Long Distance Moving – Round 2

Last year when we moved from Austin, Texas to Columbus, Ohio I wrote a blog on just how broken long distance moving is in the United States currently. See: Broken Economics of Long Distance Moving

Well, as it turns out, we only ended up staying a year and are now back in Austin. On the return trip, we learned a few things. That is, we had a chance to take action on some of the lessons learned from the first move and make some headway on the problem.

Minimalist Furniture

When we arrived in Ohio we knew already that my new job was somewhat unstable. That is, it seemed to have some potential to grow into a really interesting job, but the initial assignment was risky and was only a contract position. As such, we made the sensible decision to avoid investing in any heavy traditional furniture – with the thought that we would invest more once the job stabilized.

We had a second floor apartment with no elevator and my rule was: “only things that I can carry up the stairs safely by myself” This restriction was a combination of weight and size/awkwardness. For example, when I went to Best Buy to get a television, I went down the row of boxes, pulled them out, and picked them up until I was comfortable that I would be able to carry the box up the stairs. We ended up with a 32″ Samsung LCD TV – not something to get the buddies around to watch the Super Bowl, but adequate for our purposes.

Sofas and beds were more difficult. For a sofa, we found a futon sofa-bed at Walmart for about $135. The staff helped us load the big box into the back of Tomoko’s Honda Fit. When we got back to the apartment, I carefully cut the box open while it was still in the car, and carried the two halves up the stairs one-at-a-time.

We started with a queen size inflatable bed from Walmart. It was sort of OK – a bit hard while sleeping, but spongy when you needed to sit on it to put on your socks. It gave out about 6 months in. We replaced it with two of the same Walmart futon sofa-bed units. Snapped down into the flat position and placed next to each other, these were just the size of a king size mattress and we used a set of king size sheets on them. They were a bit hard, but we managed to sleep on them without incident for another six months.

picture shows a beat-up, but sturdy blue chair of the type used by school districts

Blue Chair from New Uses

Tables were all folding card tables of various shapes from Walmart. One problem was that the Walmart folding chairs had a very poor design for the hinge. Shift slightly in your seat and the chair would collapse…

…which took us to Tomoko’s favorite place: New Uses in Dublin, Ohio. Here we found a pair of incredibly ugly blue steel chairs that had apparently survived thirty years or so in some school district’s multipurpose auditorium. After scraping the dried chewing gum off of the bottoms, these served us well.

Getting Rid of the Furniture

Once it was clear that we were relocating back to Austin, Tomoko went into high-gear working the Columbus-area Japanese community on Facebook to find homes for all of the furniture we had acquired. She managed to get rid of absolutely everything except the two ugly blue chairs. On the last day, as we moved out, we placed these in the area of the apartment garbage compacter. They were gone within an hour.

Cars Continue to be a Problem

Our intent was to ship the cars and fly back to Austin. However, again it was problematic. We tried uShip but the results were not satisfactory. The uShip concept sounds really appealing – wonderful, high-tech, Austin internet company coordinates the shipping universe making it all painless. Unfortunately, the idea is better than the reality. The problem is that while uShip provides a glitzy internet front end, the underlying shippers are at the low end of our society’s skills/status ladder. Their communication skills are awful. Eventually we simply gave up and decided to drive our two cars back to Austin – not very fun, and not very cheap either, but a more predictable/reliable alternative than shipping them.

Books by Media Mail

OK, so we were driving the cars, but we have rather small cars. We still needed to reduce the bulk as much as possible. Here is where we started scoring some bulls eyes. Books? We packed six 12″ square cardboard boxes full of books and took them to the Post Office. As long as you put nothing at all except books in the boxes, the rate is really cheap. Not only that, these days the Post Office even provides tracking numbers for media mail. Total cost for shipping our books: $67.50

If you want to try this yourself:

  1. Use small boxes. Books are really heavy. You really don’t want boxes larger than around 12″x12″x12″ That size box will weigh 18-20 pounds when you fill it with books.
  2. Pay for strong boxes. We used the cheap normal shipping boxes from Walmart. None of them made it without tearing. We didn’t lose any books, but we could have. If I do this again, I will look for sturdier, more expensive boxes.

