Monday, September 22, 2014

An Easy Day's Night

With fond memories of a thatched roof, I set off for a wine dinner.

Crossing the Lee bridge, I spot a young guy, guitar slung across his back, walking across the bridge, his back to the sun as it begins to slide down into the James River.

It's a picture postcard reminder of the charm and beauty of this city.

The host for the dinner was Camden's and the winery was First Colony, the source of tonight's wines.

They'd won me over on two successive tastings with well-crafted wines and a thatched roof being put on their tasting room. Truth be told, I'm a sucker for architectural details like that.

I'm walking down the sidewalk, about to enter the restaurant as two women approach me.

Holding the door open for them, they say, "Are you ready to drink too much?" and we proceed inside with that intent.

I find the room is quickly filling up and grab a seat at the bar between two familiar faces.

Our first pour comes courtesy of a five-gallon batch made by First Colony winemaker Brad and it's a doozy.

Available only at this time of year as grapes are harvested, the apperitif Ratafia is a mixture of just harvested chardonnay juice fortified with un-aged brandy, a refreshing combination that clocks in at 18%.

Holy moly, that woman at the door wasn't kidding.

All of a sudden, the room is abuzz with tongues loosened by this 1000 year old Italian apperitif and the night is off to a brilliant conversational start.

Before long, we are poured "Zephyr," a white blend of equal parts Petit Manseng and Vidal, with just enough Riesling and Viognier to matter, paired with swordfish tacos with pickled cabbage and salsa fresca, the wine as bright as the lemon-cilantro flavors of the tacos.

The man next to me tells me about his recent trip to New England  - the radiator that died in Stowe, the DIY farm wedding in Portland with endless friends' readings and a delayed starting time, his detour to the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Graycliff House in Derby - and I chuckle at the stories.

Our second course is a Cumberland County tomato stack (and may I just say here that the tomatoes in the first three courses were a testament to the beauty of September tomatoes, so ripe and juicy they act as sirens to even non-tomato lovers like the guy next to me) wit house made ham, Mozzarella and micro basil paired with First Colony's Rose.

Everything about this dish sings with flavor and freshness, a pink feast of food and drink.

I might also mention that technically, a stack is a vertical construct and this was more of a fanned array of tomato, cheese and ham, but it wasn't the time to argue semantics.

On my other side, I had a woman who tells me flat out, "I need some alone time with the ocean," as preamble to telling me about her upcoming trip to Virginia Beach (although a another guys assures me, "Virginia Beach is not the ocean") this week.

We discuss how essential periodic ocean face time is for our type and she shudders telling me she was once married to a man who never needed to see the ocean.

What kind of human depravity is this?

With the Meritage, a blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Petit Verdot and Merlot, we dive into lamb carpaccio with fried tomato confit, a dish ideal with the light-bodied wine.

On my way back from the bathroom, I spot a couple I know from Floyd Avenue and we bemoan missing seeing "A Hard Day's Night" at the Byrd Theater tonight.

In honor of the occasion, I am wearing a thrift store find so ideally suited to the time that I could be an extra in the film.

My navy blue shift has bright gold buttons laid out sailor-style for a dress that looks straight out of 1964, a friend informs me.

Sadly, I missed the movie - which I've never seen although my friend originally saw it at the Byrd, no less - but at least I looked the part of a screaming Beatles fan circa the swinging '60s.

It is when the Monrovia Farms braised beef over spaetzel with bleu cheese crumbles arrives with Petit Verdot poured in our glasses that the room goes suddenly quiet.

People are lapping up this rich combo of meat and pasta with cheese and ignoring their dinner companions as they do. Yum.

My nearby seatmate mentions that he's been to talks and tours by my favorite park ranger, Mike Gorman, and we take off on a tangent about historical photographs, enthusiastic historical tours and how we both like to geek out over such things.

The evening closes with Mountain View Swiss cheese from Lexington, laid out with cherry preserves and honeyed walnut paste and paired with fruity and smooth Claret.

The winemaker has spent the evening working the room, explaining his wines and the pairings, and finally settles down to enjoy some food.

I've discussed salsa dancing, vacation photos, the missing UVA student and any number of other topics with people around me throughout the evening.

So far, I've heard zero mention of the thatched roof at First Colony, clearly a much bigger deal to me than the rest of the room.

Clearly they've not had alone time with the thatched roof like I have or they'd have been far more interested.

Or perhaps they'd just had too much to drink. Perhaps.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Never Too Old

After an on-the-go day, Saturday night was alright for...a movie.

I was meeting a friend at the Criterion for "My Old Lady," a dreadfully named film by playwright Israel Horovitz, with whom I'm well familiar.

