Sunday, March 29, 2009


I'm always interested to read or hear about the experiences of other Brits who have traveled to the USA for more than just a vacation. While browsing the BBC News website on Thursday, I spotted a magazine article entitled "Hello America, I'm a British Muslim". It was the story of a man named Imran Ahmad, who had written a book about his life as a Muslim living in the Western world. His family had moved from Pakistan to England when he was very young, and he'd also traveled extensively in America on business. Having recently been made redundant from his corporate day job, he seized upon the idea to follow up the launch of his book in the USA with a speaking tour, starting in Chicago and proceeding over the course of 50 days in a clockwise road trip, giving his talks at local Unitarian Universalist churches.

Out of curiosity, I followed the link to his website to see the locations and dates of his events, and it turned out that he was coming to Glen Allen on Saturday! It so happens that one of the offices he regularly visited on business is located right in Short Pump, so of course Richmond had to be on the list of stops.

The audience numbered about 25. Other than myself, the only visitors were a couple of Imran's previous colleagues, the rest being members of the local congregation. Still, the Unitarians are an accommodating lot. Imran came on and started talking in a rather despondent tone about the current tension between Muslims and the West. It would have been depressing had it not been for the interesting viewpoint that he offered. Growing up during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he remembers the Muslims and the Christian West being on the same team, on the side of good, against the evil Godless Communists. It then came as a huge shock when in 2001 all that was forgotten and he found that now the Muslims were being characterized as the 'bad guys' by the West.

While interesting, the historical summary of geopolitics was really just a preamble to set a context for why Imran came to write a book. The main part of his talk centered on how he eventually persuaded himself to sit down and write, as well as the circuitous tale of how he finally got the book published an publicized. While his sense of humour was undoubtedly British in its self-deprecation, he certainly knew his audience in a way that few British entertainers would and had the whole room in fits of laughter at times. I may have been the only person who truly understood his quips regarding Ann Widdecombe, but other than that he cleverly explained critic terms so that we could all enjoy the punchline.

Interestingly the moral of his story of trying to get published was carefully but not obviously suited to the Unitarian Universalist mindset. On the speaking tour website he mentions that the events are not of a religious nature, and this was certainly true. I would say there is room to argue that not UU event is of a religious nature! Nonetheless, he spun a tale of an author initially focused on the potential for money and fame who, through a combination of good luck and sheer bravado, eventually becomes a published author but never achieves the fame and riches. However, he discovers that the real joy is in the creative process of writing, and also in the many friends and frankly unique experiences he has been blessed with as a result of writing the book. The on-a-whim tour of America is simply the latest mad adventure!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

10K time

This morning was the Monument Avenue 10K, am I'm pleased to say I achieved my primary objectives of getting out of bed this morning and running from start to finish! Considering the preparation I managed this time around, anything else was going to be a bonus. I put in an unofficial time of just under 50 minutes, which is about a minute slower than my last attempt. The conditions were also more challenging this year. The roads were wet with puddles, and it was cool but humid. This time I found it harder to find a space to run in and so it took me longer to get in a rhythm. For the first time this year they required a qualifying time to be in the front starting waves. I think this put a lot of people further back than they wanted to be, so there was a lot more overtaking and it was a bit hectic. Anyway, enough with the excuses!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

James River Scramble 1: Recon

There is now less than a week before the Monument Avenue 10K. For my final phase of training I am sticking to non-running cardio exercise, as I think I have the legs to run a decent time, but my pace will probably be determined by how hard I'm breathing! In that vein, I dusted off my mountain bike and went to survey the James River Scramble course.
The first thing I would like to say is that it feels like a lot further than 10K! Just the thought of running some of those sections is enough to scare a man. The second thing that struck me is that the trails are going to get pretty congested at certain points, what with 1250 runners crowding through there. I hope people are good natured because an over eager competitor could easily push someone off a cliff.

The start is harmless enough, although the first half click probably has more terrain than the entire Monument Ave race. It's smooth sailing over the Mayo Bridge, then the first real pain strikes shortly after in the form of the staircase up onto the flood wall. Thankfully running along the top of the floodwall provides another section a flat terrain. As if to make you pay for how easy you've had it so far, the course then heads straight up the side of an old railway embankment, kicknamed the 'Mayan Ruins'.

At this point there is a slight reprieve as you come out on Riverview Drive for a while, then across the railway, down the spiral staircase and onto another flat section of fireroad. I've just realised I misread the map when i was out on the trail. I had thought the course took in a section of Buttermilk trail, which would have been lethal, but actually it loops back on the footpaths next to the river. This way you come out on the rocks to the South-West of Belle Isle and have to rock-hop to get over to the island. Therein lies probably the worst section of the course, on the interior of Belle Isle. "Gnarly" is the only way to describe it! You'd have thought it would be smooth running back to the Start/Finish line, but I have no doubt the undulating footbridge under Robert E Lee will claim some casualties.


The lambs have hatched at Meadow Farm, so of course we had to go take a look. They must have had a busy lambing season, as there were probably close to two-dozen lambs altogether. Head on over to my Flickr for the entire set (Kristal was behind the camera and took a multitude of shots).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Asland Coffee & Tea

It seems as though the best times in life occur almost by accident. It has been a long week for both of us and we couldn't wait to unwind on Friday night. Kristal suggested we go up to Ashland for dinner and some drinks. It's a cute town with a lot of character, as the railway line passes right down the high street. Living in Glen Allen, we're really very close to Ashland, but it feels much more like the country.

