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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Hero? I Think Not; Just a Victim of Circumstance

Me mugging it up with the 2018 Toyota Camry in Portland.
I'm not the kind of guy who is comfortable with uber-long absences from home. I define uber-long as anything over 9 or 10 days – and even that's pushing it. Three days, five days or even seven days are well within my comfort zone. Even when relaxing on vacation, anything past seven days can bump up my levels of angst and stress.

I am currently on day 13 of a 15-day sentence away from home. I am bonkers! How did such a thing happen? you may ask. Aren't you master of your fate, captain of your ship, king of your castle? you might add. Why, yes I am, sort of, to a point. I certainly don't have a significant other to whom I answer or feel the need to discuss plans. That in and of itself makes life less stressful and puts me in a better position not to have to spend more time away from home than I prefer. But, at times, I can screw things up all on my own as they just spiral out of my control.

A number of forces conspired to put me in this position. I am basically a victim of circumstance. At the heart of it, though, I am simply too loving, loyal and reliable for my own good. There, I've finally admitted it.

Here's how it went down....

I visit my sister and her family in New Mexico twice a year: Christmas and again sometime in the summer. Nearly a 1,600-mile trek, I am no longer keen to drive it, take the bus, train nor hoof it. That leaves flying.

Because I must bear the burden of the ticket price (very rare for me), I always book early to minimize the cost whether in Sky Miles (Delta speak for frequent-flier miles) or dollars. This means booking not just weeks, but sometimes several months in advance. I book the trip for 10 days just in case a carmaker media event crops up during my stay that a client asks me to attend. I can zip away for three days in the middle of my New Mexico stay and still have seven days to spend with family. Yes, I'm a peach.
My Goddaughter and I celebrating her Masters Degree at a nineties theme party in Albuquerque.
I booked my summer visit from June 9 through June 19. A few weeks after booking this trip, Toyota sent out invitations to its 2018 Camry media launch. Although it offered multiple waves, I chose the first wave, which meant flying to Portland, Ore on June 5 with a return home on June 7.

No problemo, right? I get home the afternoon of June 7, have that night, as well as the night of June 8 at home before heading to New Mexico on Friday, June 9.

Three weeks later, a client forwards an invite to me, requesting I attend. It's for the 3-day Audi A5/S5 Sportback media launch in Seattle beginning June 7. Freelancing is never saying, no. Not ever. If ever offered an assignment as I lie gasping for air, clutching my chest on my deathbed, I will screw up the last dregs of my strength to squeak out a raspy, HELL YES! Get it? I never say, no.

That's not to say I've never turned down such an assignment. I am this client's last-ditch go-to for carmaker events. Think of it as if I was part of some sort of homeland defense unit. This client wouldn't call me up until the enemy was storming the Magic Kingdom in Disney World. I'm that far down the pecking order. Consequently, often I don't receive these invitations until two or three weeks before the event. So, there have been a couple of times I've had to turn down the assignment simply because I was already booked on conflicting car events.

I immediately agreed to attend the Audi event and then had to try to figure out how I would overcome the logistics. Never, ever say, no.

What I wound up doing was blowing off my return flights from Portland to Greenville, and then flying on Wednesday the 7th from Portland to Seattle. Friday the 9th was to be the travel day home from Seattle. Luckily, I always book my longer flights out of Atlanta, rather than Greenville/Spartanburg. I can drop off whatever test car I have at the airport, picking up a replacement on my return. Unfortunately, though, my flight out of Atlanta to New Mexico was at 11 a.m. on that Friday.

My only choice was to hop the red-eye from Seattle to Atlanta on Thursday night. Delta checked my bags all the way to New Mexico and, once landed, I had three hours to make that flight. The one big fly in the ointment, however, was that my flight to Portland at the beginning of this mess was out of Greenville/Spartanburg, but my flight back from New Mexico at trip's end terminated in Atlanta.

I had to work out with the vendor supplying me with test cars to pick up one car in Greenville and drop off my replacement car at the Atlanta airport two weeks later. Geesh.

There you have it: my loyalty to my client, love for my family and reliability in my work ethic drove me to a 15-day absence. I'm no hero; just a victim of circumstance.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Fighting the Good Fight, or I'm Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take It Any More!

Residential use? I think not. This isn't the Cleavers preparing for a picnic.

I'm not the kind of guy who yells, “Get off my lawn!” at the neighborhood kids. Actually, the neighborhood kids here are pretty respectful of other peoples' property. Of course, you could make the argument that my moonscape of a lawn doesn't warrant Defcon 2-like policing, and you would be correct. Anything short of driving an M2 half-track onto my grass...er, weeds...umm dirt would have little or no impact upon its condition. In fact, conspiracy-theory wackos, convinced we didn't actually land on the moon in 1969, believe the event was staged right here on little-ole earth, and suspect my yard served as the set. Drop by and I'll present you with a faux moon rock.

I must admit that the two-thirds of an acre upon which my Greenville home sits hasn't received much of my attention beyond mowing every 10 days or so from the start of April until mid October each year. From the time I purchased the house in the late spring of 2007, my only real cash investment in landscaping upkeep has been sporadically cutting down six or seven tall pine trees scattered around the property. (I still have two to go.) Otherwise, the only treasure spent has been on gas and mower maintenance, as well as barrels of weed killer.

The simple truth of the matter is, I have bigger fish to fry. Most of my energy and all my spare change have gone into remodeling projects inside the house. Ultimately, the inside is what will sell it once on the market. I'll address the landscaping if and when the inside is completed.
At the moment, this is the sign sitting on the corner of my property.
The other issue with focusing assets on the landscaping is, at least a dozen times since I moved into the house in the winter of 2008, some public entity has arrived on the scene to dig things up. ATT, Sprint, Greenville Water, the South Carolina DOT and other assorted felons descend on my property to lay cable, pipe or whatever. Although they do often stray inside my actual property lines, they mostly tear things up within the setback. Mine is a corner lot; so, this means they strip mine within the section of land roughly 15 feet from the edge of the two streets bordering my property. I don't exaggerate when I say that I have yet to get through 12 consecutive months without my lawn being violated in some way.

At this juncture, you might jump to the conclusion that I'm not particularly vigilant regarding what goes on outside my home. I do keep my head down and my powder dry, but that doesn't mean I don't pay attention. Because many of the homes around me are rentals, I historically have let minor annoyances slide, knowing most of the tenants last no longer than a year. The house behind mine has hosted more than a dozen renters in my eight years here. No matter how bad they are, I know these people will be gone in six or eight months.

As you see, my default attitude where my neighbors are concerned is one of laissez-faire. What sort of behavior on the part of a neighbor might motivate me to take action? I'm glad you asked. That's the real topic of this essay.