Having seen more than half a dozen of his plays in Richmond over the past few years at Firehouse Theater, I appreciate his ability to walk the line between woe and tenderness.

We were far from the only ones out for a movie tonight and by the time we got our tickets and popcorn, the theater's only available seats were in the third row, meaning the most erect of posture was  necessary.

But it also put stunning scenes of Paris right in our face as the story of an unhappy American whose father wills him a big apartment in the Marais district unfolded.

On arrival, he finds a 92-year old woman (played by the indomitable Maggie Smith) as the occupant living there with her daughter and that the apartment is a "viager," meaning he has to pay her 2400 Euros a month and she has the right to live there until she dies.

Naturally, he's hoping that's sooner rather than later.

Discussing age, she informs him she likes her breakfast every day exactly at 8 a.m., her dinner at 8 p.m. and no lunch because it holds no appeal to her.

"Precision is the key to a long life," she assures him. "And wine."

Advice I intend to take.

He discovers an old photograph of his father and the woman with the inscription. "If you do not love me, I shall not be loved" - a Samuel Beckett quotation that finishes sublimely with "If I do not love you, I shall not love" - and the past rears its convoluted head.

As they get to know each other, we learn that their pasts are more connected than any of them knew and eventually he starts to be attracted to the old woman's daughter.

After he kisses her for the first time, he tells her she's beautiful.

"I'm not beautiful, I'm old," she responds.

In what is a very romantic exchange, he comes back to her the next day and tells her to repeat what she'd said about being old and not beautiful. He's come up with the perfect reply.

"A perfect flower is nearly old," he says, not sure if she'll appreciate his analogy but of course she does.

Well satisfied with a middle-aged romance that began life as a play, we walked out of the theater next to a couple who asked how we had liked it.

They'd started the evening seeing another film and walked out after ten minutes and into "My Old Lady," enjoying it considerably and satisfied that they'd made the right call.

Taking Dame Smith's advice, I invited company over for wine and music, wiling away the rest of the evening listening to the sunny dance pop of J. Views, the languid vocal stylings of Wye Oak and the timeless harmonies of the Spinners while sipping Monmousseau Cuvee J.M. Rose and Aime Roquesante Rose, so creamy tasting after the bubbles that proceeded it.

As to the precision part of longevity, I'll get to that another day, maybe after I stop basking in the glow of being considered comparable to a perfect flower. Nearly old.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Play It Now

I had a bit of an obsession about seeing the windows.

After hearing a lecture about Sheltering Arms Hospital and its 71-year history on Clay Street, here, I'd been dead curious about seeing those operating room windows that used to be opened during surgery, admitting fresh air and flies.

The notion of such a thing alone got me to the Grant mansion today where the fine folks at Sheltering Arms were offering guided tours of the rooms, complete with costumed interpreters.

As we gathered for the first tour, the crowd was asked if anyone had been born at Sheltering Arms and, lo and behold, two people in the group had.

We were led from room to room where black and white enlargements of of photographs showed the original look and configuration of the spaces and people dressed in old nurses' uniforms (and one man portraying Dr. Hunter McGuire)  told us about the staff they were portraying.

The nursing superintendent told us about how strict she was but also about how she'd broken the law by setting a fire on the roof to stop crows from nesting up there.

We saw the short-term ward, the original columns now mostly covered over with walls and the pharmacy, originally lined with wooden shelves holding bottles of donated drugs.

Best of all, I got to climb the steps to the third floor and see the former operating room and the windows that had once been used for ventilation during surgery.

At the lecture, we'd been told that the view from those windows facing east stretched for miles but today's view as cluttered with nearby buildings.

Still, I got to see what I'd come to see.

We finished out that floor with a trip to the nursery, just off the hallway that led to the nurses' residence, another facet I'd been struck by.

Aren't you always on call when you live where you work?

Leaving the medical past behind and well satisfied at having gotten a glimpse of what had been only hearsay before, I motored west to meet Pru for brunch and music at Cary Street Cafe.

Everyone's favorite Neil Diamond cover band, Diamond Heist, was playing all afternoon, with "Kentucky Woman" being performed when we got there.

It was already a full house with a small bridal party in tiaras, a steady stream of smokers leaving to go out front to puff and lots of fans of the band.

During "Soolaimon," the two women next to me instructed me to guard their stools while they went out to smoke. They were bigger than me, so I did what they told me to.

After ordering black bean nachos, lead singer Will announced, "We're Diamond Heist and thanks for being here because it would be lame without you guys."

I was happy to hear they now have a residency at Cary Street, performing every third Saturday of the month.

