Sunday, May 18, 2008

It is a beautiful night in Asheville. I ate dinner on the balcony tonight because the weather is very mild and when the sun drops below the mountains to the west of us, the colors on a slightly cloudy night become purply and orange. It was just too good to eat indoors. Abner joined me and just hung out on the deck, wandering inside from time to time to graze on his food bowl, but he is now comfortably lying on the deck with a view out one of the slots in the parapet so he can see what is going on below. He is working on a steak bone and seems pretty content.

April came and went in a blur of visitors. I wrote about my visit with Jim Cardin in the previous posting, but only 8 days after Jim’s departure, my friend Kathy Treaster arrived from Sacramento. Kathy and I have been friends for such a long time that she doesn’t like me to announce it, so I won’t. Suffice it to say, we are well into our 4th decade. You might think that after all those years, we would have run out of things to talk about, but that certainly wasn’t the case during this visit.

She arrived fairly late on a Wednesday night so Abner and I made our standard trek to the airport to pick her up. The employees at the airport seem to have all gotten pretty accustomed to seeing Abner there when I pick people up. Some of them know him by name now. The poor bored TSA person who sits at the spot where people exit the concourse out into the non-secured waiting area in particular seems to enjoy Abner’s visits. I get the impression that this isn’t the most exciting position for a TSA employee so a big white fluffy dog every now and then is something different on which to focus attention. Otherwise the only thing the person sitting there seems to have to do is make eye contact with anyone who approaches, and thus discourage entering the concourse without having gone through security.

Kathy’s first night here resulted in a catch up gabfest that kept me up until about 1:00 in the morning. I believe this is a record for the three plus years I have lived here. We talk on the phone from time to time, but it turned out that there was quite a lot we hadn’t covered.

During her visit, we did all the requisite tourist things here. Kathy even got to go see the Basilica of St. Lawrence (which I sometimes forget to offer to visitors) and experienced Malaprop's, a wonderful locally owned downtown bookstore that is dog friendly. It is getting to the point where so many of these places encourage people walking with dogs to come in that some of them are now posting signs in the window that they are a dog friendly store. I am finding it to be more the rule than the exception. Asheville is one very dog-friendly town.

Over the course of her visit, we ate in many of my favorite local restaurants (including two visits to Fig so she could experience what may be the world’s best macaroni and cheese). One of the bigger sources of our entertainment though, came from an unexpected source.

Because she was staying for almost two weeks and we had decided that she would take a mid-visit break and stay at a local B and B, after 5 nights with me, she headed over to a place she had found through an Internet search through the multitudes of Asheville Inns and Bed and Breakfast establishments. Checking in was pretty much standard up to a point. Because Kathy’s visit was entirely during the week and the place was largely empty, they had decided to upgrade her to their largest suite without making her pay for it. This was a generous move on their part but it turned out to afford a few surprises.

It seems that the suite and two others in the same building had been built a few years back to expand the capabilities of the very large main facility. This seems to be pretty common here. . .I think the industry does well. In any case, Kathy found herself checking into an upstairs suite of 3 principal rooms as well as a room-sized shower/steam room. I don’t know the exact size of this place, but it had to be over 1,000 square feet. . .impressive in itself. What really caught us off guard though was the high-tech nature of the place. We had intended to check her in and then head off on an adventure that day, but the orientation required to learn how to operate the many electronic gadgets took quite a bit of time.

The instructions in the operation of the spa, remote controlled blinds, the single serve coffee machine and no doubt other pieces of techie equipment that outlasted my interest were delivered by a housekeeper who seemed particularly well informed about the various options for the use of the spa. Many of them appeared to have somewhat salacious potential that was implied in the instructions. To me, the spa looked more like a medieval torture device. I have never seen so many openings in something intended to hold water. In addition, it had a number of unexplained but vaguely threatening metal bumps on the bottom. This woman was so vivid in her descriptions of what you could do with this thing (including several minutes devoted to the multiple colors of underwater lights depending upon the desired mood) that it left both of us with an image of her cavorting with abandon in this enormous spa room when no guest was staying there. Needless to say, Kathy never attempted to use the tub.

