Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A "beaut"

The first red pepper of the season was ready in the garden today. It is so lovely I can hardly stop looking at it. Hopefully there are more to come.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Still 99% Vegan

It was a big weekend for the Ragfields. Rob was off to the National Triathlon Championships in Portland, Oregon, and I was off to a regional primatology conference in South Bend, IN.

The particular conference I was going to this weekend is usually a lot of fun. Its smaller than the national Anthropology conference we always have in the spring, and this one is just for primatologists. For the most part, everybody is excited about everybody else’s research, and at least for the first several years that we had this conference, it was refreshingly qualitative rather than quantitative. Somehow, its always seemed like you can go ahead and say the things you know in your gut are true but you just can’t say anywhere else. And that’s why I love it so much. When you’re so concerned about sticking to a theoretical paradigm and not ruffling anybody’s feathers, you end up never saying anything new.

So I chose this conference as the place to reveal my hypothesis about the impact of seasonality on the evolution of the mantled howler weaning pattern—an idea that’s either groundbreaking or so ordinary that it comes as no surprise to anyone. I’ve given plenty of poster presentations at various conferences through the years, but I decided to do an actual podium presentation at this one. On Thursday we had a practice session in the department, and that’s when I started getting nervous. I realized that I’d only run this idea by SL, who seemed to approve of it (actually he had been pretty excited), but he may not have been fully paying attention at the time. And he hadn’t actually seen the data I was using to support my wild contentions. It occurred to me that if the practice talk was not well-received in the department, I would have less than 24 hours to fix it, which essentially meant that I was totally screwed. I broke out in hives a little bit.

Luckily, the practice talk went well, but that may have been because only a couple of people showed up. SL and RS (both my committee members) gave me some minor suggestions but told me that it was good, so I tried to breathe a little easier.

A group of us students drove up on Friday, easily passing the time with animated discussions of politics and US History; it was a lot of fun. There’s always a cocktail party on the opening night of the conference. It was really great because I got to see my other committee member, KM, who I haven’t seen in forever. We talked for a long time at the party. She was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, which came as a shock to everyone. She’s a young, healthy, marathon-runner with no family history of it. She’s doing really, really well with everything, and it was very inspiring to be standing there talking to her about all of this. The next time I do Race for the Cure, I’ll run in celebration of her.

At the party, I got to talk to a lot of other people that I generally only see once or twice a year, plus other people that I haven’t seen in forever. The only downside was that all I had for dinner was 4 crackers and a glass of wine, but I wasn’t too disappointed. I made do with a Clif bar that I’d hastily packed in my purse. Plus, by the time we got back to the hotel, all of us were hungry, so we wandered down to the hotel restaurant to see what they had. The only thing even remotely vegetarian on the menu was a dinner salad, so I ordered that just because everyone else seemed worried that I should eat. It was actually a pretty nice salad—mixed greens, a couple red pepper slices, and maybe 3 cherry tomatoes. But still, you know. Like 10 calories on the whole plate. It came with an Italian dressing that was luckily on the side—after taking about 2 bites of salad that I dipped in the dressing, I realized it had cheese in it. I decided just to not eat any more of the dressing and still consider myself 99% vegan.

After our makeshift dinner, we headed back up to the room to get some sleep. I was exhausted but lay wide awake, as I often do. I had my own stuff to worry about, plus Rob being in Portland to do this triathlon. Eventually I guess I fell asleep, but still, it was a short night.

In the morning, I got up and put on my best anthropologist chic: my red shoes, a calf-length brown skirt, white shirt, and pale blue cardigan. I know, it sounds hideous, doesn’t it? But it kind of fit right in.

We headed back over to the conference, where I luckily grabbed some fruit, granola, and coffee, and then we spent all morning listening to the talks. Everything was so nice—I thought the conference was run really well this year. The organization was great, and the campus was beautiful too. This year they provided a catered lunch (a build-your-own sandwich and salad bar), which was pretty nice because I again stayed 99% vegan (another accidental bite of something that turned out to contain cheese).

