ouray

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

Monday, January 30, 2012

Maybe It's That Whole Metric System Thing: When in Rome, er, Lisbon...



When in Rome....er, Lisbon....

I learned the hard way that some things are just relative.

I was running a video crew in Portugal in 2000. We were shooting a 30-minute travelogue for U.S. television.

We flew into Lisbon on the first day and drove north 200 miles to Oporto. Our schedule had us shooting in Oporto the next day and then working our way back south to Lisbon. We shot in several villages and towns on the way back -- places like Coimbra, Figueira Da Foz and Leiria.

Portugal's department of tourism assigned a driver to us for the five-day shoot. His name was Carlos. I have no clue what his last name was and probably couldn't have spelled it correctly even if I did remember.

You would think with Portugal sharing the same chunk of land as Spain that their languages would be at least somewhat similar. Well, you would be wrong. Absolutely nothing alike. Fortunately a healthy slice of the population speaks English. In fact, you stand a better chance of someone speaking English in the Lisbon airport than you do Miami's airport. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

I exchanged several e-mails with Carlos in the weeks leading up to our visit and had a phone conversation or two with him. I no longer remember how many times we had contact about the vehicle he would be renting for us, but it was several. We never discussed the vehicle that I didn't tell him that we needed something big.

We traveled with several over-sized cases of gear. There were three of us in the crew with luggage enough for a week. Plus there was Carlos and his bag. The conversations went something like this:

"Carlos, just a reminder that we have to have a very big van for this trip."

"Yes, yes, I know; big van, yes, big van, Mr. Russ."

"We have lots of gear -- many big cases. We need lots of space; understand?"

"Oh, yes, yes, big van, lots of space."

"Remember that we will have to make do with this van for nearly a week. It must be big enough."

"Yes, yes, I understand, Mr. Russ. We need a big van."

So we landed in Lisbon after two plane changes and ten hours or so of traveling. Carlos met us in customs, got us to curbside at arrivals and then fetched the van.

He pulled up with a flourish and a tinny beep, beep of a horn that sounded like it had been highjacked from a Huffy tricycle. Four of us and our suitcases would have been cramped in this thing. Where in the hell were we supposed to put the video gear?

It was a Ford Galaxy Minivan. Smaller than a Mazda5, it was the "Speck" of minivans.



My videographer, who I had worked with for seven or eight years, looked at me, looked at the Speck, looked back at me and just started laughing. I was somewhat less amused.

I dragged Carlos over to the side and had a little come-to-Jesus discussion with him.

"Do you remember, Carlos, our talks about a big van?"

"Yes, yes, I do. This is a big van, Mr. Russ."

"Ah, no it's not."

"Yes, yes it is. They had to bring it in special."

"Well, it's not nearly big enough."

"Yes, yes, I see that now. I will fix. I will fix."

It was a contrite Carlos who helped squeeze everything into the Speck and then drove us to the Budget rental store to exchange the van.

Well, the idea was to exchange the van, but Budget had other ideas. They had nothing larger to replace the Speck, but assured us they would have something the following morning at their facility in Coimbra -- about 100 miles from Oporto. We put a hold on the replacement and loaded up in the Speck for the 3.5 hour drive to Oporto.

Everyone but the driver was holding either a piece of luggage or a case of gear. I was resting my feet on a small suitcase on the floor, while balancing another on my knees. That's how I rode for the three plus hours the trip required.

Arriving at the hotel in Oporto, we had spent about 14 hours traveling -- the last three I spent twisted like a pretzel.

Our first location the following day was at the Sandeman Port wine facility. It isn't where they make the Port, but where they age it in big wooden casks. We were scheduled to be there about 90 minutes. Knowing it would throw us behind right out of the chute, I sent Carlos off to exchange the Speck.

The glass-is-half-full part of this story is that after we were done shooting, we had about 90 minutes to kill waiting for Carlos. The general manager of the facility asked if I might like a private tasting of Sandeman's several styles of Port. "Why, yes I would!" I responded.

He took me to a sitting room near the facility's offices, set up about eight bottles of Port, and gave me a little tutorial and tasting. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

In the meantime Carlos returned with a larger van. I don't remember what it was, but it was big enough.

Yep, I learned that when it comes to Europeans, my idea of big and their idea of big -- at least where vehicles are concerned -- is different.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Breaking New Ground: Just Another Week in the Life...

I did two things this week I've never done before. I guess at a certain age there shouldn't be much a person hasn't done other than maybe jump out of an airplane or tryout as a human cannonball.

But I constantly find myself doing things that broaden my horizons. Typically, they are quite mundane and almost every-day occurrences for other people; yet, they are new to me.

I went out to my grill the other evening, prepared to fire it up and grill a chicken breast. It was out of propane. Now what? Any other way I would cook a chicken breast would launch me into uncharted waters. I've only ever cooked one on the grill.

I considered my options as I opened and closed cabinets looking for some miraculous solution to my dilemma. Coming across a bag of flour, I wondered how hard could it be to fry chicken. I'd never attempted it; although I had watched my mother and my sister do it.