The second phase of instruction came from the owner himself. He came up to give Kathy lessons in the use of the shower and steam room (way too many choices again) as well as the remote control for the fireplace, the many many lighting schemes (or themes I guess) available at the touch of a button, and finally the unbelievably complex widescreen TV with satellite service. Not only did it take a hell of a long time to get through all this stuff, but it was simply too technical for someone who is only staying for 2-4 nights. People put this kind of crap in their houses all the time, but usually not all of it, and they usually stay there long enough that then learn to use it. This bordered on the absurd. Kathy digested relatively little of the instruction session and in the end, had to experiment with everything to try to get things to work the way she wanted. I think she made progress with the TV although she had trouble finding a comfortable spot to watch given the scale of the absurdly oversized furniture. The spa never got touched and her one attempt at using the steam bath resulted in the smoke alarm going off. She also had a bit of a meltdown with the remote controlled blinds, which seemed to get stuck in a continuous cycle of opening and closing until she found a button to stop them.

The lights were also a challenge. With all the complex programs for a variety of moods, or themes, or scenes or whatever the hell they called them, there was no lighting that worked for reading in bed. For that, she had to turn on a lamp on a nightstand that was improperly placed and directed most of it’s light downward forcing her to aim her book toward the lamp.

As an architect, what I learned from this (not that it will ever matter since I am no longer designing spaces for people) is that you really need to convince your client to provide for the real requirements of the people who occupy these rooms and not to build our your own high-tech sex fantasy. Even for people who check in looking forward to a weekend of unbridled lust, the chances are that the time it would take them to learn how to make all these devices actually work would spoil the mood.

I think Kathy got some entertainment value out of the excesses of the place but in the end, preferred coffee at City Bakery or my condo and I suspect, found reading in bed easier here than at the B and B. Live and learn.

So now we are back to our normal life, whatever that is. I am starting to get annoyed about something I have noticed downtown. People smoke and they are, for the most part, pretty inconsiderate. First of all, a lot of smokers dangle burning cigarettes all over the place making it difficult for someone who doesn’t want the smell either on them or their dog to get by on the sidewalks. I have never been a smoker, so I don’t know what techniques are available but the relatively narrow sidewalks of Asheville are clogged with clusters of smokers. The next bone I have to pick with this sub-group of society here is what they do with the leftovers. The block of Patton Avenue immediately to the West of us is mostly two parking lots with a landscaped strip along the sidewalk. Abner and I walk this stretch at least once a day. This has given me plenty of time to notice that the bark chipped planter beds that host the shrubs that will someday more effectively screen the parking lots from the street and pedestrians are little more than giant ashtrays. There are, at any given time, literally hundreds of cigarette butts lying in the bark. As a dog walker, I am required by law and good manners to always have bags with me to pick up Abner’s poo. I cannot imagine an argument against the same requirement for smokers. Years ago it became unacceptable to litter in the US. Why is cigarette litter any different?

Last night, as Abner and I were doing our final rounds downtown for the evening prior to calling it a night, we were walking down Walnut Street from Haywood toward Lexington, which is, for those of you unfamiliar with downtown Asheville, a pretty decent incline. Going down in my usual walking shoes is no big deal, and really, going up isn’t either. After all, I have been spending a good deal of my waking hours since arriving here almost 3 – ½ years ago walking up and down hills. From time to time we will encounter someone, usually a visitor to Asheville, struggling with gravity to make his or her way up. You can always spot them. They pause to catch their breath. They walk slower than you might expect. Some feign interest in one of the astoundingly mundane concrete bunker-like parking garages that are on both sides of the street for a block in the middle of this section.

Well, on this particular walk, on the opposite side of the street, we spotted a very attractive, very tall drag queen in a pair of silver platform heels in which it would have been a challenge to totter along on level ground. Trudging up the street, on the sidewalk on the opposite side from us, and at a very healthy pace, I might add, this lovely creature was quite a sight. To top it off, he called across the street to inquire about Abner without either breaking stride or gasping for breath. I was impressed.

Today I made lunch for Latrella, my personal banker. The bank is barely a block away now so walking over to make deposits is something I do on our walks. Many of the employees keep dog treats close at hand for Abner and other visiting dogs and he knows where each and every one of them is. Occasionally, I drop in on Latrella for advice about something financial or to ask her to solve a problem that has arisen in the course of my banking, and so, over the years, she and I have become quite friendly. Anyway, now that I am across the street, so to speak, it seemed like it would be easy for her to truck over here for lunch. And so, we made a date. On a nice day, a panini and some side salads and chips, a bottle of Boeger’s superb 1996 Cabernet Franc, and a cookie seemed to hit this spot. We sat out on my deck and lunched and chatted for an hour and a half. Abner strolled out from time to time to see what we were up to and to look out through the slots in the parapet just to make sure Lexington Avenue was free of predators. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes living in this place seem so civilized.