My talk wasn’t until 5pm, but after lunch I found myself too nervous to sit down and listen to the other presentations. I walked around campus with some of my friends and then went back into the lecture hall about an hour before I was scheduled to go on. Normally I am not that nervous about public speaking. I used to give presentations without even using notes—I’d just get up there and talk. I don’t know what’s happened to me lately: this time I had written down every single word and read the whole thing over about a million times. As I sat there waiting to go on, I was pretty much freaking out. I had tunnel vision. It was freezing in the room (and I’d been ice cold all day) but suddenly my blood was boiling from within (on the plus side: my feet felt warm for the first time since we left Nicaragua). What I was most afraid of was questions. Giving the talk would be fine; I knew what to say. But afterwards when there was time for questions, I had no idea what people would ask. The trouble with questions at academic conferences or following talks like this is that often the asker of the question isn’t really asking a question, but rather trying to show if his or her own knowledge. So these types of "questions" are very difficult to answer. Plus, if it was something that I knew the answer to, I would probably have thought about it and discussed it in the talk. Chances are, whatever people decided to ask me would be something I’d never heard of before and had no idea how to respond to. I’d have to think of something intelligent to say quickly, in front of a roomful of people. That is what I was scared of.

Staggering with my tunnel vision, I made my way to the podium and began my talk. “The weaning period is a time of ecological risk for mammalian juveniles…” My voice sounded wobbly, and I really wanted a drink of water (but hadn’t brought any up with me to the podium). A couple times during the talk I saw Prof. Pablo out in the audience, scribbling something down in his notebook. I’m screwed, I thought. He’s going to ask me something incredibly obvious that I have no clue how to answer. I had no choice but to forge onward, and soon enough I finished the talk. There was brief, polite applause and the moderator asked if there were any questions. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. Nobody moved. It was 5pm and everyone was tired. Finally, Pablo raised his hand. Here it comes, I thought grimly. But all he asked was something very simple that I was able to answer quite concisely. And that was it. Nobody else asked anything. It was over!

It was a relief that no one asked me a question I couldn’t answer, but the lack of response to my presentation might also indicate that they thought it was lame. Maybe it was; its hard to tell. Afterwards a few people came up to me to talk in more detail, which was encouraging.

I’m glad to have done this, and I’m also glad its over. Considering how nervous I got just before the talk, I’m really glad I opted for a poster presentation at the large national meetings this spring. Plenty of people who suck even worse than I do give talks at the big meetings, but maybe its better until I have something that will result a standing ovation, making people weep with tears of joy and bringing about a whole new world order. I guess it might take a few years yet.

At any rate, life goes on. I’m pleased to have the talk behind me and to have remained 99% vegan at the conference without starving to death. My diet wasn’t so great the past few days, but I still managed to do a 15-mile training run this morning with no difficulty. RB is hopefully on the plane on his way home from the triathlon. We spoke briefly, and it sounds like he did really well and had a great experience overall. I can’t wait to pick him up at the airport tonight and hear more about it. I’m sure he’ll blog about it, so we’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My last nerve

If I had slept worth a darn last night, I could say that I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Cortisol and norepinephrine started coursing through my veins yesterday afternoon when I went to a meeting in the department about the job application process. The room wasn’t packed or anything, but at one point, SL did hold up a copy of my CV as an example of what not to do and say, “See, Melissa’s CV just isn’t very pretty.” It needs to be eye-catching, but not to the Legally Blonde level of being printed on pink, scented paper. At any rate, that wasn’t the worst part of the meeting. Various faculty members were there, sharing their experiences (most of them unfortunate) on the job market. I think SL said he applied for over 70 jobs before he got one. He once got rejected from a job he didn’t even apply for. All of this is terrifying to me. SL is a big name in the field. At the same stage that I’m in now, he’d done a million more things than me. Given his level of difficulty in finding a job, I don’t have a prayer. When there are 120 applicants for 1 job, you need a hell of a lot more than a pretty CV to make yourself stand out. If I had taken my blood pressure when I got home from the meeting, it might have actually been at the “normal” level rather than the 85 over 60 that it usually is.

I dealt with this stress by running over to Meadowbrook Park, as I always do on Tuesday nights, to join the other members of our running club for a weekly fun run. On my way home, I almost died. Seriously. Its not going to be long before somebody dies at the four-way stop at Race and Windsor—I just hope its not me. Rob doesn’t believe me when I tell him of the difficulty I have at that intersection, but I promise I am not embellishing this. Its ridiculous to have a 4-way stop on a road where the speed limit is 45mph (actually I think it drops to 35mph by the park, but drivers rarely observe that). I don’t know if there is just more traffic on this road than previously or not, but it has been growing increasingly hazardous to cross there. If the West-bound guy comes to a stop (as is legally required) and seems to be letting you cross (as it is your turn), the East-bound guy will undoubtedly barrel through, causing your life to flash before your eyes in the middle of the intersection. I love running at Meadowbrook Park, but it is becoming more and more unpleasant to get there and back. Last night as I was running home, I carefully timed my crossing, waited my turn, etc, but just as I set out across the intersection, an east-bound car of 2 college aged boys decided not to even stop at the stop sign. I think that seeing me in the intersection actually made them realize they were supposed to stop, and all of a sudden I heard screeching brakes and felt the heat of a car stopping about a foot and half from my legs. To which I replied “JESUS, THERE IS A #$%^&* STOP SIGN HERE,” but they didn’t even look at me.

