Sunday, September 24, 2017

Big Love

Be present. Well, duh.

That zen-like reminder was painted on the wall of the restaurant, but not the first restaurant I went to today because that one was in service of my hired mouth and was for breakfast.

Breakfast was before we took a road trip to Norfolk listening to REM and the Bo Deans and cursing people who brake for no good reason and before our silver-tongued tour guide gave us a walking tour of Norfolk's waterfront.

It was during that walkabout that he led us to Java Surf Coffee Shop, passing a window display with a sign that read, "In a relationship, one person needs to be the emotional designated driver," sparking a discussion of whether that's true or not. Dissent was expressed; I abstained.

Eventually, we made it to the piece-de-resistance: the USS Wisconsin, a circa 1943 battleship rising up like a giant silver blowfish on steroids when we first encountered it head on.

Honestly, I was unprepared for how massive it was and if we'd had the time, I'd have been all about touring it. Another time, I hope.

Impressive in a different sort of way was a ridiculously long dark blue sailboat (by that, I mean far longer than my apartment times two) with masts too high to fit in the photograph I tried to take of it. That it was registered in the Cayman Islands gave us to believe there was drug-laundering money involved, but made it no less beautiful or tremendously sized.

After meandering through downtown, we landed on the sidewalk in front of a doormat-sized inlay that used fancy script to spell out "The Fontaine Room," giving testament to the restaurant's former life.

These days, it's a swinging hot spot called the Grilled Cheese Bistro which required a short wait for one of the community tables (which is the only kind they have, a trend I embrace), but paid off in spades with exceptional sandwiches (cooked in buckets of clarified butter), killer fries and a bartender who never let the hordes wipe the smile off her face or the good attitude from her words.

I think it was because she was being present. I know I was.

Now that I think about it, though, I may also have been swayed by them having Dominion Brewing root beer on tap, because what accompanies a Johnny Appleseed grilled cheese better?

By the time we rolled out of there, a long line had already begun snaking down the sidewalk in anticipation of tonight's Hanson show at the Norva, bringing up the question, who loves Hanson that much in 2017 anyway?

Clearly the show was sold out, but it mattered not because by late afternoon, we were heading back because we've got shows of our own in Richmond, you know.

And tonight's was a helluva bill: the Richmond Symphony with Tim Barry, Clair Morgan, Natalie Prass, Bio Ritmo and Matthew E. White.

Setting out on foot, we breezed past the crowded Grace Street restaurant patios to land at Maya, where our server was a familiar face and, coincidentally, a J-Ward neighbor. Given tonight's show, the place was mobbed and he was keeping everything handled with his usual aplomb and self-deprecation.

I don't often eat three meals out in one day unless I'm on vacation (I could stretch that a bit and say that with the road trip and playing tourist all day that it was vacation-like), but sometimes you just have to eat the fish tacos and be happy someone else is willing to cook for you.

Across the street, the Carpenter Center was filling up with a mix of longtime Symphony Pops subscribers and a whole lot of people who'd probably never been to the Symphony in their life, but were fans of one of the bands performing tonight.

It was a pretty fascinating show in that local musician Trey Pollard had written arrangements for their songs based on what would best suit their existing music. It ranged from Tim Barry being just a voice and guitar to Bio Ritmo's nine musicians (tonight with the bonus of singer Laura Ann Singh) and salsa rhythms, providing huge flexibility in where and how much the symphony came in.

Clair Morgan provided humor when his band took the stage without him and he finally came out, saying, "My wife's gonna kill me, but I can't find my guitar strap." Luckily, it was soon located and they could play, vibraphones and all, without any husbands being killed.

Ultimately, rock trumped symphony and light projections made the performance oh-so groovy while the crowd didn't hesitate to call out to friends and favorite performers onstage.

In the loo during intermission, I heard my name called and there was the woman I run into everywhere: the Northern Neck, a southside coffee shop, an obscure house show, now the symphony.

Heading back to my seat, I heard my name called and turned around to see my former neighbor. When I marveled that he'd recognized me from the back, he said it was my hair. I think I believe him.

Walking through the inner lobby, I ran into a gorgeous girlfriend and once in the outer lobby, a favorite sax player greeted me. My people were everywhere.

