Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Friday, September 30, 2011

10 Iconic American Vehicles

Yes, yes, I know; I didn't write a blog yesterday and here I am taking the slacker's way out today. So shoot me; it's high time someone did.

Here is the link to a "Top Ten" piece I did for the Journal Register Group that got picked up by a few Web sites.

The "Top Ten" are tongue-in-cheek lists for a variety of things. This link happens to take you to my pick of the Top Ten vehicles displaying American independence.

I originally wrote this as a Fourth of July special, but my editor forgot he assigned it to me and wrote one himself. So I rewrote the lead -- I am helpful, flexible and a team player, if nothing else -- and it went out for Labor Day.

I think it might make you smile and who doesn't need to do that?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Steelers versus Colts: Sheer Will Trumped Lackluster Offense

Although their record now stands at 2 and 1, I am not buoyed by the Steelers' wobbly win over the Colts on Sunday.

I'm trying desperately not to be the glass-half-empty guy here, but the Colts kicked them around pretty good. As usual, the offense just struggled. In fact, in what turned out to be a 23-20 victory for Pittsburgh, most of the Colts points (13) were courtesy of Steelers turnovers.

Even early in the game with the front offensive line intact, Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball. The Colts defense pushed them all over the field. Big Ben was stepped on, run into or backed over by his own linemen, on what seemed like, every other down as the Colts defensive line had its way.

On most plays there seemed to be more Colts in the Steelers backfield than Steelers.

The Steelers, traditionally one of the most effective running offenses in the NFL, gained only 67 rushing yards the entire game. That's the fault of the offensive line.

Conversely, the Colts did a much better job of moving the ball on the ground despite the Steelers awareness, that without Manning, the Colts were going to run a lot.

Steelers played hard on both sides of the ball, but barely squeaked out the win against a team they could have beaten by two or three touchdowns.

And now, after only three games, half the offensive line is out. Flash back to 2010 when it seemed as though in no two consecutive games did the same group of offensive linemen play in the same positions. I couldn't keep up with all the offensive line changes.

Resilience has never been a problem for the Steelers; they are contenders. Tomlin doesn't make excuses. When a second- or third-string guy is called up to fill in, he is expected to play like a starter, and often does. But the unspectacular job the offensive line did last Sunday provides some reason for worry.

Only sheer will on the Steelers' part eventually carried the day.

I'm just hoping that's enough to get them to the Super Bowl.

Oh, and kudos to the Bills for thrashing the despicable Patriots. I root for two teams every week: the Steelers and whoever is playing the Patriots. I'm sure the nitwits at ESPN are busy in their spin factory coming up with reasons why their anointed Patriots lost. But the emphasis is on LOST! It makes me happy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Las Cruces, High Desert Brewery, Tucson's Guadalajara Restaurant and the Three Amigos: Two-Week Boondoggle Comes to an End

The people I visit notwithstanding, my favorite thing about heading west is good Mexican food.

There are some decent Mexican joints in South Florida; and one or two passable ones in Greenville, but my favorite Mexican restaurants are in New Mexico and now Arizona.

I've waxed on and on in this blog space about Sadie's in Albuquerque. I was lucky enough to eat there twice on the trip I just wrapped up. I had the green chile enchiladas both times. Perfect! Sadie's salsa is always good too. And the Margaritas? Well, two of them usually have me speaking Chinese.

Last night I found my second favorite Mexican joint. It's in Tucson and called Guadalajara. Generally, the food was good. I had chicken fajitas and they were as good as any I've had. What really separates this joint from the also-rans, though, is that they prepare your salsa table side. Yep, a server pushes a cart up to your table with all the fixin's and makes the salsa to order. We tasted it two or three times and had her add more heat. Finally we were satisfied. It was outrageously good.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Back to the day's beginning.

My buddies picked me up in Los Lunas, New Mexico on their way back from Denver. My sister and her oldest daughter whipped up some breakfast burritos for us and then we were on the road for Tucson.

Although I was curious to see Las Cruces again, we skipped it on the northern leg of our journey.

I slept on my sister's couch in Cruces for several months before moving to South Florida in the mid 80s. I always liked this college town and wanted to see what has changed in the last two decades. As soon as I did some research and found a microbrewery there, I knew my buddies would hop on board.

We added about an hour to our trip thanks to the High Desert Brewery detour. It was worth the effort. Between the three of us, we sampled two different IPAs, the stout, brown ale and the porter. All were above average.