I had eggs and oil; I decided I had everything I needed.

I dipped the breast -- a nice, plump Costco one -- in the egg, rolled it around in the flour and tossed it in a frying pan containing about half an inch of oil. I had no clue how long I should fry the thing on each side. I was really shooting from the hip, here.

I busied myself doctoring up a can of baked beans that I also put on the stove. Once the bottom of the breast was brown, I flipped it and fried the other side.

It turned out rather well, even if I say so myself. Obviously there is no one else to say it because I was eating alone. It did, however, turn out pretty darn good. Maybe a little overcooked, but still somewhat moist and very tasty.

I can check that off my bucket list.

The second piece of new ground broken was going to a 3-D movie. With the wave of such movies hitting the theaters in the past couple of years, I suspect pretty much everyone with any interest in going to the movies has seen a 3-D film. Not me.

I've been waiting for just the right one. I mean, there's no point in seeing The Bridges of Madison County, Chocolat or some other film of that ilk in 3-D. Ya gotta see something with a little bit of action, right?



I'm a big fan of the Underworld series. I own the first three films on DVD. C'mon; I'm a guy. Kate Beckinsale in latex, are you kidding me? Of course, I guess pretty much every woman looks good in latex; well, except for Rosie O'Donnell and Roseanne Barr.



Anyway, I like the Underworld series and the fourth movie came out last week in 3-D. I saw it in a theater with some sort of extra, hopped up audio system, as well as the 3-D. It cost a whopping $12 for the matinee and another $11 for popcorn and a soda! Unbelievable, $23 for one person to watch a movie and eat a little popcorn swimming in a butter-like substance in the middle of a Monday afternoon.

Cost be damned, I enjoyed it. The 3-D effects were outstanding and Kate looked goooood.

All in all, it was an excellent way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sunday Night Was Anything but Routine at Soby's: Bring On the Crazy!



I am a creature of habit.

I have a routine and rarely stray very far from it. One of the luxuries of living alone is that I don't cohabitate with other people with lives that interfere with mine. I don't get ambushed by someone else's plans that suddenly and unexpectedly become my plans.

If left to my own devices, on Tuesday evenings I'm at Smoke on the Water, on Wednesday evenings I'm at the Peddler Steak House for my usual meeting of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars, on Friday nights I'm at Soby's, and Sundays I may go to Smoke in the afternoon or, in nicer weather, to the Blue Ridge Brewery for happy hour outside.

That's my usual schedule and typically only being out of town or having out-of-town company might alter it. Yes, I know there are other wonderful joints in Greenville where I could hang out, but I like going where I know the bartenders, servers and managers.

I'm not exactly "Norm" in the few places I regularly go, but I'm known; I like that.

Changing my routine on a whim usually has consequences of some sort. Sunday evening was such an experience.

When Forest Gump sat on that bus-stop bench and said that life is like a box of chocolates because you never know what you are going to get, he was talking specifically to me about my Sunday evening.

I left Smoke around 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. I normally would have simply driven home. However, I was working on a story for my newspaper client about the Saab bankruptcy and I needed a quote from a Saab owner. My buddy Steve and his wife own a Saab. He also happens to bartend at Soby's and I knew he was working Sunday evening. I decided to stop in, have a glass of wine and get my quote.

I arrived around 4:30 and the place was somewhat less than busy. Well, it was dead, actually. I took my usual stool near the service end of the bar. The only other person at the bar was an attractive blonde seated a stool away who was in the middle of considering which wine she was going to order. She had three glasses with a sip or two in each that she was tasting. I like wine and this seemed the ideal ice breaker.

I asked her some question about the wines and she introduced herself. As it turns out, it wasn't her first time in Soby's -- although I didn't recognize her -- and she said she had seen me before.

I discovered she's in her early 40s, has owned several BMWs, and I think she said she did something with the flight industry. She seemed a little full of herself -- an A-type personality, but I've found most women who feel comfortable going to a bar and sitting by themselves are A-type personalities. So, no surprise there.

At some point she asked if I had ever killed someone. I don't know whether she thought this was a funny question or what, but I answered with a simple, no. I had no idea yet that, for her, this question is apparently a critical filter in determining which strangers she will converse with. Of course if I had ever killed someone, I would have just lied about it, but I guess that didn't occur to her. She did repeatedly say she majored in psychology in college, so maybe she thought she could tell if someone was lying. Yes, she was that full of herself.

Another guy around my age arrived and sat a couple of stools away from her on the other side. Eventually she struck up a conversation with him, but not before insisting that I move to the stool next to her.

As they spoke she coaxed him into the stool next to her on the other side. So there we sat, the three of us.

This guy was working it pretty hard. He got a little touchy-feely. She presented her cheek to him a couple of times for a kiss. I'm looking at my watch and thinking it was about time to get the heck out of there.

Then she did it and asked this guy if he had ever killed someone. I figured once she let the guy kiss her cheek a couple of times, he had somehow passed her test without the "killer" question. Nope; she had just forgotten to ask it. In fact, she asked him several times.

