C.J. Cregg: USA Today asks you why you didn't spend more time campaigning in Texas and you say it's cause you don't look good in funny hats.
Sam Seaborn: It was "big hats".
—The West Wing, “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” (9/29/99)
A couple of weeks ago, my school flew most of the teachers out to a conference located in Salado, Texas.
Salado is about an hour north of Austin and about ten miles past the middle of nowhere. The reason we went there instead of bringing the conference to Baltimore is that the total costs were nearly identical, so why not make it a combination conference and retreat?
Naturally, this kind of event took a whole lot of planning. And the first step was to get us all into Salado. This turned out to be more complicated than anyone suspected, since there aren’t very many flights (if any) that go directly from Baltimore Washington International Airport to Austin Bergstrom Airport. Everyone in our group had to take two planes to get there. And since you’re talking about something like 30 people, we’re also talking about multiple itineraries. And, as it happened, my itinerary (and that of seven others) was one of the less direct ones.
The first leg of our flight was from BWI to Newark Airport. This was the plane we took to Newark:
I was pretty sure that we were going to see Indiana Jones in one of the seats on this thing. However, the flight—which got off a little late—made really good time and actually got into Newark a few minutes earlier than scheduled. It really wasn’t a bad flight, especially considering that I was in an exit row seat on the aisle, with an Air Marshall sitting next to me. It is, however, a little disconcerting watching the propellers spin up, and later on spinning down again. Also, on this plane you can SEE the wheels retracting.
The flight from Newark was also delayed, as were all westbound flights out of Newark. We were never told why but guessed it was weather-related, given all the storms we flew over. Thunderstorms are pretty cool to see when you’re over them. Once we landed in Austin (12:20 local time), we met up with some folks coming in from another flight and we all got on a shuttle bus to Salado. Where, of course, our driver got lost.
OK, that was kind of mean. That’s not quite what happened. What did happen, however, is that the exit he expected to take was closed because of construction. Out there, it’s a bigger deal than it is here: if you miss an exit, or it’s , the next exit is usually no more than a mile or two and the detour is easy. In that part of the world, the exits are between five and ten miles apart, so we’re losing about 20-30 minutes on the detour. And it’s already 1:30 in the morning (2:30 in our East Coast heads). So the driver took the next exit, drove for a little bit, then had to stop briefly to consult a map and make sure he was on the right track (which he was), then continued to the conference center.
The conference was called Capturing Kids’ Hearts, and it was held at a retreat/conference center called Summer’s Mill. We were even greeted by the sign:
We never saw the scrapbookers; who knows if they were even there.
The whole property consisted of a couple of buildings for meetings and such. The one we were using was open 24 hours and had the best wi-fi signal. There was a kitchen in there that was fully stocked with several different soft drinks (and please, help yourself): Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, regular and Diet Dr Pepper and something called Big Red. Big Red is, indeed, red in color, but it tastes like what happens when you pour Sprite into your Cream soda. Some of us loved it; others found it to be pretty nasty. I was in the second camp. The conference area itself had an elevated platform for presenters, and the podium area had easy-to-use touchscreen controls for the projectors (there were two, slaved together so far as I could tell, so they both showed the same image), the microphones (up to three), a couple of other inputs (e.g CD, DVD, cassette), and lighting controls. With this last we could turn the fluorescent lights on and off, and run the incandescent lights at any one of four intensity levels. This all came in handy for us later on.
In addition to having free run of the meeting area, there was a game room which was outfitted with a counter and sink, a couple of tables for playing games (provided in the cabinets under the counter), a ping-pong table and an air hockey table. And, as you can see in the picture, the whole thing was decorated in a Coca-Cola motif. Why? We don’t know. Either Coke was sponsoring the space, or someone in charge just liked having Coca-Cola memorabilia. In fact, just out of camera range to the right there was an old, nonfunctioning vending machine that used to serve up bottles of Coke. Off that room was an exercise room, with a pretty good assortment of equipment if you wanted to get a workout. My big complaint about the workout room was that someone had yanked the emergency stop key out of the treadmill, and nobody could figure out how to get it back in place, so that never worked while we were there. The weight room and the game room were also available to us on a 24-hour basis.
