28 January 2011

On a mission: Rally at Texas legislature

Thursday, 27 January, 3:13 am. A week or two back, an email went around about my institution hosting “UTPA Day” at the state capital in Austin. The idea is to go and inform the legislators about who we are and just what it is that we do, as south Texas traditionally doesn’t have a lot of political clout. It’s a long way from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin.

The first email was looking for students. When the students didn’t fill the buses, they asked for faculty. At the time, my calendar was empty, so I said, “I might go.”

I wasn’t sure it was going to happen until I got more email yesterday morning. We are supposed to meet the bus at... 4:30 am.

So I decided to pull an all-nighter and sleep on the bus to Austin. Because it’s going to be a long ride there...

5:05 am – On the road.

7:30 am – Awake now, I think for a good long while. Amazed I was able to get anything close to sleep – these seats are not conducive to it!

7:50 am – Nature Podcast on iPod.

8:15 amThis Week In Science podcast now.

8:50 am – Coming up on San Antonio.

9:03 am – DVD – Ick! I don’t need a Blu-Ray ad – and it’s loud loud loud!

9:07 am – Now a Terminator: Salvation ad. Louder. Then Sherlock Holmes. But volume has finally come down. Still damn hard to listen to TWIS.

9:16 am – I think they’re showing The Hangover. Is Jeffrey Tambor in that?

9:34 am – Ooh, found a much better pen than I’d been writing with. Because I’m actually recording this with pen and paper in the Field Notes book, courtesy of winning a Twitter competition during Science Online 2011.

9:50 am – Starting to see signs of approaching Austin.

10:37 amHR-221, designating today “UT Pan American Day,” passes in Senate, with many UTPA arriving to visitor galley just as the resolution is being read.

11:00 am – Lunch in the cafeteria grill. During this, I talk to Gail at University Relations about the trip. I am pleased that I am able to come up with a good sound bite.

12:00 pm - Mariachis start playing in the rotunda. People taking pictures and video look happy. The organizers (as they have done and will do all day) look inexplicably nervous, like something could go wrong any second. Other faculty and admin arrive mysteriously. Did they get a better secret bus than me, hanging out with the students?

1:00 pm – Group photo on the legislature steps. President Nelsen says people, like the Navy, have bugged him about UTPA not having a football team, but Nelsen said that the mariachis were better ambassadors than a football team. He also said a football team would happen if someone had a spare $50 million lying around.

People are being slow to show up, so I say, “You have time for that joke, Robert.”

“Being a university president is like being in a cemetery. You have all these people under you, but none of them do a damn thing.

(This joke is lifted, he says, from University of California system president Mark Yudolf, who apparently got into trouble for making it.)

While waiting, I have this incredible geeky desire to go find the stature of Steven F. Austin on the lawn of the capital grounds... because it’s where the type specimen of the field cricket Gryllus texensis was collected.

Eventually, everyone is there. Some photographs are shot. Then we break up into teams with info and gift bags to take to representatives and senators.

Our team visits 15 offices.

None of the elected officials are in.

In a couple of cases, we do meet with higher education specialists who are policy advisors to the politicians. This is probably better than seeing the elected officials, in some ways, since the policy people are the ones who think about this stuff all the time.

Got into office of a rep from Brazoria County, and told the staff that they should be proud that their county is the home to the largest number of crayfish species in Texas.

Also got to see the coolest office in the Texas capital. Representative Hartnett has a 4th floor office with a huge balcony overseeing all of north Austin. And it was a perfect, beautiful day, and they let us sit outside and enjoy the view while we chatted a bit.

Most intimidating office was that of the senator that featured a picture of him with the leopard he hunted and shot draped over his shoulders, the stuff cat mounted on his wall as a trophy, and two revolvers and a derringer mounted in a shadowbox frame.

A lot of the staff had heard the mariachis, especially the representative staff, whose offices were closer to the rotunda. They wouldn’t have heard a visiting football team.

3:10 pm – Tour of the capital with Nick. He looked a bit tired, but he had a great voice and knew his stuff, pointing out little details like 8 pound custom brass hinges on the legislature doors. Very good!

4:20 pm – President Nelsen talks to students, thanking them for their efforts in promoting the university today. And we get rally T-shirts!

4:48 pm – Ugh. More DVD previews. And they’re not finishing The Hangover from the morning.

5:02 pm – What is this movie? Some football thing.

5:03 pm – Ah. The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock. iPod it is, then.

5:19 pm – Crumb! They’ve got the air conditioning way up. Putting a jacket on.

5:40 pm – Stopping at Luby’s Cafeteria for dinner. Not my favourite.

6:00 pm – With two busloads of people, I still haven’t reached the start of the buffet to get food.

6:08 pm – Their blackened chicken is pretty good, actually. Pleasant surprise.

6:58 pm – Back on the bus. They’re starting a movie again. Except they’re back to The Hangover to finish it from... what, 8 hours ago?

7:13 pm – Typing today’s notes into my netbook. Have to put myself into strange contortions to do so, because to use the seat trays they have on this bus, you would have to have a waistline that a corseted Victoria woman would envy. I can’t lay the tray flat without it digging several inches into my body.

7:55 pm - Now the bus screens are showing something by Paul Haggis - Crash? While I might want to see it, I don’t want to see it on a bus. Back to reading Ricky Jay feature on con men and women in Wired.

9:28 pm - When I look out the window of the bus, it is often pitch black. No oncoming vehicles, lights, nothing. Slightly unreal and eerie.

9:35 pm - Hoping they do not start another movie after this one.

9:42 pm - Video screens are off! Uninterrupted viewing of The Middleman episodes on my iPod begins.

11:32 pm - Back on campus almost exactly on time; schedule had said 11:30 pm. Time to walk back to the apartment.

Friday, 28 January, 12:0something am: At long last, bed.

10:36 am - Still feeling a little woozy from having yesterday’s lack of sleep.

Additional: Our University Relations coverage of the event is here, with my sound bites.

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