Saturday, December 05, 2009

Video Blogging

I'm not planning on starting my own YouTube channel just yet, but while watching the rapids cascading past Hollywood cemetery today I got the urge to add commentary to a few videos of the river. You really can't encapsulate the frightening force of the churning brown deluge in still photography. I'm not quite as eloquent in speech as I try to be in writing, but I hope you enjoy these!

Uploading video to Blogger isn't too bad. Today my upstream speed tested at about 3.5mbps, and it only took about 20 seconds to upload the video clips, then blogger 'processes' the video for about two minutes. Not a prohibitively painful experience, so maybe I'll try a few more video posts. I'd love to hear your opinions. Please comment!

An Urban Hike

Today I was hoping to take a trip to Shenandoah National Park for a day hike, and to try out my new boots. Unfortunately the weather forecast reported a 100% chance of rain, possibly turning to snow. Not the type of weather for spending time in the mountains. Instead, I revised my plans and went hiking on the Northside and Buttermilk trails in Richmond. I've cycled these a lot, but when its wet biking on the trails is too dangerous and damages the trail too much. I wasn't sure how far I would be able to get on foot, but reckoned that hiking couldn't be that much slower than mountain biking on technical terrain. I set off from the Texas beach parking lot and headed towards Tredegar St. Since the river was reasonably high I wanted to check out Hollywood Rapids up close, so continued over the footbridge to Belle Isle. Once I had gone that far, it seemed silly to retrace my steps, so I returned on the buttermilk trail to Boulevard Bridge and cut behind Maymont to get back to the truck.

It was raining when I left the house, so I donned full waterproofs. However the trails are mostly through wooded areas and the trees break up the rainfall enough that it is not depressingly drenching. My new boots fit me well, which gave me a sense of confidence of the slippery rocks covered in wet leaves and the wooden bridges that are lethally slick in the rain. By the time I was on the return leg my feet still felt warm and relatively dry. It really wasn't a bad day to be out for a walk, but I was apparently the only one who thought so. I had been on the trail for almost three hours and hadn't seen a single soul (except for a group of foolhardy Kayakers). While crossing Boulevard Bridge I did encounter a couple of joggers, but nobody else was out on the trails. Ironically, conditions on the bridge were the worst I encountered, as the rain was blowing down the river about 10 degrees from the horizontal and the wind was bitingly cold.

As I write this, the meteorologists have been proved correct. The rain has turned to snow. I doubt it'll settle, but I'm still happy I'm not out in it!

Thursday, December 03, 2009


I've written my fair share of apologetic posts seeking forgiveness from my neglected readers, so it is a pleasure to congratulate myself on a recent run of regular blogging. With 12 posts, November was my most prolific month to date, helping 2009 already exceed previous years with a good month to go, averaging about six posts a month. In comparison with the blogosphere's most successful voices (who frequently make a dozen posts in a single day) I obviously have a lot of space for growth. Those bloggers were clearly born loving the sound of their own mindless babbling, whereas I am rather quieter by nature and have a hard time believing that people really want to read about what I'm thinking and doing. I want to extend a huge 'thank you' to everybody who has offered encouragement along the way. I wouldn't have stuck at it if it hadn't been for you, and I'm glad somebody is finding this interesting!

In three-and-a-half years of authorship I have certainly been on a considerable journey. When I made my entrance into the online world my stated aim was to keep a record of my progress in the USA. I could never have imagined in what direction that progress would be. Two-Thousand-and-Nine was the most exciting year yet, what with the wedding and all! Stick around to find out what happens in Twenty-Ten (think of it like the next installment of a teenage vampire series).

Happy Birthday to Me!

This week I turned 26. My wonderful wife did many thoughtful things for me, making it a very happy birthday indeed. She made the fantastic banner you see me pictured with above, which is much better than the tacky single use affairs you buy at the dollar store made from silvery grocery bag material. She baked a Guinness cake using the recipe posted on my sister's blog. It sunk slightly in the middle but was deliciously moist. We don't like terribly rich desserts, so this cake was perfect as it is neither too sweet nor too chocolaty. The best thing is there's still three cans of Guinness left!
Thanks to all who sent me birthday wishes, especially my mates back in England - I miss you all! Hopefully see you again before 27 rolls around...

Monday, November 30, 2009

No Smoking Ban

Tomorrow, on my Birthday, Virginia enacts a new law that will prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants (except in separate rooms with independent ventilation). News Channel 8 reports the story with this opening paragraph:

"Tuesday, Virginia's no smoking ban in most bars and restaurants will take effect. The ban will snuff out a tobacco tradition more than 400 years old."

It begs the question, what it a no smoking ban? Perhaps the Commonwealth of Virginia has decided it is time for all it's residents to contribute to the tobacco economy. From hence forth, all those wishing to dine out will be required to end their meal with the mellow taste of a cigarette. No smoking is hereby banned.

Despite the local news agency's poor grasp of applicable syntax, additional restrictions on where and when you can light up are due to go into affect at 11.59pm this evening. I was given a sneak peak into what a smoke-free pub would be like when we visited England almost a year ago. There, a smoking ban (that is: a ban on smoking) was introduced in 2007. It was...not very different, but I'm sure a breath of fresh air to those who detest cigarette smoke. Really it just allowed the smells of spilt beer, BO and vomit to shine through. A pub is still a pub.

I've always been relatively impartial to smoking. I spent most of my school years (16 year-olds can legally purchase tobacco products in England), my University years and beyond surrounded by smokers, and it has never really bothered me. I am of course aware of the dangers of passive smoking. Roy Castle was something of a hero of mine as he hosted 'Record Breakers'. He died of lung cancer, blamed on his playing trumpet in smoky clubs.