I was shaking for the remaining 1.3 miles home. When I got here, there was a pile of tomatoes on the front step: a gift from SL’s garden. A small act of kindness that momentarily stopped my blood from boiling after the near-death experience.

Today I still feel like my last nerve is just about frayed. I found out that SpanishPod, the Spanish podcast I listen to while running, is no longer going to be offered for free on iTunes. I am really bummed about that, because after 8 months of listening to it, I got totally hooked. I’m not sure I actually learn enough from it to pay for a subscription though. Plus they’ve got somebody new doing some of the podcasts who has a voice I can’t stand, so whenever he/she (?) is doing the lesson, I can’t listen to it.

My bad mood has prevented me from getting any real work done today, which is unfortunate since I’m leaving for a conference later in the week and won’t get anything done for several days after that. There is some kind of construction/home repair project going on down the street and there’s a big truck out there that keeps backing up and going “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.” It is about to drive me insane. It will be quiet for about 30 seconds, then “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP,” until I almost hurl myself from the window. Needless to say, I decided to blog my frustrations for a minute here until I can clear my head and get back to my latest dissertation chapter: “Population dynamics and seasonality of mantled howler monkeys on La Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua.”

Ugh. Thanks for reading.

P.S. Charlotte's babies are still out there in the web. They're a little bit bigger.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ike and Charlotte

We’ve had heavy rain the last several days, which is fallout from Hurricane Ike. I’ve heard that my Texas cousins survived the hurricane with some damage to their home, but there’s no telling when power and water (other than that flooding the streets) will be restored.

Given all of this, I knew I wasn’t justified to complain about doing a 20-mile marathon training run in the rain. Though I did spend a bit of time cursing myself for having already signed up for the Indianapolis Marathon (on November 1) and thus locking myself into a training schedule. I spent most of the day Sunday trying to wait out the rain, and then I finally set off into the misty air around 3pm. I wasn’t thrilled with starting a 20-mile run so late in the day (its generally best to do it first thing in the morning), but luckily, Rob decided to go with me for the first 6 miles. We started out by going through Crystal Lake Park (which is, incidentally, where Rob asked me to marry him almost 9 years ago to the day). I pointed out that there were barricades at the park entrance, to which Rob replied “Those are just for cars,” and we threaded our way through them. It crossed my mind that the barricades might be up because of flooding (Urbana, having been built upon a swamp, floods at the slightest indication of rain). During our first loop through the park, my suspicion of flooding was confirmed when we got to the back stretch, which was completely filled in with water at least up to mid-calf. Wanting to avoid running a remaining 17 miles with soggy, 10-pound-each shoes, I skirted quite a ways into the woods to avoid the swollen lake.

Rob headed back home after the first 6 miles, which left me to do 14 on my own. It wasn’t really that bad: I’ve definitely had worse 20-milers. I spent the whole time listening to back-episodes of Dr. Monte’s “Fitness Rocks” podcast—which is actually really great, and I highly recommend it. I felt pretty much okay for the whole run, despite the alleged 36-mph windgusts from the WNW (it was windy, but I really don’t think it was that windy). During the last couple of miles, my knees hurt a lot—which is I suppose the price you pay for being an old lady and trying to do a 20-miler all on concrete sidewalks (concrete is most unforgiving to the joints). The worst thing that happened was just about 2 blocks from home at the end of the run, I ran face first into a low-hanging tree branch outside of a frat house. It was because one of the frat boys had so considerately parked his giant gas-guzzling F-150 on the driveway, completely blocking the sidewalk. Sometimes in a state of glycogen depletion, one’s brain does not properly recall the laws of physics, so as I skirted the truck and saw an impending tree branch, it seemed that I could avoid it without even ducking… and then 2 seconds later, it hit me in the face. I wasn’t hurt, but I’m sure all the frat boys inside must have found this uproarious.

