Whiskey Vault

Whiskey Vault
What a great way to spend two and a half hours: the Whiskey Vault in Austin.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Whiskey Vault at Austin's Wizard Academy: Five Went In; No One Remembers How Many Came Out

I'm not the kind of guy who historically says, no. One of the most impactful things I ever read was an interview with Sir Richard Branson. When asked why at that stage in his life and with his amassed fortune he continued doing things that most of us would classify as crazy, he simply replied, “Because life is more interesting when you say, yes, than when you say, no.

Indeed. I took that to heart and my outlook changed forever.

So, when the group of my fraternity brothers who gather somewhere for a few days every year decided to make Austin this year's destination, I was an immediate “yes” vote. It was just a happy coincidence that the dates we chose months ago wound up following on the heels of the Texas Automotive Writers Association's (TAWA) annual Texas Truck Rodeo headquartered just outside of Austin. I belong to this group and participate in the rodeo that climaxes with picking the Truck of Texas.

Actually, I would have said, yes, without the influence of the Branson interview, but I like to impart a little positive life philosophy whenever I can.
Wow. The Whiskey Vault is like being in a candy store.
Jumping on board this Austin trip wasn't the real test of my always-say-yes mind set. Nope. The real test was saying, yes, to the trip to Austin's Whiskey Vault. I have to justify to myself a $25 expenditure on an afternoon matinee at the movies with popcorn. When pondering ponying up $150 for a 90-minute experience in the Whiskey Vault with its thousand whiskeys, I required some self convincing. Once committed, however, I was like a reformed smoker or a newly minted husband: My goal was to get as many others on board as possible. After a bit of button-holing, coaxing and coercion, a group of five (out of a possible nine) were paid up. We had a 2 p.m. time slot on Thursday reserved with trainer/taste leader/guide Andrew.

I arrived in Austin on a sunny, warm (85 degrees) Sunday. It was the driest, warmest day of this trip. By Monday morning the rain was falling in buckets and the temp had dropped to 40 degrees. What followed was a week of the most relentless rain I've ever experienced. Lake Travis is at a historic high level and flash-flood warnings were a daily occurrence. While still at the rodeo, our bus back to the hotel from dinner came upon a water event where two feet of water, according to the water-level indicator on the side of the road, blocked our path, requiring the bus to reverse back up a narrow two lane for about half a mile before being able to back into a driveway and turn around.

The subtitle to this Austin week would have to be Rain, Rain, and, for the Love of God, More Rain.
Our trainer Andrew leading us into Nirvana.
When Thursday finally arrived, we slogged our way to the Wizard Academy: home of the Whiskey Vault. Wizard Academy bills itself as a summer camp for adults. There are mini schools on all manner of topics to help people achieve their goals. One school features three- and four-day curriculums for getting credentialed as a whiskey sommelier. But there are lots of other courses available. Students stay on the property, which is amazing.

The guys with us who weren't participating in the tasting volunteered as our designated drivers. Following the directions on the GPS-based nav unit in the Nissan NV3500 12-passenger van Nissan provided for my Austin adventure, we headed out of Austin. Apparently I somehow overlooked the e-mail providing instruction for finding our destination. I had no clue that the Whiskey Vault was simply a very big closet crammed with booze in what is a multi-story tower housing the Wizard Academy. There were no “Whiskey Vault” signs. After wandering around for a bit, we came upon one of the academy's employees who escorted us to an outside waiting area near the vault. We were supposed to be at the academy welcome center somewhere else on the property.

Eventually our trainer Andrew found us. Leading us into the bowels of the tower, he began regaling us with stories about the the founder and the property. Yeah, swell, but where's the booze?

Walking up to a large bookcase in an alcove just off the main classroom, Andrew pulled out a book from the top shelf, triggering a switch allowing a section of the bookcase to open into a secret entrance to the Whiskey Vault. We had finally arrived.

This is the same small room where the Whiskey Vault YouTube show is shot. Having watched a few of these outrageously funny videos, I began misting up. I was home!

I had spoken to Andrew on the phone a couple of weeks earlier and knew we were in for a real experience, but had no idea just how much fun it would be. Andrew made it clear right from the get-go that there were few rules in the vault. Based on smaller pours, we could exceed the 8 tastes we each paid $150 for. A couple of the guys were more interested in Scotch (Yeah, I know. Phillistines.) than Bourbon. Andrew bounced back and forth between the the groups egging us on with samples of another and then another rare spirit. Our 90 minutes drifted into 150 minutes.

What a rush! It may have been the best $150 I ever spent. Our event finished up with a detailed tour of the tower during which we continued sipping on the spirit of our choice.

I must admit, I can't find much else to recommend Austin. Our afternoon revolving around Congress and 6th Street was an eye opener. San Francisco's homeless, panhandler issues are only marginally worse than Austin's. Austin's sidewalks have yet to be decorated with human poop, but that day is not far off. We couldn't take more than a dozen steps before being accosted by some homeless person looking for a handout or wanting to tell us a story as a preamble to asking for money. Every vacant-building doorway has a bum sleeping in it. Every underpass is a homeless camp.

Here's the thing: I will return to Austin. Carmakers love holding vehicle unveilings for the media in Austin. I will be back, but the only thing that will get me back to Austin on my own dime is another visit to the Whiskey Vault. Best time ever!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Milestone Unheralded

I'm not the kind of guy who likes to take credit for things I either didn't accomplish or that I didn't put forth much effort to accomplish. Cleaning a bathroom doesn't rank up there with curing cancer, right? Well, for me it sort of does. Cleaning a bathroom is nearly as far out of my reach as curing cancer is for a qualified researcher. But, in the grand scheme of things, they don't compare. When I finally break down and clean a bathroom, I don't post a photo on Instagram....despite being really pleased with myself.

