Tuesday, July 22, 2008

5 Ways to Stay Fit in Athens

Tired of the treadmill? In an exercise rut? The key to success is to find a challenging but enjoyable exercise, so why not mix up your routine and try one of the unique activities Athens has to offer?

1. Play "frolf" at the Herman C. Michael Park Frisbee golf course. It's played much like traditional golf, minus the clubs and golf balls. Players tee off and try to get a disc/Frisbee into chain baskets. The best part: the 18-hole course is free!

2. Sweat out your impurities at a hot yoga class. Athens Power Yoga offers almost daily Power Vinyasa Yoga at its Chase Street studio. Moving quickly through the yoga poses in an 80 degree room gets intense but provides an internal and external work out. First timers can try the "Basics" class, offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at 9 a.m.

3. Prepare for next year's Twilight Criterium with a spin class at Georgia Cycle Sport. A long-time spin fan, I have yet to try its daily, 1-hour classes. Try it out, and let me know what you think. If you get addicted, consider buying a pair of Specialized shoes to clip into the bike to enhance the work out.

4. Punch out frustrations at The Omni Club's very own fight club. Taught by an Olympic trial track and field athlete and a once ultimate fighter, the 1-hour "fight club" work out requires a lot of equipment -- heavy bags, tower bags, speed bags, stationary bikes -- and even more muscle. While this is not a work out for the faint of heart, the loud music and group environment will motivate you through.

5. And for a change of pace, try belly dancing! Offered in multiple locations, consider yourself warned that this Middle Eastern dance may result in the impulse buying of scarves, ankle bells and transparent clothing.

Of course, these are just five of the many unique fitness "adventures" in Athens. There are always ballroom dance classes, UGA's rock climbing wall and kayaking down the Broad.

What do you do to stay in shape in Athens?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Spies Like Us

If you have lived in Athens for any significant period of time between 1998 and today, chances are you’ve seen at least one of the transmogrified yellow, blue and red vehicles roving the city streets. These curious creations are the products of the Imagineering and welding acumen of long-time Athens musician, sculptor, cult hero and bartender Brian Smith.

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Smith at Las Conchitas to talk more about the history of the “Spy Car” phenomenon in Athens. Like any good spy, he only told me what I needed to know. Here is what I uncovered:

A Subversive Beginning

Spy cars are the natural extension of one of Smith’s previous ventures, the “art car.” In 1991, Brian decided to “beautify” a dilapidated Buick station wagon. He painted the entire car black, including the windows, and added signs that read “radiation” and “pirate vehicle.” According to Smith, “there was nothing legal about this car.” Smith would later amplify his disregard for traffic laws in the form of a Volvo he converted into a “police vehicle.” Surprisingly, the vehicle, complete with working siren and fake dome light, never landed Smith in jail.

Enter the Yellow Submarine

Years after creating the police vehicle, while watching the famous Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, Brian was struck by a vision. The bright, primary colors featured throughout the movie provided the inspiration for a new type of alternative vehicle—one that would inspire and offend, challenge the status quo and, in some social circles, become it. In 1998, the spy car was born.

“I had wanted a Volkswagen bus since I was 13,” recalls Smith. “On Christmas Day when I was 17, my dad told me that my wish had come true—that there was a Volkswagen bus waiting for me in the driveway. I ran outside, more excited than I had ever been, but didn’t see anything in the driveway. I looked more closely and realized that my dad had in fact bought me the bus. The downside was that it was made by Hot Wheels.”

After several years of mourning, Brian recovered from his father’s prank and purchased a full-sized “goat puke green” Volkswagen bus from a mechanic friend for $600. The bus would become Smith’s canvas for the first ever “spy car.” He painted the vehicle bright red, blue and yellow and attached “weapons” like a “rocket launcher” on the roof of the bus (this addition would prove handy when the desire for shooting bottle rockets from a moving vehicle struck). At the time, Smith had no idea that his project would spark a mini-revolution in Athens.