Fedex Ground

picture shows Tomoko and 8 boxes

Sending 8 Boxes from the Dublin, Ohio Fedex Store

Everything else – one television, one computer monitor, and six boxes of other stuff – we sent by Fedex Ground. Fedex has the option of shipping directly to a Fedex store rather than your home. Fedex will hold the items at the store for 5 business days. We chose this option. You do have to look carefully, however, to make sure that the “Fedex Location” you are choosing is actually a full-blown Fedex Office location and not just a drop box or a kiosk in a grocery store.

picture shows Fedex employee handing us a box

Picking up the 8th Box in Austin, Texas

Fedex Ground was a great deal. Total cost for 8 boxes was $327. One thing in our experience did catch us by surprise: we expected Fedex Ground to be slow, but it wasn’t slow at all. Our stuff was in Austin with 36 hours. That was a little bit of a surprise because we had planned our own drive for four days. The approach still ended up working fine. We picked up our boxes in Austin the evening of the 4th business day.


There are still two intractable problems:

  1. Shipping cars is a mess.
  2. Shipping heavy furniture is a mess.

Other than these two problems, however, the Post Office and Fedex are pound-for-pound very competitive with any long distance moving service and they both offer superior service, tracking, reliability, and accountability. As it was, we spent less than $400 on the combination of the two. In retrospect, we probably could have shipped every bit of the rest of everything we took with us in the cars for another $500-$600.

The Broken Economics of Long Distance Moving

Picture of packed boxes in the center of an apartment

Jilted by the Long-Distance Mover

At the end of April, I had a chance to take a leadership role with a state-of-the-art automotive infotainment software development project in the Columbus, Ohio area. I jumped at the chance. As soon as the paperwork was confirmed, Tomoko and I stuffed my Chevy Volt with some pots, pans, blankets, and bare basics for an apartment and took off. We drove North to Dallas and then headed Northeast through the wilderness to the Ohio border. Along the way, we encountered some of the most stupendously filthy restrooms on the planet – and I make that comment coming from a wealth of experience of appallingly primitive restrooms in desolate places.

The Nightmare

While we thoroughly enjoyed that delightful adventure, we decided that once in a lifetime was quite sufficient. Tomoko would fly back to Austin and spend about two months planning to move the ship the other car and the rest of our possessions from Austin to our new apartment in Dublin, Ohio. And so she did. Tomoko researched meticulously, and lined everything up around the expiration of our apartment lease on the 29th of June.

Not that it was easy. Her first calls to the major moving companies (Allied, United, Mayflower, et al) were met with the information that these exalted organizations could not be bothered to do businesses with lowly cockroaches like us. If you were not moving a small palace of at least 30,000 square feet of floor space, they did not want to waste time talking with you.

Having been rebuffed by the majors, she continued to dig and identified an outfit called Fine Line Relocation out of Dallas, that as of May 20th seemed to have at least a few happy customers…as well as a few furious and dissatisfied customers. Fine Line quoted us a flat fee of $1400 for the 1244 mile move and collected a $140 deposit with a scheduled pickup date of 6/28/2016 – the day before our scheduled final walkthrough of our apartment. Tomoko began discarding, organizing, and packing. On 6/26/2016 I flew back to Austin to help. We spent all of 6/27/2016 furiously packing…until around 5PM. At 5PM of the afternoon before the scheduled move, Fine Line called: “By the way, we aren’t coming.” After 15 minutes or so of Tomoko trying politely to get some sort of sensible plan out of the Fine Line dispatcher, I got on the phone. I was less polite. The dispatcher did not like that. She transferred us to her supervisor who tried to explain to us that it was our fault. We should simply understand that the trucking industry is just like that. Stuff happens. A heated discussion ensued with him telling me that he was refunding our $140 deposit immediately (which he did) and had no interest in doing business with idiots like us.