Otherwise, the trip was uneventful. My buddy Jose did all the driving. Les, the third of the Three Amigos, and I served as less-than-attentive passengers -- we did most of the damage to the High Desert's brew supply. I dozed off and on for the final 3 hours of the drive.

We rolled into Jose's hacienda around 4 pm, had a toddy or two and headed to dinner at the aforementioned Guadalajara. This morning came much too early. I had a 7:25 am flight for Atlanta. After dropping me at the Tucson airport, Jose had to haul Les to Phoenix for his noon flight to Ft. Lauderdale.

As I write this, I am about 45 minutes from landing. I have a Cadillac Escalade ESV waiting for me in Atlanta for my 2.5-hour slog back to Greenville.

Although, after nearly two weeks away, I am more than ready to get home; it's back to the grind on Monday.

Ho hum….

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Great Eatons' Ranch Adventure of 2010: You Only Hurt the One You Love

I stumbled across my wrap-up of our 2010 trip to Eatons' Ranch as I was cleaning documents off my netbook. Because I wrote it before I launched Clanging Bell, I decided to relax today and publish this opus as today's blog post. It's longer than my typical blog; so pop some popcorn and enjoy.

Another trail-ride trip at Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming has passed into history. The bruises are beginning to fade, as are the aches and pains from straddling a horse for six hours a day. It's a week that always flies by much too quickly. Some years the adventure is more punctuated with notable happenings. This year was one of those.

Beer remains a critical ingredient for these annual trips. Jose and I had our first of this trip at a little bar in Terminal E of Salt Lake City's airport where we met after our respective flights from Tucson and Greenville. These were followed by more with my fraternity brother Devin at the bar in the Billings airport as we waited for Les to arrive. He then had to have one with us there as well. Lubricated and happy we headed for the rental car desk.

The first hitch in our well-laid plans was the rental van we were scheduled for was knocked out of service by a deer that evidently the night before crossed the street against the light. We wound up with a Tahoe in its place. It was a tight squeeze loading in luggage for four guys for six days.

We made our traditional Costco run for Moose Drool Ale and peanuts. This is when we encountered the second bump in this trip's rocky road.  To our horror, Costco rotated Moose Drool out of its beer lineup. It was carrying some other Montana-brewed ale in its place. We weren't going to chance buying three cases of beer that none of us had ever heard of, much less tried. Besides, Moose Drool is an institution on these trips.

This was a revolting development with the potential to throw a damper over the entire trip. While beer in general greases the wheels of these outings, not just any beer will do. For those front-porch debates at Big Graham (the perennial cabin of The Three Amigos), only Moose Drool fills the bill.

We decided that there are indeed some scary folks walking the aisles of Costco. It looked like a casting call for Toby Keith's Trailerhood video. But I digress….

The Moose Drool near calamity was avoided when we found it at Albertsons. It was more expensive, but hey, we're worth it. A couple of 1.5-liter bottles of red wine and a half gallon of vodka (plus the bottle of Maker's Mark and 12-yr old Rum that I brought and the bottle of aged tequila that Jose brought) rounded out our cabin's potable liquid needs for the week. We also picked up a bottle of Wild Turkey and a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon for Kirk and Ports. Oh, and Les insisted on buying a flat of damn water and a 12-can sleeve of Dr. Pepper. We didn't have room for that crap! Somehow we shoehorned all of this into the Tahoe that was already stuffed to the gills.

Devin and I were almost giddy over the news that the Steelers, with their third-string quarterback at the helm, had somehow defeated the Falcons as we dined at Fudruckers before heading to the ranch. At least something was going right that day.

We arrived at the ranch in time for dinner. We settled into our cabins, had a beer and then dinner. Hal arrived via the Sheridan airport early that evening and the ranch shuttle was dispatched to gather him up.

The ranch office is closed on Sundays, so we couldn't officially check in until it opened on Monday morning. Because the office is located near the barn and horse staging area, we went to get fitted for our saddles and checked in at the same time.

I may be a bit of an alarmist, but it’s sort of distressing when you go to check into the ranch where you will be riding horses all week and the kid behind the desk looks like he just stumbled away from a plane crash. He's standing there greeting guests in a neck brace. It was hard not to laugh.

Eatons' isn't known for slick marketing, but having this guy checking in guests was pretty far out there even for them. It was even more humorous when he slid the medical waiver in front of me and asked me to sign it. "Did you?" I asked. This guy did everything but wear a shirt with "Run for Your Life" stenciled on it. I signed the waiver and he had to bend at the waist to double check that I had. Devin coined the name "Lucky Jack" for the guy, who, as the story goes, was trying to jump his horse over a little gulley, came up short, flipped over the top of his steed which then managed to land on him. I looked for a horse in a neck brace when we got over to the barn, but didn't see one.

