My sister and brother-in-law greeting me as I stepped off the plane in New Mexico at least 25 years ago.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

For the Love of All That's Holy, Stop Raining!

I'm not the kind of guy to grouch about the weather. Well, at least not too much. Why bellyache about something you can't change? At least in Greenville, South Carolina, I don't have to train my attention to 10 feet of snow each winter. I'm feeling better already.

But, I'm sick of rain. It's raining here now and feels like it has been raining nearly without pause for months. Forget about getting anything productive, such as mulching leaves, cleaning gutters or opening the chimney, done. Granted, this situation is exacerbated by my travel schedule. I'm sure there have been some pleasant days I've missed by being on the road, but that knowledge doesn't solve the issue.

My house has vinyl siding (I know: classy!) and the trim needs a coat of paint. I was waiting until cooler fall temps to tackle that project. Guess what? We really didn't have much of a fall, and what we did have, was one rainy day after another. In terms of temperature, I guess we may still be in fall, but the chances of getting anything more done than the remaining leaves raked and mulched are slim, indeed.

To compound the sky-water issue is that the damn rain is following me around. I was poured on for a week in Dallas last February, a week in Austin in October and it was raining as I left Los Angeles this past week. Los Angeles!!! WTF?

If you are living in an area that is below its average rainfall for the year, simply invite me for a week's stay. I can almost guarantee an inch or two or the wet stuff will accompany me. I'm like the Pied Piper of precipitation (a bit of alliteration for my English-major readers).

Having lived in places where water is in short supply, I almost feel guilty for bitching about the rain. We survived on well water when I was a little kid. Water was such an issue that during the summer my cousins and I would have to take baths in steel tubs located at a separate well 200 yards behind the house. I've lived in southern New Mexico and West Texas. I get the scarcity of water. That, however, doesn't mean I want to be rained on for days at a stretch.

Enough already. Stop it! 

As a post script to this blog post I'll share what is ultimately a rain story some folks from Nashville told me as we enjoyed a libation at my Friday night watering hole, Soby's. I've heard that the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter has reliability issues. I guess this isn't just rumors.

This couple was in town because their oldest daughter plays on a travel soccer team and they came to watch a tournament. Apparently she had a game on Saturday and was dining with her team. They told me one of their current family cars was a Mercedes Sprinter. It is, in fact, the second Sprinter passenger van they have owned. They drive a Sprinter because they have five children and it's the only vehicle large enough to seat seven and still have plenty of cargo room for luggage or whatever.

On their original Sprinter they experienced chronic engine problems that they tried to get resolved at around 19,000 miles. Finally at close to 50,000 mi, Mercedes offered them a deep discount on a new Sprinter to resolve the engine issue. So far so good on the engine in the newer Sprinter. However, in both Sprinters leaks formed around the air conditioning unit located on the van roof. Whoever sits in the second-row seat usually holds an umbrella over his or her head when it rains. The first Sprinter actually had mold growing in it by the time it was traded. They are currently attempting to resolve the leaking in their current Sprinter.

I find the story fascinating and worthy of sharing. Oh, and a 2019 Ford Transit is in their future.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Daisy Duke and BEER2WHISKEY: What?

I'm not the kind of guy to give up on things. I'm a stubborn S.O.B. when it comes to not backing down from accomplishing something I have set my sights on. (Pretty-strong words for a slacker of my caliber.) Perhaps this should have been my approach when pursuing a career, but, yawn, nope. No, this never-give-up attitude is more about projects I begin.

I have found that solving many problems is much like trying to remember the name of that actress who played Daisy Duke in the 1980s TV comedy Dukes of Hazzard or any other actor in any other show or movie. If you stop thinking about it and let the old subconscious do the heavy lifting while you turn your attention to other pursuits, the answer will, at some point, pop into your head. It was Catherine Bach, by the way. And, for some odd reason, I didn't have to think about it or look it up.

When needing to get over some hurdle in a home-improvement project, I'll try the solutions I can think of; but if they fail, I will put the project on pause, noodling over a solution for the next hours, days or, sometimes, even weeks. Eventually, a way through will come to me. I'm not just going to throw in the towel. I have been struggling with such a problem in my greatroom-ceiling project for a year.

