forever parent to a foster kitten we took in, Miguel.
What I remember about that time in my life was my mom was really on me about adulting and suggested I do so by buying a small house. I mentioned this to John at one of our lunches, probably at the Texas Chili Parlor, which has a delicious cheeseburger salad.
He goes, “Do you want to buy mine?” He proceeded to tell me some things about it — four bedrooms, open layout, huge backyard that he watered by hand each day after work. It sounded great to me, and I have a tendency toward the impulsive decision or two, so John never even put the house on the market. A few weeks later we signed the papers, closing the deal.
I love that house and kept it for the past decade, as a slum landlord.
It goes on the market this week or next, because it’s proven to be an excellent investment and because property taxes in Texas are super-high and I don’t want to pay them anymore.
I will miss you, house. You were my first big purchase, a symbol of the start of a weird, wily time they call adulthood. You passed hands from friend-to-friend, hosted lots of weenie roasts, were briefly home to my hot-bodded roommate Jarrod (who was into bears and introduced me to my favorite subset of gay, bears), and after I moved away, home to a series of my photographer friends who became my tenants. Friend Scott grew watermelons in the backyard and even raised some hens. A fertile house, indeed.
My experiences during short bursts of time in the states are reliably memorable because they are so abbreviated, and therefore I have to really make the most of every moment. In my downtime I a.) kept going to the Au Bon Pain next to my DC hotel to get giant iced teas and breakfast sandwiches and b.) watched some domestic cable news, which let’s face it, is pretty terrifying these days. The programming is interrupted by catheter and other medical device commercials, which are clues I should not be watching.
Highlights that I can piece together through the jet lag:
The Washington Half
Finally visited the Blacksonian — the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — on the day I landed in DC. Eyes still bloodshot from the flight and jet lag setting in, Matt Thompson, his partner Bryan and I powered through and saw crazy amazing stuff like the Parliament Funkadelic MOTHERSHIP. Yes, yes we did.
Friend Claire came down from New York for a hang. We lingered over a three and a half hour dinner at a mezcal place, not because of the meal but because we had some epic catching up to do.
Don Gonyea gave me advice about work and life, which is always much appreciated.
Hanson, you know, of mmmmbop fame from 20 years ago, played a Tiny Desk Concert on the first day I went back to work in DC. They actually played two, because they recorded their very special Christmas Tiny Desk, too. Taylor (the middle one) and I joked around a bit about how the dinosaur on his Christmas sweater was wearing the same sweater, creating some sort of ugly Christmas sweater matrix.
One of my ex-work spouses, Javaun, took a train up from Lynchburg (where he now lives) to spend Tuesday evening hanging out and eating barbecue and drinking beers together. I can’t even remember all the ground we covered because, beer.
Finally ate at the State Department cafeteria in Foggy Bottom — a bucket list item.
Because I am support the notion of spending money to save time, I hired April Yvonne, friend of my always glam friend Angie Goff, to shop for me. She picked out racks of clothes in a few Georgetown shops in advance, so all I had to do was try things on and make decisions. The whole excursion only took two hours in total and I was hella wardrobed for the weekend and work by the end. Endorse.
The Austin Half
Met the following babies who have joined us since I’d last been in Austin: Baby Adaline. Baby Thomas. Baby Marcella. Baby EJ. Baby Franklin. Toddler Hattie. Toddler Emma. Missed Baby Sam, who is fattening up in a NICU right now, but boy was I overjoyed to see his parents.
Sam’s dad Jimmy is my ultimate favorite eating partner. He also cooks delicious food and personally catered my engagement party with Spanish tapas since he trained to be a chef in the kitchens of Spain and Charleston, SC. Because of serendipity, the weekend I was in Austin was also the Far East Food Festival, in which some sixty Austin restaurants served up healthy portions of various Asian creations and Jimmy was judging the food. He added me as a judge so we CHOWED DOWN until the heat and the food consumption did us in. I had to quit early because I just couldn’t eat anymore. Embarrassing, but true.
Due to the abbreviated time, there were extra meals sandwiched in. On Friday I had a cheeseburger appetizer at P Terry’s while en route to Cooper’s barbecue where we disappeared pounds of brisket, sausage and ribs plus jalapeno mac-and-cheese, potato salad and the standard vat of pickles plus white bread. (Also Cooper’s offers free beans!) This was my favorite meal because of the strong appetizer IN THE CAR ON THE WAY to BBQ and my reliable eating buddies, Blake and Justin, joined to work up some serious meat sweats. I probably could have recovered for third lunch after this but we had do disperse.
