Monday, June 21, 2010

Normally I don't post in rapid succession, but my friends Peter Alberice and Sandra Stambaugh and I made a trip to Atlanta a week ago to see a few shows at the High Museum. The photos below are from a show called The Allure of the Automobile. Sadly, this show ends on the 27th of this month, but anyone who reads this and has a chance to go to the High before the show closes, do it.

Sandra isn't a huge fan of cars and had planned on only spending about 15 minutes in the car exhibit before going on to shows on modern European industrial design and depression era photography, but the cars were so stunning that even she spent probably about an hour and a half simply stupefied by these gems.


Above is a 1954 Dodge Firearrow III. I cannot tell you what a shock it was to see this striking and opulently finished car (body by Ghia Coachworks of course) only to find out that it is a Dodge. This is hardly the look or level of finish that we came to expect of Dodges.

The green beauty below is a 1961 Aston-Martin DB4GT Zagato. To many Aston enthusiasts, the DB4 was the last of the truly great hand-made cars from this manufacturer. Most famous for being the original James Bond car, my association with Astons goes back to my very first employer when I was fresh out of architectural school. He had a DB6 that, purists notwithstanding, I thought was a fantastic car.


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This is a 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante. Bugattis were favored by the wealthy cognoscenti in Europe. Famously, Isadora Duncan died driving one. This particular car was first owned by a Belgian pilot.


These next 5 shots are of a 1937 Delage D8-120S. Simply put, this is the most beautiful car I have ever seen in the flesh. This coupe was Louis Delage's personal car and it isn't hard to figure out why he kept it. The rather odd shot from the rear shown below was the best I could do to show the license frame and rear window. . .details that are to my eye, perfectly balanced with the rest of the car. The Delage company sold their last car in late 1953.




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This is a 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C2900B Touring Berlinetta that again is an example of how slick European auto designers had become by the late 30s. The detail of the rear fender skirt with horizontal slits is very unusual. Like many of the other high-performance cars in this show and from the 30s, the length of the hood and engine compartment is astonishing compared to the way cars have been built since WWII.



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This shockingly modern stunner is a 1937 Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza H-6C "Xenia". It was built for Andre Dubonnet, the vastly wealthy apertif brewer who was heavily involved in car racing. Prior to seeing this car the only Hispano-Suizas I had been aware of were huge chauffeur driven affairs that appealed to people for whom a Rolls simply wasn't good enough. This is an excellent example of the customized look coach builders of the era created for their clients on a chassis that might be used by another client who wanted a completely different look.




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The car in the shots above is a 1934 Packard LeBaron Runabout Speedster ordered by Carole Lombard for her husband Clark Gable, who apparently was pretty car obsessed.

The two shots below are of a 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Roadster that was a graduation gift to a 19-year-old German Baron. Must be nice. I got a typewriter.


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These shots are of a 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow.

These hinge and door handle details denote classic 30s deco design.

These shots are of a 1935 Duesenberg JN Roadster that Carole Lombard gave to Clark Gable. The detailing is simply stunning. The closeups of the door hinges and handles just begin to imply how gorgeous this huge convertible was.




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Thursday, June 10, 2010

For starters, I will begin by telling you that this has not been an easy winter. Abner started blowing his summer coat in early August, about two months earlier than ever before, and he was done by the beginning of October, which was when he usually started. The only thing I could figure was that somehow his body was telling him that we would have an early or cold winter and he needed to be ready. As it turned out, we had both. The weather turned brutally cold in late November so the timing of completion of my geothermal heating system was propitious. I will never really know how much money I saved in utility bills but my very unscientific anecdotal survey makes me think that it could have been close to $1,000 just for December through February.

We had three substantial snowfalls this winter although the mid-December one, documented previously on this blog was the corker. I gather it was the third heaviest since records have been kept, and heavy, in this case also described the water content, and consequently, the damage caused. Thousands of trees and branches came down everywhere causing property damage, impassable trails and power outages all over the mountains.