So, I didn't expect a brass band to meet me at the gate area when I arrived in Atlanta from San Francisco on Friday. I wasn't looking for confetti, a thousand brightly colored balloons dropping from the ceiling or the launch of 100 doves. Nope, none of those things was expected.

Because I hadn't really done all that much other than make the effort to have the lion's share of my flights over the past 30 years booked on Delta, I don't count the miles I've racked up as an accomplishment. For the most part, it wasn't even my money buying the tickets. More often than not, even the effort to book Delta flights was well within the wheelhouse of slacker me. “Hey, you're invited on a trip, our travel agent will book you on your airline of choice.” “Delta,” I would reply. “Done!” they would confirm. Easy-peasy.

I knew I was close to rolling over 2 million miles with Delta and would achieve it this year. Delta, as I assume other lines do, keeps track of such things. I received a nice Tumi soft attache case when I crossed the 1 million mile mark. I didn't expect that; not even realizing I had reached that milestone until the gift arrived.

Reaching that first 1 million miles required about nine years. I was on the road with “Discover America” on the average of three trips per month and then sandwiched in some carmaker events, too. It was a wild ride. There are still a couple of Delta employees at Palm Beach International who remember me from those crazy days. We often speak as I pass through PBI on my Florida excursions. The second million miles, well, that required the balance of my 30 years flying Delta.

I didn't expect a lot of fanfare over turning 2 million miles. I'm sure it happens with some regularity. But, I must admit, I was surprised that either the captain, which happens sporadically, or one of the flight attendants, which is somewhat more common, didn't seek me out and thank me. They often take a few minutes, walk down the aisle, personally acknowledging million milers. I sat next to a Delta flier on a flight a few weeks ago who was about to cross the 5 million mark. A flight attendant thanked me for being a million miler, but handed him a personal thank-you note. He said he has received them before. I don't think a “Hi, Mr. Heaps thanks for being a loyal Delta customer to the tune of 2 million miles,” is much to ask.

Maybe my disappointment arises from the fact that to be on a Delta flight on this trip to put myself in a position to cross 2 million miles, I had to jump through some hoops. Nissan chose Santa Barbara as the host city to introduce the totally redesigned 2019 Altima to the media. Delta no longer supports Santa Barbara with flights. Unless someone is flying me first class, I don't cross time zones on any airline but Delta. If something goes sideways, it's tough enough to get things straightened out on Delta with which I have a 30-year relationship. On an airline on which I have no clout, I'm just another casual flier. Nope, I don't cross time zones on any carrier but Delta.

For Delta fliers, getting to Santa Barbara means either flying to LAX in Los Angeles and driving the 100 miles north to Santa Barbara, or flying into LAX or some other California airport on Delta then changing airlines to United for the final leg into Santa Barbara. I was on a Toyota event in Santa Barbara a year or so ago. Toyota provided the option of flying into LAX and then shuttling us to and from Santa Barbara. It's a two-hour shuttle ride each way, but that doesn't really add much extra time to the overall trip. Because Nissan didn't offer that option, Delta fliers were left with the changing-airlines option.

In Atlanta or most other airports this wouldn't be a big deal. You simply change terminals and you are good to go. Sadly, neither LAX, which I flew into, nor San Francisco, where I made the airline swap on the home-bound trip, have terminals fully connected to one another. Both require fliers to exit security and then reenter security to make the airline change. Although you can do that in San Francisco, remaining within the confines of the general airport, at LAX you must actually walk outside the airport, cross through two parking garages, reenter the airport and pass through security.

This isn't exactly slogging across Death Valley in a covered wagon, but it's a pain in the ass.

Normally I drag along video gear requiring me to travel with at least one bag too large to carry on the plane. Because United, with which we've already established I have no clout, made up two legs of this six-leg round trip, checking a bag would have cost a total of $50. My status with Delta is such that I can check three bags for free. I wasn't going to pony up 50 bucks to fly on damn United. Also because I have no clout on United, meaning I might wind up in the last boarding group, I had no confidence I could carry on a rollerboard and find overhead space to stow it. I chose instead to only carry what would fit in my backpack. Typically, I carry cameras and at least one laptop with me. Not so on this trip. I had a couple of changes of underwear and three clean shirts in my backpack. That was it.

Although I didn't expect a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding my rolling over the 2 million-mile mark, at least having it acknowledged would have been a welcomed atta boy for the extra effort I put forth to make that milestone happen on this particular trip.

I readily admit, this tale belongs in a tome of first-world problems. But, hey, I had to blog about something, right?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Guessing Game That Is Hurricane Forecasting

I'm not the kind of guy who looks a gift horse in the mouth. The fact that what we South Carolinians call the Upstate was spared most of havoc reeked by Florence isn't lost on me. Areas on and near the North Carolina coast were mercilessly pounded. I'm glad we avoided the worst of it. Actually, at 10 a.m. on Sunday, it appears we will only see a few inches of rain. It began falling early last evening and continues this morning, but it's nothing out of the ordinary in what has been a very wet summer here.

Having lived no more than 10 miles (sometimes less than 2 mi.) from the beach for most of my 25 years in South Florida, I've been through my fair share of hurricanes. When I moved to South Carolina, I chose a city about as far away from the coast as I could and still be in South Carolina. Greenville is closer to Knoxville, Tenn than it is Charleston. I've had my fill of boarding up, being without power for days, and driving around on streets covered in debris with no working traffic lights.

