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!

1 comment:

Logan's Mama said...

Congratulations on a successful talk and 15 mile training run! And all accomplished on low blood sugar, too, from what it sounds like... Glad that you are back home to refuel yourself. We'll look forward to hearing more on the impact of seasonality on the evolution of the mantled howler weaning pattern as the data unfold...