Nothing that happened during the snowfalls though could compare to what has transpired with the arrival of spring in Asheville.

The last week of March was the beginning of my spring visitor season. My friend Heather Candy was the first visitor of the year and only the second to occupy the guest room downstairs at the new house. She ended up sharing it a lot with Abner since he has largely taken possession of it. Since there is little in the way of furniture in a space of close to 1,100 sq ft, and since it tends to be cooler than the rest of the house, he has long ago moved all his toys downstairs and tends to spend a lot of time there.

Heather’s visit went largely without a hitch aside from my back going out the day she arrived. Still, with the help of some advice from one of my doc friends and a decent supply of anti-inflammatories, we managed to do most of the things I had planned for her visit.

Going to Charleston was one of the key things we wanted to do since Heather had never visited the Southeast before, and this turned out to be a little complicated. What I didn’t realize was that on the weekend that I thought we would go there was a huge cross bridge run from Charleston to Mount Pleasant (or vice versa) so hotels rooms were obscenely expensive and hard to find. Peter and Sandi had offered to take care of Abner for one night while Heather and I were touring, but they were in New York for the week and wouldn’t be home until Friday afternoon, so there appeared to be no solution that would make the Charleston trip affordable and have someone to take care of Abner.

And then I bumped into a buddy of mine from when we lived downtown. Rob Rives is a student at UNCA whom I met through the climbing gym a year or two ago and as it turned out, he doesn’t mind house-sitting from time to time if his schedule allows. This is a big if for Rob since he not only is a full-time student, but he still works at the climbing gym and tends to have big outdoor activities for most weekends. Rob is, besides being a climber, an accomplished ultrarunner. I, of course, had no idea what this meant until he explained it to me, but ultrarunners are people who run lengths greater than marathons. This seems to be a pretty rarified group of people but I guess there are a lot of these long distance events and sometimes, if Rob isn’t running in one, he provides pacing for one of the participants. What this means in practice is, to use the example Rob gave me from a couple weekends ago, a runner who is running a 100 mile race may want someone to pace him when, later in the race, the going is pretty difficult. So for this 100 miler a recently, he was a pacer for the last 50 miles! Amazing. I have never even ridden my bike that far let alone walked or ran distances like these.

In any case, Rob was available mid-week when Heather and I could afford to go to Charleston so Abner had a companion whom he already knew and who liked to take him out walking, and Heather and I got to do our fun trip to Charleston.

We drove down on Thursday, and after checking into the Renaissance Hotel in the historic district, grabbed a quick lunch and did a walking tour of lovely old Charleston. We walked for a few hours and covered everything from Wentworth Street down to the Battery, back up East Bay and across to the campus of the College of Charleston before my back let me know that it was time to lie down. Then back to the hotel to rest for a few hours before we trundled off to dinner at Slightly North of Broad. I have gotten to the point where every time I go to Charleston I feel compelled to eat either at SNOB, Fish on King Street, or both. It is impossible to remember a disappointing meal at either of these restaurants. Have the Bouillabaisse at Fish and the duck at SNOB.

In the morning we continued our quick tour of town with a trip to the Nathaniel Russell House. There are a number of preserved Colonial and Antebellum homes that can be toured in Charleston but the Russell House is my favorite. Besides the gorgeous stair and the spectacular doors separating the entry hall from the stair hall, the house is quite unusual architecturally and has a much larger garden than most Charleston houses. I have been through 4 or 5 times now but had skipped the tour recently having seen it all starting with a visit back in 1989. Nonetheless, I decided to go through again with Heather and it was really nice to see it again. With enough time in between visits, you forget just how special this house is. Besides, I think the preservation aspect of the Russell House is more appealing to me than some of the other grander houses that have had updates by previous and current owners that make the houses less authentic to their eras.

After the tour and a quick bite of lunch we headed back up the hill to Asheville. Abner seemed none the worse for wear, and you could barely tell Rob had been in the house.