Here's the back story: When I moved into my home in 2008, the house across the side street from mine was occupied by an 84-year-old guy, who had owned it since honorably separating from the Navy at the end of the Korean War. Last year he apparently died at the ripe old age of 92. Clearly chain smoking and bitching 24/7 are pluses for longevity. After his death, his fat, chain-smoking hillbilly of a son, who also resides somewhere in this neighborhood, sold off his inherited house for the tidy sum of $29,000. No doubt in celebration of his windfall, the son waddled off, purchased a carton of Pall Malls and case of PBR, and partied like it was 1959.

Obviously, this was his house to do with as he pleased, but as the only house that has sold in this neighborhood in five years, $29,000 doesn't make for a good comp. I was ticked, but optimistic when it appeared the new owner was renovating it to flip. I even turned a blind eye when a crew of guys sans protective gear or even breathing masks stripped the asbestos siding from the house, tossing it in a dumpster that wound up who knows where. New roof, new siding, new paint, new wood deck on the back: The exterior was looking great. There was a lot of construction activity inside the house, as well. I had visions of the house reselling for four times the purchase price.

Sure, I thought it odd that it looked like the same crew of guys did the roofing and deck, as had replaced the siding, but I didn't give it much thought. Once the house appeared finished, there didn't seem to be much activity over there. I began to worry when a “For Sale” sign didn't appear in the front yard. I began noticing a heavy-duty diesel pickup truck or two over there from time to time. I thought they were merely contractors working on the interior. Silly me.
The poor quality of this photo is from being shot through my front-porch screen.
About three months ago, the side yard facing my house was suddenly full of heavy-duty pickup trucks and construction trailers with back hoes and so forth. Every night at least four or five diesel pickups and three or four trailers of some sort were parked there. Hmmm....me thinks this smells like a business being operated out of this house.

Around 6:30 each morning, it's like the staging the Normandy landing over there. In unison, all the diesels fire up and then idle for 15 minutes. There's beeping as they reverse to hook up trailers, guys are barking instructions at one another, and four or five sets of headlights blast into my bedroom windows. After the trucks depart with their respective loads of equipment and personnel, the lawn, which has yet this season to feel the sting of a mower blade, is strewn with all the flotsam one might expect of a construction site. There are big wood spools, like the coffee table in your first apartment, laying around along with lengths of cable and other assorted junk.

A month or so ago, as I was working around my shed, the owner wandered over and introduced himself. Turns out, he owns a cable-laying business in Atlanta. His only customer is Comcast. The house across the street is his South Carolina satellite office. A crew of his day workers, who look suspiciously like the same guys who did all the work on the exterior of the building, use it as a bunkhouse.

His main reason for approaching me was to ask if I had seen any suspicious activity around his house the night before. It seems someone hooked up one of his trailers and drove it off. About two weeks later, there were several sheriff's cars over there along with a CSI vehicle. Apparently he was robbed again. A real tragedy, right?
The carnage has now seeped into the lot behind him, as well.
There is a vacant lot behind his house. A week or so later, I saw him overseeing the cleaning up of that lot by the two brothers who own it. Evidently he either purchased or is leasing the property because now one of his trailers is parked on it. I fully expect him to eventually fence it in to try to secure his equipment.

I have been seething over this for three months. Last week I finally reached out to the zoning folks with a written complaint. This area is zoned residential and there is no way what's going on over there falls into a strict definition of residential. If this was within the city limits, I'm sure something would be done; however, this is the county, and I would guess things are a bit looser here. We'll see.

This was just the first of what may well be many shots fired in this struggle for truth, justice and the American way.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wasting Away in TV Land, or A Few Shows to Watch in Your Spare Time

I'm not the kind of guy who pretends to be a highbrow. That's not to say I might not like the opera or ballet, if exposed to live performances on a regular basis. I do appreciate classical music when hearing it live. Sure, I could see myself sipping on a glass of Weller 12 Year bourbon, surrounded by $10,000 of audio gear blasting out a little Tchaikovsky as I pondered the world and my place in it. But, in truth, there are other things, sadly quite pedestrian in nature, that I'd rather do in my spare time.

I find myself in the midst of a three-week run at home. Not only that, but paying work has become alarmingly scarce. In other words, I have some time on my hands. I am catching up on editing just3things videos and work around the house. Typically, by 4 p.m. or so, I am settled into my recliner in front of the TV.

Not a huge expenditure in my annual budget, but one that I could transform into some needed cash for the aforementioned home-improvement projects, is the $200 per year I shovel at Netflix and Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime does have some added value, of which I make good use as I order lots of stuff from Amazon, taking advantage of Prime's free two-day shipping. Each month Prime also allows me to download a free book from a selection of six to eight novels its editors assemble. I also, however, make good use of Amazon's selection of movies and TV series that are free to watch through Amazon Prime. This, of course, is Netflix's core business.

From the time I hop into my recliner around 4:00, until I prepare dinner around 6:30 or 7:00, I'll binge watch three or four episodes of some TV series provided by one of these two content services. Some are Netflix or Amazon originals, some are recently aired series I just missed on regular cable or network TV, and some air on channels I can't find or are unfamiliar with.

Both download-viewing services now allow members to download certain TV series and movies to a device for future viewing. I usually have four or five episodes of some TV series that I can watch on airplanes when traveling.

Here are a few of the series I keep up with on Netflix and Amazon:

Bosch (Amazon) – Based on the series of novels with Bosch as the protagonist, each season is a collection of eight or so episodes based on one of the books. Well structured, written and acted, its a great way to get through a rainy Saturday.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon) – To be honest, I have no clue what this series is about and I've watched two seasons. The premise is that the Germans and Japanese won WWII. Japan controls everything west of the Rockies, while the Nazis control the rest of what was the U.S. But, this is some sort of alternate universe among other universes of which we are aware because some guy (the man in the high castle) has canisters of films revealing the other realities. Admittedly, this is something I only watch because I can. I am so confused by what's going on, I find it almost unwatchable at times.

Patriot (Amazon) – I was turned on to this quirky series involving a CIA operative with his father as his direct supervisor by some of the PR guys at Honda. He is a reluctant agent undercover with some sort of provider of oil pipeline materials. Two oddities about the series that are fun are the fact that the agent composes and sings songs about his spy work, as well as whenever someone in the pipeline supply company talks about anything work related, it's just double talk. Some of this is simply hysterical.
The core clones of Orphan Black. My favorite: Helena on far right.
Orphan Black (Amazon) – This is the one show I always try to convince people with Amazon Prime to watch when the topic of TV watching surfaces in conversation. The premise is that as babies, several female clones were released into the population in different locations and into different situations. All are unaware they are clones. They begin stumbling across one another and linking up to save themselves and defeat the corporation that made them. The writing and acting is brilliant. Thanks to modern computer tech, several of these clones can appear on camera at the same time and interact with one another. You would never know you are watching the same actor assume all of the clone identities. My favorite of the clones: the Ukrainian assassin.