Be present often enough and they all find you. Okay, maybe not in the Fontaine Room, but definitely here in Richmond.

Does being asleep count as being present? Asking for a friend...

Friday, September 22, 2017

No Sin, No Trespass

Fall arrives and the play's the thing again.

I've been back from the beach for exactly 29 hours and in that time, I've eaten at 2 restaurants, been accompanied by two men, seen two plays, walked 5 miles with a friend I haven't walked with since we had a non-dotard president and interviewed a southern soul legend.

All I can say is, that's a lot to jump back into after being oceanfront for days.

For plot novelty and the elusive lesbian central character, there was Cadence Theatre's production of "Fun Home," spun from the graphic novel of the same name about a young woman growing up in Pennsylvania, discovering who she was and finally learning that her father was a closeted gay man, too.

Now there's a switch from walking on the beach.

Barely a day later, I got Virginia Repertory's production of "Shakespeare in Love," which means Tom Stoppard-written words (Is she obedient? As any mule in Christiandom!), fabulous period costumes and a plot designed for Shakespeare fans and students of love.

I will have poetry in my life!

Upstairs at Max's for dinner, we were part of the sizable pre-theater crowd, though most of them were on their way to see "Shakespeare in Love" and we weren't. But we were greeted by a favorite actor stopping by to say hello and guarantee that we'd be out in time for our curtain.

He wasn't just whistling dixie, either, because he also showed up with trifle at the end of dinner.

On the other hand, it was nothing but crickets chirping at Graffiato's, where we were the lone bar sitters and the crowd didn't even begin arriving until we were well into our roasted cauliflower, pizza and monkfish. Clearly some people didn't have a curtain to make.

The best part of coming back from the beach is all the things the beach doesn't offer, you know, plays and restaurants where people don't all wear flip-flops. Engaging my brain again and restocking on opinions and experiences.

The worst part is all these people complaining today that it's 85 degrees on the first day of fall. We've got plenty of time in the months ahead for cool, dry air and I'm going to enjoy every warm moment until I have to close my windows.

I'm also going to take the advice of the 75-year old southern soul legend, who assured me from Memphis, "Don't give up on love because love won't give up on you."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe entire plays have been written on that subject. Turns out I go to a lot of them.

Because in addition to the beach, I will have poetry in my life.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

No Way, Jose

I didn't buy the t-shirt (of course there was one), but I did survive Hurricane Jose.

Which means when I got back tonight and saw a photo online captioned that it was Jeanette's Pier on Monday as Jose was bearing down, I could scoff. I was on that stretch of beach Monday and while the waves were fairly furious and creating all kinds of wild sea spray, it was nothing as dramatic as in that picture.

By the time I got home, the internet powers-that-be had already decreed the picture to be photo-shopped, but all they really had to do was consult with any of us in the Moonstruck cottage posse. Had they, we would've commenced imemdiate scoffing.

And while Monday and Tuesday were as gray, soggy and cloudy as you'd expect from a hurricane, yesterday and today were perfectly glorious: sunny, breezy and perfect except that Jose's grip on the ocean - unlike the skies - continued.

The red "No swimming" warning flags have been a fixture for four days now. My bathing suits never got wet above the waist. The heartbreak of that was how ridiculously warm the ocean water was, not that we could do more than walk along the edge of the breakers and hope for unexpected crashing waves to come to us.

On today's walk coming back from Jeanette's Pier, we watched as a lifeguard in an ocean rescue vehicle began blaring his horn to alert a man and child that they'd ventured too far into the surf. The guy looked angry at being called out and the child looked grateful to be saved from this idiot.

We also walked through a surfing competition, complete with a grandstand of judges and scores of people manning cameras with telephoto lenses. We were so caught up in our conversation that we didn't immediately realize that everyone but us was staring out at the ocean watching skilled surfers take advantage of Jose's leftovers.

But then, part of that conversation centered around peeping toms.

Let me explain: when I first went to use Moonstruck cottage's outdoor shower Monday, I was impressed because it had a small dressing/undressing area separate from but enclosed in the shower area. At least I was impressed until I looked up as I was undressing and realized that two upper windows in the house next door had birds' eye views of me or anyone else in the dressing area.