Asheville has an event called Asheville After 5:00 that, prior to this week I must admit to never having attended. No more. The location of this monthly music and other-things-fest has been set up this year at the bottom of Lexington Avenue right before it passes under the freeway and becomes Broadway. This tendency of Asheville streets to change names seemingly with no reason is confusing everywhere, but nowhere as much as the naming of Broadway. If you approach Asheville in US 25 from the South it is called Hendersonville Road. Once you pass through Biltmore Village and head up toward downtown it becomes Biltmore Avenue. As soon as you cross Pack Square it becomes Broadway, for about 4 blocks until it passes underneath the freeway and becomes Merrimon Avenue. All these name changes are confusing enough but to make matters worse, the morphing of Lexington into Broadway happens about a block West of where the other Broadway becomes Merrimon. Try explaining that to a tourist who is undone by the lack of a grid here.

In any case, AA5 is essentially at the end of the street on which Abner and I live. We had been walking at Biltmore on Friday afternoon and returned downtown at about 5:45. I had forgotten about this event and, in any case, didn’t realize that it would result in the closing of the last block of Lexington and a shocking traffic jam pretty much everywhere else. I tried to drive to Greenlife Grocery for some items I needed for a dinner I was planning for Saturday night (gnocchi a la gorgonzola with pancetta and peas for those of you who are interested) but realized quickly that there was horrible traffic on any of the optional routes. So I drove back to the condo, parked the car and grabbed a cloth bag and dog leash and headed down the hill on foot to Greenlife. It really is only about a 6 block walk so this wasn’t really much of a hardship and I should probably do it more often, but what I hadn’t counted on was the mob at AA5. Once we got to the block that was closed to traffic it turned into almost solid bodies all the way to the stage, which was tucked almost right under the freeway. When I had originally heard that this was the location of a musical even I thought it odd since the freeway is so loud. I foolishly thought that the noise of the freeway would get in the way of people’s enjoyment of the music. Silly me. Bear in mind, this wasn’t exactly chamber music. I don’t know who any of the bands were but they sounded great and freeway noise wasn’t the slightest bit of an issue. I suspect some of the occupants of the cars passing above the stage might have wondered what had happened to the music they were listening to in their radios. They probably also noticed their fillings vibrating out of their teeth.

We managed to thread our way through the crowd and made it to the store, but it wasn’t easy. I think next time I may just head down the street and enjoy the music with the rest of the crowd rather than try multi-tasking again. Of course, I could probably hear it almost as well from my balcony 4 blocks away.

We finally met Bill Cecil Jr on one of our walks at Biltmore. We were just crossing the creek on the Deerpark Trail when he pulled over in his car and greeted us. We talked about Pyrenees (the estate has one that works in the Equestrian Center Barns and used to have another with their sheep) with which he was quite familiar. He was as gracious a host as all of his employees are. I am always astounded by the sense of stewardship exhibited by everyone involved in the operation of Biltmore. It is clear that this attitude starts at the top (Bill's father) and is pervasive throughout the place. I wish I could express to all of these people how much respect I have for what they do.

Abner’s popularity is causing me to change the way I handle some of our encounters. The move downtown and frequent downtown walks have precipitated a lot more contact with other people. In the past, we really only had to deal with crowds at Biltmore on a busy day, but now we are seeing so many people downtown that sometimes it gets a little overwhelming. One change is that I now ask everyone who asks to pet him if they are smokers. The smell of tobacco is so strong on the hands of smokers that when I got home from some of our walks, Abner ended up smelling like an ashtray. So the new rule is that if someone is a smoker, they don’t get their hands on Abner.

The other slight modification is with people who ask if Abner bites. A surprising number of people think they are simply entitled to pet him and wouldn’t dream of asking if it is OK but they often ask, instead, if he bites. I used to just say no, but now I have changed my response to “not usually”. It is amazing how many people give him a broad berth after that remark. It still is true, but seems to weed out a large group of potential petters.