A New Subculture Emerges

“Make mine like yours.” Hearing those words from friend Greg Baker, Brian realized that he had created something special. It was the first request for a spy car and Smith was happy to oblige. He added floor tiles to the roof of Baker’s old Toyota and welded the requisite fake weaponry to the vehicle. Now there were two spies in town. Over the next few years, Smith would build 30 spy cars in total—transforming everything from a large truck to a BMW 2002, which was totaled only one month after being converted.

The spy car phenomenon caught fire in Athens’ art community and reached critical mass in 2001 in the form of an official, police-escorted Spy Car Parade through downtown Athens. The parade marked one of the few occasions that the law was on Brian’s side. There were other, slightly less official (read: completely illegal) parades, such as the one that invaded the University of Georgia campus and made the front page of the Athens Banner-Herald.

In 2002, an Athens resident donated a vehicle to the Lyndon House Arts Center to be decorated by Athens guidance. A longtime supporter of the youth of America, Smith described the conversion project as “so awkward.” “Building spy cars is a very solitary, meditative act,” said Smith. “If you have to involve other people, it is best to do it ‘Juicy Fruit commercial style’—with a few close friends who are all your own age.”

The spy car conversion process was always a labor of love for Smith. The most he was ever paid for a conversion was $100 to cover supplies. “I did it for the kicks,” said Smith. Spy car owners were thankful to have their old beaters transformed into weird pieces of art, and Smith took pride in contributing to the landscape of Athens with his strange and wonderful creations.

While spy cars had become an everyday part of Athens’ scenery, not every Georgia town was so welcoming. Smith recalls a friend telling him about an incident at a McDonald’s in Madison, where a nervous patron called the police after seeing a spy car in the parking lot. The woman reported that the car had “dynamite all over it” and that there was a German Shepherd trapped inside. There was a German Shepherd inside the car, but he was just waiting patiently for his owner to return from a Chicken McNugget lunch. Nonetheless, the police arrived on the scene, bomb squad and robot claw in tow.

Vehicles with roof hatches and fake missile launchers naturally lend themselves to a certain amount of criminal mischief. One spy car was used in the kidnapping of 8-Track Gorilla, the local Athens karaoke cover song artist. The kidnappers coordinated the stunt with the 40 Watt Club’s management and drove a converted Volkswagen Jetta into the venue during an 8-Track Gorilla performance. They captured the gorilla, drove out of the club and onto the sidewalk on Washington St. Passing by the 40 Watt Club entrance, one can still see the spot where the car removed a chunk of the wall during the heist.

In another incident that went unreported, a spy car owner once drove his vehicle into an ex-girlfriend’s mailbox…on purpose. While Brian doesn’t blame the spy car for its owner’s destructive behavior, he admits that “the car probably gave him that extra fantasy element he needed in that moment.”

The Culture Submerged

Spy car owners weren’t the only ones causing trouble. The cars “were the victims of rampant vandalism,” said Smith. Spy car owners were frequently heckled by passersby who didn’t appreciate the vehicles as art. Smith attributes such hostility to an unconscious negative reaction triggered by the “subversion of a nationally historic symbol—the automobile.” Another possibility is that many people simply weren’t ready for such odd inventions. Brian recalls one befuddled onlooker genuinely posing the question “Is that one of them ‘Accu-Weather’ cars?”

While the exact reasoning behind the taunting is unclear, it became such a large issue that several owners actually “re-converted” their spy cars into regular, street legal vehicles. Other spy cars were destroyed in accidents, acquired by local governments or simply broke down over the years, but not before dispersing across the United States. From New England to Portland, Ore., one can find the remnants of a more innocent, charmingly inspired time in Athens’ history.

Athens’ Army of Spy Cars may have disbanded, but Brian Smith has not stopped creating. In addition to recording and playing in nearly every Athens band formed since 1995, Brian continues undertaking new welding projects and is always on the lookout for potential beauty in the unbeautiful. Smith’s most recent work is a collection of giant alien bug sculptures composed of scrap metal and other jetsam. While the bugs may not invade the town in the same way that the spy cars once did or allow angry ex-boyfriends to destroy ex-girlfriends’ mailboxes, they are quite a sight to see—and yet another oddity that makes Athens the unique, quirky community that it is.

