ouray

ouray
It's me doing a little posing while taking a break at the Ouray, Colorado Jeep Jamboree in 1995.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Prices Are Marching Ever Skyward!

If paying $3 more for a 30-ounce container of coffee last week than I did a year ago wasn't enough of a wake-up call for me regarding the growing inflation, I just got another in-your-face reminder.

I have a client with a unique setup in terms of how its editing functions operate. Publications I have been with previously either had a stand-alone fact-checking arm or fact checking fell to the copy desk in smaller publications. This client, however, has a copy desk that is constantly kicking the vetting of my pieces back to me through my editor. I get e-mails, for example, that ask me to recheck the prices of cars I've featured in a story or other figures I've used.

I recognize that I'm not infallible, so I actually do the work. I'm not sure everyone does. In any event I just completed this exercise for a piece I did on the cheapest family sedans to own and operate. Based on Edmunds True Cost to Own (TCO) calculator, this story presents the five family sedans with the lowest ownership cost over the next five years. I submitted the story to my client six weeks ago; it was kicked back to me this morning to verify my TCO numbers.

In six weeks the TCO of every car on the list but one was up by $200 to $300. In six weeks!

I grocery shop in dibs and drabs. I usually go to the store to buy something I'm out of. I probably go four or five times a week. Because I buy things one at a time, I notice prices escalating and they have been doing so for the past year. Doesn't matter what it is: a quart of milk, a bag of Cheetos, a pound of coffee. Prices are heading upward at an alarming rate.

I don't know if we are ever going to reach the point when we have to take a wheelbarrow full of money to buy a loaf of bread or the price of an item goes up between taking if off the shelf and paying for it, but the trend is frightening nonetheless. I lived through the Carter years when inflation and interest rates skyrocketed; that was scary enough.

I'm not keen to do it again.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Paid Assignments

I am actually fretting over a couple of paid assignments at the moment. What a nice change of pace that is. Paid, paid, paid, paid...what a wonderful word; even if it is a concept with which I have all too little contact these days. I'm going to be paid! Wow, that has a pleasant ring to it.

In the old freelance writing game, getting the assignment is only a small fraction of the battle. If the story requires citing sources and presenting quotes, research becomes the bulk of the effort. Writing? Heck, writing is the easy part. Trying to figure out who can provide background and facts for the story, and then somehow getting them on the phone; that's the time-consuming, gut-wrenching, put-a-gun-in-my-mouth part. Don't worry; I don't own a gun. Not yet, anyway.

Depending on the topic, securing a qualified source for some assignments is easier than others. The two stories I am currently struggling with each have a negative aspect that is making potential sources shy away. I have solved that problem with one of the stories, but not the other. Usually tossing around the name of my client sufficiently greases the wheels to get me an audience. However, for my second assignment it is a liability. Apparently another of my client's writers, working on an earlier story, didn't treat this source particularly well. Even with all my charm -- and I have plenty -- I may not be able to overcome this objection. As he tries to make up his mind, I am shopping for another source.

Once the piece is written, I then have to deal with editors who may or may not have a clue what I'm writing about. When they don't, it's typically problematic. I'm lucky that I don't face a lot of rewrites, but a few is too many.

Finally comes (what in the last two years has become) the really tough part: getting paid. Even clients who do pay, often take their good old time. And those are the good ones. I currently have several outstanding invoices from the same client and damn little chance of ever seeing the dough. At least with nonpaying gigs, I don't have to worry about this final step.

So that's the life of a freelance writer: fret, worry, research, write, invoice, fret, worry, and maybe get paid. What a job.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Me, Myself and I: Googling My Name

Yes, I admit it; sometimes I Google myself. This is not entirely a vain, narcissistic exercise. I make my living -- such as it is -- writing, and once a month or so, I check to see what a search engine coughs up when a potential client searches my name. The first time I did this a three or four years ago, I was quite impressed with myself. Not so much of a big deal these days.

When I type in my name without quotation marks, Google spews out about half a million results. Of course after about page 10, all sorts of "heaps" surface. Hit page 35 or so and you are mostly getting references to "heaps of one thing or another." Most of these aren't particularly flattering.

Typing my name within quotation marks brings up about 5,000 results. A majority of these do link to stories I have written or mentions of me, but not all.

One of the mentions of me that I find interesting was in a news story that appeared in the Forty Myers News-Press from January 2007. The story was about Gov. Charlie Crist wanting to rein in insurance companies. When he was elected in 2006, I fired off an e-mail to him challenging him to do what every other Florida politician had promised but failed to do and get a hold of runaway homeowners insurance premiums. Evidently the reporter, using the freedom of information act, culled Crist's e-mails and picked mine out of the thousands to quote.

I never expected the governor to read the thing, let alone a newspaper to pull a quote out of it. I didn't even realize the quote had been used until Googling myself a year or so later. The quote:

Every politician wanting a ticket to Tallahassee promises to address the insurance crisis in this state. Well, talk is cheap and that's all we've had to this point. It's your turn.

Not exactly Charge of the Light Brigade, but pithy and to the point, nonetheless.

It seems there is a professional football (rugby, I assume) player in England with whom I share my name. He must not be a key player because there aren't very many links to stories about him, but he shows up among my references.

Then there is the Heaps Reunion Photos link from 2006. Somehow this link has stayed among the links on the first three or four pages of my "results" as long as I've been searching myself. I have no clue who these people are.

For the most part they appear normal; although there is more than one scary face among them. Capable of frightening buzzards off a meat wagon pops to mind. A couple of the females, however, are quite fetching in a I-hope-you're-not-my-cousin way. The big excitement at this reunion seemed to have been a checker tournament and water-balloon toss. It is obvious that this is not my family; there isn't a beer to be seen in the forty or fifty photos.

Otherwise the results are a rag-tag collection of stories I've written for Web sites and publications over the past six or seven years. Every time I Google myself, it becomes more and more apparent that I've got to get cracking on my novel.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Online Auto-Repair-Estimate Sites: Some Protection Against Cheating Mechanics

We've all been there: You have a service problem with your car and no clue if what the mechanic is telling you is true. What's the problem and how much should it cost to fix? These are the issues we wrestle with every time something goes wrong. Although it can't protect you against crooked mechanics, the Internet provides some sources for verifying service problems and establishing ballpark estimates for repairs.

It's a place to start and can provide at least some peace of mind. Check out my take on online auto-repair-estimate sites at www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/cruise-the-web-for-car-repair-estimates.aspx.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Where Has All the Good Beer Gone?

My relationship with beer changed sometime over the past five years or so. It wasn't a conscious transition, but a subtle, nearly unnoticed shift in my taste and behavior.