Fast forward to the next day as we're walking to the pier and critiquing cottage architecture, quality of (or absence of) screen porches and the like. I spotted a small, old school cottage in the shadow of a much larger house, but what caught my eye was that the small house's outdoor shower was so low and so open that there were at least 5 vantage points from upper windows next door where a peeping tom could get an eyeful.

That's when it hit me: maybe there's some creepy website somewhere where people who want exactly that situation can rent those two houses and indulge their, um, peccadilloes, with willing strangers.

Voyeurs rent the big house, exhibitionists rent the small one and everybody gets a little extra fun out of their beach trip this year. Twisted, but kind of brilliant, right?

As our first full day on the beach, yesterday was a day to indulge ourselves after Jose's damp start to the week, which means that by the time happy hour rolled around, we did it up right with an oceanside cocktail party.

That meant Schramsburg "Mirabelle" Brut (because a day at the beach requires good bubbles) and Pierre Prieur et Fils Sancerre Rose (and not just because it reminded me of being in the Loire last summer, although that certainly didn't hurt), plus the always-charming Aime Roquesante Rose (which, given the fish-shaped bottle, should only be sipped beside a large body of water) and as we headed in to shower prior to going out to eat, glasses of J. Mourat "Collection" Rose (also known as Old Faithful).

Our afternoon stroll included me taking a side trip to the Outer Banks Fishing Pier to suss out its worthiness for an evening meal. I met the owner at the bait shop cash register and he told me to go out on the pier, check out the restaurant and see for myself why I'd want to come back.

Let's see, tables located over crashing surf? Check. Covered for shade but open to the salty breezes? Check. Live music tonight? Yup. Owner swearing they that stay open till at least 1 a.m.? Oh, yes.

With that kind of report, it wasn't too difficult to convince the rest of the cottage's occupants that we were eating al fresco after happy hour. We scarfed fish tacos, shrimp tacos, a massive cheeseburger and a dog, while listening to the waves crash and a cover band serenading us with '70s and '80s rock hits.

Best recap of last night's meal came at breakfast this morning, when the Manteo-born queen of the beach announced incredulously, "I ate a chili dog on the pier last night!"

As it turned out, she hadn't done such a thing in at least four decades. Ditto for how long since she'd last seen waves the likes of what Jose was kicking up.

I always say, it's never too late for an experience update.

Today was every bit as beautiful as yesterday but with the ideal breezes for flying kites.

We must have passed over a dozen of them walking along the shore, including one guy who had two strings attached to his kite so he could do all kinds of flips and tricks by maneuvering the strings with both hands. Several people had gotten their kites to just the right height that they could simply tie the string to a beach chair where it flew unaided.

Best line from my hostess: "Thanks for loaning me yours," a reference to my date, who'd been good enough to play the role of helpmate - setting up beach umbrellas, digging out sandy walkways, playing chauffeur - to her until hers arrives tomorrow.

Always happy to share.

She did also threaten him with revoking his musician's card ("I"ll revoke your hippie card, too," she warned him) when he didn't know certain musical trivia about the Grateful Dead, but that was the wine talking.

Driving 19 miles up the beach road to leave with all the car windows wide open, we were greeted time and time again by the scent of grass being cut in yard after yard. It's not what you expect to smell at the beach, but there it was.

I'm usually a Kitty Hawk kind of a girl, always preferring more northerly beaches, but damn if I didn't have a fantastic time in south Nags Head this week. I liked that there were some older houses mixed in with the wanna-be-McMansions, I liked being with walking distance of two very different piers and I loved going to older places new to me to eat and drink.

Mainly I loved the slower pace and smaller crowds of off-season. I'm now wondering why I haven't spent more time down here when it wasn't summer. The ocean sounds and smells just as fabulous in fall as it did in summer.

"I can't remember the last time I drove for three hours with the windows down," my date commented as we approached Richmond, clearly as happy with the situation as he was surprised. All I'd done was roll my window down as we'd pulled away from Moonstruck and he'd followed suit.