Heather flew home on the following Monday and I had 8 days to take things as easy as I could to try to get my back in some kind of condition for my parents’ visit on the 7th of April for about 5 days. This was a pretty momentous event since my parents only visit me about once every 5 years so I planned to make it as comfortable and easy as I could. This would be the first time they had stayed with me in about 20 years and I was excited to have space in which they could be comfortable guests. Sadly, it was not to be.
We had been having extraordinarily warm weather the week before and the guy who takes care of my gardening had suggested that I buy sprinklers and get some water on the areas of lawn he had seeded where the guys who put in the geothermal system had destroyed it. As a result, the day before my parents were due to arrive I put out the hoses I had picked up at Home Depot and ran each for 4 hours on a different section of the newly planted areas. Little did I know that one of the hose bibs had had water in it during our hard winter, had frozen and burst leaving a half inch almond-shaped hole through which water gushed for the whole four hours I ran it. All the water went into the crawl space and then worked its way, along with nice red dirt, into the lower level of my house.

At about 6:00PM two friends from The Gardener’s Place at Biltmore came by to see the house and give me some advice about some new planting I want to do and when we finished seeing the main floor we started down the stairs to the lower level. As soon as I turned on the light I knew something was wrong. There was red mud and about an inch of water on the tile floor at the bottom of the steps. I walked down and headed into the carpeted area that is the guest space and every inch of it was saturated, as was the storage room.

Without making you endure the details of this experience, suffice it to say, the lower lever was uninhabitable about 18 hours before my parents were supposed to arrive. I was able to get a restoration service out within about an hour and a half and they started the cleanup that night. Wednesday my parents arrived, as did a large crew from the restoration company. By nighttime the rooms downstairs were largely dismantled and somewhat demolished. All the finished floors were gone, the cabinets and plumbing fixtures removed, all rugs and any other items made of fabric removed and taken to professional cleaning services. Drywall was cut out where it had become saturated and all baseboards were thrown out. Boxes that had been sitting on the floor in the storage room were so wet that some collapsed and sent other boxes tumbling into the water so contents that weren’t destroyed still had to be reboxed and in some cases, taken out for cleaning first. All the wine and art had to be moved upstairs for temporary storage since they needed to dehumidify the downstairs and in the process, raise the temperature to 90 degrees.

By Wednesday night they had 11 big fans and 4 enormous dehumidifiers running continuously. It sounded like someone had parked a 747 in the lower level of my house and left the engines running. . .for 4 days.

Still, it was a nice if somewhat different visit from my parents. With parents who are active but approaching 85th and 90th birthdays respectively, the things one does aren’t the same as what we did 5 or 10 years ago. Don’t get me wrong. I know how lucky I am to be in my 60s and still have both parents, let alone active ones, but still, one cannot avoid noticing that things just aren’t the same. We did do some light walking through the gardens at Biltmore, which were, unfortunately, almost exactly a week away from full on flower explosion. Nevertheless it was nice to be able to take them from the house down through the ramble, the walled garden, the conservatory, and on through the azalea garden and to the bass pond. It allowed them to see a lot of land that they hadn’t seen when they visited in 2005. Going through Biltmore House for the first time usually takes about 2 hours and involves walking 5 floors of the house, so I pretty much wore them out just going through the house last time. They didn’t feel compelled to see it again so it enabled us to spend our energy in the gardens instead.

After almost 5 days of eating and just hanging out, during which time I had to deal with the ongoing mess at my house, we had a good time. I think they were glad they came and in spite of the difficulties of not having them stay with me, I was really glad they came.

I am now in a brief hiatus before the next guests arrive April 27th or 28th. Most of the repairs should be finished by then although I won’t have carpet yet so I am not sure how we will handle the accommodations issue. I also have a visitor scheduled for May 5th for a week, so I am hoping things will be pretty much completed by his arrival.

Meanwhile, spring really is beautiful here. I am discovering all kinds of shrubs and flowers around my house not to mention probably a dozen dogwood trees that I would never have realized were there were it not for the flowering they are going through now.

