Photo by Jake Melara on Unsplash

We Are Always Missing the Point

The moment and the meaning.

Toward the end of the film Boyhood, in the dead center of the upper balcony at Antone’s — a legendary live music club in Austin, Texas — central character Mason, Jr. (the boy) asks his father Mason, Sr., “What’s the point?”

The dive where this scene takes place, along with then next-door neighbor Emo’s, carried on the name of the legendary downtown Live Music Capital of the World establishment, but it was not located in downtown Austin anymore, where the quirky old watering holes have been repopulated by luxury cocktail lounges and hotels that shake hands with the clouds.

Naturally, this incarnation of Antone’s closed again sometime after the film ceased production, only to find itself reinvented back downtown, in the heart of all the sudden influx of affluence.

Over 300,000 people have moved to Austin since 2000, and over 400 stories of skyscraper have been built — with another 300 or so floors left to go, including an eyesore of a tower that looks like god got drunk and played Tetris one night. The oddball outpost just South-by-Southwest of sanity is gone; in it’s place, a glimmerglass beacon of Texan exceptionalism, creativity and breakfast tacos. What Seattle was to Gen-X, Austin is to Millennials.

Austin makes up the southern tip of the Hipster Cross — a constellation of ironic goat yoga hamlets marked by Minneapolis in the north, Brooklyn to the east and Portland out west. Everyone here used to have a CD to shuck. Now everyone has a startup to pitch. There isn’t a thing this city hasn’t done almost perfectly, torn down, and then done again with a bigger and badder budget as a slightly less perfect facsimile of the thing that made it cool in the first place. That’s what Austin is, now, a bigger budget sequel to the Austin that came before. Couched within this vignette lays three central ideas:

  • We’re often chasing initial thrills.
  • We do this by recreating things.
  • The reboots are often less thrilling than the original — even if they’re made better.

Texas, where I’ve lived for seven years now, is a rapidly evolving state with a varied swath of people both endemic and transplanted. From the Hill Country watering holes to the I-35 urban arteries, from the East Texas ranches to the endless West Texas desert, there’s god-fearing born-agains, beer-swilling law officers, hard-working immigrants and the angst-ridden artists of a generation struggling to find its voice in “Trump’s America.” They seep from the pores of this land like fresh-drilled crude — and they often feel like rough drafts of themselves. In a way, we all are.

Much of this life, for all our time spent dedicated to meticulously improving ourselves, we often appear unvarnished. Years whir by without warning. Ideas jut in and out like a jagged rock trail never fully blazed. Supporting characters careen in and out, love burns white hot then fizzles out, and most all conflicts are left unresolved as they fade away. We’re all haphazard longitudinal character studies. And as we remember things from our youth, we’re confronted with a tiny sense of loss and longing for the way things used to be. Sad, indeed, but there is perhaps a point to it all.

When we walk through the world up until our abrupt and (usually) unplanned end, if we set our sights only on the tiny fraction of daylight in front of us and scenery around us, we often find that what’s lacking is never missed. When we’re aware and present — listening to our favorite curated playlist of whatever we dig at the moment — we are able to trick ourselves into feeling like it’s the only place we need to be and all we need to experience. It’s all here if we’re willing to surrender to our five senses.

Life’s shared milestones are ultimately quite ordinary and common to many of us: Families, homes, marriage, arguments, vacations, the “talk,” puppy love, work, school, disease, death and hardship. These are big moments … and ones we pay far more attention to when viewing them through the lens of someone else than in our own lives.

But what we often pay more attention to, and what indisputably matter even more, are the little intimate moments in between the big ones. The naive way we peak out our bedroom windows to watch our mother and father bicker over something as silly as how many games there are in a college football season. The solemn empathy of debt collectors who just have a job to do while they ask you for money you may or may not own. The euphoria of a rain-soaked late-night make-out session with your college sweetheart. The inescapable dread of when your mom picks you up from school, crying, and says “when we get home, we need to talk.” It’s these smaller moments that hit you like a ten-pound bowling ball to the gut, or even trigger that warm tinge of nostalgia in the hippocampus. These moments feel so important as they unfold in front of us because they are. Because they’re visceral, total, and unique to only you in the way that you find them.

