Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Feeling chipper

This past Thursday I got home from work and was browsing Craigslist. As usual, there were no interesting motorcycles or guitars for sale. I meandered into the farm and garden section, as its always interesting to see what animals are available to buy. There are often goats and chickens, horses of course, but rarely sheep. It disappoints me that there aren't more sheep, really. Anyway, I was scrolling down the page and there it was. My chipper. I have been looking for a decent chipper for ages to clear the ever growing pile of dead wood accumulating behind my compost station. That pile recently put on a big spurt, as a result of me chopping all the dead and dying limbs from our three gigantic Crepe Myrtles out front. In fact, I pruned (in some cases razed to the ground) several shrubs around the yard a few weeks ago. So I needed a chipper, but all I had seen before were chipper/shredder/leaf vacs that only took very skinny limbs, or these monstrous chippers that will devour entire trees and need to be towed behind a lorry. This little guy was perfect for my needs. A 5hp engine, 2" diameter capacity. And he looked to be in good condition.

The key with Craigslist is to act fast. When I bought my punchbag no fewer than three interested parties called while I was there collecting it. I wasted no time picking up the phone to find out if my quarry was still available. Yes, it was, and yes, I could come right round to take a look! The gentleman owner had just used it a few times clearing some brush at the back of his yard, and it had been sitting a while since then. This, of course, meant that it would start, but he assured me it ran well and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The deal made, I loaded it into my truck and headed for home, trying not to speed despite my excitement.

On Saturday I took to task getting my boy running. Earlier attempts on previous evenings suggested that the gas was bad, the carb was gummed up and the throttle/choke didn't seem to be operating too well. I drained the carb and sprayed a ton of carb cleaner in. I replaced the air filter, but the spark plug looked in good condition. Still the engine wouldn't quite get up to speed. I poured out most of the old gas, and diluted down the rest with freshly pumped fuel. A bit better this time, but still just barely turning over. I was just about to concede that I just don't know enough about small engine maintenance when I decided to take a screwdriver to a sprung screw on top of the carb. The spring levered against the throttle link and the engine soared to life! If I'd thought of that earlier I could probably have saved myself an hour or so soaked in gasoline, but no matter: Now we were in business.

Chipping is fun. I love to chip, especially the really fat chunks of wood that almost kill the engine as they get eaten and subsequently spit out in neat chips. The cool thing about my chipper is you can feed the big limbs into one chute, and the smaller twigs, brush, leaves and anything else soft into another chute on the other side for shredding. I basically spent all day out in the yard feeding whatever I could find into the hungry jaws of the chipping dragon. I jammed it twice. The first time was with a short length of Crepe Myrtle branch. It wasn't very thick, but that stuff is hard, and it got wedged between the impelled and the housing. Taking the chute off isn't really a one man job, but where there's a will there's a way. Soon I was back making mulch, this time being more careful about chipping even the smaller branches. It wasn't long before I got over ambitious again and this time jammed the chipper. That was an easier fix, though, as the chipping chute is small and attached with fewer fasteners.

Saturday was a gorgeous day, and by the end of it I had about ten big buckets of mulch that I spread on my front beds. I was also completely covered in sawdust.

Monday, January 19, 2009


If you live in Richmond, please check out my future brother in law's blog to read about Duckpin bowling at Plaza Bowl. You NEED to know about Duckpin bowling.

Part 4 - "London, Baby!"

When the Friend's crew went to London back in 1998 they were too early for the London Eye. That's too bad from them, because it is easily one of the best things to do in a city that has a lot to offer. We made it our first stop after arriving at Waterloo station. The ride takes about half an hour, and by sheer luck the sun came out for that exact period, giving us a stunning view of the city. Despite the low clouds, we were still clearly able to make out the arch of Wembley Stadium. But the real treats are much closer by: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are right across the river. Buckingham Palace peeks from behind the trees at the end of St James' Park. Every time you turn around a new attraction has appeared as the wheel continues it's steady process. Since we only had a day in London, it was a great way to see as many sights as possible in a short space of time.