June 6th 2010: time has passed. I have now finished visits from all my guests until July. Kathy Davenport and her friend Alice came for their second visit and although it was brief we had fun. The repairs to my guest space weren’t completed so they too had to stay in a nearby hotel. After their two-day visit there was supposed to be an 8-day break but I had a couple surprise visitors from California. Lou and Beth Livoti had a trip scheduled to Italy along with two other couples I knew when I was living in Sacramento, but the Icelandic volcano threw their trip into the zone where it was sufficiently unsure that they decided to take a different kind of vacation. They started in the northeast and worked their way down here by car, the plan being that Asheville would be a two or three night visit, and then they would go on to Nashville and Memphis for some total immersion in the Tennessee music scene. Beth was somewhat Elvis obsessed as a teenager and seemingly has never quite gotten over it.

What no one planned on was a horrible flood of the Cumberland River that destroyed much of Nashville and rendered Opryland and its 3,000-room hotel uninhabitable. Consequently Lou and Beth opted for another night in Asheville before venturing on. Even though it was a surprise visit it was great fun to socialize with these two, whom I had really only known through a mutual friend in my California days.

Two hours after their departure, Jim Sundquist arrived for his annual visit. We mostly hung around Asheville and Jim helped me with some house-related issues as well. He was the first guest since Heather for whom the guest room was usable so I wasn’t ferrying people to and from hotels on his visit.

I have developed an addiction to Dark Cove goat cheese since moving to Asheville. This would normally not be a problem were it not for the fact that the only local store that sells it, Greenlife Grocery, has inexplicably decided to raise the price to $21.99 per pound when it used to be $16.99 and still is everywhere else that I could find it. A pound of this wonderful cheese goes a long way and seems to have an almost indefinite freezer life, so one of our adventures was to drive up to Highlands for the scenery and hit the local gourmet market to load up on this cheese. I now have enough in my freezer to get me through a couple of years of Greek salads and other delicacies. Meanwhile, on the way into Highlands we drove by a pull out with a fairly good-sized parking area whose signage described the area as “Dry Falls”. We decided to pull over and investigate, only to discover that the name is a serious misnomer. Dry Falls is in fact a splendid 75-foot high waterfall that throws so much water over its lip that the whole chasm into which it falls is misty and lush with ferns and other greenery. There is a trail down to the base of the falls that actually passes behind the torrent. It was wonderful. It is a very short walk from the road and really worth it. I think even Abner liked it. The mist, while significant, isn’t the kind of thing that makes you uncomfortable and seeing the falls from the perspective of being and the bottom and behind it is quite something.

Highlands itself is a small mountain town that seems to have more real estate offices than anything else on the main drag. People were enormously friendly and helpful. One gallery owner invited us in so Abner could have a dog treat. We also had a lovely lunch in the garden of Wild Thyme Gourmet, a wonderful local restaurant where Abner was welcome outside. Lunch was delicious although it was a bit cooler day than either Jim or I had anticipated. . .Abner who still hadn’t started blowing coat was fine.

We completed our loop back to Asheville driving through Cashiers, past Lake Toxaway, through Brevard and finally home. Great day and 6 pounds of cheese in my freezer.

I have neglected to mention a quick trip I made to Los Angeles to help John out with a new condo he has bought in Studio City. This trip had to be sandwiched in between all these spring visits so we selected the weekend of April 23rd through the 25th. I flew to Burbank using American’s brand new service between Asheville and Dallas. What a pleasure. Burbank is a small funky old airport amazingly convenient to much of Hollywood and Western Los Angeles but enormously easier to use than LAX. My flight arrived on time and by the time I got out of the obligatory stop at the men’s room after getting off the plane, the luggage was already coming around on the carousel. My bag came up quickly (never happens) and I made my way to Alamo to pick up my rental car.