Although its done a fine job of getting back on its feet after last year's Irma, the Florida Keys was far from healed on my recent stay in July. Restaurants in which we ate a year ago, simply were gone this year. Entire marinas were washed away. They have been or are being rebuilt, but the evidence of Irma's power is still very apparent. Thank goodness, Islamorada's two craft breweries were spared! There is a God!

So, hurricanes do hit. And, when they do, the destruction can be devastating. Been there, done that.

But here's the ugly truth about hurricane forecasting, the people and the agencies spitting out their predictions of where these storms are going to make landfall and their intensity when they do, don't really know much of anything with any degree of certainty. Depending on the speed of the storm, they can only provide guesses as to where the storm will hit up until about 36 hours before it strikes the coast. The same goes for its severity. They just don't know.

At one point, the media was reporting that Florence would reach the Carolinas (They, of course, couldn't pinpoint if it would be South Carolina or North Carolina.) as a Cat 4 storm. Had that happened and it had been South Carolina, I'd probably be sitting in the dark, sweating and reading my Kindle right now. I was skeptical at the report. The storm was days away. While Cat 4s making landfall aren't exactly rare, they aren't common, either. Other than frightening the bejesus out of everyone, as well as helping the bottom line of some grocery stores by increasing the sales of bottled water and bread, these reports were worthless.

When Florence finally did creep on land, it did so as a Cat 1. That was bad enough for those most directly impacted, but nothing compared to a Cat 4. Anyone who has experienced both will agree, there's a big, big difference. As with Katrina a few years ago, most of Florence's destruction has been from flooding and surges.

At the beginning of every hurricane season some nincompoop gets air time and ink predicting the worst hurricane season in (fill in any amount of time). Yes, the year will come when some such prediction will prove true; in the meantime, though, it's just a lot of noise.

I'm glad the predictions of the severity of Florence at landfall proved wrong. It would have been a much bigger story of death and destruction.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

The reason I was in Pittsburgh on my birthday: 2019 Kia Forte!
I'm not the kind of guy who expects much brouhaha on his birthday. Well, at least not any more. There was a time when my birthday was a two-week celebration marked by a party or two and several nights out for dinner with different friends. My 50th was a surprise party at my favorite Delray Beach watering hole with roughly 80 of my friends and family, several of whom traveled in from out of town. My 60th, celebrated in Greenville, included two parties, one a surprise with friends from out of town and one planned with local friends engineered to keep me local and available for my surprise party. A lot of planning and coordination went into those efforts. Now birthdays are just another day, but with a little cake and a card or two.

I don't think the issue is so much that after racking up decades of birth anniversaries they have become routine; I think it's that as I, and my friends, have become older, we have moved on from balls-to-the-wall celebrations and partying at the drop of a hat to more sedate expressions of marking special occasions. Parties within my circles have morphed into get-togethers. Yawn.

Deciding who is bringing the Rumple Minze and Cuervo has turned into discussions about cheese dip and veggie platters. I couldn't care less about what sort of finger food will be available and who is bringing it. I guarantee it won't be me. To begin with, I avoid eating standing up. Secondly, I don't give a rat's patootie about little wienies on toothpicks. It's a party! Where's the bar? Oh, that's right; it's a get-together. My bad. “Could you please pass the three-bean dip, Brother Smith, and by the way, how's that prostate?”

Another factor scrubbing away some of my enthusiasm for “get-togethers” is the absence of any thrill of the chase. I may be old, but I'm not dead. One function of parties was always the potential for meeting someone new or the opportunity to get close to someone you had seen around, but didn't really know. The whole heing-and-sheing thing always held great allure for me. Parties provided ideal settings for advancing carnal agendas. Get-togethers not so much. In fact, not at all. Opening lines have gone from, “Wow, you really know how to toss back a kamikaze. How about another,” to “Gee, Gladys, this is some good potato salad. What's your secret?”

Please, just shoot me.
A few of my team members attempting to high five. It's tough to do when one guy is 7-feet tall.
I wrote all of this as a preface to telling you that my 67th birthday was toward the end of August. It was the third or fourth birthday in a row landing on an out-of-town carmaker event. This year I was in Pittsburgh with Kia taking a gander at its redesigned 2019 Forte. My birthday was on the main day of this event. Kia always makes a big splash the second night. On this trip it was a game-night theme based on Pittsburgh sports teams. Kia divided us into teams and we competed at a number of different stations. Once Kia compiled the scores, they announced the top-scoring team.

Uncle Russ getting all misty.
It was a raucous evening with lots to eat and an open bar. It was, dare I say it, a party.

After announcing the evening's winners, they announced it was my birthday. Out came the obligatory cake with candles for me to snuff out. They also presented me with a nice bottle of 10-year-old bourbon that one of the PR guys had made the rounds of Pittsburgh liquor stores to find. It was a thoughtful gesture in a partying atmosphere.
A little candle snuffing out.

This crowd wasn't partying for me. More than a few of them didn't have a clue who I was before my birthday was announced. But it was a party of sorts. And, I liked that. So, maybe I am still a guy who likes a bit of birthday brouhaha.
The road goes on forever and the party never ends.....

I'll be more of a get-together guy once I am no longer mobile and alcohol is forbidden from my diet. Until then, I'm stubbornly clinging to the institution of parties.

“Who wants a shot of caramel vodka?”

Sunday, May 27, 2018

iPhone to LG V20: Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

I am not the kind of guy who takes change in stride. I remain at my gym of seven years – which I only joined because my previous gym closed it doors – that I am not happy with because I don't want to go through the process of joining another or getting comfortable with new machines. I haunt the same watering holes when I am at home because I don't want to make the effort to break in new bartenders. As much as possible, I reside in my comfort zone.