I installed bead board with the help of a fraternity brother over the entire greatroom ceiling a year ago last month. I just finally got around to painting it the end of September. I hung the light fixtures and ceiling fan. Now, I need to install crown molding. The issue: It's a vaulted ceiling. The extra angles created by a vaulted ceiling are a major problem. I'm no professional. Perhaps a professional finishing carpenter has a ready-made solution. I don't. Yesterday, however, I messed with it again for a while and think I've got this critter tree'd. I'm going to go ahead and order the materials and work on it during a little down time in December. We'll see.

That brings me to my video YouTube project BEER2WHISKEY. When a friend first mentioned the concept, suggesting I give it a go, I was skeptical. Would anyone really be interested in watching videos of breweries and distilleries where one or two of the core people (owners, managers, brewers and so forth) would sit down with me and sometimes a sidekick to talk about the business, their backgrounds and the products? I seriously considered the idea for a couple of months as I researched similar video projects on the Internet. The more I pondered it, the more the idea appealed to me.

I shot the first videos for it on my annual trip to the Florida Keys in July of 2017. I had a graphic artist whip up a logo over the next few weeks. In the meantime, my buddy Big Jon agreed to do a series of short videos where he and I sat down and talked about a specific beer (today's “Big Jon in 5” segments) and I schlepped my video gear to my annual fraternity brothers getaway where four of us sat down with different bottles of whiskey and talked about them. By mid September 2017, I had enough segments in the can and edited to launch the channel. A new segment has gone live every Thursday since.

I shoot these segments with two cameras. Two cameras makes editing out things much less noticeable because you can jump from one camera to the other when cutting. It also means you have backup audio. Two cameras also adds a bit of production quality sadly lacking on most YouTube videos. I invested in a second camera, tripod, lights, a 4-station wireless mic system, assorted odds and ends like extension cords and a small monitor. Of course, you need cases to cart all of this crap around. I invested in a couple of large, hard-sided Pelican Cases. This was a huge outlay of cash for a guy who at any given time is one major-appliance replacement away from bankruptcy.

As is the case for most people who launch a YouTube channel, my ultimate goal was to monetize the channel, either with enough views to begin making money from YouTube or with some sponsorships, or, a combination of the two. Yahtzee! 
Platypus Brewing in Houston, Texas.
 I decided to really put the pedal to the metal in 2018. I did a series of shoots in Houston, Dallas and Northwest Montana. These were trips on which I usually shot two videos per day over a three- or four-day period. I dragged my gear along on carmaker-event trips and shot segments in Hawaii, California and Kentucky. To date I've shot roughly 70 segments and edited 60 or so of those. They range from 6 to 35 minutes in length. I figure just editing requires approximately 15-20 minutes of my time for each screen minute. This has been a huge investment of time and capital.

What in the wide, wide world of sports does BEER2WHISKEY have to do with the first four paragraphs of rambling prose? you may ask. Well, simple, even with all the effort and investment, this YouTube channel hasn't gotten any traction. It picks up 3-5 new subscribers each month, but in the world of social media, that's like sap rolling down a tree.

Don't get me wrong, I'm having a blast doing this. And that's a good thing because with each passing week it looks as though I'll have to settle for the joy it gives me. I may have to let virtue be its own reward.

I get all manner of suggestions from well-meaning friends about how to grow the audience. Most of them require sinking even more time or money into this project for which each segment requires about an 8-hour day total to shoot, edit and upload. I still need to work for a living.

I haven't given up. I'm too damn stubborn for that, but I have shifted into pondering mode. Coaxing a brewery into hosting a shoot during the holidays is next to impossible. So, I've got a month or so before I do another shoot. I still need to edit a segment each week, but I'll use the extra time I have to re-evaluate this project and my expectations for it.

In the meantime, I'll keep cranking out the videos. Maybe there will be a Christmas miracle. Even if there isn't, I'll be back at it in January.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Holiday Season: Here We Go Again

I'm not the kind of guy who humbugs his way through the holiday season (Thanksgiving through New Year's Day), but I don't look forward to it either. Until 15-or-so years ago, it was my favorite time of the year. Today: not so much. Now this five-week period is more of an interruption to my schedule and a drain on my bank account than anything else. I don't dread it, but I could easily do without it.

Here's a breakdown by “special” day.

Thanksgiving. I vaguely remember, as a young whippersnapper (Only the second time in my life I've written that word and both times were today. Kind of catchy. I like it.) when we lived within a couple hours drive of family, doing actual extended-family Thanksgiving meals. You know, a kitchen full of older female family members creating traditional family dishes while the men sat around smoking cigarettes be'essing about life and the kids played outside.