All summer long there has been this skuzzy little spider living outside our northwest window. I’ve kept my eye on her and her skuzzy little web, all the while wondering how she’s managing to subsist because I never saw any bugs trapped in her web. At some point a few weeks ago, I noticed what at first appeared to be some type of debris in the web, but I later surmised that it was an egg sac. Sure enough, there were eventually several dozen teeny tiny spiders to emerge. And I do mean teeny tiny. At first I thought they were grains of pollen or dust, but after standing at the window for a few minutes, I realized that they were microscopic spider babies. Charlotte (as I began to call her) was a mother. The next day there were much fewer babies and the day after that, there were none. I narrowed my eyes as I scrutinized Charlotte, with her suddenly bulging belly. I know next to nothing about spider life history (primates are my thing), but I suspected that Charlotte may have eaten her babies. Since I couldn’t prove it, I let her continue to live outside the northwest window. Then one day there was another egg sac. Poor Charlotte began to look even more and more skuzzy. By Saturday, she was this pitiful skinny little thing. And on Sunday morning, she was gone. But lo and behold, the second clutch of baby spiders had hatched. This time, I wonder if the babies might have eaten their mom, but again, I don’t really know anything about spiders. I’m a little worried about them though—being the size of a grain of dust, I don’t think that even if an errant insect flew into the dilapidated web that they could even do anything.

This is so different from the mammalian pattern of development (which is pretty much what my dissertation is about), that I am very interested in how it pans out. As I sit here writing about the toughness of leaves that the monkeys ate in January and how baby monkeys need mommas who eat well, I keep running over to the window to see how these motherless spider nymphs are doing.

Speaking of which, I’d better get back to my dissertation. Here are a few pictures before I go (Jodi if you’re reading, don’t worry—there are no pictures of Charlotte).

Flowers I got at the Farmer's Market on Saturday

Now that Charlotte's gone, this ladybug might have to be my new pet.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Rob took the train up to Chicago this weekend for a conference. He rode his folding bike (the Pocket Rocket) over to the train station, folded it up, and got on the train. I guess when he arrived in Chicago, he unfolded his bike and rode to the conference. Rob isn’t one to mince words, so he hadn’t told me much about all this before he left. My impression is that what was most intriguing to him about the whole process was doing it all by bike and train. Maybe he’ll write about it on his blog and let us know how it went.

Left on my own this weekend, I drove the car (Iris) to Peoria to run the Illinois Valley Striders Half Marathon and see my family. I arrived on Friday afternoon and had my mom (a hairdresser) cut about 8 inches off of my hair. My original plan had been to donate my hair to one of the charities that makes wigs for women who have lost their hair after chemo, but my mom didn’t think my hair was quite long enough. Once I’d decided that I wanted my hair cut though, there was no turning back. So I went ahead and had her cut my hair, even though I didn’t donate it anywhere. This is the first time in about 4 years my hair hasn’t been long enough to wear in a ponytail; its going to take some getting-used-to!

Saturday was the big day. My friend Joshenski was in town visiting his family in P-town too, and we had big plans to meet for coffee just like old times. The only difference would be that we hadn’t seen each other in almost 10 years. I still can’t believe so much time has passed. I’m not really sure how Josh and I became friends back in high school. One day he was just there, and after that, we were always riding around in his car—chewing cinnamon gum, going to visit my aunt and her beanie-baby collection (it was very popular to collect beanie babies at the time), having tangerines on our Seder plates. Our friendship worked out well at lunchtime too: whenever he got Pop-Tarts from the vending machine, he would give me the crusts—which were my favorite part, and his least favorite part. He was also there one of the only times I ever got in trouble at school. We had to take this totally lame class called something like “Resource Management,” where they taught you how to balance a checkbook and warned against the dangers of credit cards. At some point during the semester, we had a guest speaker come to our class and talk about the DeVry Institute, which I found so pointless that I spent the whole time reading Dr. Zhivago (the book I had selected for my term paper in English class). Dr. Zhivago wasn’t really any more interesting than hearing about the DeVry Institute, but at least I was getting work done. Unfortunately, I also got a stern warning for being disrespectful to the DeVry Institute speaker by doing homework while she was talking. As I recall, Josh thought this was hilarious (actually, it was hilarious). I started calling him Joshenshki after that because all the characters in Dr. Zhivago had names that ended in “ski” somehow. I’m not sure that he liked being called Joshenski, but he never complained.