"Any first timers?" he asked the noisy group and a few people raised their hands. "These are for you!" and they launched into "I Am, I Said" and "Sweet Caroline," causing a raucous singalong.

When the set ended, he promised some surprises in the second set, including full frontal nudity.

Surprisingly, some people still chose to leave during the break. Not us. If twigs and berries were a possibility, Pru and I were going to hold tight our seats.

In the meantime we ate lunch - my nachos and her French onion soup - and listened to Will explain that they needed to increase their repertoire of Neil Diamond songs, which, he told us, are hard songs.

The second set began with "Hello Again" and took off with "Cherry, Cherry" after he said, "It could be called "Kerry, Kerry" and screams went up from a group of women who began dancing in the aisles.

"Red, Red Wine" elicited the observation, "Red, red wine or yellowish mimosas," a nod to all the pitchers full of mimosas standing on tables around the room.

Lit cupcakes were marched up to the drummer Dean, celebrating his 32nd birthday and the whole room serenaded him with "Happy Birthday."

Someone requested "the "ET" song - "Heartlight" and Will admitted, "That's one on the "need-to-learn" list. This is one that was requested and we know it. That's a nice confluence there."

It was the rabble-rousing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" and it had the keyboard player testifying mid-song.

Referencing this week's crowd-sourced Foo Fighters' show, he suggested the next crowd-sourced show should be Neil Diamond at the Diamond. Kind of brilliant.

"So we flipped the coin on the full frontal nudity ting and decided it was a really bad idea. There's not enough mimosas in the building for that."

They had a photographer there snapping pics for their Facebook page, so Pru and I smiled for the camera before she inched behind some big guy who barely moved to let her pass, saying to us and pointing to her breasts, "These puppies need more room. Want some?"

Um, no thanks, I have some of my own.

"I'm a Believer" and "Coming to America" got the crowd singing along on the chorus and for "Holly Holy," Will invited us to sing along or shake our moneymaker.

By then Pru was tired of sitting and wanted to exit, but I insisted we wait for "Cracklin' Rose," with the room screaming "Play it now!" in between sipping beer and talking to friends.

"We're going to close with a song we played earlier but had a request for,"Solitary Man," Will said. "It's related to full frontal nudity."

Only tangentially, I might add.

I'm Going In

Slow September is the worst month for restaurants, at least according to a piece in Eater I read today.

Unless you're a new restaurant on a Friday night, which The Betty on Davis is, and the place is bursting at the seams with loud sippers, suppers and more than a couple children.

Admittedly, it's too soon to discern anything, but sometimes you just want a first bite.

That distinctive, low-ceilinged space has gotten a face lift although I'd have preferred zero screens to the three they had and music over the shrill din.

I don't want to shout unless I'm in a club.

The menu surprised me with sandwiches so I tried fried chicken schnitzel sandwich on top of chayote, cabbage slaw and pickled red onion. Tasty.

A special of pastrami hash with sweet potatoes, corn Brussels leaves, sassafras gastrique under a soft boiled egg less so, with far too many pure fatty to meaty pieces nestled in the overly-large chunks of sweet potato.

They haven't even been open a week but I recalled the Eater article and it seemed clear that for those people who do go out in September, a fair number of them were in the Betty

And the beat goes on...

Next I met a favorite couple for my first foray to St. Benedict's Oktoberfest, obviously not intending to eat after schnitzel and slaw, but playing willing conversational partner for the walk over there and while they chowed down.

Since I'd never been, I have no basis of comparison, but it seemed like a goodly number of people were there after 9:00.

My last Oktoberfest was at the state fair ground in 1990 so I recognized the oompha music immediately, but they felt no compulsion to eat under the plastic canopies on folding chairs.

Instead we walked back to his house, put on Donovan, poured Graham Beck Brut Rose and talked about current events while they had dinner.

After dinner there were "amusements," in the form of my host diving into his music collection to play songs that then remind him of something else he wants to play and musical tangents are followed with no thought for the original starting point.

After he plays John Lennon's "Jealous Guy," I posit that the Bryan Ferry version is better and he pulls out the Roxy Music compilation CD to compare and contrast.

It suddenly occurs to him that he has a rare single of this song in record form and wants to show it off.

Grabbing a flashlight, he holds up one finger and says animatedly, "Give me 30 seconds," determined to prove he knows where everything is in his collection, despite a dubious-looking and widespread filing system.

From the depths of the floor behind the bar, I finally hear, "How about Todd Rundgren?"

My guess is he can't find the single and he's trying to distract me with someone he knows I love.

He's right.

But we don't go there because Todd is in LP form and he has no working turntable. Alas.