When I was age six, we finally moved sufficiently far away that more often than not, Thanksgiving was just my parents and me. My sister and her family made the trip for Christmas. Working solo, my mother continued making all the dishes to which we were accustomed: turkey, chestnut dressing, Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn, jellied cranberry sauce and so forth. From that point forward, the day became more about the food than family for me.

By the time I was 23, both my parents were gone. With my mother's passing in 1975, I was cast adrift for Thanksgiving. As a Thanksgiving orphan, I've always had friends who invited me to their homes for their Thanksgiving meal; but it was their Thanksgiving meal. I gratefully accept an invitation each Thanksgiving, but it's just not the same because the meal isn't the same. Often I try to preserve some of my family's tradition by whipping up some dried corn and bringing my own cranberry sauce, but it's still not the same.

Christmas. My father died in 1973. I spent that Christmas and all but two Christmas holidays since with my sister's family in New Mexico. The two I missed fell on the Christmas after I relocated somewhere new: South Florida in 1984, and South Carolina 10 years ago. I just didn't have the money or the motivation to make the trip.

My sister's family does Christmas the way it should be done. Christmas is such a big deal to them, historically the house is completely decorated by Thanksgiving. And, I mean completely decorated. Outside and inside. My brother-in-law spends days putting a train set under the tree with its very elaborate village. There are lights, candles and poinsettias all over the house. Her adult children follow suit in their own homes. This will be the first year my sister isn't hosting the Christmas dinner. The family has simply outgrown a sit-down meal at her house. This will be yet another change.

Because I'm never home on Christmas, I don't decorate....much. When living in Florida, I threw a big holiday wine tasting and decorated for that. I don't entertain at my Greenville home. Other than some out-of-town guests, I've had people over maybe half-a-dozen times since moving here. It's not a house set up to entertain. I usually put up some outside Christmas lights, but this has more to do with making it look like someone is home during the 10 days I'm gone than it does about dressing up the house for the holiday. Taking down Christmas decorations makes me melancholy. I've always hated it. I now use the fact that I'm never home for Christmas day as an excuse not to decorate.

Along about Thanksgiving, I begin stressing out about the gift giving aspect. To whom do I give and what do I give them? The family just keeps growing. I used to have 6 people to concentrate on and now there are about 20. That doesn't even count nonrelatives. It's just a lot of pressure.

There is no way for me to look at the Thanksgiving-New Year's holiday period any differently than I do any other holiday, which is that it's a huge interruption to my revenue production. Not only am I spending all this money on travel and gift giving, but I'm not making any money. It's a double whammy. In fact, the not-making-any-money part oozes into the first week or two of January. This brings with it a lot of stress. Not that I don't have savings, but that I must dip into savings to survive this six-week or longer revenue drought. This sucks much of the joy out of the Christmas season for me.

New Year's. This is a day that to me simply means I advance the year when dating a check. At my age, I don't view the new year as a fresh beginning. I see it as being a year older and more likely that something is going to go wrong with my health, my house or a loved one. Although no one would ever accuse me of being the glass-is-half-full guy, I have always been basically optimistic that things will somehow work out. They always have for me. How else can you explain my freelancing for basically the last 20-plus years and still having my nose above the water line? But I long ago quit waiting for my ship to come in. I don't think it ever set sail.

The odds simply aren't with next year being better than this year. I'm no longer in my 30s. Things are winding down and not up. I'm not sad about this. It is what it is. I don't even dwell on it, but it does frame my perspective on the new year. I don't hate it. I just don't care about it.It is meaningless to me.

And there you have my thoughts on the next few weeks. I'll be glad to spend some time with my family in New Mexico and tip a few in honor of the holidays with assorted friends. But, this time of year just doesn't mean to me what it once did. I have lost my enthusiasm for the holidays.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Steelers: My Obligatory Commentary on This Season

I'm not the kind of guy who puts a lot of stock in professional sports teams. Those who know me, recognize that I care little about sports on much of any level. I know people consumed by college sports. I am grateful that I matriculated from a small, private Midwest college with no national profile. I don't even need pretend I care about what its competitive teams are doing.

