Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Paleo FX 2014 -- the happy wrap-up post

Paleo FX really is the Super Bowl of the paleo/primal world. Last year, 2013, I dove headfirst into the conference, then in its second year -- but its first in expansive digs at the Palmer Events Center in Austin, Texas -- with my brain set on what I dubbed "learning mode." I had been to plenty of music conferences in the past, and I knew how to talk anyone's ear off just fine, but last year's PFX was going to be all about amassing as much high-level paleo knowledge as I could. The socializing could take a back seat for once.

And, as I told you in my review of PFX 2013, I followed that plan really well, seeing countless presentations and panels that blew me away. I left with my mind crammed with information,  a lot of great meals stuffed into my gaping maw and a vow to come back for another round.

But this year's conference, from April 11-13, 2014, at the same location, held a different attraction for me. Yeah, I still wanted to see great panels, but I wanted to meet people too -- paleo idols, fellow bloggers and regular conference attendees.

Additionally, I had been asked by Kendall Kendrick from Primal Balance to be the "meditation/stress-management" guy on a PFX panel called "Beyond Food." 

I had been a guest on Kendall's podcast last July. We had a great conversation, hit it off well and staged a couple of "30-day meditation challenges" thereafter. The idea of the Beyond Food panel was going to be a group of people, each with a different skill set and experience, addressing all the "other stuff" a paleo/primal person can do to optimize life. You know… play, sleep, stress-management, etc.

My initial reaction: "Wow. That sounds vaguely terrifying…. [Pause]…. But sure. I'd love to!"

My slight reticence wasn't from a fear of public speaking. I do that in my day job all the time. It was more of a bit of: "Whoa... I'm just a reasonably smart guy with a blog, and a point of view, and a big mouth full of opinions.... but, seriously, I'm no Robb Fucking Wolf." [Actually his middle name].

And then I realized I needed to knock off the minor self doubt, sack up and get involved.

I was in.

For PFX 2014 in Austin.

As a panelist.

I passed out cold. (Not actually true, but that's not really Robb Wolf's middle name either).

I recovered (predictably not hard to do when the passing out didn't happen) and off I went, full of enthusiasm.

So, for me, PFX 2014 went like this....

The "Socializing" (or, like the fancy folks say, the "networking") Part of the Conference

I flew into town already lucky. I had lots to do in Austin on Thursday night April 10, the evening before the PFX kickoff. There was an "official" pre-party, but I never bought a ticket to that soiree because, before I ever knew anything about the official wingding, I had accepted two other invitations. One was to a publicly-advertised "meetup" at 6 p.m. at Wholly Cow Burgers (grassfed! delicious!) downtown. I was staying only a few blocks away, so that was a no-brainer. I logged the details into my social calendar (code for "iPhone").

Next was going to be a private party at a secret location. I am really unsure how I got so fortunate as to be invited to such a nice friendly gathering of Important Paleo People (IPP), because I am nowhere near IPP level, but I was really appreciative -- so appreciative, in fact, that I am not going to tell you much about it -- because it was all secret and stuff, and full of IPP.

The plan was Wholly Cow first, and then the party. When I had gotten the party invitation, I had  figured that I was likely to meet someone(s) who might want to go to the IPP party after the Wholly Cow chowdown. So I cleared that possibility (one or two guests in addition to me) with the IPP host and she graciously said it was cool.

So I went to Wholly Cow. But damn, I was late. Really late. Like 7 p.m. My flight had been delayed. I saw two people there; they were eating. For the life of me, I couldn't remember the name of the dude organizing the meetup. So I approached: "Um, are you guys part of a group from a conference meeting here in town?" [Brief pause while couple suspiciously evaluates whether I am armed and/or dangerous…. "No, honey, he's just a paleo dork."] They were the meetup organizers! Kiley and his wife Jessica couldn't have been nicer. But they were almost done their meal. We talked for a bit, and they headed off for another event.

