Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A Wet Day in Austin - or - How To Take Your Mind Off Giving Your First Conference Talk.

The day following my second experimental delivery of my ‘Got Stories’ conference talk was Thursday, CD-2. We spent it with another set of friends in Austin. They live by Lake Travis, a reservoir of the Colorado River that was formed in 1942.
Lake Travis
The weather was once again hot and sunny (yes, I know the post is titled “A Wet Day” – be patient, we’ll get to that!) and we had the air-con on full blast as we drove along MoPac. Following the instructions our friends had given us, we soon reached their house. I had formed the impression that you could see the lake from where they lived, but when we got there, I found you couldn’t. That very slight disappointment was immediately dispelled by the great welcome we received, both from our friends, and their three dogs.

Once the greetings were over and the dogs had all been fussed and played with, we sat in the yard, shooting the breeze and enjoying ice-cold drinks. The conversation turned to animals, mainly because I was interested to know what kind of wild critters they got in their yard. With a sideways look, I was asked if I liked spiders. Fortunately I do – they fascinate me – and I was delighted when I was led to a portion of the front yard and introduced to the resident tarantula. Well its hole, anyway. Apparently I just missed seeing its legs disappearing down the web-lined tunnel. Disappointing! There was a shed skin lying nearby, though, which showed that the spider in question was pretty sizable. It didn’t make another appearance, much to my annoyance, probably because the dogs were there. Apparently, they enjoyed catching and crunching tarantulas!

At lunchtime, our friends took us to Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse. http://poodies.net/ Boy – what a place that is! Willie Nelson used to be a regular visitor, and they still have live music every day of the week. It was pretty quiet when we were there because it was lunchtime, but there was still a wonderful atmosphere. The food was delicious – best hamburger I have ever had!

Ok-now comes the “wet” bit. Our friends own a speedboat that they keep on the Lake and they had offered to take us out on it for the afternoon. I was really looking forward to this, especially as the weather was so hot. We changed into our swimmers, loaded up with cold cans, and drove up to the Lake. I was amazed to find that it was only about half full, because there hadn’t been enough rainfall for a couple of years. Where we parked the car, its roof would have been underwater had the lake been at its normal level. We took the cool box and approached the covered pontoons where the small boats were moored. I saw that they have this really neat system for storing the speedboats out of the water without actually taking them away from their moorings. At each berth, a cradle sits in the water, and the boat sits within the cradle. Big floats are attached to either side of the cradle, with an electric motor to inflate or deflate them. When you want to use the boat, you press a button and the motor extracts the air, allowing the boat to settle into the water. You then drive it out, and go whizzing away down the lake. When you return, you simply do the opposite. Very effective!

Cradle and float system for storing boats

Once the boat was safely in the water, Dave and I got in and our trip began. Lake Travis is huge and our friends gave us a high-speed tour of their end of it. There were some other boats around, and we had fun with the waves they made, bouncing the speedboat high over them. But there were also plenty of quiet places had we wanted to stop and swim. The spray from our progress was very refreshing, so no one minded when we all got wet!

Having fun on Lake Travis.
Having taken in the guided tour, we decided it was definitely time to stop and cool off in the inviting blue water. We found a good place to drop the anchor, and once the engine noise died away, it was beautifully peaceful. Cans were lined up on the back of the boat, and one by one, we slipped into the water. I was last, because although the weather was hot, I knew the water temperature wasn’t. Finally, after suffering the taunts of my delightful husband and our friends, I knew I just had to grit my teeth and jump in. I only wish I’d remembered to take my sunglasses off first!

For the next hour or so we bobbed lazily about in the water. Although we could all swim, we had lifejackets on, because that made it easier to relax in the water and enjoy a cold can. We soon discovered that we had chosen a great spot to anchor because there were zip lines on the shore. One of these came right over the water above our heads, and we had lots of fun watching the various parties of people using them. Some were really enjoying the experience, while others were clearly terrified!  

To round off a lovely day and to say ‘thank you’ to our friends, we bought them a nice supper in a Red Lobster restaurant. We did most of our packing that night too, because the next day we were driving back to Houston to catch our flight to Salt Lake City. The conference was only one more day away!

Sunset over Lake Travis.

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!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

How to Experiment on Your Friends #1

In my last post, I said I would let you know how my first ‘public’ run-through of my Rhemalda Publishing ‘Got Stories?’ conference talk went. I was pretty nervous, even though I would be delivering it to good friends. Apart from a few poetry-reading competitions at school (years ago now!), and my little talk at the King’s Envoy book launch last year, I hadn’t done any speaking in front of an audience. The poetry competitions were not too stressful because I was only reading what was printed on a page. And the talk I gave at the book launch was pretty easy too, because I was only telling people about myself and my writing. But at the conference, it would be different. I would be putting myself up as someone qualified to give advice to other writers – advice that might actually be used. How scary is that? I felt it was a huge responsibility, and something I had to take seriously. Yet I also wanted to keep it lighthearted, and hopefully, fun. For me, as well as my audience!
In that respect, I had the best helper anyone could wish for. Not only does my husband Dave have a mischievous sense of humor, he is also experienced in giving talks like these. He had helped me put together a series of slides to illustrate my talk, and had also sometimes helped me see things from a different angle. So far, so good. But although I was happy with the slides and the headings I’d chosen, and also the text I’d written, I hadn’t yet put them all together in front of an unsuspecting yet expectant audience.

