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!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Flying: It's Just Another Day

I'm not the kind of guy who thinks jetting around for this and that is glamorous. I guess there was a day, 30-or-so years ago, when I first began traveling for the auto gig that I thought I was pretty hot stuff. Not so much any more. For one thing, there are people doing what I do who travel a whole lot more. Not only do they travel more, they travel to more exotic destinations. This year I've been to Nashville three or four times, Memphis once and a number of other places fairly close to home. Hell, Hyundai even staged an event in Greenville.

Today, I'd love to be able to load myself into a pneumatic tube and be sucked from wherever it is I am back home. That's the way I felt this week when facing two flights home from Middleburg, VA. Actually, it was from Washington Dulles Airport. I often get myself into trouble with the number of flights and plane changes because I often fly in and out of Greenville-Spartanburg Airport and insist on flying Delta. That almost always entails a flight west, a stop and a plane change in Atlanta, even if I'm traveling somewhere east of Greenville.

This was one of those 36-hour door-to-door trips where we flew in on day one and flew home on day two. It was Volkswagen's 2015 full-line drive event featuring all of its models for next year. I didn't even bother packing a razor.

Over the years I've flown over 1.6 million miles on Delta. As long as it has a frequent-flier program – “Sky Miles” in Delta speak – I have at least Silver Platinum status regardless of how many miles I fly. That doesn't mean much in the way of perks any more, but it does get me a free checked bag and the opportunity to board with Zone 1, no matter where I'm sitting in the plane. I think it also includes some bonus miles added to a traveler's Sky Miles account for every so-many miles flown. 

In Delta's Crown Room at Palm Beach International Airport in 2002, deep in thought as I pondered the instruction manual for a new-fangled Sony S75 digital camera.
In the 1990s and early in the current millennium when my flying was at its peak, I clocked anywhere from 100,000 to 130,000 miles a year on Delta alone. I was nearly always upgraded and had a free membership to Delta's club room. Today, I only sneak into a Delta Sky Club when I'm traveling with someone who is a member. 

Hong Kong circa 1999.
In those days I was traveling for the car gig, as well as with “Discover America.” I spent more waking hours in Palm Beach International than I did in my house. I still know and speak to Delta employees in that airport.

This year I will struggle to reach Gold in the Sky Miles program. And, that's with a carry over of more than 10,000 miles from last year. I do have a couple of California trips ahead of me in September that will go a long way to getting me to Gold. 

In Lisbon circa 2000.
Next year reaching Medallion levels will be based solely on dollars spent. I have no clue how that will affect my status. It seems every year Delta finds a fresh and unique way to further dilute its frequent-flier program.

But, after 30 years, to tell you the truth: I'm pretty much over it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Shredding a Shed: How a GMC Sierra 2500 Crew Cab Saved My Bacon

I'm not the kind of guy who pays people to do jobs around the house that I can do myself. It just rubs me the wrong way. When I have time on my hands, I have lots of time on my hands – one of the benefits/curses of freelancing. That's how this blog got started: Work was slow and I wanted something to do. I got the bright idea to create a blog. I posted on it nearly every day in the beginning. Now, I'm lucky to post twice a week. But that's another story.

This 10 ft. by 8 ft. structure doesn't look like much, does it?
When Travelers Insurance – where customer is king – unceremoniously canceled my homeowner's insurance because of my shed, I had no choice but address the issue before seeking coverage from another company.

I only received written notice three weeks before the cancellation date – not a lot of time. I spent a few days pondering my course of action. I waffled from possible solution to possible solution. I could solve the core issue by applying new siding; or, I could knock the whole thing down. Replacing the shed was on my long-term plan; I just hadn't gotten around to it. It wasn't merely my slacker nature holding me back, but the thought of ponying the 1500 bucks or so I estimated the entire shed-replacement project would cost.

Digging this little trench around three walls took hours thanks to hitting either a tree root or brick fragment with every scoop of the shovel.
I decided to side over the problem. It would take less time, and, as I said, time was in short supply. I spent a day on preparation. I had to dig out a trench around three sides where, over the years, dirt had shifted and covered the bottom six inches of three walls. I also removed the metal strips that tied the corners of the current siding together. In the course of that, I discovered that parts of the walls were so termite eaten, that there was nothing much holding the thing together other than the current siding. In fact, over vast swaths of the shed, there was nothing to which to fasten the new siding.

Busy, but well-fed termites did a job on a couple of the walls.
 Dammit! I had to shift gears and demolish the thing after all.

