Taken a few years ago at some joint on Broadway in Nashville, this was one of several photos with good-looking girls I had never laid eyes on before. It wasn't my birthday, but the Nissan crew was telling every attractive female we encountered that it was. Here's to getting older!

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Little White-Water Rafting: I'm Way Too Old for This Crap

I'm not the kind of guy who does any crazy thing just to say, I've done it; but I'm not the timid sort either. If presented with the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, or beyond the boundaries of what I might consider my comfort zone, I'll weigh the potential fun against the risk. Historically, more often than not, I've landed on the fun side of the debate. It hasn't killed me yet.

Just heading into the more serious rapids.
When Subaru presented me with the choice of heading home with most of the journalists on my wave of the the media launch of the redesigned 2015 Outback, or staying an extra day for a white-water-rafting adventure, I needed about 10 seconds to choose, yes!

I have been white-water rafting twice in my life. The first time was in Alaska in 1996 during the press launch of the original Ford Expedition. Even though Ford hosted much better media events 20 years ago than it does today – don't even get me started – the rafting wasn't part of the official program. A couple of us found a rafting company close to the hotel where Ford put us up and we flew in a day early, paid with our own money and rafted.

The second time was somewhere in the state of Washington. I've been to so many car events there, I can't remember the year or even the car involved, but white-water rafting was offered as one of several activities we could participate in as a part of the event. I can safely say, though, that it was at least 10 to 12 years ago.

Just paddle, damn it!
I'm putting my previous rafting experiences into some sort of time frame because I was significantly younger for them. I didn't insert age into my recent decision-making process. From my perspective – unless I'm looking in a mirror or at photos – I'm still vital. Maybe I should have been looking in the mirror when I was contemplating this decision.

I arrived in Bend, Oregon on Monday afternoon, drove the Outback on Tuesday and went rafting on Wednesday. 

Brasada Ranch.
The outfitter was Bend's Sun Country Tours. A driver loaded us into a van at Brasada Ranch, where we were staying and hauled us the 20 or so miles into town. There, at the main office, we signed away our lives and were issued splash pants and tops. Our driver then drove us from town to the boat launch on the Deschutes River another 20 miles away.

There our instructor/guide/babysitter Ross fitted us with life jackets and provided a brief safety talk. With that, we climbed aboard the raft, settled in and shoved off. While regaling us with the history of the river and its lore, Ross managed to work in some instruction on paddling, staying in the boat and how to try to traverse the rapids if tossed out of the boat. I would have preferred a Power Point presentation of the the last two topics, but had to settle for Ross acting out the role of a castaway while sitting on the side of the boat.

Ross on the left attempting to put our minds at ease as we scouted the more difficult rapids.
These rafts, incidentally, cost about 7 grand each.

Only two of us participated in the rafting, which was fine with me. Who the hell wants to be in a rubber boat crashing through lava-rock-filled rapids listening to a gaggle of auto journalists screaming like a bunch of prepubescent girls at a Justin Bieber concert? Anyone, anyone? Certainly not me.

With the two of us and Ross, we had about one and a half people who knew what they were doing. We basically let the current carry us along as Ross made little course corrections for the first half hour or so.

We eventually arrived at a small collection of rapids, requiring us novices to finally leap into action. We basically paddled when Ross yelled, “Paddle!” and stopped when he yelled, “Stop!”

We made it successfully out the other side. So far so good. My buddy Al and I congratulated one another on our superior raftsmanship. We're not afraid of no stinking rapids!

Before rounding the next bend, Ross eased us over to the shore where we dismounted our boat. We then walked along the river for about 20 yards before getting close enough to the next rapids to actually see them.

“Whadya think?” Ross ask us.

I immediately launched into my Jackie Gleason impression, “Hum-in-ah, hum-in-ah, hum-in-ah...” I sputtered. Speechless, Al looked as though he had just learned he had been drafted.

I don't think you are supposed to see daylight under the boat.
Ross went on to explain what we should expect and that the rolling, boiling white water we could see was only the first in a series of five sections of rapids.

“Dead men walking” was all I could think as we shuffled back to the boat.

Ross maneuvered the boat toward the center of the river before we added any significant forward motion. About 20 feet from the first hint of white, Ross yelled, “Paddle hard; paddle hard!” And we were off to the races.

The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on the bottom of the boat two sections back. Paddle still firmly in hand, I struggled to get back to my position as Al continued to paddle as though his life depended on it, and Ross coaxed me back into position. 

I regained my front-of-the-boat position just in time for the next section of rapids. This time the front end of the boat came crashing down nearly tossing over the front of it. I was trying to remember what Ross said early in the “what to do if tossed from the boat” part of the briefing, but my attention was drawn to my life flashing before my eyes.