Tomoko standing with two movers in front of our storage unit

Tomoko with Corey Washington and Roosevelt of Two Men and a Truck

Very nice. We were stuck without a mover, with a ticking clock, during the craziest, busiest time of year. We tried all sorts of alternatives. Pods and Upack were booked solid until the end of July. Fortunately, we still had Junk Busters scheduled. The local North Austin franchise of Two Men and a Truck scrambled to get us a crew for a local move on 6/29/2016. The apartment agreed to a one-day delay. We shifted strategy. We had Junk Busters haul away almost all of our heavy furniture items. We kept only our dining table and mattress. The extremely effective crew from Two Men and a Truck moved the remaining stuff and help us repack our existing storage unit to get it all stuffed in.

Honda Fit in the middle of Jollyville Rd behind a tractor trailer

Honda Fit Being Loaded

That got us out of our apartment. The remaining problem was getting our car shipped to Ohio. Tomoko had carefully made a reservation with a company called Ship a Car Direct It all looked very clear and official and was arranged for 6/30/2016. On 6/28/2016, having heard nothing further from Ship a Car Direct she called them. They had no idea who was coming or when but told her “not to worry”. Naturally, that information made her worry more. The next day, the information improved somewhat. We were given the name of a company in Ohio that had a truck driving around Texas picking up cars. The truck finally showed up on 7/1/2016 (one day late). The driver was very friendly and polite. However, we had to get a cashiers check for the shipping fee. No credit cards or personal checks accepted.

The Economics

After the Honda Fit was loaded, I received a follow-up call from Two Men and a Truck. I gave their guys a good review and asked about long distance moving. That question led to me being transferred to their local long-distance moving guy who spent quite a bit of time with me explaining the ins and outs of the industry. It goes something like this:

  1. They definitely do provide long distance moving. They will have a crew come pack your belongings, and drive them across the country for you. The same crew will unpack at the destination – which does wonders for accountability, effectiveness, etc… That same crew will then drive the truck back. There are some variations, but this is the basic deluxe plan.
  2. In order to understand the price, we have to understand that there are two seasons: “Summer” and “Not Summer”.
  3. During the Summer season, the company can keep their trucks 100% busy with local moves. During this season, they book each truck for $150/hour perhaps 8 hours per day.
  4. Having a truck drive long distance to deliver a customer’s shipment to a distant state represents an opportunity loss compared to the business that the truck could have been doing in local moves during the trip.
  5. For a 1244 mile move, they would expect:
    • 1 day to pack
    • 2 days to drive
    • 1 day to unpack
    • 2 days to drive the truck back
  6. That makes 6 days.
  7. The opportunity cost of having the truck unavailable for local moves for 6 days is cost = 6 * 8 * 150 = $7200
  8. Add to that the wear-and-tear and gasoline costs of about $1/mile. The total distance is 1244 * 2 = 2488 miles. On the other hand, the truck would have driven a little locally…so add $2400 for the mileage cost for the truck.
  9. Round it out with 5 days of hotel and meal costs for the crew
  10. and you are at $10k

Indeed, this number was in the ballpark quoted by all more serious movers that we contacted, with some wanting as much as $15k. If you move during “Not Summer” the price comes down a little because the opportunity cost is lower. If you are lucky enough that the mover can find another customer to share the truck, and it is during “Not Summer” you might get down into the range of $5k.

So what was going on with Fine Line‘s $1400 price quote? Basically, they are opportunistically hoping to find a truck driving back empty in the correct general direction. Apparently, the industry rule of thumb is that the driver/owner will be happy to have the $1/mile running cost of the truck. Naturally, these empty trucks are very hard to schedule accurately. Basically, the morning before the move, Fine Line sends someone out to stand next to the nearest freeway exit with a cardboard sign reading “LOOKING FOR EMPTY TRUCK HEADED TOWARD OHIO”. As we discovered, this process is really unpredictable. Also, there is no guarantee that the (randomly selected) truck that picks your stuff up will be the same truck that delivers it. Your stuff may get trans-loaded multiple times. It may spend several weeks sitting in someone’s warehouse, next to the bales of cannabis waiting for the next leg transportation.

Apparently, there are also a lot of games with the estimates. One common trick seems to be the seemingly convenient over-the-phone estimate, during which they low ball the weight estimate. Once the truckers pick up your stuff, they take it somewhere and weigh it and discover – Surprise! – your stuff is three times heavier than they had guessed. At that point, they hold your stuff for ransom and triple the price.