Goliath (Amazon) – This is a Billy Bob Thornton vehicle and it is an excellent drama. There is only one season (so far), but the stage is set for more to follow. The premise of the first season is a disgraced, down-on-his-luck attorney assembles a rag-tag staff to take on a big corp in a wrongful-death suit. It's gritty, gripping and good.
She can eat my brain and solve my murder any time.
iZombie (Netflix) – This is a series originally airing on the CW network. The premise is that some combination of a tainted recreational drug and an energy drink was consumed by a bunch of people attending a party on a yacht, turning them into zombies. The show's protagonist was turned into a zombie by one of the party goers and wakes up on shore the next morning craving brains. Long story short: She parlays her medical school experience into a job at the county morgue, where she dines on the brains of murder victims then assumes their personalities. Her morgue boss is aware and supportive of her situation. She partners with a homicide detective to help solve the murders. It's nothing short of escapist fun.

Iron Fist (Netflix) – A Netflix project, this Marvel production is everything we've come to expect from Marvel. I'm not a comic-book fan boy. I never spent much time with comic books as a kid and, certainly not as an adult. I don't know how closely the TV series follows the mythology of the comic-book series, but the show is entertaining and the resident hottie is a Japanese martial arts master. It doesn't get much better than that!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Offroading in Paradise: The 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Struts Its Stuff in Gateway Canyons, Colorado

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
I'm not the kind of guy who complains about the number of stops required to get me from point A to point B. Sure, I'd like a direct flight from Greenville-Spartanburg Airport (GSP) to Podunk, USA, but that's just not possible. With only one or two exceptions, direct flights out of GSP to places I actually want to go simply don't exist. And, if they do exist, they are on airlines on which I refuse to fly.

Delta, American, Southwest, United and Allegiant all service GSP. Although I constantly hear good things about Southwest, I have no interest in its cattle-call boarding nor its first-come-first-served seating. I fly way too much to elbow my way onto every flight. Not to mention, Atlanta is its only nonstop destination from GSP. Allegiant has sporadic non-stops to four Florida cities. Ft. Lauderdale is the only one of the four that I would have any reason to take. Allegiant, however, doesn't fly there every day. Since United began beating up paying passengers and dragging them off the plane to make room for employees it wants to fly somewhere, I have vowed never to fly United again.

I am left with Delta and American. Delta has been my airline of choice for more than 30 years. Having racked up more than 1.8 million miles on Delta, I'm not about to switch carriers now. In a pinch, though, I will fly American, if Delta can't get me where I need to go. From GSP, Delta only flies non-stop to Atlanta, Detroit and NYC. American has a few direct flights to cities like Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia. 

It just doesn't get much prettier than this.
Recently, a client asked me to attend the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 truck event near Grand Junction, Colorado. Grand Junction is one of those you-can't-get-there-from-here locations. Well, you can, obviously, but regardless of the airline, it means at least two connections from GSP.

Chevy's travel planners were desperate to book me on United. Conceived as a one-night program, this truck event began the afternoon of the first day and finished early afternoon of day 2. Because of my home base and the distance, I couldn't leave Grand Junction any later than noon and still make it back to GSP on the second day. A second night in Grand Junction was always figured into my schedule. Even at that, the flight bookers wanted me to fly United because it had flights allowing me to arrive in Grand Junction two hours earlier than anything Delta offers. Once in Grand Junction, media attending the event still had nearly a 90-minute drive to the Gateway Canyons Resort near the Colorado/Utah border. 

Digging in my heels, I refused to fly United. Despite my connecting flight from Detroit back to GSP being two hours late taking off – putting me into GSP at 1 a.m. on day 3 – I would make the same choice again. I'm not rewarding United's poor behavior by adding to its revenue stream. Jerks.

I arrived at Gateway Canyons Resort around 4 p.m. on the first day. I was too late to participate in the afternoon's activities. I wasn't upset. Chevy had almost a full day of on-road and off-road driving scheduled for day 2.

Upon arriving at the resort, I had just enough time to settle into my room, change for cocktails at 6:00, and wander around the grounds a bit. Resting on roughly 2,000 acres, Gateway Canyon Resort is everything most of us imagine a luxury resort to be and more. It includes a cattle ranch, spa, helicopter tours, fishing, ATVs and even a car museum. Surrounded on all sides by towering red-rock cliffs and mesas, its beauty is nothing short of stunning.

Although I had driven a Colorado pickup from the airport to the resort – during which I had an impromptu dialog with Officer Friendly, who allowed me to carry on my journey unmolested with nothing more than a stern talking to – day 2 was my first encounter with the Colorado ZR2 package. 

If you haven't guessed, ZR2 is an off-road package. There is much more to it than some badging, and wheels and tires. Immediately, its enhanced front-end styling captures one's attention and fires up the imagination. Functionally, the fresh front-end teams with the ZR2's suspension, lifted 2 inches, to dramatically increase ground clearance and angle of approach. The rear bumper has been reworked, eliminating the step, and the spare tire moved into the cargo bed to increase the angle of departure. Adding 3.5 inches between the wheels on both front and rear axles increases the track, giving the ZR2 a more aggressive and stable stance. 
The Multimatic DSSV damper.
Adding to ZR2's off-roading resume, Chevy installed the first-in-class front and rear electronic-locking differentials. Also segment exclusive are the revolutionary Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers supplied by Multimatic. In addition to supplying the dampers for the Camaro Z28, Multimatic is known for making dampers for Formula One race cars. Different than the shocks found on most cars and trucks, the specially designed DSSV dampers on the ZR2 allow for on-pavement comfort, as well as the increased wheel travel required when off roading. 

When opting for the ZR2 package, consumers have the choice of a 186-horsepower 2.8-liter 4-cylinder Duramax Diesel or a 308-horsepower 3.6-liter gasoline engine. Chevy mates the V6 with an 8-speed automatic transmission and the Duramax diesel with a 6-speed automatic tranny. 

Our wheel time included highway, as well as some fairly gnarly off-roading. We even did a little rock crawling. The Colorado ZR2 performed brilliantly across the board. My drive partner and I found the diesel a bit slow to answer the throttle, but it was a real go-getter on the rock-crawl event. 
Palisade Ranch of the Gateway Canyons Resort foreman Brian Redmond throwing a rope.
I managed to shoot three just3things videos on this trip. One was with GM's mid-size-trucks chief engineer. I also caught up with the resorts marketing manager, who provided the 411 on the Gateway Canyons area. Finally, despite an airport shuttle leaving about the same time I needed to, Chevy allowed me to drive a Colorado back to Grand Junction, which gave me the opportunity to stop at the resort's ranch to grab a video with its foreman on the art of roping.