Like many guys I know, my appreciation for beer developed around a keg at fraternity parties. Sure, I had quaffed a beer or two in my high school days, but not in amounts of any significance. By the time I reached college at the ripe age of 18, I had probably consumed no more than 12 to 18 beers in my life. Far too few to have a favorite brand. My brand of choice was whatever someone had sneaked out of his parents' refrigerator. Judging by some of the crap my adult friends have tried to foist on me from time to time in the years since, I'm sure I drank a few plundered beers in my high school days that were something just short of elephant whiz. Did I care? Heck no, I was drinking BEER!

I refined my taste for beer in college.

It was a happier time when I headed off to Wittenberg University at the close of summer of my senior year in high school. Located in Springfield, Ohio, Wittenberg is affiliated with the Lutheran Church. I was active in the Lutheran Church in my youth. I consider myself a recovering Lutheran. My father was a Lutheran minister. In fact, he went to Hamma Divinity School, which was part of Wittenberg years ago. That's how I became familiar with Wittenberg. We lived just off campus for almost three years as my dad matriculated through Hamma.

He had to work his way through school to pay for it and to support my mother and me. My sister was already married and out of the house. He earned his way by working for the university as a campus cop, construction crew foreman and assistant manager of the book store. I had the run of the campus and the use of many of the facilities. It was a tremendous three years and when it came time to apply to colleges, there was only one place I wanted to go.

For liquor, the drinking age in Ohio in those happy days was 21; but anyone over 18 could drink what they called near-beer or 3.2 beer. At 18, I could stroll into a bar in Ohio and order a draft beer. This was also long before the Political Correctness Police and we were able to drink on campus. Once I was in a fraternity, we could drink anything we could get someone to buy for us because the university didn't police our parties or really give a hoot about whether we were drinking grain-alcohol-based punch or 3.2 beer. There was always a senior or two living in the house who was over 21, willing to make liquor-store runs.

I had four years to hone my beer-drinking skills. I took full advantage. I drank it by the buckets full.

I didn't slow down for decades. I loved beer! I went through my Heineken phase, my Bud phase, my Corona phase, my Sol phase and my Miller Lite phase. I developed a real fondness for craft beers and micro-brewed beers. Whenever I am out of town, I still try to locate a local brew pub to sample its small-batch stout or porter. I have stumbled across some great ones.

When I made my exploratory visit to Greenville nearly four years ago, my first stop was the Blue Ridge Brewery downtown. I'm not kidding; it was my first stop. On my second Greenville visit, I joined its mug club. I had belonged to such a club at a raw bar in Delray Beach called Rosie's. A bunch of us had mugs there. You paid $10, got a 22-oz mug that you decorated and then you got to enjoy mug-club specials. You also only paid for a 16-oz draft whenever they filled your mug. Sweet!

There wasn't much in the way of information about the mug club and its perks on the place-mat at Blue Ridge, but heck, I wanted to join. The mugs are one-of-a-kind locally-made pottery mugs with silly faces on them. I had a choice among five or six available mugs and made my pick. I was told my first beer was free. I had another after that -- a stout, no doubt -- and asked for my tab. Imagine my shock when the tab arrived and reflected the cost of my second beer and the $75 fee for the mug club. Yikes!

Well, I reasoned, I am going to be living here and I want to be a part of something. I still had money in those days, so I forked over the dough. What the literature also failed to mention is that this isn't a one-time charge. Nope, they expect you to pay some sort of renewal each year. It's been nearly four years and I have managed to avoid the renewal fee so far, so I have no clue what it is. But when it eventually catches up with me, I'll take my mug and go home.

The point being, I haven't lost my taste for a good beer. However, I can no longer drink beer in volume. Where there was a time, when properly motivated, I could sit down and drink half a case of beer in an afternoon, I couldn't begin to attempt that today. Even drinking something as innocuous as Miller Lite, four or five beers and I am full. Moreover, when put in the position of drinking beer exclusively for three or four days, I just get sick of it. What has happened to me? Decades of training down the flume.

What brought all of this to mind is a bottle of Moose Drool. Crafted by the Big Sky Brewing Company in Missoula, Montana, Moose Drool is a brown ale. It is one of my all-time favorite beers. The Drool has become a staple on our annual ranch outings in Wyoming. There is a bottle of Moose Drool sitting in my refrigerator. I see it every time I open the door. I brought it back with me last year in the wood box I use to transport my bottle of Makers to the ranch.

I know when I take my first sip of this beer, I will be immediately transported back to the front porch of our cabin at the ranch where we sit, talk, tell lies and drink. Buying a bag of peanuts in the shell to eat while drinking my prize will only intensify the experience. I am waiting for another spurt of warm weather, so I can sit on my porch and take this beer's full measure.

It's an issue of taste not volume. I can still really enjoy one bottle of great beer.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Some Things I Just Can't Ignore

I typically attempt to keep this blog light. I can't turn on the news without my blood pressure shooting up 70 points. I don't want to add to the dreary information that is offered at every turn. However, there are a couple of things that are bugging the crap out of me and I just need to get them off my chest.

As you are sweating over your taxes and maybe trying to figure out how to come up with the cash to pay that extra unexpected amount that you are due over and above any withholding or quarterly prepayments, keep this in mind: GE declared a net profit -- yes, that's "net" as in "after expenses" -- of over $14 billion for 2010. How much did they pay or do they have to pay in taxes on that amount? Wait for it...$0!

Do you really need another reason for a flat tax? That's a tax that's the same across the board without credits, subsidies and loopholes. $14 billion net profit and $0 paid in taxes. As an individual, I can't make $6,000 (net) in a year and avoid paying taxes. Not only did they pay $0, somehow they wound up with a $3 billion credit toward next year's taxes. How did GE do it?

All you need do is spend $26 million or more lobbying the federal government to write its regulations to create subsidies and tax loopholes to benefit your business. Spend enough money, and evidently for GE $26 million is the magic number, and you too can avoid paying taxes. You can't afford that, you say. Well neither can many of GE's smaller competitors who don't get to operate within the warm embrace of Uncle Sam.

Did I mention that GE is the same company that over the last decade has shuttered more than 20 plants in the U.S. and shipped more than 20,000 jobs over seas? Yea, GE!

Just one example of how GE operates: It lobbied in support of higher efficiency standards for light bulbs. No incandescent bulb can meet those new standards. Why would GE do that; doesn't GE make incandescent light bulbs? Sure, but it also makes the double-helix-shaped compact fluorescent bulbs that are replacing those old-fashioned, energy-hungry incandescents. Of course, the incandescents were made in the U.S. while its compact fluorescents are made much more cheaply in China and other third-world locations.

That's the same strategy GE used to ensure that it didn't have to pay taxes on a $14 billion net profit.

My second gripe: What are we doing in Libya? I have yet to hear the same answer two days in a row. As far as I can tell from the news is that the U.S. is participating in some sort of drive-by bombing of government forces to support some UN sanctioned, humanitarian no-fly zone. Is that about right?