This guy decided to be clever and dodge the question with answers like: well, not so far today, and I've sure wanted to. The more she asked the more he dodged.

Somewhere in all of this, she made up her mind that he was some sort of serial killer. This is a guy who is evidently fairly regular at Soby's -- not as regular as I am, but then who is? But Steve recognized him from previous visits to the bar.

She was like a pit bull with a mail carrier's leg; she wouldn't let go. She leaned over to me a couple of times and told me to pay attention because she wanted a witness. I suspect she thought she was going to grill a confession out of him. He still didn't seem to realize she was serous; although, she was asking sneaky questions like, where's your wife's body buried?

This guy got up at some point and headed to the restroom. She squeezed herself onto my stool with me and seriously whispered that she was convinced he's a killer.

He returned and evidently had some sort of epiphany while attending to his business. Now he's a little perturbed. She lays right back into him, but he's no longer amused. He'd also figured out, after her telling him to keep his hands off of her, that he's not going get a little somethin' somethin' out of this woman; so, it wasn't worth putting up with her baloney.

The ensuing argument became heated enough that Steve had to tell them to knock it off. This gal, however, was on a mission and there was no knocking it off. She went after this guy again. This was about the time she broke her wine glass. Steve had had enough, got both their bills ready, handed the bills to them and told them to pay up and take off.

She leaned over to me and said that she was afraid to leave the building at the same time as this guy -- this crazed killer. She then turned right back to him and started in on the killer thing again. That was the moment Steve called the manager over and they escorted her out of the building.

I've been in a lot of restaurants and bars, but this is the first time I've seen a women escorted out. I've seen people cut off, but never physically tossed out. It was a new experience for me. A glass of wine and a show!

Yep, whenever I change my routine there are always consequences.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wallowing in Some Campaign Rhetoric at Greenville's Tommy's Ham House

My interest in politics reared its head at age 9.

It was 1960 and John F. Kennedy came through Springfield, Ohio on a whistle-stop campaign tour. Well, I say it was a whistle-stop, but it could have been on a bus or plane. Rather than speaking from the back of a train car, he spoke from a platform on the Wittenberg University campus. I have no real clue how he got there.



I pushed my way to the front of the crowd with my Nixon button conspicuously pinned to the front of my shirt. JFK was introduced and made his way to the microphone. I began booing at the top of my lungs with the unbridled enthusiasm only a child can muster. What's a nine-year old know about decorum?

As nearby JFK supporters shushed me and gave me dirty looks, my booing went unabated. I booed every sentence JFK uttered. I was not intimidated by the adults around me. They were only Democrats after all.

Plus, I had the confidence of knowing my father was close by and would protect me if the need arose. He wasn't close enough to tell me to stop booing, but was close enough to save my bacon, if it came to that. What I knew that those in the crowd around me didn't was that he was standing on that platform with a pistol on his hip.

My father was attending the Lutheran seminary at Wittenberg at the time. He had a family to support, so he worked his way through with a job at the campus bookstore as assistant manager, running a campus work crew, and as a campus cop. At that time the Wittenberg campus cops were actually Clark County Deputy Sheriffs.

When it was announced JFK was coming to Springfield, my father was one of the sheriff's deputies tasked to help guard him. I doubt that my dad's superiors or anyone else was aware his weapon wasn't loaded.

My father didn't think there was much of anything worth killing a college kid over and refused to carry a loaded weapon. But there he was anyway, about 10 feet from JFK.

When Kennedy was finished speaking he shook some hands including mine. I don't know if he realized I was his star heckler. If so, he didn't indicate it.

Fast forward 52 years.

I was sitting at my PC this morning preparing to perform some actual work when my phone rang. It was Richard, a Florida buddy of mine. It wasn't yet 8 a.m., so I was thinking bad news of some kind.

No, Richard had just read that both Mitt Romney and New Gingrich were going to show up at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville about the same time. Thinking it would make excellent blog fodder, he wanted to alert me.

So much for getting any work done.

I shut down the PC, grabbed my camera and rain jacket -- today was absolutely miserable -- and headed out. My first stop was to vote. The poll workers at my voting place were thrilled to have something to do when I sauntered in. They seemed almost surprised to see someone. You could hear crickets chirping. It took all of 30 seconds to cast my ballot and most of that time was spent waiting for the poll worker to find my name on the voter roster.

With my "I voted!" sticker displayed on my jacket, I headed to Tommy's Ham House. The irony of politicians talking at a joint called the Ham House wasn't lost on me.

When Richard told me the name of the place, I thought I knew where it was. I drive pass it every Wednesday driving to the gatherings of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars at the Peddler Steak House.

As I approached, I knew I had the right spot; it was a madhouse. Locating a parking spot across the street, I managed to work my way inside and even found a place to stand. The joint was slammed.



Campaign workers for both camps were working the crowd and handing out posters with the candidates' names on them. Leaning over to a Romney flack I mused that they should be passing out "Anyone but Obama" posters. He smiled politely and nodded.

Newt had scheduled himself to be there at 10:45. Evidently -- all being fair in love, war and politics -- Mitt decided to crash the joint and showed up around 10:00.