For more information on Brian Smith or to contact him about purchasing an oversized alien lawn bug, visit his MySpace page.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Shut up and Ride

It seems like all the talk on the news, in the papers, within industries, at work and in communities is about tackling gas prices.

Americans have come up with the most inventive ways of getting to work without driving their car. In fact, I saw a story this morning on Good Morning America about a man in Portland, Ore. who paraglides to work.

While you probably won't see a paraglider flying over Broad Street, Athens Transit is trying to get everyone's heads focused on bus riding.

This Wednesday, July 16, Athens Transit is going to make all bus rides FREE for all who come aboard.

As a UGA student, I have ridden the Athens Transit bus many times. The No. 14 bus stops right in front of my apartment, and it is extremely efficient. If the schedule says it's going to stop at 8:42 a.m., by golly, it's there at 8:42 a.m.- MUCH more reliable than waiting for 30 minutes for a Milledge Avenue bus.

Since I've been in Athens this summer, I have been able to observe the "real people" who live here instead of college kids all the time. I've noticed that a LOT of people ride the bus. Every time I ride or walk by one, there is usually at least one person waiting on the bus.

Free Transit Day, as it is to be called, is Athens' way of honoring National Alternative Transportation Day. Free rides will be available to everyone, not just Athens residents. If you live in Watkinsville, you can park at he Lexington Road Wal-Mart, Georgia Square Mall, North Plaza Shopping Center or The Shops at South Milledge and take a bus the rest of the way.

Moral of this post: give Athens Transit it a try sometime if you never have.

If you want to see what bus comes to a stop near you, visit the Athens Transit Web site, www.athenstransit.com.

There's a poll on the right side of the page asking if you've ever ridden Athens Transit. We'd be interested to know, so your answer would be greatly appreciated. We'd also like to read your comments on this post. Feel free to talk about your experience with Athens Transit- good or bad.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Be Counted

It might be easy at this point in this presidential election year to start tuning out the overwhelming election coverage. Every day, the media scrutinizes the latest candidate commentary, polls, and hidden agendas with fist-bumps and tie colors.But a little closer to home, it's a good time to tune in and turn out - Tuesday, July 15 is election day. The importance of the next commander-in-chief has a tendency to overshadow the local races, but that shouldn't be the case. Local elections determine the leadership of the community where you live in work every day - or those who will represent your community in the statewide arena. It's essential that you take the opportunity to participate in deciding who those leaders will be. Those elected in Tuesday's local elections will play a central role in defining the area's economic strides, growth, laws, ordinances, taxes and educational system. From the amount of greenspace in the area to the amount of math your child is required to take in high school, these elected officials will touch multiple aspects of your life.You owe it to yourself and the community to make your voice heard. To find out more about the candidates and view a sample ballot for your county, go to the Athens Banner-Herald Activote page*. For information on where to vote, visit the local board of elections for Athens-Clarke or Oconee counties. It's your right - exercise it. *To view candidates from your county, select "Candidates" in the top navigation. On the page that opens, select Local > Athens Banner-Herald > County > (County Name).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Jazzin' it up at the Melting Point

Last night was the Athens Chamber of Commerce's Mid-Year Event. Of course, Jackson Spalding had to make an appearance, so Ashley Harp and I decided to be each other's wing man (woman).

Held at The Melting Point, the Mid-Year Event hosted all kinds of Athens Chamber members from all parts of the community and a variety of industries - plus a few political hopefuls whose fate will be decided on Tuesday. I think the venue should have changed its name to the Melting POT just for last night.

Ashley and I walked into The Foundry ballroom, registered and put our cards (I dropped in my special Dawg Food card- sure to grab attention) in the pot for prize drawing. We then proceeded over to The Melting Point to make our name tags and schmooze with everyone.

We arrived around 5:50 p.m., and I was surprised to see so many people there already. We could hardly get in the door! Of course, that's a great compliment to the Chamber for having such an amazing turnout.