Hmm, sometimes I think my job is just to suggest wonderful things and see who wants to do them with me.

What that t-shirt I didn't get should have said was, "I lived through Jose and all I got was four absolutely stellar days of storms, sun, fun and laughter."

October, anyone?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Seen as Something More

As Stevie Nicks once sang, "Never, ever been a blue, calm sea. I have always been a storm."

When you've been coming to the beach since you were two weeks old, you get used to storms as just part of a beach trip. I know people who are bummed when a storm interrupts any part of their beach stay, but I'm not one of them.

Yesterday's walk involved a northerly wind so stiff I walked backwards for most of it. We came across what can only be called spontaneous beach sculpture - a shapely mass of wood, wire and dried seaweed - laid out on the sand as if part of some larger display.

Glossy black sea crows (we looked them up to verify) also looked like pieces of art against a turquoise cottage with bright white trim. The ocean was warmer even than the day before, with waves crashing so hard as the tide went out that there was a constant lace of ocean spray above the breakers.

All in all, a gorgeous day even given the constantly roiling clouds, intermittent rain and changeable gusts of wind that seemed to blow from multiple directions at once.

The balcony off our room is covered, making it a fabulous retreat when it is raining and the two-seater Nags Head Hammock Company chair that hangs from the floor above is about the most comfortable, not to mention local, way to lounge while taking in the length of the beach in front of us.

When it came time to decide where to head for dinner, the state of the flooded roads became a factor so we decided to stay in the 'hood and go to the venerable Sam & Omie's.

Interestingly enough, all 3 of my partners-in-surf-and-sand have been there before. Only I had somehow vacationed for decades here without ever making it there to eat. Part of that is my preference for more northerly beaches and part is simply that I've been to plenty of places very similar, so I'd never felt any urgency to make it a destination.

We shouldn't have been surprised to arrive to find lots of people sitting around waiting for a table, but we were. It was a gorgeous evening to await our turn outside, especially given how close the ocean is to the restaurant and how briny the air smelled.

Unfortunately, not everyone had the same attitude and one group walked by us, grumbling because they hadn't been given buzzers or pagers and were expected to listen for their names to be called.

Honestly, I applaud Sam & Omie's for keeping it pure with names and not devices. It's worked for them since 1937, so why change?

Everything about it was immediately familiar: the woody interior, sprawling layout, servers who call you "hon" and a straightforward menu with only a few concessions to eating off the land. Not the kind of place to find trendy fish, but just the place to find fried clam strips.

Old school seafood eating in a convivial atmosphere right up until 9 p.m. because when you're open from breakfast on, that's plenty late enough to be serving dinner.

My flounder was stellar, my date's marinated tuna brought two large pieces of flavorful fish and the onion rings positively perfect (sweet inside, lightly battered outside), making the accompanying clams the understudy not the lead.

Where Sam and Omie let me down was with dessert. Their coconut cake had whipped cream, not frosting (unacceptable) and our server regretted to inform us that the last piece of Heath bar chocolate torte had just been served.

That's where staying with the hostess with the mostess comes in handy because she spirited us back to the cottage for chocolate rum cake which she'd picked up in Bermuda a few weeks ago and a lively game of Scattergories set to a soundtrack of '60s R&B and crashing ocean surf.

But only after my companion and I walked down to the beach to investigate the unusually high tide which had come in during our absence and, with its serious encroachment on our walkway and steps, made clear that while Hurricane Jose had moved on, he wanted to be remembered.

Me, too. And because I'm a Gemini, I'd like it to be as part blue, calm sea and part storm. Always warm.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hurricane Hideaway

The surf is fierce and magnificent.

For my fourth trip to the Outer Banks in as many months, I packed a variety of clothes to cover all possible weather possibilities given the unknown effects of Hurricane Jose. The first thing we saw when we hit the beach road was a succession of red "No swimming" flags standing at attention in the stiff breeze.

And since we were driving nearly 19 miles along the beach road - the cottage is deep in South Nags Head - that meant we saw a lot of warning flags and, even better, plenty of off-season vacationers on their porches or trekking to and from the beach despite the weather.

