SXSW 2014: Magic Night

South by Southwest, for all its somewhat dystopian unwieldiness, is also a place where chaos breeds the best kinds of spontaneity and streetside serendipity. Today I ran into dozens of old friends and familiar faces quite literally on the street, but tonight, a string of good luck made for the most magical, memorable and hilarious SXSW night yet.

1) Justin, Reeve and I ran into one another on the street and the guys were complaining about hunger. I was complaining I needed to put my computer down. We three stopped by my hotel room and walked in to find two huge bags of Taco Cabana (my favorite fast food) had been delivered courtesy of my friend Todd, the COO of Taco Cabana. It was the perfect mix of tacos and endless flour tortillas and queso and guac, and delivered at the perfect moment.

2) The weather this weekend is downright shitty, with temperatures hovering around 40 and a misty rain falling all day. Reeve didn’t want to be out tonight without a jacket, but decided to suck it up and join us for a special cast party for AMC’s upcoming drama, Halt and Catch Fire, down at my favorite Austin hotel, Hotel St. Cecelia. The event was intimate but  a clearly well-produced situation. Comfy classic seating, heat lamps and fancy decor were set up with Halt and Catch Fire blankets so the screening for about 60 of us could feel like we were in a really expensive living room together. As we were leaving, AMC handed out jackets. Reeve needed jacket, jacket appeared.

Me: What are we doing? Scoot: Rage partying! YEEEAH!

Me: What are we doing? Scoot: Rage partying! YEEEAH!

3) The one guy I regretted not chatting with at the party was actor Scoot McNairy, who plays a brilliant engineer on the new show and was also in some movies like Argo and 12 Years A Slave. I met him earlier in the day when my pal Voggie was coincidentally interviewing him while I was interviewing the showrunner, and was sad we didn’t get to visit. Only, luck struck again! An hour after we left the cast screening and after attending another event, the three of us decided to do a non-SXSW locals bar. As we walked up, we realized the CAST HAPPENED TO GO TO THE SAME BAR. Fate. Everything came full circle and ol’ Scoot hung out with me and Justin for hours, drinking beers, talking Texas and trying to profile the people in the bar who might have weed. I think Justin is still recovering. I should check on him.

 

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That Time I Judged The DC Air Sex Championship

This is the contestant who went by "Victory Queef."

This is the contestant who went by “Victory Queef.”

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.

Air Sex host Chris Trew, me, and head judge Molly.

Air Sex host Chris Trew, me, and head judge Molly.

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.

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SXSW 2013: The Year I Hit The Wall

Saturday night at SXSWi, when Blake, Reeve and I found a magically empty bar to hang with old friends at.

Saturday night at SXSWi, when Blake, Reeve and I found a magically empty bar to hang with old friends at.

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.

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Finally Getting to Fly Nonstop from DCA to AUS (And Back)

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.”

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Slideshow: The Texas Barbecue Baby Shower

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.

Photographer Callie Richmond, who shot for us at The Texas Tribune, stopped in for photos. I’m so glad she did, because this baby shower was the shizz.

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Hannah and Jed Get Hitched

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.

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A SXSW Epilogue, From My Fave Magazine

She wrote this about music but it works for the whole festival, especially since I’ve attended each year since 2007 and have wistfully watched it evolve:

Every year, this conference gets larger and larger, leaving attendees to pick increasingly specific paths around its girth … Earlier in the week, I said the Interactive portion of the conference was like the Internet, only in person. But then so is the Music part: vast, increasingly centerless, a little daunting, and bound to send you home feeling like you only got a pinhole view of something you wish you could see in its entirety. And also with ads on banners everywhere — just cheaper, dirtier, stickier ones than last week.

I think it’s “cool” to complain about the bigness of SXSW in the same way Austinites say that Austin “used to be cool” the moment they got there, but has been going downhill ever since. It IS too big, but so is everything in Texas, including my high school graduating class (nearly 2,000). Everyone seemed to come out okay in the end.

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Not Such a Hard Knock Life, Or, Lucky

A few weeks ago I had a Jaydiohead renaissance. If you aren’t familiar, some geniuses out there took Radiohead tracks and laid Jay-Z’s rhymes over them. They make for amazing mashups that for some random reason I decided to play as my life score for a good three or four days.