While I am not opposed to smoking, I have always tried to offer at least a little quitting encouragement to any friend who smokes. Undoubtedly one of the most difficult barriers to breaking the habit is the inextricable link between drinking and smoking. I'm sure the smoking ban offers a little incentive to making another attempt at quitting.

As for those who decry the erosion of freedom in this fair state, well, it's just pathetic, isn't it? This legislation in no way encroaches on anybody's freedom. If you wish to smoke, you may certainly do so at home, in your car, outside or at a private club, and I daresay at least a dozen other places if you put your mind to thinking of them. As it happens, I would rather like to smoke on the very day that the ban comes into affect. Being my birthday, it would be pleasurable to enjoy a fine cigar, with perhaps a glass of scotch or brandy. Maybe now is a good time to join a private club. Or better yet, establish one!

I would like to add one note on air conditioning. I haven't researched this exhaustively, but the average bar HVAC system is likely to perform about 10 room air changes per hour. It's unlikely that these are outside air changes, so the same air is filtered, heated or cooled, dehumidified and returned to the bar. But still, progress in air handling in recent decades has almost certainly reduced the risk and unattractive scent resulting from large congregations of smokers.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Decking the Halls

Before Thanksgiving my coworkers were giving me a hard time for planning to not erect a Christmas Tree this year. We spend most of the holiday at the homes of various relatives, and this year we're not expecting to play host at any time, so really what's the point? But then Tasha kindly gave us an ornament tree as an early Christmas present, and once you get a little decorating momentum going it's rather fun, isn't it?

The festivities were nearly cut short when we discovered that our ornament collection amounts to a slightly uncomfortable looking sideways angel and a fish with my name on it. We picked up a few baubles at Target. The tree still looks a little bare, but hey - it's a start.

I also strung some lights up inside and out. They're all white. It's very classy looking. In other words completely out of character with the rest of our street which adheres to a redneck fabulous style of inflatable Santas and my perennial favorite the polar bear playing on a seesaw with a penguin. Is there anything more Christmas-y than that?

'Forever' Kanji

'Forever' Kanji, originally uploaded by evens.john.

A Kanji is a Chinese character used in modern Japanese writing. Our friend Kyle is living in Japan these days and gave us this Kanji as a wedding present. The character symbolizes 'forever' but it's also cool because it looks a little like a J and K.

Ever since we got it I've been wanting to frame it to prevent damage and protect the perfect white background from greasy fingerprints. We found this shadow box frame at Ben Franklin that makes it look like an rare artifact in a museum which I think really brings out the beauty of the brushstrokes. Thanks again, Kyle!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cleaning gutters

One of the best things about the Thanksgiving holiday is that there is a ton of yard work to be done in the Fall, so a couple days off work are ideal to make some headway on the accumulation of dead leaves. Since we moved in our gutters have been horribly clogged. When it rains (which it has been doing a lot of this month), water pours in a continuous waterfall along the entire width of the house. The gutters are thoroughly failing in their purpose. The weight of the sodden rotten leaf matter is literally pulling the gutter off the front of the house.

I could probably have persuaded my landlord to take care of the problem, but cleaning gutters and raking leaves are hallowed parts of the patriarchs yearly cycle, so I figured I would get some practice in. To this end I borrowed a ladder from my grandfather, climbed up it and covered myself in dripping wet decomposing leaf matter. Once all the crud was cleared out I nailed the gutter back in it's proper place. Should hold for a good month, if it doesn't snow.


One of the things I've noticed about myself is that I'm becoming more excited by American national holidays. This is clearly a result of me identifying myself as an American a little more each year. While I don't feel the change on a particularly deep level, on the face I things I reside in this country and so I participate in it's customs.

It's taken me a long time to understand the two major American Holidays, Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The thing is, they are just as grotesquely commercialized as Christmas and Easter, but since they don't have the same religious foundations there is no reason to feel badly about this fact. Actually, since they are primarily celebrations of Americanism, it is fitting that the typical festivities include overconsumption, sloth and shopping. The redeeming feature of Thanksgiving is that almost everybody is firmly committed to indulging in said activities with one's family.

I consider myself very lucky to have got to spend Thanksgiving with some of both sides of our family without having to leave Richmond. Undoubtedly the worst part of the holiday is the prospect of traveling long distances at the exact same instant that the entire rest of the country is also try to do the same. I also got off very lightly on responsibilities this year. A minimal role in making deviled eggs and some dishwasher loading. Perhaps this was why I was genuinely looking forward to Thanksgiving this year, rather than with a growing dismay at the disproportionate hype. In fact the hype seemed positively low key this November, even in relation to Black Friday.

There comes a point in everyone's life, often during their student years or shortly after. At one particular moment, having spent all your money on beer, pizza and DVDs, it occurs to you that a little moderation would go along way. I may be getting ahead of the game here, but there is a distinct possibility that the collective American consumer has had just such a moment thanks to the so called recession. People will still spend their hard earned cash on hopelessly tacky crap, but they'll buy slightly less. Today was Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when stores open at 5am and entice shoppers with ridiculous sales. The shoppers dutifully turned out in good numbers, but seemingly without the ravenous frenzy that is usually associated with this day. They came, got a good deal, and went home quietly happy that a decent sum of money had been saved. Old ladies were not trampled. Pram-pushing mothers did not rugby tackle each other for the last of the door buster stock. I went to a shoe store at around 10am and there were only about three other customers.