A pain in the caboose to get to, the Colorado ZR2 event proved to be well worth the trouble.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Even a Sharp Mind Can Be Confounded by an Unexpected Question

I'm not the kind of guy who spends a lot of time gazing into the rear-view mirror. At least, I don't do it when left to my own devices. Musings of the “good ole days” come fast and furious when gathered with old friends, family or fraternity brothers, but I think that's pretty natural. On my own, not so much.

Because of this lack of self indexing, I was woefully unprepared when asked to come up with 10 things people might not know about me while driving on the media event for the all-new 2017 Nissan Rogue Sport in the Nashville area recently. Umm, well, ah, hmm, ah...what was the question?

My buddy Nik Miles reached out to me a few days before the event asking if I had a drive partner lined up. Many of us who have made the rounds of the carmaker media drives for a while try to secure a driving partner as early as possible. The last thing you want is to be paired with some Bozo who thinks he is the second coming of Juan Manuel Fangio. Also to be avoided are the self-involved snots who have begun populating these events in ever-greater numbers over the past three or four years. You know you've stumbled upon one of these when you climb into a car and they ask what the third pedal is for, as they sit, thumbs poised over the keyboard of their smartphone ready to transmit the answer across several social media platforms.

So, Nik and I conspired to share a car on the Rogue Sport event. Nik has a Website called Testmiles.com and also does on-camera reporting on the auto industry for scores of TV stations scattered around the country. Nik and I have developed a friendship over the past few years consisting mostly of giving one another as much crap as possible at every opportunity. We had never before driven together.

Because Nik's schtick is video, I fully expected our test Rogue Sport to be festooned with cameras. I wasn't disappointed. Before embarking on the morning's drive, Nik arranged cameras inside and outside the crossover. My little video setup for just3things seems positively amateurish when compared to Nik's array of video gear.

Nik is a Brit whose heart and soul is still grounded in the Motherland. When faced with a little free time, he watches British comedies on YouTube, and gets some of his news from BBC broadcasts, as he did for the first 15 minutes of our day together. His politics are a mixed bag, which really didn't matter much as applied to our time together. We had other topics to discuss. 

When Nik reached up, snapped on the camera suction cupped to the inside of the windshield and asked, what are 10 things most people don't know about Russ Heaps? I was like a deer caught in the headlights. You can find the video here.
Thankfully Nik simplified the task by asking questions. Left to my own devices, it may well have been a 3-hour video. It was a fun exercise, but later I thought of a couple of things that I can't believe I didn't bring up on my own.

First, I attended military school. Yes, it's true. I was Cadet Heaps in fifth, sixth and seventh grades at Linsly Military Institute in Wheeling, West Virginia. Although there were a number of students who boarded there, I was among the townies who attended as day students. My father's first church posting was in Wheeling. My parents, concerned with the quality of the area public schools, decided to enroll me. I was all for it. The church housing for us was in a rather affluent neighborhood and many of the friends I made during the summer were enrolled there. It was there that I learned to address elders as “sir” and “mam.”

Did it mold me into the fine, upstanding citizen I am today. Well, somebody or something must bear the responsibility, but I'm not certain three years is really sufficient time to mold someone. But when I found myself thrust back into the public school system in Louisville, Kentucky, I was easily a full year ahead of my classmates in both math and English/reading/writing. Oh, and I could read music, a skill now long lost.

The second thing I could have mentioned among my 10 things is that I won a few awards and trophies at public-speaking events in high school. I attended J.M. Atherton High School in Louisville. I think it is quite fitting that J.M. Atherton was a local bourbon distiller of some renown in the late 1800s. Sadly, though, the school was named for a different J.M. Oh, well....

I placed first one year and second the following year in the Louisville Optimist Oratory Contest while in junior high school. These weren't one-day affairs, but a series of speak-offs spanning several city-wide competitions. I followed this up by joining Atherton's speech team. This encompassed a number of categories including debate, extemporaneous speaking, story telling and so forth. My forte was story telling. I competed for three years, mostly with yarns told by Mark Twain when he was earning money on stage. “My Grandfather's Old Ram” was my favorite to tell.

So, there you have it. I am now much better prepared for the next time someone asks the 10-things question. What are the chances?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Don't Tase Me, Bro, or My First Time Under the Knife

I'm not the kind of guy who complains about his health. To be honest, I'm blessed with having very little in the way of health issues beyond the occasional ache or pain. My blood pressure has trended a bit high since I began measuring it as an adult. I managed it pretty well by cutting out salt and doing cardio every day.

Finally 18 months ago, my current primary-care physician Doc Budelmann put me on a low-grade blood pressure medicine. And, that's the sum total of my ongoing health issues. Oh, other than the fact I'm packing 15 to 20 extra pounds. I know I need to lose some weight, but just can't muster the motivation and commitment to shed the extra baggage. After all, my Speedo days are far back in my rearview mirror. I'll eventually address the weight issue – maybe tomorrow or next week. Ah, crap, who am I kidding?

Collateral damage in building my new shed a couple of years ago, I hyperextended my left knee. As I finished caulking the last seam and climbed down the ladder for the last time, I thought I was on the bottom ladder rung, but was really on the second-to-the-last rung. I stepped off accordingly and my knee went out from under me. That was in November. I attended two more carmaker events that year and spent Christmas at my sister's using a cane. Getting back to about 80 percent required three or four months. Full recovery took another two or three. For the most part, I suffered in silence.

If I would simply follow my slacker tendencies and stop tackling repair and remodeling projects around the house, I might possibly avoid health problems all together. I say this because last September as I was working on the floor during my upstairs-bathroom remodel, I straightened up after squatting for a while and felt a sharp pain in the inside of my right knee. Man, this getting old stuff sucks, I thought.

Although the pain never completely ceased, when it did flare up over the ensuing weeks and months, it was more discomfort than pain. Sometime after the winter holidays, that changed. Discomfort turned into a steady ache. After sitting at my desk for an hour, I would have to hop three or four steps because my knee would explode in pain for the first few steps. As I would turn over in bed and torque the knee a bit, I'd get a flash of pain, waking me up. That would occur three or four times a night.

At my regular six-month checkup in February, I mentioned it to the doctor. Grabbing my foot, he worked my knee this way and that. When he twisted it in the direction that had me screaming for my mommy, he offered that I probably had a meniscus tear. “That doesn't sound promising,” I responded.

The long and short of it was, it wasn't going to heal itself. For the first time in my rather long life, I was faced with going to a specialist. I didn't have a clue how it all worked. A buddy of mine who has been on Medicare for some time, advised I could just find an orthopedist of some stripe and make an appointment. That didn't sound right, but I decided to follow his advice. I did a little research on the Internet and asked some friends for recommendations. I called my Medicare supplemental insurance company to make sure I could book a specialist on my own and was told I could.

