Derby City and the Athens of the South

Louisville in a few words:

most comfortable place to sleep: the tracks

full box of pizza on trash can: found

beer: cheap

U of L students: boring

U of L cafeteria: easy pickings

favorite part of the city: Alex

I met Alex Udisco in NYC last year and and he invited me to his place after hearing about my trip on facebook. We spent most of the time together flapping our gums. We argued often about the nature of human behavior and whether the bulk derives from culture or genes. Poor sod. As an anthropologist, he treasured the notion that humans shape their own destiny and can not come to grips with the sad truth: we’re little more than walking robots following our genetic code ( I prefer being the devil’s advocate in these debates).

I’m grateful for my few days with Alex, a thinker, a talker and someone with a curious eye for detail. He told excellent stories especially about his recent trip to Africa with his father including a climb up Mount Kilmanjaro. It reminded of my wonderful trip to Russia with my father where we did homestays with local people and obsessivlely chased Dostoevsky landmarks around the city. I’m espcecially proud of our photo in front of the house where Ralkonivkov killed the old woman in Crime and Punishment.

Alex showed me around Cherokee Park, designed by the famed Olmsted who also created Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. (Old Brooklynites claim that Olmsted practiced on Central Park before getting it right with Prospect Park). He also introduced me to some nice friends including David who continued to keep me chuckling while we all went out for Palestinian point. As we watched Obama’s first post-election press confererence, he said, “It’s depressing. I’m going from much smarted than our president to much dumber.” David prided himself on his construction job and one of his friends apparently said, “David thinks blue collar is the new avant garde.”

I didn’t see much of Louisville because I spent most of the time researching the professor I came here to interview. Dr. Lee Dugatkin conducts computational modeling of evolutionary behavior. As someone who spent all of his short scientific career in a wet lab, I enjoyed talking to someone who works in the math and computer programming side of things. I never conducted an interview before but I think I managed to not embarrass myself.

After the interview, I headed for the highway with a large cardboard sign saying “Nashville”. After a cold and fruitless few hours waiting for a ride, I ate dinner at a dollar a taco place that offered a superior products for their price. I talked to the owner’s son and as we talked about the economy, I said, “I would hate to just have a new child right now. I’m on my own so it’s easy. It might get really tough these next few hours and having a kid would be so hard. You don’t have any kids do you?”

Yeah,” he replied, “and I can’t find any work. It’s already tough.” I commiserated and felt like a jerk for worrying about aloud about being in just his position.

After a night sleeping next to a church, I started the next day with a stroke of great luck. After twenty minutes on the highway, Greg pulled over in a big old blue van with a babyseat in the back. I have found an inverse relation between worth of the vehicle and friendliness of the people inside. While waiting by the side of the road, I rarely even get a glance from BMWs and fancy SUVs but many guys in pickups indicate that they would help if they could. All of my rides so far have been in vehicles ranging from practical to falling apart. In a welcome change from the racist rides who got me to Louisville last week, Greg and I spent the entire trip agreeing on politics, religion and other big questions. He grew up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness environment and since he left the church, he painfully lost all contact with his family. As we jabbered, Louisville to Nashville passed in a flash and Greg even bought me a meal on Allstate’s tab. Nothing makes Lex happier than free food..

Now I’ve just been chilling in the Nash, the Athens of the South (complete with it’s own full scale version of the Parthenon). I’ve mostly been reading, writing and arguing science. I stay with my friend Sunil and his roommate Radwan. They work in a lab here studying the heart on a molecular level (for science geeks, they focus on the neuregulin/erbB signaling system). We sit around smoking Radwan’s hookah while discussing evolution, dreaming about a video of the Big Bang, telling great ideas from science fiction books and learning about novel theories like the paper Sunil recently read that justified his preference for women with big butts because they allow children with bigger brains. I love being around scientists.

