The backstory of a touching moment at ScienceOnline2012

The SXSW and Burning Man of science communication conferences.

The past weekend saw about 457 science communicators of various venues, ages, and ethnicities gather together at the McKimmon Center of North Carolina State University for ScienceOnline2012. Many pixels have been and will be spilled on the unusual nature of this unconference, one with an environment that many of us thought would exist in academic research: mutual support, sharing, acceptance.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science was first out of the gate with a quick and sharp overview of what makes this conference so special, beyond the topics discussed, reiterating his description from last year:

You spend four days in a mental endurance event set in a parallel universe that’s largely similar to this one, except for the fact that all conversations are interesting.

Indeed, I had the chance to revisit with old friends, make new ones, and participate in a community of writers, teachers, filmmakers, and artists who come together and share and teach the best they each have to offer. And the robust discussion, again, just as I expected from academia: respectfully challenging one another even when we disagree, all with the intention of improving the communication of science and engaging anyone interested in appreciating the wonder the world (and distant worlds!) have to offer.

As a local North Carolinian, I generally assist the co-organizers (Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic, and Karyn Traphagen) on a small number of auxiliary activities to show some down-home hospitality to our guests. My minimal contributions were primarily to arrange the Wine Authorities red and white selections for the Friday banquet and working at the new day job on the reception at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and the new Nature Research Center.

But I was truly excited to help Deep Sea News editor and marine biologist Kevin Zelnio and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg with a somewhat-more-formal-than-before open mic/talent show at Napper Tandy’s pub in Raleigh (thanks to manager Jen Labenz!).

As it happens when writing for the US newspaper of record, Charles got tied up at the Times because a story he’d been working on for nine months had been scheduled for publication on Sunday the 22nd (Page One, baby!). This meant that Kev and I were in charge – although we are incredibly grateful for the support of Random House, publisher of Duhigg’s upcoming book, The Power of Habit.

Zelnio (left) and yours truly knocking it out at the ScienceOnline2012 Open Mic night, Napper Tandy's Pub, Raleigh, NC. Thoughtful composition by photographer and blogger, Colin Schultz.

Frankly, it was a mess for me. My road vehicle, a ten-year-old Subaru Outback, was dead and I had to rent an SUV to transport by music gear and some rented PA stuff the 30 miles from Durham to Raleigh. I got everything set up while folks were at the sessions then hurried back to the Museum for talks and tours before rushing back to the bar – such is just one story of the folks in the conference town, a story repeated with far greater effort by a good dozen of my local colleagues.

Despite a well-planned wiki started by Zelnio, the open mic took on a life of its own.

Kevin opened with a version of Bruce Springsteen’s, Atlantic City, while I putzed around with the rented PA trying to balance between volume and feedback (I learned later that a full stage of performers allowed great volume with no feedback).

I then pulled out my heavenly 1980 Fender Strat, a metallic blue icon of the New Wave era that my folks had gotten me for Christmas 30 years earlier. I pumped out a quick three songs including my ode to ScienceOnline co-founder Anton Zuiker that I wrote last year in honor of his 10th anniversary of blogging.

A few other folks played – they’ll add their names later since we didn’t follow the wiki order.

But that’s when the magic started, as captured by my now dear Colorado friend, Emily Willingham, in her post last night entitled, “ScienceOnline2012: A touching moment.” Emily’s beautiful writing conveys the spirit of the conference with the microcosm of the open mic night. To my surprise, I was a player in this moment.

Marine biologist, science writer, and musician Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie, Science Sushi at Scientific American Blogs) was taking the stage and I was her roadie and sound technician.

Wait. If you haven’t read Emily’s post, go read it now before going further here.

The backstory

This is where my post should otherwise start.

Late last October, Christie had written a blog post in the immediate anguish of a relationship breakup. In trying to process the neuroscience behind her autonomic symptoms, she did what all good suffering people should do if they could.

She wrote a song. (MP3 here).

While getting our shit together, Emily observed this:

But at this conference, everyone spoke. And everyone listened. The level of respect and caring was, really, like nothing I’ve ever seen, much less among a group of 450 people, many of whom were experiencing one another’s physical presence for the first time. It seems like an overstatement, but just as an example, in a session I moderated, I think that every single person attending spoke, offered an opinion, engaged in the discussion with passion and candor but also with respect. And in any session, even if not all voices could fit in, Twitter offered an oft-used outlet for voicing blunt opinions. For whatever reason, we were all comfortable enough among ourselves to say what we really thought, freely…and is there any greater relief for a writer?

And some of us took bravery a step further, beyond putting ourselves out there with our words. Some of us got up on stage in front of what must be among the most critical and critical thinking people on Earth. Some of us–not me–got up there anyway and sang hearts out at the open mic night. Maybe some were off key (ahem…ocean bloggers?)…maybe some sang very, very quietly. Many forgot the words, the chord progression, their drink. Yet they did it, trusting in their audience not to troll them, not to take advantage of that vulnerability, not to fuck with them.

And as I stood there, hoarse, tired, overbeered, and left only with my eyes to function, I felt that acceptance all around me and saw that moment, the key for me: as the woman scientist and science writer performer indicated she was ready to start, the Science Online luminary helping her reached out and very, very gently and comfortingly, briefly touched her arm in a natural and familial gesture of support. That was it. That was The Moment.

You see, I had read Christie’s post back then. Several times in my life, I felt the gut-wrenching pain she tried to describe in neurochemical terms.

In fact, I had just performed, “Oceans of Regret,” a Song-For-The-Dumped that I had written right about the time I was Christie’s age. The version at my ReverbNation page is one I recorded in 2001 with my Denver band, Dogs in the Yard.

So as Christie was getting set up and we were adjusting the vocal and instrument microphones, I told her how much I admired her bravery in writing her song, “Lie Alone,” and sharing it immediately with blog readers, including the MP3 file and the complete lyrics. As Emily says, that takes some ovaries.

So when I asked her what she was going to start with, she told me it would be that very song.

Christie Wilcox, Napper Tandy's Pub, Raleigh, NC, 19 January 2012. Credit: Russ Creech @russcreech

This is a woman who has a huge repertoire of original and cover songs. She could’ve chosen any others. But there, in front of her most trusted friends – all 200 or so – she chose to bare her soul in public beyond what she had already shared by pressing “publish” on her blog dashboard.

And that y’all is why I, “reached out and very, very gently and comfortingly, briefly touched her arm in a natural and familial gesture of support.”

A gesture of musical camaraderie.

A gesture of respect.

A gesture of siblinghood.

And a gesture to honor her experience of one of life’s most personal and universal of setbacks, one to which she responded by fearlessly sharing the pain in her soul, knowing the anguish was such that even the most scientific of rationalizations could not blunt.

Now THAT, my friends, takes steel ovaries.

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4 Responses to The backstory of a touching moment at ScienceOnline2012

  1. Now I have tears. That was lovely. I had suspected that the song she sang was *that song*. Brave, indeed.

  2. Anton Zuiker says:

    Beautiful, and thank you for reaching out to Christie, and me, and so many others through your music.

  3. Pingback: More science communication goodies in the wake of ScienceOnline2012 | Code for Life

  4. Awww. I got a sudden and strange case of performance anxiety, but I was definitely cheering from the sidelines when I heard Christie start singing her song, and I loved watching everybody get up and do their thing together.