He plans to stump me with something unlikely and he does with Joe "King" Carrasco and his Crown from a 1995 anthology of the previous 17 years.

My reaction was immediate. Early '80s?

1982, he tells me. New wave via a Tex-Mex singer. I've no doubt I danced to it somewhere when it came out. So distinctly of that era.

I got to hear some of the songs my friend had written and played guitar and viola on, surprised to hear that most had been written as gifts for Christmas and wedding presents and the like.

"This is the closest to Beethoven I ever wrote," he said of one particularly striking passage.

Looking at his soft pink finger pads, he made fun of his hands for being un-calloused, meaning he'd not been playing much music for a while.

He tried to use the "I lost the briefcase with my music in it" alibi but I only chided him for being fortunate enough to have musical talent (I have zip) and squander it.

And, yes, I used that word specifically to make my point.

He allowed as how he could just get additional copies of the music so he could start back up."I may look dense, but I'm really smart," he said, grinning manically and tapping his forehead.

Then practice your talent, my friend.

To round out the evening's musical diversions, he played what he called "Ryan Adams' most gorgeous ballad," the soul-stirring "When the Stars Go Blue" from the 2001 Gold album, which I don't have and a song I don't know.

It's so tender, so sweet and moving, sung in the voice of a guy who knows he hasn't always gotten it right.

When the song ended, he headed upstairs to say goodnight to his girlfriend who was packing it in after a long day fighting humanity in a service-oriented job.

Me, I grabbed the remote and played the song again. Sigh, such a lovely note on which to end.

Meanwhile, back in J-Ward, I arrive home to roving clutches of VCU party-seekers, talking loudly, laughing self-consciously and, in the case of the females, dressed Friday night cute.

It's after midnight but before 1, so people are shifting allegiances with so much of the night still ahead.

In the time it's taken me to write this, I've heard one bottle broken (a girl who shrieked), a guy ask a giggling girl group, "Do you live in the dorms?" and one car driver threaten a group who wouldn't move out of the street so traffic could pass.

Kids today.

Apparently the September rule doesn't apply to college parties.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Honk If You Know Me

I got hugged repeatedly in the middle of the Lee bridge this morning, thereby proving everyone is right.

And by everyone, I mean all those friends I go out with who are always telling me that no matter where I go, I inevitably run into someone I know.

Given today's cloudy skies, it was an ideal day for taking my daily walk across a bridge, something I've done before and enjoyed immensely.

There are always cars that wave and honk and I smile back, but one of today's honkers was particularly enthusiastic.

A few minutes later, the car pulls up just ahead of where I'm walking mid-bridge and out comes Lily, the puppeteer.

Now, I've known Lily for seven years or so, carried a sign and marched in the annual Halloween parade she organizes, eaten at the spaghetti dinner benefits she holds to raise funds for puppet-making, watched her referee female arm wrestling matches.

But I hadn't seen her since last winter.

She got out of the car and did a happy dance  and I responded in kind in the middle of the bridge. Then the hugging began.

Anyone driving by probably thought we were crazy.

"I woke up thinking about you today so when I drove by and saw you, I knew it was a sign so I had to turn around and say hello," she gushed.

We spent 15 minutes catching up - Lovebomb, Bread and Puppet Theater, the upcoming parade - before resuming hugging. I walked away and she drove on.

I've run into people I know in some of the unlikeliest of places, but I'm going to say the middle of the bridge takes the cake.

At least until something even more random happens. And it probably will.

Trail of Breadcrumbs

Doing dinner progressively results in two things: multiple menus to choose from and a constantly changing array of characters talking to me.

At the first place and despite being nowhere near home, I met a guy who's about to open a business right here in Jackson Ward.

A big, gregarious fellow who'd just bought a cigar and was looking for someone to cut off the tip and light it for him, he explained his plans to open a "close contact martial arts" studio over top of a restaurant that will serve coffee, smoothies and pastries a few blocks from my house.

Eventually, he said, it'll also serve healthy Caribbean food because (I guess) nothing tops off close contact fighting like some jerk chicken.

And because I know so little about martial arts or fighting, I have to wonder: isn't all fighting close contact? You can't very well be across the room and expect to knock someone out, can you?

Clearly I know nothing about sports.

The second restaurant delivered a woman who seemed a bit glum because the transmission had died on her truck today.

"My boyfriend and I used to use it for a tree removal business, so I'm not too surprised," she admitted pragmatically.

When she really lit up was when she got to talking about her kids: one of her own, two step-children and two adopted.

The one she described as "the easy daughter," whatever that means, is getting married soon and she shared all sorts of details about planning that.