The last of our merry little band arrived around on Monday. As the five of us already in residence headed out on the first ride of the week, the ranch shuttle headed back to the Sheridan airport to fetch Kirk and Ports. They had yet to set foot in Wyoming when our collection of riders was reduced by one.

Heading back from the morning ride and in sight of the barn, Jose's horse, named Happy -- Happy should have been named "Dial 911" -- pulled a Crazy Ivan to the left, ducked down pulling Jose forward and then reared back up cracking Jose in la cabeza with his head. More dazed and confused than usual, Jose found himself on the ground.

Les had ridden ahead leaving four of us involved in this event that sent all of the horses bucking and spinning. After a few seconds of this (seemed much longer at the time), the horses settled down; however, in trying to rein in his horse, Devin had actually snapped one of his reins. With a final little turn, Devin's horse deposited him into some shrubbery. This sent all of the horses bucking and spinning a second time.

As the dust cleared we took inventory. Jose climbed to his feet, holding up his right arm and showed us a wrist bent at about a 30-degree angle. None of us have a medical degree, but we all jumped to the conclusion that it was probably broken. Devin, shaken but uninjured, remounted his horse. We headed back to the barn.

Les drove Jose into the hospital in Sheridan. Indeed, the wrist was broken. They returned just before dinner with Jose sporting a cast that ran from his hand to above his elbow. His riding was done for the week.  

Although his cast interfered with his riding, it had zero impact on his drinking. He managed to find a doctor in Sheridan to prescribe vodka and tonics to dull his pain. We couldn't let him medicate alone. He deserved our moral support and we freely gave it.

On Wednesday everyone but Jose and I headed up to Cow Camp. I refuse to embark on a ride requiring the packing of a lunch. Although the weather wasn't particularly good, the group set out. By the time they got to the top of the mountain, fog and clouds prevented more than a few yards of visibility.

Not sure where the connecting trail was, these intrepid adventurers were stopped, debating what to do next. It was at that very moment that a guy stepped out of the soup. Armed with a bow and arrows, and dressed in camos, he approached the group. After providing directions to the trail head they were looking for, he marched back into the fog, disappearing from sight. The boys eventually made it back to the ranch where Jose and I were already into our second or third Moose Drool of the day.

Unfazed by their near-death experience on Wednesday, Les, Ports and Kirk headed back up the mountain on Friday in weather nearly as bad. We took photos of them as they departed so we would have something to give the Sheridan newspaper in case they didn't return. We also bid farewell to Devin who was flying to Denver to visit with his daughter. We didn't take his picture; we fully expected to see him again. The mountaineers managed to find their way back without freezing to death. It was cold.

Saturday was our last ride. Hal had shipped off to the airport for an O'Dark-thirty flight. The rest of us still able to sit a horse went out on a morning ride. It was pretty chilly, but that was fine with us. Jose, Les and I planned on heading back to Billings around . Kirk and Ports had a ride scheduled to Sheridan for their late afternoon flight.

We showered and began packing. Suddenly Les discovered his cash was missing along with his credit cards that were all clipped together.

The search began.

He unpacked and repacked his two suitcases twice. He rummaged through every pocket. I went behind him double checking everything he looked through. Kirk and Ports were on hands and knees looking under furniture. Nothing, nada, zip, zero. Meanwhile I walked the paths outside the cabin thinking if someone had grabbed it, maybe they kept the cash and tossed the credit cards. Did I mention his driver's license, required to board the plane on Sunday, was also gone?

Kirk went up to the dining room and made an announcement asking everyone to keep an eye out.

From our cabin the cry suddenly went out that the clip had been found. Where was it?

Young Les, wanting to put the stash somewhere he would easily find it, put it in his tennis shoe before going out for our last ride. After showering, he put the shoes on. He had been walking around with it in his shoe – in his shoe! Kirk made the all-clear announcement to the dining room and explained what happened. We could hear the laughter from our cabin's front porch.

After returning to Billings, we hit our newest favorite Billings brewery, Carters. Great beer! That was followed by our traditional dinner at Texas Roadhouse and ice cream at Dairy Queen.

Another great trip over and done.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Margaritas, Beer and TV

Between margaritas and microbrews, I am actually managing to sandwich in a little TV watching while on my extended Wild West Vacay!

Here are some random thoughts on some of what I've seen.

