Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Southern Girl Goes to Skepticon

Skepticon has come and gone . Those of you who were unable to go may already be sick of hearing about it. Fear not - I have pictures for you so you can experience it vicariously. Mind you, these aren't the pictures you're going to see all over the internet. If you want to see the pics of all the famous folk, you can find them most anywhere. I'm going to show you Skepticon through a different perspective - that of a first-time Southern female visitor with a lot of anxiety.

The first thing I noticed is that Arkansas and southeast Missouri are dirt-poor and heavily Christian. Jobs seemed to be very scarce and the homes were in disrepair or completely abandoned. Many of the buildings looked like they didn't make it out of the early 20th century but churches abounded and, with them, so did pro-life signs.


This is the sign that just blew my mind. God's stimulus package? What the ever-living hell does that mean? I can kind of understand the billboards that said, "End Abortion" or "Don't Kill Your Baby" but what is this? I thought red state Christians were against the stimulus any way.

I felt nervous going through these areas, as if every horror flick about a couple on vacation that I'd ever watched was going to come true. If there was a place in the South to make someone disappear, this was it. I was actually glad we didn't have any religious or political stickers on our car.

Once we got to Springfield, however, all that anxiety melted away. We got to the hotel and I instantly fell in love with it. For the Skepticon rate of $89.00 a night, we got a 5th floor room in this beautiful 9-story hotel. All the rooms opened into the interior of the hotel and looked down upon a lounge, bar, water fountain, and restaurant.

Looking up from the bottom floor

Glass elevators



Rock garden surrounding part of the lounge

Fountain separating the lounge and the restaurant

For a small-town Southern girl, this was luxurious! We raced upstairs to our room, eager to get our stuff unpacked and get started. This is the scene from our room:

Springfield, MO

I'd never been to Missouri before, let alone Springfield, so I was taking in everything. While Nathan checked to see if there was a Gideon Bible (I had found a dollar in the last hotel Bible I'd found but there was no Bible in our room), I checked out a laminated paper that was left on our bed.

Hotel Prayer

Ok, it was kind of pretty as generic blessings tend to be. I wondered if this was standard practice or if we just got prayed for because we were with Skepticon. We had a chuckle, took it as a nicety, and got about the business of being skeptical!

We'd gotten a late start due to a delay in picking up my medication that morning so we missed some early talks, especially Matt Dillahunty's talk that I'd really been wanting to hear. We raced across the street to the Expo Center and got in to hear the second half of Greta Christina's talk and to see all of JT Eberhard's talk which ended in a marriage proposal to Michaelyn and had many in tears. I never ceased to be amazed by the sharp minds we have in our community but I must admit that JT's ability to bring things down to earth where even the most stubborn believer can understand it is incredible.

We didn't go to the Gastropub Friday night but we did sit in the lounge and talk to some wonderful people. We were sitting by Matt Dillahunty, Beth Presswood, and Rebecca Watson. You know how you sometimes start seeing these people as larger than life? As heroes or giants that can't be reached? I didn't feel that way at all. They were extremely kind and generous, down-to-earth people. I spoke with Beth for a while and was so impressed with her genuineness. 

Then he walked in. 

Earlier in the day, he had appointed me as the Keymaster on Twitter and told me to prepare the way but there was no way to prepare for his coming.

PZ Myers was in the house...late but fashionably so.

For someone who has such a reputation as being shrill, hateful, and vicious, that man is very gentle, soft-spoken and sincere. We spoke briefly and he said that we should have him down to Mississippi to speak sometime. Somehow, someway, I'm going to make that happen!

The next day we got up early (for me) and headed over to the Expo Center again to mingle, buy some stuff, and listen to some more talks. This is what greeted us at the door:

Credit: Beth Presswood


Talk about stereotypes! I really wouldn't have shown up to protest in overalls. But these protesters seemed to be pretty kind and I overheard one of our crew say, "We're all really nice people." I was glad that they were trying to emphasize our good qualities.