So, maybe I have changed, maybe America has changed (probably a little of both), but the leftovers haven't yet been exhausted and I'm already looking forward to next Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Texan Wildlife

When I was growing up there was a TV commercial for Dime Bars. A Dime Bar some kind of crunchy almond toffee covered in milk chocolate. Thus, it was smooth on the outside, and crunchy on the inside. "Arrrrmadillooooo!" Harry Enfield would cry in the advert. "Smooth on the inside, crunchy on the outside!" In comparison to the armadillo, the Dime Bar therefore makes a better snack.

We didn't see a single armadillo in Texas. Indeed my sister has been on the lookout for the entire time of her residence there and is yet to spy one of the crunchy creatures. We even went to the Zoo, which even had an entire section dedicated to native Texan wildlife. No Armadillo. Still, I hope you'll agree that what we did see comes close to making up for the local absences of tanks on legs.

Our encounters with the indigenous fauna begin at the Fort Worth Nature Refuge. Located North of the city on the shores of Lake Worth it is home to some remarkable refugees. We were practically tripping over cool wildlife. I can imagine the place is infested with Mosquitoes in the summer months, but we had short-sleeves weather and no bugs. The main attraction of the refuge is the buffalo. I mean bison. Well, I don't really know what I mean. Everyone in the car agreed that Bison was the proper name for them (Martha even offered that their Scientific name is Bison bison). Despite this, it appeared that everyone called them buffalo, and none of us knew why science had gone out on it's own with a name nobody uses. After entering the park the road takes you through sparsely wooded prairie, with large metal fences on either side. As Graham drove (slowly for once!) we all tried to peer through the trees hoping to spot Buffal-ison but were disappointed. We parked up and set out on foot, almost immediately coming across mammals at the other end of the size spectrum. A little way along the footpath through an opening in the hedgerow we were greeted with a panoramic view of a prairie dog metropolis. A prairie dog is basically a squirrel with social skills, and sans the bushy tail. Their behavior verges on exhibitionism, as they run from mound to mound kissing and hugging one another. We spent a good amount of time watching them go about their business. Then just as we began to move on a large, dark shape caught my eye in the far distance. At that range it was impossible to tell if it was massive boulder or a huge pile of straw, but through a pair of binoculars it was clearly a buffalo. It really was staggeringly enormous. I was convinced that such a large silhouette must comprise more that one animal, but it was just one very big bull sitting there. As we returned to the car later, we saw presumably the same animal, but standing up and slightly closer. Needless to say, he didn't look any smaller!

Having ticked off two major attractions we thought we might also be lucky enough to spot an alligator, so we chose some of the trails that follow the bank of a river. While we saw no gators, we did still spy several deer, a kingfisher and the snake pictured above. We had stopped to consult map and were all standing in a loose huddle when Graham happened to look down and see this snake curled up in the grass at our feet. After posing for a few photographs it slithered off into the water and swan away. Later at the visitor center we saw a poster that identified the snake as a cottonmouth, a venomous species with a potentially fatal bite. However after consulting more literature and closely examining the picture we took I think it was a mostly harmless water snake. Still, they camouflage so well it would have been easy to step on it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Return of the Space Cowboy

This is the return / Of the Space Cowboy / Interplanetary good-vibe zone

One of my favorite parts of my previous trip was visiting the Stockyards. There isn't much left to give you an impression of the volume of live meat that used to pass through this place. While some of the history has faded away it has become a social and commercial center for the more authentic residents of this part of Texas, and of course a tourist attraction. On this visit we perused the shops in the train station. The tea and spice store is the only good one, but I also like to step into the record store, as it is the most surreal experience to be surrounded by so much music and know none of the artists! My taste is pretty eclectic, but when it comes to true Country & Western I am completely ignorant.

For dinner we grabbed a burger at the Love Shack. Chef Tim Love has been on Top Chef as a judge a few times, and also a contestant in their 'Masters' series. A Fort Worth local, he seems like a cool guy. Love Shack is a chain of burger joints he has opened to cater to the average Joe. To be honest I wasn't too impressed. Nobody likes a dried out burger, but you have to cook some of the grease out! By the time I was nearing the end the remains of the bun were saturated with fat.

After surviving the Love Shack we had just enough time to enjoy a quick pint at the White Elephant Saloon. I'm rarely disappointed by beer, and we all got some brew with a dark hue and an unpronounceable name. Every time I've been to the White Elephant (which is now twice) the bartender has been attempting to reach a new low in friendliness. It's very refreshing. The service is swift. You get the right change. You get a beer. You don't get fake and insincere familiarity.

Then it was Rodeo time. Rodeo gets to the roots of what being a cowboy is all about. All of the events reflect skills that a cowboy would use on the job. The best thing is that you can tell some of these guys (and girls) really do work on a ranch to scratch out a living. They ain't pretending. Oh, and the talent is blinding.

As the proceedings began they had a distinctly old-school flavor, similar to the atmosphere you get at the Byrd, a traditional single screen movie theater in Richmond. As with any American sporting event, great deference is paid to the military. In this case Veterans of Foreign Wars participated in the opening flag ceremony. The national anthem was sung in two part harmony by two women and ranks among the best renditions I've heard.

The events showcased are as follows: The Bull riding entails men attempting to stay on the back of a bucking bull. Whether they succeed or fail is largely irrelevant to the entertainment value of the event, which lies in the point at which the rider dismounts, involuntarily or by choice when eight seconds has elapsed. Either way, the chances of him being stamped on, gored, or simply face-planting into the dirt are virtually certain. It is a question of if not when.

