Since the beginning of this millennium, the third week of March has meant one thing for me: recovering from the ten-day marathon of panels, parties, and general excess known as South by Southwest. This year’s iteration, which ended Saturday, was my twenty-first in-person SXSW (factoring in the COVID-19 pandemic), meaning that yes, my badge is old enough to drink legally, ha ha ha, but also—and this hit me on the fest’s first day as I ascended above the excited throngs on the Austin Convention Center escalator—that more than half of the attendees below me were probably in diapers or kindergarten when I made out my first South by Southwest schedule (on paper) in 2001.
I quickly brushed off the thought and looked down at the “My Schedule” feature on my SXSW app to check the location of my first panel. There, in the lilac-coded square, was my first choice: “Transcending Death.” It was part and parcel with my other selections for the next few days, which included “Modern Elderhood: Reframing the Way We Age” and “Get Ready for a 100 Year Life.” This year, I decided to double down on panels and parties that focused on making the most of this part of my life. I’m surrounded by so much youth culture, which keeps me a very young 54, but I’m constantly looking for affirmations and inspiration on how I can make the most of the next few decades. I was ready for all the wisdom, advice, and free samples that would surely come my way. I’m fairly certain that SXSW has taken a few years off my life. The least it could do was give one or two back.
The festival began in 1987—the year I started college—as a small music event, and in the years since, it’s grown up too. Recently, the music portion of the festival has taken a back seat to its vibrant interactive (encompassing everything from actual tech to wellness, media, and life hacks) and film tracks. I tried to remember what I had attended during my first SXSW. All I could muster was a vague recollection of many bands in parking lots, the Spin party that ended at sunrise (those were really the days, my friends), and more free beer than I had ever encountered before. “Wellness” certainly hadn’t been on the agenda back then. Welcome to South by Gen X, I thought.
Outside the room for “Transcending Death,” I met up with my friend Sarah, who had been attending panels all day and had gamely agreed to join me for the next few days. I told her I wondered what the panel would be like—would we explore meditation practices? “Oh, it’s about tree burial,” said the eager guy in front of me. Others nodded, even Sarah, who gently explained that we would learn about a company that will plant a tree along with your body after you leave this world. I looked back at the panel description on my app and saw that it was illustrated with a photo of a field of mushrooms with the top of a person’s head sticking out of the ground. I showed the creepy image to Sarah.
“Oh, there’s a whole mushroom track!” Sarah said excitedly. If I wanted to learn about psychedelics, there were many, many panels on the schedule to help me on my journey. Psychedelics, it turned out, were this year’s NFTs. I had already committed to my focus on aging, but knowing that psychedelic advancements were wellness-adjacent, I made a mental note to squeeze in some of those conversations as well.
I spent the next hour lulled into the thought of returning to the ground and helping slow down climate change in the process. What kind of tree would I like to be? A cherry tree with blossoms would be lovely. Or maybe a lush willow looming over a lake. I listened to what the nice founder of the tree-burial company, Transcend, had to say about his philosophy of death and found it comforting as well. Then he started talking about logistics, and I began to wonder what kind of tree he would be. Come to think of it, he looked like a tree—very tall and lean. An elm?
Sarah and I left the session feeling generally good about the afterlife—I mean, who can really argue with tree burial? And then we headed to our next stop, which would take us away from the energy of downtown and to the luxe Commodore Perry hotel north of campus. The invite-only party was far enough away from the SX fray that organizers had felt confident enough to require that attendees appear in their best “Austin formal” attire—sundresses or cocktail dresses. I’ve never seen a dress code for a SX event, but it was, after all, a “milestone birthday” party/skin care–product launch for supermodel Miranda Kerr. The invite explained that she would kick off her fortieth year by premiering what it said was the first certified organic non-retinol alternative with the company Kerr founded in 2009, Kora Organics. “Discover her tips and tricks for aging gracefully,” the invite promised.