I caught a few glimpses of Romney as he stood on a chair and spoke, as well as when he worked the crowd. I couldn't get a clear photo, though. He never got to the part of the room where I was standing. He jumped up on a chair and spoke for a few minutes, but no one beyond 10 feet could hear anything he said. Newt's team had a public address system set up and offered the mic to Mitt, but he declined.



I did see SC's governor Nikki Haley and shook her hand.

Almost at 10:45 on the button Gingrich arrived. The joint went nuts. Newt also stepped up on a chair to speak. I had a much clearer field of view and managed to snap a few photos, even though my flash didn't quite carry that far.



All in all, it was a fun morning.

The biggest difference between today and that day in 1960 is, today I got to cheer and applaud.

Friday, January 20, 2012

South Carolina Primary: Where We Vote on Saturday Because We Are Just Too Darn Busy to Vote on Tuesday



I've never heard of voting on a Saturday, but that's what we're going to be doing -- at least the Republicans will -- tomorrow.

I guess the folks who make decisions about voting dates had other things to do next Tuesday and voting would have interfered.

All the talk about a Republican candidate not winning the nomination without winning the SC primary is more media hype than anything else. If it was an absolute, why bother investing the time, energy and money in all the other primaries? Just let us good old boys here in the Palmetto state pick the candidate and the rest of you could take a breather.

I've never voted in a primary before. At least I don't believe I have. I don't think my lack of experience disqualifies me from voting tomorrow, but I guess I'll find out when I get to my voting place. I'll be going to the Rock of Ages Baptist Church. I hope I don't have to be a Baptist to vote there.

I don't know why I've never voted in a primary, except when I lived in Florida, I traveled a lot. I may have been out of town for the few primaries that I could have participated in. I guess I just didn't think they were important enough to worry with an absentee ballot.

I did vote in general elections by absentee ballot three or four times. Here's what I discovered: When you mark a box with a pencil, there's no opportunity for hanging chads.

I will be going in person tomorrow.

South Carolina has open primaries, which means Democrat, Republican or too lazy to chose a party, you can participate in either the Republican or Democrat primary. It leaves room for all manner of hanky-panky. I'm not a fan of that. But that's the way they do it here.

So while you are lounging around enjoying your Saturday, contributing little or nothing to society, I will be furthering the democratic process by casting my vote.

It's a heavy burden, but I bear it, gladly.

Go Steelers!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Nominate Chevy Chase to Play the Lead in National Lampoon's Costa Concordia Disaster

You've got to love Italians.

Have they ever gotten anything right? Well, I do like spaghetti.

The comedy of errors that was the Costa Concordia's sinking would make a hilarious National Lampoon movie if it weren't for the deaths. Can you picture Chevy Chase as Captain Francesco Schettino? Funny stuff.



Except, I don't think even the most creative writer could come up with such a farce.

If you haven't heard any of the details, here's what I know in a nutshell:

The ship's captain -- one Francesco Schettino -- decided he would steam within 500 feet of the coast of an island north of Rome with lights blazing and sirens blaring to salute the island's inhabitants and specifically a retired commander of the Costa Cruise Line. The commander, incidentally, was wintering on the mainland at the time and wasn't even there to be saluted.

The captain invited the ship's head waiter, who has family on the island, to join him in the unsanctioned salute.

As the ship's more than 4,000 passengers sat down to dinner -- and the theme to the movie blockbuster Titanic played over the loudspeaker system -- on Friday, the ship ran afoul of submerged rocks that ripped a hole along much of its port (that's left for you landlubbers) side. I'm not kidding about the Titanic theme playing.

As crew members tried to assure panicked passengers that the ship was simply experiencing an electrical malfunction, the captain ordered the ship turned, trying to get it into the island's port.

The maneuver caused the Concordia to capsize.



It seems only the kitchen staff and a few of the dining room servers stepped up to try to help passengers as the ship foundered. Most of the ship's crew and all of its officers mysteriously disappeared.

Eventually ordering the ship abandoned, the captain says he accidentally tripped and fell into a life boat that made him among the first to be rescued. Balance control must be a real issue among Costa officers because both the Concordia's first and second officers wound up in the same life boat with the captain.

Darn it, this deck is slippery!

I'm willing to give the captain the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure he was just going to get help. "Stay here; I'll be right back with a bucket and galoshes."

As the captain floated away, the equivalent of the Italian Coast Guard ordered him back aboard the ship to oversee the evacuation. The captain responded that he couldn't get back on the ship because it was sinking. You can't pull anything over on an Italian cruise-ship captain.

Several hours later and after a three-hour interrogation in the island's harbor master's office. Schettino walked out the door, hailed a cab and was driven the 800 yards to a hotel.

He spoke to the cab driver not about the terrible tragedy in which he had just played a key role, but about where he might purchase a pair of dry socks.

I don't know about you, but if I had just destroyed a $100 million ship and killed several passengers, my first concern would be dry feet.

Sort of makes you want to run right out and buy a ticket for a cruise, doesn't it?

