Sunday, August 2, 2015

Nothing to Do

It's rare that I swap day for night. Rarer still when I get up to an empty page in my datebook.

So with absolutely nothing planned for any part of the day or night, I punted, also known as trolling Facebook to see what I'd been invited to while I'd been out of town so much lately.

Barely over a week since my last live music show at a bakery, I returned to Sub Rosa for an afternoon of music by Yeni Nostalji Lite, which is to say vocalist Christina, guitarist Vlad and, on a few songs, Tim on acoustic guitar. It was such a casual performance that they were all seated in the big front window.

Vases of zinnia, marigolds and sunflowers sat on every table, all of which were occupied, in some cases with groups of strangers. I spotted the Italian speaker at the bar, a French food-loving teacher in the back and waited, knowing that the artist would make the effort to come over for a hug and to say hello.

He did.

Between Sub Rosa's usual Sunday business and patrons who came for music but also got seduced by the baked offerings, it was pretty much a constant line at the counter, breaking up my view from a stool butted up against the glass of that counter.

Not that I could blame anyone.

Despite having already eaten, I was unable to resist the siren song of roasted pepper quiche calling to me from behind the glass next to me. "Karen, eat me, eat me..." it wailed directly to me. The guy sitting next to me approved of my choice, noting, "I look forward to that quiche every week." Tellingly, his plate contained nothing but crumbs.

I'd gotten my quiche along with a Pentiman's rose lemonade because it was a hot day, never more obvious than when a woman walked outside and promptly fainted. The Turkish folk songs stopped mid-note and several people rushed outside to help her.

Turns out she'd gone for a long bike ride this morning but hadn't had anything to eat or drink. Foolish girl. She was packed off into her boyfriend's SUV and taken to an undisclosed location, presumably to fuel her body so it didn't give up on her again.

Yeni Nostalji returned to playing things such as 300-year old anti-war songs sung in obscure Turkish dialects (a guy in front of me leans over to his partner and wonders, "What language are they singing in?") with Christina shaking her armful of silver bangles when percussion was needed.

At the counter, the line continued with my favorite customer being the guy who began by asking what everything was and then ordering one of everything - seeded braids, almond croissants, shortbread cookies, chocolate croissants, beef borek - except quiche because I'd gotten the last one.

The attentive audience laughed when Christina announced, "I'm sorry, but this song is typically a duet so I'm going to have to sing a love song to myself." Never was baker (and fellow bandmate) Evrim so missed.

No woman should have to sing a love song to herself.

They ended their set with the same song with which they'd begun, making for perfect Turkish symmetry.

Leaving Church Hill for Jackson Ward, I'd decided to go see TheatreLab's production of "The Altruists" because I'd been hearing so much good about it and they were offering a great deal today. Patrons had only to roll a die and pay whatever the roll was plus five. I rolled a "6" so I paid $11 for my ticket.

The only problem was, I mistakenly assumed everyone had done the same until the woman next to me, a scientist who always enjoys the theater but too rarely makes the time to see it, shared that she'd paid full price ordering her ticket online earlier this afternoon.

Oops. This is why they say loose lips sink ships, Karen.

I spotted a few more familiar faces - an actor, a critic - before the lights went down and the audience was thrown into the back seat of a bus that was already hurtling down the road at breakneck speed.

McLean Jesse was chewing scenery and picking her teeth with the splinters as the actress Sydney (who plays a character named Montana Beach in a soap opera called, what else, "Montana Beach") who is telling off her unfaithful boyfriend Swallow as he sleeps the sleep of the drunk in bed.

"I see now I was just drunk with sex!" she shrieks at the unresponsive Swallow. "No man's perfect, but some are better."

This is the only thing that gives the straight females of the world a reason to keep trying.

In another bedroom, her brother Ronald is professing his love to Lance, a male prostitute, not that Ronald knew that when they hooked up. Already he's in love.

And in the third bedroom of the cleverly designed set, we see that Swallow (played at fever pitch as an unrepentant womanizer by Evan Nasteff, wearing a "F*ck SeaWorld" t-shirt) is just waking up after a drunken night of sex with Cybil, the purported lesbian.

So who was Sydney yelling at in that bed then?

Everyone but Sydney here is an aspiring activist (she doesn't like sweating or too much sun exposure), eager to attend protests and have a part in changing the big, bad world.

The problem is, they only want to do it if it's easy and convenient. Most of the time, none of them can even recall what this week's protest is about. Black lesbian rights or gay Latinos? School funding or government free cheese?

They all claim to want to do the right thing, but they all sponge off Sydney's money, using her house and car for "the cause" and with no acknowledgement of the bigger picture.

Sydney has done a bad thing, a criminal act, but they put their collective consciences on the back burner and protect her rather than losing their cash cow.

If, as John Mayer sang, "Numb is the new deep," these "altruists" are as deep as the ocean. It's tough not to sell your soul down the river when surrounded by nothing but people with no moral compass.