Reunited with the dim sum club on Saturday morning to eat our faces off.
Did not see my oracle, Harry Whittington (the guy Dick Cheney accidentally shot in the face) but did see Bachelor Brad, who we seem to run into in Austin pretty much all the time. Is he everywhere? Is it because he’s a twin?
Surprised my goddaughter Marion Cass at her school, which led to second graders drawing me a bunch of butterflies and teaching me how to play a game called Sleeping Queen (need to get this for my daughters). Marion Cass also had me over to her house Sunday afternoon where she showed me how she can do things like SPLITS IN THE AIR because, gymnastics and being seven.
The purpose of this Austin return was to attend Friend Todd’s wedding. Did it, and so glad, because I love weddings! I also get to take partial credit for this union in the butterfly-flaps-its-wings kind of way, because I brought Todd to the Texas Tribune in 2009 as we were starting it. Here’s what happened: He was a weirdo who was teaching me Final Cut Pro as a part of a class I took at Austin Film School. I decided he was adorable even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t wash his hair at the time and was always railing about the dangers of aspartame and fluoride. Started calling him Hot Toddy behind his back (he later confronted me about this and yep, guilty) and convinced our boss Evan to give him a job at the Tribune because we were in wild wild west days of throwing jobs around. It was through this job that he met Carsi, his bride.
Reeve and I ran the hike and bike trail and joked around the whole time, just like the good ol’ days.
Sent up a flare in DC, and again in Austin, for big group happy hours. Both led to the happiest reunions, predictably. In Austin, April, my BFF from those halcyon days of my partying/Texas lege-covering twenties in Austin, HAPPENED to also be back after moving away to Toronto a few years ago. We got to see each other for about twenty minutes. I’ll take it.
The last time I was in America, I was two people. This time it was just me and my pump, which had to be used every few hours for the duration of the nine-day trip, the bottles and bags of expressed milk piling up in my respective hotel freezers until I had so much that I paid $400 in heavy baggage fees to bring all that liquid gold home. In order to keep it frozen while flying, I snuck in a trip to Ace Hardware in DC and got a giant padded cooler bag, which ended up being perfect. Thanks, Ace Hardware.
Caesar is in a cone because of my neglect. I am in charge of trimming the kitties fingernails and I have done so on the regular, for the past 13 years, in which our cat ownership has ranged from two to, at one point, five cats (one was a foster kitten, Miguel, for whom we found a “forever home.”) After Luna was born and I had to go back to work, I guess I just forgot about Caesar’s nails and yesterday when I tried to trim them, I discovered that several of them were ingrown, that is, they got so long that they GREW INTO his paw pads. Needless to say, I felt so horrible that I flipped out. The vet said we could come in right away, but I was cycling through crippling guilt so Matty had to be the one to take Caesar and receive the poor parenting lecture, which was then relayed to me. Caesar seems to be okay now and mainly relieved that someone finally remembered him.
Eddie Rodriguez, Memorable Running Buddy
Speaking of kittens, I’ve been really missing my old Austin running buddy, Eddie, lately. We used to have these rather insane experiences because we trained at five in the morning and you see some weird stuff at twilight. The scariest incident was catching a glimpse of a NUTRIA on Lavaca Street in downtown Austin and then watching it disappear down a sewer. That image still haunts me. Or there was the time we were speeding up the stairs of a bridge over Town Lake (I’m gonna keep calling it Town Lake, mmmkay?) and we were confronted with giant human feces on the steps. It was really, shockingly large. I suppose it could have come from a mastiff or something, but Eddie and I are convinced that dump was of the human variety.
Our most insane running adventure was the time we were on one of our final training runs before the San Antonio marathon and had to log 20 miles. Nothing memorable happened until we had only four miles to go and we heard the distinct sound of kittens crying from inside some bushes. We stopped to see what was going on, found kittens clearly in distress and no sign of a momma cat, so we somehow lured the kittens to us and withstood clawing to pick them up. We then held them against our bodies — he had two, I had one — and ran, bouncing up and down, WITH CLAWING KITTENS IN OUR ARMS for three miles. I took them home, we called Austin Pets Alive and got them fostered until they were adopted. That was dramatic, man.
I haven’t been to Austin since those four hours I stopped there for Hannah’s baby shower, so when I get back there again, Eddie and I are going on a reunion run for the ages. I hope we do not see nutria.