We decided to dine at the Smokey Pig, a BBQ joint on Route 1 that we have often driven past with curiosity. As one would expect, it was a friendly place serving good, honest food. One item on the menu was slightly unusual, which was the apple puppies. Of course I had to order them! They turned out to resemble hush puppies (fried dough balls) but the batter was sweeter and included finely chopped apple. They were served covered in a lemon sauce than strongly reminded me of lemon meringue pie filling. In any case, they were a bit sweet, in my opinion, to be served as a side to the main course, so I saved them to the end of the meal!

After dinner we headed on in to the center of Ashland with the intention of have a drink or two at Ashland Coffee & Tea. As the name suggests, it is a coffee and tea shop, with sofas and books and the comfortable atmosphere that Starbucks wishes it had. The adjoining room, however, is the famous 'listening room', a distictive music venue where we hoped to catch a decent band. As luck would have it we arrived exactly as the show was about to start. The entertainment for the night was provided by a bluegrass outfit called Some Assembly Required. I thought they did a fine job, especially the banjo player who had mad banjo skills, and the mandolin player who had some funny stories up his sleeve. The beers of choice turned out to be from an German organic brewery called Pinkus. I enjoyed a bottle of their Jubilate Lager, and then their Pilsner. All in all a very relaxing evening, without hardly planning at all.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Nipples Hurt

Is that an over-share? Hey, at least there are no photographs accompanying this post! I could take one right now if you like? Actually, it is only my right nipple that is slightly sore. The Monument Avenue 10k is in two weeks, so there is no respite from the training, even on a rainy Saturday morning. Nipple chafing was inevitable. I completed my 8.2km circuit in light, steady rain, clocking a time of 41 minutes. I had hoped to be on track to break my personal record of 48 minutes but I never quite got going with the training until the end of February. Really the Monument Avenue is my warm up event to participating in the James River Scramble this year. If I am able to complete that event I will happily retire from my brief running career. It's bad for the knees. After that I will only run to compete in a Triathalon, but that would require me to learn how to swim! I mean, I can stop myself from drowning, but covering 1500m is beyond my body's propensity to sink like a stone. Anyway, hopefully my nipple will recover in time to resume training and put in a good time on race day. I hope to blog my Scramble training, so watch this space.


We've had a bird feeder in the front yard since we moved in. You might think the birds would be at risk from the large population of neighbourhood cats, but so far I haven't any frisky felines try to grab a snack. Barry, I know, is far too slow to ever sneak up on anything more alert than a dead twig. I'd expect the new kitten from next door to have a go, but he has extra toes so maybe they get in the way when hunting!

I have finally given in to my curiosity to know what all the different nondescript little brown bird are that frequent our feeder. Now, anyone from my family will tell you that I hold a fairly dim view of bird classification. I enjoy spotting birds, but if I can't tell you what it's called, that's fine by me. A bird is a bird, and they are marvelous to watch without naming them. But like I say, after a year my curiosity has gradually grown and now I would at least like to have some idea of how many different types of bird we have in the area.

It starts out easy. The bright red ones, with the black face, orange beak and sharp haircut? That's a (Northern) Cardinal and since it's the State bird, it would be a cardinal sin for me not to know it! Straight away we run into the first pitfall of bird watching, because the brown ones? Also Cardinals, but they're the ladies or the kids! Still, the distinctive tuft is enough to single them out, and the bright beak is another strong clue.

Next up the Blue Jay. Another crested variety, it's showy personality makes it easy to spot. These guys are never shy and tend the throw their weight around. The only other bird about the same size as the first two is the (Northern) Mockingbird. The poor Mockingbird is easy to ignore, dressed in a rather dull gray, but the white flashes as it flies makes it a cinch to ID.

Once we get on to the smaller species I have to say I start to struggle. Sure, from the pictures in the book it looks like it should be a piece of cake to tell them apart, but out there on the feeder, flitting back and forth between the trees, never sitting still, never exposing the perfect left profile for comparison to the plate it's another matter. Before long, I start picking out dark caps, breasts, wing bars and so on. Then it is a case of leafing through the bird book attempting to locate a drawing with all the features present. Unfortunately I have no idea how they ordered the plates. I mean, I've narrowed it down to the garden birds section, and then I would've expected them to go in size order, but apparently this is not how it's done.

Despite this frustrating lack of logic, I reckon I have positively identified a House Sparrow, a White Throated Sparrow, a Dark Eyed (Slate Colored) Junco, a House Finch, and some kind of Chickadee (I think probably the Carolina variety). We also have a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the area. These birds are all, of course, exceedingly common, but in a time when garden birds are said to be have a hard time I'm glad we see so many.

Update: Still no Grackles but the Brown-headed Cowbirds have arrived en-masse. The Woodpecker turned out to have a friend, so there's two of them. We saw a Bluebird (very exciting) and we also have a pair of Mourning Doves in residence.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Snow Day

2712, originally uploaded by evens.john.

It started snowing late in the afternoon on Sunday. Really big flakes of the stuff that were settling right away. As far as we can tell it snowed all night and was still going this morning. We woke up to find the world blanketed in a soft layer of white cold. The best thing of all: work was closed due to (as they say around here) 'inclement weather'! I was really happy to get the extra lie-in this weekend.
I can never make up my mind whether I like snow or not. I'll have to admit I acted like a bit of a kid at times today, running and jumping in the snow. I mean, this stuff was piled up so thick but so powdery and soft it was like being in a padded cell or something. I also enjoyed some manly activities like shoveling snow of the driveway, even though I only had a 1' x 3' piece of chipboard for the task.
In the end, though, I was boring and spent some time doing some filing, organising my online identity and generally getting around to that menial, low priority stuff which normally falls of the bottom of my to-do list at the weekend.