Boston To Austin (Part 2)

The party wasn’t happening. Yet. We were abnormally and embarrassingly early so that the idea of “blending into the crowd” was completely out of the question since “the crowd” was two women sitting on a couch. We wandered into the building wondering if we had the wrong place, stumbling like idiots up stairs and down halls until this nice guy—looking completely like one would imagine an independent film maker would look (dishevelled hair, horn-rimmed glasses, scraggled whiskers, sort of like a nerdy Eric Stoltz from “Pulp Fiction”, only not apparently high) welcoming us as the first guests of the party and telling us where the booze was.

In other words, the consummate host.

After reinvigorating the fog of my inebriation, time started to speed up and before I knew it, the place was jammed with people all yelling at each other to be heard over the thump-thump drone of the DJ mixer man bouncing in his own world of noise in front of a giant projection of twisting and melting Star Wars action figures. You could tell it was a good party because people were standing around everywhere—no one was dancing except for a couple of times when one of the couch women got up and sort of flopped about like one of the extras in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Speaking to her earlier (I wear people out, since I basically make them talk to me instead of engaging them in conversation. It’s how I get around appearing to be dull—they end up talking about themselves and when I am asked to reciprocate I mumble a couple of sentences and turn the talk back to them. Works great!) she told me she wasn’t in films either, or music, or interactive media although she is a frequent player at Ultima online. Her job was working as a fellow in a project involving (get this) databasing all the world’s knowledge into an easily-accessed application so that you would explore information based on initial input so it would work like your mind thinks, one subject branching off to related matter on entirely different subjects. I was drunk, so it all made perfect sense.

I cornered Richard at one point and asked him the topic of his speech on Monday. He said, “the man.” I nodded, knowingly, getting into that whole non-commercial, free love groove wherein corporate things all suck and creative people should be in charge of the universe. “What the hell does that mean,” I responded. “Oh! Well, you know how like that ‘I Spit In Walter Cronkite’s Food’ site was shut down because Uncle Walt couldn’t find the humor in it? And the Virtual Mr. Potato Head site was issued a cease and desist from Hasbro over the use of their brand name? Stuff like that!” We both had to yell over the volume level of the thump-thump music. “I have a friend,” I yelled, “who got one of those from Fruit Of The Loom because he..!” “What?!?” “BECAUSE HE MADE FUN OF THE NAME OF THEIR PRODUCT!” “OH!?” “YEAH!” “TELL ME ABOUT IT!”

So I did. John Styn’s pages and the whole boycott badge thing got bandied about. Then I needed another screwdriver and Richard wanted to look at some chick headed out to the roof and we parted. The rest of the evening, I’m afraid, is sort of hazy. I saw Carl from time to time. He commandeered a bag of chips at one point, using them as a sort of lure for a leggy blonde who wasn’t interested. In them. Molly was here and there. The Prophet Boys showed up, and Josh yelled, “if this was in San Francisco, everyone would be dancing!” “Oh!?” Nod, nod. Thump, thump. “What’s the name of the film that their trying to promote? Do you know?!?” He lead me over to a table near the door and handed me a postcard. It was emblazoned with a single word in flaming letters—Hellzapoppin!—floating above a picture of a long stretch of desert highway. “Some sort of road picture about these two old people who go out and do stuff!” Nod, nod. Thump, thump. I need something salty.

At about 1AM, Carl and I and Richard and Molly and Wes decided all the sudden that it was time to go. Carl and I walked back to my hotel where he’d left his stuff, Molly and the Cool Boys went off for breakfast, I guess. I just wanted to go to sleep since I had a panel the next day that I had not prepared for at all. There were two messages from Derek and Carl insisted we call him, even though it was 1:30 in the AM. I said, “no, Carl.” I don’t think he understands that word. He sort of just blips it out. “But it’s only 11:30 California time.” “We aren’t in California, Carl.” Se he and I talked for a while in my room, but I don’t remember what it was about. Maybe this mailing list we’re on, maybe the Web in general. Then he took the elevator down to the street to catch a cab and caught a car full of female party-goers instead. Some people are just lucky that way.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

