Follow That Bliss!


For the eight months that we’ve lived in Portland, Maine, casual conversations have leaned a lot on the preposition “from.” As in, “Where are you from?”

We’re from Texas, my wife and I reply.

“Where’d you move from?”

From Austin, we say-though on the mental maps of Mainers, it sometimes seems there are only two places, Maine and not-Maine. Texans, New Jerseyeans, Samoans: We’re practically the same, because we’re not from Maine.

“Oh, you’re from away,” people say, offering that newcomers may bear the stigma of that condition for at least two generations. “Wait for summer,” they say. “You’ll love the summers.” We did, and we do.

Along these same lines, “because” has become a frequently employed conjunction, as it introduces a lot of jokey answers to the question, “Why did you move to Maine?” Because I wanted more fleece in my life. Because I look great in long johns. Because I wanted to pay state income tax.

The real answer requires pulling more rope off the spool. When I moved to Austin in the fall of 1993, I remember reading angry letters to the editor in the Austin Chronicle, the basic melody of which went, Austin’s changed, Armadillo World Headquarters is gone, you ruined it, I’m out of here, guitar solo, bridge, refrain: you ruined it.

Flocks of such letters were published through the mid-1990s, week after week, until they dwindled, then disappeared. Maybe the last disgruntled hippie had moved on, or perhaps the Chronicle simply stopped printing the letters. Or maybe I just stopped reading them, because when I was 26 years old and a new graduate student, it was a mystery to me why anyone would complain about Austin. Free pecans! Cold beer! Ten-minute drive to the airport! Swimming in creeks! Lovely women! Dance halls! Tacos!

Fourteen years later, this past October I went to reserve a moving truck. “You don’t need to reserve a truck,” the clerk said, gesturing to the sea of trucks in the lot. I joked that he should thank us for taking two cars off the roads. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “People just keep coming, and coming, and coming.”

He’s right. From 1990 to 2000, Austin’s population grew 47.7 percent. From 2000 to 2006, it rose another 21.1 percent, and every census announcement and business poll seems to foretell further increases. I played a part in that increase, it’s true, and maybe my arrival created a cinder of unhappiness that blew into old hippie eyes. Yet it was by Malthusian, not karmic, principles that by 2007 I found myself belting out a familiar song: Traffic, traffic, traffic, lots of friends but I never see them, the restaurants are crowded, guitar solo, bridge, refrain: It’s ruined.

Now we live in Portland, a place that may, in time, reveal its own weakness against capitalism and poor planning. But for now: The ocean! Oysters! Snow! Public land! L.L. Bean! Ten-minute drive to the airport!

I write these lines knowing that at this moment, a couple thousand miles from where I sit, some kid with a duffel bag and a beat-up guitar is stepping off the bus into a blazing Texas sun that doesn’t scorch him at all, because he’s about to start the best 10 years of his life. That sense of possibility, of arrival at a place where cultural and personal moments converge, is a lovely thing. Because I’ve done it myself, I also possess the wisdom to know that there are lots of places to have the best 10 years of your life. The trick is, how do you find them?

In his 2008 book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner eats his way through places like a charcuterie plate in search of an intangible “happiness.” He goes to Bhutan, Iceland, Switzerland, and Moldova to discover whether people are happy there and what makes them more (or less) happy than Americans. Climate, population size, political history, values, alcohol consumption: Weiner explores all the possibilities. He seems to conclude that people are happy when other people, to whom they are connected by blood or culture or place, positively enhance their state of mind.

I’ll spare you a point-by-point application of Weiner’s experiences to Austin, Portland, or anywhere else and make this one point: Happiness works as a political value only if you agree that everyone deserves it, and if you’re willing to establish a minimum floor of happiness as a matter of policy. I don’t know how they do it in Bhutan, where King Khandu Wangchuk implemented the notion of “gross national happiness” as an alternative measure of his country’s development, but Weiner seems to find the people there exceptionally happy. Could happiness gain traction as a political agenda? Sure. In Central Texas, that would mean politicians, developers, and other leaders would have to channel growth to avoid traffic and long commute times, which are big bliss-killers. You know the rest: An empty aquifer, crumbling infrastructure, and masses of undereducated people-all will prompt some people, and their dollars, to seek their bliss elsewhere.

I left Austin for reasons that combine the economic and the emotional. It wasn’t exactly a lack of happiness; call it, perhaps, “peak quality of life.” (To paraphrase the theory of peak oil, there is quality of life still in the ground; it’s just too expensive to extract it.)

My peak happened one day when I called El Chilito, a taco and coffee stand I’d happily patronized since it opened eight months earlier, and was put on hold for 10 minutes. I then drove by the place and saw, for the first time, a line of people a dozen deep. I used to think that they’d have to close Barton Springs to pull the plug on the heart of Austin, but in my case, it was my belly, not my love of environmental symbolism, that spoke the final word.

Quality of life has become a zero-sum pursuit in Central Texas. Yes, in fact, I would be happier there if people in Los Angeles, or Saltillo, or Biloxi, or wherever, remained unhappy there instead of coming to Austin. That’s the definition of “zero sum.” Now even the tacos are zero-sum: I’d still be eating those tacos if those people ate their tacos somewhere else.

Preserving happiness may be preferable to pursuing it, but how does anyone tell those people lined up at my taco stand that they don’t have a right to be there? They’ll keep coming. Kids too smart or too weird for the Texas hinterlands. Members of Richard Florida’s “creative class.” Ex-New Yorkers escaping the high cost of living.

One irony is that my wife and I are sometimes perceived as colonists here in Portland, outsiders who may impose our ways on the locals. For centuries Maine’s economy was based on the extraction of natural resources by outsiders; now, every summer it’s flooded by tourists. “Welcome! We’re happy to have you here,” said a young man we met in a bar, who traced his family to 1670. He and I bonded comparing Austin with Portland, how we felt overrun by outsiders, until he came to his senses and drew his line: “As soon as you get involved in local politics, there’s going to be problems.” I promise, I won’t run for office, I said. He meant he didn’t want me to vote.

It’s entirely possible that growth-driven by some investors’ pursuit of happiness-will deliver the same bliss-killers here as in Texas. Someone pointed out how local politicians want to route a multilane highway down the center of the city (whose population is 65,000!) to move traffic out of the touristy port area. How a comedy club had been closed down because the piers under it were judged rotten, which was probably just a scheme to knock down the pier. “You’re not going to get away from bad development, man,” our new friend told us. “You can’t get away from it.”

You will say I’m too young to be so bitter, or that I’m afraid of change, or naïve. I should hope for a heavenly bliss, not an earthly one, you may say. You might also say, if you can’t be happy in Austin, you’ll never be happy anywhere.

It’s true that I’ve always identified more with my departures than my arrivals, and that I don’t have either a mind or a heart that’s built to belong. But in the course of my life, I’ve had many opportunities to become attached to places, many of which I remember fondly, but would never have called home.

Austin is home. Austin is still home. It’s always been an island of possibility in the middle of a forbiddingly foreclosed sea. That’s why people go there, and that’s probably why it’s so difficult to leave. But I’m discovering an underappreciated fact about islands, and about Austin: They’re great places to be from.

Contributing writer Michael Erard owns his own oyster shucking knife. He returns to Texas in the fall as a Dobie Paisano fellow.

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Published at 12:00 am CST