TheaterLAB has done it again, choosing a play with strong and thought-provoking dialog executed by a cast so strong it's impossible to shine a light on just one when all five shone in their roles. The set was brilliant, each room expressing its owner's life and place in the world. Lighting design played a starring role as the action shifted from one room to another at the drop of a hat.

I'd lucked into a fabulous afternoon of ensemble acting at its strongest.

Even after a walk to Cafe 821 for dinner set to a little thrash, I was home by 8:30. As in, before 9:00. Looks like I'll finish my beach read tonight, miles from the sound of the ocean.

Heard some beautiful live music, laughed and winced to a smart play and ate out twice. No days are perfect, but for one that began with an empty slate, I'd say I did pretty well.

Don't go getting any wild ideas about me, though. I still think nights are way better.

Microgrooving French Style

Record collectors like to show off.

So when - hypothetically, of course - they put on Dean Martin's 1960 gem, "This Time I'm Swingin'," they're inclined to say something cocky such as, "Only five or ten people in all of Richmond could play this for you."

Probably true.

Talk centers on the happy couple hosting me who have spent the afternoon trying to free up a vintage DeSoto from her long-ignored garage. Given the heat, I understood that it had been a sweaty and rather unpleasant undertaking. The manly one explained it best. "I don't do manual labor."

After swingin', we moved on to Sarah Vaughan's "After Hours at London House," an album recorded at 2 a.m. after she'd already done three shows that night. It's awe-inspiring: her energy, her ease and her improvisational skills while singing the final number, "Thanks for the Memories."

No doubt tired by that point, she improvises, singing the line, "Thanks for this night being over."

While we're listening to these albums, we're taking a stroll down record memory lane with the album sleeves touting the label's other offerings: Mort Sahl, Anita O'Day, Ethel Merman. But what's just as compelling are the dire warnings about equipment.

Play safe! Ask your dealer for the new Columbia needle. (Needles, the gateway drug...)

This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on monophonic and stereo phonographs. It cannot be obsolete. (Cannot is such a big word...)

The Vaughan sleeve had three distinct sections, all instructional: Taking care of your records, taking care of your needle and how to listen to high fidelity. A girl could learn a lot reading an album sleeve.

Our next selection for the turntable was ideal given our earlier meal at Amour. There, we'd come upon a chalkboard on the sidewalk with a weather report warning of a flooding of Rose at the bar. Time to get wet.

We'd begun with my friends ordering vichyssoise (the owner provided a cultural history lesson about the genesis of the soup that tied into Waldorf Astor, a major figure in the book I'm currently reading) while I'd made a bee line for the octopus salad with olives and frisee in lemon juice, olive oil, red peppers, shallots and parsley. Perfection.

"To me, this is what summer tastes like," the owner said, echoing what I was thinking about the salad. Ditto Le Petit Rouviere Rose and a tomato and Dijon mustard tart that rewarded me up front with the sweetest of tomatoes before finishing with a hit of sinus-clearing mustard to put your taste buds on alert. Just beautiful.

We'd finished with desserts of sorbets (decadent cocoa, lychee, cantaloupe pastis, raspberry) and a dessert special of an espresso chocolate tort with blueberries and cream, naturally. Summer fruit was in every bite.

Post dinner, fat and satisfied, we were now listening to Dean's "French Style," a 1962 record that showed him wearing a beret and with a cigarette holder in his mouth. Tres continental, if a bit condescending.

But, oh, how it sounded! With the smuggest of looks (and completely correct), my host observed, "There are only two other places in Richmond where you might hear this."

The record was as much a cultural artifact as a collection of French-inspired songs, ranging from "C'est si Bon" (with chorus) to "April in Paris" to "La Vie en Rose." We danced in place and swooned to all the accordion.

When "The Poor People of Paris" (also with chorus) came on, my gregarious and only slightly loopy host observed, "This was my first favorite song when I was four. But it was an instrumental version." (Note to self: how come you don't have a favorite song from when you were four?)

Frankly, I credit his music-loving parents for having exposed the four-year old to such a song. Well done.

Returning to our swingin' roots (and after a discussion of how the connotation of swingin' has morphed since the early '60s), we closed out the night with the obscure album, "Ella Sings Sweet Songs for Swingers."

Ah, for the days of such alluring album alliteration.

"Let's Fall in Love" was fine but her version of "Makin' Whoopee was sublime, her voice crystal clear, the take definitely swingin' but also hugely atmospheric.

Not to give anybody a big head, but I'm willing to wager that there's nowhere else in Richmond I could have heard that tonight. Especially after a charming French meal that tasted completely of summer.

Such evenings can never become obsolete.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Star Power

If I can't be at the beach on a 93-degree day, I may as well be learning something in air-conditioned comfort.

Chop Suey Books was hosting Emilie Raymond, author of "Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities and the Civil Rights Movement," for an afternoon reading and aside from my avowed preference for non-fiction, I've always been fascinated with that period in American cultural history.