First, it was going to be at Maymont ($17,000) but that idea was dropped when her ex opted out of sharing wedding expenses.

Plan B was a cruise for 20 ($3,000) but that limited the guest list too much.

The final plan involved renting an 8-bedroom house oceanfront at Myrtle Beach, where they'll be married on the beach and hold the reception and the couple will stay on to honeymoon.

Apparently the house has two bars, one next to the pool, and she's already put in her bid for that to be her spot.

If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

Only problem with that plan was the bother of getting the South Carolina paperwork done ahead of time so they decided to get married at the registrar's office here quietly and just pretend that the beach wedding is real.

I told her how my best friend from college had done a similar thing, getting married at the courthouse on the sly with just me and my boyfriend for witnesses and then letting her parents throw them a big, splashy wedding the following summer.

Everyone was happy and no on was the wiser.

And on that subject, the woman also proudly shared that she'd recently gotten divorced on the cheap, doing the paperwork herself so all she had to pay was the filing fee.

Now all her friends want her to write a book about how to do it to save them money. I guess they've never heard of the Internet.

I'm sure if her daughter's starter marriage doesn't work out, she'd help her with the divorce just as she's helping her with the wedding.

The third place yielded nothing more interesting than a bartender who insisted on chilling a wine glass (like they do with martini glasses, filling it with water and ice) before pouring in wine.

She explained that because she liked her glass really cold, she figures her customers do, too.

At the last place, I found a colorful guy I'd met at Amuse a few years back, a man who strongly resembled Colonel Sanders minus the bolo tie (bow tie instead).

He explained to me the importance of finding a man who was passionate, who had a big brain, a man who could appreciate my fine mind and quick wit.

I was told he also made a comment about my rear end when I left to go to the bathroom.

Seems like he should have told me to look for a man who appreciates that, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Roger That

It's undoubtedly some kind of Murphy's law.

If I make plans to get away, even for 30 hours, life will start lobbing things at me.

Arriving at the Amtrack station yesterday, I hear my name being paged, never a good sign. It happened years ago as I walked into National Airport and I still recall the sense of dread.

Fortunately, it was nothing major and the Amtrack attendant who spoke to me got a kick out of hearing that I don't have a cell phone.

And by a kick, I mean he looked at me like I had two heads.

The train ride there and back was an excuse to get lost in Nigel Nicolson's "Portrait of a Marriage," the story of Bloomsbury Group member Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, but mainly about the torrid affair she carried on with a woman during that marriage.

Juicy as it was, it didn't even begin to go into her later affair with writer Virginia Woolf.

Dinner was at Vin 909 in Easport, a bungalow turned wine cafe with a serious bent for local sourcing and the owner sitting at a bar stool overseeing the kitchen in full view.

Hanging on to summer with both hands, I enjoyed Bieler Pere et Fils Rose with a Maryland blue crab roll on brioche for two reasons really.

First, when in Rome and all (Maryland, crabs, hello?) and because under the menu entry was a notation, "If you don't know what something is, ask your server, not your Smartphone."

It's almost a philosophy, like stop and smell the roses or you only live once.

That was followed with Groundworks Farm chicken enchiladas with housemade mole sauce and Fontina on a local tortilla. It was a whole lot of local.

I don't know that the chocolate pot de creme could claim the same, although for all I know the fresh whipped cream came from a nearby cow.

Driving home from the train station, I saw a guy cross I-95 on foot, easily the stupidest thing I'd ever seen on that soul-sucking stretch of highway.

Once back in the Commonwealth, I needed to hit the ground running since e-mail informed me I had five new assignments come in since I'd left the day before.

My hired mouth took precedence, meaning I had eating to do.

Parking next to a late '60s red VW bug exactly like the one I learned to drive on (it had been my boyfriend Roger's and I learned to pop the clutch by coasting downhill to avoid the trauma of getting it into first gear), I soon found myself surrounded by eaters and drinkers.

I joined the latter group via the beautifully delicate Austrian Mittelbach Rose, not even listed on the menu yet, but a fine replacement for the Renegade Rose I know so well that was.

Talking to the couple on my right, I made an assumption about him liking corned beef and she turned to me and said, "I've known him 30 years and I had no idea he liked it."

Honey, all men like corned beef, at least in my experience.

On my right, I had a couple who claimed they were cheating on their spouses together.

Hers was out of town on business and his was "singing for Jesus" so they'd decided to wile away the time with some beverages and chatter.

When she asked the bartender for a bold red wine, an Italian blend was offered. "I don't do Italian reds, so I'm not going to like it," she said, taking a sip. "Oooh, this is wonderful. Now you're going to make me admit I do like Italian reds."