When I first considered re-siding, I called one of the vendors that brings me test cars to see if they had a pickup truck that I could use for my home-improvement store runs. Nothing was currently available, so I reconciled myself to renting a pickup from Home Depot. Once I decided to tear down rather than re-side, I sort of forgot about the truck request. 

As I got ready to start the demolition, a $65,000 2015 Sierra Denali 2500 4WD Crew Cab with Duramax Turbo Diesel roared into my driveway, blocking the view of the houses across the road. The first thing I did was gather up all the stuff I stored in the shed like my weed whacker, garden tools and assorted yard-keeping paraphernalia and loaded it into the truck. I drove it up to a buddy's, who has a huge garage-like shed, and dumped the stuff off.

I returned home and began the tear down in earnest. My strategy was to take down the two strongest walls in the hope the rest of the shed would tumble in the direction of the missing walls. The shed sat in a corner of my lot about two feet from the neighbor's chain-link fence on one side and an overgrown area behind it on another side. I needed it to fall away from those sides.

When I launched into this project, I didn't see this as a huge undertaking. It was just a shed for the love of God!

Here're words you won't often hear out of me: Boy, was I wrong!

Despite sections of it being nearly rotted away, this thing was built like it had to withstand the allied naval shelling at Normandy. Removing the two target walls required two five-hour days and enough cussing to make a merchant marine blush. 

I pushed on the remaining walls and the shed weaved back and forth a bit, but basically remained stubbornly sturdy. I wandered around in circles debating with myself on how best to bring the thing down. Suddenly my eyes fell on the GMC in the car port. It's a monster of a truck with its 6.6-liter turbo diesel cranking out 375 horsepower and a whopping 765 lb-ft of stump-pulling torque. 

Redesigned for this year, the Sierra is updated and improved in every respect. Denali is the top-of-the-line trim, and is loaded. The cabin is nothing short of gorgeous with enough USB ports and power outlets – including a 110V household outlet – to keep a squad of NSA snoopers connected. To features such as leather seating, power-adjustable pedals, dual-zone automatic climate control and rearview camera, Denali trim adds a power sliding rear window with defogger, navigation system, front/rear park assist, spray bedliner, power-folding outboard mirrors and a lockable tailgate.

This thing sounds like a locomotive as you chug up the road. I suspect as the Sierra's massive grille fills the rearview mirror of some pokey sedan Bogarting the left fast lane of I-85, the driver of the offending car is uber motivated to get the hell out of the way. It is a brute.

As I looked at the Sierra at rest in my car port, I had an “ah-ha” moment: Why not put that nearly 18,000 pounds of pulling capacity to good use?

I cast aside my pry bar and 12-pound hammer, jumped behind the GMC's wheel and ground my way to Home Depot where I spent $20 for a 16-foot tow strap and a heavy-duty 1/2-inch eye bolt. Pulling the GMC into the back yard, I drilled a hole in one of the roof rafters, attached the eye bolt and ran the tow strap from the eye hook to one of the GMC's front tow hooks. Climbing up into the cab, I threw the transmission into reverse. 

The shed came crashing forward, but because the force of the pull tore the rafter completely out of the shed, it still remained partially upright. Drat!

I then drilled a hole down through the roof itself, reinserted the eye bolt and jumped back into the truck. Throwing the shift lever into reverse I goosed the accelerator and roof crashed to the ground with a satisfying thump. 

With my goal that day being to bring the shed down. I retired the field of battle, heading inside to shower and do some work on one of the several paying assignments I had piling up.

It required four more four-to-six-hour days to finish tearing up the rest of the structure. The roof was the only really solid element and was a bear to dismantle. That required a full day in itself. Breaking up the two back walls required another full day. Pulling up what was left of the flooring and joists yet another day. 

Not sure if this is much of a bargain....

I spent $30 on a Waste Management Bagster to load up the bigger pieces: windows, door and large roof sections. It will cost me another $130 to have it hauled away. I haven't had time to research just how good a deal that is. Not much of one I suspect.

Filling up the Bagster and stacking the remaining lumber took another day. I still have some longer pieces I'll have to cut in two to put out for bulk pickup by the county; so the job isn't quite finished.

What remains to be disposed of.
I've already secured new insurance with Liberty Mutual. So, that is off my plate – at least for the time being.

I have no clue how I would have managed to bring that shed down without the GMC. I'm sure I would have figured out something, but it would have been much more time consuming and probably dangerous.