The room eventually filled up with her friends and others curious about mid-century celebrities using their clout for good, while bridging the period between old Hollywood (the studio system) and new Hollywood (after the Supreme Court's 1947 decision effectively breaking up that system and spawning an era of independent films).

First of all, I was so pitifully uninformed that I'd had no idea that it was a court decision that had changed the system. I'd just assumed it was that the cultural times, they were a-changing.

Turns out it was during this 25-year transition to "message movies" that these public personas intersected with the burgeoning civil rights movement. It was still a big deal in 1956 when celebrities began using their status to help the movement, but it wasn't until 1964 that it was considered fashionable on a larger scale.

And, of course, some people are only going to do it once it's safely fashionable.

She labeled the big six original participants as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dick Gregory, with a later wave of such people as Brando, Sinatra, Dianne Carroll, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster and, unlikeliest of all, Charlton Heston.

Yes, apparently before he became an evangelist for the NRA, he championed civil rights. Who knew?

Their role was to donate money, hold benefit shows to make money, bring publicity to the cause and, at its most basic, articulate the civil rights message in a voice the public trusted. A hell of a responsibility, in other words.

Raymond said one of the most surprising things about her interviews with civil rights activists was their statements about how much it meant to them to have the celebrities there and participating in the movement. One even mentioned one of the celebs asking for the activist's autograph. Another mentioned how Brando had grabbed her ass in the elevator, a revelation that surprised no one.

Sammy Davis, Jr. rated as the top fundraiser for the cause ($750,000), although he had such deep-rooted fears about how a black Jew would be treated in the South that he chose not to go.

During the Q & A, the most interesting question came from the lone black audience member. She wondered if Raymond knew why the current crop of black celebs are so hesitant to stand up for the cause today with issues such as #Black Lives Matter. Jay Z and Kanye West took the brunt of the criticism because they have the potential to influence so many but choose not to.

Honestly, don't you think it's as simple as Kanye and Jay Z not being the same caliber of human being as Belafonte and Poitier? It's the 21st century way - why extend yourself when it doesn't directly affect you or your brand?

Maybe that's why this period in history is so fascinating to me. More "we," less "I."

Friday, July 31, 2015

Girls of Summer

I was raised to enjoy everything about a beach getaway.

There are the signs I pass cruising down Route 460 on a Wednesday morning:

Sunday night church services (plenty of time to recover from Saturday night)
Local produce and pickling spices ('tis the season)
Pass the Salt Cafe (shouldn't the kitchen know how to season the food?)
Mutt & Jett's Country Kitchen (do millennials even get the reference?)

There's the country store where I stop to get a six-pack of RC Cola in bottles and spot a sign next to a handsome old, chipped stone jug, reading, "Not perfect but I still have character and purpose."

A steal at $20.

My destination is an orange beach cottage with red trim and a porch that fronts the ocean (although there is a road - but no house- between us and it), an outdoor shower (beach view but no sky overhead) and two of my sisters in residence.

They're two of my favorites, but our beach preferences couldn't be more different. They keep the windows closed and the A/C on, despite a constant ocean breeze, but allow me to keep my bedroom windows open as long as my door stays shut.

They're sun worshippers while I prefer to be under an umbrella and a layer of SPF 70.

I'm gone for hours walking to the Avalon and Kitty Hawk piers north and south of us, meeting people along the way and being shown how to cast nets, while neither of them walks for more than 15 minutes.

When I make an effort to rise and shine at the ungodly hour of 8:30 in the morning, I discover they've been up since 7, awaiting my entrance.

And the laugh attacks are pretty much non-stop. When you've known two women their entire lives, you have a lot of memories to share and a lot of sentences that don't need finishing. What's funny is how they - along with my other three sisters - have always counted on me to be the keeper of the memories.

What year did Mom and Dad begin taking us to the beach? What turned another sister into someone so mean? What happened the first night we met a potential brother-in-law?

While I was there, we were invited to two happy hours, one by yet another sister who'd just the day before celebrated a birthday at her cottage and then the next night by an Irish friend of Sister #2's.

As Pru would be the first to point out, what's not to like about two nights of hors d'oeuvres for dinner?

It was at the first  happy hour that the four sisters toasted with the RC Colas I'd brought, a beverage steeped in memories for all six of us. Growing up, Mom would buy one six pack of soda a week, always either Coke or preferably, RC, her favorite. Each one of us got one bottle to enjoy anytime during the week we chose to.

This was back in the olden days, kids, back before high fructose corn syrup and childhood obesity ruined everything.

There we also were entertained by Sister #3's ragtag bunch of bachelor friends, all of whom had changed their plans and come a day earlier once they'd heard about the sister happy hour on Wednesday. It's nice to know we still have that kind of draw.

When we left there to a chorus of "please stays," it was because we wanted to head to Dune Burger and gab while inhaling classic beach burgers al fresco while the sun set.

Thursday's happy hour had the benefit of an oceanfront deck (where, impressively, the outdoor shower was situated), loads of seafood (shrimp, mussels and clams) and several people we didn't know, which always makes it more fun for me. The Irish couple I especially enjoyed, as they drolly noted that they "live on an island, can't swim and don't like seafood."