Possibly as a rebalancing of our world, I have decided to volunteer with Abner in a pet therapy program. About a month ago a woman stopped her car by us on one of our early morning walks and mentioned that she had seen us many times and felt that we would be a good team for a pet therapy program for which she volunteers. She gave me the literature and a business card and asked me to check them out.

About a week ago, we went to a house in North Asheville where the president of the organization and her husband live with all their dogs (three that I counted but there could be more). We spent about 10 minutes with this fellow talking about what the requirements are for doing this kind of volunteer visiting and he checked Abner our cursorily to give me a read on whether or not we might be suitable. Abner checked out fine. . . .fortunately I wasn’t being tested yet. The process is that we have to take an online study course and then go through a series of tests that this fellow runs for the Asheville area. If we pass, we are then qualified as a therapy team and can start doing hospital visits and other types of pet therapy programs. I think we are going to try for it. So many people, particularly kids, are so drawn to Abner and react so positively to him, that I think this would be a benefit for the people we might visit and would probably be gratifying for us as well. I’ll report on how it goes in a later post. We are planning a fairly long trip to California this summer so I might wait to start this program until we return in the early fall.

It is time for Abner’s evening walk so I need to finally finish this and get it posted. Until next month. . .
It's always good to start with pictures of Abner. He just loves to lie down in this leafy ground cover. . .although ivy is a favorite as well. Below you can see him zonked out on the balcony. When the weather is cool enough he will spend an hour or more just enjoying the breeze and periodically checking on the activity on the street below us.
This is one of the more unusual scenes I have spotted from the balcony. I didn't realize we had pedicabs in Asheville, but the woman powering this particular one up Lexington Avenue must be in pretty good shape. It is enough of a hill that people on bikes take it pretty slow. I can't imagine the load of that vehicle and its passenger.
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The day I shot this photo was the last at Biltmore for Millie, shown above with Abner. I feel bad that anyone who knows him by name hasn't been in the blog and this was my last chance to get Millie in. All the people at the estate are so friendly and helpful that the task of recognizing them all is impossible.
I am really curious about the above critter. I have now seen two of these around and about in the last couple weeks. They don't seem very animated and are quite cooperative when you hold a camera right on top of them. I would appreciate an email from anyone who can tell me what kind of bug this is.
I mentiond the drum circle in Pritchard Park on Friday nights. This shot doesn't even begin to convey the number of people who gather for this weekly event, but you can see that it is a pretty uninhibited deal.
Abner looks good in green I think.
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The azaleas really were beautiful this year. the bank below is in the lower part of the azalea garden at Biltmore as you approach the Bass Pond. It is a testament to the brilliance of Frederick Law Olmsted and Chauncy Beadle that this garden is over 100 years old and looks almost as if it happened strictly courtesy of Mother Nature.

In the photo above, you can just barely see a pileated woodpecker. These beauties (from which Walter Lantz drew the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker) are not easy to spot and harder to photograph. This pathetic shot is my best. They are quite shy and will simply move to the side of the tree trunk on which they are working that is opposite from where anyone might view them. This is defintely a photo you will have to click on and enlarge if you want to see this bird at all. He (or she) is on the left side of the tree trunk in the center and has a bright red head.
When the tulips were finished for the season the gardeners replaced them with poppies. Very nice.
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On the handrail leading from the bridge over the dam at the Bass Pond, there is a fairly long black snake who just decided that this was the perfect spot to lounge. This snake is probably about 5 feet long and scared the living shit out of a woman who was approaching as I was taking this picture. She was running her hand along the rail completely oblivious to the reptile. Black snakes aren't poisonous but I am told that the bite is painful.
If I have a favorite tree at Biltmore it is this European Beech tree. It is huge and leafs out in purple in the spring, turns greenish during the summer and displays golds and oranges in the fall. It also is probably the most perfectly symmetrical tree I have ever seen. Amazing.
For about three weeks the azaleas put on a phenomenal display. Most are done now although there are some native species that continue to bloom into August.
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In April, before the trees really had leafed out, we spotted these kayakers on the French Broad on what passes for rapids. This is in the middle of the stretch that separates the East and West sides of Biltmore Estate.

This is, I guess, something of an obligatory pose for visitors to Biltmore. Here Kathy patiently is posing with Abner on a beautiful day in April. Below is a shot of an amazing variety of hydrangea that I saw in the conservatory at the estate.
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