The Peacock Crises of 2016
You have no idea how weird Austin really is
Welcome to The Experiment, where we didn’t make a typo; that’s crises, plural. This week we’re talking about something that reveals the true weirdness of this city. In Austin, we take controversies involving peafowl seriously, and no one thinks that’s weird at all.
As always we remember who we’ve lost and recommend things to do (learn Ted Lasso’s leadership lessons), read (Maggie Smith on springtime anxiety), watch (Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys), and listen to (the Mellow Music Group’s infectious “One of the Last”). And if you are new to The Experiment, please sign up for a free subscription so you don’t miss out. It’s a good time.
But first, did I ever tell you about the peacock crises of 2016?
A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that when I worked at the mayor’s office more people got upset about wild peacocks in Austin than they did about Google testing automated vehicles on Austin’s roads. And while all that business about robot cars was fascinating, I’m sure, it occurs to me that I may have buried the lede. I should tell you about the two peacock crises in 2016.
The first peacock crisis of 2016 did not, in the end, require government intervention, though it was nonetheless sought.
The story begins in 1916 when Mattie and Frank Faulk moved into a big farm house south of the Colorado River. Three decades later, Mattie retired and moved in with one daughter and handed the home over to another daughter, Mary, who turned the homestead into a restaurant. The restaurant, Green Pastures, flourished as the town grew up around it, and the farmland quickly became residential. In 1968, a friend gave Mary a pair of peacocks, who likewise flourished and multiplied, and over the years seeing an ostentation of peacocks strutting through your yard became just one of the features of the surrounding Bouldin Creek neighborhood.
Let’s level-set here: No one thought this was weird.
In 2016, some dude moved into the neighborhood and was not a fan of the wild peacocks that would sometimes trespass onto his property, so he called animal control, whereupon the denizens of Boudin Creek took up arms, albeit digitally. A Facebook group calling itself the Peacock Liberation Front began a petition demanding that the Mayor “give our peacocks special dispensation to wander the neighborhood,” something he had no power to do. And in truth, he did not run on a platform of involving himself in controversies involving neighborhood fauna.
As self-consciously comedic as the protest was, there was an undercurrent of sincere umbrage. Who does this peacock blocker think he is? Doesn’t he understand what makes us special?
“When I lived on South Sixth, I was witness to a dance off between one of the peacocks and the turkey owned by the dudes at South Fifth and Johanna,” commented an Ivy Crawford. “This is why one lives in Bouldin. If you do not want dance offs, move somewhere less awesome.”
The city declined to press charges against the peacocks, the ownership of which was now in doubt because the restaurant had changed hands and the bill of sale did not cover ownership of birds of any kind, much less peafowl. That would, it seems, mean that the peacocks would be classified as wild animals, and of course the city had an ordinance that allows them to take care of wild animals that have become a nuisance regardless of how much a neighborhood might have become attached to a flock of landbirds.
I became curious.
One of the most hilarious things about lawyers is when they try to think like humans. In the section of ordinance covering the city’s power to dispose of wild fowl, a list was made of the types of birds that could then be regulated under this ordinance. Did some functionary in the city attorney’s office imagine that a jumpsuited gendarme from animal control, unable to tell a hawk from a handsaw, would be unable to fulfill his civic obligations without a list telling him that a chicken was, in fact, a kind of bird?
For what reason we will never know, but a list was made of types of birds that fell under the heading of wild fowl. There were chickens, geese… Pretty much every kind of bird you or a mediocre lawyer could think of, except one: peacocks. And that’s how wild peafowl were saved by a city ordinance and became, officially, free birds.
You may not believe me, but I was the only one at the mayor’s office who thought that was funny.
The next peacock crisis of 2016 did require government intervention to a degree more ridiculous than one might initially take from a sentence that includes the words “peacock,” “crisis,” and “government intervention.”
One thing you might not know about peacocks is that they make good pets. Apparently they make good guard dogs and are easily domesticated. And so it is with a treasured peacock pet that our second crisis begins with a Prominent Resident of District 10 who owned a peacock he called Candy.