Not so the rest of us, who dove in amid jokes about getting "the gout," hilarious to everyone except Sister #2 who actually got gout last year after eating seafood for 14 straight days at the beach. We all agreed that  it sounds much funnier when referred to as "the gout," although #2 didn't seem to think so.

That night, we caught a major fireworks show on the beach right in front of where we were staying, an unexpected bonus given how long it's been since July 4th. I do wonder, though, how it is that given the abundance of signs saying that fireworks are illegal in North Carolina, there are always visitors shooting them off?

Both nights were gorgeous for the brightness of the moonlight late into the night, something we took advantage of by talking on the porch until we couldn't access our nouns any longer. My only regret was that Friday was the full moon lighthouse climb, something I've been trying to do for months but it never seems to work out.

Days were spent talking and reading on the beach, all the more interesting because I'm currently reading James Fox's book, "The Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia," a fascinating biography of the fabulous Langhorne sisters. Because so much of the book deals with the dynamics of the sisters' relationships, I was able to read aloud entire passages that, with a few name changes, could have been written about me and my sisters. They roared listening.

Apparently the problems of inter-sister relationships are not only universal, but timeless.

Today dawned rainy as we devoured cinnamon puffs, a breakfast pastry that had been a favorite during our childhoods (and one I hadn't had in decades) and local peaches so juicy they ran down our arms while eating them (my stone fruit allergy limited me to just a few bites until my tongue began itching and swelling) before the sun broke through and we headed straight for the beach.

Coming across an abandoned boogie board on the way, I step on it and do my best surfing impression, cracking up both my sisters.

"Karen, you're a mess!" Sister #4 laughs, doubled over. Sister #2 just shakes her head, her usual response to my humor.

No, a mess is the sign I pass on the way home that reads:

Weekend Special!
Diesel $2.59

But, me, a mess? Au contraire. I may not be perfect but I still have character and purpose. I don't know that I can let myself go for $20, however.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fine Wine and Impressions

It took almost six years, but I did it.

Back in 2009, I'd read about cask ales arriving in D.C. via Churchkey, here, and been drawn in because the article had been written by the Post's then-art critic, Blake Gopnik. Lo these many years later, I decided to head up and finally find out for myself.

Sure, you could make a point for cask ales being available in Richmond now, too, but that wasn't the point. Churchkey is known for being a beer mecca - hello, 500 bottles, 50 drafts, 5 cask ales. Besides, trying it there meant an art getaway, too.

Stop one was the Freer Gallery on the mall to check out "Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer and Venice," an exhibit of etchings that made a Whistler devotee of Freer, a man who had not yet been to Italy but was enthralled with the images.

It wasn't just Whistler's technical mastery, but the innovation of form, the way he was able to evoke light and atmosphere on paper at a time when that wasn't the norm. But what was so cool about his choice of subject matter was how ordinary it was. Not for him the landmarks, churches and usual inspiration.

Instead he sketched gardens, fruit stalls, balconies and turkeys in alleys. The kind of stuff you'd discover wandering the streets or floating in a gondola. A drop dead gorgeous collection of images.

Since I share with the long-deceased Mr. Freer a passion for Whistler's work, my next stop was upstairs for "Freer and Whistler: Points of Contact," a gallery of paintings, prints and drawings that represent Whistler's synthesis of Eastern and Western art. It was that interest that led Freer down the rabbit hole to becoming a lifelong collector of Asian art.

It was while visiting Whistler's iconic Peacock Room, designed to house Freer's extensive collection of Japanese and Chinese pottery (but also documenting the dissolution of the friendship between Whistler and his then-patron Frederick Leyland during the creation of it), that I met a couple of women, one from London, the other from Boston.

Don't you both have fabulous museums in your hometowns, I asked. "Yes, but they're not free," they shot back. Touche. In town for a soccer game, they'd overheard me asking about the Peacock Room and decided to tag along.

Make new friends, but keep the old and all that rot.

From there, we went to see Darren Waterston's "Peacock Room Remix: Filthy Lucre," a reimagining of the Peacock Room and its sordid story of a patron and an artist who parted ways over art and money.

Meant to be seen from all sides and reconstructed at 90% scale, Waterston took ten months to plan every inch of the room. Instead of delicate Asian heirlooms, the broken and crooked shelves held garishly painted, chipped and downright broken pieces of pottery. Oozing gold spots covered the floor and shards littered it.

In Whistler's room, the large painting of two peacocks showed them fighting, a representation of him and Leyland and their falling out. In Waterston's version, the peacocks are eviscerating each other and it's not pretty.

It was a helluva dark take on the original.

While we were experiencing the room with its haunting music and eerie red light emanating from the windows, a couple walked in, looked around and turned on their heels. In a French-accented voice the man said, "They're comparing this to Whistler's? You gotta be kidding!"

Mais non, you're missing the point, monsieur.