My friend Petra and her roommate/friend Marcy showed up at Wholly Cow shortly thereafter, later than me. Petra is an FB pal who has previously participated in a meditation challenge here on the Paleo Drummer page. She's super nice, but she's Finnish. They are not a wordy people. (In Finnish the really extra-long version of the Gettysburg address would have been: "Come on, people. Let's get it together, hmmm?" followed by 15 minutes of silence.)  So honestly, when I heard she was going to the Wholly Cow thing,  I was terrified that my caffeinated Philadelphia-isms were going to scare the living bejeezus out of her. But no. She weathered my wordy onslaught well, and after we ate delicious burgers, she and Marcy said they would like to go to the IPP party. So off we went to Whole Foods, bought hard cider, and then drove to the IPP party. It was great. I ran into people I knew already, which surprised me a bit because, as you may recall from many paragraphs ago, I didn't do all that much socializing last year.

I will not identify any of those people -- because the party was all secret and stuff -- but let's just say that the shindig started off well for us when Really Important Paleo Author Whom I Am Lucky To Know Already (RIPAWIALTKA) sees us coming in the porch door at the party and says, "Hey! What are you doing here?!" Cleverly, because I am nothing if not clever, I countered with: "What are you doing here?!" (because I thought she wasn't getting in until the next day). Many conversations were had thereafter, first with RIPAWIALTKA -- whom I introduced to a pretty-excited Petra and Marcy -- and then with lots of others, some of whom I "knew" from online interactions with their IPP FB pages, and some of whom I met for the first time that night. It was all very cool, and the three of us felt super fortunate to be there. If the person who invited me is reading this, really... that was nice of you. Thanks.

But all of that general awesomeness -- and I like very little more than meeting new and interesting people -- paled in comparison to the next day's adventure. Melissa Joulwan and I are blogger buds. She's the famous author one and I am…uh... not. We hit it off a couple years back when she and her husband Dave were in Philly for a book tour for Well Fed, her first cookbook. I knew she was a big Social Distortion/Mike Ness fan, and at the time I thought the then-new Social D record was a small step down from their previous glory, so, like the serious music geek that I am, I introduced myself and said, "So, I don't want to talk paleo with you. I want to know what you think of this new Social D album."

This strategy paid off in a bonus-length conversation about music, specifically punk rock, and we have been paleo/punk-rock pals since then. So, when I knew that PFX14 was looming, I contacted Mel to make sure we'd have some time to shoot the proverbial shit. We decided to take a walk around the lake at lunchtime on Friday. We covered a boatload of topics, never shut up once, and I learned a whole lot of important info about a paleo-related topic about which she knows a lot, and which plays into future plans of mine (about which we will not talk for a considerable time, thankyouverymuch…). It was a great hour or so. I left the conversation with a few things: (1) an abiding gratitude that I hit it off with her so well way back when, because she's awesome and smart and I like awesome and smart; (2) a ridiculous selfie inspired by her declaration, "Let's make mean faces!"; (3) a lot of much-more-concrete-than-before future plans of my own for that idea of mine (about which we still will not talk for a considerable time, thankyouverymuch….); and (4) Mike Ness's leather jacket.

Really. Mike Fucking Ness's leather jacket.

Mel bought it many years ago on a fannish lark, and, now that she and Dave are downsizing and moving out of town, she asked me if I wanted the jacket -- to "keep it in the family." It doesn't really fit me well. He's short. I'm tall. It doesn't matter. It's Mike Ness's leather jacket. Totally badass. How lucky am I?

                                                            photo by Jen Cray

If the day's socializing had stopped there, I would have been just fine. But no…. That evening was the Speakers' Dinner at a local farm. I got in great offbeat conversations (who knew Darryl Edwards has a trip-hop(ish) album from a few years back? Not me, until I talked music with him that night. Who knew that Jimmy Moore gleefully walks around with sticks of Kerrygold butter ready to devour them? OK, you may have known that), and my fellow tablemates Tony Federico, Roger Dickerman (from Philly!) and Joe Johnson were a veritable laugh riot. Thanks for letting me into the festivities, guys.

Oh, and if you ever have a chance to talk about floating with Evan Brand, do it. The dude takes my enthusiasm for the subject and multiplies it by ten. It's downright infectious, I tell ya.