She insisted I take a sip to validate that it was a lovely blend of Merlot and Corvina (it was) and once my lipstick marks were on her glass we were fast friends.

And in the "isn't it a small world?" category, it turns out I had met someone they both knew and when I shared what this man had said to me the first time he met me, they both apologized for him.

"That's just the way he is!" they explained. "Don't pay him any attention next time."

Don't worry. I didn't last time.

I met a woman close to my age and with our young bartender, Chelsea, discussed how names go in and out of vogue and how neither of us had known a single Jordan or Jessica when we were in elementary school.

Likewise, no one names their babies Denise or Debbie anymore.

She was drinking an iridescent green cocktail called "Consensual Sex on the Beach" and tried to convince me to do the same, but I just couldn't go there.

At least in drink form.

I'd had consensual sex on the beach with Roger way back when and I'd learned one very important lesson: use a beach towel.

But that's a story for another day when I don't have all this work Murphy's Law delivered staring me in the face.

That sand gets everywhere.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Coming Ashore

It may be time to bring out the hook.

I've been going to Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story at Balliceaux for nearly four years now and I have heard some stories that have blown my mind.

There have been some duds, sure, but all and all, it's been fascinating to hear people unload snippets from their pasts.

But where storytellers once respected the warning bell, they frequently ignore it now. And when the final bell rings, meaning they are through, they continue to talk.

Some even needed a third bell and that still didn't shut them up.

As if all that rule-breaking wasn't enough to warrant the hook, tonight for the first time, a guy got up to tell a story, admitting it had nothing to do with tonight's theme.

Alright, kids, you've finally gone too far.

Tonight's theme was "the river" and the door proceeds were going to benefit the James River Association, the worthiest of causes and we heard some good tales in its honor.

Toting a paddle, David's was called "Buzzards Watching" and involved a canoe trip in which the canoe wound up wrapped around a rock, a problem only until they stood on it and popped it back into shape like a Tupperware bowl.

"Island Refuge" told Kyle's story of falling in love with the water, making it his life's work and then having an awful experience that scared him off it before his eventual return to it. He'd brought a broken paddle, part of the story.

Before introducing the next storyteller, co-host Colin quipped, "Apparently it's a prerequisite to bring your paddle tonight."

The most life-affirming story came from Mike with "The Romance of a Broken Compass," the saga of him and his wife taking a 30-year old canoe down the inter-coastal waterway over 81 days.

He said they did it because it was "absurd fun," despite her grandmother worrying that they'd have to poop in a Cool Whip container along the way.

Wanna hear the most romantic part? They talked non-stop the entire way.

For sheer emotion, Amanda's "Mushy Sand" took the heartfelt prize and was the same story she'd used for her personal essay when she applied to the University of Richmond.

P.S. - It got her a full scholarship.

It was about being at the river with her Mom, brother, his friend and his mother when she was in third grade and realizing that her mother was in love with the woman and the journey she took to work through that.

Daniel from southside got the most laughs with "Destiny Comes When She Pleases" about being at the 42nd Street island and seeing a woman straddling a log between two rocks, presumably to ride it down the river, something they apparently do on southside.

At least that's what he thought until her boyfriend started calling Destiny back. She finished grinding into the tree, convulsed and returned to her boyfriend.

"Let's all stay on the north side of the river," host Colin instructed.

The first day of Fall and a tubing trip as the sun set were the setting for Fieval's story, "Between the Nickel Bridge and Belle Isle," about her ex trying to shore her up as she got tired and scared on the river and why this was a really bad idea.

For the sheer visuals, Charles" "Inappropriate Raft Guide" story, which involved a 500-pound woman,her young son and a raft that flipped as they went over a break in the dam, took the cake.

When they surfaced, Charles saw the kid moving downstream in the raft and the guide straddling the woman, paddling her as if she were a raft.

If you saw that in a movie, you wouldn't believe it could happen.

During intermission, a friend asked if I was going to share a story and I responded with an adamant no.

"You wouldn't?" he asked incredulously. "But you tell stories all the time."

Like this, sure, out into the blogosphere,  but certainly not in front of 110 people.

During the second half, names of eager storytellers were put in the hat and drawn for a chance to share their river tale.

A regular at almost every event with a story for any theme ("I almost didn't put my name in the hat because I feel like I'm an addict for this"), Wendy's involved the role of the river in childhood and contemplation.

Nurse Lilly was the first to invoke the Amazon River and her trips coordinating Patch Adams clown trips there, one of which involved a 70-year old woman who went swimming in the Amazon, got swept away and wound up with splinters in her legs when men dragged her into their canoe to save her.