Ashley and I ho-hummed with other Athens locals, some from Georgia Power, Oconee County, Jackson EMC, Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Chamber employees. We had a couple of interesting conversations, but, for me, the neatest part was observing the interaction between everyone else.

Born and raised in Morristown, Tenn., I have a special place in my heart for small(er) towns. I love the different kind of atmosphere and sincerity of Athens versus a larger town. Everyone knew everyone. It was fabulous.

After a while, Doc Eldridge got up to make announcements and thank the sponsors of the event. Then came the doorprizes. Oh, yes.

Remember how I thought my Dawg Food card would catch the attention of the card-grabber? Well, it worked. My prize was...

Free meeting space for 50 people or less with free A/V included.

Yes! It couldn't have been better.

While the talking and prize-winning were important, Ashley and I decided to put food on the top of our priority list. We sampled some yummy ham sandwiches (freshly sliced), some pita chips with spinach dip, and, of course, dessert. A sampling of chocolate chip cookie bars, a peanut butter cookie and some crazy truffles graced our taste buds. All of it hit the spot.

The best part of the evening was the jazz music provided by Athens' own SQUAT. Of course, jokes were made about the Chamber "knowing squat" (bah ha ha), but everyone quickly got over that.

SQUAT was voted the No. 1 jazz band in town by the Flagpole, and I believe it. I'll let you decide for yourself if they are worth it.

I hope I didn't forget anything. Overall, it was a great Thursday event, and it made me proud to be a pseudo-Athenian. So, kudos to Doc and the Chamber team. You put on a great event!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

For the Fourth: Fire and Flavor

Ah, yes. The Fourth of July...otherwise known as the Day of American Grilling.

In preparation for the holiday, I decided to venture out to Commerce Boulevard to visit with Davis and Gena Knox, co-owners of Fire and Flavor, a local Athens company that manufactures and sells cedar grilling planks, spices, rubs, brines, skewers and a cookbook- all for under $10. Beat that, Williams-Sonoma.

"Grilling doesn't have to be like Bubba Barbeque," said Davis.

I think that was my favorite part of my visit with he and his wife, Gena (pronounced JEN-uh, not GEE-nuh).

When I went and met them on Thursday morning, July 3, the warehouse and office were already in full swing. Music was playing; lights were on, and everyone was there- including their two precious dogs.

One of the first questions I asked Davis was who came up with the idea of selling wood for cooking. He said Gena originally discovered cooking with cedar planks is an ancient tradition of Native Americans, mainly in the Pacific Northwest.

When Gena first tried cooking with a cedar plank, she thought it was fabulous. Smoky, hearty and healthy- what more could you ask for? The more she looked around, she realized hardly anyone sold cedar planks in the South. That's when the wheels started turning.

From a garage in Atlanta to a brand new warehouse in Athens, Fire and Flavor has grown exponentially. I got a special tour of the warehouse from Davis, and it was fascinating. Assembly lines, shrinkwrap machines, boxes, platforms, huge shelves (I know I sound like I grew up under a rock...) I had a blast learning about the process.

I took a video of the planks going through the shrinkwrap machine. Check it out!

While I was sitting in the office with Davis and Gena, I asked them what sets Fire and Flavor apart from all the other cooking companies. What's going to keep them going for a long time? They confidently said, "We sell products at the highest quality for a low price. That's our goal. If we can continue to show people grilling can be healthy, tasty and cheap, we've done our job."

I thought that was a pretty good answer.

So far, they distribute their products to Publix, Kroger, Lowes, EarthFare, Whole Foods- basically any store that has cooking or grilling equipment. Click here to find a seller near you.

One main focus of their business is education. They teach people about their products and how to use them. I bet your average Joe doesn't know what a brine is, or how to use a cedar paper.

These are new concepts, but they have some delish results.

I was very curious to know where they get their recipes for the new cookbook, Gourmet Made Simple. Gena said her Mom was a caterer, so she grew up around food. All the recipes are Gena originals.

"I just trust my instincts," she said.