The roping events all involve lassoing a calf. For the men, the aim is to loop the calf from horseback, then jump down, turn the calf on it's back and tie a fore leg and both hindlimbs to disable the creature. What is impressive is that the most skilled ropers will be halfway off the horse before the noose has even tightened around the targets neck. But again the real amusement comes from watching a man try to throw a calf. The maneuver know as calf flanking clearly has a knack to it, like those tricks people do with zippo lighters. Get it right on the first try and it looks very impressive. But should your hand not find a firm grip under the calf's hind leg, or should you not get the flick of the knee quite right to invert the hapless beast, then the sheer weight of the stock registers in the cowboy's arms on on his face. Suddenly the task appears insurmountable. Valuable time ticks away, and all that is left to fight for is a shred of pride.

Cowgirls compete in breakaway roping, whereby once the noose has fallen around the calf's neck the rope is released and the animal does not have to be halted or flipped. Women also take part in team roping, which employs older cattle (teenagers?). One rider ropes the horns or neck, then tries to position the calf so that the second rider can aim a noose around the hind legs.

The final event was barrel racing. Girls on horseback ride around a course indicated by three barrels, in the shortest possible time. I have tried to describe their route as a triangular figure eight, and drawn confused looks. Use your imagination. The horses attain a thrilling lean angle more commonly associated with the MotoGP as they make each turn around the barrel.

Overall it was a very educational event for me. It is always heartwarming to watch competitors being strongly supported by their friends and family, which was in evidence at the rodeo. I had imagined an almost comedic show, but these men and women were true competitors and their talent gave great honor to their culture and heritage.

I would like to add that Rodeo seems blissfully untouched by health and safety regulations or disproportionate animal rights concerns. Long may it continue to be so. Clearly organizers realize that competitors or animals coming to any harm is not in the interest of the sport. If any of the events were safe to the riders there would be no challenge. Not to mention the most striking thing of the whole proceedings is that while the bovines appear to be panicked, angry, scared, struggling or demented when the clock is running, as soon as the heat is over they calmly trot out the gate at the end of the pen serene in the knowledge that a snack awaits.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Traveling (without moving)

I know all we're doing / is traveling / without moving ( heh yeah )

They say it's the journey, not the destination. For some reason the transit portions of any trip hold a great deal of interest for me. I love to fly. I have many fond memories of railways. Buses invariably give me the impression that all hope is lost of arriving at the intended destination.

On the return leg of our honeymoon, we were conveyed from the ferry to the airport on St Thomas by a taxi driver called Freddie. He gave us strange berries to eat, soothed us with soft rock gospel music that reminded me of Hillsongs, and gave us marital advice. On hearing the circuitous flight plan we had ahead of us (via Newark) he strongly recommended that I leave all future ticket purchases to my talented wife. However, since our Texas trip was to visit my relatives, at some point I was left in charge of selecting appropriate flight times. Of course, I blew it.

One thing I did learn from our honeymoon travels is that U.S. Airways have their act together right now. Their local hub is Charlotte, NC and it usually works out quite well to fly through there. Even 1-stop is a tad unnecessary given the proximity of RIC and DFW, but it was much cheaper. Once I had agreed the dates with my sister, I had in mind that we should aim to arrive at a decent time of day so that we could maximize tourist activities. It only occurred to me the night before our departure that this entailed leaving the house at some unearthly hour of the morning. Thus we arrived in Fort Worth at nine in the morning feeling like it was already mid-afternoon. This was brought home to us as we were strolling around downtown and considered refreshing ourselves with a margarita, then realizing that it was before the drinking hour. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur and involved us familiarizing ourselves with Wii.

The trip back was even more of an adventure. Owing to moderate consumption of beer on the last night, it slipped our minds to get the full details of how to reach DFW by train. We awoke on a Monday morning feeling certain that railway travel in Texas would be a walk in the park, but immediately came unstuck when attempting to find the train station. Let me clarify: we were not lost. we knew exactly which building the train station was in (we had a helpfully illustrated map). We stood now in front of the Texas & Pacific Railway building, but where the hell was the station? The T&P building was in the process of becoming condominiums, and it transpired that to reach the platforms one had walk around the side by the dumpsters and enter at the rear.

A train was awaiting us, but the illuminated sign indicated that the next depature was in almost two hours. This would not do. We would miss our flight. Luckily after finding some rail company personnel we ascertained that this train would be leaving in just a few minutes. And yes, we should purchase a ticket, although no further details regarding what kind of fare to buy or how the infernal ticket machine worked were not offered. After wrestling with the touch screen menus for sometime, trying to answer questions like 'Would you like to be fleeced for every penny you possess?', and enlisting the aid of a exceedingly kind, helpful but unmistakably senile lady I gave up. Shortly after reboarding the train it pulled away from the station with much hornblowing, bell ringing and general fanfare. We traversed several miles of the nothingness that exists between Fort Worth and Dallas at a good speed, stopping occasionally a nondescript commuter station that appeared to be miles from civilization. As the train slowed on the approach to our stop one of the friendly but not very informative staff came down the carriage. Did we have a ticket? Er, no. I began to explain my travails with the ticket machine, making it clear that I was more than happy to pay for our tickets at any outlet which provided the simple courtesy of giving change. We were asked which station we were traveling to, and I replied that we were for Centreport, the next stop. From the ticket collector's response I gathered that the standard penalty for dodging the fare was to be ejected at the next stop, but in this case it made no difference. The man strode away shaking his head.