Credit: Meg Rotenberg

I stayed away from this guy because I didn't really want to discuss how I came to be living in "adultery" or why this was the best option for me. I didn't think he'd understand.

We went inside and checked out all the vendors. I bought some stickers and a necklace from EvolveFish as well as some Surly-Ramics from Amy. CFI and the AHA gave out some free goodies. I met Ed Brayton and Debbie Goddard, both long-time heroes of mine as well as some Facebook and Godless guild friends. We talked for so long that we didn't have time to eat a proper lunch. By the time we got seated for Sean Carroll's talk about the Higgs Boson, I was starting to crash. Nevertheless, I learned more about fields and particles in that time with Sean that I ever had.

At this point I had to make a choice: if I stayed for Jessica Ahlquist's talk, I was going to fall asleep and I wouldn't have enough energy to make it to the Gastropub or any talks later that night. I did not want to miss Jessica's talk but I chose to sacrifice that one in order to recharge my batteries. I'll definitely be picking it up on YouTube when it's available!

So after my nap (damn my disabilities!), we went back over for PZ's talk on genetics and evolution as well as Rebecca's talk on evolutionary psychology. Now that I had my fill of science, it was time for Gastropub!

We took the hotel van over and I managed to bang my head on a steel bar trying to get in. By the time we got to the pub, my head was ringing and all I wanted to do was sit and relax. I took a picture of the pub but tried to get only the flags on the ceiling since I didn't know whether some of the people at the pub might not be out.

Farmer's Gastropub


The place was loud beyond belief. As one who rarely ever drinks and doesn't tolerate loud noises well, this was a challenge. Yet I was grateful for this place where people could gather and make choices that they weren't allowed to make back home. Namely this:



and this...


It probably sounds crazy to those of you who live elsewhere but the Mississippi county we live in is dry. You can't legally buy alcohol or even possess it. So when I show you this, it's not to glorify drunkenness but instead to glorify choice (although inebriation is fine if that's what you want).

Although I didn't get up and mingle with anyone, I did see a friend I'd met the day before. You should really check out this guy and his blog/podcast The Skeptic Wire. Tell him Tweenky D sent you.

Greg Perrine of The Skeptic Wire

Despite leaving early and taking all my meds early, I overslept the next day and missed Matt's second talk. I can't tell you how sorry I was to have missed those talks and to have to leave early and miss the afternoon talks as well. I'll be catching up on them on YouTube, no doubt.

So we packed our stuff and left that rainy, Sunday morning. Although I didn't get to participate fully, I have no regrets. I had a great time and met some wonderful people. Everyone was kind to me and I felt really safe and comfortable. I say this to encourage any of you who want to go to a conference but have doubts - just fucking go!  The organizers work hard to put this stuff together and they want you to have a good time. Hell, almost all of us want you to have a good time. I daresay you won't find a group of kinder, smarter, more confident, more outgoing, and more interesting people than you'd find at Skepticon.

I slept for a few hours on the way back thanks to the rain but I did get some pictures of a little town whose name I love but whose looks make me fear: Ravensden.

Ravensden, Arkansas

I love crows and ravens. They are some of the smartest creatures around. I'd love to have a statue like this in my front yard.

However, this is the good side of the road. The rest of the area is filled with scary places like this:


It was operating on a Sunday and it smelled funny. Even a Southern girl like me couldn't help but imagine stuffed city folks. I have got to stop watching horror shows on Netflix late at night.


And of course no Southern trip is complete without seeing a dead deer. When you don't have a proper grocery store for miles around, you have to take matters into your own hands. Isn't the South amazing?

I plan to go to Skepticon #6 next year and be better prepared. I'm also hoping that my physical and mental health will continue to improve so I can participate more. But let me tell you, my first time was awesome! I felt a lot of love and respect from everybody - from the folks roaming around with hot pink hair, to the guy in the utility kilt, to the Matt Smith lookalike, all the way to our Overlord PZ. These skeptics are fantastic!