I tell you all of that to provide a baseline for my determination to stay the course, remain in my rut, or whatever other term you choose to describe my stubbornness in clinging to what I know rather than embracing the unknown. I simply don't like to sail into uncharted waters. Hell, I owned my house in Greenville for six months before I finally mustered up the moxie to leave my home in South Florida and the friends I made during my 25-year tenure there to relocate to a place where I knew no one. I didn't have a Florida house to sell and I wasn't working a nine-to-five job that I couldn't leave. Nope, I simply didn't want to endure the change.

Imagine the garment-wrenching, hair-pulling experience it has been for me to caste off my iPhone 6S for an Android-based LG V20 smartphone. Why would I do such a thing? I was pissed off at Apple. I know, Apple to Google: frying pan to fire. It wasn't a rational decision. It was one made in the throes of passion.

I arrived in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago with the plan to pick up a press-fleet car at the airport and then drive to my buddy's in Tucson. A Volkswagen Atlas awaited me when I landed. I had convinced myself that I had double checked with VW's fleet vendor there that the Atlas had a navigation system. Later research into exchanged e-mails revealed that, in fact, I hadn't made that determination after all. Because I was operating under the belief it had a navi unit, I didn't bother to print out directions from Mapquest or make any other provision for finding my way from the off-site parking lot in Phoenix to my buddy's house in Tucson.

Why not just use the maps app on my iPhone, you are probably thinking. That's the question my buddy texted me after I discovered the no-navi issue and texted him I had no clue where I was going. All I knew was that I needed to head east on I-10. Of course, I had no idea how to get to I-10 or how to get from I-10 to his house. Does anyone, including my Tucson buddy, actually believe I wouldn't have thought of the maps app on my iPhone? Yes, I am a Luddite to some degree, but c'mon, I do know about the maps app.

The issue is that my Google Maps app hadn't functioned properly for more than a year. If you have an iPhone, you are well aware that at least two or three times a month, Apple duns you about the newest update. It's like you owe them money. After getting an update message for the fifth or sixth time, I would finally break down and accept it. Somewhere in those updates, the maps app ceased functioning properly. It could locate me and provide a directions list to where I wanted to go, but it couldn't announce step-by-step directions. Once I began to move, it had no clue where I was.

Because most of the vehicles I drive have navigation units, I viewed the lack of a working maps app on my phone as more of an annoyance than anything else. The Phoenix experience, though, was the proverbial camel's back-breaking straw. Upon looking into the maps-app issue more closely with a little Internet search, mine was a common problem among owners of older iPhones. Another underhanded way to motivate those of us with outdated iPhones to pony up a grand for the latest iPhone version? Maybe. I don't know, but I was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it any more.

My Tucson buddy has an LG V30 Android-based phone with which he is quite happy. I did a little research and determined an LG V20 would serve my purposes nicely. I found brand-new ones on ebay for $235. I ordered one my second day in Tucson. It arrived on Wednesday and I've been struggling with it ever since.

Once upon a time, I considered Walmart the great retail Satan. I often proffered that the street address of every Walmart should contain the number 666. It wielded its buying power like a club, making demands on manufacturers and artists. To this day, getting me inside a Walmart is a major accomplishment. In truth, when held up to the blinding light of a Google or Apple, Walmart is small potatoes in terms of influencing society. At least Walmart, to the best of my knowledge, never mined my data. Pretty much forced to deal with these two tech giants every day, I'm not a fan of either. I certainly don't view one as more virtuous than the other. They are out of control.

In any event, I am struggling with learning my new phone and the Android way of doing things. There seems no easy, free method for transferring all my iPhone date to my V20. I did manage to migrate my contacts list; although it didn't make the transfer unmolested. In the past as I moved from iPhone to iPhone, I would just take both phones to the AT&T store and they would transfer everything as part of their service. This time, not so much. In fact, other than trying to sell me device insurance, the AT&T rep who “helped” me barely took an interest. All she did was transfer the Sim card from my iPhone to the V20. Having accomplished that, she turned the phone to face me and said, “There you go.” She did tell me how to access the appropriate app to transfer the contacts on my own. Otherwise, I have been on my own.

Now I am reevaluating my relationship with AT&T. Remember when telephones were simple? Yep, those were the days. Oh, and the first day my new V20 was activated, I received an update notice. Here we go again.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

To Drive or Not to Drive: An Auto Journalist's Dilemma

A quick stop on our free day at the Hyundai Kona event to shoot a brewery video.
I'm not the kind of guy who eschews (I used that word to establish my writer bona fides.) driving in favor of flying. I know in my pseudo profession of auto journalist, it is almost blasphemy to utter the word “flying.” We are supposed to love driving above all else, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. For me writing about cars and the auto industry is a job and not a calling. I've managed to stay busy at it for more than 30 years – even making some money along the way – but that's as much due to inertia as anything else. There's a certain amount of comfort in sticking with a thing. I can't bring myself to change gyms. Change careers? Are you kidding!

Although most people I know in my age bracket probably haven't racked up the volume of road miles I have, driving over the years has mostly been simply to get me somewhere. It was cheaper or more convenient to drive than fly. Unlike many of my fellow travelers among the motoring press, when given the choice to drive or fly, I'll fly 98 percent of the time.

Most of us fly once or more each month as we follow the auto manufacturers media vehicle launch events like carnies chasing state-fair midways. It's a traveling roadshow that doesn't offer the choice of driving. It is physically impossible to drive from Cleveland to San Diego and then San Diego to Virginia in the same week between two- or three-day carmaker programs. It's science. It can't be done.