The sun stayed out long enough for us to walk across Westminster Bridge and get a closer look at the attractions around Parliament Square. By the time we had made our way into St James' Park, the heavy gray clouds had returned, and after our brief stop at Buckingham Palace, we walked back through the park in a snow shower. For Kristal a big highlight was the collection of rare wild fowl in the pond. They didn't seem to mind the cold, even though they were more often walking on the surface of the pond than swimming in it. The exotic ducks, geese and pelicans looked out of place in the snow, but were impressive all the same.

By the time we reached Trafalgar Square it was time for some lunch, and we ducked into a traditional pub on Whitehall for a bite to eat. As usual, the best thing about the meal was the beer. The food itself was hit (delicious sausage sandwich) or miss (dry, well done burger). At least we we able to warm up. Next we took a trip on the Tube to get to the Oxford St area, so that Kristal could visit Liberty of London, and experience the lavish fabric selection. I have to say, it was quite an experience for me too. I had never been in a department store that had an Oyster and Champagne Bar!

Another quick trip on the Tube brought us to St Paul's Cathedral, but our real destination was right across the river. Crossing the Millennium bridge to the south bank we headed into the cavernous main hall of the Tate Modern art gallery. The building itself is a work of art that trumps a lot of the modern art nonsense in the galleries, but I was exciting to see some really famous pieces "in the flesh". It's always a surprise to find out how big (or small) a painting you've seen in pictures a hundred times is. Matisse's Snail is huge, and so is Sea Roses by Monet. The video installations are as always deeply disturbing, but my favorite artwork was an entire room of silverware, silver plates and other silvery items like trumpets flattened with a steam roller and suspended a few inches above the floor on fishing line. The effect was mesmerizing, as small air currents generated as the crowd shuffled through would make the items swing almost imperceptibly.

Once we seen all the art we could take, we wondered down the South Bank a little ways, past the reconstructed Globe Theatre, hoping to experience Borough Market. It was closed. So, it was time for another ride on the underground. We ended up in Leicester Square, and tried to find somewhere to eat, but we didn't know what we were looking for and only had a little money left. Whilst we enjoyed meandering around the theater district, we had no luck finding a place that looked good for dinner, so we headed back towards Waterloo. However, I happened to know of a little strip behind County Hall that has a bagel shop, a sushi place and a noodle bar, and the thought of noodles captured our appetites.

Then it really was time to get back on the train, and before we knew it, we were back on a plane crossing the ocean and leaving wintry England behind. We had a blast, and will return. Sometime. Soon...ish.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sick Leave

I almost achieved the great feat of blogging about my entire holiday on consecutive days, but unfortunately the illness that has been bugging me since my return finally caught up with me and I have been taking it easy in the evenings until I recover. In all honesty, I haven't been that sick, but I firmly believe that I suffer from the dreaded Man-flu, an apparently minor affliction that nonetheless renders me unable to perform any household chores, prepare food for myself, or locate medication without assistance from the amazing woman in my life.
In any case, I am not one who reaches for the pills at the first sign of a cold. It would seem to me that many medications treat the symptoms (headache, congestion, cough, etc) but do nothing to treat the cause (bacterial or viral infection), and speed recovery.
Still, to prevent me from taking out my frustration at being unwell on those around me, I will at some point reach for a random blister pack of caplets lying at the back of the medicine cabinet, covered in dust. On Tuesday my search produced a half-full box of Aleve, cold and sinus. These contain a mixture of Naproxen for the pain and fever, and Pseudoephdrine to relieve congestion.