No Alarms (and No Surprises) Please
OK Computer turned 20. I am really enjoying all the tributes. The New York Times breakdown is the most thorough, but I also liked that NPR dug into its archives for the interview with Radiohead when it came out. During my quarterly existential dread, I play ‘No Surprises‘ in a loop and that’s how spouse Stiles knows that it’s time for my quarterly existential dread. I THINK I’m a cheerful person, but then again, my favorite song is ‘No Surprises’ so maybe I’m actually catatonic. “This is my final fit…”
Today Isabel broke our Obama bobblehead, which I feel like is a really sad metaphor. She ran around the house yelling, “BROKEN, BROKEN!” at the top of her lungs.
This will go down as one of my highlights of 2013. Duh.
If you’ve never seen air sex, it’s like air guitar, only instead of fake-playing-a-guitar you are fake-boinking-an-imaginary partner. It’s a combination of performance art, improv comedy and a full on athletic event. Judges sit on stage and watch you perform (set to a song of your choice) before a crowd of cheering/jeering strangers. Then, just like on American Idol, the judges give you feed back one by one, though it’s never “Yo dawg, you sounded kind of pitchy.” It’s more like, “How many partners were you with in that scene? I couldn’t tell.” (More photos are available by Brightest Young Things and We Love DC.)
Why was I judging air sex? What qualifications did I have to judge such a competition? The answers are: Austin, and none. (But c’mon. Does ANYONE have qualifications to judge air sex?) I judged because Air Sex was introduced in the US at the Alamo Drafthouse, a small Austin chain of theatres/event hubs that serve up beer and food and a whole film/TV show/comedy watching experience that can’t be matched anywhere else. The mastermind of the Drafthouse, Tim League, is responsible for launching air sex in America, and aren’t we all so grateful for it? Judging air sex was an emotional connection to home.
What I learned: Just as it is in life, the key to great air sex is commitment. You can’t break “character” or the scene you’ve set up. You have to go boldly after your invisible partner(s). One contestant created a narrative in which he was videotaping a woman he was air sexing and generally treating her like crap, another contestant (stage name “Victory Queef”) performed BJs on “four or five” partners, according to her count. The winner didn’t do anything particularly subversive — he was just expressive and enthusiastic and displayed a sense of confidence and creativity on stage unmatched by the rest. I and the other judges were quite pleased to give him the championship. A high honor, indeed.
If you’re into this whole notion, the air sex team is on a national tour and could be coming to a city near you. Meanwhile, if you want to see the air sex documentary someday, you can back the kickstarter now.
Conference attendance at the interactive portion of the SXSW Film, Music and Interactive Fest swelled to 30,000 this year, and it showed. Walking around Austin among throngs of people with their heads lost in mobile devices, getting Red Bulls shoved in my face by one brand rep or another, battling an inbox full of one party promo after another felt like an absurd dystopia. Reality of the festival’s girth finally caught up with the years of complaints about it.
I spent way too much time in my rental car just trying to find an unclogged artery to get downtown. Once I got close, I spent too much time trying to find a place to park. And this year, I actually had places to go: I was doing tech and culture coverage online and on-air, and Team NPR was there to launch our new 30-and-under effort, Generation Listen. Thanks to the hard work of GenListen founder Danielle Deabler, NPR HR badass Lars Schmidt, the team at KUT Austin and my Austin pals Jimmy Stewart and Elaine Garza, we were able to go from zero to awesome, geek celebrity-filled party inside of three weeks. (Nerd king Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer were there, y’all.)
Despite all the marketing-laden madness and the rushing around to finish the story for Morning Edition (which also wouldn’t have been possible without the friendship and help of KUT)… a few magic South By moments did squeeze into the schedule, serendipitously.
Justin and I photo-boothed, which has become a real hobby of ours over the years.
Snuck in some time on the hike and bike trail. I was reporting at the time and didn’t actually EXERCISE, but hey, my feet touched the trail, okay?
P Terry’s! Tried the peanut butter shake. Mixed a little of it into Eva’s rice cereal and might have given her a sugar high. But I felt she HAD TO try it.
Took two groups of friends, on separate nights, to a SXSW hideout better known as The Elephant Room, Austin’s basement jazz club that was decidedly not participating in the South By madness. And how wondrous it was, for the first group — a bunch of my favorite people from Knight and MIT — and the second, politico pals Richard Wolffe and Johnathan Kopp, who spent our drinking time reminiscing about all the ‘gates of the Clinton Administration.
One night, exhausted by people everywhere and stubbornly refusing to stand in any line at SXSW, ever, my old friends Voggie, Blake, Reeve, Justin and I found a respite. A film about craft cocktail bartenders rented out a Rainey Street house/bar and almost no one showed up for the premiere party. We did. We found empty spaces with nonstop craft cocktails to lounge around in, and Friend Matt, who’d had a long day of speaking/presenting, joined us for some backyard chill time. Our friend Niran then showed up randomly, and so did my fave Austin gays – ex roommate Jarrod, ex coworker Tyler, and even more randomly, Bravo’s Andy Cohen, who the boys were rolling with that night.