As will be no surprise to anyone who rents cars from time to time, I got to the clerk there and he told me that the small SUV class that I had reserved wasn’t available but that they would be upgrading me. These “upgrades” inevitably end up putting you in a Mercury Grand Marquis or some similar Detroit land yacht and with the prospect of frequent trips back and forth between the LA basin and the Valley through various canyon roads, this was most unappealing. So I confronted the Alamo agent immediately about what he was upgrading me to and was greatly relieved to be presented with the key to an almost brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee. Ok, so now I have had a good cross-continent flight, my luggage arrived with me and punctually and I have scored a good rental car. It should have been a foregone conclusion on my part that the rest of the trip would be a horror show.

I guess that really isn’t true, but the experience at the almost brand new W Hotel in Hollywood was bad enough to counterbalance anything that went well. I will not bore my readers with every lurid detail of the clusterfuck that our weekend at this hotel represented but suffice it to say it was one of the worst hotel experiences I have ever had anywhere in the world.

That having been said, I have to tell you about the astounding follow up. A couple days after getting back home I received an email from W Hotels asking me to fill out an online survey to let them know if anything about my stay wasn’t “fabulous”. W, it seems, has decided that there are a number of witty buzzwords that they are going to start using rather than the more traditional ones. Fabulous is apparently their word for a standard room. At one point I was told that I would be upgraded to a Superlative room. . .didn’t happen but I gather this is the next step up from Fabulous in W-speak. The quiet lounges off the main lobby for intimate chats have the words “Whisper” etched into the glass walls. . .nothing else. . .just “Whisper”. The concierge is referred to as Whatever, Wherever, Whenever, none of which turned out to be borne out by our experience.

So when this email came with a link to the survey I decided to fill it out. Most of the survey was a series of questions about specific aspects of the hotel, which you may or may not have used in some cases. It asked the respondent to rate each of the various aspects from 1-10, 1 being unacceptable and 10 being fabulous. I filled out the entire survey which was surprisingly involved and honestly felt compelled to give mostly 1s with a 4 or two and I think one 7. For overall rating I gave it a 1. . .unacceptable.

There is a section after giving your rating in which they ask you to provide some detail on why you gave them the rating provided, and while they probably expect brief statements, that wasn’t what they got from me. Fresh from this experience I went into great detail about how bad my experience had been from a botched check-in, improperly cleaned or inspected room, unacceptable noise, rude bartender, broken promises from several staff members, an unbelievable lack of competence or coordination at the $35/night valet parking service, through overcharges on my bill immediately prior to checkout. I highlighted some of the more egregious failures with the names of the employees who had screwed up. Because this was an online survey, and not email, I have no copy of what I wrote but it apparently hit a nerve, because the next morning I got up and checked my email only to discover one in the inbox from a Jim McPartlin at the W Hotel in Hollywood.

Jim’s note was brief. He said he was appalled by reading my comments and wondered if there was a time he could call me. I was stunned. I had thought that these surveys probably go into some cyberdumpster someplace, particularly if they are filled with bad reports. . .sort of like that magazine company that Ed McMahon used to shill for that dumped all the sweepstakes entries that didn’t have magazine orders attached in a Connecticut land fill. You can imagine my surprise that someone in corporate America was actually concerned that a customer had had a bad experience.

I responded that I had a houseguest but that he could call anytime between 8:00 AM and 10:00 PM and that if I was at home I’d be happy to talk to him.

Later that day we finally connected after a couple rounds of phone tag. Mr. McPartlin seems genuinely disturbed by what he referred to as my “tome” and told me he intended to read it at a staff meeting an hour or two later. More importantly, he offered to reimburse the entire $1,000 cost of my weekend at his hotel. I think this is extraordinary in today’s business climate. Over the years I have seen most large companies in the US become progressively less concerned about whether or not their customers are satisfied with their products and services. Inevitably if you have a problem or complaint, they try to turn it around to make it the user or customer who is at fault. Without threat of litigation, in my experience, few large American companies will make any effort to deal with their own errors or even own up to them.