Our goal isn't to overthrow Gaddafi, but "he's gotta go." We are only establishing a no-fly zone, yet we are bombing and lobbing missiles at his tanks and ground forces. The U.S. is only a participant and not the leader of this effort; still we are flying 90 percent of the missions and firing all the missiles. Is that about right?

I just heard the announcement from our state department earlier today that Gaddafi's ability to command his forces has been greatly degraded. Really? How did that happen if all we're doing is enforcing a no-fly zone. Sounds similar to the result of our bombing leading up to both Iraq wars. You don't accomplish that by bombing some runways and antiaircraft batteries. Sounds like we are bombing his military to hell.

The larger question, however, is what do we expect to happen when we...oops, I mean, when the rebels drive Gaddafi out or kill him? Who is going to take over? Are U.S. interests going to be better served by whatever replaces him than they have been by him? History tells us, no. We were lucky, at least for the short term, that Egypt had a strong military to step in. Not so in Libya. There we are screwed.

Over the past couple of days it has come to light that al-Qaeda is one of the major players among the Libyan rebels? I know we are no longer at war with terror, but aren't we still fighting al-Qaeda? I thought that al-Qaeda was the one bad guy/extremist/overseas contingency operation that we were still engaged in. Did I miss a memo?

Am I the only one who thinks this is nuts? Evidently not many in Washington do.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Last Hurrah (or Gasp, Depending on How You Look at It)

I missed posting yesterday because I had to make one of my whirlwind round-trip runs from Greenville to Atlanta for the day. Thanks to an 8 AM breakfast at the Atlanta auto show media day, I shoved off from my home port at 5:30 AM.

Located in the Georgia World Congress Center next to The Atlanta Dome, the Atlanta auto show isn't one of the bigger shows on the circuit, but has survived the ailing economy mostly intact. Media day this year consisted of a GM-sponsored breakfast and Camaro presentation, five or six manufacturer press presentations at different displays around the floor, and the Chrysler-sponsored annual business-meeting lunch of our auto media group, GAAMA. Included in that business meeting was the election of next year's officers. Excitement ran high!

Serving as the executive vice president of GAAMA since its inception roughly two and a half years ago, my primary role during that period was not to spill anything on my shirt during our monthly lunch meetings -- at least nothing that would stain. I also had to avoid riding in the same car or flying on the same plane as our president; it was the whole succession thing, you see. I was also tasked with responsibilities regarding membership, such as growing it and vetting new members to ensure they are legitimate auto journalists: an oxymoron if I've ever heard one. Even if there is such a thing, what in the hell would I know about it?

In truth, the group's membership gains, which have been substantial, resulted mostly from the natural momentum of starting a new organization. If you build it, they will come. We have grown from perhaps 20 attendees at our first official meeting, to about 60 at yesterday's business meeting. Not bad for flailing around for two years.

I was the go-to guy to be president this year, but because of my travel schedule and the 300-mile round-trip commute required to attend Atlanta meetings, my attendance at board meetings over the past two years was spotty at best. I would have done the group a disservice to assume the mantle of leadership: If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve. The person elected as the new president did a lot of the heavy lifting required to create the growth GAAMA has enjoyed and is a much better choice than I.

I could have filled another office, but for the same reasons thought it best I step aside. Oddly, there was no concerted effort to draft me. Our meeting room didn't erupt in chants of "Russ, Russ, Russ..."

GAAMA's president these past two and a half years and the catalyst in getting this group off the ground will stay on the board for a year as President Emeritus. Me? Well, like George Washington, I will fade back into my role as a gentleman farmer, only in South Carolina rather than Virginia. I'll reflect on my achievements -- it shouldn't take long; and, perhaps, pen my memoirs to be titled: Zero, Is It Really a Number?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Check Please: Montezuma's Revenge in Delray Beach

I normally wouldn't blog about things biological; but because a recent bout of food poisoning has consumed me for two days, it's all I have.

I'm not a doctor, and probably not qualified to diagnose my condition as food poisoning. It certainly could have been a virus or bug of some sort; however, the timing is suspicious. I'll let you decide.

Winding down a multi-day South Florida visit, I went to lunch on Sunday with some friends. I received a call around noon that they were bound for a little Mexican joint in Delray Beach. I had eaten there a couple years ago. It now operates under a different name, but the decor and menu are the same. We aren't sure if just the name changed, there is new ownership, or just what the heck is going on. We weren't curious enough to ask.

Following the battle cry of beach dwellers and visitors the world over -- It's five o'clock somewhere!!! -- we launched our lunch with a beer or two. For the meal, I ordered chicken enchiladas with some sort of mystery green sauce. To that I added some special jalapeno sauce. It was exceptional, if still not particularly "hot." Because South Florida is populated by whining, complaining, pains in the ass, Mexican restaurants tend to keep their food mild to the point of blandness. If you ask for something to be "el scorcho," they simply slice up a jalapeno and throw it on top. Having clocked a few years in the Southwest, that doesn't get the job done for me.

After lunch we adjourned poolside at the home of one of my friends. There I had another beer, or actually about half of one. Usually I have to down a margarita or two with Mexican food for indigestion to set in; but even without the tequila lubricant, I had raging heart burn. Having dinner plans at another friend's house, I excused myself, headed back to where I was staying and cleaned up for dinner. The indigestion grew in intensity.

At dinner, I had a glass of white wine -- I was attempting to be sociable, don't you see. But I couldn't even look at the BBQ ribs that anchored the evening's menu. My discomfort continued to build.

By 8 PM I was sitting at the patio bar with some friends where I was staying. As they quaffed beers, I nursed some water -- I had given up all pretense of being sociable -- and began calculating the estimated time it would take me to sprint to the nearest bathroom. My estimations proved remarkably accurate when 30 minutes later I was at a full run. What occurred next is too disgusting to share with you here, but it was not pretty.

I staggered back to my seat by the bar, where just looking at my glass of water made my stomach roll. I hung in with the group until about 10 PM, when I headed for bed. Sleep was impossible. Although my system had thoroughly discharged all there was to lose, the indigestion persisted. The only way I could hold it to a minimum was by lying on my back. I can't sleep that way because when I do, I snore. I literally wake myself up every 10 minutes. Every half hour or so I would attempt to roll on my side to gauge the results. Until about 5 AM, the results were not good and I'd roll on to my back again. Finally the discomfort subsided sufficiently that I could roll on my side and I grabbed an hour or so of sleep.

My flight back to Atlanta was around noon. I went with my hosts to breakfast in downtown Delray. As they loaded up on French toast, eggs and assorted pork products, I nibbled on a couple of pieces of toast. It seemed like a good idea to put a little something in my stomach. I began questioning this strategy about the time I arrived at my gate at Palm Beach Airport.

My stomach more than a bit twitchy, I boarded the plane. Usually I book an exit-row aisle seat, but this ticket was booked late and to get an exit-row seat, I had to sit by the window. This seemed like a dark joke of fate. I dug around in the seat-back pocket in front of me and located the barf bag. It looked woefully inadequate to contain the volume or withstand the velocity of my previous night's explosion. I thought an extra-strength Hefty Bag would have been a better choice. I began my estimated-time-to-the-bathroom calculations anew. I concluded that by the time I needed to make a move, it would be too late.