On Saturday, I reconnected with Petra and Marcy for a delicious and fun lunch at El Alma. And then that evening I met our "Paleo Posse" -- the product of a great idea from the PFX organizers: match a conference speaker/panelist or two with a group of six or seven other conference attendees and let the whole group organize an outing (and PP is their clever name for it, not mine). Jimmy Moore and I were the speaker/panelists in the group -- he the famous one, me the…uh… other one (you may notice a repeating theme here). Jimmy is great. I love him. He puts everyone at ease. He mentions butter a lot. He cracks jokes. He mentions butter again. He yells the word "ketone" in public places, often coupled with "butter." He and I were joyfully busting on each other soon into the gathering. And the other folks? Damn, what a nice bunch of people. I am now Facebook/Twitter pals with most of them (and the rest should get on that… hint). There were Morgan, Bryan, Aaron, Adam, Mireia, Lisa and Kristin, and every one was a pleasure to hang with. We laughed (a lot). We ate (a lot of) mediocre barbecue at a place that Morgan the local warned us about. I talked (a lot). They didn't seem to mind (much, anyway). It was a blast.

And then Sunday night, those of who remained in town did it all over again (with new members Krista and Julie), but this time with a stop at the 24 Diner for glorious food and at Lick for grassfed ice cream in weird flavors that nature may have never intended, but which work really well together. (Goat-cheese/thyme/honey ice cream. What?! Yes please, and it was delicious).

Really, fellow Paleo Posse members, you made my conference experience extra fun. Thanks.

So 800 zillion words into this, you might be thinking, "But did he like the actual conference?"

He did.

The "Conference" Part of the Conference

I saw a lot of great panels and speakers. I missed a bunch of other top-notch ones because the ones I was at were so good. The scheduling conflicts were unreal. The organizers had so many smart and amazing people on four or five different stages at once that you had to just commit yourself to the notion that you couldn't possibly see every last thing that you wanted to.

But amidst the great were a few presentations that really stuck out as even better than that. Everything I saw was wonderful, certainly never worse than an "A-" and usually a solid "A," but some were "double freaking A+." Those would be these ones:

Hacking Stress (Under Pressure) panel -- If you hang around these parts at all, you know that I think stress management is the key to everything. If handled poorly, stress disrupts sleep, hormones, digestion and… well, life. This panel (A. Jolly, Nora Gegaudes, Ben Greenfield, Evan Brand and Sara Eye) each contributed their own specialized take on the subject. I particularly noted how Evan wowed everyone with flotation talk (I know more than a few people did their first float that weekend because of his enthusiasm for the topic) and how Sara's salty take on growing up, getting your act together and ditching the excuses for failing to address stress was really refreshing (Ben Greenfield with the play-by-play on Sara's early contribution: "Wow. That's three shits and a fuck so far!"). An extraordinary hour.

A Nervous Tap: Your Nervous System is Talking. Are You Listening? -- This was a heart rate-variability (HRV) talk by Jason Moore. I loved it. I thought I already knew a whole lot about HRV, but this was the best-organized presentation I have seen yet about why knowing and managing your HRV can lead to better exercise performance, and a better life. And I got to ask geeky questions of Jason afterwards. He was super accommodating in that regard, and I appreciate it.

Living a Happy, Intentional Life panel -- Happiness is not underrated. But, as you get older, more cynical and more mired in your ways, you can forget that the intentional, driven pursuit of happiness is critically important to making your short ride on the planet the best it can be. Every member of this panel nailed that concept, from multiple angles, over and over. I thought that Hilary Bromberg and Dean Dwyer were particularly entertaining and cogent, but the rest of the panel (Michelle Norris, Nicole Avena and Darryl Edwards) were right there with them leading the charge into Awesomeness. I went to this presentation originally figuring that I would like it, but also sort of strategizing that if I saw this one, I would already be in the room for the next panel: the Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson show. It turned out that, yeah, I enjoyed those uber-famous guys, but this? Off-the-charts amazing.