The cottage is newish, three stories and except for a few design flaws, a fabulous vantage point for watching Jose's fury play out in the ocean from one of the four porches. As for those flaws, who the hell builds an oceanfront house with only one oceanfront bedroom (happily for me, the one assigned to yours truly) and leaves half the living room wall facing the ocean without a window?

Amateurs, that's who.

After we arrived, we chatted with our hosts who were wiling away the gray, misty afternoon watching their favorite Italian TV series before leaving them to it and heading to the beach. It was windy and the air was wet, if not actually raining, and I needed my jean jacket for the walk.

We passed only one other person brave enough to be out there, but the shell offerings were rich and we had a pier in sight to walk to, even if it was indistinct in the mist. It turned out to be the Outer Banks pier, but that paled in comparison to seeing the strings of lights and the tables full of people eating and drinking on it, the wild surf crashing underneath them.

Bummed that neither of us had our wallets, we were buoyed to know of local spot I haven't been to, which means one more place to land this September trip.

When we returned to the house, our hostess assumed I'd used the outdoor shower because of my wet hair, when all I'd done was walk outside through 99% humidity, enjoying every moment.

Happy hour began with Miraval Rose and segued seamlessly into a marathon game of Cards Against Humanity (with cards mixed in from Crabs Adjust Humidity  and how perfectly appropriate, given our current digs) that was interrupted only by the need to eat bowls of the cook's stellar chili.

Because our room has a sliding glass door to the balcony and a window oceanfront - both open at all times in sharp contrast to the rest of the air-conditioned house - we had front row seats when Jose kicked up winds so strong in the middle of the night that it was banging the bedroom door in its frame and knocking over items on the dresser.

None of which was a problem because of the satisfaction of hearing the roar of the surf all night long, as perfect a sleep aid as ever imagined. Also a terrific encouragement to sleep in to a ridiculous hour, for those who need such justification.

I don't. If 9 hours is my usual night's sleep, surely I qualify for more when my bed is mere feet from the ocean.

We woke up to hear that school and activities are canceled and Route 12 south of the Bonner bridge is closed completely. And from the looks of the ocean - enormous breakers are rising up so high and far out that the horizon has effectively disappeared - with good cause.

Sounds like an ideal time for a walk, if you ask me. Show me what you got, Jose...

Monday, September 18, 2017

Safe Travels

How do you say goodbye to someone who left too soon?

With tears and stories and wine. It starts with many uncomfortable greetings, acknowledging how great it is to see people and yet for such a sad reason. Most people are still at the stunned stage, somewhere just past anger.

There's a box filled with slips of paper and Sharpies so everyone can write a message to she who is no longer inhabiting flesh.

This part's easy. I know what I want to tell her and I know what I need to thank her for.

Eventually, we all go outside and gather around a small fire to pay tribute to her. Some, not all, people eulogize her, share anecdotes, raise a toast and lay flowers on the fire. When everyone who wants to speak has done so, all the notes are put on the flame to become smoke signals to the great beyond.

I choose not to speak, although I know exactly what stories I'd share. Instead, I wait until people begin moving inside and go stand by the fire to silently tell her all the things that matter. All the reasons I have to be grateful for her insight.

Where I feel lucky is with how many people share with me things she said about me. She once told me that my only responsibility was to keep being as fabulous as I was, but I'd had no clue she'd said such generous things to others about me.

Everyone praises her forthrightness, her live and let live demeanor, her ability to make everyone feel like she was happy to see them.

As the hours pass, the crowd dwindles to just a handful of people sitting outside as the fire dies out. More heartfelt toasts ensue because everyone left knew her well.

Well enough to know she'd have hated what we did for her tonight, even if she understood why we needed to do it.

All I can do is remember her kindness to me and her hope that I'd find the happiness she was sure I deserved.

All I can be is glad to have known someone so gloriously unfiltered.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Film Supreme

It's in my own best interest to take a musician with me to see a film about music. Or even two.

When I saw that the 2nd annual Afrikana Independent Film Festival was showing "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary," I wasted no time in inviting a musically-inclined date. Then, for good measure, I invited another favorite musician, because I can never have too many musicians to ask questions of.