I muse about all of this today because tomorrow I am driving from Greenville, South Carolina to Durham, North Carolina for a Volkswagen program to drive the next Jetta. Roughly a 240-mile exercise, the trip should require less than four hours. Probably about what it would have taken for me to fly Delta from Greenville to Atlanta and then Atlanta to Durham. I had the option to fly; I chose to drive.

A 240-mile slog isn't unreasonable. This one in fact, is virtually all on I-85, which I pick up a mile from my house and runs smack-dab through the middle of Durham. How tough a drive can it be? Yet, I don't look forward to it. In fact, I'm dreading it to some extent.

My thought process when making the drive/fly decision wasn't so much weighing flying time against driving time as it was thinking about the possibilities of having my own wheels in Durham once there.

Since launching my YouTube channel BEER2WHISKEY, I'm always scheming to record a segment in the many different places I travel ostensibly for other reasons. Because my numerous car-intro trips each year are all over the U.S., they are excellent opportunities to shoot a segment in a faraway location I might not otherwise visit. For example, I was recently on the Big Island in Hawaii with Hyundai and shot a brewery video in Kona.

Without even looking to see what breweries might be close by the hotel in which VW is hosting us, I committed to driving instead of flying. Although there is much less to think about when flying to these events because the carmaker whisks us to and from the hotel, dragging my two Pelican cases of gear along on flights is a real pain. The downside is, once I arrive at the hotel, I have to come up with my own transportation to and from the brewery. Driving to Durham means tossing my cases of gear, as well as my rollerboard full of clothing, into the car and not worrying with them again until arriving at the brewery. And, I'll already have my brewery-to-hotel transportation. Easy-peasy.

As it turns out, there are a couple of breweries within blocks of our hotel. Without too much effort, I lined up the Durty Bull Brewing Company for an early afternoon shoot tomorrow. Because I'm covering the Jetta event for a client, it will be like double dipping. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. I like that.

So, despite not being thrilled about driving, it makes sense on a couple of levels. It's not often my decisions make any sense at all; forget about making sense on more than one level.

Roll cameras!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Life Is Full of Little Hurdles

I'm not the kind of guy who expects to drift through life unmolested. Shit happens, even to the best of us. All things considered, I've danced between the raindrops about as successfully as anyone I know. Sure, there have been a few bumps in the road, but mostly these have been annoying rather than life changing.

For the most part, I have pursued the course of least resistance, taking one leap of faith after another to wind up where I am. The only job for which I ever applied that wound up doing me some good was with the Boca Raton News circa 1985. It could have just as easily been 1986. All I know is I turned 35 within my first year or so of working there. My first three or four years there were absolutely the best years of my working social life. My seven plus total years there launched me on my path for the next two-and-a-half decades, bringing me to today. I made friends there that I remain in contact with still. But, my Boca News days also altered my career path from reluctant salesman to wide-eyed journalist.

I joined the News as a display-advertising rep and popped out the other end as an automotive writer. It was, without a doubt, the biggest game changer of my life. Any other job I applied for and managed to somehow land was a clunker. Usually I was unhappy and my tenure short lived. Even my five-year sentence at the Palm Beach Post, fulfilling essentially the same role I did as auto-section editor at the Boca News, was a soul-squashing exercise in stick-to-it-tiveness that would have made the Old Testament's Job wince. Never before nor since have I worked with such a collection of miserable people. I made some good money there as a 1099 for the first three or four years (The only reason I hung on for so long.), but, my God, the jerks I had to deal with sucked every ounce of joy out of the experience.

A fine example of my parade of applied-for, self-inflicted bad jobs was my brief stay at a West Palm Beach public-relations firm 11 or 12 years ago. Holy crap, what an ordeal. Hired as a copywriter, I was elevated to account rep (A job for which I had no experience.) on my first day. It was the first day of the longest six weeks of my working life. The maniacal woman who owned, and still owns, this small company that she ruled with all the warmth and grace of England's Queen Mary was, perhaps, the most unpleasant individual I have had the misfortune of working with. (Although, with American Media's David Pecker in the mix, it's quite the horse race.) I can't share my nickname for this tyrant in polite company, but suffice to say, she earned it every waking moment of every day.

I didn't solicit the position for a few of the jobs I've held: Either someone came knocking on my door or I fell into them through some fortune of serendipity. Probably the most appropriate inscription for my gravestone is “It's not what you know, but who you know.” (Yes, I know: Who should be whom. But it doesn't have the same ring.) That was the case with my stint as managing editor for the car magazines at American Media, as well as my current post as a contract writer for Autotrader. At the former, my buddy Terry Jackson gave me the nod when he became editor and chief of Auto World. A conversation during a shuttle ride from some long-forgotten airport to an equally unmemorable hotel landed me the Autotrader gig. Both jobs were exactly what I needed when I needed them. Autotrader continues to be a terrific client.

Even my health has cooperated with my rather untethered lifestyle. Turning 65, though, was like running into a wall at full speed in terms of my physical health. Suddenly after decades of near-perfect health, things began to unravel. If there were some sort of frequent-flier plan for hanging out in doctor and hospital waiting areas, I'd be awash in points. But, even here, I haven't had to deal with anything life threatening. It's just the old machinery wearing out. Hell, no one lives forever.

All of this to report that I had to cough up $210 at the Kona Airport to check my three bags for their 120-mile or so trip from Kona to Honolulu on Hawaiian Air during my trip home last week. Despite this flight having a Delta flight number, my Delta Platinum status held no sway. The three bags that flew for free from Honolulu to Kona, suddenly were an issue when going in the other direction. Because a call placed at the Hawaiian Air check-in desk to Delta produced nothing beyond the information that it's against the U.S. Dept of Transportation regs to charge for bags on a return flight that weren't charged for on the outbound flight, I had to eat the $210 fee or cool my heels at the Kona airport for 9 hours while waiting for the first available official Delta flight out. After two weeks on the road, all I wanted to do was get home! Was I pissed? You could say that.