I think one of the breakout hits of the season is going to be Two Broke Girls. This show is so well written that I chuckle just thinking about it. I don't think more than 15 or 20 seconds passed during the pilot episode without a laugh. It's about a working-class girl and a debutant who wind up working in the same diner and establish a friendship and partnership. Truly funny stuff.

It followed the season premier of Two and a Half Men. Charlie who? Every bit as deliciously funny without Charlie Sheen as it was with him, the new season shows a lot of promise.

Anchoring Monday evening on CBS were back-to-back episodes of How I Met Your Mother. I struggle to watch this lame attempt at comedy. Its first season was well written with plenty of laughs. It has been sliding down hill since. I have given it every chance. I am a big fan of Buffet-the-Vampire-Slayer alum Alyson Hannigan, but that's just no longer enough to keep me turning into this turkey. There were more laughs in the first 30 seconds of Two Broke Girls than in 60 minutes of How I Met Your Mother. Pathetic.

I have also seen two new dramas: Unforgettable and Revenge.

I thought Unforgettable's plot a bit plodding, but I will give it another chance. I like its main star Poppy Montgomery, who is from Without a Trace. Her character has some affliction that causes her to remember every detail of everything she sees. Of course she's a cop. It has promise, but they need to pick up the pace.

Finally, I saw Revenge last night. I was hooked after the first 15 minutes. There is enough intrigue to dazzle J.R. Ewing. I can't even begin to summarize what all went on in the pilot, but I want to know what happens next.

While I'm away, my DVR is hard at work recording stuff I'm not able to watch this week. More to come as I get caught up. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hitting the Micro-Brewery Circuit: A Day in New Mexico

I no longer categorize myself as a beer drinker.

Sure, I still drink some beer from time to time, but it's not my stimulating beverage of choice. I like it, but it fills me up long before I get any stimulating benefit from it; if you know what I mean.

I still like a beer or two when I'm hot -- like just finishing mowing the lawn; and I will have one or two poolside at the home of one of my Florida friends when visiting, but I just don't consume beer in the volume I once did.

When consuming in greater volumes, I prefer Sol. I developed a taste for it while working in Cabo San Lucas 10 years ago. I followed up my time there with a week on a boat in the Keys where we also drank Sol. After that, I was Sol'd. I had been a Bud drinker before then. I will only drink Bud now when it's all that's available. And I mean, when it's all that's available.

However, I'm still a big fan of microbrews. I love going to a microbrewery when out of town and sampling its wares. It's sort of an experiment and I'm a big supporter of science. It's intellectual curiosity and I'm all for it.

I have been on such an intellectual pursuit today. I'm in the Albuquerque area and there are a surprising number of microbreweries here. I've had a couple of remarkably good porters and a very decent brown ale.

I do have a beer or two a week at the Blue Ridge Brewery in Greenville. Mostly it's a relaxing hour or two sitting at a table in front of the joint sipping a beer out of my "ugly" mug and reading. Once in a while I'll pop into Smoke on the Water at some point other than my usual Tuesday night and have a beer or two on those occasions. They have a couple of pretty good micro brews on tap.

Generally, however, I'm a wino. I'll have a margarita or two if eating Mexican, but usually I drink wine.

While in New Mexico and Arizona, though, I'll be drinking more micro brews.

When in Rome…..

Monday, September 19, 2011

There's Stark and Then There's Stark: A Whole Lot of Nothingness Through the Windshield of a Ford F-150 King Ranch

Did a seven-hour slog from Tucson to Los Lunas, New Mexico on Saturday. I did this as a passenger. It's not often that happens.

Sometimes I like to just kick back and relax on a trip. I even had the opportunity to doze. It was quite a treat. I also resisted the urge to comment on my buddy's driving. At times we were going so slow, I thought we would go back in time.

"Hey, look, it's yesterday!"

We made the trip in my Tucson buddy's Ford F-150 King Ranch Crew Cab pickup. Clocking a few miles in this monster will convince you it is well worth its cost as the most expensive light-duty truck available. It was like riding in your living room -- even more so because my buddy insisted on doing all the driving. He got no argument out of me or our Florida buddy who was with us.

Once you get east of Wilcox, Arizona, there isn't a lot to see. It's mostly flat desert to the horizon where mountains appear in nearly a 360-degree circle around it. Nothing ever seems to get closer. This holds true for the first 100 miles or so on I-25 north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, too. I love the stark beauty of the Southwest, but not everyone shares my enthusiasm.

