Sunday, June 24, 2007

Babes in the Woods

I rushed out to the mountains after a hectic couple of days in the office catching up after my time in DC/Virginia. I had little more than my tent, mat and sleeping bag with me, but I wasn't worried. I was meeting my girlfriends for our annual camping weekend and I knew that I would be in good hands. I love girls camping weekend. Girls are the best campers - tidy, prepared, polite. Four of the girls have had babies in the last year, but that didn't keep them back, nor did it keep them from having fun. We hiked, we danced, we ate. Best of all, we were convinced by Ranger Steve to attend the Interpretive Show about trees and tree diseases that put on by the park rangers at our campground. The show was entitled Trauma and the Tree-R (most of the scenes took place in the Tree-age unit) and was filled with clever tree-related jokes (something about trunk enlargement and branch augmentation?) and costumes, mixed in with some song and dance. I captured a couple of short videos to share the hilarity of the show. In the first clip, listen carefully at the start for the tail end of the slim shady rap. Ranger Steve is awesome.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Purfuit of Happineff

Town names such as Upperville, Middleburg and Centreville might lead one to assume Virginia is uninspiring. Don't be fooled.

My Sunday drive to Shenandoah National Park took me past miles of charming historic towns scattered along a landscape dominated by some of the most magnificent trees I've ever seen. When I reached the park, I was tempted to continue driving (in part, so that I might see more of this beautiful state and, in part, to savour the relief that the car's airconditioning offered from the stiffling heat). Instead, I parked the car and pedalled my way along the Blue Ridge Mountains, which constitute the backbone of the park. Great pavement, low traffic, spectacular views; this is a gem of a ride. I wanted to ride until dark, but my exhausted water bottles demanded an untimely return to my car.

Tragically, I only went for one more ride after that. It was on one of the many spectacularly well maintained bike paths in the region, along the Potomac River toward Mount Vernon. To me, a bike is the ultimate symbol of freedom and happiness. How fitting that I was on the same road as was travelled by the early Americans to protect those same principles.

Mount Vernon was formerly the estate of George Washington and is now a privately run education center / tourist attraction / yankee holy land / cash cow. Waiting in the lineup to tour the mansion, I pretended to be unphased by the heat. My charade was foiled by the steady gush of sweat from every pore on my body, which provoked questions from strangers, including 'You not from aroun' here, are you?' and 'Ma'am, you gonna be aight?'. Seriously. I don't think I sweat that much when I run.

Walking around the estate was inspiring. I couldn't help feeling a degree of envy toward American's for their recognition (and glorification?) of their rich history. This was reinforced by my visit to the National Archives. As an aside, as I was looking at the Declaration of Independence, I laughed to myself as I recalled an episode of Cheers in which Woody Boyd ran for Boston City Council. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you'll just have to trust me as I can't find a clip of it on youtube.

The icing on the cake for this trip was a fourth row seat for a showing of Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC last night. That guy is so clever.

I will definitely be back (next time, perhaps, in the winter).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Capital

One by one, the crowd dissipated. The empty carousel let out a squeek as it came to a halt. And there I stood, without my luggage - most importantly, without my bike. The UA attendant assured me that my luggage would be delivered first thing the next morning, but I made arrangements for a back up - a rental car - to make sure I wouldn't miss a beat. Good thing I did; my bags still have not arrived 24 hours later.

My destination of choice for the day was Washington DC. I'm generally not a fan of cities. I often find that I can see everything I'd like in about one day (there are exceptions, such as New York and London). Within less than an hour, I realized DC was going to be an exception to this rule. I couldn't walk a block without coming upon a monument or a museum. This is an impressive and inspiring city. So much to see and learn - it is overwhelming. I feel like I need a couple of weeks here to really take it all in. It's like a three dimensional wikipedia. Wait a minute, what does that say about my life?

The International Spy Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, a Hoop Dreams Tournament on the Mall, the US Capital Building, the US Botanic Garden, the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial. After the museums closed for the day, I reluctantly headed back to Reston, feeling that I had only scratched the surface in DC. When I arrived at my hotel, the adjacent street was lined with tents and teeming with people. It was "taste of the town", which was perfect, since it was dinner time and I was tired after ten hours of wallking (in heels, no less).

In the spirit of learning, I'm presenting my valued (albeit small) readership with a challenge. I have a special prize for the first person who can accurately identify what is happening in this picture. (Cliff Clavin answers will be eligible to win, but intelligent answers will take priority).