(A "networking" digression: in keeping with my view (previously expressed here) that a really heartfelt compliment is a great and genuine thing to give (and, sadly, too-rare), I always try to track down folks whose work I appreciate so I can tell them so. When I saw Hilary Bromberg later, I told her that she was great on the Happiness panel. When I ran into Jason Seib and Sarah Fragoso, I told them how much I love their work and their attitudes. (And I may have kinda swooned when they both told me they read my stuff regularly. Nice….) And when I saw Stefani Ruper -- whose work I really admire and with whom I have occasionally tweeted back-and-forth recently -- and Dean Dwyer sitting at a table together signing books, I decided to talk to them quickly. I introduced myself to Stefani, and, as she came around the table to give me a hug, I turned to Dean and said, "Dude, I just want to tell you that you were fucking fantastic on that Happiness panel. I wasn't familiar with you previously, but now I have a lot of catching up to do with your podcast." Stefani (to Dean), laughing: I like Steve... because Steve likes me! That's how blogging works, right?" Dean: "I like Steve because he really knows how to compliment an author! Thanks, Steve!")

Perception is Reality: the Biggest Lie in the Fitness Industry -- I love Jim Laird. His coaching philosophy, which stresses movement and mindfulness over beating oneself senseless in the pursuit of health and longevity, is right up my alley. (I like health. I like longevity. I'm fucking old. I'd like to be here, happy, for a while.) I have heard Jim on a few podcasts, but this presentation was something special. Jim was in pure Henry Rollins mode. He didn't say anything that surprised me, mind you. It was all in the same general neighborhood of "smart training and meditation trumps overtraining every time" but he seethed a little more than any of those other times. You could tell that he was on a mission. Two microphones broken and 30 minutes later, with folks like Sara Fragoso, Jason Seib, Roger Dickerman, Eva Twardokens and Joe Johnson cheering him on with the rest of us, he finished -- the last presentation of the last day of PFX, and it was a raging mofo of perfectly-placed righteousness. Boom.

So then you might ask yourself, "Wait, wasn't this loquacious bastard blogger on a panel himself?"

He was. It went like this.

The "Panel That I Was On" Part of the Conference

Our panel was called Beyond Food. The idea -- as I said earlier, to put five folks with slightly different skills and perspectives on one panel to address a myriad of ways that one can optimize life "beyond food" -- was Kendall's. She's great that way, and, man, when I heard who was on the panel with us (Tony Federico as moderator, Darryl Edwards, Dan Stickler and Kyle Maynard, in addition to me and Kendall) I thought two things: (1) "Wow, what a group that is," and (2) "I'd better bring my 'A' Game, or my super-smart fellow panelists are going to crush me with their super-smartness."

I'll leave it to someone else to tell you how I did. I made every point I came in intending to make, save one (and that'll be the next blog post, because that is how blogging works, hmmm?), plus added some thoughts here and there on new topics that came up, so I had fun and was happy with my work up there. But my fellow panelists were really and truly fantastic. Kyle brings such optimism and grit to the table that he inspired me from the second I saw him leap out of his wheelchair, bound across the stage and get on his barstool. What he had to say thereafter focused on life optimization in a beautiful and multi-faceted way. Dan had the smart-doctor end of the conversation covered completely. Whether the topic was sex hormones, sleep or stress, he nailed it. Kendall has the whole gamut of digestion/food-availability/sourcing/etc so well organized in her mind from her many presentations on those topics that she speaks and I think, "How the hell did she just say all that so clearly and perfectly?" And her contributions to the rest of the discussion, whether on stress, sex or just getting outside, were spot-on. Darryl -- ever-present in his outside "play" groups all weekend -- brought his funny, cogent take on play and doing what you love for a living as the fundamental missing links in exercise and happiness.

And Tony? If I told you how organized Tony was about this whole panel from behind the scenes, you'd want to fire the rest of us for slacking in comparison. He is a rock star of panel moderation. And a funny guy. Funny, you may recall, is good.

I thought our panel did really well. And I am truly proud to have participated. Thanks, Kendall, for the opportunity! Thanks all of you for kicking ass.

So then you ask yourself, "Are we finally done with this ramble? I have a life to get on with."

We are. After this….

The "Big-Take-Away" Part of the Conference

Notice something? I hardly used the word "paleo" at all to describe what actually impressed me most about this conference. Yeah, the word is right there in the name, but my experience this year -- and what really resonated with me -- was everything having to do with happiness, life optimization and stress management. Whether it was more networking in the first evening alone than I did at all last year's conference, or attending some mindblowingly great panels, PFX 14 was all about being happy this year -- and all the ways you get to that lofty, and sometimes elusive, goal.

Damn, I had fun.

I'm happy about that.

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