What to Do?

At these prices, shipping heavy furniture makes no economic sense at all. Unless you are fabulously wealthy and have exotic antiques, you can definitely buy an entirely new set of furniture for less than it will cost to ship an existing set. The long-distance guy at Two Men and a Truck was laughing a little telling me about customers who wanted him to ship furniture **TO** North Carolina. North Carolina is the furniture manufacturing center of the universe. Shipping heavy furniture across the country into the heart of furniture manufacturing is really silly.

One of the other interesting things we did is stop at the local Fedex Office store and ask about ground shipping rates. A 20lb box from Austin to Dublin, OH would be about $50, depending on shape and a few other things. In other words, the Fedex Ground rate on that route would be roughly $2.50/pound. On the other hand, the “Not Summer” quote we discussed above was about $7000 for about 2000 lbs of stuff – also in the vicinity of $2.50/pound. Hmmm….

The other thing we have noticed is that there seems to be almost no market for used furniture. In theory, one can advertise furniture on Craigslist. In practice, we have had mixed success getting rid of stuff this way, even when we gave it away free. The problem is worse if you are in a second floor apartment. Almost no one on Craigslist will come get heavy furniture from a second floor apartment. Buying furniture is really easy. Getting rid of it is really difficult.

What about renting? 30 years ago when I was single, I rented furniture for an apartment from CORT Furniture Rental for an apartment for a year. It was great. Painless to acquire. Painless to dispose of. CORT is still around. From my preliminary check, I can minimally equip our apartment with the key heavy furniture pieces from CORT for around $200-$300 per month. This is the direction I am headed in currently.

The really problem here is our current wobbly-as-jello economy in which there seems to be no such thing as a “permanent” job. We are now thinking carefully about how to play this game in which the constant turbulence in the economy forces us to move every year. It looks something like this:

  1. Ruthlessly eliminate the last vestiges of paper-based anything. We just closed our safe deposit box. We will be moving our wills to a cloud-based specialty service soon.
  2. Rent any piece of furniture heavier than 20 lbs. The rental service delivers and installs it. When it is time to move to the next spot, the rental service comes and takes it away.
  3. Buy smaller furniture pieces locally, as cheaply as possible. Walmart has amazing stuff in this category. I just purchased two very nice LED desk lamps for $7 each at Walmart.
  4. Rent a storage locker somewhere and never move it. This becomes your “home”. Ship precious memory stuff to that locker and keep it there. At the start of each temporary assignment, select a few small sentimental items from the museum (your storage locker) and ship them UPS or Fedex to the new apartment to enjoy and give a little warmth to the environment.
  5. Move things like clothing around in 20lb boxes. Ship them by UPS, Fedex, or USPS. The cost is about the same as the moving company would charge and you will have full electronic tracking and better control of delivery.
  6. Ship cars, but be prepared to have a several day window in which they get picked up. Rent cars while permanent cars are being transported.
  7. Make judicious use of the two luggage pieces that most airlines will allow for a reasonable baggage fee.

Overall, the challenge here is to simply have a lot less stuff. That is, we have to get used to having a lot less stuff until the miracle occurs in which we end up with the $4m or so currently needed to be basically financially independent in the United States. Until that time, we have to be on a very agile footing and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

New Year’s Eve at the Swissôtel Merchant Court

Youjin Smiling

Youjin Welcomes us to the Bar around 11PM

A year of commuting to Singapore to help a shipyard with the software systems integration of the systems on an offshore oil rig wrapped up with a 28-day visit starting in early December. Since we knew far in advance that this visit would cover Christmas and New Years, we focused our family festivities on Thanksgiving. Tomoko accompanied me to Singapore and our three grown children were on their own.