I have yet to battle this injustice. I will fire the initial volley this coming week by disputing the charge with American Express and penning a complaint to Delta. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Does "Weather.com" Imply Some Degree of Expertise About the Weather?

The World's Foremost Authority Professor Irwin Corey.
I'm not the kind of guy who worries too much about the weather. At least I'm not since moving from South Florida to South Carolina's Upstate. There's just something about living 200-plus miles from the coast that greatly diminishes the impact of hurricanes, no matter where they make landfall. “Let them eat cake,” is my knee-jerk reaction now upon hearing of a tropical storm turning into a hurricane and plowing toward the coast.

What has me pondering weather is my freshly completed Dallas trip to shoot segments for BEER2WHISKEY. I drove away from DFW airport around 11 a.m. on Wednesday, checking in for my flight home about 2 p.m. on Saturday. During that period I shot two Fort Worth breweries, two Dallas breweries and one Garland brewery, in addition to taking all day on Friday to slog the four-and-a-half hours to Hye, Texas and back to video a B2W episode with Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery. Nearly all of the 600 miles or so I traversed around north and central Texas was in rain of Biblical severity.

Where it wasn't raining was the 40-or-so miles between Austin and Hye where the fog was so thick you could have cleared it with a shovel. Compounding the precipitation and condensation were temperatures in the 30s and 40s. The nasty weather was simply relentless.

Here's my beef (You knew there was going to be one, right?). As I prepared to pack the day before my flight to Dallas, I went the Website of the Weather Channel to check out the Dallas-area forecast for the week. Silly me.

Weather.com. Sounds like an authoritative site doesn't it? I mean, it has “weather” in its URL. It's operated by the Weather Channel, for crying out loud. “The Weather Channel” would indicate that it specializes in weather, yes? Perhaps I'm just jumping to the conclusion that when it posts forecasts, they might possess some degree of reliability. But, that's just me.

I would love to be able to go back, snap a screen shot and include it here of Weather.com's 5-day forecast for Dallas 20 hours before I landed there. They sort of had the precipitation right; although there were a couple of days where their guess on its rain probability was down to 20 percent. There was never a snowflake's chance in hell of it not raining in Dallas last week. Zero, zip, zilch, nada! Rain is too timid a term for what went on there Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning. It was rainageddon. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together...mass hysteria! You get the picture.

So, I'll give Weather.com a B minus for its precipitation prognostication, but what's a weather forecast without predicting some daily high temperatures? Here I would have done as well asking the 5-year-old girl across the street for her guess, after, of course, explaining to her what temperature is.

With all the authority of Baghdad Bob, Weather.com promised afternoon temperatures in the high 60s to low 70s (67 to 71, to be more exact). On Wednesday it was actually 39 degrees. On Thursday it was 41 degrees. And on Friday it was a relatively balmy 52 degrees. How is it that an outfit specializing in predicting the weather missed the next day's (20 hours later to be more precise) by about 30 degrees? 30 degrees!

Where was Professor Irwin Corey when I could have used him?

There's no such thing, really, as an exact science. But, science is science. Is meteorology a science? I looked it up. ScienceDaily says it is, along with just about every other Website. Well, apparently not.

College campus visitor: “Hey, excuse me. Can you point me toward the Meteorology Department?”
Helpful student: “Sure, it's right there between the Astrology and Palm Reading departments.”

As many times as I've been burned by Weather.com under similar circumstances, it's prediction for Dallas temps didn't strike me as ridiculously optimistic. I've spent a lot of time in Dallas. It gets cold, but this time of year afternoon temperatures in the high 60s to low 70s aren't out of the norm. I packed accordingly. In the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a maroon.”

Fortunately, I planned on wearing long-sleeved, collared shirts for the video shoots and packed those. I also always have a wind breaker/rain jacket in my suitcase. I wasn't left completely at the mercy of the elements and Weather.com's lackluster experts. But, damn close.

Next time I'll consult the Psychic Channel. At least in addition to a Hail Mary forecast I may also get some idea of when I'll meet the woman of my dreams.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Cute Nurses, A Room in I.C.U. and Three Days Up in Smoke: My Recent Surgery

Free at last, free at last: thank God Almighty, free at last. A parting photo of my bed.

I'm not the kind of guy to hang around hospitals. Chances are pretty good that if you find yourself checked into a hospital, I won't be visiting you unless you owe me money. Then I will be there in a nano second, arriving with your check book in hand. I don't want to be in the hospital, be around a hospital nor drive by a hospital. If I find a photo of a hospital with a red circle with a line through it, it will appear immediately below this paragraph. NO HOSPITALS! Get it?

It's not that I personally have had a bad hospital experience. During the last half-dozen years of my father's life, while I was in high school and until I was out of college, he spent a lot of time in hospitals. He had a bad ticker was scheduled for his third open-heart surgery when a heart attack took him in his early 50s. There were significant periods during those years that my mother and I spent a lot of our time in hospitals. But, that in no way scarred me. It was more than 40 years ago.

In fact, until last week, I had clocked exactly one night in a hospital in my 66-plus years. I'm fortunate that I've never been hospital-class sick. I've had fewer than 20 stitches in my life and never a broken bone. My knee surgery (Read about it here), roughly a year ago, was the first procedure for which I was put under. That one night I did spend in the hospital was for a concussion caused by falling off a seesaw backwards on my head in the second grade. Yes, at one time I did my own stunts. The result is the man you see before you today.

