Day 0 (Wed 18 Oct 06)
D-Day. Day of Departure. Leaving for Austin. A Descent into the Maelstrom. Return to Oz.
Any number of odd metaphors and half-analogies might describe the feeling of waking and realizing that it is again time to make that drive west to Austin, to do that slow-motion stroll into the Driskill and climb the stairs and round that corner and look down that long copper-roofed lounge and realize... "thus it begins again."
"Has it really been a year?" I wonder to myself. "Or has it been more like another small lifetime?"
As I pack my suitcase, I begin to feel that weird schizophrenic detachment from my normal life. In some ways it feels like my "normal" life is the conference. Away from Austin I put on some strange Clark Kent mask of normalcy for 360 days and then return home to strip off my mundanity to be given four too-brief days in which to remember who it is that I am, that I want to be. 100 hours. 6000 minutes of freedom. And you'd better damned well make use of every single one of those minutes, as there ain't no more for another 360 days, boy.
I've said goodbye to my kids earlier that morning as they left for school, and The Wife has already left to go visit her aging grandmother, so I pack in an empty house, which seems all too fitting. In many ways it's as if the Universe understands, for once, and grants me some space in which to prep for battle, for that is what it feels like. I am a gladiator preparing for the arena. I can hear the bloodlust of the crowd in the distance. I can feel the rumble. Smell the fear and blood.
It is time.
I hit Austin around 2 PM and swing to the Stephen F Austin Hotel, check in, and drop my gear. I have messages waiting, text messages incoming. The tribe has already begun to gather for another yearly pow-wow.
One of the cool things about the AFF is the way you quickly develop an entirely new circle of special-duty friends, people who you will meet for the first time and then walk with for just four days and then hold dear from that point on. There are analogs in all sorts of other activities: combat, sports teams, survival situations. In some ways Austin is all of of those, so I guess it's not surprising that emotional bonds are so quickly forged. Over the years, some people fall by the wayside -- they find themselves unable or unwilling to commit to a return, or perhaps they break through to some greater success and are required to be somewhere else, filming a movie, offering a presentation elsewhere. You miss these friends deeply, yet you take some comfort in the secure understanding that others will step forward to take their place on the ramparts.
This year I managed to arm-twist a long-time online pal into giving the Austin experience a try. Caz, a dear friend from London whom I met years ago through the Zoetrope website for writers, finally tired of hearing me nag and cajole her into coming to Texas for this odd event, and when one day I suggested that perhaps she might look into trying for a press pass in order to cover the event for some English screenwriting magazines, it all fell into place. She was staying at another local hotel and we'd arranged to meet at the Driskill as soon as I got into town, so I called her and she walked the two blocks to the headquarters check-in desk where we finally actually met for the first time. I honestly have no idea what she thought. I've had friends confess to me later that upon first meeting they were not at all sure if I was totally sane -- perhaps homicidally sociopathic -- but she camoflaged any fears and reservations. She of course is exactly what I expected: beautiful and funny and slightly biting in that veddy veddy proper British way we colonials find so intriguing. We hug, I splurt out the first of what surely wound up being 10,037 little bits of surl, and decide to trek to the far side of the Austin area to grab some BBQ at one of my favorite places, the Salt Lick.
Just as we pull away from the Stephen F and head up 7th toward the freeway, I get a call from Deb, aka Chesher Cat. Deb is a painfully cool pal from LA who, in some former life, partied with pretty much every rocker of note in the 70s, then worked on pretty much every poster for the great/awful Cannon group movies in the 80s, and now is moving inexorably closer to a successful screenwriting career of her own. I've met Deb twice before in real life, on a pair of trips to LA earlier this year when I was testing teh waters and meeting a few pro friends (producers, writers, etc.). We connected spookily well, like finding a friend that somehow the Universe forgot to issue you when it was supposed to.
"Hey, dummy. I'm at the airport. Where's my ride?"
"Headed your way at 75 miles per hour. Wanna grab some food?"
So Caz and I swing by Bergstrom Airport and pick up Deb and then head west toward Driftwood and the Salt Lick. I wanted to go somewhere away from central Austin as we're not likely to have a chance for such side trips any time during the thick meaty part of the festival. Once things get going at the festival, you're too busy and involved to do more than walk around a 6 block radius around the Driskill Hotel.
The Salt Lick is a classic old-school texas BBQ place, so I figure that Caz (a Londoner on her first trip to Texas) and Deb (a Calgarian on her first trip to The Great State) will get a kick out of it. We're seated on the patio, the sweet smell of oak fires and cooking meat drips from the rafters, and a breeze carrying hints of limestone dust and cedar drifts through the screen walls. We're just relaxing in the comfy-ness of it all when The Guy coms to take our drink orders. We turn, and Deb displays her true colors:
"Wow. You are gorgeous."
The Guy looks at me, shakes his head, laughs, and steps closer to Deb, who still drools at the blushing youngster.
"I guess I'll start with you then."
Lunch is cool. The women opt for simple plates of 'Q, while I of course go for the feeding frenzy, the Salt Lick's trademark unlimited family style BQ special. As we eat, I get a few more calls from the airport, but given that we're 40 minutes away and in the middle of a meal, I blow off my friends and tell them to grab the shuttle.
We swing back to the SFA, toss the car to the valet and wander into what will be the closest thing to "home" for the next four or five days: The Driskill Bar:
We wander down, I grab the first of what will be far too many beers in the next few days of lounging, and we plop down and wait for others to come by. Caz seems concerned that she'll have trouble actually securing interviews for her stories she wants and needs to write to mentally justify her use of a press pass for free festival admission, and I try to get her to relax.
"You'll not have trouble meeting people. The trouble will be in leaving people."
Somewhere around that time that moment I see more of The Gang. Old friends like Julie O, Anne, Murray, Thomas, Ryan. New folks whom I knew would be soon added to the roster of Austin Buddies: Shawna, Jamie, Reece.
Julie gives a hug. "I can't believe it's already been a year. It doesn't seem like that long since last we were here, does it?"
"Oh, it does to me," I mumble. "I can remember counting down every single one of those 8,640 hours since last we gathered."
Suddenly the relevant and worthwhile part of the Universe collapses into just these next four days. 100 hours. 6000 minutes... 5999... 5998....