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Kicking it Olds School

A few months ago, while I was chained to my desk, longing for summer cycling weather, I agreed to represent my firm on a client team at the MS bike tour. It seemed like a good idea at the time - it's a great cause, I like cycling, I could get to know some clients in a non-work context. What was the downside?

As this weekend approached, I began to question my decision - was 90km/d enough mileage? Who was going to talk to me? And wtf I was going to do in Olds on a Saturday night?

To address the first question, I decided to carry my gear the whole way for some added challenge. Then, I added a few miles by riding from my house to the starting point in Airdrie and by tacking on some more once we arrived in Olds (seemed like a more responsible choice than going directly to the beer garden - which, incidentally, is a school gymnasium and looks nothing like a garden, but does serve beer). Unable to surpress my competitive tendancies, I insisted on passing as many people as my legs could handle, adding another dimension to the challenge. At the end of the day, 160 intense self supported kilometres. Beautiful weather.

The social question worked itself out quickly, as there was no shortage of others in the same situation. I was surrounded by hundreds of happy and sociable cyclists - what was I ever worried about in the first place? At a rest stop, an elderly hutterite woman extended a friendly gesture - in the form of a roast beef sandwich, rather than conversation. While waiting line for the showers at the end of the day, I made a friend, who later turned out to be my roommate. A 22 year old world class speedskater from Minnesota studying chemical engineering at U of C, she had nothing in common with me. But that didn't stop us from becoming instant friends.

What is there to do in Olds on a Saturday night? We are staying in the dorms at Olds College, the dinner was in the cafeteria, and the 'after party' was in the gym. Sounds fun, eh? Well, it was. Let me review the highlights:
- getting narrowly beaten by Johnny Roast Beef and the Mexican Hay Ride in a challenge involving a jumping rope, a hula hoop, a beach ball, a bat, and a jigsaw puzzle
- meeting and talking to a 55 year old man whose wife left him in February, right before he left on a trip to Australia and Asia. After visiting the Philipines, he decided to move to Manila, where he now has a 21 year old girlfriend. Beats the usual 'office talk'.
- seeing two grown heterosexual men kiss on the lips (no toungue)
- chilling out on a bench outside on a calm, warm evening, with the muffled sound of the band playing in the background.

That's the way, uh huh uh huh, I like it.

Monday, June 4, 2007

I Fought the Lawn, and the Lawn Won

I despise lawns. They are flagrantly wasteful. Popularized in the 1700’s by French nobility, who converted productive agricultural land to grass to demonstrate they could afford to make waste while peasants starved, the primary role of the lawn is to show off that you can afford to waste land, labour and resources. Let’s see, we take a non-native plant, water it and fertilize it and pray that it grows to be thick and lush, only to have the burden of maintaining it increase as we are more successful at achieving this objective. Doesn’t make much sense to me, especially given that lawns aren’t exactly useful for anything. I've heard the argument that lawns are useful to lay down on and to play sports. I call bullshit. Who’s got time for that anyway?

North America now has more than 32 million acres of lawn under cultivation. That’s more land than any single crop, including wheat, corn, or tobacco. Americans spend $750 million a year on grass seed and more than $25 billion on lawn and garden care. Lawns in the United States consume around 270 billion gallons of water a week. Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland. The pollution emitted from a power mower in one hour is equal to the amount from a car being driven 350 miles. In fact, lawns use more equipment, labor, fuel, and agricultural toxins than industrial farming, making lawns the largest agricultural sector in the United States. (Source: um, google?)

When Erik and I bought our house, we made a conscious decision not to get a gas mower (it helps me rationalize decisions such as flying to Palm Springs for a weekend to attend a music festival). We didn't even buy an electric mower. Instead, we bought a Brill Luxus 38, the best push mower on the market. This worked for a while, until I got some hobbies and didn't have time to shove the mower around the yard a couple times each week. Eventually, we stopped fertilizing the lawn. That reduced the mowing burden substantially. Then we stopped watering. Another step in the right direction (though dry thatch is not particularly easy to mow with a push mower).

A couple of summers ago, I made the decision that I would systematically purge myself of my burdensome lawn. I have removed a few small patches of lawn and replaced them with low maintenance native plants and made a vegetable garden (not exactly low maintenance, but at least I get something out of it). I have had some grand plans for further expulsion of my green enemy, but alas, finding the time and energy to make it happen has been a challenge. Erik’s dad helped the situation by giving us a huge head start on yardwork this year, but we needed something more. So, we caved in and bought an electric mower.
It runs quietly. I don’t have to put my body weight into forcing it along my dry grass. I don’t have to go over every square inch more than once. It’s so luxurious. I declare a cease fire – my lawn is safe from my shovel for the rest of 2007 (though, I still have no plans to fertilize or water my lawn).

