Friday, 27 July 2012

How to Experiment on Your Friends #2 - or - What NOT to do Four Days Before Your First Conference

Dale Whistler’s “Night Wings” Austin.

We woke on Tuesday CD-5 (Conference Day minus 5) to yet more hot, sunny, humid weather. (Damn!) Today, we were bidding farewell to our friends Dave and Janet in Houston and embarking on the 3 hours or so drive to Austin. After a delicious breakfast of cinnamon toast (why have I never discovered cinnamon toast before?– yumm-ee!) we loaded the black Ford Escape and backed out of our friends’ drive. Dave was at the wheel and I planned to relieve him later, probably after a comfort break somewhere along the road.

My husband is blessed with a fine sense of direction – something he has developed through working with maps in his job as a geophysicist. Even when the sun isn’t shining, he always knows what direction he’s facing, and he only has to glance at a roadmap once to remember what route to take. So, it was with a minimum of fuss that we found ourselves on I-290 heading toward Austin.

The traffic was light and the road was easy. The scenery was pleasant rather than spectacular, with lots of ranches, grass, cattle and some wildflowers. We were too late to see the Texas Bluebonnets, unfortunately, but there was still color along the roadside. We stopped for gas and a rest at Giddings, and I took the wheel. I’ve driven in the States before, and we also once lived in Italy for three years, so driving on the wrong (!) side of the road holds no terrors for me. US drivers are mainly courteous, law-abiding and forgiving, and if you can survive Italian roads (which I LOVE) you can survive anything, so we continued calmly on our way. I did hand the car back to Dave before we entered Austin though – I’m not so good in unfamiliar cities!

We had left Houston a bit earlier than expected, and so arrived in the city of Austin before lunchtime. After trying unsuccessfully – and frustratingly – to find somewhere to sit and eat a sandwich along the Colorado River (plenty of parks and jogging tracks, but nowhere obvious to stop with a car) we finally parked close to the Government building, and ended up eating in an Irish Pub. The food was good, and there was a very nice atmosphere, but it did seem odd coming all the way to Austin Texas only to eat in an Irish pub!

After lunch we found the home of our next set of friends easily enough, following the instructions they had given us. We settled into the lovely guest room they had prepared for us and relaxed over a drink. I made my request for access to their computer and printer, which they very generously granted, and offered to repay them by delivering the new-and-improved version of my conference talk. They had the extreme good grace to look appreciative. But before that came the Great Bat Watch That Wasn’t.

In Austin, as we had learned from our friends in Houston, the Congress Avenue Bridge houses a huge colony of Mexican Free-Tail bats. I love bats, and this seemed like a great opportunity to see the colony. Our friends agreed, and so after taking us to supper in the Hyatt in town, we walked the short distance to Congress Avenue Bridge. There we waited for darkness, hoping to see millions of bats stream out over our heads.

 Waiting for the bats under Congress Avenue Bridge.
To cut a long story short – it was the wrong time of year. The mother bats give birth in June, and the babies were too young to fly. The mothers stay close when their pups are that small, so all we saw were a few bats reflected in the infra-red lights of the trip boats which sit under the bridge. That, and Dale Whistler’s impressive “Night Wings” bat sculpture at one end of the bridge. Oh well, maybe another year!

The day following our unsuccessful bat stalk, our friends took us to the beautiful Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre run by the University of Texas. It was another wonderful outing and worthy of a post all by itself. But I need to get back to my conference preparations.

Wildflowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Centre.

Dave and I spent that afternoon working on my talk. We decided which headings I should cut, and which slides. Dave is good at manipulating slide shows – he does it all the time for his own talks. Once we got the time down to what we thought was right, and Dave was happy with my slides, I took the flash drive containing my text into a quiet room so I could concentrate on re-working what I was going to say. I’ll tell you now – it does nothing for a stomach already full of the jitters to find that instead of copying the Word files containing your talk, what you actually copied was only the shortcut off the desktop. I think my shrieks of dismay and horror could probably be heard back in Houston.

Thankfully, I still had my printed notes, the ones I had used on Set of Friends #1. All I had to do was retype the entire thing on this borrowed computer, save the proper files to the flash drive, and print out a new set of notes. God bless our Austin friends Arnie and Margit for supplying me with alcohol and sympathy, as well as the use of their machines, while I tapped away, two-fingered and alone, for most of that afternoon. NOT what I had planned on doing four days before my first ever conference!

I will also say though, that this mini-disaster (well, it felt like disaster at the time) was actually a good thing. Having to re-type the entire talk helped drive the content deeper into my mind. By the time I’d finished typing, I was pretty happy with the text, and when I finally delivered it to our wonderful friends, I was also very happy with their responses. No extra changes were forthcoming – now, it seemed, all I had to do was enjoy the two days of vacation left before Conference Day itself!

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