Now, all I have to worry about is erecting a new shed. Oh boy....

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My Advice: Drink Heavily

I'm ready to take comfort where I find it.
 Right now I am fairly consumed with work and other nonsense that can't be put off. It's a royal pain.

With a trip to my sister's on the schedule for later in the month, I suddenly find myself awash in projects that can't be postponed. This is not good for a world-class procrastinator and black-belt slacker.

Going into this week, I had eight major client assignments to research and write. I have three more minor ones that would take little time at all to knock out, if I could get the sources I need for each on the phone. I am getting ready to go live with a Web site on Greenville and I, as the sole provider of copy, have been burning the midnight oil writing for it. I have a Florida buddy doing the heavy lifting, building the thing, but I still have to make the lion's share of decisions. My head hurts.

I also am in the process of tearing down my shed. Travelers Insurance – that lame-ass, bastard of a company – canceled my homeowner's insurance after three weeks when its inspector found asbestos siding on my shed. Without even a “by your leave,” Travelers canceled me effective two weeks from now. Thanks to my end-of-the-month travels, I have to pull the shed down and scrounge up homeowner's coverage in the next 10 days or so.

Then, I also have out-of-town guests coming to stay Friday night. That means the house needs at least a somewhat good cleaning. I HATE house cleaning!!!

I am under excruciating pressure!

I'm almost too frazzled to drink...almost.

Hey, there's an idea....

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lexus NX Goes to Nashville

I'm not the kind of guy who turns down a trip to Nashville; even if it is the third visit in less than a year. Toss in a chance to drive the yet-to-be-released Lexus NX, and you've got me hook, line and sinker. Just reel me in like the big, old lunker I am.

I like Nashville a lot. It is brimming with personality. And the live music! Oh, Momma.

It's where Lexus decided to throw the Southeast media introduction of its new, smaller NX crossover that will arrive in showrooms this fall. The versions we drove were preproduction models; yet they, for the most part, approximate what consumers will buy later this year. 

The lobby of Nashville's Union Station Hotel.
Lexus put us up at the Union Station Hotel on Broadway. The hotel's name may hint that it was once Nashville's passenger train station. In all my visits to Nashville over the years, this was the first time I got to overnight in this historic lodging. It's rather breathtaking. Not to mention the service attentive and the beds wonderfully comfortable. It has just become an Autograph Collection property. It's only a three or four block hike to Broadway's honky-tonks. Room prices run from about $250 to $400 a night.

I arrived early the afternoon of our first day and took a stroll down Broadway in search of a bumper sticker I promised a friend to put on her guitar case. I thought, certainly one of the larger, more popular honky-tonks like Tootsie's, Legends or Robert's Western World would have its own bumper sticker. Nope. The only bumper stickers offered in any of the souvenir stores – even those operated by honky-tonks – only had the same two “Nashville” bumper stickers available at the gift shops in the airport. I was crestfallen. I purchased two sizes of the same sticker on Broadway and then a “I (heart) Nashville” sticker on our tour of Hatch Show Print the next morning. 

Toyota/Lexus always has us driving the afternoon of the arrival day. Usually the experience consists of two or three preplanned routes of varying distances. My driving partner and I chose an NX 200t F Sport for our afternoon excursion. It was a 90-minute trip that took us over sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway to Franklin, Tenn. and then back to the hotel.

The 200t is one of two NX models that also includes the hybrid NX 300h. Prices have yet to be announced, but Lexus suits assured us that the low-end of the spectrum would be under $40,000. 

NX slots below the wildly popular RX in size and price. A 235-horsepower 2-liter turbo four-cylinder powers the 200t; while in the 300h a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle engine and a couple of electric motors collaborate to produce 194 horsepower. The turbo engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, and the hybrid uses a CVT. Both can be fitted with AWD.

Lexus wants us to think of the NX as an IS-like crossover in its handling and cornering dexterity. When in sport mode – particularly with F Sport trim, the response and handling is impressive for a larger vehicle. We dialed the style selector back and forth among ECO, Normal and Sport modes a couple of times before leaving it on Sport. Eco was downright sluggish.

NX is roomy and comfortable. The extra trimmings provided by the F Sport upgrade really pumped up the cabin's appearance. You can get power-folding rear seats and lift gate, along with a horde of other optional goodies. There is all manner of available technology and multi-media upgrades, too.

Safety is also a big deal with eight airbags and back-up camera as standard. Lane-departure warning, parking assist, blind-spot monitor and rear-cross-traffic monitor are all available. 