Naproxen is a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID), which means it inhibits the Cycloxygenase (COX) enzymes that produce the biological substances called prostoglandins. This group of chemicals mediates inflammation (among many other things) and thus by blocking their production, NSAIDs reduce swelling and the associated discomfort. I couldn't find any evidence that Naproxen has any advantages over Ibuprofen. They have very similar chemical structure and appear to carry the same risks and benefits. Naproxen was developed almost twenty years after Boots Co. formulated Ibuprofen.
Psuedoephedrine (available on it's own as Sudafed) has a much more interesting chemistry, as it can be readily converted to Methamphetamine, the recreational drug.
Sudafed works by activating alpha-adrenergic receptors, having the effect of reducing swelling and mucus excretion in the nose and throat. The molecule has two chiral centers, which allows for four different configurations of the drug. Sudafed is comprised of (-)-Psuedoephedrine, where both chiral centers are in the left-handed configuration. It is this form that can be converted into the psychosimulant drug. Interestingly, Pfizer hold the patent for (+)-Psuedoephedrine (which when converted to methamphatamine is in a form not active on the central nervous system and found in Vick's inhalers), but for some reason they have decided not to produce and market the compound.
I didn't precisely follow the instructions on the Aleve packet. They prescribe "1 Caplet every 12 hours". I took 1 caplet. That was it. I prefer to rely on natural remedies.

Don't worry, I'm not about to proclaim that druidic formulations are more effective that pharmaceuticals. But a cup of lemon ginger tea makes me feel better, and doesn't come with the risk of stomach bleeding. I also occasionally wear a magnetic bracelet (by Bioflow), although I would struggle to explain why. I don't believe it has any specific physiological effect, but it didn't cost me much, and I like to keep people guessing.
Hopefully I will soon be well enough to conclude the tale of our adventures in England. Tonight I will be using the most powerful medication know to man: Chicken Noodle Soup. Complete recovery is almost guaranteed!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Part 3 - Brizzle

Our final major excursion was to Bristol, where Martha and Graham were holding their 'We ran away to Hawaii to get married' party. The family drove down early in the day so we could get in a spot of sightseeing. One of my favorite spot in probably the whole country is the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It always strikes me as exactly the right bridge for the setting, spanning the Avon Gorge. On one of the adjacent hills stands a camera obscura at the top of a short tower, and it's fun to go in and watch the cars crossing the bridge.
We were soon in need of some lunch, and the man manning the dark chamber suggested we find a pub in Clifton Village. We stumbled across the Portcullis, run by a friendly young chap who actually came out the front door to gain our custom. In the end, I'm not sure the fare was to everyone's liking, but I rather enjoyed the experience. As you may have guessed, this was because the barman served beers from small, local breweries. He had selected which varieties to have on tap and was able to recommend and talk knowledgeably to those of us to desired a fine ale.
After lunch we popped into the City Museum, which pretty much took care of all genres of history in a very small space. I took in some Natural History (including a hedgehog), Egyptian history and some ornately decorated pianos. They were also displaying the entries from a nature photography competition. The room was very crowded, and many of the pictures, while stunning, were your usual nature photography cliches. The standout for me was a shot of a lopsided mushroom in the rain. I think most people would have completely overlooked that mushroom, but the composition is great.

Having had our fill of sightseeing for the day, we checked in to the Travelodge and made ourselves pretty for the party. Well, we did our best considering the Travelodge was the grimiest place I've ever stayed in! We arrived at the hotel and met Martha, looking stunning but a little chilly in her wedding dress. Soon other family and friends began arriving and the party got started. Everyone was very interested to hear how I was getting on in America, and more importantly to meet my gorgeous fiancee. We had to spread ourselves thinly to get around everyone and still get some dancing in! It was great to see so many people again, albeit far too briefly in many cases.
We were treated to a short speech by the bride and groom, and the best man did a grand job of digging up some of Graham's embarrassing past, as is the British custom! Graham and Martha wowed us on the dancefloor, and will probably never live down the fact that their 'first dance' was to ABBA!
Soon the party was over, and ever the old folks had made it through to midnight. In the next installment: One final day in London before we bid farewell to Blighty.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Part 2 - Belly Dancing

When we got back to Reading, Martha and Graham had arrived chez Evens, having visited with his family oop North. We all went up to Henley-on-Thames to take a look around. Braving the cold, we took a walk down to the lock and weir, then strolled around the town and did a spot of shopping.