Gena is also the artist behind the food displays in the cookbooks. She cooks the food herself and then arranges all the accents and pretty herbs on them for the picture.

I think you can see how Davis and Gena Knox are involved in every aspect of their business. It's pretty amazing.

So, if you're looking for a way to spiffy-up your Fourth of July grill, head to your local grocery store and buy one of their products. I'm pretty excited about my new set of cedar planks I'll be cooking with.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

¿Que Es Bicing?

Due to the local media frenzy (Flagpole article and Athens Banner-Herald article) surrounding my recent announcement, you may already be aware of my upcoming move to Barcelona, Spain. I visited the city recently and was awestruck by its natural and architectural beauty, its relative affordability and the residents’ widespread support and passion for music and the arts. One of the determining factors in making the move to Barcelona is the city’s fantastic public transportation system, which includes extensive subway, tram and bus lines. Particularly impressive is the city’s “Bicing” initiative, a low-cost public bicycle rental program which allows residents to “check-out” and use well-maintained bikes.

How exactly does it work?

For 24 euros (around $38) per year, Barcelona residents can purchase a Bicing card, which allows them to access one of 6,000 bikes at any of the 400 stations which are situated 300-400 meters apart from one another. Bicing stations cover over 70 percent of the city and many of the stations are located near metro and bus stops to encourage intermodal transportation.

To participate in the program, users simply swipe their Bicing card, which is connected to their bank account (to avoid theft and damage), grab a bike, ride where they need to go, and lock it into place at another station. The first half hour is free and each additional half hour is .30 euro. The program is designed for short-distance travel, so the usage limit is two hours. If a user keeps the bike for longer than two hours, he or she will be charged an additional 3 euros per hour. The bikes are available for use from 5 a.m.-midnight, Sunday through Thursday, and 24 hours a day on weekends.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of the Bicing program are clear—low-cost, emissions-free public transport that helps reduce traffic on roads. The public transportation system in Barcelona is great, but subways and buses are far more expensive than a Bicing membership and are often very crowded. There are also obvious health benefits to riding a bike vs. sitting or standing in a car or subway. Beyond the tangible benefits, riding a bike is fun. Bikes give riders the freedom to go where they want when they want, without worrying about traffic jams, expensive mechanical repairs, paying artificially high gas prices, etc.

Do people use it?

In early 2007, Barcelona joined Toulouse, Lyon, Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna and Brussels on the list of cities that offer a public bicycle rental system. Six months into the program, there were over 90,000 registered users and each bike was being used an average of 10-15 times per day. The rapid increase in the number of bikes—from 100 in March 2007 to 6,000 in June 2008—indicates that people are making use of the program.

Could a similar program work in Athens?

Biking in Athens is a big deal. The town hosts the popular Twilight Criterium bicycle race every year and is home to the Oconee River Greenway bike and pedestrian path and a number of great bike shops. Athens even has its own alternative transportation board called Bike Athens. Combine Athens residents’ affinity for biking with the fact that thousands of new students arrive in Athens each year, many of whom do not own a car, and one can easily make the case that public bikes would be extensively utilized.

Not only would a low-cost public bike rental program help ease the downtown parking situation, but it would be a great investment in the health of the community. An “ATHBike” program would promote physical exercise and help reduce emissions and congestion by taking vehicles off the road. The program would have to be rolled out in stages to be successful, focusing first on installing stations downtown and expanding outward as appropriate.

It’s likely that many Athens residents who currently own a bike but live outside of the city center would make use of such a program. For instance, someone who lives in the Forest Hills neighborhood off Oglethorpe may not want to bike downtown, especially if they don’t want to show up to work drenched in sweat. But once they’re downtown, a bike ride from the Classic Center to the Bottleworks building would make sense.

A bike rental program in Athens may also move us closer to changing the law that prohibits bike riding on sidewalks within the downtown tax district—a law which I find completely devoid of any logical foundation….but I’ll save that for another post.

Question for readers:

What locations would make sense for the initial phase of an Athens public bike program?

What, if any besides cost, would be the downsides to such a program?