Well, I'm sure you can get a pretty good deal this week.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter and AWD Vehicles: It's All a Matter of Timing

Officially, there are about nine weeks of winter left. I'm not totally sick of the cold, but only because this winter has been mild by normal standards -- at least the standards set during the past four years in Greenville.

My heating bill for December was only about 70 percent of what it was last year. I'm okay with that.

Last week had a few fairly cold days, but it looks like we will be back to highs in the upper 50s in the next day or so.

In South Florida, we measured winter's intensity by the number of nights the temperature fell below 50F. It was probably never more than ten and those came in fits and spurts of two or three nights at a time.

Although I like a little cold weather, I can do without four or five weeks of highs in the 30s. A week of that would be fine with maybe a two-inch snowfall thrown in for good measure.



I'm driving the $44,995 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque Coupe this week. It's the third AWD or 4WD vehicle I've had in the past month.

From the school of what can go wrong will, no doubt my supply of AWD vehicles will dry up just as the first flakes of a six-inch accumulation begin falling. It will send me to my front yard, arms wide spread, looking into the snow-filled sky yelling, "why? why?"

Well, not really; it would be nice to have a 4x4 if and when the snows come, but if not, I'll just do what I have every other snow event: sit home, drink Irish coffee and relish the fact I don't have to be anywhere.

Our one significant -- by Greenville standards -- snow last year was a whopping four to five inches. We don't see snow plows or cinder trucks -- I'm not even sure if Greenville has either -- where I live. Our philosophy is: God brought it; let God take it away.

Because my driveway is a rather steep incline up to the road and the road has two steep inclines between my house and the main road, I'm basically stuck until spring...or until the sun comes out, whichever comes first.

Last year I was lucky enough that the morning after our one "big" snow, a Ford Explorer 4x4 showed up on my doorstep as if delivered by the "we don't want you to be trapped" elves.

It was glorious. I was zipping around Greenville without a care in the world. Of course, I had nowhere to go. Absolutely everything was closed. Schools were closed for a week. But I did take advantage of the Explorer's excellent snow capability and drove all over town.

I got a lot of stern looks from folks stranded in their driveways, wishing they too could drive to nowhere.

I'm getting a lot of looks in the Evoque, too, basically because it's a head turner. From the outside, it doesn't even appear anyone could sit in the backseat. Not so.

Granted the radically raked roofline robs a bunch of headroom, but I have about two inches of clearance back there. Anyone 5'10" or taller, however, is not going to be very pleased. Getting to the second-row seat is made somewhat easier thanks to a power adjustment that rolls either of the front seats forward to make room for climbing into the back.

No doubt one reason it's garnering so much attention here is that it may be the only one on the streets in Greenville. I sure haven't notice another one.

All things considered, I'd much rather be getting admiring looks from the curious than nasty ones from the stranded.

Nine weeks and counting.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Ghost of the NFL Season Past: My Level of Interest in What's Left of the Post Season Is Nil

I'm sitting in my Tuesday-night watering hole, Smoke on the Water, watching the Ravens hold on to a slim lead over the Texans. Yes, I know it's Sunday, but my bartender buddy Natalie works the early shift on Sundays, so sometimes I drop in.

Today's $2.50 beer special is Anchor Steam. Once upon a time, Anchor Steam was my favorite up-scale beer. I still like it a lot, but don't often drink it. That's more a function of my not drinking much in the way of beer any more than anything to do with Anchor Steam.

In any event, I'm sipping an Anchor Steam -- did I mention it's only $2.50? -- and watching Baltimore try to figure out how to lose to Houston. I still have little doubt that it will be Baltimore locking horns with the despicable Patriots for the AFC championship.  

I didn't watch the Denver-New England game last night. I knew the outcome before it began -- just not the final score. Because of my anybody-but-the-hated-Patriots attitude, had I watched, I would have rooted for Denver. Next week I'll root for the Ravens. And, if  loathsomeNew England makes it to the Super Bowl, I'll be rooting for the Packers.

I'm wearing one of my many Steelers shirts. They may be out of the running, but I am still showing the colors. With all their injuries, even had the Steelers done what they were perfectly capable of doing and beat the Broncos last week, I doubt they would have gotten much farther.

They did beat New England earlier in the year -- I consider the Steelers season a winning one, no matter what else happens, as long as they beat the godless Patriots -- but they were a much healthier team then.

For me the NFL season is over. I am only glancing at the Ravens game as I write this. That's probably more attention than I will pay to any of the remaining games. Some of my friends from the Peddler Wednesday-Night Irregulars are threatening to throw a Super Bowl party. If they do, I will probably see some of that game, but my heart won't be in it.

Unless it's to root against the contemptible Patriots, I have a less than passing interest in the games going forward -- even the Super Bowl.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A More Positive Than It Could Be Look at the Steelers-Broncos Game

 


I'm finally ready to create a pithy screed on last Sunday's Steelers-Broncos game.

I have recovered sufficiently to write at least a sentence or two without banging my head on my desk.