We stopped for a beer in Wargrave at the George and Dragon, which appeared to have changed owner again and got a complete facelift in the process. Still, they had some pretty decent beers on (although the local brew was tapped out to the disappointment of Graham and I - we both like to sample something brewed nearby when we can). After a round of drinks we headed on down to Twyford, where I used to live, to find a curry house. For some reason, Twyford has a large selection of Idian restaurants, the most famous of which (in my opinion), is the Gaylord. You wouldn't believe the places I've been where when I mention I lived in Twyford someone mentions the Gaylord. And not just because of the humorous name - lots of poeple rate it as one of the best Tandoori places around. So of course we had to try it.
It didn't start off too well. It smelled a bit funny, and the poppadoms didn't come with the cucumber/yogurt dip that I like. Still, we knew we were in for an authentic experience as we could understand a word the waiter was saying, nor did he comprehend us. Always a good sign. When the main dishes came out, they were excelent. Kristal sensibly opted for a mild chicken tikka masarla which was one of the best I'd ever tasted. I tried to find something middle of the road, heat wise, but it turned out slightly hotter than I'd anticipated. Delicious, though.
The best part came at the end of the meal. The waiter came round with two Baileys and two scotches, and when we tried to explain that we hadn't ordered any drinks he said, 'On the house'! Not only that, but the ladies got complimentary roses. So there you go: If you fancy a curry tonight, go to Gaylord. It's on the High St opposite Waitrose.
After a short stay in Reading it was time to hit the road again, this time down to Guildford, where I was at University. We left around dinner time on the 30th, and spent the evening at Corinne and Pete's flat, with almost all my old uni mates. Was great to see all you guys! We had a bit more fun that we had intended, so spent most of the next day resting in preparation for the big one in London.
It was awesome riding the limo up to London, mostly because it was really quick and we got dropped off right next to the restaurant. It was so quick that we were early for our booking, and we were a bit worried that we would have to go wait in another pub, but it turned out that they sent us straight to our table and started bringing the food out!

The restaurant was Moroccan themed and the food was out of this world. We had just about got done with the appetizers when the belly dancers came out for their first routine. This girl was clearly a professional - I mean it takes skill to shake your hips like that! I was happily enjoying the show (purely as an art form, you understand), when she beckons for me to join her on the floor. Well, some invitations one just can't refuse. Needless to say, I am not a professional. If you haven't seen the photos yet, they you must have been hiding in a cave, because people have been commenting on them since New Year's day when they hit facebook!
The rest of the night was basically awesome, just hanging out with some good friends, smoking the hookah, drinking extortionately priced cocktails and generally having a good time. The announcement that 2009 had arrived was a bit, err, non-existent, but somehow we got the message an engaged in the requisite kissing and hugging etc.
The next day we did a quick driving tour of Guildford High Street, UniS, the cathedral and most of the places I'd living during my studies there. Then is was time to head back to Reading once more. Next time: the "Main Event" - we celebrate the marriage of Martha and Graham.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

England Part 1 - The Cotswolds

I slept for 12 straight hours last night. I was beginning to struggle as soon as I got in from work, but by the time dinner reached the table I couldn't keep my eyes open and had to retreat to Bedminster. Hopefully that took care of the jetlag.
Our first real expedition of the trip was to visit our friends Chris and Rowie in the Cotswolds. OK, actually not quite the Cotswolds, but everyone laughs at me when I enthusiastically mention Swindon. We visited Cirencester, an historic Roman town. We visited exactly none of the attractions from the Roman period, because it was Sunday and everything was closed. Really the most interesting thing we saw was St John's Parish church which was undergoing major renovation. In the afternoon we drove out to some smaller villages. Burford high street runs down a hill and is full of cute shops. We stopped in the country clothing store, where the only item we could afford was the possum fur willy warmers! In the sweet shop I found some adorable chocolate hedgehogs (they were also very yummy!). Kristal of course sought out the needlework shop...
Once it started getting dark we went back to the car and traveled to Lechlade for some local brews. The first pub we went into had just started their own range of microbrews, and although only one variety was yet available, it was delicious. The pub was very popular, and was definitely the authentic English pub experience, with open fires, agricultural implements stuck on every wall and a good crowd of locals enjoying fine ales.
The same could not be said of the next spot we chose. We were hoping to sample some of the beers from the Arkells brewery, which is big in that area. Unfortunately the pub we chose only had their basic beers on (not the seasonal ales we were hoping for), and they were absolutely disgusting! Up til now I don't think I've ever met a beer I didn't like. Sure, some have strong flavors that can be an acquired taste, but these ales smelled like vinegar and I was sure something must be wrong with them. I asked the barman (who by this point was tucking into a revolting chicken curry (the house specialty), but after a quick taste be assured me the 'musty' aroma was normal. None of us could stomach them and I was glad I chosen a cider.
On the way home we picked up a few bottles of the seasonal brews, a Christmas ale and an organic one which were both delicious.
The highlight of our trip to Swindon was definitely the food. On the first night we went round to the local fish and chip shop and picked up cod, chips, jumbo sausage, cornish pasty, mushy peas and garlic mayo. It was a huge feast, and for Kristal I think it was love a fist bite! It's definitely the best comfort food on a cold winter's night. Our second night there was bangers, mash and beans, to prove my point that sausages and baked beans in the UK are far superior to anything you can find stateside. Case closed.
Next time: I return to my university town, and we head into London for New Year's!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Evens Family Christmas