No amount of tapping my foot or shifting my weight in my seat calmed my growing discomfort. It wasn't until the flight attendants arrived with the beverage cart and I was able to get a little Sprite into my system, that things calmed down. The balance of the flight and my 2.5-hour slog from Atlanta airport to Greenville was uneventful.

So now I am in day three of this nonsense; though, I think I have turned the corner. I had coffee this morning and I am about to give some cereal a try.

The silver lining is, I probably lost whatever weight I picked up on this vacation. I guess that's one way to do it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Even the Best Three-Year Plan Might Take Four or Five

Launching into my last full day in South Florida. It has been a glorious run. The weather couldn't have been better. I managed to see a lot of friends this trip. Part of yesterday was occupied zooming up and down A1A in my buddy's fully restored 67 Stingray convertible terrorizing elderly motorists. What a great way to spend a couple of hours.

My Corvette buddy and his wife own a lot on Paris Mountain just outside of Greenville. They announced to me yesterday that they are on a three-year plan to move up. All of the Florida people I know with property in Greenville (and there are a lot of them) are on a three-year plan -- some of them are in the fourth or fifth year of their three-year plan.

In fact, I only have one set of Greenville intenders who have actually managed to sell their Palm Beach County home, build a house in the Greenville area, and move. One down and seven to go. Two of the aforementioned seven really live in Ohio, but I count them among those with property and plans. If I live long enough -- highly unlikely -- I may have an entire circle of transplanted friends.

I am not holding my breath.

The couple I am staying with on this trip is another one of the seven. They have a lot in Cherokee Valley. They also bought a condo where they stay during their many annual visits. Their Delray home is currently on the market; when it sells, they are moving up. They have had plenty of lookers. The fourth group to see the house since I've been here is scheduled for this afternoon. That means that before I shove off for today's activities, I must repack everything and get it out of sight. It's just a temporary part of the Chinese fire drill that goes on here every time a realtor calls to set an appointment. I forgot what a hassle it is to "show" a house.

Their three-year plan is in year four. My fingers are crossed.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dead Woman Walking: No Day at the Beach

As you were swilling green beer on Thursday evening, I was with several friends watching Kenny Chesney perform at the Coral Sky Amphitheater in West Palm Beach. In a side note, Coral Sky is one of those venues that has been renamed more than once to reflect the various entities that paid big bucks to have their names slapped on its sign. Today its official moniker is Cruzan Amphitheater; but to me and tens of thousands of other folks, it will always be Coral Sky.

The concert, as always, was outstanding. If you have never seen Chesney in concert, it is one of the better live shows out there. It's Jimmy Buffet meets Alan Jackson. This was my sixth or seventh time seeing him live; I have never walked away feeling like I didn't get my money's worth and then some.

So what does this have to do with my trip to the beach in Delray yesterday? Pretty much everything.

Many South Florida dwellers take its beaches for granted. They are just something to look at when motoring along A1A, but little more. Others practically live on the sand. For 15 or 20 years I trekked to the beach once or twice a week. I would go to the same area Saturdays and Sundays week after week. I developed a social circle of fellow travelers who I would see there regularly. In my final five or six years living in Florida, I can count my ventures to the beach on one hand. I was over it.

So what compelled me and a couple of other friends to head to Delray's beach on Friday?

When Chesney performs at Coral Sky, he doesn't stay in West Palm Beach, but at the Marriott Hotel on
Atlantic Avenue and A1A in Delray Beach. A half a block south is Boston's on the Beach, one of his favorite haunts when in town. Our plan was to lunch at Boston's on Friday in hopes of a "sighting" before he pushed off for his Saturday night show in Tampa. I like to think of myself as a dedicated fan as opposed to stalker.

As long as we were going to the beach, we reasoned, we might as well spend some time on the beach. We arrived with our chairs, towels and cooler brimming with beer around . The beach was teeming with walkers, joggers, tanners and spring breakers. It was packed.

In 1979, or some other innocuous date decades ago, some old bag from New York was popped in the head with a beach ball. In the finest "the world owes me a living" spirit, she sued the city. No one has been allowed to toss a beach ball, football, volleyball, Frisbee, Nerf ball, ping pong ball or any other spherical object on the beach since. It is verboten! Locals are familiar with Delray's "you can come to the beach, but don't have fun" ordinance; first-time out of towners are ambushed by it.

March is "high" season in South Florida, so beach virgins are numerous. You can spot them in a minute. They are the ones tossing around a dreaded ball of some stripe. They are also the ones tossing bits of food to the sea gulls, but that's a rant for another day.

We were sitting almost directly between two lifeguard huts perched about 200 yards back from the surf. The closer of the two was about a 300-yard slog through the sand to reach the water's edge directly in front of us. On her second journey from the closer hut to a couple of miscreants tossing a ball, the hefty female guard caught my eye. No Bay Watch babe, she probably tips the scales at a conservative 180 pounds. In other words, the exercise wouldn't be wasted on her.

Years ago, spotting people tossing around a Frisbee, a guard would have stepped out of her hut and blown her whistle until she caught the attention of the felons and signaled them to stop. Only if she couldn't get their attention or if they failed to accurately interpret her signals, would she then make the walk down to deliver the bad news face to face.

Either Delray has changed its policy -- the city does have a noise ordinance after all -- or this particular life guard left her trusty whistle in her other swim suit because every time someone would begin tossing around a ball, she would make the four- or five-minute walk to explain their sins and point out the designated "fun" zone a half mile up the beach.

No sooner would she make the long walk back to her station than another two or three people would appear in front of us flipping around a ball. We started wagering on how long it would take her to notice them and come out of her hut to repeat her walk back down the beach. This went on for the 90 minutes we sat there. She would just get settled back into her hut and more ball tossers would appear. We could almost hear her deep sigh as she heaved her bulk out of her chair, draped the orange float over her shoulder that she is required to carry with her whenever she leaves her hut, and started down the steps. She walked with all the vigor of the condemned on their last walk to the electric chair.

By her sixth or seventh trip, we were laughing hysterically. Leaving our chairs and towels on the beach, we headed to Boston's for lunch. Alas, there was no Kenny sighting.

Returning to the beach and eager to renew the entertainment, we mentioned to the two 10-year olds with us that they had yet to use the volleyball they brought with them. They immediately began hitting it around. Within five seconds, the guard appeared on the steps of her hut and headed our way. We dutifully hid our beer from sight as she approached. Beer is also forbidden on Delray's beach, but as long as your aren't stumbling around with your knickers around your ankles, yelling and waving a can of Bud over your head, they pretty much leave you alone.