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Game, Lenin

Friday, June 1, 2007

Life in the 'Fax Lane

After a four hour ride that took me to Peggy's Cove and through some sleepy towns on the outskirts of Halifax, I experienced my first taste of Atlantic Canadian hospitality at a waterfront residence in Dartmouth on Saturday night. While I usually like to eat before dipping into the sauce, especially after a long ride, it was worth making an exception. I met a guy who makes his money selling porn to hotels - you'd be surprised at the stats. And then there was the guy who ran Ironman Canada on a dare - how hard could it be? It took him 17.5 hours - that's got to hurt! A subset of us later headed out for dinner at a cool little restaurant called Seven (the food was fantastic!) and then a bar called Bubbles Mansion, which has ties to Trailer Park boys (which I have never seen, but pretended to be impressed by).

I was surprisingly fresh for my 7am (4am my time) departure to the golf course the next morning. I don't golf much, but I like tournaments because the popular 'best ball' format lends itself well to concealing my incompetence. When I arrived at the course, I was informed that we were not, in fact, playing best ball. Thankfully, I was paired with two very easy going golfers, one of whom had me in stitches from the first hole and took it upon himself to mentor me on the game. For example, laughing hysterically when he pitched out of one sand trap and into another (several times) is apparently called 'poor etiquette'. I heard, for the first time, the term 'ferocious' used to describe someone's golfing style, but I'm not saying whose. The S&M hole was totally not what I was expecting, but was fun nonetheless, as we tested the limberness of our hips.

Dinner was at the Citadel, a fortress atop a hill in the middle of Halifax (thanks Amar!). It was completed in 1856, but the location has been used as a military defense since 1740. Living in Calgary, sometimes it's easy to forget that Canada's heritage goes back that far, so it was a particularly memorable event for me.

Among the people I met was Malcolm (aka Pepsi). He works for a competing firm, which makes us arch enemies, but we put away our differences for the evening. He worked in Halifax during university, so he knew all of the cool bars to go to, which, of course, we did (well, only two). Check out this video I took of a guy dancing at the Lower Deck. Unreal.

We unanimously elected to find another bar once the Lower Deck shut down. If that isn't adequate proof that alcohol impairs judgement, perhaps the fact that we ordered Jager bombs when we got to Cheers is. We were joined (completely randomly) by a new friend "Chevy" (It MAY have actually been Shiva, but who cares?). Nobody was quite sure what his story was, but he sure took a liking to Ryan, who likened to Barishnakov and who he insisted is going to be the next Prime Minister of Canada. Sometimes I swear I'm in the twilight zone.

My excitement to hear the conferences keynote speaker, Henry Kravis, got me out of bed early for the conference the next day. He did not disappoint. Legend.

After the conference, I snuck out for a quick bike ride and then headed to dinner, only to find that the conference organizers were making everyone trade in their pants for kilts. Great icebreaker. So good, in fact, that we decided to go out on the town again - but only after indulging in a little scotch tasting. Getting booted from the Lower Deck immediately after paying our cover charge turned out to be a blessing as it created the opportunity to see a few more local watering holes. Now I get why Great Big Sea exists. All said, super fun and memorable night.

I'm not going to lie, I was a little bit tired at the conference the next day. Once the conference finished, Jason, Chris and I headed to the Alexander Keith's Brewery (built in 1863) for a beerless lunch. Jason and I checked out the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, while Chris took a tour of the 102 with his new friend Jack. We met up later for dinner at a restaurant called the Press Gang. Built in 1759, it was the second oldest building in the city. We classed it up by trying some oysters, which Jason chased with a grape slurpee.

On Jason's advice, I grabbed a seat in row eleven on the flight back. What a scam, it's the row immediately in front of the emergency exit, which means the recline function on the chairs has been disabled. Not really consistent with my plans to sleep on the flight. Fortunately, Chris also fell for Jason's trick, so I had some entertainment. We had a beer or two to wash down the peachy penguins and other candy that we grabbed at an adult candy store called Freak Lunchbox. It was at this time that Chris revealed to me his belief that, if he had to, he could win a fight with a crocodile. Okay. It was one of the more enjoyable flights I've been on.

And now, it's time to recover from my Halifax Adventure - I'm exhausted. I never knew life in Atlantic Canada could move so fast. Thank god I have coffee.