Between Tucson and Wilcox on I-10 is a stretch of truly spectacular rock formations. I used to make the haul from Las Cruces, New Mexico -- also on I-10 -- to the smaller towns spread along the route toward Tucson when I was peddling artwork, and pots and pans nearly 30 years ago. I loved the drive.  

Saturday's trip wasn't nearly as stark as the week I spent shooting video in Nevada between Reno and Las Vegas when I was with Discover America. That was stark. It was like traveling the face of the moon. We ate more than one lunch out of vending machines at one of the rare gas stations we happened on along our route.

Equally as stark, but in a very different way, was the drive north of the
Artic Circle
in Alaska. Flat plains covered with snow as far as the eye can see. We carried a roll of toilet paper with us in case a biological imperative arose -- not that anyone in his right mind would squat in a snow bank in subfreezing temperatures. I think I can hold it; thank-you very much. 

I made that drive with Volvo about eight years ago.

So here I am about 20 miles south of Albuquerque. I am hoping we have the opportunity to strike out to some of my favorite places nearby, like Madrid. We did dine at my favorite Mexican restaurant on Saturday night. It's Sadie's in Albuquerque. Great green chile enchiladas, smooth-as-silk margaritas and stimulating company: What more can I ask for? Well, a return trip before I head home would be good.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Tucson, Monkey Ale, Power Outages and Buddies: A Little R&R in Arizona

I've fallen behind in my blogging duties.

I am enjoying a little R&R out West. This is typically the week I'd be riding horses in Wyoming, but the economy and other circumstances prevented that this year. In a feeble attempt to make up for missing Wyoming, a buddy of mine from Florida and I are at another buddy's house in Tucson.
It doesn't have the rugged, rustic, cowboy cachet of our Wyoming ranch outings, but the drinking, laughing and lie telling are about the same.

This has been a low-key trip. My buddies are actually working. Both are IBMmers and work out of their homes. My Tucson buddy has been able to put in some daytime goofing-off hours with me. My Florida buddy is a 10-hour-a-day, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy and he doesn't usually come out of the upstairs office except for a biological imperative or to grab a glass of water.

Tucson has gotten more rain in the past week than in the last couple of years. Every afternoon the clouds roll in and the sky opens up. We lost power for a couple of hours on Tuesday evening and lost the Internet connection for about 12 hours overnight last night.

We made a quick trip to the top of Mt. Lebanon yesterday. It was 30 miles, 8,000 feet in elevation and a 21-degree drop in temperature from my buddy's house. The scenery, though, was spectacular. It was truly amazing.

We have been to three different micro breweries here. We will return to one of them, Nimbus, this evening for some Monkey Ale. There are still a couple that will go unexplored. We have to leave something for next trip.

I did manage to muster the energy and motivation this morning to write an installment of my twice-a-week auto blog for Afterward, I had to take a nap.

I blame my lack of get-up-and-go on the elevation; I suspect it has more to do with laziness.

Oops; time for my afternoon siesta.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Italian Food, Homeless Musicians and Illinois Gal Pals: Just Another Weekend

I had a fun, action-packed weekend.

A couple of my gal pals drove down from Illinois to spend a few days. They arrived late Thursday afternoon and drove out of my driveway at 0'dark-thirty on Sunday morning.

These girls can't be characterized as hard chargers. I'm sure they have their moments, when conditions are just right and all the planets are aligned, that they get cranked up; but this is mere conjecture on my part.

Actually that's not entirely true. I dated one of them 20 years ago and have a vague memory or two of her letting her hair down, so to speak. Today she trots out the "age" excuse as the reason she no longer keeps up with me. I'm 11 years older, so that doesn't really fly, but I smile politely and nod my head. No point in debating the issue.

I always take advantage of out-of-town company to experiment with a new joint or two. I know I should only take visiting guests to places that I know to be good, but I'm not keen on squandering my limited money-and-time resources going by myself to places where I don't know anyone. I'd rather go to one of the joints where I'm already known and have made friends with the bartenders and/or servers.

On the first night of their visit, I took them to a relatively new Italian place on Main St. called Milano Kozani. It bills itself as a Mediterranean restaurant. It sure appeared Italian to me. We split a bottle of Chianti and each ordered a different dish. My choice was meat ravioli, something I rarely find on the menu anymore.

My ravioli was good, if not great, reasonably priced and served by a server who was attentive enough. If I awarded stars, on a five-star-is-best scale, I'd give the place three and a half stars. It was nearly empty, which is never a good sign for a restaurant's longevity. It's a big room and needs more than three tables filled to make a go of it.