I suspect traveling through all the sections of rapids took no more than two or three minutes, but it felt like an hour. My mental TV screen showed a calendar with pages flying off next to a window out of which I could see the seasons changing. 

Should have worn my cup....
Exiting the rapids, we returned to drifting. Al and I probably looked as though we had just walked away from the Hindenburg explosion as we contemplated the brevity of life.

Ross filled my and Al's silence with his thoughts. “You know,” he began, “I don't usually like to take one of these boats out with less than four people. They are just too light and you really get tossed around.”

WTF? This might have been good information to have, oh, say, before we left.

It was a blast, and I'd probably do it again if given the chance. But maybe it's more adventure than I really need.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

So Much Music, So Little Time: A Dead iPod Nano

Just a small smattering of my CD collection that contains some CDs never opened.
I'm not the kind of guy who likes being chained to his computer. Despite the fact I put a roof over my head by writing – much of it requiring Web-intensive research – I don't spend one second more at my keyboard than is absolutely necessary.

And, other than sending out half a dozen Instagrams/tweets each week, I refuse to be one of those people bent over my smart phone clicking away every waking moment of every day. I don't suffer separation anxiety if I can't get online for a couple of hours. I still don't feel the need to be connected 24/7.

However, I've been spending more time than I like in front of my computer this week because I have endured a technological crisis: My iPod Nano went belly up.

I am sure there are some of you out there slapping his or her thigh, laughing hysterically that I still utilize an iPod rather than using my smart phone to stash my playlists. Laugh away. There are times, like at the gym, when I don't want the interruptions carrying my smart phone would include. Like I said, I don't need to be connected 24/7.

So, I have spent an inordinate amount of time this past week stocking music on my replacement iPod.

Here's what happened....

On my recent drive to and from South Florida, the Lexus CT 200h I piloted had iPod interface. Using the iPod's USB cord, I was able to connect directly to the car's audio system, controlling it through the head unit. Somehow this froze up my 10-year-old iPod. It would connect to and operate through the car's system just fine, but refused to work when disconnected from the car.

This happened once before a few years ago. Apple has instructions for unfreezing an iPod that worked just fine the last time around. However, nothing Apple recommended worked this time. In the process of trying to unfreeze it, I managed to wipe its memory clean.

A gift from a Jaguar – I know because it has Jag's “Leaping Cat” logo etched on its back – at the media launch of some vehicle more than a decade ago, this First Generation iPod only had 2GB of memory. I maxed out its capacity years ago and could only add a new song by deleting an older one. Even so, I was satisfied to do this rather than fork over $150 for a new Nano or $250 for an iPod touch or an iPod of some other stripe.

Yes, my children, this is what a steam-powered First Gen iPod Nano looked like.
I refuse to keep paying more and more for evermore sophisticated devices that do all manner of things I don't want nor need like storing and playing movies. All I want is a device to store and play music. $250, my ass!

I got on eBay and purchased a reconditioned Fourth Gen iPod with lots of memory. In my tech-challenged opinion, it was a steal at $35.99. It arrived in three days: free shipping! Works brilliantly. Yes, I am a genius!

I had my Jag Nano a year or so before I actually began uploading music and using it. At that time, I ripped music from my CD collection – I know, laugh your ass off, old Uncle Russ has a CD collection – to create playlists. I didn't begin buying songs from iTunes until five or six years ago.

All of the songs I ripped from CDs were backed up on a PC that died and was buried seven or eight years ago. All of the ripped files were buried with it. I was able to retrieve all of the music I purchased from iTunes, but everything else was lost.

So, this week I have been ripping songs from CDs. It's easier now than it was a decade ago because I can utilize iTunes to do the work, speeding things up a bit. But, it's still a mind-numbing slog. I am nearly through my 200-plus CD collection, grabbing a song from this CD and two or three from that one. So far I have about 20 hours of music stored.

I'm sure there is a quicker, more-reliable, better way to do this, but I'm an old-fashioned guy doing this the old-fashioned way. It's just really boring.

But on a positive note, I'm refamiliarizing myself with my music collection. I have CDs that I never unwrapped. What?

And the beat goes on.....

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Covering Carolina's Craft Brewery Scene: Great Work If You Can Get It!

I'm not the kind of guy to shirk duty when it calls; and call it did in the form of a story for AAA Go Magazine on the Battling Breweries of Asheville and Greenville.

This is a story that percolated in the back of my mind for about six months before I pitched it to my editors. Eighteen months ago it wouldn't have even been possible because Greenville only had a couple of craft breweries. Three more, however, have opened in the Greenville area in the past year or so and rumor has it, another is on the way.

My re-introduction to the Growler Station earlier this year, solidified the project in my mind. The Growler Station is the staging area for the new Greenville Brew Tours. These guys really know their beer and are totally stoked about Greenville's craft beer scene. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

The crew at Brewery 85.
I indulged myself this past Friday, visiting two of Greenville's craft breweries that I had never been to: Quest and Brewery 85. I chatted up the owners of both and sampled a half dozen of the selections brewed by each. I usually don't work late on Friday afternoons, but I made an exception in this case.