Despite the fact that I didn't expect Pittsburgh to go the distance this year and rack up its seventh Super Bowl win, I sure didn't imagine mediocre Denver taking the Steelers out.

I could comment at length on all the Steelers injuries that kept several starters off the field, but if Mike Tomlin didn't make that excuse, who am I to?

I am still confounded by the convoluted NFL rules that had 12 and 4 Pittsburgh traveling to 8 and 8 Denver, but they are the rules every team plays by. Still, that Steelers starting defensive back Ryan Clark couldn't take the field because of the health effect Denver's altitude has on him no doubt contributed to the loss.

The bottom line, though, Pittsburgh just didn't get the job done. They settled for two field goals early in the game that should have been touchdowns. The defense seemed totally dazed and confused in the second quarter. Pittsburgh typically plays it tough defense in the third quarter and came back strong after the half as usual.

For a fleeting moment at the end of the fourth quarter, even I was regaining some optimism that the boys were going to reach deep down and pull it out.

Then came the overtime.

Had the defense been playing with its usual grit, Denver winning the overtime coin toss wouldn't have automatically translated into winning the game as NFL overtimes often play out. But Steelers D wasn't playing with its usual grit last Sunday.

I'm not a fan of sudden-death overtime that is often decided at the coin toss; but, again, it's the rules every team plays by.

Being the glass-is-half-full guy that I am, I will now have my weekends return to normal without the stroke-inducing stress of watching the Steelers play. I did get to wear my brand-new Mean Joe Greene jersey...once. It is now neatly folded away, awaiting next season.

An auto journalist buddy of mine sent me a link to a YouTube video that sums up a lot of my feelings about the game. Here it is:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Jeep Wrangler: I Loved It Then and I Love It Now



I had a 2012 Jeep Wrangler to drive last week. It was waiting at the Atlanta airport when I flew back from New Mexico after Christmas. I loved it.

I've wanted a Wrangler since I was old enough to drive, and just have never bought one. I heard all the stories that almost no one ever purchased a second Wrangler after living with the first. They were noisy, uncomfortable, they had all the suspension properties of a roller skate, removing or reinstalling the soft top was a stroke-inducing experience and they were underpowered.

I guess, truth be told, some or all of those reasons are why I never pulled the trigger and bought one. But I have continued to dream about them.

My illogical infatuation began when I was just older than two -- yes, I do remember when dinosaurs roamed the earth. My father returned from the Pacific in WWII with an affection for Jeep. This wasn't uncommon among Marines and G.I.s coming home from combat where Jeeps played such a key role.

Dad was now a professional photographer, running around to schools taking yearbook photos and weddings snapping memories. He drove a Willy's Jeepster with wood paneling for these chores. It was a big, hulking rattletrap with moon hubcaps.



My father, mother, sister, who is 13 or 14 years my senior, depending on the time of year, and I lived in Harborcreek, Penn at the time -- a rural suburb of Erie on the road to Buffalo, NY. We lived next door to my mother's parents who owned several acres behind our houses.

One of my earliest memories was of me and my cousins riding in the Jeepster as my sister learned to drive navigating the dirt paths through my grandfather's woods and fields. We hung out the open windows screaming and carrying on. It was great training for my sister later in life when she would have four little girls packed in the Dodge Cornet doing much the same thing.

Shortly after my sister got her driver's license, my dad sold his business, along with the Jeepster, and went to college on the G.I. Bill. We never owned another Jeep.

Fast forward about 15 years to the mid sixties.

My sister lived in Greenville, Penn. while my parents and I lived in Louisville, KY. During the winter when I was sixteen, we went to visit my sister and her husband. He was a Greenville cop who had a construction side business. I was particularly excited about this visit because he had bought a used CJ5 -- a forebear of today's Wrangler -- and promised me I could drive it on this visit. I had never driven a Jeep before.



Greenville is located in the snow belt about 70 miles south of Erie. Of course, there were several inches of snow on the ground and more fluttered down nearly every day.

I was out in my maiden cruise in the Jeep with my brother-in-law riding shotgun. It was snowing and the roads were slicker than reindeer snot. I had never driven a standard shift before. Operating the clutch, trying to locate the gears through a shift lever that grew two feet out of the floor and navigating the slick road surfaces proved too much for a 16-year-old kid with a six-month-old driver's license.

We negotiated a right turn onto another snow-packed country road. Those old Jeeps had a turning radius like an eighteen wheeler. I misjudged the turn and the Jeep wound up laying on the driver's side in a big ditch on the opposite side of the road.

I remember my brother-in-law -- patience wasn't a virtue of his when younger -- lying against me in the cabin with me scrunched up against the canvass driver's door. He first asked if I was all right -- I was -- and then he said something sensitive like, "What's the matter with you?" or "You wrecked my Jeep!"

Actually the Jeep wasn't wrecked; it was just stuck. A guy in an AWD pickup truck happened upon us and pulled us out. I didn't get to drive home. In fact, I never got to drive that Jeep again.

So it was nice having the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport last week. I learned my lesson; I managed to keep it between the ditches.

Other than the iconic grille and basic shape, there is little the new Jeep has in common with the older ones.