Wink, wink; nudge, nudge; know what I mean, know what I mean…

We discussed the possibility that encouraging the girls to hit around the ball, knowing it was not allowed, smacked of bad parenting; but it wasn't as though they would have to spend the night in the slammer. And really, we didn't tell them to play, but simply pointed out that they hadn't played with the ball as yet. We sprinted through that loophole. They received the standard lecture and directions to the play zone up the beach; we received some high entertainment.

We almost didn't mind not getting a close-up-and-personal view of Kenny.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Acura MDX: Luxury and Utility

Acura doesn't seem to get the same respect as Lexus and Infiniti in discussions of Japanese luxury brands, but it stands up well against its hometown competitors. A top-notch crossover, the MDX combines a luxurious living space with a unique all-wheel-drive system and plenty of high-tech gadgetry. What more do you want in a high-end crossover? Check out my full review of the MDX at http://car-data.com/acura-mdx-gets-it-done-in-style-p1266-94.htm.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why No Blog Yesterday? I Am Only Human!

My failure to blog yesterday wasn't caused by a lack of topic ideas, which is typically the case, but by a time crunch. Hard to believe a man of leisure, such as me, couldn't find 20 minutes to regurgitate a string of prose on a page. However, that was exactly the case.

I may be a man of leisure, defined as such by my ongoing failure to find work, but I am not a man of iron. Late nights take their toll. On Tuesday I traveled the 45 miles from where I am staying in Delray Beach to the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach for a Subaru driving event.

Thanks to its use as a location in movies -- it's where Goldfinger cheated at cards with a spotter in an upper-level room -- Fountainebleau has a bit of legendary status. Describing it as sprawling, doesn't do it justice. It is huge. Trading on its legend, it attracts a significant convention business; Subaru was just one of five or six groups meeting there at the time, and certainly the smallest. Guest rooms aren't opulent, but tasteful and equipped with a working computer for Internet connections at no extra charge. The only thing missing to qualify as a true business hotel is an in-room coffee maker. I can't work in the morning without my coffee.

After cocktails and a wonderful dinner at the hotel's Italian restaurant, three of the Subaru PR people and me decided to try out one of the nightclubs located in the hotel. This is where the "iron man" reference comes into play. The joint didn't even open until !

By the time the doors opened, 150 people were lined up to get in. By the time we walked into the place, we had been at for more than five hours. Fountainebleau has the reputation of having one of the top-ten nightclubs in the world. Sadly, it wasn't open the night I was there. We were in its recently opened companion club.

Of the 150 people who beat us in there, 125 of them, it seemed, were hot women. The crowd rapidly grew, but the ratio of beautiful women stayed about the same. Only in Miami Beach!

The music thumped: BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM….The same tune or what could pass for it was resonating in 50 other clubs located within a few blocks. Flocks of people gyrated in every open space. It was a blast!!!

I finally got back to my room and into bed around . My phone alarm set for , I was poised to take advantage of the Internet hook up and 17-inch monitor to crank out a little work before the breakfast on Wednesday. Some one said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions -- I was in the express lane.

I didn't see , nor did I see . I did drag myself into the restaurant a little before . I barely had time to throw my stuff in my suitcase and get down to the lobby for the presentation and vehicle walk-around. The rest of the morning was filled with a drive to the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. We lunched there and then drove back to the hotel.

In a nutshell, that is why I didn't blog yesterday. Because today is St. Paddy's Day, I wanted to knock this out early. Toasting St. Patrick during the day and a Kenny Chesney concert tonight, I knew I couldn't invoke the "iron man defense" again tomorrow.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring Break in South Florida

I'm in day six of my Florida "spring break." The weather has been ideal. I am clicking away at my keyboard while sitting at the patio bar of the friends I am staying with. This is where they have their coffee every morning, 340 days a year. It's also their gathering spot for happy hour or night-time libations.

They live on a golf course -- it is South Florida after all. Every 15 or 20 minutes another rickety old golfer comes staggering up to the pool screen looking for his or her ball. Two-thirds of them have Brooklyn accents as they yell back and forth to one another. "Ira, did you see where my bowl went?"

Living on a golf course has its advantages. I lived on one down here for a couple of years and other than the errant ball that came crashing through a window every once in a while, the pluses out weighed the minuses. I could do without the mowers and leaf blowers going at in the morning, but, like living next to a railroad track, you eventually filter out the noise.

In the meantime, you have a nice view and no obnoxious (which most of them are) neighbors butting up to your backyard. What's not to like?

Today and tomorrow will be the business portion of this trip. I have to head to Miami for a Subaru event tonight and tomorrow. They are putting me up at the Fountainebleau Hotel. I've stayed there previously; it's quite the happening spot. Tomorrow we are to press on to Key Largo where we will drive Subarus to our heart's content. Then it will be a slugfest through rush-hour traffic getting back up to Palm Beach County. The Donner Party made better time than I will tomorrow, inching my way back to civilization.

I never make this trip, though, without remembering the battle cry of Miami, "The last American out of the city, bring the flag!"

It may actually be too late.

Monday, March 14, 2011

And the Beat Goes On: More South Florida Misadventures

It's Monday and I have survived another St. Paddy's Day weekend in South Florida. I'm too old for this nonsense. After I somewhat gathered myself up Sunday morning, I returned to the scene of the crime to recover my phone. My friends who hosted Saturday night's festivities were still speaking to me -- always a positive sign. Of course they regaled me with stories of my terrorizing one of the other party guests. Sometimes I think I'm funnier than I really am. Pity the poor fool who gets in the way of that.

Yesterday's weather was absolutely gorgeous: sunny and in the mid 70s. A few of us gathered at Boston's On the Beach for a libation or two at the Tiki Bar where a very good band played. I was moving will less alacrity than usual. Saturday night was a rough one. I wasn't hung over exactly -- I haven't had a real hangover since about 1987 -- but my step was missing its usual spring. The music was excellent, however, and the beer finally began going down a bit easier.

A day of recovery requires a certain amount of meat intake. Friends covered that base by inviting us over for steaks on the grill. This confluence of good food and good friends created the perfect end to an action-packed weekend.

Today I'm going to enjoy a little sun poolside, do some reading and generally goof off. I needed to do a minor rewrite on a piece I wrote for Bankrate.com. That accomplished, the day is mine. It's another beauty.

Cheers!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where's My Phone?

Yesterday was the St. Paddy's Day parade in Delray Beach. It was also the annual St. Paddy's Day party at the home of friends of mine. It is a beer chugging, car-bomb shooting drink fest that those who have been in the past rarely miss. That it happened the night before the time change means that I nearly missed this morning.

For those of you who couldn't attend the parade, here's what it's like: 10,000 drunks lining
Atlantic Avenue
watching 1,000 drunks ride by on flatbed trucks and fire trucks. It's an excuse to brush shoulders with drunken strangers and see how many beers you can quaff without barfing. I used to hang out at the bar at City Limits for this event. I never saw a second of the parade. I had a friend who bartended at the outside bar there. I spent the afternoon there with friends. Some of the bagpipers would show up after the parade and play a few songs. That's the only thing that makes the parade worth watching and I would get my bagpipe fix any way, so why watch the parade?