The fact that Jim McPartlin, and the company he works for, felt that in order to maintain good will, the right thing to do was to offer a refund for very poor service, and I might add, without being asked to do so, impresses me greatly. I hope W appreciates this employee. In my experience he is a rarity.

Interestingly enough, I had another experience the same day, with Bed Bath and Beyond in which several people in their management took a lot of time and initiative to solve a fundamental product problem with a patio umbrella I had bought from them. Having good experiences with customer service from two different large companies the same day made me wonder if the weak economy has, perhaps, caused corporate America to decide that they need to take better care of their customers and clients if they want to keep them. Whatever the cause, it left me feeling good to have been treated well by these two companies.

Spring is blending into summer here rather seamlessly if in a somewhat confusing manner. In late March/early April we had a spate of about a week of 80+ degree days. This is weather that normally shows up in late June or July but we had it in March. Now we seem to be into a common mid-summer pattern of several lovely mild days in the high 70s or low 80s followed by about 4 days or so of warm humid weather with widely scattered afternoon thunderstorms. I actually haven’t had to water once since that fateful day in April.

On nice days I finish my activities usually by sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. I have gotten into the habit of extracting my mail from the box, pouring myself an iced tea (or sometimes something a trifle stronger) and sitting out on my back deck under my bright red market umbrella in my deliriously comfortable lounge chair, feet on the ottoman, and I read the day’s copy of the Financial Times while sipping on my tea. Abner usually joins me on the deck. He patrols his yard briefly and then comes up to the deck where I am, checks me out briefly and then reclines in a position that allows him to half nap while still monitoring the world below him. It is all too civilized. Reading the FT every day is an interesting change for me. This is a paper that comes 6 days a week and is published in England so it provides a slant on things happening in the US and elsewhere that one simply never gets from American media. It is particularly interesting to see the differences on topics like the petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. There are letters to the editor defending Tony Hayward and BP that would never have been written in the US let alone published. It is also interesting to read their take on events elsewhere. Oddly enough, some of their coverage of the recent conflict between Israel and the Turkish activists off Gaza was more sympathetic to the situation in which Israel found themselves than any of the articles or commentary I have read here.

In any case, I have really come to treasure my back decks. I face out into a blindingly green ravine. It is almost impossible to see the neighboring houses due to the lush foliage. Directly across the ravine is a house that sits alone on 32 acres. It is so far away that I cannot see it even in the dead of winter with no leaves to conceal it. All this quiet and privacy and I am still only 8 minutes or so from downtown. I haven’t been here a year yet but think this house was the right decision for me to make.

Lots of travel is on the agenda for the fall, but for now I am sitting tight waiting for the arrival of Lexi Boeger in early July. She is my last scheduled guest at this point and I will have comparatively little time with her so I suspect it will be packed. Lexi is something of a rock star in the world of spinning. . .and not the kind that is done on a stationary bike. She is apparently enough of a celebrity among the spinning wheel set that a crafts group has invited her here to teach a couple of classes. So I will have her to entertain for only a couple days before she has to appear for her fans. Alas.

It has taken me forever to finish this post. I feel a little bad because so much time has passed since my last post. It’s just that life has been busier in the last few months and it really does take a lot of time to construct these posts, even though they probably seem like the idle ramblings of some geezer with a computer.

And so, I will sign off for now. I hope it won’t take me as long to construct my next post.



I didn't take a lot of photos while I was in Los Angeles but I went to the Getty Center by myself and was so impressed by the beauty of the place, the spectacular site, and its view of Los Angeles that I wanted to post these pictures. It helped that it was such a beautiful day in April.
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One weather characteristic I have noticed that is different from California is the wildly voluptuously shaped cumulus clouds that we routinely see at this time of year.



These last two shots show some of the prolific blooms we saw this spring. It almost seems like the plant life around here liked the severity of this year's winter. the other photo is of a tree trunk that has a very healthy skirt of very lush moss.

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