On the day I’d chosen to deliver my maiden speech, we spent a very enjoyable time in Houston. We went out in the car and my husband showed me all the places he’d worked when he’d been there on business. For those who have never seen it, Houston is VAST – over 6 million people live there, I was told. I had expected the place to be rather industrial and not very attractive, but I was pleasantly surprised. Much of the newer architecture is in an older style, and lends the city an almost quaint atmosphere. After some welcome lunch we visited the new Hall of Paleontology in the Museum of Natural Science (awesome!) as well as the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals. Stopping off for refreshing margaritas ended this excursion on a suitably alcoholic note. Well, a bit of Dutch courage never went amiss!
Hiding in the shade waiting for supper to cook!

After yet another delicious meal in Dave and Janet’s back yard (yes, sitting inside the sprinklers again!) I could put it off no longer. Gathering my notes in one hand and my courage in the other, I prepared to enter the lion’s den.

I had asked my friends to be critical, and to let me know if I needed to alter anything about my talk. I watched them while I delivered it (trying hard not to actually read my notes and mainly failing) and was pleased when I got either a smile or even a laugh in the right place. Whoo-hoo, I thought – this is going well! Until I finished, of course. No, I have to be fair. The talk did go well, and my audience was appreciative. I was pretty pleased. But once we began the post-mortem, it became clear that changes would have to be made. For one thing, the talk was too long. Rhemalda wanted 15-20 minutes, and I had gone on for around 35 minutes. I also had too many slides and too many small headings. Something would have to be CUT!!
But that would have to wait until we got to our next set of friends, who lived in Austin. They, I knew, would have a computer that I could load my talk and slides on to, and a printer so I could print out my new, improved – and shortened! – talk. Little did I know things would not turn out so simple!   

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Build-up to a Fantastic Conference!

 Today I’m posting the first of a short series of blogs surrounding my attendance at the Rhemalda Publishing ‘Got Stories?’ conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 16th 2012. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life so far, but more of that later.

 When I first learned of the conference from Rhemalda, my immediate thought was – “I have to be there!” My second thought was – “Can I afford to be there?” After all, it’s a long way from the UK to Utah, and it would incur a certain amount of expense. My third thought, however, (and this was the clincher) was – “Can I afford not to be there?” The answer to this turned out to be a resounding “No!” so the decision was made.

Much of my strong desire to attend the conference stemmed from a slight feeling of disconnect from Rhemalda and my fellow authors. I felt such a long way away from everything, being in the UK. This was silly, really, because the US is such a huge country and many of my fellow authors hadn’t had the opportunity to meet face to face with Rhett and Emmaline either. This conference would give those of us who could make it a wonderful chance to put actual people to the Facebook profiles, email messages, and grainy, intermittent Skype images that was all we’d had to work with so far. I knew I would forever regret it (and be extremely jealous of those who did attend!) if I didn’t manage to go.

After a conversation with my lovely husband Dave, who often travelled to the States on business in the past but rarely does so now, we agreed on a schedule for our visit. We have several sets of friends in the US, and as it would be silly not to include as many of them on this trip as we could, we decided to fly out the Sunday before the conference and spend a few days relaxing. It wasn’t easy as we had to organize our flights, hire cars, dates and times around when our friends could be free, but we finally achieved the juggling act. We settled on flying from London Heathrow (our nearest airport) into Houston, where we would stay with our first set of friends. Dave has often described Houston to me but I had never been there, so I was looking forward to seeing the place and where he used to work.

I am not a big fan of flying because I often suffer from motion-sickness. If I get it bad, it can affect me for two or three days, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy our visits. But as we had decided to make the most of this US trip, and had booked some holiday after the conference as well as before it, we had also decided to fly out in more comfort than usual. Yes, we were going Business Class!!

The plane was a Boeing 777, and the Business Class end was even more comfortable than I had anticipated. I’ve never yet been able to sleep on a plane and the allure of fully-reclining seats was a strong one. I felt I was being cocooned in a little individual pod of comfort and once I settled myself in, I actually began to feel excited about being on a plane. Big change for me!

The 9 hour flight went extremely well. There was hardly any turbulence (which is usually what sets off my motion-sickness), the seat was ridiculously comfortable, the food and service were excellent, and the personal entertainment center had more TV shows, movies, music shows, and games than even a ten-year-old child could exhaust. Plus I had my Kindle, and had recently started reading Karen Amanda Hooper’s Tangled Tides. What more could I wish for?

We landed in hot and humid Houston (it was around 99°, whereas the UK had been about 16° and drizzly!) at around 1.30 pm. That’s 7 pm UK time. We collected our hire car, a black Ford Escape with thankfully efficient air-con, and drove to the district of Houston where our first set of friends lived.

We had already decided to try staying awake until 9 or 10 pm, so we could acclimatize as quickly as possible. Our friends helped enormously by providing us with a fabulous supper in their garden, although I only survived the temperature by sitting right next to, and sometimes actually inside, the spray from their garden sprinkler, and we retired to our very comfortable guest room feeling no more than slightly wearier than usual. I slept well although I did have minor anxieties, because I’d asked our friends if next day they would listen to and comment on the talk I intended to give at the conference: Fantasy World Building. I knew they’d be gentle with me, but I was still dreading how it might go.

Find out how it went in my next post. J