There’s not much that will get me to take a rate-spiked rideshare out of downtown on the first day of SXSW, but “aging gracefully” succeeded. For my fortieth birthday, my husband threw a “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s Shut the F— Up” dance party, so I was also curious about how this would compare. Sarah and I arrived to a world much different from the one we had just left. Glamorous influencers and TikTokers, mostly in their twenties and thirties, who had all had followed the dress code to a beautiful T, milled around the European-style gardens drinking Miranda Margaritas and nibbling on passed appetizers; they had their auras photographed, their palms read, and the fabulous Fort Lonesome chain-stitched personal touches on their tote bags. The guest (host?) of honor appeared for a champagne toast and the slicing of her birthday cake. The first thing I noticed was that she was wearing her gorgeous pink coat over her shoulders, just as I had chosen to don my trench coat over my sundress, making me feel very on trend. The second: her dewy, glowing skin. Although I have a visceral reaction to the phrase “anti-aging,” I am also a sucker for plant-based products. And well-stocked gift bags. I applied the serum to my face as soon I got home.
Kerr’s was not the only wellness-based event I attended during the first weekend. Sarah and I had a surprisingly good time at the launch party for Tally Health, a kind of concierge service for aging. Members get their own “personal longevity” coaching, based on the results of an at-home test to determine their biological age, which seemed like an increasingly good idea during the two hours we sipped cocktails with names like the Elixir in a cozy, chill booth at the Well restaurant and devoured the longevity-friendly appetizers of salmon tartare, hummus bites, and cute mini tomato bruschetta.
We felt so well taken care of at the Well that it was quite a shock to walk two blocks over to a pub for our next event, which was billed as “an intimate party with Deepak Chopra and friends.” (All week I had gone around the house saying, “I’m going to party with Deepak!”) We arrived a few minutes before start time, and if not for the party sign the event team was putting up—“Open Minds: Exploring Psychedelic Medicine”—we would have been convinced that we were at the wrong place. The pub was packed with Austin FC soccer fans there to watch the away game on TV. No one was passing around drinks, and there was not a healthy hors d’oeuvre or psychedelics-themed gift bag in sight. Assuming we were just too early, we stood there chatting until I noticed two badge-wearing women frantically looking at their phones. Assuming they, too, were wondering if they were in the wrong place, I introduced myself. “Oh, sorry, we’re just trying to post our photos of Deepak!” one declared breathlessly. Wait, he was here? “Oh, no, he was just leaving as we got here! He was sooo nice!” They showed me their snaps, and sure enough, there he was, leaving his 7:30 p.m. party at 7:32. We followed his lead. If Chopra and I have learned anything at this point, it’s that leaving the party early is almost always a good idea.
Although I was enjoying my wellness trek through SXSW, I was not prepared for the powerful moments I experienced during “Embrace the Change: Flipping the Script on Aging,” with panelists actress Judy Greer (47), Stacy London (the 53-year-old badass formerly of What Not to Wear), and Tracy Gray, founder of the 22 Fund, which focuses on investments in companies owned by women and people of color (she’s about to turn sixty, or, as she says—and I love it—“sexty”). The panel was an inspiring, if at times angering, conversation about taking control of your health as well as the narrative of this stage of life. I might have cried a few times, and at some point, I wrote down a note to Sarah: “This is the best panel I’ve ever been to, second only to the Beastie Boys keynote of 2019.” (On the other side of me was my longtime friend and fellow journalist Nicole Villalpando, who wrote a more detailed breakdown for the Austin American-Statesman.)
The panel was so good, in fact, that I felt I didn’t really need to dedicate any more of my SX time to this topic. There’s only so much time you want to spend thinking about life, death, and being medically ignored. I had movie premieres to check out, celebrities to brush by, bands to discover, and friends to see.
As Sarah and I walked out, it occurred to me that I felt as empowered and refreshed as I had twenty years earlier after watching bands like the Black Keys and Blur play small venues. We went off to our next party. A lot had changed over two decades, but the siren song of free beer remained the same.