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.