And while he wasn't available for dinner beforehand, my date was, so we strolled over to Asado and managed to grab the last two bar stools in a place full of the usual Friday night revelers as well as Afrikana-bound film lovers.

For all we knew, there were counter-protesters eating and drinking away, too.

Given the clutch of people outside on the sidewalk waiting for an opening, one thing no one was doing was lingering, so we ordered guacamole and chips to buy us time to check out the menu and then ordered promptly.

Although I'm not particularly a heathead, I was completely seduced by the honey sriracha shrimp tacos with their reassuring kind of heat - the kind that immediately fires up your mouth and then drops off quickly. All the fire, none of the pain. My date seemed to think his barbacoa tacos surpassed mine, but he was mistaken.

We didn't gulp our meal, but we definitely inhaled it faster than my grandmother would have approved of, mainly because of all the hungry people hovering near the door. I got up to use the loo before we left and a guy swooped in and claimed my stool before I even opened the bathroom door.

Our walk continued to the Grace Street Theatre where we met up with musician #2, a longtime Coltrane fan. One of several festival photographers came over and asked to take a shot of us representing some of the first VIP passholders in line (I'm just hoping it's not captioned, "A musical idiot accompanies two men with a clue").

Inside, we found excellent seats in the center and watched a jazz trio onstage, notable because the sax player's instrument was clear. As in see-through. I don't know about you, but I had no idea clear saxophones existed.

And I'm going to guess that Coltrane himself couldn't have imagined such a thing, either.

The film was a fascinating primer on Coltrane's short life (he died of liver cancer at 40) and for me, it was invaluable in laying out how the man's sound and musical philosophy developed. Equally compelling was learning who had influenced him along the way: Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk.

Of the various talking heads in the documentary - John Densmore of the Doors, Carlos Santana, Bill Clinton, Wynton Marsalis and various former bandmates of Coltrane's - by far the most engaging was Cornel West, who managed to add a dramatic element (eyes wide, voice inflection, body lean into the camera) to every comment he made, often eliciting laughter from the crowd.

One of the funniest anecdotes told was about the extended solos Coltrane did while working with Miles Davis. In one scene of Davis' band playing live, we could see Miles taking a cigarette break on the side of the stage with other musicians while Coltrane blew his solo.

Apparently, Trane's solos ran way longer than Davis' and he called him on it. Trane explained that he didn't know how to stop playing and Davis told him to try taking the horn out of his mouth. Hilarious.

And because Coltrane never did any TV interviews, his words from print interviews and liner notes were read by Denzel Washington to accompany still photos and that would be my only complaint about the film. It's impossible not to recognize Denzel's voice, which makes it tough for the words to register as Coltrane's.

There was footage of Coltrane playing at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, where his atonal, more challenging and exploratory new style caused half the attendees to walk out mid-set.

Interestingly enough, one of those who'd walked out was saxophonist Plunky Branch who, along with hip hop artist Talib Kweli, gathered onstage after the film to discuss Coltrane and take questions from the audience.

Not surprisingly, Plunky had some regrets about walking out that long ago day.

I didn't walk out of the film a Coltrane expert by an stretch, but I did leave with a far better understanding of the man and how his soulful, spiritual tone became a new standard in jazz. Like Santana said, Trane didn't limit himself to any one genre because he "played life."

Walking out of the theater, all three of us acknowledged that we'd learned things about Coltrane we hadn't known and isn't that the point of a great documentary? It only made sense to begin our post-film discussion (and my questions) on the walk home.

Once my date and I were back at my place and comfortably ensconced on the balcony, I played the only Coltrane album I own, not "A Love Supreme," but "John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman" from 1963.

It sounds like the ultra hip late night music of the early '60s when the U.S. was on a post-war high and acting like it was the coolest kid on the planet. The kind of sound that inevitably involved a low-ceilinged club, lots of cigarette smoke and a singer, in this case, Johnny Hartman, with the classic jazz vocal range of an Ella Fitzgerald.

And, you know what? His sax solos frequently lasted longer than the verses sung by Hartman. Unlike Miles Davis, though, neither of us had any complaints about that.

Conclusion of a musician and a musical imbecile: no one beats Trane for "playing life" on a warm September night.