The stage set, I called an orthopedic group attached to the same huge Greenville wellness organization as my primary doctor. It also operates a couple of well-regarded area hospitals and an urgent-care center or two. My initial appointment with the orthopedist lasted about two hours, of which, I spent all of 10 minutes with the doctor. X-rays occupied another 15 minutes. The rest of the time was spent filling out paperwork and texting friends on my phone. The outcome was an MRI scheduled the following week.

I have no idea how someone having an MRI for anything above the waste gets through the 45-minute-or-so ordeal. Only my legs protruded into the narrow tunnel, but the noise still overwhelmed the golden oldies pouring out of my headphones. They were no match for the clanging and banging coming from the MRI machine. By the time it was over, I had fessed up to being the shooter on the grassy knoll and provided three different locations for Jimmy Hoffa's remains.

Proving Doc Budelmann's original diagnosis correct, the MRI indicated I had a slight tear in the meniscus on the inside of my right knee. The orthopedist laid out my options as 1) periodic steroid shots or 2) surgery to cut away the damaged area. I'm not a fan of needles and even less so when they are big-honking needles that will be shoved into my knee. Besides, why not cure the problem rather than treat the symptom, right? Right. Right. Oh, God.....

Here's the thing, I'm 65 years old and have never had a real surgery. Never, not one. I've never even had a broken bone. I've had a total of maybe 24 stitches over the years. Most of those from a hand surgeon mending a severed ligament in my wrist the week before I returned for my sophomore year in college. It was performed in a hospital emergency room using local anesthesia. Only the fact that a surgeon stitched me up in any way qualifies it as a surgery. Nope, this would be my first real surgery.

Things have moved rapidly through this process. Less than three weeks passed from my first appointment with the orthopedist and last Wednesday's surgery. I barely had time to register what was happening. In the meantime, I attended some media events surrounding the New York auto show with all the walking such auto-show things entail. It was a teeth-gritting, eye-watering three days of limping around.

Scheduled as an outpatient surgery, I was to be at St. Francis Hospital some time on Wednesday. I wouldn't receive my final marching orders with the precise time until Tuesday afternoon. The hospital insisted someone not only be on hand to drive me home from surgery, but be available throughout the ordeal. Being single and free, unencumbered with family drama on a daily basis is wonderful until you need to find a volunteer to step up and basically take a day off work to fulfill the role of concerned family member. Not only does this require some serious acting chops, but often it's best to tap someone owing you a large sum of money. I have no such indebted friends.

I reached out to my friend Natalie. Thirty years my junior, she and her husband have become good friends over the past several years. They've adopted me into their family; I spend most holidays with them when I'm not with actual family. No good deed goes unpunished: I called Natalie.

We arrived at the outpatient center at St. Francis Hospital around 9:30 for my surgery scheduled for noon. Immediately called into the intake area, I was asked a series of about 20 questions regarding allergies, medical conditions and so forth. They were the same 20 questions asked of me on the phone by the hospital a couple of days earlier.

I hadn't asked much in way of questions leading up to my arrival for surgery. I figured, why bother? It is what it is. I had committed to have the surgery performed; I wasn't going to sweat the details. I arrived at the hospital pretty much convinced I would be receiving a local anesthetic and would be awake for the procedure. I didn't change my mind until faced with the anesthesiologist about an hour before the surgery. Suddenly I began thinking about all the things in my life that I had left unsaid and undone. All the questions about a living will didn't raise my spirits any either. The humanity.....

By 10:15, I was in pre-op where I was hooked up to an I.V. and told to don an open-in-the-back hospital gown. I'm not afraid to admit it: At 65, I have an old man's ass. Thirty years ago I would have welcomed the opportunity to flaunt my chiseled buttocks, but that train left the station about the same time the Clintons moved into the White House. Once garbed in appropriate attire, and lying in bed, three more people associated with the surgery separately asked me the same battery of questions. No, no, no, for the love of God, no, no..... I was also handed a sharpie to initial the body part to be operated on. I wished they had covered my ass as well as they were covering their own.

Poor Natalie was dragged into my room to keep me company and to listen to the orthopedist tick off the things to expect, as well as witnessing him also initialing my right knee. My God, hadn't she suffered enough? Finally, at 12:45, a couple of nurses arrived to wheel me into the operating room.

Once in the operating room, things really moved swiftly. After guiding me from the bed onto the operating table, my arms were stretched out straight and attached to some sort of boards. I looked as though I was auditioning for the Good Friday pageant. A nurse covered my nose and mouth with an oxygen mask as the anesthesiologist spoke in soothing tones as if he was trying to coax a jumper off a window ledge.

Hey! Is anesthesia the bestest thing ever or what! It's now what I want for my birthday this year! I have absolutely no recollection of going under or waking up. One second I was staring up at the nurse holding the mask on my face and the next second I was partially sitting up in bed looking out over the recovery ward. It was the best hour nap of my entire adult life. I want to have the other knee done and there's nothing wrong with it.

I had four prescriptions for assorted pain killers and other medicines. While I was in the operating room, Natalie ran to the drug store and dropped off the only two I wanted filled. One was for Oxycontin and the other for some sort of industrial strength stool softener. You can never have too much of either, I reasoned.

Roughly 30 minutes after I awoke in recovery, a nurse pushed me out to the curb, dumping me into Natalie's minivan. We stopped to pick up the prescriptions before she dropped me off at home. I spent the balance of the day in my recliner watching TV. Having stuff to do on Thursday, I was up and around. I never did partake of the Oxycontin The pain after surgery wasn't any worse than before.

It's now three days later and, as ordered, I'll unwrap my knee for the first time and change the dressing. I'm eager to see what things look like. I'll be on an airplane to Nashville for a Nissan event in two more days. I'll probably take my cane to help me navigate the airports; otherwise, I don't expect to need it.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017 New York Auto Show: Hey, I Actually Get Paid for Some of This Stuff

Ford's new pursuit-rated Responder Hybrid police cruiser.
I'm not the kind of guy to turn down a payday, even if it involves attending an auto show...even if that auto show is in New York. Auto shows are simply something one, who earns a living covering the auto industry, must tolerate from time to time. There's just no escaping it.

I do enjoy the Chicago Auto Show. It's a sufficiently big deal to attract many of the industry's movers and shakers; yet, not so large that a person working alone can't cover everything. It's manageable. Of course, it's Chicago in February, but even that usually isn't a big issue. The other big shows I can live without, unless there's a payday involved.