Momentarily we arrive at Centreport, which despite its important sounding title is the epicenter of absolutely nowhere. We understood that the next step in our journey involved a bus ride, and there being only one bus in the parking lot we boarded and hoped that no-one asked to see our tickets! I wasn't completely sure if it was the right bus, but the alternative was to allow both the bus and train to depart, leaving us stranded in this wilderness. It transpired that this bus ride was free, and would take us to the airport remote parking lot. By this point it was becoming almost second nature to arrive at some distant outpost, disembark and search for the next vessel to transport us one layer closer to the object of our travels. In this case another bus carried us to our terminal, driven by the smallest asian women who, once shed had adjusted the seat to the further forward and highest position, turned out to be an adequately competent chauffeur.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Happiness is a Sausage Sandwich

OK. So we got back on Monday from visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Texas. My ever efficient sister has already written are charming post on some of our activities, but I have been struggling to get anything down on paper, as it were. This is largely due to going straight back to a hectic schedule at work. It is also because after a few attempts at condensing the trip into a single post I have decided that is impossible! We did a few of the same things as my last visit, plus a raft of new things as we had a little more time. In short, we did a lot. And I have an opinion about every last detail. Hopefully work will calm down this week and I will have the energy to put out a series of posts. For now I leave you with an appetizing example of real Texas food. Enjoy!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Night Blooming Cereus

Nightflower 022, originally uploaded by evens.john.

One of the many pass-along plant we own, our Night-blooming Cereus sits in the front bay window in a pot that we acquired from a friend who was moving. The plant itself is a disaster to look at. Apparently it is a species of cactus, but one that is trying to look more like a regular houseplant. And failing. The distinction between stems and leaves is hard to make. New leaves bud out the side of larger leaves. The stems sprout in a haphazard manner. Half the leaves are brown at the end and have large chunks missing. Despite it's poor appearance the Cereus has amazing blooms, and last night the flower opened and proved it's worth.
It started to bud a few weeks ago, which alerted me to the fact that I probably hadn't watered it for ages. The bud grew and grew, looking like some alien bio-pod, then began opening around 9pm. It really is a stunning bloom, the kind you only usually see in botanical gardens. I have heard that the scent is as astounding as the appearance, but neither Kristal or I have a great sense of smell, so we thought the aroma was much like any other flower. Maybe with more than one bloom we would have experience the room-filling scent that we'd read about. Nonetheless we were excited to have witness the bloom this year. I was worried that it would happen while we we out of town this weekend and we would miss the whole show. Now we are experts we can expect to see a bloom every year. All you have to do is completely ignore the thing for the entire month of October!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

We created to share information about our wedding. Since we the subscription lasts a year I thought I would try to put it to good use and improve Kristal's and my online presence. Obviously it's a work in progress, but please go check it out and let me know if you have any suggestions. Thanks!

Rainy Weekend

It's been raining an unbelievable amount recently. I really didn't believe it could possibly continue to rain all weekend, but it did. The problem with this is I have been stuck inside for day and would love to have spent that time blogging, but as I have hardly left the house there is precious little to blog about. Actually we had a fairly eventful weekend. Went to a local wine shop for their free Friday wine and beer tasting, during which the hyperactive proprietor showed us the blown acrylic wine aerators he had been working on. Apparently his friend has a studio with a furnace where he makes items for head shops. as far as I could tell, Dude is planning on selling his pieces for 250% market value, although he never adequately explained why his work would be worth so much! Saturday was Halloween so we went to a friend's house for a few drinks. Since there were very few trick-or-treaters we binged on candy too.
I was determined that Sunday wouldn't be a complete loss so I pulled on my waterproof gear and went to feed the ducks at Crump park.

As you can see, the majority of the ducks are actually geese, who will happily fight the ducks for every last scrap of bread. The ducks hang out at the back and you either have to be good at throwing small pieces of bread over long distances, or divert the geese with a handful of crumbs to give the ducks a chance. The ducks looked pretty fat to me, though, so they must not have a problem finding food. I still feel bad if they don't get their fair share. The rain has also turned what are normally mere drainage ditches into fast flowing rivulets. I tried to take a walk in the woods, but the paths we basically one big puddle that occasionally widened into a small pond. The sheep had managed to find shelter (although when I took a picture of them they spooked and ran out of the barn, only to find that it was barely raining anymore). The cattle unfortunately had no roof over their heads to stood in the field looking soggy.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Declaration of Independence

On display at the Virginia Historical Society was a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence. Such copies are known as Dunlap Broadsheets. Around 200 were printed up on July 4, 1776 (by a guy called John Dunlap) and sent across the 13 States to be read publicly. Only 26 are known to survive. This particular example was found folded up behind a painting, which is a rather cliched circumstance of discovery, but makes it no less amazing that this 233 old piece of paper remains in almost mint condition. The Continental Congress commissioned the more familiar calligraphied versions of the Declaration, such as is on display in Washington D.C., which were not completed until August 2. Although the Dunlap Broadsheets are less visually stunning, you can't help imagine a town crier or army officer receiving this document and after announcing it's message, carefully folding and tucking it into a coat pocket for safe keeping, while others became lost in a pile of papers or forgotten on some noticeboard.
Seeing an artifact from any historical event also brings the story into the realm of reality. History easily becomes a myth, but casting your eyes on the physical evidence reminds you that merely human people were involved. This becomes even more evident when you take the time to read the words in their entirety. One would be forgiven for thinking that the Declaration of Independence is an eternal essay on human freedom and a blueprint for revolutionaries of any time and place. It certainly has it's highlights, for example: "We hold these truths self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness". Actually, that about wraps up the universally applicable highlights. The rest of the document is specific to the circumstances that the colonies found themselves in with respect to the crown. In fact the Declaration goes as far to say that in most cases civilizations are best served by striving to making a bad system of government better, rather than overthrowing an administration for 'light or transient causes'. Sound advice indeed in these trying times.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Around the Yard

The yard is beginning to look attractively autumnal. Writing that makes be wonder: is there an adjective form of Fall? I tried to think of one but couldn't so lapsed into Real English™. This delightful clump of mushrooms has sprouted in the front yard. I am enjoying a break from mowing and they grabbed their chance. In the rear, however, one plant is fearlessly holding out against the onset of Fall. Another donation from Pappy McKelvey, I stuck this guy in a soggy spot 'round back. It has been boringly green (although that's better than dead brown), but now has burst into color with these happy, daisy-like flowers.