I am the same with professional sports. Although I get the poetry of baseball, it puts me to sleep. Basketball: I barely understand the difference between a lay up and a dunk. I never liked the sport growing up and certainly don't waste my time with it as an adult. I am amazed by what hockey players can do while balanced on a razor-thin steel blade, but I'm done when the first (of several) fights breaks out. If I want to watch fights, well, I'll watch real fights. All of the ice ballet in the world can't outweigh my loathing for the constant fighting and the NHL's apparent lack of interest in really correcting the issue.

Then there is the NFL. And, I suppose, CFL (Canadian Football League) for those who simply can't get enough of following competitive sports. I am, what I would call, a casual Steelers fan. That is, I follow the Steelers, but I don't lose sleep over missing one of their games. My (whatever day of the week they play) day doesn't revolve around making sure I'm in front of a TV at kickoff. If I get to see them play, fine; if not, I'll survive. I have become even more lackadaisical about following them since I moved to South Carolina. I left my Steelers-following friends with whom I watched most Steelers games behind in Florida. Football is more fun to watch with fellow travelers.

This is my 10th football season in Greenville. For the first nine years, whoever at the local CBS affiliate made the decision about which games would air on Sunday afternoons, no longer seems to be calling the shots. I judge he/she was a Steelers fan. Probably no more than two Sunday afternoon games a season weren't offered locally. That same person either moved on or was struck down by a bus. So far this season, only two Sunday-afternoon Steelers games have been televised locally, and I was out of town for the first one.

I'm not a fan of sports bars, particularly on “game” days. If to see a Steelers game I have to go to a sports bar by myself, chances are pretty good that I'm going to miss it. I will watch other teams play if I'm somewhere and a game is on the TV. But, I really don't care about watching other teams play. On game day I root for two teams: The Steelers and whichever team is playing the Patriots. Otherwise, I have nada real interest.

I used to usually pepper my daily then weekly Clanging Bell posts with two or three Steelers blogs during the fall and winter. Mostly they consisted of rants about what I considered to be poor play, coaching and/or officiating. I've missed so many games this season that I just haven't had much fodder for a blog. My knee-jerk reaction to the sorry-ass Browns playing the Steelers to a tie in the season opener was to fire off a scathing blog, but there is simply too much talent among the Steelers roster for me to believe that game was anything but an anomaly. Of course, at the end of four games the Steelers had racked up only one win. I was tempted to blog that Tomlin was, perhaps, looking at overseeing his first losing season as Steelers head coach. I resisted that urge; although, I did say that privately to a couple of people.

Quality of play has relentlessly improved since that second loss. The Steelers offensive line is turning in brilliant work in both pass protection and opening holes for the season's biggest surprise, running back James Conner. Le'Veon who? Big Ben is still razor accurate (mostly) and he and Antonio Brown finally seem to be on the same page. It seems no one who plays a position qualifying them as a potential point maker doesn't have at least one TD under his belt. There is no shortage of heroes.
This is how Newton spent much of his evening.

After last Thursday's robust 52-21 blowout of the Carolina Panthers, I felt compelled to blog. It was an awesome performance marred only by a questionable TD call that wasn't overturned by a review. So, maybe it was actually a TD. Otherwise, the Steelers were firing on all cylinders. Panther quarterback Cam Newton never seemed more than a half-an-arm's length from being dragged down and was sacked five times. He was hurried multiple times and hit more often than not. On nearly every Panther offensive play there were at least two or three black jerseys running around the backfield.

When Big Ben left the game at the beginning of the fourth quarter, he had thrown more touchdown passes than incompletions! Even the Steelers kicker Chris Boswell, unreliable this season, was seven for seven point afters and nailed a 50-yard field goal.

After the game Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said something to the effect of “We're really not that good.” Soundly thrashing a 6-2 Panthers team maybe something the Steelers couldn't do on a weekly basis, but for sure, this is a significantly improved team than met the Browns in week one. And, the really good news for Steelers fans, the team just seems to be getting better and better.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Retirement Is for Quitters

I'm not the kind of guy who wishes he was playing golf or fishing rather than working. Yes, oh, to be well enough off financially to laze around and not worry about money. Sadly, a misspent youth, and quite frankly a misspent middle age, put the whole retirement thing permanently out of reach. Sure, I know that unless I'm lucky enough to be struck down in the street by a runaway sanitation truck, at some point I won't be physically able to sit upright at my keyboard and peck out revenue-producing prose. I get that. If I was a roofer, I'd already be done. But fortunately, I've made a living the past 30 years sitting on my ass. I can probably eek out another decade or so doing the same. Fingers crossed.