The prices are reasonable and bottles of wine are half price on Mondays and Wednesdays. I will go back.

The remainder of the weekend was filled with a downtown pub crawl on Friday and a trip to Asheville on Saturday.  

I have been to Asheville several times, but never just parked downtown and walked around. I was thoroughly surprised by all the street people lingering around. My general impression of Asheville is that everyone who isn't a tourist either works in one of the shops or restaurants, or is homeless. The curbside beggars/street musicians with donation cups fairly litter the downtown streets. We had to step around them or over them to get from one little over-priced shop to the next.  I thought I had somehow been transported to San Francisco.

Was it worth the 90-plus-minute drive to and from Asheville? Nah. But it was something to do. Maybe next time we'll just pass on downtown and head to Biltmore.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Steelers, Eatons' Ranch and My Generally Sour Mood

I am a bit melancholy today on two fronts.

I wasted nearly two hours yesterday watching the Steelers being humiliated by the Baltimore Ravens. It was only two hours because I had to stop watching at the end of the third quarter.

I have an agreement with the Steelers: I will watch them as long as they don't waste my time. If they are playing with heart and aren't totally embarrassing themselves, I'll stick by the TV win or lose. They met neither criteria yesterday.

I have seen the Steelers hit the locker room at half time two touchdowns down, as they did yesterday, and still win the game. At half time yesterday I thought it unlikely they could come back and beat the Ravens in the second half, but stubbornly held on to some hope.

A characteristic of Steelers play is that almost no points are scored against them in the third quarter. Usually if an opponent puts more than three third-quarter points on the board, they take the game. The Ravens scored 11 points in the third quarter. There was no denying at that point that all was lost.

Fumbles and interceptions haunted Pittsburgh. It was a comedy of errors, but I wasn't laughing.

It was a terrible start by any yardstick. They were spanked pure and simple.

A Steelers buddy sent me a stat that this was the Steelers worst opening-day loss since the 35-7 shellacking delivered by the Cowboys in 1997. The Steelers went on that year to win their division and earned a spot in the AFC championship game. I am not encouraged. Not only are the Ravens in the same conference, they are in the same division.

But one game does not a season make. Next week it's Seattle at home in Pittsburgh.

Usually the Monday after Labor Day marks the first trail ride at Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming for a bunch of buddies and me. It's an annual event. This is the first time in 10 years we passed on it.

It is a week of riding, drinking and telling lies that I look forward to all year. The big photo of me at the top of the page was taken on the porch of Big Graham, the cabin I stayed in for eight of the nine years I was there.

Eatons' is a family-owned enterprise and the oldest guest ranch in the country. It's the sort of place people return to year after year.

We haven't been feeling the love the past couple of years and just needed a break.

I'm sad we missed it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ciao, Aldo: Some Random Thoughts on the 2012 Fiat 500

I am currently sporting around in the 2012 Fiat 500.

It may be the only one currently roaming the streets of Greenville, SC, where I reside.

I sure haven't seen another one.

I Googled Fiat Studios -- yes, Fiat calls its dealerships, studios -- to see where the closest one is. It's 83 miles from me in a little SC border town called Fort Mill. I had never heard of it and had to look it up on a map to find it. It's a spec on I-77 just south of Charlotte, NC. If I was on the market for a 500, I would have to go to Fort Mill or head toward Atlanta on I-85. There is another Fiat Studio in Buford, GA about 103 miles away.

No wonder I haven't seen another 500 in Greenville. That's a haul not just to purchase a 500, but getting it serviced would be a real a pain in the keister.

"Where are you going, Cupcake?"

"To get the 500 serviced."

"Okay, see you tomorrow."

That it's perhaps the only physical incarnation of Fiat's return to the U.S. market my neighbors have seen -- and perhaps will see for some time -- is one of the fun perks of my job. The tiny 500 gathers stares, waves and thumbs up like a blue sport coat gathers dog hair.

It's fire-engine red, which aids in elevating its profile.

The 500 Fiat loaned me for a week's evaluation is in the $17,500 Sport trim. There is the $15,500 Pop anchoring the lineup and then the top-of-the-line $19,500 Lounge. By the time you pay extra for the special paint, six-speed automatic tranny, power sunroof and special materials covering the seats, the final tab on my test 500 is a whopping $21,000.

Fuel economy is pretty decent with an EPA-estimated 27 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. The EPA's combined city-highway number is 30 mpg -- 6 mpg less than the Smart fortwo and 1 mpg better than the Honda Civic with the 1.8-liter four.