The back yard is becoming somewhat off limits as the neighbors have a new dog that barks relentlessly whenever we step out the back door, and starts trying to bite through the fence. I extended an offer of friendship in the form a a stick to play with, but pooch was not buying it. Up close his yapping is earsplitting. Saddest of all is that the neighbors also have a St Bernard puppy which I am dying to cuddle - he is adorable and probably soft as a cloud. Unfortunately, until I find a way past pyscho puppy, shy Bernie remains hopelessly out of reach.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

OBX: An Anniversary

Kristal has been my woman for a little under three years, and we've been married a little over two months. Ergo, we must mark the occasion with a trip to the place where it all began. The NPS campsites close in October, so this time of year we try to fit in one last visit to the beach. We pitch a tent in the dunes, sit out on the beach and enjoy a bottle of wine in the glow of a full moon. On previous trips we have been caught out by campfire bans, too many trucks on the beach and terrible weather. This weekend, everything seemed to come together perfectly for a serene vacation.

You're not in the Outer Banks until you make a stop at a Brew Thru. For the first time ever I managed not to speed past the first one in Kitty Hawk, which is the only one on the right side of the road as you drive South. For some reason I view this as a minor triumph and an omen of good things to come. Beers acquired, we also made a pit stop at Mulligans for fish tacos and steamed shrimp, clams and oysters. After lunch it was on to the campsite, just a few miles outside of town. To the beach! The birds were good this year. I can positively identify the American Oystercatcher, which with its orange beak is strikingly beautiful. Aside from that, the other beach waders fall under the category of assorted Sandpipers and Sanderlings. The brown Pelican was of course also well represented.

On Sunday we drove a little ways down Pea Island. We had never actually stopped at the Pea Island Nature Reserve visitor center before. There is a short trail reunning between two man-made lakes on the lagoon side of the island, from which we saw some huge turtles, Redwinged blackbirds and a Yellowlegs. Also some diminutive form of Heron and several unidentified fish that kept jumping six feet out of the water.

Monday, October 05, 2009

U2 360

I know it's about the music, but sometimes you have to mention the engineering. U2 are touring to support their new album, No Line on the Horizon. The music was great, especially when they dipped into Joshua Tree, but what stole the show was the visual experience. The show was opened by Muse, and during their set the huge cylindrical screen meant we could get a close up of the band from way up on the hill. But when U2 took to the stage they really opened up all the stops. Being cylindrical, the width of the screen is essentially infinite, but somehow every member of the band could be seen all at one time without any obvious breaks in the image. Then, almost imperceptible, the bottom of the screen begins to extend downwards. After a few minutes the hexagonal units have completely separated and the screen displays full length images of an aging Bono, rocking out. In the center of the stage is a tower, the lights of which stream through the gaps in the screen creating the most awesome effect. Just when you thought it could get any more staggering, the screen begins to contract, from the top! Once the pieces have come back together again, the cylinder hangs just a few feet about the heads of the band. Did I mention the music was good?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

State Fair

While I'm on the subject, the other highlights of the State Fair included:

Cute animals:

Christmas present ideas for John:

Cute animals:


Scary animals:

And the Heritage Village, which hosted an interesting variety of historial farm equipment.

Urban Agriculture

You've seen enough posts here about my attempts at vegetable gardening to know I have an interest in producing my own food. I think the urban agriculture movement is gathering momentum as it becomes more difficult to source honestly produced food at affordable prices. Urbanization recently crossed a threshold and now half the world's population lives in urban areas. While I fall into the urbanized half, my current locale has few barriers to growing crops and keeping livestock on a small scale. Many of my neighbors tend well developed vegetable gardens, and a few miles away a man raises guineas and other small fowl. Unfortunately I doubt I will expand my agricultural efforts while I remain in rented accommodation.
My interest in urban agriculture was recently revived by a visit to the State Fair. You may think that a festival of everything rural is a strange place to find inspiration for suburban farming, and indeed there was no direct mention of urban agriculture at the Fair. However is was clear from the Fair in which direction the rural community is headed. It is not 'up'. The traditions of the past are kept alive by an aging population and their barely-willing offspring, and an overtone of the inevitable demise seems to permeate the festivities. Coming into contact with the rural community also made me aware of just how suburban I am. I may enjoy digging around in the dirt, but I didn't grow up on a farm and no amount of book-learnin' will make up for my metro upbringing. However attractive the idea of living in the country, I will probably remain shackled to a job in town and a long commute goes against everything I believe in. The solution, therefore, lies in harnessing the organic sustainability of the rural lifecycle on a micro scale in suburban environment.
On this subject the State Fair provided plenty of inspiration. Obviously small livestock such as chickens and goats would form the backbone of any urban agriculture effort. Beekeeping is also gaining popularity with suburban growers as bees are a vital component in the web of life that enables cultivation of any crop. The beekeepers had a large presence at the fair than the infamous Virginia vintners! Taking things to extreme, the mini-Hereford cow is held as an example breed ideal for people farming on a small scale!