I woke up at 10 the next morning, which meant that I would miss Feed Magazine’s Steven Johnson presenting the opening day remarks. I needed a shower in my mouth but a toothbrush will do in a pinch. My panel was at 1:30 but I was supposed to report to a ready room at 12:30. Frankly, I still had nothing very interesting to talk about. The panel was called “Web Development Tools”, two initial members had been replaced and what little email dialogue there had been between the panelists consisted of staking out a claim on a tool but no discussion of what the hell we would panel about.

At the assigned time, I showed up at the assigned space and the moderator was already there. He said he thought each panelist would get 15 minutes to present the tool of their choice (I would cover browsers and how annoying it is to have to go through hoops to get a simple page to work on multiple platforms which all, supposedly, use the same language to present the material) and then he’d open it up for question.

All I can say is that I’m damned glad I wasn’t in the audience. I was on the panel and even I was bored senseless. I sat in the wrong seat and had to go first, so I rambled insensibly about Netscape and Microsoft, tried to make eye contact but with so many audience members falling asleep that was difficult, I ranted about why Netscape does some stupid stuff to code, why Microsoft wants to foist arbitrary, proprietary “standards” on us, what to think about while in the design process regarding various browser and platform “surprises” (which I detail elsewhere, if you’re interested) and kept asking “Is my 15 minutes up yet?” Kids, 15 minutes is a long fucking time when you have nothing prepared to say, I gotta tell ya. Derek and Drue showed up after I had already spoken, thank God, so I could lie to them and tell them how great I did.

The rest of the panelists spoke on Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, touching on DHTML and XML, GIF animations and ThingMaker, Javascript crap and, finally, database integration (which was actually little more than an extended ad for the guy’s company, which I found annoying). Then the floor was opened up for questions and all anyone wanted to know about was Dreamweaver. And they all asked the same question: “Do you like it?” I guess everyone has a hard time swallowing its $300 price tag and wants to know if it’s worthwhile. I didn’t really have an opinion, not having used it yet. So, anyway, that was my panel and now I had no other commitments for the rest of the festival.

But that would change pretty quickly.

I met up with Derek and Drue after the panel and Derek gave me one of his patented all-enveloping hugs (he hugs a lot—if you’re into hugging, Derek’s your man) and we went off in search of food and talk on Sixth Street. His review of my performance was, “The moderator sucked!”, which was about all he could report since he missed my stirring “I think browser makers are around to make our (Web page makers, collectively) lives miserable and even though they keep intending to improve the product with more and better capabilities all they end up doing is confusing the public and making ever more bloated products except Opera (which elicited a little “yay!” from the audience, illustrating that Microsoft and Netscape are now nearly equally hated by the general developer) but they’ll never survive because no one knows about them and everyone else’s product is now free.” That was the gist of my 15 minutes, compressed into one sentence. See, I’m better at the Q&A stuff than at the blabbering idiot stuff. Axe me a question about web page tools and I can go off on 17 tangents at once, gifting you with my opinion about abortion, the economy, Clinton’s penis, the relative merit of a good Cross pen, the horrible blandness of the ’98 Accord sedan, why Java is such a useless mess (sorta browser related, huh?) and how my mom likes playing card games on her PC much more than surfing the Web because she can’t find a decent online museum with some nice art.

On the other hand, given 15 minutes to foist my view on an audience without knowing, really, who they are or why they’re there (I mean, “Web Development Tools”? What the hell does that mean? Were these people UNIX jockeys or Photoshop Phobics? Were they there to get opinions or to laugh at some fools trying to sell them more useless carp they don’t really need? What, in short, did they want? I had no fucking clue—and I had to go first!) I sort of ramble around and drool and gesticulate wildly and do my best impression of Clifford Stoll on a kaopectate bender. Hopefully, no one who actually had ever heard of me showed up so you can all go on believing I’m a Web God instead of a dopey, nonsensical freak with delusions of grandeur—which actually amounts to the same thing, come to think of it. While I am mercifully free of stage fright and have no trouble standing up (or sitting down) in front of an audience, I don’t, all appearences to the contrary, enjoy looking like an asshole.