As I was finishing the exhibition, I heard a crack of thunder outside that sent me straight to the interior courtyard, a lovely space with a fountain, trees and places to sit. Within seconds it was pouring rain, so I found a cozy place on the porch to watch the lightening show while around me, other visitors sat in chairs, took their shoes off and napped.

Why anyone would choose to sleep through a magnificent thunderstorm is beyond me. The deluge turned the fountain into a frothing piece of art while I counted off the seconds in between thunder and lightening, hoping for more but knowing I had places to be.

Namely at the front door to meet my companion and get ourselves to Churchkey to meet a favorite couple by 4:00. Luckily, I'd brought my umbrella. Driving over to Logan Circle, we passed scads of tourists soaked to the skin hurrying along. The kids looked like they were having a ball, the parents and school group leaders, not so much.

At Churchkey, we managed to be customers #3 and 4, choosing a bar table by the enormous front window with a view of the fast-moving clouds, a far cry from the dark recesses of the back tables.

Our server was eager to indoctrinate me into the world of cask ale after I shared my story, suggesting that Big Chimney's Porter from Mad Fox Brewing company would be the best choice for me, mainly because the other cask ales were all IPAs.

Not the right choice for a cask ale virgin, apparently.

I was barely a few sips in, pleased at the warmer temperature and lesser carbonation, when the happy couple showed up, impressed at me with a beer glass in my hand. After expressing her astonishment, she looked at our server and demanded tots, lots of tots.

Our server, a transplant to DC from Raleigh and musical to boot (treble clef on one hand, bass clef on the other and played bass and drums), let us know that all meats were cured in house, all breads housemade, almost all ingredients locally sourced, so we ran rampant over the menu. So, sure, he'd bring tots, but might we want more?

Duh. Buffalo wings, garlic breadcrumb mac and cheese sticks, fire-roasted shishito peppers, Fontina grilled cheese, fettuccine with pork belly, fig and prosciutto flat bread with bleu cheese. And tots.

The mention of Raleigh took us on a tangent about the couple being at a beach house and finding a koozie from Taylor's Fine Wine and Fish Bait in Raleigh. As if that combo - fine wine and bait- wasn't evocative enough, the logo was a worm emerging from a can o' bait with a wine glass in its (non-existent) hand.

She assured us she'd left a koozie of her own to replace the Taylor's one she took home.

He amused us with stories about having recently gone to see Billy Joel ("The saddest bunch of white people you ever saw in one stadium," she inserted). They'd enjoyed the show, acknowledging that the man had a lot of hits and still sounded note perfect, but the highlight of the evening wasn't from the piano man.

Apparently Billy Joel has a guitar tech known as Chainsaw (That's the story I'd like to hear. Chainsaw?) and Chainsaw gets to come out and do one song every show. For this one, he'd come out and done a kickass version of "Highway to Hell." She said some of the audience members looked like their evening had been hijacked, but they loved it.

I'd like to say that after my first cask ale, I ordered another, but that would be a lie. Instead I took tastes from all three of their many beers, probably enjoying the very citrusy Fresh Squeezed IPA from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon most.

And now I can cross off "try cask ale" from my bucket list with a clear conscience. Thanks, Blake, you art geek, you.

When we left there it was to head to their house. Milling about the kitchen, she looks at him and asks, "Should we go down to Shorty's?" and he raises an eyebrow and nods. Drinks in hand, we troop downstairs and outside where sits possibly the coolest tiki bar I've ever seen.

A corrugated metal lean-to angles off the roof where lights of many colors are strung. Lighting hangs from a waterski, with surfboards, catchy signs and colorful miniature license plates making up the decor. A rough-hewn wooden door is the bar, around which sit five stools of varying styles. Two sling chairs sit under the lean-to. A wooden swing hangs from the outer edge and I immediately get on it.

With a citronella candle burning brightly, a stereo behind the bar plays a mix tape that ranges from Todd Rundgren (amazingly, the second time I've heard "We Gotta Get You a Woman" in five days) to the Decemberists to Amos Lee. The story of how it was named Shorty's is a doozy, although unprintable on a wholesome blog such as this.

On a sultry summer night, this is the most wonderful place we could have ended up.

Conversation flows, much of it the kind of in-depth movie discussion that only true cinephiles enjoy. Dissecting the best picture nominees. Comparing new and old "Mad Max" movies. Which is better, the film or the book "Gone Girl"? What was sadder, "The Imitation Game" or "Theory of Everything"? Discussing Bond has the potential to go on until dawn.

Eventually, we go to bed because there is more art to be seen today, this time at American University, a place I've never been despite being a native Washingtonian. We wind our way through Georgetown, past Dumbarton Oaks (still hoping to make it to that pool), and onward to AU.

The women who greets us at the Katzen Arts Center where we've gone to see the "Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb" exhibition, points the way upstairs to the third floor and says, "Enjoy it," then retracts that. "Enjoy is the wrong word," she corrects herself.

Part historical exhibit, two parts artistic exhibit and overwhelmingly moving, this is like several shows in one.