Dave, Countdown

Dave, Countdown

So…what to do for New Year’s eve?  It rapidly became clear that *THE EVENT* for New Year’s Eve in Singapore is fireworks at Marina Bay.  However, everyone wetalked with described massive crowding and congestion. Also, December is really not the best season to visit Singapore – it is monsoon season, constantly soggy. Finally, I had to work the day of New Year’s eve.  We decided to simply hang around the vicinity of our hotel: the Swissôtel Merchant Court which is conveniently right on the river at Clarke Quay. That proved to be an excellent decision.

Tomoko, Countdown

Tomoko, Countdown

After packing up – we would be departing early on January 1st – we had drinks in the hotel’s club lounge on the 11th floor. Luckily, we caught a break on the weather. It was dry and pleasant. We had a very nice light dinner outside by the river at SQUE behind Central. After that, we returned to the bar at the Merchant Court.

Emily Takes a Picture

Emily Takes a Picture

We arrived at the bar just before 11PM and were pleased to see “Team Korea” on duty. That is, during 2014 I visited the Merchant Court bar quite a few times to have a cup of tea or a glass of wine before bedtime. Of course, the entire staff of the hotel was very nice to me during the year, but four of the bar staff in particular – two from Korea and two from the Philippines – spent a lot of time chatting with me. It was very pleasant and made the place feel quite a bit like home. In any event, Emily and Youjin from Korea were on-duty at the bar for New Year’s Eve.

Tomoko Was Drinking Tea

Tomoko Was Drinking Tea

Tomoko was actually drinking the hotel’s very nice TWG Tea “Moroccan Mint Tea” which I also had on any number of evenings during the year. It was served in a very nice little pot with a cookie on the side – very pleasant.

Team Korea - Emily and Youjin

Team Korea – Emily and Youjin

As midnight approached, there was a lot of activity. The bar manager put a bucket of champagne bottles in ice on the bar. These were purchased quickly by the large number of customers. I was fine drinking a glass of white wine and Tomoko was sticking with the Moroccan Mint Tea.

Emily and Dave Just After Midnight

Emily and Dave Just After Midnight

There was a large-screen TV in the bar and it counted down the seconds at Marina Bay where a large stage show was in progress. The show alternated performers from each of Singapore’s different ethnic communities. It was very nice!

Tomoko and Dave Just After Midnight

Tomoko and Dave Just After Midnight

After Midnight, everyone cheered and took pictures…

Balloons Everywhere

Balloons Everywhere

The bar staff also unleashed a huge cluster of balloons which more-or-less filled the bar. Customers were running around kicking the balloons and throwing them at each other. Meanwhile, the national stage show was playing music on the large screen TV. It was quite fun and relaxing!

Team Philippines - Mae and Elle

Team Philippines – Mae and Elle

After around 30 minutes, we settled our bill and wandered out side. The first stop was the outdoor bar hut by the river which is also run by the hotel. Team Philippines – Mae and Elle – were on duty. They were really busy, but they stopped for a second so I could take their picture.

Clarke Quay - No Selfie-Stick Zone

Clarke Quay – No Selfie-Stick Zone

Wandering across the bridge into Clarke Quay proper, we encountered this sign. Those selfie-sticks certainly are a menace. The Singapore government had thoughtfully declared Clarke Quay to be a “No Selfie-Stick Zone” for the evening and put up this warning sign.

Singaporeans Celebrate New Years on their Smartphones

Singaporeans Celebrate New Years on their Smartphones while Waiting for a Table

Just around 1AM, things were hoping at Clarke Quay. There was a throbbing crowd. Bands were playing in all the clubs. It was really lively. This group of young Singaporean friends was out on Clarke Quay, waiting for a seat at a restaurant, taking in the ambiance, and furiously tapping on their smartphones.

World Languages Expo 2011

Colorado Convention Center, Bear Peeking through Window

Colorado Convention Center, Bear Peeking through Window

What an interesting conference! Usually when I go to conferences, after half a day I have pretty much absorbed the key points and either skip the rest or spend a lot of time feeling bored. This event was different.

Last week, Tomoko and I flew to Denver for the 2011 Annual Convention and World Languages Expo of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).  Frankly, having been to any number of not-all-that-exciting conferences put on by the high-tech industry, my expectations were not very high. I signed Tomoko and myself up for the workshops on Thursday and scheduled our return flight on Sunday, imagining that we would probably be finished with the conference by lunchtime on Friday and spend the rest of the weekend sightseeing.