When a client asked me to accept its invitation from Ford to fly into New York City (ugh) a couple of days before the show to cover a couple of pre-show events it was hosting and then attend the first of two auto-show media days, I was all over it. Neither a fan of auto shows nor New York, I had plenty of reason to turn down the request, but as a freelancer, I've learned to never say, no. Here's the basic tenet of freelance journalism: Yes, makes you money and No, doesn't. As a freelance journalist, once you grasp that basic reality – embracing it, if you will – you still are not guaranteed a living wage. Nope, you still must scrounge for assignments. However, when those assignments are offered, you are savvy enough to accept them...no matter what.

Having mastered the making-money-versus-not-making-money law of freelancing, I found myself in New York city last week. My first two days of Ford/Lincoln events were less than demanding. Checking into the Park Hyatt Hotel on the edge of Central Park around 10:30 a.m. on Monday, I had to catch a shuttle from the hotel to the first Ford event at noon. Although I had no intention of dragging my video gear around the Javitz Center on Wednesday, I brought it with me on this trip in the hopes that I would be able to tape pieces on the three vehicles Ford and Lincoln were unveiling. Indeed, hope is for missionaries.

Sometimes I crack myself up; thinking that I might get a couple of just3things videos out of this trip was nothing short of sheer Pollyanna optimism. Ford's venue for both of its reveals that day was small, cramped, noisy and marginally lighted. It just didn't work for me. My video gear remained in my room for the balance of the trip.

The afternoon reveal was Ford's new hybrid Police cruiser called the Responder. Based on the Fusion Hybrid, it's a rather cool exercise in urban policing. Ford promises it will be pursuit rated by the big law enforcement bodies that certify such things. With a top speed of just over 100 miles per hour, it should do fine in the city. As a hybrid, Ford projects an annual savings in operational costs of about $4,000 per car. Not bad for cities that want to catch bad guys on the cheap.

2018 Ford Explorer
Ford returned us to the hotel to regroup and freshen up before returning us to the same venue later that afternoon to see the 2018 Ford Explorer. Something akin to Geraldo Rivera's reveal of Al Capone's vault on national TV 30 years ago, pulling the sheet from the 2018 Explorer was greeted with a collective yawn by the attending media. It's not that Explorer isn't a terrific SUV, but the 2018 is pretty much a mirror image of the 2017: second verse, same as the first. A few extra high-tech goodies inside provided the entire story. I was back in my room and in bed by 9:30. Woohoo! Do I know how to party or what?

It being a gorgeous evening, I chose to walk the 20 or so blocks back to the hotel. It was basically a straight shot that even I could manage without getting lost. I poked my head inside St. Patrick's Cathedral and strolled by Carnegie Hall.

With nothing on the day's agenda until leaving for the Lincoln event around 4:30 that afternoon, Tuesday was more or less open. Although I could have done some additional sightseeing, my right knee, which goes under the knife this week, was screaming at me after the previous evening's hike. I chose, instead, to write the stories required of me on the Responder and Explorer. Lunch in the hotel restaurant and a short 10-minute catnap filled the rest of the time before our late-afternoon departure to the Lincoln event.

Lincoln picked a different venue closer to our hotel for its get-together. Although much of the presentation was devoted to an explanation of Lincoln's terrific sales advances the past few months, we were afforded a sneak peek at the totally redesigned Navigator scheduled to be officially revealed at a press conference on the show floor the next morning. It is truly impressive.

With the auto-show media days beginning the next morning, a number of carmakers had receptions and parties scheduled that night. Leaving the Lincoln event, I headed to the Acura party. I arrived too late to see the live performance by Elle King, but did touch base with a number of Honda and Acura execs and PR types. I was disappointed to have missed King. I like her music and have a couple of her songs on my playlist.

Dodge Charger SRT Demon! Oh, Momma!
From Acura, a buddy of mine and I headed to the reveal of the Dodge Charger SRT Demon at Pier 94. Quite the extravaganza, Dodge pumped a lot of dough into the unveiling. I can probably leave the description of the car to just one thing: 840 horsepower! Because of Dodge's participation in the Fast and Furious franchise, Vin Diesel, the Sir Laurence Olivier of his generation, put in an appearance, as did the Dodge Brothers from the Dodge advertising campaign.

Wednesday kicked off the two-day press-conference blitz. Although initially I was there to cover the three Ford/Lincoln reveals, my client asked that I cover an additional three events during my only media day. Back to that never-say-no thing. I had roughly 90 minutes or so between press conferences I had to attend to write the assigned stories. I used those 90 minutes to write. By early afternoon, my client requested I cover three additional unveilings. My response: You guessed it, YES!

By 4:00, I was tired, cranky and my knee felt like someone had pounded a red-hot nail into it. I hadn't eaten lunch. I hadn't even visited the Little Auto Writer's Room to attend to a personal biological imperative. I still had a story to write that deadlined at 5:30. I had been working at a table in the food court most of the afternoon. My laptop was about out of juice and I adjourned to the media room where I could plug in. At 5:20 I finished my last story of the day and the seventh piece I had written in about 24 hours. It was Miller time!

Hitting a couple of more carmaker parties that night, I returned to my hotel room just before the stroke of midnight. Ford scheduled my airport shuttle at 7:30 a.m. for a 10:00 flight out of Laguardia. Setting my alarm for 5 a.m., I fell into bed and was immediately asleep.

Answering my alarm the next morning, I popped out of bed, made coffee and wrote the eighth story of this trip before showering and heading to catch my shuttle. Flying to Atlanta, I picked up a Dodge Charger SRT Daytona for the 160-mile slog to Greenville. Walking in my door at 3:45, I set up my laptop and knocked out the my ninth and final auto-show story by its 5:00 deadline.

Hey, it's a living.....

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Killing Seven Days: The Next Home-Improvement Project

The upstairs hallway in all its glory. I find the ceiling exhaust fan particularly decorative.
I'm not the kind of guy to sit around doing nothing, despite my acute slacker tendencies. I find myself facing a week without travel. Because paying work has dried up to, well, zip, zilch, zero, nada, I must find other tasks to fill the next seven days until leaving for the New York Auto Show.

Having assembled a list of home-improvement projects requiring some investment of time and treasure, I always have something I could be doing. Right now, that list includes small jobs like putting a coat of stain on the shed all the way up to much larger undertakings, such as remodeling the kitchen and replacing the great-room ceiling. All any of these projects really require are time and money, right?

Although such a list might prove daunting to a lesser do-it-yourselfer, it's simply a matter of taking things one step at a time in some sort of logical order.

Here's what you need to know about my handyman, er, sorry, handyperson skills: I have acquired most of what I know about renovating things since buying my current house roughly nine years ago. Up until then, my construction-skill set consisted mostly of holding the far end of the tape measure as my brother-in-law calculated the lengths of various elements of some home-improvement project I would find for him to do on each of his visits to my South Florida home. Oh, and I was also in charge of making him a Rum Runner at the end of the work day. That, however, was a task that came much more naturally to me – instinct rather than training.
The pony wall was instructive and key to providing skills needed in building my shed.