Part of it began in 1947 when a Washington church group sent art supplies to traumatized Japanese elementary students, giving them a chance to express their vision for the future. The drawings and paintings are surprisingly positive - kids flying kites, playing games, frolicking by the river - and some of them amazingly deft.

They toured the U.S. back in 1949 and after this show, they will be returned to Japan.

Another part of the show is the history of the Atom bomb, along with artifacts from the bombing as well as photographs of the aftermath. Seeing a woman with the pattern of her kimono burned into her back and shoulder is as unsettling as it is striking. Another of the image of a man's body burned into a concrete step is beyond comprehension.

Artifacts- rosaries, school jackets, a watch, even glass bottles - show the effect of 6,000 degree heat, as do photographs of burn victims.

But the centerpiece of the show is a series of panels by husband and wife artists Iri and Toshi Maruki, who arrived shortly after the bombings and then spent decades (the panels range from 1950 to 1995) documenting the bombing and its aftermath. Each enormous panel addresses another aspect of the horror, but they're all stunning in their impact, even in the beauty of the imagery despite the subject.

With the 70th anniversary of the bombings next week, it seemed like the right time to learn more about the events and the artistic reaction to them, especially since the show leaves in two weeks.

And as long as I was in Washington to worship Whistler, throw back some cask ale and get my tiki on, the least I could do was go through the exhibit and leave my comments in the guest book before it all returns to Japan.

Make love, not war. Try cask ale at least once. And try your best never to let an important free exhibition go unseen.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Groot Dinner

It's always impressive when you start dating a man who pegs your interests without being obvious about it.

After a perfectly pleasant first date, a guy bowled me over by showing up for our second date with tickets in hand. One pair was for the ballet the following month, one pair was for the theater two months hence and the last set was for a performance by the National Symphony three months later.

Flippin' brilliant. Not only had he already ascertained three ways I enjoyed spending time, but he'd ensured we'd be dating for the next three months.

In a similar, albeit much later and grander, vein, I'd only been dating a guy for a few months when he invited me to travel with him to South Africa for two weeks. At the time he requested the pleasure of my company, the trip was six months away. He'd put the younger man's hubris to shame.

Needles to say, those two weeks in South Africa were so far beyond anything I'd experienced up until that point that I was soon enchanted with everything about it.

The time spent in wine country, days lost in a thrilling haze of tasting rooms and tours at centuries old as well as modern wineries. We drank wines in caves, on hilltops, in glass-walled dining rooms, at quaint restaurants hugging the mountainside. Evenings meant meals in fields, local restaurants and, of course, at vineyards.

Time spent in cosmopolitan Capetown where it was no exaggeration to say that most people were not only drop dead gorgeous but bilingual, something we were not. One night was spent inside the thick walls of the first Dutch fort where we wandered table to table because each one offered another South African chef's signature dish impeccably paired with the perfect wine. A side trip so I could put my feet in the Indian Ocean.

The last of our fortnight was spent at a game preserve where we stayed in a luxurious lodge that slept four (a young bachelor our only housemate) by night and were driven around to see wildlife - hippos standing in a river, giraffes on a plain, big cats sunning themselves - by day.

By the time we headed home, I was devoted to South African wine and not for nothing. And why not? They'd been doing it since the mid-1600s and were damn good at it, not that we got much of a taste of it in the U.S. during the Apartheid years.

As a result of that trip, I never fail to notice when a wine list includes South African wines, almost always opting to order one when I can.

So of course I'm going to attend a South African wine dinner at Camden's tonight, along with a tableful of familiar faces, winos and the one friend who's as passionate about South African wines as me, naturally because he's also visited.

Our septet was seated under the stairway again, this time alongside a group of eleven women. As projected by one in our group, there were times their shrillness completely obliterated our conversation, not necessarily a bad thing given discussions of who among us was a Rose slut (raises hand proudly), who engages in beer trading (for a plasma TV, no less- one he no longer wanted, I added) and who has a beer named after her (an empress, no less).

The newbies to the group were immediately impressed with the chef's pairing ability once they tasted the briny towers of crab, shrimp, avocado and mussel paired with Cape Point Stonehaven Sauvignon Blanc and doubly so once the basket of housemade breads showed up to sop the plate with.

The non-seafood eater in our group was seduced by fish and chips of grouper and the atypical De Wetshof Limestone Hill Chardonnay that had everyone impressed with its delicate citrus nose.

When ramekins of baked rabbit au gratin arrived, the handsome one and I stuck our noses over them like they were wine, taking in the earthy, rich aroma before devouring them with brilliantly pink Badenhorst Secateurs Rose.

One person moaned a little, saying, "Can I have this tomorrow, too?" The fruit was more pronounced because of the wine's time in concrete wine tanks, a subject that took flight since some had never heard of them.

As the evening wore on, conversations went in many directions and it wasn't always possible for everyone to hear or engage in every conversation. While busy talking with those to my left, one on my right waved her hand to get my attention.

"For your blog, he just said, "You're not as important as me." This, apparently, was his response when she chided him for being on his phone after I'd made it known we don't use phones at my table during these dinners.