If it hadn't been for the fire fighters of South Florida yesterday, there wouldn't have even been a parade. Three quarters of the parade was marching fire men, fire men on fire trucks or businesses who had hired a fire truck for their employees to ride on. After the first hour, I had seen all the fire trucks and fire men I cared to see. I mean, really, how many fire trucks can you watch drive by with their lights blinking and sirens howling?

I had a couple of beers, squeezed through the crowd and went back to my friends' house. Last night was the St. Paddy's Day party of St. Paddy's Day parties. It was a rip-roaring shot fest that always gives birth to war stories galore. When I remember them, I'll share.

So today I am recovering. I will soon find my phone – I hope – and get in contact with those who I have plans with this afternoon. Does anyone have an aspirin?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tsunami? What Tsunami?

I have been fascinated today watching the video of the tsunami that struck Japan after the 5th most severe earthquake ever recorded. Nothing short of awesome, the pictures have once again provided notice of what a tenuous grasp we have on life. "Here today, gone tomorrow" is a possibility we each live with. Anyone who has logged more than a couple of decades in this world probably knows someone who was the picture of health one day and deader than O'Malley's cat the next.

Our mortality isn't what I approached my keyboard to write about this morning; but it's tough to consider what is going on across the Pacific and not reflect on the temporary aspect of life. What I really want to pontificate about today is the amazingly weak news coverage of this tsunami's collision with Hawaii.

I guess I have simply become so used to 24/7 video coverage of, well, just about everything that I am surprised when coverage of a "big" event isn't forthcoming. The fact that there didn't seem to be a television-grade camera collecting images of the event in Hawaii is more than a just little surprising. In skipping around from network to network trying to find at least one of them providing decent coverage of the impending catastrophe in Hawaii, I couldn't believe that not one of these news-gathering operations had any quality video. One shot that was being shown on several networks looked as if it came from an ATM security camera. It was a grainy, static shot of a street and a couple of buildings.

I've been to Hawaii; I've watched the local news there; I've seen quality video. Where in the hell was everyone this morning? We see real-time video shot from a chopper of every police/bad guy car chase in California, but not one such chopper shot from Hawaii this morning. Nothing, nada, zero, zip, zilch, goose egg. No real live feeds at all, really, just some fuzzy security camera video.

I was also amazed that some of the all-news-all-the-time networks were barely even covering the Hawaii event. I saw a lengthy piece on Lindsay Lohan on one network and a talking-head debate on the Wisconsin union uprising on another. What!

For me television news is often an oxymoron anyway. I don't expect much from it, certainly not any details. Evidently TV producers recognize their audience has the attention span of a new-born puppy. Oh, look, something shiny. Apparently any story lasting more than 60 seconds just isn't TV friendly.

A pet peeve of mine is a story that does last more than 60 seconds, but they only have 30 seconds of video, which is shown in a loop as the reporter reads the story. If it's a story with some legs, they are still showing the same 30-second loop three days later as they do follow-up pieces.

I was offered my job at American Media on 9/11 – yes, that 9/11. That day happened to fall within the possible incubation period of the anthrax attack American Media suffered in which one employee died and others  were hospitalized. Because of this, I had to go with everyone who was in the building during that period to be tested and pick up the pills for treatment. Departing the treatment center, I walked into maybe 15 assorted TV crews and their cameras. The shot of me exiting the building was used on one South Florida TV station's coverage of the anthrax story for at least a week. I didn't even work for American Media at the time. Why was that the only video they seemed to have?

I have never understood why you take a video camera to a location and only walk away with 30 seconds of video. You are already there with a camera; why not invest another five minutes and shoot more video? No reason beyond laziness. As for the Hawaii tsunamic coverage, it was early morning; so maybe the camera guys just weren't awake yet.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Adventures in Baggage Claim

Just arrived at the home of friends in Delray Beach. I flew in from Atlanta. Making the drive from Greenville to Atlanta to catch a flight is always a roll of the dice. I left my house at for a flight. I dealt with fog through South Carolina and rain in Georgia. No accidents, though, so I lucked out in that regard.

At the traffic into Atlanta was bumper to bumper and moving at about 35 miles per hour. How in the world do people deal with this nonsense day after day? Although it may be a couple of miles shorter to take I-85 all the way to the airport, I take I-285 South. Traffic is always clipping right along on 285.

Even with the weather and heavy traffic, I arrived at the airport about two hours before my flight. I am in South Florida for a few days, so I had to schlep my bigger suitcase. That meant checking it. When flying in and out of Atlanta, I park at Park and Fly Plus because I usually swap out cars on these trips. I drop the car off at valet parking, get on the shuttle to the terminal and fly out. On my return, I take the shuttle back, there's a new car waiting for me, and I drive back to South Carolina. I love being me.

Park and Fly Plus also has a Delta baggage check-in station where you can get your boarding pass and check a bag. I rolled my bag in there at for a flight. I checked in and tipped the counter agent $3. I know that he isn't going to send his kid to college on $3; but it's not bad for sticking a tag on a bag and placing it on a conveyor belt, particularly when he's already getting paid to do just that.

Hopping on the shuttle, I headed to the terminal blissfully ignorant that my bag was already down the "gone" hole.

One reason I like flying to FL in the middle of the week is, I can usually get upgraded to First Class. This is virtually impossible on Mondays, Fridays or weekends. I got to stretch out and enjoy the flight; turbulent as it was.

My flight arrived on time. I headed to baggage claim full of optimism. I had not one, but two messages on my voicemail from the vendor in FL that I usually request a car from that my ride was parked in Premier Parking and ready to go. Palm Beach International has one of the slowest baggage systems in the civilized world. It's a small airport and bags never get the 50 yards from the plane to baggage claim in under 20 to 25 minutes.

As I stood there with a silly grin on my face, I watched bag after bag appear and get claimed. As the crowd around the conveyor dwindled, and fewer and fewer bags were making the conveyor-belt journey from the back room, around Baggage Claim 1 and back into the back room, I began to worry. No amount of humming, foot tapping or crouching down to try to peek through the opening from whence the bags come, had any impact. My bag was M.I.A.

Six or seven other passengers were in the same boat. I managed to be the first into Delta's baggage claim office. The claim's manager or clerk or whatever title he has, immediately located my bag and told me it was on the next flight from Atlanta and scheduled to arrive at 12:30. By this point, was about 45 minutes away. He asked if I wanted to wait for it (for which he would gladly give me a $6 voucher for lunch in the airport) or have it delivered. Because I had no clue what the address of my friends' home is, I opted to wait and collect the $6 voucher. Three attempts to print out the voucher failed and I was informed the printer wasn't working and I would have to live without the highly anticipated $6 lunch.