Nothing of the sort happened!  Tomoko and I were running from early morning until evening for three days. Each day we ended up the day so stuffed with new information and things to discuss that we headed straight for the nearest bar so we could immediately start sorting out what we had learned that day.

Of course, not everyone would be so stimulated by this event.  For me, however, the question of how the human being acquires languages is a rather fundamental intellectual and philosophical question. Furthermore, there were also fascinating discussions of tricky and controversial issues concerning the politics of education, technology, and funding. I saw a lot more true innovation going on at this show than I have seen from any sector of the technology industry in ten years or more.

First up: what exactly is language proficiency?  I spent the first day in two excellent workshops lead by Professor Chantal Thompson of Brigham Young University. Because of its close association with the Mormon Church and the church’s missionary language training program, BYU is a leader in the field of language instruction. The first thing Professor Thompson went over was the difference between “achievement” and “proficiency”:

Achievement Proficiency
What you know about the language. What you can actually do with the language.

Think about that distinction for a moment. The vast majority of language teaching programs all over the world have been focusing on the wrong thing for the last two hundred years or so. Language teachers LOVE achievement. It is nice. It is neat. You can test it with multiple choice tests. Students from Confucian heritage countries also love achievement for the same reasons: it is very straightforward, you just spend thousands of hours memorizing things in preparation for the multiple-choice tests.

The problem is that it is entirely possible to have a student with an amazing score on multiple choice tests who is not capable of ordering a glass of beer in a bar.

Teaching proficiency is much, much harder. It is also substantially more labor intensive. Instead of simply reciting a list of vocabulary to forty silent, passive students and telling them to come back on Friday for a multiple-choice test, you actually have to get them to talk and discuss meaningful content in a systematic manner. For an instructor, this task is quite challenging.

OK. So we are not going to rely so much on multiple-choice tests. How are we going to measure anything? The answer is, you need to do one-on-one assessments and you need a very rigorous framework for assessing levels of proficiency. The ACTFL has been doing outstanding work in this area, building on and extending work originally done by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department. The ACTFL’s scale starts at “Novice” and continues through “Intermediate” and “Advanced” to “Superior”. In each of the first three levels, the scale is subdivided as follows:

  • Low – Just barely there. Hanging on by your fingernails.
  • Medium – Solid performance according to the criteria of the level.
  • High – Couldn’t quite make it to the next level. That is, performing
    at the next level most of the time, but suffering from periodic relapses.

The ACTFL (more precisely its partner Language Testing International) does formal assessments of all four modes of communication: speaking, writing, listening and reading. Professor Thompson’s workshop was focused on speaking and techniques of moving students up the verbal scale.

During an assessment of a student’s speaking ability, a trained interviewer interactively talks with a student to identify a subject that the student has sufficient interest and background knowledge to discuss. The interviewer then prompts the student to have an extended conversation about that subject.  My impression is that the conversation is either usually or always recorded with the formal assessment happening off-line.

Several different factors are considered. Three of the most interesting are text type, listener and accuracy. Here is an abbreviated summary of my understanding of the scale:

Level Text Type Listener Accuracy
Novice Words Indulgent listener, used to foreign speakers Errors OK
Intermediate Sentences Sympathetic listener, used to foreign speakers Errors OK
Advanced Paragraphs. Should be able to talk in connected discourse, not just isolated sentences. Man on the street. Accent/errors should not create any sense of burden for the listener or impair the meaning
Superior Abstract. Should be able discuss politics, science, literature and the like. Should be able to present a structured analysis of pros and cons of a position. Man on the street. Mild accent OK. Isolated errors OK. Repeated patterns of errors NOT OK.

Interesting philosophical point: most native speakers in most languages only score somewhere in the “advanced low” or “advanced medium” range in their own language.  In other words, if the student does not have the intellectual capacity to deliver a precise and articulate reasoned argument in his own language, you obviously cannot teach him to do so in a foreign language!