One day, Candy got out and absconded with herself. Her owner, bereft, didn’t call the city’s animal shelter at first because he assumed it was only for dogs and cats. A friend’s suggestion prompted him to inquire, but too late; a government-proscribed two-week-long waiting period had elapsed, and Candy had been adopted by an employee of animal control. Candy’s original owner requested the return of his beloved peafowl. This request was denied by Candy’s new owner, who cited regulations.
I first heard about this when Candy’s owner demanded, as Prominent Residents do, that his city council member sort this out. And the council member, no dummy she, brokered a peace, of sorts. Candy was returned to her original owner, the mayor issued an official proclamation declaring Austin Animal Services Day in celebration of the staff’s heroic service, and, because this could not just be chalked up to an unfortunate series of events, the council member amended city policy to lengthen the waiting period before pets would be considered abandoned at the animal shelter.
Again, I was the only one in the office who found this weird, which brings us to Austin’s motto, “Keep Austin Weird.” Most people think that this phrase was coined in a pique of self-conscious revelry to celebrate our oddballs and weirdos. In fact, the local small business association came up with it during the heyday of big box retailers. Austin thinks what makes this city weird is the local record store, the ice cream chain where they smash toppings into ice cream, and the movie theaters where they obviously get a kick out of movies. The weirdos, oddballs, and musters of wild peafowl that occasionally yield beloved pets named Candy?
In Austin, that’s normal.
Who we’ve lost
This H-E-B employee
How we’re getting through this
Living above the API
Making breakfast muffins
Learning Ted Lasso’s leadership lessons (h/t Moss)
Listening to Robin Whetstone read “Red Ticket” on WUGA
What I’m Reading
Abbott Kahler: “A Bestselling Author Became Obsessed With Freeing a Man From Prison. It Nearly Ruined Her Life.” - This story is in the bonkers hall of fame.
After the success of her novel Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen spent years trying to prove a man's innocence. Now she’s “absolutely broke” and “seriously ill,” and her next book is “years past deadline.”
Hamilton Nolan: “Against Editors” - Editors have saved my bacon more than once, but this makes some good arguments.
Go find a story published a few years ago in The New Yorker, perhaps America's most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it's a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story—well-polished diamond that it presumably is—and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process. You will find, once again, that the new editor has changes in mind. If you were a masochist, you could continue this process indefinitely. You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, "Looks fine. This story is perfect." This is because editing is an art, not a science. To imagine that more editors will produce a better story is akin to imagining that a song by your favorite band would be better if, after the band finished it, it was remixed by a succession of ten producers, one after the other.
Simon Owens: “Are editors actually vital?” - Do you know the three types of editors?
There are a lot of creators out there who enjoy the creative independence that a platform like Substack provides. Sure, our creations are imperfect, but that’s the price we’re willing to pay for unfettered access to your inbox.
Peter Reinhart: “Replacing Middle Management with APIs” - Do you live below or above the API?
As the software layer gets thicker, the gap between Below the API jobs and Above the API jobs widens. And economic incentives will push Above the API engineers to automate the jobs Below the API: self-driving cars and drone delivery are certainly on the way.
Maggie Smith: “For parents, spring brings so much more this year — renewal, beauty and, yes, anxiety” - The poet featured in “Our Gap Year” has an essay in the Post.
“Spring fever” feels different this year, a year since the world changed — shrank — for us all. I think the sense of renewal and hope we’re experiencing this year is magnified by how shut-in and anxious we’ve all been through the winter. I’m feeling an odd mix of near-giddiness and trepidation about the months to come, much like those magnolias, which could bloom at any moment, be blown down or freeze.
What I’m watching
Everybody give a warm welcome to writer and director Anna Kerrigan, who’s new to The Experiment. Anna, you’re in good company here, but with you on board we’re now in better company. If you don’t know Kerrigan’s work, check out the well-reviewed Cowboys.
What I’m listening to
Why didn’t any of you tell me about Son Little? “hey rose” is some hand-clapping fun.
"One of the Last” by the Mello Music Group is a fun listen.
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