Besides the quality of craft beers, I am attracted to craft breweries in general because of the passion of their owners and beer makers. Quest and Brewery 85 are no exception. 

The bar at Quest.
This coming week I have an appointment at Greenville's Thomas Creek Brewery and Asheville's Highland Brewing. While I am in Asheville, I will hit two or three more of the city's 13 craft breweries. 

A flight of some of Brewery 85's craft beers.
Yes, I know; you are impressed with my work ethic. I strive to inspire. Once I've conquered the brewery story, I'll move on to the distilleries of the Carolinas.

A freelance writer's work is never done.....

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Flying: It Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

I'm not the kind of guy who can't enjoy a couple of weeks of down time. I categorize “down time” as days that I'm not on the road. For the past 25 years or so, there have only been four or five years when my days on the road didn't outnumber my days at home. Three of those have been since moving to South Carolina eight years ago, and another was my last year in Florida when I had a nine-to-five job editing books. 

This year will be another of those down-time years. Usually by June of a typical travel year for me, I have at least 35,000 to 40,000 miles under my belt. In my salad days of flying, I would have had 50,000 to 60,000 miles in the bag by mid June. This year I have just over 25,000 and almost 10,000 of that were carried over from 2013.

There was a point just before Delta filed bankruptcy and I began liquidating my stockpile of Sky Miles that I had 1.2 million miles piled up in my bank. When you fly all over the place for a living, you don't feel much like flying on vacations. The miles just kept mounting up. Thinking that I might lose those earned miles in the bankruptcy, I began flying everyone I knew all over. I flew former girl friends into Florida for long weekends; I flew family members first class here and there; I took some trips I really wasn't all that interested in taking. Finally I had my miles stash down to about 200,000 miles. Other than making a bunch of people very happy, it turned out to be a really bonehead move. Delta and its frequent-flier program both survived.

Don't get me wrong; there is nothing even remotely glamorous about clocking 120,000 miles or more a year in the air. Sure, from time to time I have been booked in business class by a car company jetting me to Europe or Hawaii to drive some new car, but those perks are few and far between. It's happened fewer than a dozen times in 25 years. Otherwise, flying is a dehumanizing, fatiguing, frustrating cattle call, and that's when I fly Delta on which I have sufficient clout to obtain a choice steerage seat or be awarded the occasional upgrade to first class.

I wish I had kept track over the years of how many hours I've sacrificed cooling my heels in airports waiting on flights, or how many nights I've spent in flea-bag motels as the guest of an airline because of a canceled flight. I suspect I've changed planes in Atlanta close to 1,000 times over the years, and in Dallas another 300 to 400 times when it was still a hub for Delta. One year, when I still had hair, every haircut I had was in the Delta terminal of the Dallas airport. I can't imagine how many miles I've walked through airports getting to my departure gate or, when changing planes, from an arrival gate to a departure gate. Ten thousand steps, my ass.

I rarely sample airport food, but I have sat at more than an occasional airport bar. I can't begin to guess the number of beers I've guzzled in airports to pass the time. What must it be in gallons?

Technology today is such that a percentage of the time spent flying and sitting in airports can be at least somewhat productive, but that's only been in the past 10 or 15 years. Before that? Forget about it. It was a lot of time wasted. Even today, I don't typically do much work on a plane or in an airport.

Yep, I'm dealing with a little down time right now: two full weeks at home. I have one trip at the end of this month, but four already looming in July.

So I'm enjoying this down time while I have it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Little Zac Brown, Some Saltwater Brewery, a Touch of Whale's Rib and the 2014 Lexus CT 200h: A South Florida Adventure

2014 Lexus CT 200h.
I'm not the kind of guy to turn down a little South Florida jaunt.

I am fresh off a six-day, action-packed boondoggle to the sunshine state. For someone who no longer has an interest in living in South Florida, I certainly don't pass up any opportunity to visit. Don't get me wrong; I'd move back in a heartbeat for the right opportunity, but I have a better chance of hitting Power Ball than anyone seriously considering me for employment – 1099 or otherwise.

My latest foray into sun and fun was a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment affair. A good friend from my earliest Boca News days, who has been bartending at Deerfield Beach's Whale's Rib for 15 years or so, put in her last shift at this beach joint on Sunday. Of course, a major party ensued. 