Monday, September 21, 2009


I was really disappointed when I got home from my honeymoon and discovered that the potato plants had withered and died in our short absence. They had been doing rather well with very little attention but a spell of very hot weather wiped them out before they had a chance to bear fruit. I was reminiscing about this sad loss to Kristal the other day and gosh darn it, she said potatoes grow underground! So I takes me fork an' digs around in the sod and by Jove there's spuds all over! No, seriously, I did know they grew underground but somebody had mentioned that they don't mature 'til fall and the buggers died the first week of August so I wrote them off. When I pulled up the plants I figured it'd be obvious if there were any potatoes attached. They've all been sitting there under an inch of soil and a good layer of mulch! Big 'uns, too!

I think I'll make soup.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens

Looking back through my Blog Archives I realize I've never really posted about Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. I did do a short piece about Grovin' in the Garden '07 where I was first introduced to Son Volt. Somehow I missed blogging about seeing a band of men wearing and playing gourds there way back in '06. Well, today I will atone for my past neglect of this gem of Richmond culture by giving an glowing account of our visit there this past Sunday.

The main attraction is an exhibition called ButterfliesLIVE. The event is being held in the North wing of the greenhouse and features a variety of exotic butterflies and moths. You enter through an air-lock style staff-controlled doorway and receive stern instructions not to step on any priceless specimens! Entering the butterfly sanctuary you really do have to remember to look at your feet from time to time as your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the vibrant fluttering wings filling the air. Signs helpfully remind you to watch your step. In fact this one sign was incredibly accurate! When the butterflies close their wings many species to an incredibly good job of blending into the surroundings. The result is not only are they had to see against the paving stones, but in fact the longer you spend looking around, the more and more creatures you spot sitting on every leaf or branch. Each time I thought I was ready to leave, my attention would be caught by another variety.

One of the most amusing things about the exhibit was watching the photographers. Obviously the Botanical Gardens draws many budding camera enthusiasts and we are no exception having brought Kristal's dSLR. Taking a picture of a butterfly in flight, in an open room, is like the ninja catching the fly with chopsticks. But people will make themselves dizzy trying. Certain folks, who have accepted the futility the airbourne shot are instead focusing intently on a perched individual. It is a large specimen. The underside of it's wings are a drab brown so it is inconspicuous as it rest with wings folder together. Occasionally, the wings will open as the butterfly stretches and yawns. This is the moment we have been waiting for, as the upper side of the wings are electric blue so intense the color-junkie viewfinder-cowboys go weak at the knees.

Also in the greenhouse are the garden's collection of orchids. Again, a very popular destination for photographers as the shapes and colors are exquisite. However the greenhouse is a very small portion of what the garden has to offer. Between the main building and the greenhouse they have a herb garden that explains the medicinal properties of the various plants. We were particularly struck by the black ornamental pepper. Then as you wander down the hill from the entrance you enter a veritable maze of paths winding through different habitats and themes. The Japanese gardens transition into a wetlands bursting with carnivorous pitcher plants. At the bottom of the hill there are areas for all the family including a kiddies garden. We were very keen to see what autumn crops they had growing. It turned out they had collards, cabbage, broccoli and even a few carrots poking up.


On Saturday I took my mountain bike out for a ride and found the best spot on the James River in the Richmond area. I mean, two other people there on a glorious sunny Saturday. So I'm torn. Should I post about it on my Blog and risk everyone finding out about this secret paradise. Well, luckily nobody very much reads my blog. As far as I know it hasn't yet become the 'Time Out' of RVA. I think it's probably safe to give everyone this snapshot of the locale.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Pulled Pork

We're talkin' serious bone suckin' sauce here, people. My amazing multi-talented wifey put the new crock pot to good use today to make some homemade pork barbecue. After 10 hours of simmering it was just a big plate of flaky, juicy, pig goodness. With coleslaw, and beans. A little slice of Southern Heaven.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Climbing Kittens, originally uploaded by evens.john.

For at least six months now we have been the home away from home for our next-door neighbor's kitten. She first came to us as the runt of the litter, desperately hungry because her brother would scarf all the food. We would take pity on her and supply a handful of kibble or a few cat treats, but her small size and speed meant she could easily slip in the house a steal half of Barry's dinner before he knew it was happening. Eventually we gave up trying to keep her out. She and Barry got along fine and she never made a mess in the house. Her friendly temperament is rivaled by few cats I have ever met and one has to admit she is a fine looking specimen.
Just over a week ago, after final putting together the clues (round belly, huge appetite and conspicuous nipples) we realized our precious girl was no longer a kitten! One of the rotten neighborhood cats had had his wicked way with her! Now, you may notice that heretofore the feline in question has borne no name. Sadly the neighbors never christened the poor lass, but in light of this new development we felt obligated to provide her with a title. 'Juno' came to mind as a befitting name.

We were desperately worried that Juno's small size would be an impediment to her carrying and successfully delivering the kittens (of number, unknown). The neighbor seemed unconcerned, and we fretted as to whether we should take her to the vet for a check up, and pay out of pocket. In the end, events took care of themselves. We returned home on Sunday afternoon and Juno followed us in as usual. However, this time her mood was noticeably different and her agitation wasn't simply caused by hunger. It quickly became apparent that kitten birth was imminent, and moments later Juno had disappeared into our bedroom closet.

As the first kitten was making its way into the world backwards, the neighbors arrived home from wherever they'd been. I delivered the news that the kittens were on their way, and I wasn't sure how well it was going. The neighbor told me he thought it was funny that his cat was giving birth in my bedroom, but I wasn't particularly amused and returned inside to check on the progress. Thankfully, nature was taking it's course and two kittens had soon been delivered, cleaned and nudged in the direction of a nipple.