Jeep has done a lot in the last decade to make the Wrangler more civilized and user friendly. In fact, most of the gripes about older Wranglers no longer apply. The top is still a chore to operate, but otherwise, it's a superior off-road vehicle that you can live with every day.

I still want one.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Man Versus Commode: Riding the Porcelain Throne into Oblivion

 
I am up to my armpits in writing assignments right now and I am having trouble getting motivated to start them -- any of them. I am all happy with myself for getting so many lined up right out of the new-year chute; but faced with the reality of getting started, I am stuck in neutral.

In that spirit, today I decided to tackle a home-repair project that I have neglected for about two months. The commode in the upstairs bathroom wouldn't stop running. Well, it would; but I had to turn off the water to the toilet tank to achieve that goal. And that valve wasn't functioning properly either, so I had to sort of coax it by shutting the valve off as far as I could and then playing with the flush control in the toilet tank until it finally stopped running.

That was far too much effort to make on a daily basis; so I have been using the guest bathroom downstairs. With company coming from Louisville this weekend, that was no longer an acceptable solution, even for a slacker.

I decided today was the day to make the fix. Two and a half hours, three trips to Home Depot, $27, and a major bathroom water incident later, the silly thing is operating just as God intended.

I had replaced the flapper at the front end of the problem several weeks ago and knew that wasn't the solution. Because the valve controlling the water flow to the tank wasn't closing entirely, I figured that probably needed replaced, but I couldn't get it apart, so I decided to do everything else and hope that by divine intervention or some bit of magic the valve would function properly when everything else was fixed. I knew I would have to replace the flush mechanism inside the tank for sure. That's where I started.

I stopped at Home Depot on my way home from the gym, but wasn't sure what to buy. I left empty handed. I needed the old part to buy the new one.

One reason I had been putting off this job, I knew it would require me crawling under the house. That's where the main shutoff valve for the water is located. This isn't quite as nasty as it sounds. I have an access door inside the house next to my office. The ground under the house is covered with heavy-gauge black plastic. I can cope. However, I hadn't been under the house in a couple of years. I haven't so much as cracked open the access door and shined a flashlight in there. There was no way to know what sort of critters might be lurking under there just waiting for an unsuspecting do-it-yourselfer to come wandering along.

If this had been a movie, someone in the audience would have screamed, "What are ya, nuts? Don't go in there!" As the scary music built to a crescendo.

I made it in and back out without incident.

Next I disconnected the water line from the shutoff valve to the toilet tank. Okay, now I was humming right along.

I removed the misfiring flush mechanism from the tank and headed back to Home Depot for the replacement part. I received a $25 Home Depot gift card for Christmas. Although repairing a crapper wasn't my first choice for spending the card, I was going to spend it on something repair related; why not this chore?

I returned home and put the new flush mechanism in. It was a little more complicated than simply swapping the two units, but I won't bore you with the minutia involved. I will tell you that at one point the instructions told me to loosen the top of the flush mechanism.

I got everything reassembled and turned the main water valve back on.

As I was crawling back through the access door, I heard what sounded like someone spraying down the side of my house with a garden hose. I ran up the steps to find a gusher of water shooting straight up out of toilet tank like Old Faithful. It was shooting out with such force that it was ricocheting off the ceiling. I tried to close the valve to the tank, but only succeeded in soaking myself.

I screamed like a girl and ran back downstairs and blasted back under the house. I got the water turned off. Returning to the bathroom, I found about a quarter of an inch of water pooled on the floor and water dripping off the ceiling.

Somehow in trying to remove the shutoff valve to the tank, I had opened it. When I reconnected everything, I didn't double check it. I had also forgotten that I had loosened the top of the flush mechanism per the instructions; so rather than the water just filling up the tank, it blew the top off the flush mechanism and spewed straight up.

I sopped up all the water and wiped down the walls and ceiling. Now I had a pile of wet, dirty towels to deal with, too.

I closed the valve for the line to the tank and tightened down the top of the flush mechanism. I went back under the house and turned the water on again. I returned to find the valve in the bathroom leaking. It was spraying a fine mist on the wall behind the toilet tank.

I uttered a few choice expletives, crawled back under the house and turned off the water yet again.

I had no choice, I had to somehow manhandle the shutoff valve in the bathroom and get it off. I eventually managed to remove it and, soaked to the bone, headed back to Home Depot for a new one.

Once I installed that and turned the main water valve on, the entire contraption worked like a charm.

Now all I have to do is fix the drywall behind the toilet tank that was destroyed by water. But that's a task and blog for another day.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A New Steelers Jersey: An Excellent Way to Get Stoked About the Playoffs

I'm all fired up about the Steelers in the playoffs; not because they did such a great job soundly defeating the Browns last week -- they, of course barely outscored them -- but because today I received a new Steelers jersey from my friend Amy.


 
It's one of the really nice jerseys with stitched-on numbers and letters. I am stoked!