The real issue, however, is that I'm often busier than I wish to be. Don't get me wrong: I'm not busier inflating my cash flow – not by a long shot. I am always on the market for more paying work. I challenge you to show me a freelance writer who isn't. Nope. Most of my scheduling issues are of my own doing.

I currently have two video projects demanding a fair amount of time each week. My BEER2WHISKEY YouTube channel must be fed on a weekly basis. That entails a two-to-three-hour shoot and between four and six hours of editing, depending on the subject matter. I also have my somewhat neglected of late that doesn't usually involve any dedicated shooting time, but does eat up two or three hours editing time. Currently, most of my shooting is done on carmaker media events, which adds another schedule-eating component to my work week.

Carmakers have media coming-out events for all-new or totally redesigned vehicles. These are typically two-or-three-day affairs that are scattered all across the country. On average in any given month I attend three such events. I could turn down many of these invitations, freeing up nearly a week most months, but, hey, I enjoy them. Also, at least one or two of these trips each month are at the behest of my biggest client. They are big revenue makers for me.

In the midst of all of this work and work-related travel, I always have at least one home-improvement project underway. I am still struggling with my greatroom-ceiling project that began more than a year ago. All that remains is trimming it out, but that will be a huge undertaking.

Then, because I do need a little R&R on occasion, I have a number of annual trips baked into my scheduling pie. I make a trek to New Mexico to visit my sister and her extended family twice each year: summer and Christmas. Each trip is 7 to 10 days long. I get together with a group of my fraternity brothers every year, which is a four- to seven-day commitment. For the past four or five years I have also been spending between 10 and 14 days each summer in the Florida Keys. Although the Keys trip is up in the air for this year, I'll go if the opportunity arises.

Plus there are shorter long-weekend side trips to Louisville, Knoxville and a couple of other destinations to visit friends.

Then there is this damn blog. It is my Frankenstein monster. I began Clanging Bell eight or nine years ago when work was agonizingly slow. I started it primarily to give myself something to do, as well as keeping my writing skills at least somewhat sharp. Writing, as with any skill set, must be nurtured on a consistent basis to keep it honed. Now, if I take a couple of weeks off from blogging – often because I'm just plain tired of writing – I receive verbal and e-mail grumblings from people complaining about my lack of motivation and ambition.

To all of that add that I've been attempting – not succeeding mind you, but attempting – to recapture Saturdays as a MY DAY. A day to do whatever I damn well please without remorse or guilt. If I want to sit in my recliner all day and watch movies, by God, I'm going to sit in my recliner and watch movies. I don't have anyone nagging me about raking leaves or fixing that dripping faucet, and I don't even have a pet making demands on my time. It's just me and more often than not, I still can't pull it off. There is just too much to do.

That leaves Sunday afternoon as my last oasis of Uncle Russ time in an otherwise slammed week. Come hell or high water, by noon or so on the Sundays I'm in town, I'm on my designated stool, which they save for me, at the bar in Smoke on the Water in downtown Greenville sipping a brew. Ahhh....

So, it's probably some sort of unconscious self-preservation process fogging out any wishful thinking about a life of leisure. I find fishing utterly boring. And, golf! What a colossal waste of money and time just to work myself up into a ball of raging frustration. I'd much rather work; thank-you very much.

Click here to watch the latest BEER2WHISKEY segment on the Blue Stallion Brewing Co. in Lexington, Ky.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Let There Be Light: Life Is Full of Mysteries

I'm not the kind of guy who wants to live in the dark. Who does? So, when the electricity abruptly went out in about 30 percent of my house, including the great room and some of the kitchen, I felt as though I had taken a little journey in the Wayback machine.

A year ago, as part of my greatroom-ceiling project, I had disconnected the can lights in the greatroom, rewired those light boxes and threaded the wires through the new beadboard ceiling. That's the way things remained for more than 11 months as I procrastinated over painting the new wood ceiling. I never touched those wires again during that time. All of the outlets continued functioning as did everything else on the greatroom grid. I survived just fine without the overhead lights that I rarely used anyway.

Roughly three weeks ago, just after I finally broke down and painted the ceiling, I had my typical Saturday night at home. I don't often venture out on Saturday nights. I snatch a container of homemade red sauce (gravy to my Italian friends) from the freezer, whip up some spaghetti, watch a couple of Redbox rentals, drink a few glasses of wine and enjoy the solitude. Around 10:30, I shut everything down and went to bed. So far, so good.