"I'm really a great swimmer," the 70-year old insisted. "It was the current."

It's always something, isn't it?

The next story was called, "The First Time I Went to a Strip Club" and was being told by a Secretly Y'all virgin who claimed not to know that the stories after intermission had to follow the evening's theme.

His didn't and we had to listen to the saga of his stint with VCU's security detail and a planned trip to a strip club, which he didn't attend because he split his pants at the seam "wide enough to birth a  baby."

You can imagine how awkward this segment of the evening was. And no hook in sight.

Fortunately, redemption came courtesy of Andrew,  a recent addition to the James River Park System's staff who began by commenting on how much Richmond drinks when we're at the river

The park saw 600,000 visitors this season and the staff goes through and sorts recycling from every one of those trash and recycling cans, not a pleasant job.

"Don't bring glass," he said in his sternest voice. "Don't do that!"

He readily admitted his story ended up less what he intended to share and more of a public service announcement to be mindful about taking out whatever you bring to the river.

I thought the same thing when I was at Texas Beach yesterday and saw four glass Mickey beer bottles and a 40-ounce bottle sitting in the sand.

Some people were apparently raised by wolves.

The evening's storytelling closed with Chris, as perennial a storyteller as anyone, with the cautionary tale of an ex-friend he referred to as "Professor Gross" and "Mr. Know It All."

The ex tried to repay Chris' generosity in letting him stay over by making a meal out of seafood from the manager's special section of Community Pride ("the worst grocery store ever"). Because nothing says thanks like two-day old seafood.

By the story's end, the ex friend was serenely swimming away after leaving Chris and a friend trying to recover from an overturned canoe in the river.

He even told us the friend's real name so we could all avoid him, too.

So as usual, we heard some great stories, poignant and funny, cautionary and romantic.

We also heard the bell ring repeatedly on far too many of the storytellers. Time to start playing by the rules, guys.

Don't make me turn this car around.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Never Enough Sun and Sea

Fall is making its imminent arrival known and I'm not at all happy about it.

You see, I'm a summer person, never happier than when it's warm enough that I need a minimum of clothes. Unlike so many people I know, I'm not into scarves, layers and jackets.

So while parts of my walk this morning on the North Bank trail were delightfully sunny and warm, the shaded parts were feeling cooler than they have all summer.

When I got to Texas Beach to wade in, the river was not the bathwater temperature it's been for months now.

That leaves me hoping for many weeks of Indian summer but acknowledging that Fall is just around the corner. Sadly.

The only thing I like about the approaching season is that the cultural calendar is back in swing, meaning things such as UR's international film series, which kicked off tonight.

Before taking on an Italian film on a serious subject, though, I scooted over to Saison for fried chicken night, sliding into the one remaining bar stool between two guys watching football.

The one to the left was gracious, making sure I had enough room and welcoming me while the other was deep in his crossword puzzle.

When he asked if he could have a vodka and pineapple juice, the bartender paused noticeably and then said okay.

Both his friend and I noticed the pause, assuming that the bartender wanted him to consider the cocktail menu and perhaps order something more interesting.

His friend insisted he try something different, but the guy held fast even after tasting the other's drink ("too spicy!").

You have to respect a guy who knows what he wants.

Their half chicken arrived shortly before my quarter chicken did and it was as I was carving into my thigh that the vodka drinker said, "Look at you using a fork and knife."

Putting them down, I explained that I was only cutting into it to release some heat so I'd be able to eat it sooner with my fingers.

"Look, don't mess with her," his friend said cutting into his own. "She's been to fried chicken night here before and knows the deal."

I was pleased to see that tonight's sides were different: a cucumber and red onion marinated salad and cornbread, but not that sticky sweet variety that passes for cornbread so many places these days.

No, this was a much drier crumb and not nearly as sweet, much closer to my Richmond grandmother's classic cornbread.

You know how I do, smearing honey butter all over it, but Mr. Vodka couldn't get behind the honey butter. Too weird, he claimed, although he loved the cuke salad.

When I abruptly got up to leave for my movie, he turned to me smiling and said, "Thanks for our first dinner date."

Went pretty well for strangers, don't you think?

Then it was on to University of Richmond where I joined a decidedly mixed audience, half students and half middle-aged and up.

Tonight's offering was "Miele," which means honey and was the title character's nickname, interesting because her occupation was assisting people with suicide due to terminal illness.

The directorial debut of Valeria Golino, it was a beautifully shot, gorgeously lit character study highlighting the beauty of life and the importance of music.

What struck me was that the film didn't take a position on assisted suicide, just showed suffering people who had made the decision to check out, so Honey felt she was helping them with their request.