For any South African wine lover, the star of the evening was Warwick Estates Pinotage, a beautifully balanced expression of the native grape and perfectly lovely with venison carpaccio (spring bok is soooo hard to come by in RVA) with a luscious berry compote and spicy micro greens.

When the subject of monogamy came up as it is wont to do in mixed and slightly loopy company, the men split on its imprint on male DNA, one saying he'd never allowed himself to think anything but monogamously and the other two insisting it's a battle to stick with one woman.

Dessert of bruleed peaches wrapped in house-cured ham (started last December) caused orgasmic reactions for the sublime balance of sweet and salty, even if it was paired with the evening's only non-South African wine.

When the empress tried to make a case for how beautifully the peaches paired with the Ferreira white port, her partner (who'd earlier blundered by tactlessly announcing, "Next week we would have been together for 14 years." Would have?) responded, "Without the ham, this pairing would be like "Pulp Fiction" without Samuel L. Jackson."

Without this ragtag bunch of food and drink lovers, five courses of pairings would have been just a means to eat and drink for four hours. And my face wouldn't be sore from smiling and laughing all night.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Drunken and Psychotic

While Benny Goodman played overhead, I sipped black smoke and ate drunken figs. Just another Saturday night in R-town.

Arriving first to meet my trio of dates at the new Julep's, the hostess complimented my Hawaiian print dress as she led me to the table. I thanked her, explaining that I'd bought it in 1995. "That's the year I was born!" she enthused.

I told her I'd had a boyfriend who hadn't cared for it because it was so, well, Hawaiian looking. "I'm Hawaiian and I think it's pretty. My boyfriend doesn't like this dress,"she said of a flowered orange print. "Men!" she said, rolling her eyes.

She's flippin' 20, so what could she possibly know of men?

My threesome arrived, like me, eager to see the renovation of the former Montaldo's space. I had it on good authority that the black and white floor, the Corinthian columns and several frames (now windows, perhaps once mirrors?) were original. One of our group recalled shopping there.

The funny part was, our server wasn't sure if it had been Montaldo's or Shield's Shoes first. Hell, even I knew that much (Montaldo's).

My Black Smoke cocktail, decidedly pinkish-purple in color, united Mezcal, agave syrup, creme de cassis, muddled blackberries and egg whites, a departure - my northern roots, perhaps - from the traditionalists at the table sipping mint juleps from silver Jefferson cups.

The music wasn't all Big Band, although it was all old and familiar (see: Bill Withers) as we tucked into appetizers. My country ham, drunken bourbon figs, bleu cheese and adult arugula (as opposed to the ubiquitous baby arugula) spurred a discussion of laundry tubs, as in what an ideal place they are to soak a Smithfield ham...or wash a dog.

Seeking a bottle of wine to accompany our main courses, a server in a matching yellow watch and tie suddenly appeared to grant our wish. When our server arrived, my friend told him a little bird had already taken care of it. "A big bird named Al, I'll bet," he responded. A big bird named Al with a yellow Swatch actually.

I followed my loopy figs with a kale country salad with bacon, cucumber, cornbread croutons and buttermilk dressing, a hearty plate of greens but not quite as impressive as my dates' entrees of a massive crabcake (so large we all tasted it), black grouper and fava beans ("You can't throw a line in the water in Bermuda without catching grouper," the ex-pat shared) and karbanara (their appalling spelling, who knows why?) of ham, linguine, peas and kale.

Someday I would like to see a job created whose sole responsibility is to ensure that no restaurant's menu contains spelling, capitalization, punctuation or other word-related errors. Either that or give diners a red pen to make corrections.

Finished eating before the others, I could tell everyone was filling up by the glassy looks in their eyes, but two of us were intrigued enough by the dessert menu listing of "rich dense chocolate hominy and fresh whipped cream" to order it. The hominy was a negligible component and I'd have preferred the chocolate to have been darker, but it's always a pleasure to have a few bites of chocolate after a meal.

Because our table had been on the other side of the ultra-suede curtain, I'd had no idea how crowded the place had gotten since our arrival until we left. Outside on the sidewalk, Grace Street was positively lively with people walking about.

Not us. We had an 8:00 curtain at Richmond Triangle Players, where sculpted guys in swim trunks hung leis around our necks as we walked in. That was one way to get us in the mood for "Psycho Beach Party" (original title: "Gidget Goes Psychotic"). Onstage, other bathing suit-clad actors tossed a beach ball and danced to surf music.

RTP has found the perfect summertime diversion with a campy play that takes classic '60s beach movies and skewers them with Hitchcock-worthy psychological thrillers focused on young tomboy Chicklet (played by a guy, natch) who wants to learn to surf from the coolest surfer dude, Kanaka.

Only thing is, Chicklet has multiple personalities and one of them is a dominatrix. Fortunately, Kanaka is a willing submissive. She's planning to take over the world, first Malibu (oh, no, where will Barbie live?) and then Sacramento (that's as far as she's gotten with her plan for world domination, apparently).