…which led to the next point that came up repeatedly during the many different talks and workshops during the next three days: Many American university students are incapable of talking intelligently about much of anything these days. They seem to be so plugged into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and video games that they are completely unaware of even the most critical current events.  Healthcare reform? Never heard of it. European financial crisis? Don’t know anything about that. Upcoming presidential election? What’s an election? Many university language professors find themselves having to introduce their students to the remarkable concept that there is a world beyond their little social universe and that there are subjects that require more thought and analysis than you can drop into a 140 character Twitter post.

The discussions of education politics were also fascinating. There is a certain well-funded language learning software company that has high pressure salesman standing in front of mountains of yellow software packages in most major airports. This company also runs wildly irresponsible television advertisements promising that a student can effortlessly learn Japanese “without memorizing any vocabulary or grammar rules” Having spent the better part of three decades and many thousands of hours to get to something like the lower end of the advanced range in Japanese, I can assure my readers that gaining even the most rudimentary conversational ability in Japanese requires a lot of effort. Huge amounts of effort. At any rate, this company’s steroid-induced sales force has apparently been telling school districts that they can save money by firing their language teachers and simply handing out CD-ROMs to their students. Breathtakingly unethical behavior! For obvious reasons, this company was the only language software company in the world not present at the show.

Our final session on Saturday afternoon, was a delightful talk called “Blood, Teeth and Lady Gaga” by Leslie Davison of Dillon Valley Elementary in Colorado. Ms. Davison is funnier than a nightclub act.  She teaches a sort of elementary school immersion Spanish language program for very young elementary students. She points out that if you want to get students to retain language, the first thing you have to do is throw away the traditional vocabulary guidelines and restructure the lessons around things the kids are actually interested in. Days of the week? The only day most of these kids are interested in is Saturday. Not a compelling subject. Weather?  First grade boys could care less about the weather. Any parent will tell you that a first grade boy will happily run naked into a blizzard to play with his friends. Weather is not a very relevant to a first grade boy either. Ms. Davison’s technique is as simple as it is radical: just ask the kids what they are interested in and build the lesson in such a manner that they spend all the time talking about things that they want to talk about anyway.

By the way, we did have a pretty good time in the evening finding nice restaurants with glasses of wine to help us get our spinning heads under control. We particularly liked Larimer Street between 20th and 22nd. Pizza at Marco’s Coal Fired Pizzeria was delightful as was dinner at twelverestaurant.

At any rate, I came back to Austin with many pages of notes and ideas for Asatte Press. Now the major challenge is simply to decide which of the dozens of projects and opportunities to tackle first.

Sunday Brunch in Blanco, Texas

We drive from Austin to San Antonio several times per year. The obvious route from Austin to San Antonio is to drive South on interstate 35. Unfortunately, I35 is the major path of commerce between the United States and Mexico. It is full of aggressive big rig trucks as well as all manner of other vehicles. It is never a fun drive. Fortunately, there is a much more pleasant alternative route. We generally drive West from Austin on highway 290 until it intersects highway 281 near Johnson City. We then drive south on highway 281 through the small town of Blanco and then continue driving South into San Antonio. From where we live in Austin, this route generally adds about ten minutes to the door-to-door travel time. However, the route is infinitely more pleasant and relaxing than the drive on I35.

That having been said, we have never really done much more than stop for a sandwich or fill the car’s gasoline tank in Blanco. However, this weekend we had a social event Saturday evening in Dripping Springs and a meeting of the South Texas Naval Academy Parents Club on Sunday in San Antonio. Dripping Springs is about one-third of the way to San Antonio along our preferred route through Blanco. we decided to spend the night in Blanco and continue on the San Antonio in the morning. We were very pleasantly surprised by both our hotel accommodations and the Sunday brunch the next morning.

The Blanco County Inn & Guesthouses

After some research, Tomoko booked us a room at The Blanco County Inn & Guesthouses, a small and very reasonably priced hotel just north of downtown Blanco on highway 281.