Our final act before departing from Dulles International Airport, Washington DC was to have one last Mexican! Terminal building restaurants are, ironically, interminable. We stopped in for a quick bite, but were left watching other diners (who had arrived after us) tuck into their meals. Eventually Kristal said something, and our cheese quesadillas were then quickly produced. The small discount offered by way of apology was, well, small. We tipped appropriately. Still, it was good preparation for the kind of service we could expect once on British soil!
Thanks to my imaginative planning, we arrived fresh from eight hours of no leg room and precious little sleep to a crisp Christmas Day dawning on the green hills of Berkshire. In fact, our flight had been very pleasant. I have to give credit to Virgin Atlantic, who did a great job on the food and drink. The cabin crew seem to have mastered the fine art of plying the clientele with booze while keeping us suitable hydrated: a careful balancing act that make the entire experience much more bearable.
Fortunately a sedate Christmas had been arranged at the Evens household. I lasted long enough to enjoy some kind gifts and festive foods, before completely and suddenly crashing into a deep sleep! I really don't remember what happened the rest of the day. I know I was woken in the early evening, and presumably further eating and making merry took place, but apparently my brain was in no state to form memories!
By Boxing Day we were sufficiently revived to take a trip to Windsor to see the Castle, the River, the green parakeets. We got a good taste of the type of weather we could expect over the next two weeks. You may notice that in all the photos we are peeking out from behind hats and scarves, doing our best to stay warm (although I recall only about two occasions that I really achieved that!).
Tune in next time to hear about our adventures in British food during our stay in the Cotswalds.

McKelvey Family Christmas.
Yes, I have noticed that there is one Christmas account missing from this Blog. No doubt the McKelveys are incensed that I've omitted them. Well, too bad! There just wasn't the time with all the packing and preparations going on. However, we had a wonderful time (I particularly enjoyed winning at the Applesapapples game), and if I'm completely honest the roast was probably the best food we had all season, and thus beat Grandma's Oyster stew (shame on you!). Y'all know where the photos'll be. Peace.

I was back in the UK. Sorry if you missed me!

We have just got back from a cold but very enjoyable holiday back on my home turf in the South of England. A huge thank you to all those who made our trip what it was. It was absolutely fantastic to catch up with so many friends and family. I have uploaded all the photos to flickr so go ahead and browse through them. Also expect more posts here detailing the highlights of our trip, of which there were many. However, we can honestly say that it feels great to be back home! Back to a nice soft bed instead of various futons; back to sunny winter's days in the high 40's; back to our precious, attention-starved kitty cat!
I worried that I would find England a strange, foreign land that I didn't understand anymore. On the other hand I feared that I would find I had been missing English things so much it would be painful when the holiday ended and I would have to leave again. But as it turned out, England hadn't changed that much. Sure, it was great to indulge in some true British cuisine, and fun to see the place again (both the usual tourist spots and the locations that only mean something to me), but there are no burritos and that clinches it for me.