Then, just as I was packing to head back to Austin, I got an email from KLRU, Austin’s public television station that for decades has been putting on Austin City Limits. The community manager there said he heard I’d be back in town and would I be interested in seeing Radiohead’s first performance in Austin since 1995? And um, that they would be playing one of the best new live music venues in America?

Gee, lemme think.

I could have died happy after that show. (The boys crushed it.) And being back in Austin, connecting with friends old and new, revisiting the places I love (most of which involve food), learning lots along the way … that was all fantastic and unmissable. But then, when a few days after Radiohead I found myself with only 2,000 others lucky enough to get into Jay-Z’s 8o-minute show at the same intimate venue, I really hit some sort of karmic jackpot. Friend Chris and I were seated in an amazing mezzanine spot only 50 feet from the stage and right behind the New York Times’ executive editor (who did throw her damn hands up, as HOVA instructed.)

Jaydiohead in one week. I don’t think I can complain about anything, ever, again.

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SXSW 2012: The Evolution and Future of Online Dating

Those of you who know me well likely know I am fascinated by online dating, mainly because I have never done it before and I am afflicted with FOMSS (Fear of Missing Something Syndrome). So here we are at SXSW 2012, where I get to learn about what the online dating terrain looks like, how it’s meshing with new technologies and how it’s influencing the way humans romantically connect. And because journalism is ultimately about connecting with people, the lessons this can teach us about new-new media are in here if you think about it.

THE PREMISE: ”Traditionally, dating sites have used algorithms that rely on user profiles and personal preferences to create matches, but what if the information submitted isn’t true? Sites such as Match.com are evolving their methods to provide more accurate results – like pairing algorithms with user behavior. We’ll hear from innovators in the digital dating world and get unique insights from people who’ve searched for love online. We’ll also see how technology is changing the dating game.” - Session desrciption 

HOW ONLINE DATING WORKS: Sign up, answer questions, pay a fee and you get matches. Our moderator/tester registered for a slew of sites. Apparently, eHarmony takes the longest compared to Match.com and OKCupid, and takes much much longer than the newer sites (see below). OK Cupid is apparently pretty cool in that their questions are user-generated and their profiles include some data visualizations. And in recent years, various niche dating sites have started up, aimed at the over 50 market (OurTime.c0m), the Jewish market (JDate) and weed smokers (420Dating).

THE AGONY AND THE AWKWARDNESS: Online dating changed the way people interacted with the internet, helping usher in social networking as users became more accustomed to sharing their lives online. But online dating sites seek almost exclusively to match you up, which can be awkward. Match.com’s Mandy Ginsburg:

“They don’t do it because it doesn’t feel natural. They don’t trust that a computer will allow them to find that perfect love or spark, or it feels like it’s not serendipitous so there’s no romance … so how can we make the whole experience as natural as possible?”

Continue reading →

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Stuff We Said During SXSW 2012, Unattributed to Specific People

Some of these people are quoted below. But so are many others, unpictured.

 

AUSTIN — The sea of humanity that is SXSW has washed over Austin. So has cold rain. The weather is not only a surprise but also a real drag — the free ice cream truck is so not gonna be fun this year.

We’ll make the most of it. I’ve already been here for a few nights for the pre-SXSW Integrated Media Association conference (for public media folks) and my week is already satisfying after catching Radiohead in an intimate Austin City Limits setting on Tuesday night.

Because people are bringing the funny, I will keep a running list here of funny musings from my pals (without attributing the quotes to specific pals).

- I accidentally made out with a stranger in front of Star Bar.
- I have been in bed all morning due to extreme karaokeing last night.
- I just got rained on — inside.
- I don’t want to be dramatic but … we’re gonna die.
- Whenever I put on glasses, I just end up looking like a lesbian.
- Everyone seems to just pair some shorts with some tights and call it a day.
- How was dim sum? I was sleeping on a couch with two dogs while $&#*( was making out with some girl. I would murder a Mexican child for a Topo Chico right now.
- Far be it for me to criticize anyone else’s style, but that hair really bothers me.

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