That is, until a man asks for her to provide the drugs to do it himself (a first since she always attends the ritual, providing the drug and often the music), which she reluctantly does.

Only afterwards does she learn that he has no terminal illness, he's just depressed and tired of life.

The rest of the film follows their relationship as she tries to talk him out of it and he holds fast to his plans.

Spotting the stud in her tongue he asks about it and she explains it has Aztec roots but he's unimpressed.

"Contemporary idiocy knows no limits," he observes. Amen to that.

When he finally comes to visit her at her tiny and spare oceanfront house, he comments, "Too much sun, too much sea, too much wind," summarily dismissing her choice of habitation.

Oh, and P.S., there's no such thing, in my humble opinion.

Not one but two older couples got up and walked out after seeing the second assisted suicide, not at all a violent thing to watch but most definitely a sad one to see the reaction of the loved one who remains.

Their loss. They missed a visually stunning film, honest to its core, with the kind of complex characters superbly acted rarely seen in American films. A film that never came to Richmond.

My summer days are waning and Fall is beginning to seem like an inevitability but at least the culture quotient is seeing an uptick.

And no matter the season, there's always the beauty of life and the importance of music..honey.

Lessons in Time

I spent the afternoon with a Civil War legacy and a young buck.

A nerdy friend had reminded me that this was the weekend that so many historical attractions were open free of charge, a fact I promptly forgot until mid-afternoon.

Luckily, two of the destinations I wanted to visit were within spitting distance.

Arriving at the White House of the Confederacy, I lucked into a house tour starting momentarily with a guide who couldn't have been more perfect or appropriate.

The great-grandson of Confederate second lieutenant Moncure, he spoke with a southern accent so thick the crowd of two dozen or so had to strain to understand the words.

"War" came out as "woh-a," for instance.

But he was a font of information as he led us room to room through the house occupied by Jefferson Davis and his family during the war, making sure we understood the difference between the gentlemen's parlor (whiskey, smoking, political talk) and the withdrawing room (music, cultured talk).

Leading us through the grand dining room, he said it was wife Varina's favorite room with its 14' ceilings.

Scratched on the mirror over the fireplace, some young belle had used her diamond ring to scratch "John is my boy" into the surface.

The library, he said, was referred to by the family as the "snuggery" for its small size and warmth.

Perhaps most interestingly, our guide made it clear that the history books had left out a lot of pertinent information about Mr. Davis.

About what a fine Secretary of War he was under President Franklin Pierce, how he was assigned to take Black Hawk to prison, the success he had as a colonel during the Mexican-American War.

I'm not sure he convinced anyone, but he tried his best. He was inordinately proud of both Davis and the house and wanted to share his beliefs.

From there I went down the street to the Valentine for a tour of the Wickham House and this time I had a 15-minute wait.

The woman suggested I pass time at the Valentine studio, instructing me to, "Go under the flowering arch and through the breezeway."

How could there not be something wonderful at the end of that path?

Despite having been in the Valentine garden and eating at Sally Bell's there, I'd never been in the studio, a treasure trove of sculptor Edward Valentine's works.

It reminded me very much of a sculpture studio I'd seen in Italy except for all the familiar faces of Confederates.

Since I had such a short time to check it out, I resolved to go back for lunch at Sally Bell's and a longer visit with the studio.

Our tour guide for the Wickham House appeared to be about a third the age of the last one and with no discernible accent.

I'd last been in the 1812 Wickham House back in the late '80s or early '90s and they were in the process of restoring the house, so seeing so much of the restoration was pretty satisfying for me.

It was obvious that Wickham, a mere lawyer of modest means, had forged quite an economic alliance by marrying a woman who came from a family with big bucks.

Let's just say the Wickhams had a walk-in closet with a window in it.

Forget that houses back then usually had no closets, this one was as big as my kitchen (admittedly small) and had a view.

Naturally, we weren't allowed on the magnificent elliptical stairway (had to use the servants' staircase, narrow and steep), but we did see the impressive Gilbert Sullivan portrait of wife Elizabeth, the poor woman who bore him 17 children.

Even non-art geeks know artist Gilbert Sullivan; he's the one who painted the iconic portrait of George Washington so for him to have painted Elizabeth speaks to her family connections.

1%, that's all I'm saying.

Coming from a house circa the 1860s to a house from 1812 meant that even a modern day visitor was struck by the differences. No gas chandeliers in the Wickham house.

And the similarities.

Rich and powerful people have never lived like you and me.

For crying out loud, they used diamonds to leave postbellum graffiti.

Fiddle-dee-dee, indeed.