It's 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine accelerates just fine in most applications. I'd like a little more punch when merging into 70-mile-per-hour traffic on I-85. But, otherwise, the engine pulls the 500 around just fine.

Although the steering wheel tilts, it doesn't telescope. For me that means that positioning myself best to operate the pedals, leaves my arms locked straight out in the classic Italian race-car driving position. Every trip to the neighborhood grocery store is like clocking miles in the Mille Miglia.

This is the car I will drive to the Atlanta airport next week for a little trip out west. I'll be taking a large suitcase that I will need to check. I opened the rear hatch a day or two ago to do some mental calculations trying to determine if my suitcase will indeed fit in the cargo hold. The last time I took this suitcase on a trip, I had to sit it upright in the passenger seat of the car I was driving that week. I'd say with the 500's split rear seat folded down, it should fit just fine.

Maybe I can have it serviced while I'm in Atlanta.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Read It in the New York Times, Honest.

Twelve hours and a night's sleep later, I've still got a full head of steam from a spirited discussion I had with a liberal friend -- yes, I have liberal friends -- at one of my favorite Greenville watering holes last night. The topic of our discussion was the sorry shape of the public school system in this country and what might be done to correct it.

In many ways, we were probably closer in our opinions than either of us wants to admit, particularly in identifying the problems. A couple of times we had pregnant pauses in our exchange when we looked at one another and clearly thought, what are we arguing about?

At the root of my position and the opinion that launched us into the debate is that I somewhat resent the fact that I am taxed to educate someone else's kids. Yes, I know: They are our future; it takes a village; it's an investment in tomorrow... yadda, yadda, yadda...

I have reconciled myself to stroking out a check every year to help millions of kids have a public-funded babysitter, which is what our public schools have become for far too many kids. I am not saying there aren't a lot of very good and serious educators in the system -- heck, I am friends with a few of them -- but the system itself is a wreck and where those dedicated teachers find success it's in spite of the system not because of it.

Since Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education nearly four decades ago, billions of taxpayer dollars (collected locally, laundered through the federal bureaucracy and redistributed back to the local school systems with all manner of strings attached) have been "invested" in educating our future generations without improving average test scores or reducing dropout rates one iota.

That my taxes are being squandered in such a way, is what I most object to.

And indeed, that is my main objection to most of the social engineering programs that have been foisted on us over the last 50 years or so: On the surface they make us feel good because we are doing something for someone; but in actuality we are doing something to someone, and either making the targeted problem worse or creating an entirely new set of problems.

There is no accountability because most of these programs were born of our guilt, and what's important is soothing that guilt and not actually accomplishing anything of value.

It makes me feel good, so it must be good. And whatever you do, don't assess the results.

If you have the courage to take a serious look at the unintended consequences of our social engineering policies since 1959, I recommend the book Losing Ground by Charles Murray. It's an eye opener and reveals how good intentions have runamuck.

Warning: It will make you see do-gooding for the sake of do-gooding in a totally different light.

On the topic of ineffective government...

Now for those of you anticipating a stem-winder of a speech from the prez on creating jobs Thursday night, I can save you some time that might well be better invested in popping popcorn and ordering pizza in preparation for the NFL opener.

Here's the speech in a nutshell:

"Blah, blah, blah, invest in our future, blah, blah, blah, it's congress's fault, blah, blah, blah, invest in our infrastructure, blah, blah, blah, Republicans are anti-middle-class, partisan obstructionists, blah, blah, blah, evil oil companies, tea-party terrorists, rich CEOs with untaxed corporate jets, blah, blah, blah, green jobs, blah, blah, blah, Oh, and vote for me in 2012 because I'm still not George Bush."

To expect any truly fresh thoughts from Obama will be rewarded with disappointment. He is an ideologue who can't bring himself to let go of his bigger-government-is-better-government ideas, which demand higher taxes, more stimulus spending and more regulation. He's FDR to the tenth power.

He will propose more of the same failed ideas and then challenge congressional Republicans to "do the right thing" and rubber stamp them. What did Einstein say about repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

What we can expect is for these core Obama ideas to be repackaged and relabeled in an attempt to mislead the public into thinking that something new is being proposed.

Don't take my word for it. One of his staunchest media cheerleaders has opined that Thursday's oration is just the next in what has become a long line of more-of-the-same speeches.