Amy and I had a conversation about jerseys in early December when I tacked on a few days at her house to a Scion car event I had in Palm Beach. I was wearing one of the old, dying jerseys that I had purchased at least 12 or 15 years ago for that week's game. I have three of them. The numbers and names are screen-printed. They have each been washed 30 or 40 times over the years, and the numbers are all cracked and fading.

Amy asked why I didn't buy a new jersey -- a logical question. I told her I'd love to buy a new jersey, but every time I bought one, it didn't matter the player represented, it was that player's last season with the Steelers. Injury, free agency or a trade would exit them from the Steelers lineup.

I have a Lloyd, Woodson and Greene -- Kevin, not Mean Joe -- jersey and the year after I bought their jerseys, they were gone.

I'd love to buy a new jersey with Ward, Miller or Polamalu's number, but in so doing, I might as well hit whichever one I chose with a truck. The career of the unlucky player would be over, at least at Pittsburgh.

I've often thought that I could have saved every Steelers fan a lot of aggravation had I purchased a Kordell Stewart jersey when Bill Cowher first attempted to turn him into the starting quarterback. What a debacle. It was like watching someone try to push a rope up a hill.

Feeling the pain of my superstition, Amy suggested I buy the jersey of a former Steelers great. A fine idea, I thought. I mean, what else could happen to them, right? Already they were no longer playing for the Steelers.



When I returned home from the gym today, a FedEx package waited for me on my back stoop. Opening it, I found a new black retro jersey with #75 stitched on it -- yep, Mean Joe Greene.

Now I am fired up to wear it for a game. I hope it's more than one game this season.

Here are a few thoughts on this week's Wild Card game with Denver:

Whatever formula the NFL uses to determine home field advantage needs revision. That the 12 and 4 Steelers have to travel to play the 8 and 8 Broncos is baloney. The Steelers play better on the road than the Broncos play at home, so it isn't all bad; but there is still something amiss with the way these things are determined. It's bad enough that a mediocre team is rewarded because it's in a division of mediocre teams; a good team shouldn't be penalized because it comes from a tough division. The Steelers, though, won the 2005-06 playoffs on the road and went on to win the Super Bowl. So it can be done.

A lot of backup players will have to step up and fill some big shoes. Steelers will be playing the Broncos without a number of key personnel, such as Mendenhall, Moore, Legursky, Clark and Woodley.



The Steelers don't appear to be peaking. It was all they could do to beat one of the three worst teams in the NFL last week when they squared off against the Browns. Sure the Steelers got 8 more first downs, gained 120 more yards and had the ball twice as long as the Browns, but in four trips to the Red Zone, Steelers only scored one touchdown -- against the Browns!

If you struggle against the Browns, I don't know if you have the offensive steam required to beat teams like the Ravens, Patriots and Saints.

In any event, I'll be hunkered down in front of a TV watching the Steelers/Broncos this Sunday in my snazzy new jersey.

Go Steelers!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Eve Is a Bad Night to Live Close to a Fireworks Store

Here it is: (Insert drum roll here) My first blog of 2012!

Early in 2011 I blogged about the futility of making resolutions; so, I'll pass on that this year.

I could pen something on the Iowa Caucuses, but does anyone other than Ron Paul really care?

I could wax effusive about the 2012 Jeep Wrangler I am driving this week. I do love the Wrangler! But that doesn't seem very seasonalesque.

I could have slept better last night. I behaved myself and stayed home. I'm not one of those people who refuse to go out on New Year's Eve because it's "amateur night." What the heck do I care if people who don't drink any other time are getting pounded into oblivion on New Year's Eve?  Other than the fact they make it tougher to get a seat at the bar, I hardly notice them.

No, I didn't go out last night because, as usual, I was at Soby's until late on Friday night and didn't feel like spending another night hanging on a bar. If I had a date or a running buddy to hang with, I probably would have hit downtown. Being on my own, however, I just wasn't motivated.

I opened a bottle of red, cooked some Italian and watched a couple of movies. I was in bed reading by . It was from that attitude that I returned a half dozen texts wishing me a Happy New Year at . The ones from friends in other time zones went unanswered.

Here's a tip: If it's in Little Rock, it's in SC; if it's in Calif., it's in SC. This is fairly basic addition. Unless you are my second cousin Marvin and quit the 3rd grade to run away and join the circus, you probably have the tools to do the math!

I was sleepy, but didn't bother to try to sleep before 12. It would have been futile. At the stroke of , all hell broke loose. I have never heard the intensity or volume of fireworks that went off within my earshot last night. For a moment, I thought maybe they were giving it to our boys in Vicksburg again.

These weren't just some bottle rockets or M80s firing off in the yards of neighbors; there were big boomers that rattled my windows.

It wasn't until I headed downtown to visit with my bartender buddy Natalie today that I noticed the parking lot of the fireworks store right around the corner from my house. It was littered with row after row after row of the trash left over after shooting off major fireworks. They must have shot off $2,000 or $3,000 worth of stuff.

So, if I'm a little bleary eyed today, it's not from a wild evening, but from a serious lack of sleep.

Not a great way to begin the New Year, but it can only get better from here, right? I'm ever the optimist.