Our rooms looked like motel efficiencies. There were two queen-size beds in each room, a full bathroom with tub, and most rooms had a kitchenette area with a small fridge, microwave and sink. But here’s the kicker: the closets in the rooms had the hotel-style security hangers, the ones with the tops that are permanently attached to the closet rod and a bottom part that’s useless anywhere but inside the closet.
Got that? The implicit message of this place is: “Want to use the conference center? By all means, be our guest. Have all the soda you want. Big ice machine, too. Take tons of ice. Fill the tub and steal someone’s kidneys if you like. Use our wi-fi to your heart’s delight. Play any one of dozens of games we’ve provided, anytime of the day or night. Want to work out? Use the weight room, 24 hours a day. Oh! We have bicycles you can borrow if you want to ride around the grounds or maybe explore the area a little bit. Go right ahead, they’re on the rack over there. Of course they’re not chained up.
“But we will be DAMNED if you think we’re going to let you take our hangers.”
So we flew in Monday night and we got right to work on Tuesday morning. Capturing Kids’ Hearts is part staff development and part group therapy, but it’s a pretty cool philosophy and, having seen bits of it in action last year, I’m eager to put the whole thing into action this year.
On Tuesday night, we tried to get a cab to take us into a nearby (= 10 miles) town so that we could lay in a supply of adult beverages, but the cab couldn’t find us, so we were out of luck. We had to socialize in a more-or-less sober state.
This reminds me: you always hear the jokes about how it’s 100 degrees out there, “but it’s a dry heat”. You know what? That’s not bullshit. When I left Maryland it was 95 degrees and just too swampy for anyone to endure; you went outside and all you could think about was going back in. In Texas it was 105 degrees but it took maybe an hour before we were uncomfortable enough to go inside. And one day, I woke up late and went from my room, to breakfast, to the first work session. When we took a break, I went into the bathroom and saw that my hair was a disaster. So I ran back to my room (about 100 yards’ distance) and stuck my head under the sink. Then I hit it quick with the towel to stop the dripping and brushed it. My hair was still plenty wet when I left the room. But when I got back to the conference center, it was bone-dry. Nobody knew that I’d completely wet my head, but everyone noticed that my hair looked much better. Now, THAT’S high heat with low humidity.
On Wednesday, they gave us an “on your own” lunch break and offered us a shuttle into town. This is what the “town” part of Salado looked like:
The other thing we saw in several places was bicycles, mounted to fences like you see in the picture to the right. We never did find out why that’s a thing in the Belton/Salado area, but apparently it’s a thing. Something we did learn, however, is that there were no adult beverages in this area: it’s a dry town. No liquor, no beer.
What’s that, you say? Could there be a loophole? Indeed there was. Wine was permitted. We found a wine shop connected to a local winery (Salado Creek Winery & Vineyard) and bought about 2/3 of a case, including something they called Lone Star Lemon. It’s like Mike’s Hard Lemonade but it doesn’t taste shitty. In fact, it’s quite the refreshing little wine. And because on paper we were at a “dry” event, the owner was kind enough to mark our box as being full of Live Snakes rather than contraband. Thus, “Snake Juice” became the code word of the day. I’m still not sure who really cared about whether we had any alcohol to drink, but okay.
Wednesday night, therefore, was a little bit of a better-lubricated evening for all of us and a lot of fun was had by nearly everyone. Nobody got sloppy drunk (wasn’t enough to do that), and after some playing of ping-pong and such, we all went back to the conference center for some Karaoke, courtesy of my laptop and the presentation system in the room. People would give me requests, I’d look them up on YouTube and we’d roll the video. Fun!
Thursday was our last day of the conference, and while we’d had a great time and learned a huge deal, we were all pretty much ready to head back home. Once again, there were no direct flights, so after the shuttle dropped us off at Austin Bergstrom Airport, we had to fly to Houston and then to Baltimore. Both flights were on-time and problem-free (see, United can get the job done from time to time), and we were back on the ground at BWI shortly after midnight.
Next week, it’s Back to School for us, and the kids start on the 27th. For a summer where I wasn’t working, it’s been pretty quick.