So, basically my brush with a hospital last week sent me into uncharted waters. Here's the scoop....

If you've ever experienced the joy of my company at a meal, you know I am always the last one to finish. This is true whether it was just you and I, or a 500-person banquet. As everyone else ordered coffee after desert, I was still working on the main course. Few were the meals that I didn't launch into a coughing fit of varied severity. The medical term for my affliction is Zenker's Diverticulum. I have no clue who Zenker is; but if I ever run across him (or her), I'm going to kick his ass.

In layman's terms: I had a swallowing disorder caused by some little flap in my esophagus not operating properly. It's caused by acid reflux, which I didn't even know I had. Apparently the sneaky little bastard comes out at night to reek havoc with the esophagus, leaving scar tissue behind. Who knew?

Growing somewhat worse over the past couple of years, I decided to bring it up to Doc Budelmann, my primary care doctor, during my last visit in September. That got the train rolling. First stop: an upper GI. Because of my travel schedule, I didn't see Doc Sellner, the ear, nose and throat surgeon, until late October. Then more traveling, the holidays and blah, blah, blah, meant the surgery not being scheduled until the beginning of this month.

I kept my impending surgery pretty much on the down low. Some of the Wednesday Night Irregulars were aware of it, primarily because I needed a lift to and from the hospital. I told my Autotrader editor only because I didn't want an assignment with a deadline during my three-day recovery springing up. And, I told my friend Amy in Florida, who holds the much-sought-after, esteemed role of executor of my will. My Sunday beer-drinking pal Big Jon (and our bartender) also knew because I had to present some reason for drinking mainly water the day before the surgery. No small feat of will, it being Super Bowl Sunday and all.

I did not inform my sister's family, most of which is in New Mexico more than 1,500 miles away. They were not pleased when I finally fessed up after arriving home from the ordeal. My reasoning was, what would they do but worry, which they (particularly my sister) would have done like they were trying to medal in it. It would have meant someone – probably me – would have had to keep them up to date on my condition and so on and so forth, the thought of which was exhausting.

I didn't want visitors. Nothing I hate more than entertaining people from a bed with my ass hanging out. I didn't want colorful “get well” helium balloons tied to my bed. I didn't want flowers or cards decorating my room. All I wanted was for the whole damn thing to be over. My phone and Kindle were fully charged, and I had downloaded several episodes of a TV series I wanted to watch from Netflix. I was good to go.

My buddy Jeff drew the short straw, serving as my ambulance driver and the repository for my personal belongings during the surgery. He picked me up at my house on Monday morning around 9:00 and hung out at the hospital until after 3:00. Nurses ushered me into the prep room around 10:15 and then into the O.R. around 11:30.

Doc Sellner is a relatively young guy with a great bedside manner. I liked him immediately at our first meeting. That he's a big Steelers fan doesn't hurt either. He advised me earlier that morning that the surgery would take between 20 minutes and three hours. The person making my cable-installation appointment provided a tighter window. The huge swing in time was based on whether he would be able to perform the procedure by going down my throat or through it. Down: quick. Through: long. As it turned out, it required about 30 minutes because of the amount of scar tissue. But, it was down rather than through.

As with my knee surgery, in the recovery room I transitioned from sleep to wake in a heartbeat. The second I opened my eyes, I was totally coherent. Because I spent more than three hours in the recovery room waiting for a bed to open, I discovered many patients don't wake up knowing where they are or what is going on. It's like an anvil dropped on their head as they were taking their morning walk. A younger lady in the bed next to me was so out of it she kept trying to throw herself off the bed. The recovery-room nurse I shared with her couldn't do anything else, but hold her down and try to calm her for about 10 minutes. At one point, I thought I was going to have to get up and help.

As the hours ticked by in the recovery room, I began stressing. I hadn't been to the bathroom in six or seven hours. Mother Nature wasn't just calling; she was screaming like her ass was on fire. I was also stressed over the fact that my buddy Jeff had to still hang around with my bag full of belongings in his care. He hadn't signed on for all-day duty. As my anxiety grew my blood pressure began to escalate. My anesthesiologist happened to walk by, glanced at my blood pressure reading and immediately ordered some sort of meds to calm it down.

Finally, around 3:45, I was wheeled out of recovery. I had been in there so long that when one of the other recovery-room nurses was passing around a birthday card for the staff to sign for a co-worker's birthday, I piped up that I thought I had been there long enough to qualify. That got a smile, but I'm not confident she was amused.

Next stop: I.C.U. Yep, I.C.U. Although the operation hardly qualified as major and I had come out the other end with flying colors, there was a small chance of things going sideways, suddenly affecting my ability to breathe. Doc Sellner was adamant that I needed the sort of one-on-one care you only get in I.C.U. I had a big, bright corner room with several windows, a sink, a toilet and a comfy recliner. I was living large! It was like being on vacation without the sunshine and beer...and food.

I wasn't allowed so much as a sip of water until Tuesday morning. My nurse that day was an older, experienced lady. My night nurse both nights and my daytime nurse on Tuesday and Wednesday morning were both, young, cute and easy to make laugh. They soon discovered I was a low-maintenance ward. Because it was I.C.U., I had to be attached to a heart monitor and some sort of monitor to track my oxygen intake. I also had a blood-pressure cuff that automatically took my pressure every hour during the day and every two hours at night. I also had wraps hooked to an air pump massaging my calves to prevent blood clots. The nurses would personally check on me every 90 minutes or so. When I was awake, that often meant they'd take a temperature reading, as well as an unscheduled blood-pressure reading. They never failed to apologize for not being able to do more for me. The truth is, I was as healthy as they. Other then emptying my urinal, there wasn't anything I needed or wanted that I could have. I could get out of bed, but that entailed a nurse unhooking and re-hooking all manner of gadgets.