It’s buried deep within these times that you find minor characters you’d forgotten about reappear at crucial moments — like if life is a festival bill, a mid-level small-font supporting act headlines a reunion tour in your life some decade or so later — and you find people you’d cared about become impossible to recall. A roommate in a rock band here, a friend from college over here, a manager at the local diner over here: this is recency bias, and there’s a reason it kicks in. What’s happening and, more importantly, who’s happening right now should engulf and enthrall us, because the present is the only truth in time. The past is a distortion and expectations almost never come true.The way a siren smiles on the first date. The awkward insults slung by bullies. The crack and fizz of opening our first beer. It’s all special and (perhaps too) precious and its ours and all engraved on the ever-expanding Stanley Cup of our life story. All the names. All the faces. All the moments. All the meaning.

Time’s relentless attack on memory erodes our experiences into something resembling a linear narrative. But life is not linear. It’s messy, it’s exploratory, it’s filled with nooks and crannies and dead-ends and restarts and new loves and moves and cross-country drives in cars that could barely make it there. Our edgy alt-rock becomes pop schmaltz becomes wistful nostalgia. Ice Cube the gangsta becomes Ice Cube the actor becomes Ice Cube the icon. Even as our single mother sobs as she sends us out of the house for the final time, as we jettison all we know to start anew out on our own, it plays a distant second to our chief concern of who’ll be scoring the party keg later that night. We’re too close to the action, we lose the insight of true perspective, and in the end the concern washes away into a faint halcyon glow.

The final scene of Boyhood involves a rapturous exchange between Mason, Jr. — now a college freshman — and a bombshell brunette he’d met mere hours earlier. The pauses between them breed anticipation, the chemically-enhanced insights bring us closer to a clean resolution, and a deep dialogue just before a kiss takes wings and ascends into heaven without our permission — young men can sometimes be all too prone to take a pretty girl’s Gospel and run with it. There, she posits that “seize the moment” is backwards and asks, “What if the moments are really seizing us?”

This is life’s great sleight-of-hand. For at this moment, everything means so much. All because of everything that came before now, and everything we still feel but can no longer remember because “it’s always right now,” and still we carry the weight of everything that can no longer be counted. The past is an invisible elephant on our backs.

What we’re doing in the moment — being where we are, and only where we are — is inextricable from what’s come before, after all, every step we’ve taken has led us to here. That’s what moments can do for us: force us to recount our steps, remember the turns, and use that information to make our next move. Each milestone is also a mile-marker on our way to somewhere, but it’s far from a linear progression and we’ll get lost almost everywhere we go. It’s up to us to stop, look around, and surrender to the five senses to take in as much as we can.

So what is the point? Chase new thrills. Create new things. Make things better. Drink it all in. What we do, how we live, who we know, is not an aggregate. It’s an interchangeable series of seemingly unrelated ideas, events, people and places — and they’re all important in their own tiny way.

Life is a scattershot, haphazard mess. All the jump-cuts, all the places and people fading in and out without a proper hello or goodbye or a blinking sign that screams “Pay attention: This will change your life” are real. A girl’s can of spray-paint morphs years later into a woman’s Canon DSLR. The canvas may change but the artist remains. Homes we build, families we start, they band together then break apart. Poignant songs we write become faint tunes hummed by distant others. The Austin, Texas of the 20th Century becomes the Austin, Texas of the 21st Century.

Some of it we’ll get instantly, some of it we won’t, and some of it we’ll only understand when we’re much, much older — when “right now” feels way more important than it used to, when we’ve moved to scary new places that become our hometowns, and when the memories of our rough-and-tumble youths are reduced and distilled into a single nostalgic playlist.

We’re missing the point. We’re always missing the point. And that, above all, is the point. Whether or not you’re paying attention … one day, you’ll get it.

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