Dangling conversations

“So, is this your first time in Omaha?”

I recently blogged about feeling isolated as a scientist in my field here in the windy plains of Nebraska. One way to try and mitigate this feeling is to invite guest speakers in my field to come out to Omaha for a seminar. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to invite a couple of speakers every year, and this has been an excellent way to keep in touch with people and meet others.

For those of you who are less familiar with this kind of “schmoozing,” with these scientific-style social interactions, I thought I’d just ramble on a little about it. The art of entertaining can be–well–rather entertaining.

Once a researcher has agreed to come out to Omaha for a seminar and visit, our administrative staff usually takes excellent care of all the arrangements. Flights, the hotel, the itinerary for the visit (in coordination with the person who made the invitation), etc. Usually, this goes off without too much trouble. This year we had our first two seminars cancelled (one of them was someone I invited) due to a broken leg and due to the big hurricane that smashed the east coast back in Sept. Not a great start.

A few years back, after having a well-known scientist-speaker accept my invitation for a seminar, I received a very apologetic phone call from the would-be speaker who needed to reschedule. Health? Fortunately no? Family? Not the issue. What was the problem? The speaker had been selected to sing in an opera–precisely that evening. And I thought I was eccentric for writing fiction…

Since our department wants to save money Omaha is relatively small, with our midwestern hospitality, we faculty go to pick up our invited speakers at Eppley Airfield–our national airport. Inevitably, when the invited speakers see this on their itinerary, they e-mail me frantically asking “How will I find you at the airport?”

I am often tempted to answer “I’ll have a string of pearls around my neck,” or “I’m the one with the purple hair,” but I take pity on our guests and explain that Eppley Airfield is small. Meaning–there aren’t that many people around. I often joke that when flights arrive in the evening, the last person out of the airport needs to turn off the lights.

Our speakers usually arrive on Sunday evenings for dinner with 2-3 faculty members. Sometimes these occasions are very talkative and easygoing–particularly in cases where the speaker and inviter have already met. Other times, however, the evening can be very reserved, quiet–almost melancholic. Those are the times when there is certainly an art to avoiding “dangling conversations,” and experienced people can rise to the occasion with smooth-flowing questions. The old “So is this your first time in Omaha?” question is a classic. After all, who’s been here before? Unless you were driving through on the way to or from the Rockies.

Choosing the right restaurant can also be an art. Omaha is known for its beef and steaks. On the other hand, despite its distance from any major body of water in all four directions, there are remarkably good fish and seafood restaurants that have cropped up out of nowhere in recent years–along with a huge influx of Thai, Mexican and Japanese restaurants. Omaha actually has one of the largest numbers of restaurants per capita of cities in the US.

But do you take someone from Maryland to eat seafood in Omaha? Or someone from San Francisco for Sushi? How will they react? Disdainfully?–“What, Sushi in Omaha-hah!” Warily?–“Er, uh, are you sure it’s fresh?” Sarcastically?–“You mean people in Omaha know what Sushi is?”

That’s actually a fair point. When we came here about 8 years ago, probably relatively few people did know what Sushi was. Now there is a Sushi bar in every self respecting supermarket. The times they are a ‘changin’…

Another issue to take into consideration is the locale of the restaurant. The toughest question is whether to stay downtown in the small but atmosphere-charged “Old Market area,” or to head west. There are some good restaurants in this area, but there are many better ones, and of course a lot more selection spread out through the rest of the city. The problem is, that with the exception of the Dundee historic area (where Warren Buffett lives in a modest home), there are no real areas with atmosphere. Great restaurants–but scattered in strip malls.

The answer? I guess it all depends on the speaker and her/his taste. A friend of mine told me of the time he planned to take his invited speaker to the very best known steakhouse in the city. It turned out that the speaker was a strict vegetarian, and the only food he could eat was at the salad bar.

Finally, with the meal, there always arises the issue of alcohol– which is allowed, but needs to be covered by a separate bill– leading to the old “academic bill procedure.” This is the quiet chat with the waiter/waitress to make sure they understand that the food and drinks need to be on separate bills, and everything must be itemized. This reminds me of what I once read in a book about the Israeli Mossad–that its operatives were required to bring itemized receipts of absolutely everything–taxis, subway tickets, etc. The joke went that this made it easy to identify operatives–they were the only ones who ever asked for receipts in taxis, and itemized receipts at restaurants.

I wonder if academics ever get mistaken for spies?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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