Where was I..?

Piss Boy

Oh! Lunch. Well, that play-by-play was that we ordered food and tried to figure out what to do until that evening when Derek, in retribution for the pact he’d made with the devil to gain the super-human design powers he has, had to go to a dark bar called “The Electric Lounge” and talk at an audience about personal narrative in general and {the fray} specifically. He was not at all looking forward to it. At one point, Derek discovered that among the usual graffiti in the Men’s Room at the restaurant (I’d tell you the name, so when you’re in Austin you could check this out for yourself, but all I remember is that it was on the corner of 6th and whatever street the Convention Center is on) someone had written very prominently on the stall door “Lance Is Coming”. This, to me, illustrated my vast power in the world at large. Derek gets booked in bars to talk to people about his Web site, I get my name magic-markered in toilets. Derek wanted to take a picture of me and the stall.

I declined.

We had hours to kill so we wandered around trying to find their car (What was it about people and their cars in Austin? They were constantly losing them, or parking them weirdly, or flooding the engines, or driving them head-on into traffic. Was it me?) and drove the four blocks to my hotel, planning on chatting up Steven Johnson who was also at The Omni but ended up sitting in the lobby bar, eating bar snacks and drinking orange juice and beer. Not together! They had orange juice, I had beer.

Moments before our departure, Mr. Johnson made an appearence in the lobby to say hello and there were semi-intros all around. Steven Johnson is a striking looking human being. You can see his eyes coming from across the state. It was sort of hard to look directly at him. I kept thinking he had the power to look through people and see what underwear they had on. And he has that New York Smooth all over him. These are the impressions I got from one handshake, kids. Which was basically my entire relationship with him because he was on his way out and so were we.

Voodoo Lounge

If one were to pick the most inappropriate and awkward setting to give a presentation about a medium designed to bring people closer together, one would be hard-pressed to surpass The Electric Lounge. It is a bar, it is not a lounge. A lounge has big circular booths with red vinyl seats. A lounge has a tiled floor for dancing on, and seats covered with velvet, and decorations shaped like martini glasses. The Electric Lounge is your basic dive. Out at the edge of a street far removed from the hip, happnin’ downtown area, we arrived in a downpour of Biblical proportions that did not bode well for a large turnout, which was probably just as well since Derek was in no mood to talk. He was supposed to be Act II following the presentation of a CD-ROM interactive narrative. But the organizers of the “event” had neglected to bring a computer with a sound card, making the “interactive narrative” part sort of challenging for the CD-ROM’s author, so they asked if Derek could go first. There was an audience of maybe six people, including Drue and I.

It was dark in there. Like, “where the hell is my hand, again?” dark. On one wall, the projected image of Indian whirling dervishes spun against a backdrop of Kmart sheets. Behind the “stage”, the modern-day equivalent of high school AV geeks were attempting to align slides of a mummy, I think. Derek was moaning quite convincingly. I felt for the lad, happy in my glassdog world where no one gives a fuck about connecting. So, eventually, the festival organizers returned with a suitable sound-enabled PC and the CD-ROM show started. It was clear that this guy was as passionate about his medium as Derek is about the Web. He had created a work after finding a cache of letters composed by relatives detailing three sisters’ lives during and after World War II. An obviously different milieu but linked with Derek’s focus of telling truth to bring lives closer together, to illustrate that the differences aren’t so different and the similarities are what make us human. He tells it much better than I, and maybe one day he’ll write it down, his beliefs.