I never thought that I would see the day when I agreed with the far-left hysteric Maureen Dowd on anything, but here's what she wrote in the NY Times:

"Obama is still suffering from the Speech Illusion, the idea that he can come down from the mountain, read from a Teleprompter, cast a magic spell with his words and climb back up the mountain, while we scurry around and do what he proclaimed."
"The days of spinning illusions in a Greek temple in a football stadium are done. The One is dancing on the edge of one term."
You go, girl!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Color Is the Kool-Aid?

OK, so maybe I'm making too much of a color, but I just don't get the new shade of yellow on the redesigned Jeep Wrangler. The suits at Jeep insist it's yellow; I disagree. Well, I do agree only to the extent the godawful color they paint school buses is called yellow. They are one in the same to me.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Way Too Much Labor on This Labor Day Weekend!

It's the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

Why am I sitting at my PC at 3 PM on a sunny holiday weekend afternoon instead of partying?

Out-of-town company is a'comin' that's why, and I needed today to get some stuff done.

I have a sortie of out-of-town visitors descending on Casa Heaps next weekend. Two different entities, in fact.

My Illinois gal pals who usually drop in for a night or two every year on their way to or on their way back from Hilton Head are on the guest list. They didn't make the Hilton Head run this year, but still decided to head to Greenville for a weekend. Bless their hearts. They planned this a month or so ago.

Then I have a Florida friend whose 21-year-old son is coming to Greenville this fall to take some college courses at Greenville Tech. He wants to make an exploratory trip this weekend to check out an apartment he wants to rent and to check in with his new boss. This just came up last week. What, I was going to say, no?

He will be relegated to the inflatable mattress in the room I use for storage.

Then this past Friday, my fraternity brother who I just visited in Toledo called to say he had a golfing trip planned with his business partner at The Reserve nearby where he owns a lot. His wife is off on a "girls" weekend with his daughters, so he thought he'd come down a day early and spend it with me. He is scheduled to arrive around lunch time tomorrow.

Oh, oh. Sounds like someone is going to have to get some work done and clean the house.

Any way, I had invites to go out on two different lakes on two different pontoon boats with two different sets of friends today. I had to beg off on both invitations. They will have to campaign on without me.

I've got some writing assignments that need doing and a damned house to clean.

However, I will make my usual Sunday pilgrimage to the Blue Ridge Brewery downtown this afternoon and quaff a couple of Sacred Cow Ales from my ugly mug. After all, it would be unAmerican not to celebrate in some small way.

Otherwise, this is turning out to be a very labor-intensive Labor Day weekend.

Friday, September 2, 2011's Seven Experts Make Their Picks for This Season: Who Are These Guys?

Once a week or so I receive something in my e-mailbox called the NFL Newsletter. It's the official newsletter of Isn't that special?

I usually take a quick peek, scan the headlines and sometimes actually read an article or two.

This week's edition had predictions for the 2011 season from its team of seven experts. I've never heard of any of these guys: Bucky Brooks...anyone, anyone?

I am always suspicious of people identified as an expert. Believe it or not, I've been referred to as an expert more than once and I barely can tell my butt from a bucket of ice cream.

In any event,'s blue-ribbon panel of experts each made his (Yes, sorry ladies, apparently at only men qualify as experts.) call on a number of topics from Super Bowl winner to Rookie of the Year. I am always curious about whom the "experts" pick to do well.

As a Steelers fan, I am always amused by how Pittsburgh is typically overlooked or given just a polite nod in these preseason noodlefests, and then go on to make the playoffs, get into the national championship and sometimes win the Super Bowl, leaving the experts slack jawed in disbelief.

Year after year, they just didn't see it coming.

Like a weatherman who predicts rain every day, these guys, I guess, believe if they keep predicting the Patriots, they will eventually be correct. Yes, even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut.

Much to my surprise, not one of them picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl this season (Obviously none of these experts is shared with ESPN, the all-Patriots-all-the-time-Tom-Brady-can-part-the-seas network); although five of them did predict New England to get into the Super Bowl. No, it seems four of these guys picked the Saints to go all the way and two others fingered the Packers. One chose the Jets. The Jets?

It would be fun to have the Jets at the Super Bowl just to watch that ass Rex Ryan throw one of his temper tantrums on the side lines when the final buzzer sounded the Jets' defeat. And I thought Buddy Ryan was a clown.

Also shocking to a Steelers fan who pays attention to such things, all seven picked the Steelers to take the AFC North. Six picked the Jets as one of the AFC wild cards, while the Ravens received four votes.

None of this means a whole lot except as something to talk about over a beer on Friday night, or as fodder for a blog. I've done my part.