Our drive route wasn't terribly challenging, but did have a nice mix of elevation changes and curves, and even a bit of expressway driving thrown in for good measure. NX was a joy to drive.

Brett James (left) and Tim Nichols.
Beyond driving the the NX, the highlight of the trip was the pre-dinner entertainment on our only night with Lexus. Nashville has a song-writer program that provides one or two writers of some well-known songs to perform for groups. We were entertained for about 40 minutes by Grammy winners Brett James and Tim Nichols. Nichols co-wrote “Live Like You Were Dying” for Tim McGraw. James wrote or co-wrote a passel of hits like “Out Last Night” and “When the Sun Goes Down” for Kenny Chesney, “Jesus Take the Wheel” for Carrie Underwood, “Mr. Know It All” for Kelly Clarkson and a whole bunch more. Both talked about their songs and sang several of them. Yep, there was serious talent on that little stage.

We had our abbreviated concert at The Farm House restaurant on Almond Street. It had an impressive collection of bourbons and some damn interesting craft brews. The food was pretty good, too.

Letterpress printing 101 is in session.
The morning of our second day was mostly devoted to driving anything we hadn't gotten to the day before. First, though, we took a side trip to Hatch Show Print. It is the oldest continuous letterpress printing facility in the U.S., operating since 1879. It makes posters for all sorts of performances and events. Nothing much has changed in how it creates prints in 135 years. I'd been to Hatch several times, but never gotten the nickle tour of the place.

I was back home about 36 hours after leaving. A quick trip, indeed, but even a small dose of Nashville is good.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Travelers Insurance, Double Trouble in the Keys and Delta: Bureaucrats Runamock

I'm not the kind of guy who thinks regulations are all bad. I mean, some organization is helpful. Yes, I believe people obeying “stop” signs and only going through intersections when the traffic light is green are positive things for a civilized society. Prohibiting someone from smoking in a hospital room where oxygen is being administered seems like a fine idea to me, too.

The problem, as I see it, is that one regulation leads to two and two to four and so on and so forth. There seems no end to the aspects of our lives that someone doesn't think another rule will improve. The reason for regulations multiplying is that once a regulation or two is in place, some sort of oversight follows closely behind. This oversight often means creating a committee, bureau, department or squad to do the overseeing. It's the human factor that always – not sometimes, but always – leads to mischief. 

What you end up with is a person or people sitting around attempting to justify his, her or their existence, in turn, keeping themselves in a job. Factor in those who are a bit power hungry, lording over their little fiefdom like a mall cop, and you have set the stage for a relentless expansion of the number and the parameters of rules, policies, regulations et al. Toss in a little power abuse for good measure and you are well on your way to a healthy dose of tyranny.

I've been on a tear recently about bureaucrats of all stripes. They can be found in businesses, industries, governments and associations of virtually any type. They may be drones just “following orders,” enforcers of some sort sent out into the world to whip the unwashed into line, or decision makers always on the ready to inflict on others their thoughts of how things should work.

Here are three examples of bureaucratic cancer I encountered recently that highlight the problem:

Example No. 1. I was driving out of the Florida Keys on Rt. 1 in Tavernier, when I noticed two 45-mile-per-hour speed-limit signs no more than 12 inches apart. One was a bit taller and somewhat larger than the other, but it was a major dose of redundancy so blatant that I had to pull over and snap a photo. The only thing that might have made it more ridiculous is if there had been a notice prohibiting parking between the signs.

I have no clue what installing that redundant sign might have cost. You've got the cost of the sign, the pole and the labor to assemble the two pieces. Someone had to take the time to decide a sign was necessary and choose where to install it. Paperwork was issued, studied, approved, filed: all requiring someone's time. A crew was scheduled and the equipment needed for the job secured. On the appointed day, fuel was consumed, man hours burned and traffic delayed. I'm guessing the total cost was somewhere north of $1,000.

All a complete and total waste.

How does such a thing happen? At what point in the process should someone have discovered the sign had already been erected and pulled the plug? Was the paperwork on the first sign misfiled? Did the work order specify the wrong location? Did separate agencies – county vs. state vs. municipality – order the same sign? Did the foreman of the second crew misread the work order? I guess any number of reasons for the second sign being installed nearly on top of the first are possible.