When Derek speaks about {the fray}, it becomes eminently clear how important it is to him and that he wears his passions like a raincoat, hoping to get soaked in all our lives. The Web site is simply the most apparent and noticeable step in an evolutionary process of development. He has always wanted to listen to other people tell stories. This is important to him, this aspect of humanity, this need to touch someone else or to be touched with words. I just had no idea how important until this trip, nor how closely he held his beliefs. By the time he got on, the audience had grown to a couple dozen people—some of whom had come out in the rain and driven to this dark cave expressly to see him—and Derek exhibited some of his favorite Fray stories and explained how the site had come about, where the icons came from (which I won’t tell, it’ll all be in the book, I’m sure) how he plans to keep it commercial-free (smattering of applause) how he’ll keep doing it as long as he can keep doing it, how it is the reason he freelances instead of accepting any of the many permanent positions which would doubtlessly improve his financial outlook but draw time away from the project that he values most.

So, while I tend to view this all as a lark, something fun to do, somewhere to funnel my foamy head of creativity, it is, literally, Derek’s life. It is the reason he gets up every day, it is the reason he breathes. No, it ain’t the only reason (another one was sitting beside me there in the cold darkness watching her beau shine on the stage) but it’s right up there. It crystalized for me, those few minutes, what the Web needs, what anything needs, to survive.

Passion.

Think for a moment about your corner of the world, whether that be the Web or something you hold in your hand, something that drives you. Think of that thing, or those things, that make you get out of bed and get in your car and drive to work day in and day out. Or go to class instead of dropping out. Or make lunch. All the things you do without thinking. Do you have something? Or is it just money, acquisition, accumulation? What is that thing? Where do your passions lie? Why are you here?

And why are you going on without it?

Schmoozefest II

After Derek’s presentation, it was partytime once again and we were off to Frog Design’s downtown digs and promised margarita machine. Once again, again, it was on Congress and once again, it featured rock blockin’ beats. And smoke. And mirrors.

Heavy duty schmooze was in effect by the time we arrived and I was definitely not “into it”, sticking close to my compatriots while eyeing the many free monitors sitting around the frog office thinking, “hmmm, email…” But I resisted. Frog’s office walls are covered with something like cardboard (Thor later mentioned what that stuff was, but I forget. I’m not a contractor) and the upper corners of all the walls were cut out, exposing silver beams behind. All very tech and deconstructivist. “Modren”. They had toys set up in various parts of the office to control cursors to make a sort of droning music and people were talking about tech stuff and all like that. Terribly uninteresting even to me, and I understood what they were talking about! It was an open house to show off their wares and their capabilities, but the party (where’s the Goddam free booze?!?) was upstairs. You could feel it trying to beat its way through the floor.

They had cleared out an entire floor of the building and filled it with smoke and lights and thump-thump music. This tiresome droning crap sets my teeth on edge. I am feeling more and more like my Mom no doubt felt when I was listening to ELO and The Cars and so on through my musical education (what she thought of YMO singing techno Japanese and Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf” is anyone’s guess) when I hear that emotionless, endless loop of heavy bass and seemingly random noises. I mean, what the fuck is that? I’m sure cultural critics are having a field day deconstructing the deeper meaning behind a society’s embrace of soulless machine music. No one, again, was dancing. I have yet to see anyone dance to that stuff. Usually I see skateboarders flying into the air or people pushing Mountain Dew at me rather than anyone finding their tribal roots and going libido apeshit to that music. Then again, I don’t get out much.

So, we didn’t hang around very long, because Drue remembered that it was time to attempt to sneak into one of the “free” movies to which we had no right. See, the free movies were only supposed to be for people who upgraded their festival badges to “Gold”. None of us had that, but what did we care? She pulled out her handy dandy fesitval guide, mentioned a few possibilities for the night and we all decided, more or less, to see ‘Sanity’, a film about a woman whose suicide attempty is interupted by two thieves trying to steal her TV, leading to some S&M playtime in her living room.

In other words, a light comedy.

April 6, 1998

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