Thwarting all the fun was Dan Cimo as Chicklet's mother, who resembled a prettier Joan Crawford but with just as inadequate mothering skills. Make that domestic skills, too. Her veal scaloppine exploded out of the pressure cooker and she picks bits out of her coiffure and eats them as she lectures her daughter.

I think we can all agree that one should never miss an opportunity to skewer Miss Crawford.

Of course it was hysterical, lambasting all those Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello movies, with lines such as, "You have the sex drive of a marshmallow and you're pushing 16!"


Strobe lights appeared whenever there was a fight scene, which took place in hilarious slow motion.

When the lights came up at intermission after a particularly lurid description of what two people do when they're alone, one friend joked that they wrote the script while another indicated that it was a long way from anything they'd seen before.

And isn't that why we love Richmond Triangle Players? Well, that and offering $10 tickets on a Saturday night, let's be honest.

I like to maintain my cheap date status whenever I can. Doesn't mean I'm cheap.

Friday, July 24, 2015

As the Evening Sun Goes Down

It's a little after 8 and I can hear the band sound-checking as I approach the bakery.

Inside Sub Rosa, I score a stool from the dwindling number still unoccupied and say hello to the southern-drawling Bijou champion, who lets me in on two fabulous upcoming movie events, one classic, one unreleased.

After sharing my enthusiasm for both events, I leave him when I spot pastries on the nearby counter. It's been a fabulous but long day and I haven't yet had dinner.

From a selection of delectable looking breads, knots and croissants, I choose a fat salami and Gruyere croissant, placed artfully on a stoneware plate by owner Evrim. I can tell by its buttery sheen that multiple napkins are in order.

Standing there as he prepares my plate, I overhear a woman talking about her trip to St. Martin's and its nude beach. When I think I hear her talking about a man on the beach with not just braided pubic hair, but beds braided into his pubic hair, I can't help but insert myself into the conversation.

The visual is unsettling. "It's so disturbing, I hesitated to say it aloud," she apologizes. "How much do you have to pay someone to spend that much time doing that to your, um, pubes?"

As much as they'll pay, I would imagine.

Sticking a needle in my mind's eye and returning to my stool, my fingers got shiny and my belly progressively happier as I ate the savory roll. I got a look of surprise and delight from the singer of Turkish songs when she walked in and an inquiry from the recently arrived film professor of, "What's in that?" as he pointed to my croissant. Apparently, the pleasure I was taking in my dinner wasn't lost on him.

I love being an inspiration to other eaters.

Sub Rosa isn't a big place and it continued to fill up, even after the Paul Watson Quintet - Paul on cornet trumpet, Steve on guitar, Tadd on double bass and Pippin ("The man I call Mr. Essential," Paul said) on drums - began knocking the crowd's socks off with their talent.

From inside, I saw my favorite jeweler/Viet Nam vet (tonight wearing a cowboy hat) at the front door, and he was waved around, entering through the back door. He wasn't the only one.

As talented as Paul is on horn, he's also got a terrific baritone voice and used it often tonight as he showcased material off his latest album.

After all these years
and 10,000 beers
Tell me, what do you see?

It was while the band was rocking out to "These Words" that I realized that the bakery was a gorgeous place for this show, with the sun setting behind us and the soft yellow glow of lights along the wall illuminating a crowd sitting on chairs, stools, the floor and standing. One guy even perched on the counter.

Just as I was noticing all this, Paul must have been, too, saying, "This is a timely song," and began singing, "When that evening sun goes down, that's the time I love the best," a slow and sweet song.

Massive applause followed an instrumental piece featuring Paul on cornet, and he took the moment to announce, "I want to remind you about our little merch display. It only represents 40 years, that's all. They say the best things in life are free, but they're really $19.95."

Paul's longevity in the business is well-known. Just last weekend, I'd seen a film from the early '80s that he'd voiced, his distinctive baritone a pleasure to listen to.

Behind me were two guys visiting from D.C. and it took me no time to find out they lived in Dupont Circle (R and Connecticut), my old neighborhood (21 and N). Turns out they'd come down for scuba diving lessons in Petersburg (I didn't ask) and to see this show. They already have plans to come back in August.

That's how far some people come for a Paul Watson show. No surprise there.

The band's finale was a Mark Linkous song, "All Night Home," a nod to his recordings with Sparklehorse. The crowd listened reverently before he ended the evening by introducing the band.

But the full house was having none of it, demanding "One more!" until the band obliged with a song that included the evocative lyric, "How the youthful harlots curse..." Don't they, though?

With the show now officially over, bakery owner Evrim took the mic, saying what a magical evening it had been. As he'd told us, they only do occasional shows for very special performers, which is why I try not to miss them.

"Feel free to relax for a while," Evrim said. "A while, like three minutes. Then the bakers have to go to bed."

And while I'm not a baker, I had bed in my sights, too. It's exhausting having as much fresh air and fun as I've had the past two days.

When's the last time I said that?