Sunday morning I arose to discover the electricity out in the upstairs bath, most of the outlets in the greatroom and part of the kitchen. What the hell?

My house was built in the early 1950s. Much of the wiring dates back to that time. I'm sure there have been some half-assed DIY wiring since. I should know; I've done some of it. None of that, though, easily explained an entire circuit mysteriously going out over night. My breaker box is outside. Yep, another symptom of dating back to the 1950s. Unlocking the box, I checked all the breakers. None were flipped off. I found the breaker for the greatroom, flipping it off and on several times. Back in the house, still no juice.

I ran an extension cord to my coffee maker and one to the surge strip into which all my entertainment components are plugged. I also got on Amazon and ordered some under the cabinets lights, so I would have lights to make coffee in the mornings. None of these temporary fixes were ideal, but they sufficed as band aids to get me through until I had time to bring in an electrician.

Being a Sunday morning, I had beer to drink and my usual bar stool awaited me at Smoke on the Water. There was little I could do about the electric anyway. I did go online and check out how to replace a breaker. I hoped a bad breaker was the culprit. I spent about $2.50 on a new breaker, installed it and...nada.

I had to head out of town on Tuesday to the Miami Auto Show and a little pre-event down time with Florida friends. I didn't return until the following Monday. By then, I had reached out to my pal Natalie regarding the electric issue. She and her husband are constantly upgrading their home, plus have a business that is always in constant rehab. I was sure they have an electrician on speed dial.

Luckily, their electrician was already booked to do a project at their business on Friday. Natalie got him to stop by my house on the way. Two guys showed up late Friday morning. They crawled under the house and into the attic. After testing this and that, they determined that the house is wired in a series like Christmas tree lights and somewhere in that series a wire must have broken. The proposed fix? To run a new wire from the breaker box into one of the dead greatroom outlets, which they said, would restore the entire grid. Whatever it takes, I told them.

They left promising the owner would get back to me to schedule the work and with an estimate. Actually he got back to Natalie with the estimate and the promise he would contact me to schedule. The estimate: $500. Frankly, I expected it to be more. I wasn't keen on spending the dough, but it had to be done.

I was gone another full week to Austin for the Texas Truck Rodeo and my annual fraternity-brothers get together. The electricians were scheduled to knock out the project late in the afternoon on the Monday after I returned.

Sure enough, around 3:30, three of them came trooping in. I was in the process of installing the new overhead fixtures in the great room. I had two installed and was working on the third when they arrived. I was trying to get this project finished before they got the electricity in that room working again. I left them to it and climbed back up the ladder. Less than a minute later one of them walked up to the ladder, looked up and said, “As much as I'd like to take your $500, your electric is already working.”


I shot down the ladder, walked into the kitchen and flipped on the overhead light that was among the things that hadn't been working. It came on! Trumpets sounded, birds began singing, angels began to laugh. The only explanation they could come up with is that somehow in installing the greatroom overheads, I had moved something enough to reconnect the series break. Granted, that seems the only likely explanation, but it doesn't really make sense. Those exposed wires for the overhead had gone unmolested for nearly a year when the electricity went off. I hadn't touched them. I had moved them a little while painting the ceiling, but the electric still functioned after the ceiling was painted.

It's a head scratcher.

They are coming back this-coming Monday to rework the ground for the entire system. I knew there was a problem with it. While they were there with nothing to do, I had them check out the ground. They told me what needed doing and that it would be $180 to complete that job.

Ah, the joys of owning an older house. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Whiskey Vault at Austin's Wizard Academy: Five Went In; No One Remembers How Many Came Out

I'm not the kind of guy who historically says, no. One of the most impactful things I ever read was an interview with Sir Richard Branson. When asked why at that stage in his life and with his amassed fortune he continued doing things that most of us would classify as crazy, he simply replied, “Because life is more interesting when you say, yes, than when you say, no.

Indeed. I took that to heart and my outlook changed forever.

So, when the group of my fraternity brothers who gather somewhere for a few days every year decided to make Austin this year's destination, I was an immediate “yes” vote. It was just a happy coincidence that the dates we chose months ago wound up following on the heels of the Texas Automotive Writers Association's (TAWA) annual Texas Truck Rodeo headquartered just outside of Austin. I belong to this group and participate in the rodeo that climaxes with picking the Truck of Texas.