So, I take things one step at a time, building from small efforts to master a skill to larger projects exploiting that skill. I was able to build my shed from scratch because of the framing skills I learned building a pony wall to hide the back of my audio/video equipment from the dining area, and the framing work entailed in switching a small guest-bedroom closet to a bathroom linen closet.

When I eventually tackle replacing the great-room ceiling (perhaps this fall), I will be cashing in on what I learn from this week's project: covering the upstairs-hall ceiling. I will be using the same material for both. Teaching me what I will need to know for the great room, the much smaller and more manageable hall ceiling doesn't seem at all scary. The great-room ceiling on the other hand is a journey that I think would have given Magellan pause.
My biggest project to date.
Although I only decided how I was going to address the upstairs-hall ceiling in the last few months, I have wanted to do something with it since buying the house. Most of the ceiling area is occupied by a large exhaust fan. My house is nearly as old as I am; apparently, these huge fans were a common element of South Carolina homes constructed in the 1950s. I removed the switch for this fan when I repainted the hall a few years ago, but the fan itself was just too big a task for me to consider. I finally gave up on trying to figure out how to remove it. Bulky and, no doubt, heavy, I couldn't think of anything else to do other than pull it up into the attic and leave it. There is virtually no room to move around in that area. Nope. That just wouldn't work.
These stacks of material call to me every time I glance at the dining area.
Initially, I decided to cover the great-room ceiling with some sort of wood. Whether that wood would take the form of shiplap or something else, I had no clue. As I pondered the great-room ceiling, I realized that doing the same thing in the upstairs hall made the most sense. I wouldn't remove the exhaust fan, I'd cover it over.

Putting in an emergency call to my buddy Steve at 84 Lumber, I located a suitable wood planking. I picked up a 16-foot stack of it that they cut into two 6.5 ft and 9.5 ft sections so I could get it home. Both sections have been laying in the middle of my dining area for about a month now. A sliding barn door for the upstairs bath is also a part of this project. I ordered the hardware for it through Amazon Prime roughly six weeks ago. It along with other assorted materials for this effort have been accumulating in the upstairs guestroom. 
A roll of insulation and the hardware for the sliding barn door await my attention.
With all the needed materials in house, I'm ready to go. Now it's a matter of dragging the power tools, saw horses, nail guns and compressor, and so forth up to the house. I have my eye on a new portable table saw that will make the great-room ceiling project go easier, but, because I suddenly find myself without paying work, I can't justify the expenditure for this much smaller project. I'll just have to tough it out with a circular saw.

So, that's my plan for occupying myself this week. If all goes well, next week's Clanging Bell will feature the fruits of my labor. "If all goes well" being the operative phrase.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Great Hot Water Heater Pressure-Valve Caper of 2017

The freshly installed water heater in April of 2015.

I'm not the kind of guy who thinks everything should work as advertised all of the time, but my position is that new stuff should perform reliably, at least for a while.

It has been almost two years ago to the day I replaced my hot-water heater. You can read about that adventure here. Actually it was about 23 months ago, if you insist on picking nits. I think the life expectancy of a water heater should be something north of two years, right? Like, maybe, um...10, 12 or even 20 years? Maybe? Right?

Among the storied auto media organizations to which I belong, is GAAMA or the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association. I, in fact, was among the founders, serving on its board for its first two formative years. Making the twice monthly slog to Atlanta and back for a board meeting and then the regular group meeting simply became too time consuming.

At the end of two years when, as the senior vice president, I was heir apparent to assume the reins as president, I declined the responsibility and all of its assorted hassles, such as making those Atlanta runs. (If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.) For the past couple of years, I've only attended the March meeting, which is in conjunction with the media day for the Atlanta Auto Show.

This year's media auto-show day was last Wednesday. With the festivities beginning with an 8 a.m. breakfast, I needed to be at Atlanta's convention center by 7:30 or so to sign in and so forth. Roughly two-and-a-half hours are required for me to drive the 150 miles from my house to the convention center. I know this because I've done it several times. Rain adds another 30 minutes or so to the total. It was a clear morning; so, I needed to leave my house no later than 5 a.m. Wow! I must be a real go-getter after all.

Answering my alarm at 4 a.m., I headed to the shower to the sound of a fairly high-pitched whistle. That's odd, I thought. I showered, toweled off and noticed the whistling persisted. Throwing on a bath robe, I walked the house investigating the source. My house is more vertical than horizontal and my recon only required about 45 seconds. Determining the sound was emanating from under the house, I pushed open the door leading from the lower-level hallway into the bowels of the crawl space. Yep, no doubt about it; the noise was much louder. Oh, I could also hear the sound of running water.

I'm not a handyman nor an expert on home repair, but I am a high school graduate. There definitely was something amiss in the deep, dark recesses of my crawl space. If you are an at least somewhat loyal Clanging Bell reader, you may know that my crawl space is not your typical den of dirt and mold. Accessed from the lower-level of my house, it actually occupies the area under the second level or main floor of the house. Entering through the lower-level hallway door just off my office, one drops about 30 inches onto a plastic-covered surface. One of the few benefits of being vertically challenged, I can bend over at bit at the waist and navigate around this tomb without too much trouble. But, it's still a crawl space.

I headed upstairs and ditched my robe, donning grubbies and my old yard-work tennis shoes, I grabbed a flashlight before heading down into the unknown.

Just to summarize: It's 4:15 a.m. and I'm under my house with a flashlight searching for the source of the noise and running water.

Both the whistling and the running water were from my water heater. The water was running out of the run-off located on the top of every water heater. I couldn't tell what was causing the whistling. Having no clue what to do, I crawled back out from under the house.

I decided to just flip off the breaker switch for the water heater and leave it until I returned from Atlanta. The breaker box is actually outside on the side of the house. Not a particularly safe nor convenient arrangement. With the band-aid in place, I dressed and was out the door to Atlanta by 5. In retrospect, I should have probably turned off the water, as well, but it was more of an aggressive dripping than a running.

Media day at the auto show wraps up with lunch followed by GAAMA's annual business meeting. I did wolf down some BBQ before rushing out the door, but I skipped the meeting. My goal was to have a water-heater plan of action in place before sunset.

Back under the house, the water was still flowing out of the heater's overflow run-off when I returned home. The water was now cold and there was no longer any whistling. I discovered when I depressed the pressure valve on top of the tank, the water flow stopped. Could it be something as simple as a malfunctioning pressure valve? Taking the glass-is-half-full approach, I decided replacing it would be my first line of attack.

I “Binged” replacing water-heater pressure valves and found a few You-tube videos on the subject. It didn't appear too difficult. I grabbed my second shower of the day and headed to my weekly gathering of the Wednesday-Night Irregulars at Greenville's Peddler Steak House. Leaving a little early, I stopped at the Lowe's next door to Peddler. Discovering there ate two sizes of replacement pressure valves, I purchased one of each at $14.95.