But once the crew wound up in the very same spot where the first sign already stood, why did the work proceed? How could anyone with even a smidgen of intellect, see the first sign standing there and not think, hey, I believe there's a sign already here. Even if the foreman wasn't empowered to make the smallest of decisions in conflict with the work order, why wouldn't he call his boss to request further instructions? If he did, why would he have been told to finish the job?

This is the sort of mindlessness that gives functionaries a bad name.

Example No. 2. I recently changed homeowner's insurance carriers from State Farm to Travelers. State Farm has raised my annual premium by 10% to 14% each of the past four or five years. One of the reasons I left South Florida was to escape insurance premiums doubling or tripling over a five- or six-year period.

I provided an insurance search engine some of the particulars, sat back and waited for my phone to ring. And ring it did. One of the calls was from Travelers. The enthusiastic young lady on the other end of this call asked a battery of questions about my house, all of which I answered truthfully. By the end of the 15-minute conversation, I had lowered my deductible from $5,000 to $2,500, reduced my annual premium by $150, and had my MasterCard balance increased by the tune of about $600.

The young lady advised me that Travelers might send an inspector to my house to verify it was as I described it. No worries.

I gleefully canceled my policy with State Farm, feeling quite proud of myself for overcoming my slacker tendencies, taking some initiative and saving a bunch of money in the process.

About six weeks later I received an e-mail instructing me to call Travelers customer service about an urgent issue with my insurance. I placed the call and was informed that my policy was canceled effective August 25. When I inquired why, I was told Travelers dispatched an inspector to my house who found asbestos shingles on my shed. My shed?

Because of the shape of the shingles on my shed, I considered the possibility they might be asbestos, but wasn't sure. That being the case, though, my solution was simple: Don't insure the shed. Apparently Travelers won't insure a house if one of its outbuildings has asbestos siding because there was no room for discussion. In fact, there was no solution available. Even removing the shed wasn't an option. I had dared to apply for insurance at Travelers for a house with an asbestos shingle-covered shed and was now persona non grata in its eyes. The die was cast, the policy canceled and the remaining premium credited back to my credit card.

The “customer service” person to whom I spoke did have an idea when I asked exactly what I was supposed to do now: “Call an independent agent,” he said as he ended the call.

The fact that Travelers, after allowing me to cancel my previous policy, would cancel me without offering the option of removing the shed is the sort of “screw you” attitude embraced by bureaucrats in all walks of life.

Example No. 3. On the Florida trip on which I discovered the bureaucratic foul-up in our first example, I was scheduled to fly out of Palm Beach International Airport to Atlanta at 9:30 a.m. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time and was in the gate a little after 8:00. The plane boarded on time and we were settling in when one of the flight attendants announced that an FAA inspector had made a spot inspection of the plane and found a slight issue that had to be addressed before the plane could push back from the gate.

About 20 minutes went by when a second announcement told us the problem was small – so sufficiently small the crew wouldn't have held the plane for it – but the FAA inspector was insisting it be fixed. The source of the problem couldn't be found, we were told. Passengers with close connections in Atlanta were encouraged to deplane and make new arrangements.

I called Delta to see what my options might be. I was going to land in Atlanta and drive the 155 miles home, so I didn't have a connection issue. The Delta rep I spoke with advised me to hang tough; the problem was minor and probably would be fixed soon. Another 30 minutes ticked by.

I finally gathered my things and walked off the plane. Wi-Fi is free at PBI; I wanted to get online and do a few things. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

125 people attempting to get their flights changed.
I watched as the estimated-departure time moved to 10:30 then 11:00 and then noon and then on to 1:00. At the 11:00 mark, I called Delta again to try to get backed up on another flight in case this one was canceled. I was informed that the earliest flight on which I could broker a seat was a little after 6:00. I had them back me up on that flight and continued to wait. Finally around 1:15, they announced the source of the problem had been located. But – in the words of Peewee Herman, “There's always a big but” – the solution was replacing a battery and that battery had to be ferried the 50 miles from Ft. Lauderdale airport to PBI.

We finally reboarded the plane and were in the air by 3:00. I arrived in Atlanta just in time to be thrust into rush hour traffic, adding about 30 minutes to the usual 2.5 hours it takes to make the trek home.

The problem, it turned out, was a couple of the lights showing the way to one of the exits in the main cabin weren't operating. It was a non-issue in terms of the plane operating safely. Delta wouldn't have grounded the plane for it, but sadly, some squint-eyed functionary puffed up his chest and ruined the day's travel plans for about 200 people.

Power – any amount of power – in the hands of small-minded people is never a good thing.