Actually, I would have said, yes, without the influence of the Branson interview, but I like to impart a little positive life philosophy whenever I can.
Wow. The Whiskey Vault is like being in a candy store.
Jumping on board this Austin trip wasn't the real test of my always-say-yes mind set. Nope. The real test was saying, yes, to the trip to Austin's Whiskey Vault. I have to justify to myself a $25 expenditure on an afternoon matinee at the movies with popcorn. When pondering ponying up $150 for a 90-minute experience in the Whiskey Vault with its thousand whiskeys, I required some self convincing. Once committed, however, I was like a reformed smoker or a newly minted husband: My goal was to get as many others on board as possible. After a bit of button-holing, coaxing and coercion, a group of five (out of a possible nine) were paid up. We had a 2 p.m. time slot on Thursday reserved with trainer/taste leader/guide Andrew.

I arrived in Austin on a sunny, warm (85 degrees) Sunday. It was the driest, warmest day of this trip. By Monday morning the rain was falling in buckets and the temp had dropped to 40 degrees. What followed was a week of the most relentless rain I've ever experienced. Lake Travis is at a historic high level and flash-flood warnings were a daily occurrence. While still at the rodeo, our bus back to the hotel from dinner came upon a water event where two feet of water, according to the water-level indicator on the side of the road, blocked our path, requiring the bus to reverse back up a narrow two lane for about half a mile before being able to back into a driveway and turn around.

The subtitle to this Austin week would have to be Rain, Rain, and, for the Love of God, More Rain.
Our trainer Andrew leading us into Nirvana.
When Thursday finally arrived, we slogged our way to the Wizard Academy: home of the Whiskey Vault. Wizard Academy bills itself as a summer camp for adults. There are mini schools on all manner of topics to help people achieve their goals. One school features three- and four-day curriculums for getting credentialed as a whiskey sommelier. But there are lots of other courses available. Students stay on the property, which is amazing.

The guys with us who weren't participating in the tasting volunteered as our designated drivers. Following the directions on the GPS-based nav unit in the Nissan NV3500 12-passenger van Nissan provided for my Austin adventure, we headed out of Austin. Apparently I somehow overlooked the e-mail providing instruction for finding our destination. I had no clue that the Whiskey Vault was simply a very big closet crammed with booze in what is a multi-story tower housing the Wizard Academy. There were no “Whiskey Vault” signs. After wandering around for a bit, we came upon one of the academy's employees who escorted us to an outside waiting area near the vault. We were supposed to be at the academy welcome center somewhere else on the property.

Eventually our trainer Andrew found us. Leading us into the bowels of the tower, he began regaling us with stories about the the founder and the property. Yeah, swell, but where's the booze?

Walking up to a large bookcase in an alcove just off the main classroom, Andrew pulled out a book from the top shelf, triggering a switch allowing a section of the bookcase to open into a secret entrance to the Whiskey Vault. We had finally arrived.

This is the same small room where the Whiskey Vault YouTube show is shot. Having watched a few of these outrageously funny videos, I began misting up. I was home!

I had spoken to Andrew on the phone a couple of weeks earlier and knew we were in for a real experience, but had no idea just how much fun it would be. Andrew made it clear right from the get-go that there were few rules in the vault. Based on smaller pours, we could exceed the 8 tastes we each paid $150 for. A couple of the guys were more interested in Scotch (Yeah, I know. Phillistines.) than Bourbon. Andrew bounced back and forth between the the groups egging us on with samples of another and then another rare spirit. Our 90 minutes drifted into 150 minutes.

What a rush! It may have been the best $150 I ever spent. Our event finished up with a detailed tour of the tower during which we continued sipping on the spirit of our choice.

I must admit, I can't find much else to recommend Austin. Our afternoon revolving around Congress and 6th Street was an eye opener. San Francisco's homeless, panhandler issues are only marginally worse than Austin's. Austin's sidewalks have yet to be decorated with human poop, but that day is not far off. We couldn't take more than a dozen steps before being accosted by some homeless person looking for a handout or wanting to tell us a story as a preamble to asking for money. Every vacant-building doorway has a bum sleeping in it. Every underpass is a homeless camp.

Here's the thing: I will return to Austin. Carmakers love holding vehicle unveilings for the media in Austin. I will be back, but the only thing that will get me back to Austin on my own dime is another visit to the Whiskey Vault. Best time ever!

Here's the first of the BEER2WHISKEY Fiji Brothers Panel segments we shot in Austin. More to come.