A quiet brunch at our Austin hosts Melissa and Brett’s house. Melissa made bacon and sausage and quiche with her homemade crust and baked french toast and a fruit salad; the Rocaps joined us in eating it, with my five-year-old Friend Ellie blurting out “bacon!” over and over. It was pretty much the raddest.
Catch-up time with my most indefatigable boss ever, Evan. That he even found time for us to hang out despite his schedule was a huge treat.
I have many SXSW regrets this year, because there were too many events and too little time. I didn’t see a single film, which used to be my favorite thing to do during the festival back in the days I didn’t have to be accountable for my time there. I also didn’t see most of my Austin gal pals, who always provide a recharge hard to find from any other source. But the in between moments of socializing weren’t bad, and Eva was awesome to have with us the whole time. Now, I just need to go to sleep for a long time.
Due to my status as a slumlord (we kept our Austin house) and because Texas friends are getting married and/or having babies that require in-person celebration, we’ve made three-to-four trips back to Austin each year. I love going back but it’s been kind of pricey, not to mention a pain because flying out of Washington Reagan calls for time-zapping layovers in Dallas or Chicago.
A new DCA-AUS flight that Southwest Airlines introduced this week may be the antidote to my yuppie plight. It’s nonstop service between the only actual DC airport (the others are way too far out*) and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. I tried it out with my longtime pal Brad yesterday, and flew back to DCA just a few minutes ago. On the return flight was US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who volunteered for the exit row, which meant she was ready to help us all in an emergency evacuation. Luckily, there were no surprises and KBH spent her plane time just as I typically do — leaned up against the window, taking a nap.
My only travel mistake today was leaving a chicken fried steak sandwich from Dan’s Hamburgers in my carry-on until mid-flight, because the grease ended up soaking through into my stuff and the sandwich was so much less tasty cause of its short shelf life.
*As my pal and DC native Patrick Terpstra likes to say, “People in DC would rather do their taxes ten times in a row than fly out of Dulles. People in DC would rather run through flaming bags of shit than to fly out of Dulles. People in DC would rather be water tortured than to fly out of Dulles.”
I’m constantly awed by the generosity and kindess of my loved ones, but especially my gal pals, who are a group of gorgeous women who are constantly giving of their time and talent. It was in full display on Saturday, when I returned to Texas where eight of my girlfriends hosted an amazing, classy baby shower that did not involve cheesy games or awkward gift opening sessions and was so-well orchestrated that my pal Blake called it “a sight to behold, those eight women putting that shower together.” Another pal, Brett, joked, “It was like watching a group of Amish women put up a barn.”
How awesome are these hostesses? Let me count the ways: I learned Saturday that Melissa put together an idea board with the color themes and plans for decor (including some badass balloons she ordered from Etsy) so that all eight women could coordinate according to a general plan, Virginia had my fave chicken salad flown-in on dry ice from Shreveport, and knowing how much I love Texas BBQ, they arranged to get Franklin BBQ (best brisket in Central Texas) picked up for barbecue slider sandwiches. Laura made insane cake balls. Nisha opened up her perfect party home and headed up an “optional craft”. Crystal, knowing it has been torture for me to abstain from drinking, created “mocktails” so that no one else would be drinking, either. As a surprise treat, the girls got their geek baby-daddy’s data visualizations printed onto onesies.
For me, the people in a place always make the place. So I love Taipei because my six months there overlapped with that of other Chinese-American expat-types, also exploring their ancestral roots or themselves, and we became a family in a never-sleeps city with a fast-beating pulse and endless foods and bars and alleys to discover.
I love Austin because I actually stayed long enough to get to know Austin. I eventually came to feel OF Austin, even though the truth is, I grew up in Dallas. I am ambivalent about whether it was better as a gritty hippie town or as the more yuppied-out place it is now. I mainly love Austin because of the friends who became like family there.
Hannah is one of those friends. She’s the most-together person I know, talented in countless ways, and whenever I’m with Hannah, whether it’s for dinner or for a trip to remote West Texas, I know I never have to worry about a thing because she has a plan and a backup plan and a second-backup plan for everything. So I knew that when she married her beloved Jed, everything would be fantastic. And it was.
We were so happy to be back home for the weekend, and I loved getting to spend time with the Austin girls with whom I’ve shared so many meals — and many more adult beverages — over the years.