What should have been 45 minutes turned into 90. Meanwhile the clock was ticking in Premier Parking at the rate of $2 every half hour. My bag did arrive…eventually.

Let's do the math: $3 tip and $6 extra in parking equals more money than it should cost to have Delta mishandle my bag.

Typically I pack light and carry a small bag on the plane. This is a habit I shall continue.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

NFL Contract Dispute: No One to Feel Sorry for Here

Admittedly, I don't know enough about the current NFL labor dispute to venture a guess as to who is right and who is wrong. I suspect each party shoulders some of the blame. If there is a lockout by the owners or a strike by the players, my life will go on without pro football next year. In fact, my doctor -- if I had one -- would probably be happy to have me Steelers free next season in the hope that my blood pressure would stay, at least in the vicinity of, normal for those historically volatile five months.

Without reading anything about the negotiations, I had ignorantly assumed that the two deadline extensions to date were positive signposts that the owners and players were close to an agreement. The emphasis here is on "ignorantly." Because apparently such is not the case.

The main sticking point seems to be that the players want a peek behind the curtain. They want access to the NFL's books to verify profit claims. The NFL, evidently, doesn't think its books are any of the players business. At the heart of the matter is the owners' demand for an additional $1 billion in revenue to be skimmed off the top as expenses before profits are divvied up between them and the players. According to reports I've read, the current contract already gives owners $1 billion off the top and they are seeking $1 billion more. It seems the owners and players are still roughly $750 million apart on this issue.

Both sides are in danger of earning the ire of fans. I think it's tough for a typical fan to screw up much empathy for billionaire owners or millionaire players. When taking a family of four to a stadium on NFL game day requires planning and budgeting as though it were a Bahamas vacation, fans surely find it difficult to comprehend why there's not enough money available to make all the greedy jerks involved happy. When four 15-minute quarters require roughly 3 hours to play because the game stops for TV-commercial breaks, it makes little sense to fans that revenue is an issue. Players making seven-figure salaries hardly seem oppressed. Owners charging $50 for game-day parking and $10 for a draft beer should be covering their expenses.

A lockout or strike may not destroy the NFL's fan base as did the year-long MLB strike in 1994/1995. I don't think major league baseball has ever fully recovered from that. I believe football fans are different; but if I was an NFL owner or player, I certainly wouldn't want to roll the dice on that assumption. Not to mention that companies that sponsor NFL games could very easily divert the marketing money earmarked for game sponsorship to other programming if next season is shutdown, even temporarily.

So to the owners I say, sharpen your pencils and try to make ends meet on the gazillions of dollars you rake in; and to the players I say, the average salary of an NFL player is about $750,000 a year to do something that, theoretically, you would probably do for free. Can't you figure out some way to get by on that?

And for the love of God, play ball!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

$150 Ticket-Change Fee: For What?

Have you seen those Southwest Airline commercials where the traveler is in court testifying against the "Big Airline" regarding $150 fees for the privilege of changing a ticket? The jury box and gallery, coincidentally populated with a high number Southwest workers, are abuzz with commentary about what a ripoff the change fee is and how Southwest would never stoop to fleecing its passengers in such a blatant manner. I thought the commercials clever, but didn't think much more about them because, as a Gold Medallion flier on Delta, I assumed I was immune to the fleecings. Boy, did I get a ride around the block on the reality bus.

I change flights with the frequency of Janet Napolitano wearing a dress; in other words, not often. More than 90% of my flying is work related, usually involving scheduled events with rock-solid dates. More likely than not, if I have to change a ticket, it is because a car company invites me to an event that backs up to another car event I am already attending. Then my flights must be adjusted to include the second event. Lucky me, though, I'm not the one handling the changes; the travel desks for the car companies involved do. I often have no clue what the tickets cost in the first place, nor do I know what making the needed changes add to the bottom line. I love being me!

So imagine my surprise when I tried to change my Delta ticket for a trip to South Florida this week, and I was told I'd have to cough up $150 for the right to change the flight in addition to the difference in the ticket price between the original ticket and its replacement. Let's see, carry the one, it would have cost me about $230. All I want to do is fly home two days later, not have sex with the flight attendant. $230 to add two days to my itinerary. That's $230 in addition to the $152 I had already paid. Can you say, ripoff? Yes, I thought you could.

I am not sure on what such a fee is based? Because I can book a flight from beginning to end online in about two minutes, I know the fee isn't based on the time it takes a Delta phone jockey to manually input the change unless he/she is pulling down about $4,500 an hour. Is it punishment for using the airline in the first place? Maybe it's some sort of fee for being fickle. I can tell you that usually when Delta has canceled a flight out from under me, I am lucky to get a $10 meal voucher. I sure would rather have $150 instead. And not a $150 voucher for future travel, but 150 bucks cash money, dinero, moola, scratch, bread, jack, greenbacks....

What a great business model that lets you collect $150 from customers who notify you days or weeks in advance that they want to alter their flying schedule, but leaves you nearly blameless if you change their schedule on the day of their flight. Sign me up.

I am constantly among friends who fly a lot. Name any airline in such a gathering and at least one person will talk about it as though it slept with his wife. Here's the truth about air travel: Fly any airline with any regularity and it will, sooner or later, screw you. It's your reward for being a good customer. I have clocked nearly 1.5 million miles on Delta. I know people with twice that many miles with an airline, but 1.5 million is still pretty good. Does Delta's ticket-change policy make me feel like a $5 hooker? Yes, indeed it does.

Beginning next week, Southwest is flying in and out of Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. They just may make a believer out of me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cruises: I can Take Them or Leave Them -- Mostly Leave Them

I must admit, I just don't get the whole "cruise thing." Unless you are some sort of serial eater, and the 24/7 buffets call you with the same urgency as crack does an addict, I don't see the draw.

What got me thinking about this is, I have good friends in Greenville who went on a three- or four-day cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas a few months ago. They just informed me they are going again in July and taking a son and his gal pal with them. Although I didn't share it with them -- I used my inside voice -- my reaction was, for the love of God, why?

Obviously there are plenty of people who like cruises; cruise companies, I assume, do turn a profit. I do get that it's a no-brainer vacation. You get on the boat, you float around a while, maybe stop off at a port or two for a few hours each, float around a little more, and come home. In the meantime, you are checked into a room for the duration of the trip, and you can nonstop eat, if you so choose, without consequence of cost. If you like to gamble, you can do that on board, as well as sit around on deck catching some sun. Yea, big fun! Oh, and they have lots of bars aboard, too.

I also know people who have gone on Alaska cruises. For these excursions, substitute looking at glaciers and breaching whales in place of sitting on the deck catching some sun, and you have what those cruises are like. Yes, glaciers are spectacular; but if you fly into Anchorage, glacier tours are available. I've been on them and you can get much closer than a cruise ship does. As for whales, I was in Kona, Hawaii last January on a AAA travel story and went out on a small, 16-passenger boat for some up-close-and-personal whale watching. We had them swimming within 20 feet and breaching within 50 yards of the boat. Oh, did I mention the sun was shinning and the temperature was in the low 80s?