Doc Sellner ordered a morphine-based pain med, if I required it. I didn't, but I asked for it around 9:30 Monday night in the hopes it would make me groggy to help me sleep. It didn't do anything. I mean anything. It didn't take the edge off my throat discomfort, make me groggy nor provide a buzz. It was as though I was participating in a blind-drug test and was in the placebo group. I'm not sure exactly what the typical reaction to morphine is, but I sure didn't have it. All it did was affect my oxygen intake to the point the oxygen-monitor alarm began sounding. Suddenly I was breathing through an oxygen tube. That didn't help my chances of sleeping either. I slept not one wink the first night.

My getting sprung was handled like a flight delay at the airport. It continued to be postponed in increments. First it was after noon on Monday and then after dinner and then Tuesday morning. The doc had warned me that it wouldn't be Monday morning and to not even ask, but as Monday passed, it became increasingly apparent that it might not be Monday at all. Finally at 7:00, I texted Jeff, telling him to stand down. I didn't expect to be released that evening. Still somewhat optimistic, I waited until after 8:00 to tell the night nurse that if I was going to sleep that night, I would need a sleep aid of some stripe. She offered to call the doc.

She returned 10 minutes later with the offer that I could either get a sleeping pill and spend the night with an after-breakfast release, or I could go home that night. Well, the go-home-that-night ship had sailed. I wasn't going to try to scramble someone at 9:00 at night to come get me. I opted for the sleeping pill and Tuesday morning departure. I clocked about five hours of sleep Tuesday night.

When my night nurse opened my room door at 6:00 Wednesday morning, I was fully awake, and ready to rock and roll. After taking my vital signs, I had her unhook me. I dressed and plopped down into the recliner. I realized I needed to ask her something. Rather than ring the call button, I opened the door to my room and skipped out to the nurses station. Three or four staff were huddled there talking. They broke into applause and my nurse remarked that I was the first patient to ever skip out of an I.C.U. room.

They rushed my breakfast of grits, yogurt and some other nearly inedible things. It was my first cup of coffee since Sunday morning. Perhaps the best cup of coffee in my life!

By 9:30 a.m. I was home and cranked back in my recliner. I had an assignment due on Thursday morning, which I wrote that afternoon. Back in the saddle again.

I am currently on what they call a full-liquid diet; although I cheated last night and had spaghetti. I won't officially be on the soft diet until my appointment with Doc Sellner at noon on Tuesday.

But things couldn't be going any better.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Well, At Least I'm Not in Detroit....

I'm not the kind of guy to wallow in leisure. Sure, I can goof off with the best of them. I judiciously guard my slacker credentials, but I do reach a point of feeling guilt when I go more than a couple of days without doing something productive. This is particularly true if there are things that I have left unfinished.

Imagine my level of discomfort, staring at the unfinished ceiling in my great room every time I crank back in my recliner. It still needs painted, the trim added and the light fixtures installed. Then there's the upstairs hallway where I need to install the sliding barn door for the bathroom and put down the new wood floor. I've had the paint and light fixtures for the great room for three months. I've had the door, hardware and wood flooring for the hallway for longer than that.

I hate leaving projects half finished. It bugs me. However, with every renovation project requiring more than a day or two, I reach a point where I can exhale, feeling a degree of accomplishment in completing a big step in the overall process. That's the point I reached in the hallway when I completed its ceiling. And, it's the point I reached in the great room when I got all the tongue-and-groove beadboard nailed up. I needed a breather after both those steps.

But, now it's been three or four months since I picked up a nail gun or turned a screw. I'm feeling guilty. This is compounded by the fact that I have just completed the second week in a three-week travel-free period. Three entire weeks at home! That just doesn't happen. I'll be here nearly all of next week, too. My oh my.

Yes, I have been cranking out two or three paying stories each week for my biggest client. But even that doesn't seem like enough coming off December, which was my worst revenue-generating month in more than a year and a half. I have some serious catching up to do.

I feel lucky not to be joining many of my peers in Detroit this week for media days in advance of the opening of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), or what most of us call, the Detroit Auto Show. Or, what I call, hell on earth. A few unveilings have already occurred, but the bulk of the press conferences will be Monday and Tuesday of this week. I am so glad to be covering the show from the warm, cozy confines of my in-home office. I will be generating some income writing about several of the vehicles introduced there without enduring the pain of actually being there. And, make no mistake: It's painful!

Think of three or four thousand jackasses stampeding from one end of the show hall to the other every 15 or 20 minutes for the next big reveal. Half these people are to automotive media what the accordion is to chamber music. My dead cat could get credentialed for the Detroit show. Each press conference is like a rugby scrum. Teasing the attending press by providing seating for maybe 5 percent of the crowd, the carmakers create Black Friday-like mob scenes when they begin passing out whatever giveaways they are providing.

Media days for this show ought to be treated like a White House presser with a pool photographer and videographer. Everyone else could just stay home, rather than climbing over a thousand lunatics fighting over a table full of ball caps.

Yep, I'm glad not to be in Detroit.

I'll make a little money Monday and Tuesday writing about the show, but then what? It will be a short spurt of activity followed by three days of recovering and beating myself up because I'm not sufficiently motivated to return to one of my house projects.

I am doomed to this period of self loathing. Of course, it could be worse. I could finish out the week kicking myself in the ass for wasting three days in Detroit. Now that would be a real tragedy.