Because of project deadlines for a client, I didn't get around to readdressing the pressure-valve issue until after lunch the next day. Hiking out to the shed, I grabbed a garden hose, channel locks and a big wrench. I needed the hose to run from the tank drain to the downstairs shower. The other tools should be self-explanatory.

Roughly 45 minutes, a crack on the head from a floor joist, and about 10 trips down into and back out of the crawl space were required to complete the replacement.I was finished before 3:00.

To date, everything seems to be fine. Well, until the next time.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Toyota C-HR Event: Austin, Garrison Brothers, Angel Envy Rye and Bubble Wrap

2018 Toyota C-HR

I'm not the kind of guy who heads off to overnight destinations unprepared. I've been a road warrior for more than 30 years, and have racked up nearly 2 million miles on Delta alone. There are times when I only keep up with the day's date to meet the demands of my next plane ticket. When on the road, expect a pregnant pause if you ask me to name the day of the week. And, I don't travel nearly as much as some of my peers, and certainly not as much as I once did.

I've become fairly adept at packing. I'm hell on wheels gathering together what I will need for a two-night stay somewhere. Two nights is the common length of media car-event trips. Although some carmakers have turned their media events into one-night death marches, while others occasionally stretch an event into three or even four nights, two remains the industry standard. As an East Coaster, there's nothing like hopping on a plane at 5 a.m., spending six or seven hours on planes and in airports to reach a California destination, arriving at noon or so to wolf down a cold-cut sandwich, receiving an hour's indoctrination on some new vehicle, driving it for three hours, being fed dinner and then jumping out of bed the next morning to catch a flight home. Agreed, it's a first-world problem; but not much fun nonetheless. There's a good reason that two nights remains the industry standard.

Faced with a two-night outing, my packing skills know no equal. I am usually on autopilot when laying out the clothing I'll need. Two pair of underwear: check. Two shirts for dinners: check. A sport coat for dinners: check. And so forth. Now that I'm shooting video for just3thingsvideo.com, I must inventory and pack video gear, as well.

No matter the duration of a trip, I also always carry bubble wrap with me. It's part of that being-prepared thing. I stumble across a craft beer or hard-to-get bourbon with enough regularity on these trips that I've learned to be prepared to haul home a bottle or two in my checked bag. However, even with this level of preparedness, at times I'm not prepared enough.

A couple of weeks ago I headed to Austin, Texas with Toyota for the media reveal of its all-new C-HR crossover. (C-HR, incidentally, stands for "Coupe-High Rider.") From my previous junket to the Lone Star state a week or so earlier with Jeep, I was on a tear to secure a bottle of Garrison Brothers Bourbon. Carrying my standard-issue 12-inch by 48-inch sheet of bubble wrap, I felt as though I could easily meet the challenge of safely transporting a bottle of bourbon back to Greenville.

Lost a few hours in Banger's taproom that was within a block of our hotel.
Toyota hosted us in Austin's Hotel Van Zandt. Yes, that Van Zandt. Situated in an upcoming trendy area of the city, this hotel is surrounded by older homes converted into all manner of chic restaurants and watering holes. As one might expect with Austin as the event's home base, our C-HR drive took us into Texas Hill Country.

If since Toyota's announcement that it was deep-sixing its Scion brand you've spent some sleepless nights fretting over its demise, you only need look as far as Toyota's all-new C-HR to assuage your angst. The C-HR provides ample evidence that at least the phantasm of Scion lives on. Fully qualified to wear the Scion nameplate, C-HR exhibits Scion's two most prevalent traits: radical styling and somewhat tepid acceleration. Oh, and as with Scions of the past, it offers a value story, as well.

In fact, Toyota originally intended the C-HR to be Scion's first crossover. As for styling, it looks like the love child of a Nissan Juke and a Toyota RAV4. That's really okay, though. Toyota styling has always erred on the side of conservative. Think of C-HR as Toyota's version of your crazy uncle you give movie money to when company visits. It's fun and refreshing in a way, but will look a little odd when it arrives in showrooms in April parked between a Highlander and a Camry.

As with Scion's FR-S Coupe, Toyota defines C-HR's sportiness through its handling, rather than acceleration. Providing spirited handling, it corners sharply and without drama. Armed with what Toyota calls a “punchy” 144-horsepower 2-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a continuously variable transmission, the C-HR offers acceptable acceleration for urban street warfare. On the highway, it cruises effortlessly once up to speed, but requires a lot of runway to get around slower-moving vehicles.

Toyota will offer C-HR in two flavors: XLE at $22,500 and XLE Premium at $24,350. Every C-HR will come right out of the box with a standard pre-collision system with active braking and full-speed range radar-based cruise control, as well as dual-zone climate control and backup camera. All-wheel drive isn't available.

After our C-HR ride and drive, my driving partner and I returned to the hotel, regrouped and then headed to a liquor store about four blocks away. Well stocked, this purveyor of spirits had a healthy variety of bourbons. Among them were a couple of bottles of Garrison Brothers. Immediately scooping up one, I continued down the aisle in search of other hard-to-get treasures. I didn't find anything else of great interest on the bourbon side, but I did a double take as I strolled by the ryes. Can it be? I thought. I looked again; and sure enough, I was staring at five bottles of Angel Envy Rye: the unicorn of rye whiskeys.
Mission accomplished!
I hadn't seen a bottle on a store shelf in months. Knowing I couldn't leave without one, I grabbed a bottle and headed to the checkout. Setting my two finds on the counter, I suddenly realized I couldn't take a bottle of Angels Envy Rye home for me without checking to see if my buddy Jeff would want one, too. Calling him, I wasn't surprised when he told me to get it.

Despite my careful packing, I knew I only had sufficient bubble wrap to secure two bottles in my checked bag. The store clerk directed us to a FedEx store another block up the street where I invested four bucks in a 10-foot roll of bubble wrap.

As I struggled back to the hotel with my purchases, I suddenly realized that although I had room in my checked bag for my newly acquired stash, my bag tipped the baggage check-in scale at 43 lbs when I left Greenville. I calculated the three bottles would push the suitcase precariously close to the 50-lb weight limit. Well, nothing I could do about it now. If push came to shove when checking in the next morning, I'd remove my tripod from the bag and hand carry it on the plane.

Checking in the next morning, I smiled at the counter agent as I ally ooped my bag on the scale, admitting to her, “It's the moment of truth.” I watched in alarm as the pound count whirled upward beyond 50 lbs, landing on 53 lbs. Wide-eyed, I looked at the gate agent expectantly. She smiled, shrugged and said, “You're okay.”

(Insert sigh of relief here.)

Delta is far from perfect, but occasionally, it comes through.