I have been on two cruise ships in my life. One was a job assignment for the Discover America TV series. We were doing a show on American Hawaii Cruises. At the time, at least, they had two refurbished 1920s-era cruise ships that made weekly tours of the islands. They sailed around at night and you woke up each morning at a new Hawaii port: Maui, Kona, and so forth. We were there on America Hawaii Cruises' dime; we didn't let the fact that we were working get in the way of a good time. We worked 8 to 10 hours each day -- spent probably at least 2 days in helicopters shooting aerials of the different islands -- and partied hard at night.

As with most cruises, the bar bill wasn't included in the cost of the cruise, but AHC had an open tab for us at the bars. I'm sure some bean counter at the home office raised hell about that. It's amazing how many Rum Runners one can quaff when they are on someone else's dime. Although I wasn't wild about other aspects of the cruise -- too few deck chairs around the pool and not much to do on board except eat and drink -- I did think it a wonderful way to enjoy a sampling of the islands. Then at some future date, you go back and spend serious time on the island(s) you liked.

We weren't scheduled for the entire seven nights. I think we were there for five. It wasn't until the day before we were to be dropped off at a port for our flight out that our AHC liaison suggested we finish out the cruise, relaxing as the company's guests. It was too late to make that adjustment; it's something I have regretted ever since. I would have happily stood up to get some sun.

My second cruise was really two cruises. On my sister and her husband's first trip from New Mexico to visit me in Florida, we went to the Bahamas for two nights. Rather than flying over, we took a cruise ship over and back. I can't remember what we paid for the round trip, but a cabin wasn't included. Although you can make the trip with a good boat in three hours or so, the cruise line dragged it out for six or seven. Not bad going over because we were excited, rested and full of piss and vinegar. We partied, sat around the pool and ate until we nearly exploded.

On the way home, however, it was a miserable six hours. We were tired, hungover and just wanted to get home. I wanted to grab the clown playing steel drums poolside and chuck him overboard. The casino and restaurant were the only places to get out of the sun and we had had our share of sun. It probably ruined any chance that I would venture onto a cruise ship again, ever, and I mean ever.

Moreover, it seems you can't watch the news without seeing a report of a cruise ship that has had an outbreak of some mysterious disease, a mechanical breakdown that has marooned it at sea, or some sort of pirate incident. None of those things has ever happened to me at a Holiday Inn Express.

I leave the cruising to others. Give me an airplane and a hotel any day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Me and Orson Wells: A Touch of History and a Load of Entertainment

As sunny and warm as last weekend was in Greenville, is as rainy and miserable as this one is. The perfect setting to watch a movie or two. I made my obligatory trek to Red Box yesterday and among my rentals was Me and Orson Wells. I have passed over this DVD on the Red Box selections list for weeks. It sure didn't sound like it had a car chase or a shootout; so what's the point? I mean, I am a guy after all.

If you've never used a Red Box, here are a couple of shortcomings you haven't experienced: The selection doesn't change much week to week or even month to month. If you can't find anything worth renting today, chances are you will be equally disappointed a week or two weeks down the road. I have rented movies I wasn't particularly interested in seeing; but decided that for a buck, what the heck. Additionally, the content seems skewed to cheesy horror and cut-and-slash movies. I suspect if you stumbled across the CEO of Red Box and asked why this is, the response would be that people who only want to spend a buck on a DVD rental like cheesy horror flicks. Maybe so; however, some of us are more mainstream, just cheap.

So for lack of something more compelling, I ponied up a buck and rented Me and Orson Wells. It was one of my better shot-in-the-dark rentals. The pace and dialog made me think that it was adapted from a stage play. It certainly has that stage play feel: very little action, limited locations and manic dialog. I was surprised in my research to discover that this was not the case. It is adapted from a Robert Kaplow novel. (That is now on my to-read list.)

Despite the lack of any real action, it is nonetheless compelling because of the tight direction by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, The School of Rock, The Newton Boys), and the nearly perfect casting of Christian McKay (Who?) as Orson Wells.

Historically sound in its context, the movie is set in 1937, as Wells is launching his Mercury Theater with a production of his interpretation of "Julius Caesar." John Houseman was his business partner and Joesph Cotton a contract player -- both are represented in the film. The main character is 17-year-old high school senior Richard Samuels, who Wells hires to play Lucius after a 30-second sidewalk audition. The film is really a coming-of-age piece about this kid and the week he spends with Wells.

Only 22 at the time, Wells had already established himself as a creative genius and a topflight actor. McKay, who really looks the part, managed to capture the legendary Wells narcissism, energy and bluster.

I know nothing of Zac Effron, who plays Richard, other than he is one of the over-hyped snots in Disney's High School Musical trilogy. I didn't even know I was watching him until the end credits. He did a decent job.

That Richard packed a lifetime of experiences into this one week, is what makes the movie both interesting and fun. On my was-it-worth-a-buck meter, it scored a "you bet!"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Wine Industry in the Old Dominion

 
More than a year ago I traveled to Virginia at the behest of AAA's Go Magazine to write a travel piece on Virginia wineries. I must admit I was thoroughly surprised by the quality of the wine industry there. Whites are the specialty, but a number of the VA wineries are producing some very decent red blends. Over the years I have spent several weeks touring Virginia, most of those trips were during my stint with the Discover America TV series. It remains one of my favorite places to visit. Here's the link to my Go Magazine story; if you need a Carolina zipcode to access it, use 29605:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Don't Believe Everything You Read

I did something today that I very rarely do: I forwarded an e-mail without vetting it. I only passed it on to about 12 people; but the penetration isn't at issue, rather the veracity of the e-mail's claim is. I like to be the "buck stops here" guy when it comes to e-mails making baseless claims. Today I happened to be in the middle of something when the e-mail in question arrived. It contained a link to a Web site that, at a glance, appeared legit. It supported the e-mail, and I dug no deeper. I gathered a few names from my contact list of friends who I thought might either be impacted by the information or just might be interested, and forwarded the e-mail.

In short order I had responses from a couple of them who had seen the claims this e-mail was making before and had researched them. They quickly set me straight. The claims weren't totally bogus; but on a scale of 1 to 10, they were a 2 or 3 at best. Not close enough for me.

It's a bit embarrassing at the least. I am the first one to say that any chucklehead with a keyboard and an uplink to the Internet can post anything. When I read something particularly outrageous that has been forwarded to me, and it's something that is so outrageous that I should have heard it before, I usually spring into action checking it out. This was one of those outrageous claims, that if true, should have been circulating long before now. My little inner voice whispered that as I hit the "send" key; I wish it had screamed it!

In any event, the episode was a reminder never to take anything forwarded via e-mail at face value. Check it, check it, check it.