Sunil studies the Titan protein, largest in the human proteome. He enjoys research because he gets to explore something that fascinates him but not work himself to the bone. He doesn’t want a lot of material goods and likes the low-stress environment of the lab. He also gave a great answer to one of my favorite questions: If you could time travel, what historical figure would you go see? Sunil quickly answered Ghandi. (Who would you go see? You can answer in the comments). His roommate Radwan will soon finish his PhD and then goes back to Boston to start the second half of med school. He’s in Boston University’s MD/PhD program so with a probable specialty in surgery, he’ll be starting to work around the age of 40. He wants to be a member of a dying breed: physician scientists. An MD who splits his time between patients and the lab has become increasingly hard to find. I gave him a copy of Lukaysehnko’s Nightwatch that he breezed through and he gave me a copy of the Tao Te Ching with a delightful inscription: always hit the ball softer than you intend to, the same piece of Zen advice he gave me when we played pool earlier in the week.

While they work, I sit in the apartment reviewing science blogs, reading books like “The Scientist as a Rebel” by Freeman Dyson and researching the professors who I plan to interview. At Vanderbilt, I talked to Dr. Patrick Abbot about his work on the evolution of behavior in aphids, symbiosis causing speciation and other topics in his field. He admitted to Googling me before I came to make sure I wasn’t a creationist, the same breed who hounded Galileo for his heliocentric view of the solar system. A classic laid back university scientist, he sported worn jeans and a flannel shirt. I liked him immediately as he told me about a recent road trip to Georgia with his son and the daycare in his house ran by his wife where “budding scientists meet budding artists.” The kids might dissect an octopus in the morning and then later cook it up for lunch. I walked out with 90 minutes of excellent explanations of his work and a commentary on the possibility of natural selection at the group level sometimes known as EO Wilson’s superorganism. Felt good to really nail this interview.

I liked the feel of Vanderbilt and it’s creeping higher on my grad school list. I also started to enjoy the city right away after finding a young Elvis Costello at a club with an unbelievable list of bands who played there over the years. Sunil showed me around the enclosed and lush jungles of the Grand Old Opry Hotel, the largest non-casino hotel in the world complete with guided boat tour on the man-made river running through the complex. This place obviously emitted some kind of attractant for red hat ladies because they were simply everywhere. It looked like an infestation. After checking out bands on the Strip and watching a flamboyant Arkansas boy play keyboards with his feet at Layla’s Bluegrass Hillybilly and Country Inn, I started to really like this place. But the road waits for no man and it’s time to head for the Big Easy.


3 Responses to “Derby City and the Athens of the South”

  1. 1 nedpelger November 23, 2008 at 10:45 pm

    I had noticed that hitchhiking inverse ratio between wealth and rides as well. I wonder if people tend to get more self-absorbed as they get rich or just develop more fear because they think they now have something to lose?

    Hopefully more of your readers will start leaving comments. You know an fascinating assortment of characters and it’s fun to interact.

  2. 2 Alexander Udis December 8, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Lex, well, I must admit, i haven’t gotten to reading any of yr blog except the parts about me, but alas i’ll get to it sometime.

    I was thinking about the our dichotomous discussion regarding the essence of humans and human behavior, and while I concede, that perhaps (and only perhaps) certain behavior of individual humans can be traced to specific influence of genes, can there be any genes that specifically regulate the relationships between two or more individuals? That is to say, are there any genes that dictate the ways in which individuals act in a group or society? For example, is there a gene that encourages individuals to give power to other individuals who mean to exploit them? Is there a gene that encourages individuals to exploit others?

    It is my contention, that genes cannot map the complexity of human relationships, especially those relationships that deal with power dynamics.

    Any who, lets keep arguing. Send me some more articles, and I’ll read them.

    Hope all is well in NOLA. My days are spent procrastinating school and all other accomplishments. I waste the day away listening intently to Nina Simone and soaking up every bit of inspiration, until it builds up so violently that i’ll blow up in a fury of creation and wonder.


  3. 3 Monaco January 25, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Cleopatra VII in her absolute prime.

    I’d see for myself whether or not she is as beautiful and/or as charismatic and clever as the histories wrote her.

    She would lend me her wisdom; how she managed to cradle a powerful civilization, and the hearts of powerful men, within the palms of her good hands.

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Lex Pelger

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