A big "adios" at the Whale's Rib in Deerfield Beach.
Although that was the catalyst for my Florida excursion, other factors contributed to my decision to go. The same friend left hustling drinks in the dust to focus her full attention on flipping houses – a side career for her for the past couple of years. She had some work at her current project house that she needed done for which I am amply qualified. (I am hell on wheels finishing drywall and painting.) The prospect of abandoning my keyboard for a little light manual labor held great appeal. Moreover, her fiancee's oldest son – nearing the finish line at Clemson – wanted to attend her last gasp at the Rib. In lieu of purchasing a last-minute plane ticket for him, she was more than happy to purchase most of the fuel for our joint Florida run.

Sounded like a win, win, win to me.

My last car license plate is still proudly displayed at Whale's Rib. And, no, it's not Sue-24.
I haven't driven from Greenville to Palm Beach County in two years or more. It's roughly a nine-and-a-half-hour drive from my back door to the driveway of the friends where I typically stay in Delray Beach. I achieve this time by stopping for nothing other than gas. Historically, I don't even take advantage of the biological-imperative facilities of the gas stations where I stop. I don't pause to eat, gawk at the ocean or buy a tee-shirt at Ron Jon's in Coco Beach. I leave sufficiently early in the morning to arrive in Palm Beach County in time for happy hour. This usually means getting on the road at 6:00 a.m. at the latest.

It's safe to say, most potential traveling companions aren't wired to attack the Greenville-to-Florida slog with my same degree of enthusiasm. Young Kyle, though, was of a like mind. As determined as I to turn the trip into a Cannonball Run of sorts, he even spent the eve of our drive in my guest room, so we could get a 5:00 a.m. start the next morning.

This is one good looking car!
Because this trip was planned only a couple of days in advance, I had to hustle around to secure a car to make the 1,400-mile round-trip drive. Lexus came through with a bright-red example of its CT 200h five-door. This is its hybrid hatchback.

If you are at least a somewhat-regular reader of Clanging Bell, you know I am not a big fan of hybrids. I am all for the better-than-average fuel economy they deliver, but not of the premium squeezing out that extra mileage costs when purchasing the car. Obviously, in this case, I got the benefit of the solid fuel economy without paying for the hybrid technology. This Lexus delivered a whopping 39.6 mpg on this trip that was 90% highway driving.

If I had purchased this car, I would have faced a $37,850 bottom line. That includes $900 extra for goodies like rain-sensing wipers (that received a workout on the drive down), heated front seats and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Also contributing to that price is $3,500 for the navigation package with backup camera, a mouse-like controller, voice command, and a premium audio system with 10 speakers, among other things.

The CT 200h cockpit.
This is a great-looking hatchback; I don't care who you are or how you feel about hybrids. If four of us had been making the trip to Florida with the luggage needed for six days, space would have been an issue. However, with just two of us, we were able to fold down the split rear seat and then load up the cargo-carrying space with a set of golf clubs two suitcases, a cooler filled with bottled water, a container loaded with all the tools and accoutrements I anticipated needing for my work, and two backpacks.

Although the CT 200h isn't a jack rabbit, it accelerates with a degree of determination. Once up and cruising, it hauls right along. A couple of electric motors and a 1.8-liter gasoline engine manage to generate 134 horsepower. Other than the whine of the CVT transmission under hard acceleration, noise from under the hood is manageable.

The mouse control for the navigation and other major systems is a little twitchy, but probably smooths out as, over time, the operator becomes more familiar with its feel. Otherwise, this little hatchback was comfortable, offering a wide range of amenities.

After a fill up, the range is about 400 miles, and that's with a 12-gallon gas tank. We filled up the first time with the miles-to-empty read out showing just 25 miles left. The tank absorbed less than 9 gallons of regular gas, so obviously the “to empty” gauge is a bit on the conservative side.

We arrived in West Palm Beach a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. and met Mary at the house where I would be working. After a quick tour and an agreement to meet back there at 7:30 the next morning, we transferred Kyle's gear to her car, and I headed south to Delray Beach.

I wound up spending about 17 hours prepping and painting one room in the house. This included both the walls and the wood trim. A couple of the walls had been exterior walls at one point and were heavily stuccoed. Talk about a pain in the ass to paint.

Delray Beach's Saltwater Brewery: What a terrific place to spend an afternoon or evening....or both.
Other than the three partial days I spent slaving away, I basically goofed off, as I always do in Florida. I did manage to get to Saltwater Brewery on Delray's Atlantic Avenue three times during my stay. That alone made it a success.

Zac Brown jamming on stage at Cruzan in West Palm Beach.
I also happened to time this visit while Zac Brown had a two-night concert run at the Cruzan Amphitheater in West Palm. My friends had an extra ticket, which I was only too happy to use. Never having seen this band live, it was quite a treat. They opened covering CDB's “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and closed with Tom Petty's “Runnin' Down the Dream.” Knocking both out of the park. Everything in between was pretty damn good too.

With my work on the house, this was a break-even trip for me. In other words, I got to party in South Florida for six days for free! At times I love being me.