Blanco County Inn is Configured for Drive Up

Blanco County Inn is Configured for Drive Up

Actually, this property is what used to be called a motel. That is, you can drive right up to the door of your room. Motels were once very popular in the United States. Unfortunately, motels became fatally associated with sleazy, poorly maintained facilities, economically marginal inhabitants, crime, drugs, prostitution and so on. As such, motels went out of fashion in  a big way. Newer properties built by the large hotel chains are careful to call themselves “Inns” or “Hotels” or “Suites” or anything but “Motel”. They also are careful to build their facilities as uncomfortably brightly lit, large monolithic boxes. Actually, however, this lemming-like stampede has been unfortunate, because it is in fact really convenient to be able to drive directly up to your room, rather than having to haul all of your stuff into the depths of some sort of cavernous monolithic box.

Clever door lock arrangement at the Blanco County Inn

Clever door lock arrangement at the Blanco County Inn

The next clever thing at the Blanco County Inn was the check-in process. There wasn’t any.

At the time Tomoko made the reservation (by telephone I believe) the owner gave us a unique four digit code. When we got to the property, we simply drove up to the door and entered the code on the lock. The door opened immediately. The code is unique and re-programmed for each customer. No standing around shuffling papers. No electronic key cards to lose. You give them a four-digit number that means something to you and that number is your door key. Very elegant.

How about the interior of the room? As I mentioned above, motels had acquired such a dismal reputation over the years, that almost no property dares to identify itself as a motel anymore. This property clearly was built in the era of motels and still has the classic exterior look of a motel. Nevertheless, we were surprised and delighted with the interior of the room.

Brand new flat panel TV with rustic desk

Brand new flat panel TV with rustic desk

The room certainly was compact. However, it was in perfect condition. Fresh paint. New fixtures. Nothing chipped or broken.  There were numerous charming touches like a tile mosaic laid into the tile wall of the shower. The furniture was a charming rustic style. There was a brand new flat panel television with a large selection of cable channels. In the bathroom, there was a little basket of boutique toiletries of the type one would expect to find in a major fancy hotel. The coffee maker was nice and new. Our receipt was waiting for us on the desk.  We relaxed and watched television for a while. In the morning, we made coffee and sat outside in the cool morning quiet for a bit. We then moved our stuff 15 feet back to the trunk of our car and meandered off.

Very easy. Very relaxing. Very pleasant.

Uptown Blanco Restaurant

Interior of Uptown Blanco Restaurant

Interior of Uptown Blanco Restaurant

Our Sunday Brunch was at the Uptown Blanco Restaurant on the Blanco courthouse square. Blanco is the county seat of Blanco county. Like most such Texas county seats, it has a classic county square with a courthouse in the middle. The restaurant is actually part of the Uptown Blanco Arts Center, which covers a city block and includes several historic buildings as well as some newer facilities.

Although I did not ask, I would guess that the floors of this building are made from the now almost extinct Longleaf Yellow Pine. The ceilings appear also to be classic copper relief work.

Sunday is the only day that breakfast is served and the restaurant opens at 9:00 AM. The menu contained several interesting items, but we opted to have the buffet and were not disappointed.

Made to order omelettes included fresh poblano peppers

Made to order omelettes included fresh poblano peppers

I started off with an omelette. I have had made- to-order omelettes in fancy hotels all over the world. This restaurant’s choice of ingredients was much more extensive than normal and had a specific ingredient I have never seen anywhere else: fresh poblano peppers. I asked for bacon, mushrooms, poblano peppers and cheese. The young man behind the bar, carefully made my omelette, taking a little more time than normal. The result was perfect. The omelette was just the right consistency: soft, but not runny, and not dry. The cheese was rich and combined with the bite of the poblano peppers to make a delicious combination.

They also had many other items on the buffet including  a very tasty roasted pork loin with a raisin sauce. We had a very gracious server who brought orange juice and kept our coffee cups full.

Fresh peach and berry cobblers

Fresh peach and berry cobblers

We sat and read the local Blanco newspaper: after a hard-fought game, the local high school football team was defeated by its arch rival Lago Vista High School. I finished up my brunch with a cinnamon roll and one helping each of the two fresh cobblers on the buffet: peach cobbler and berry cobbler. This local Texas specialty was delicious and an unusual but pleasant addition to a brunch buffet.