The action appeared to have died down, so Kristal and I went out to a friend's house for dinner. Upon our return, we discovered the kittens had multiplied! There were now four new lives in our closet! Two calico, one black-and-white and one with the same coloration as it's mother.

The deed had been done in the bottom of a cardboard box with little time for preparation. It was now more-or-less covered in bodily fluids so the first order of business was to transfer mother and litter to cleaner surroundings. We set a towel and some paper shreddings in a large Tupperware and managed to get the whole family situated. On Monday evening the neighbors apparently decided they should take some responsibility in this situation so took the whole kit-and-kabodle back to their place. Hope I get my Tupperware back.

We were sad to see them go. Juno is practically a member of the family, and while we didn't do much but let her get on with it, we are proud to have been able to provide an environment where she felt safe to house her new family. She did an admirable job for such a small girl. We hope that the neighbors keep and eye on the new arrivals, although we will probably be over there ourselves on a frequent basis to check the kittens' (and mother's) progress.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Honeymoon Chapter 6: Remembering St John

I sit here today a married man for exactly four weeks. We just received our official wedding photos so it is time for me to wrap up my blog posts about the honeymoon and start working on sharing with you all some of the wonderful memories from the big day itself! Our trip to St John will of course always remind me of the happy day that Kristal and I publicly and permanently declared our dedication to each other. But for me when I think of St John I will also always remember Dribbles. What can I say - I'm a cat person. It is a great comfort to know that while we have returned to less-than-tropical Richmond, Dribbles is still happy as can be, chillin' out on his Caribbean Island. We will return.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pony Pasture, Aug 16th

Fish, Clouds, Wading, Leaf

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Honeymoon Chapter 5: Sunrise

Sunrise, originally uploaded by evens.john.

This post needs no words other than to credit Kristal with getting up at 6am and capturing this amazing shot

He loves it!

He loves it!, originally uploaded by evens.john.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Kayaking the Z-dam

The Saturday before my folks returned to England my Dad and I went out on the James in a couple of sit-on-top kayaks. We'd intended to make it down to Reedy Creek from just above the Huguenot Bridge. One obstacle stood in our way: the Z-dam.

I know there are signs telling you not to do it, but I've always wanted to boat through the hole. The river was just above 4ft at Westham, so I knew not much water would be going through. Turns out it's a bad idea no matter what the conditions are.

So, here's a tip: Don't boat the Z-dam.

(According to this blog, river was at 5.3ft when this video was shot.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Honeymoon Chapter 4: Drink and Food

"I traveled all the way to St Thomas to not get a haircut!"

When we were done sitting on the beach for the day we would go in search of a bite to eat. Food prices in the grocery stores are extortionate, but bars and restaurants charged little more than similar joints in Richmond, so we opted to eat out most nights. The closest place to our cottage was called Shipwreck Landing and it was the first place we tried. I think we just stopped in for a drink. On their specials list was a strawberry banana pina colada and it was sooo good. Its wasn't very busy so we got chatting to the barmaid and got some good tips about beaches to visit. I think every time we went there we found some nice people to talk to.

The best restaurant on the quiet side of the island was undoubtedly Aqua Bistro. It was a bit on the pricey side but the servings were big enough to give us a decent lunch the next day too. The food was just great and the chef was kind enough to share his recipe for coconut curry pasta sauce with us. Towards the end of the trip we went back and sat at the bar in the evening. The bartender was hilarious because he got caught up in a conversation with one guest (mostly about his kayaking business) and completely neglect the rest of the bar! He was a really nice guy though, and on the island you don't really complain about slow service!

Our favorite place was Skinny Legs. For one, the drinks were ridiculously cheap (vodka pineapple for a dollar) and they pour them strong. Secondly, a lot of cool people work there. One afternoon we stopped in for a quick drink. We sat at a table but didn't get any service right away so decided to snag a couple stools at the bar. Just as we started on our second (and last) round, Rodney arrives. I never quite ascertained what Rodney's position was at Skinny's, but he was clearly well enough involved to climb into the roof space to fix the Ipod connection. Anyway, his story is that he went over to St Thomas to get a hair cut. After waiting in line for a couple hours he gets fed up and comes home. No hair cut. And now he needs a drink. Beth, the barmaid obliges, and before we know what's happening we all have shooters in front of us. I did the first one out of politeness, but the next two I did because they were so damned tasty. I couldn't help notice that Beth had a system going on. She makes up a shaker of "Beth-ikaze", pours five shots, and the rest goes in an empty water bottle. We soon discover why: As Rodney waves goodbye she throws him the now-full bottle of liquor for him to enjoy at home! Needless to say we liked Skinny's. That night we got chatting to the grill chef, so went back later in the week for a couple burgers and a few Presidentes.

The last joint I want to talk about is the Tourist Trap. It deserves a mention because the food was really good, and it came out of a shack by the side of the road. OK, the portions were a bit small for the money, but they had just recently opened up so they deserve a chance. And it's run by ex-cons, so what do you expect?! No seriously, the entire time we were there the staff kept mentioning their parole officers. The place is run by Mary, the cooking is done by Larry, and the old stoner hanging around was called Gary. It was like 'Cheers' but in the Caribbean instead of Boston.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Wake the #@%! up

Wake the #@%! up, originally uploaded by evens.john.

We went to Meadow Farm this morning to take some pictures of the Mariner's Compass Quilt that Kristal made as a wedding present to ourselves. I got this great picture of a cockerel in mid crow!