As a crank, I get most of my opinions from bumper stickers. "Coexist!" I shout cheerfully as I zip through a yellowish light. "Nobama," I say sternly when some egghead tries to tell me about the news. But there is one bumper sticker I cannot condone, and that is "Keep Missoula Weird."
You see it everywhere—on street signs, on the back doors of bars and restaurants and on seemingly every bike rack in town. It has become an unofficial motto among that portion of the populace that does not regularly appear in public wearing sweatpants, but I cannot think of a more dangerous sentiment. Both civic pride and simple logic dictate that we should not keep Missoula weird. We should make Missoula weirder.
Obviously, this town should not get any less weird. Any person of conscience shudders at the thought of a normalized Missoula, its streets bereft of accordions, its bars eerily absent the dulcet laughter of children. The New West has spread too much already, and if I wanted to put on turquoise cowboy boots and eat buffalo burgers next to a fern, I'd go to Bozeman.
To de-weird Missoula would be to violate the social contract that brought us all here in the first place, and/or terrify the sympathetic freaks who grew up here and know nothing else. Yet trying to preserve the exact level of weirdness as when the stickers were first printed is a fool's undertaking.
The problem with trying to maintain a constant, baseline level of weird is that any normal fluctuation would risk sending us into unacceptably low levels of weird. Lance Hughes goes on vacation, Desperado runs out of T-shirts depicting the starship Enterprise with hot wings for engines, Donnie from Flippers ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of God—suddenly our weirdness dips into the red, and we're Spokane.
America is littered with cities that made that mistake. Austin tried to keep itself weird, and they were overrun by viral marketing consultants within weeks. "Keep Portland Weird" only resulted in that city becoming more horrifyingly normal, as squares around the country donned chunky glasses and started putting bacon on their donuts. Lexington, Ky., successfully kept itself weird, only to discover that it was not the good kind of weird in the first place.
We should learn from their mistakes. Unless we want to fall into normalcy by misadventure or complacence, we must actively work to make Missoula weirder.
But how? Before you put pants on your head and run outside to defecate through the neckhole of your shirt, consider that not every weird is to be desired. It's weird that half the streets in town do not line up with the other half, but it's not quite a delightful whimsy. It's weird that a town of 67,000 has six breweries and no Indian restaurants, but is that the kind of weird we ought to keep?
Here we can take a lesson from our sister city, East Missoula, which is maybe more like the step-sister city who left home to live in her boyfriend's van. "Keep East Missoula Weirder," a bumper sticker that surfaced sometime in 2011, is both a clever parody and a grim reminder.
On one hand, East Missoula is undeniably weirder than the city proper; if nothing else, they have the weird pet store. On the other hand, it is maybe not the kind of weird most Missoulians have in mind. Again we encounter the problem of terms, and the vital importance of establishing what we talk about when we talk about weird.
When we urge one another to keep Missoula weird, we should specify how, exactly, we intend to do so. Otherwise we encounter the kind of situation that happens when you tell someone to do something funny: flailing, gibbering, jumping around—pretty much everything but what would make you laugh. You cannot simply be weird. Weird is something that you do.
As an example of doing weird, I submit Viscosity Theatre and their recent original production, This Illusionment. That work of devised theater, presented at the ZACC with heavy audience participation, did weird in the best way: It expanded the realm of the possible. For four days and nights in June, Missoulians could go to the movies, or they could go into a creepy basement and have their brains melted by an experimental play.
That is the kind of weird that is done rather than kept. That is the kind of weird I like. I also like breweries and used bookstores and dog massage parlors, but they aren't going away. The bike trails, the river and the mountains will be here for a long time, as will the bars and the coffee shops and the stickers.
We are the ones whose time is limited. We are the ones who only get Missoula for a little while, and we are the ones who can make it weirder or not. The slogan is fun, but it's only something to say.