I never really thought we would grow up, get old, and not see each other again. But these things happen. You graduate, go to colleges in different states, make new friends and new memories. You go one day without talking, then a week without talking, you eventually lose each other’s email addresses, and all of a sudden you wake up and its been 10 years. One day I was on Facebook, seriously contemplating canceling my account because 1) Facebook is lame –and- 2) there are people I really really don’t want to find on Facebook, and then out of the blue, Josh’s name popped up. I sent him a message that said something like, “Joshenski, is that you” and of course it was, so we started emailing each other again and catching up on the last 10 years. We discovered that we were both planning on visiting our families in P-town this weekend, so we made plans to have coffee at one of our old stomping grounds. We pretty much picked up right where we left off. Our tentative plan is to see each other again before another 10 years has passed!

Joshenski was friends with me back when I was this wanna-be hippie writer poet chick who was afraid of everything, especially spiders. I guess I am still afraid of everything, but not actually spiders so much.

On Sunday, I got up bright and early (actually, dark and early) and went to Glen Oak Park to run the half marathon. It was going to be a little weird for me to do a half marathon without Rob being there to cheer me on, but I needed to get in some miles this weekend. The weather was gorgeous (not too hot, not too cold), but the course was hell of hilly. I knew that going into it though, so the hills were no surprise. After living in the flatlands of Urbana for more than a decade, P-town seems like veritable hill country to me. The half-marathon was two loops around a 6.55 mile course. During the first loop, the hills didn’t bother me too much, but during the second loop, those same hills were so much harder and they slowed me down a lot. I can’t complain though. My finishing time was 1.46.27, which isn’t breaking any world records, but is 3 whole minutes faster than my abominably abysmal run at the Mahomet half marathon just 2 weeks ago. It was so bad that I didn’t even blog about it. Back in the day, I was running half marathons in around 1.43, and I have been more than a little depressed that I’ve become too old and fat and slow to be a runner anymore. I’m still not back to my former glory, but at least I’m moving in the right direction. I’ll just keep at it until I redeem myself.

Smiling at mile 6.5; its too small to see, but I am wearing my Bitch Socks.

My mom always takes a picture of me as I'm driving away. I'm not sure why.

Alright. Got to go. RB and his folding bike finally made it home from the trip, so I’ll have to go see what he has to say about it! Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My favorite book of all times

I’ve been immersed in my data the last couple weeks and have also doing a lot of reading on everything from maternal investment, the evolution of lactation, birth seasonality in mammals, and parent-offspring conflict in order to make sense of my results. Its shaping up to be pretty interesting, I think.

Over Labor Day weekend, I needed a bit of a break from academics and I happened to come across my copy of Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy. The last time I read this book must have been about 10 years ago. In a way, it was almost like reading it for the first time again, but also it was all strangely familiar. I didn’t really have to get to know the characters all over again, because I’ve already known them for a long time. But I’d forgotten so much of what had happened in the book that I was glued to it and could barely put it down. Its a really nice way to read a book. Very bittersweet and sad-but-hopeful—which are things that I love in a book but perhaps less so in real life.

I used to be an avid reader but haven’t had much time for fiction in grad school. Except of course for last year, when I was in the field and had nothing to do other than watch the monkeys. I read dozens of books over the year, and I realized that I have really discriminating tastes when it comes to literature. I tried some books that friends had recommended, but I often found them lame or disappointing (the books, not the friends) and was sometimes left with the distinct impression that I could write something better. The best book, by far, that I read all year in Nicaragua was Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. Everyone had told me that her other book, The Poisionwood Bible was amazing. I liked that one too, but still, nothing compared to The Bean Trees. I decided that it was the best book ever written.

I’d forgotten about Circle of Friends though. Its going to have to be at least a tie. Circle of Friends broke a few of my cardinal rules—it is written in the third person, and it has the odd habit of telling you what a character’s traits are (ie, “Nan was cool and distant”) rather than describing it in a way that simply leads you to that conclusion yourself. I usually find both of these things to be annoying. But not this time. Its at least a tie for the Best Book of All Times. What makes it so good is that somehow this book tells my story, even though I don’t seem to have much in common with the main character—an overweight girl growing up Catholic in Ireland in the 1950’s. I can’t stop thinking about this book since I’ve finished it, and I have more than half-considered just picking it up and reading it all over again.

At any rate, I’m going back to Knockglen… I mean P-town… this weekend to visit with my family, run a half-marathon, and see an old friend. Will write more later, thanks for reading.