Saturday, February 6, 2016

Blow Out the Candles

The thing is, you can't not go.

How can anyone in this town justify not supporting a WRIR fundraiser? Where is there a better deal for the money than eight bands, comedy and assorted DJs for only 15 bucks? Why would I skip a party barely four blocks from home? Who doesn't love multiple kinds of birthday cake?

Walking over to WRIR's 11th annual Party for the Rest of Us, I ran into the photographer/printmaker I'd seen already twice this week. She attributed it to my presence at everything. "We need to make you a shirt that says EG - Everything Girl."

Once at the Renaissance, I was one of the early ones, meaning I could hear the DJ by the buffet and it was still full of food. As a favorite DJ put it, "I realized I'm here in time for the cheese cubes!" Her excitement was palpable.

The party's organizer walked by, enthusing, "Oh, my god, Karen, your tights!" I'd pulled out the Barcelona tights for the occasion, always an attention-getter.

Music began with Half Bascule, the quasi metal improv project of Dave and Nathaniel that always kicks ass. No surprise given Dave's massive pedal board and Nathaniel's exuberant drumming (his flannel shirt came off after the first song), but the two demonstrate remarkable compatibility considering how infrequently they play or rehearse.

From an improvised duo of two, I moved over to the ballroom for Brunswick, a 13-piece complete with jazz training, music stands and the inimitable (and noticeably slimmer) Reggie on percussion. For many, it was their first time seeing the band and they were clearly impressed, asking strangers who they were.

Lucy Dacus and her coat-clad band (sparkly t-shirts were revealed once they got hot enough to doff the coats) were next and seeing as Rolling Stone recently dubbed them a band to watch in 2016, the room filled up quickly.

I'd already run into Lucy in the loo, telling her I recall the first time I saw her play (long before the band stage) at Ghost Light Afterparty, where her acoustic cover of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" made me weak in the knees. Now she's talking about the band soon making music full-time.

They grow up so fast, don't they?

Checking out the comedy showcase, I head a woman talking about her West Virginia/Muslim roots and somehow turning it into humor ("I moved to Richmond so now I drink craft beer and have cats tattooed on my back") before heading out for birthday cake.

With four kinds of cake, I chose chocolate chocolate, but had to cool my heels with other cake lovers until forks were brought out to eat it with. You want to eat with dignity when you're scarfing cake in front of hundreds of people.

Back in the ballroom, the all-female band Christi won my ears with a combination of girl group and punk influences, although as more than one friend pointed out, the incredibly high ceiling in that room compromised the sound quality ("They sound much better at Strange Matter," Paul told me and he would know) somewhat.

But their energy was terrific, the songs were all three minutes or less and lyrics resonated for those of us with girl parts. Besides, it's just such a treat to see an all female lineup, especially rocking that hard. You go, girls.

Night Idea played to a selection of silent movies behind them and their familiar math rock/proggy sound was well-suited to the black and white classics. "I think Richmond has more prog bands than metal bands these days," the film lover whispered to me.

I think Richmond has more independent radio fans than anything else and I can always count on seeing them at this birthday party.

From the dance party king just back from a shoot in Tidewater to the scooter queen recently back from a trip to Costa Rica to the literate guitarist with whom I discussed Elvis Costello's autobiography and Donald Fagen's charisma to the Australian I'd last met in a borrowed suit to the Gen X birthday boy whose party I have to miss Sunday to the former neighbor dapper in polka dots and boots to the various DJs I've come to know to the smiling friends I only saw in passing, it's a guaranteed get-together of just the kind of people you'd want at your own party, aka the rest of us.

You can count Everything Girl as happily part of that rest.

Friday, February 5, 2016

It Only Hurts When I Kiss

I can brag if I want to.

Evening found me back at VCU Cabell Library for the second night in a row to hear comic artist Keith Knight talk on the subject of "They Shoot Black People, Don't They?" (did anyone under 40 get the reference?) but before he even took the stage, my entertainment was the people around me and there were lots of them. The lecture was packed.

"I realize that I become an artist between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.," the student behind me told his friends in all seriousness. "I write myself notes but when I look at 'em the next day, I realize they'd take too long to execute so I don't bother."

In other words, being an artist is haaaard.

The clutch of students on the other side were grilling a girl with multiple piercings. "Doesn't that one hurt when you get kissed?" a boy who sounded like he wanted to kiss her asked. "It's just, like, pressure," she answered. "But that one hurt the most to get." Nods and murmurs of empathy.

The guy in front of me, not a student, suddenly began thrashing around, looking under his chair, in his coat pockets, everywhere. "I can't find my phone!" I watched as he checked under chairs within a six foot radius, all the while looking desperate.

"I hate that so much of our lives are in these little devices," he said, looking at me for affirmation.

Not for me, I don't have one, I told him. "Don't brag!" he commanded, sort of smiling. Or was that just what jealousy looks like?

Tonight's speaker, Keith Knight, took the podium looking as hip as you'd expect an ex-San Franciscan to look and announcing that he'd discovered Sally Bell's all by himself this afternoon, enjoying a cupcake. "I just found it!" he said, clearly marveling at his luck. "Okay, if I've won all those awards he just mentioned, how come you haven't heard of me?"

It was a damn good question once he began talking and sharing his work. Like one about the benefits of black men having a male blow-up doll.

Five black men standing on a corner = a gang. Five black men standing on a corner with a white blow-up doll = basketball team and coach. That sort of commentary.

Or one called, "If signs told the truth" with a picture of a Denny's sign with the sub-head, "Serving blacks since 1997," sadly a fact brought about by a D.C. Denny's that refused to serve black Secret Service agents. In 1997. 

Washington is my hometown. Are you kidding me?

His single-panel comics were as sharp and funny, just pithier. A TV screen announces that they have a picture of the man who's been terrorizing downtown. The brown guy thinks, "Please don't let him be Middle Eastern" and the black guy thinks, "Please don't let him be black" and the white guy thinks, "Ha, ha, they'll never catch me."

Funny and tragic at the same time.

Interesting as it was to see examples of his 20 years of artistry, the most compelling part of his talk was his plea for the races to really talk. "We need to talk about race until whites get uncomfortable so we can get beyond it."

Despite his geeky, mild-mannered persona, even he has been stopped by police. He was on Fulton Street in San Francisco, hanging posters with a staple gun for his band's upcoming show when he was surrounded by police who claimed to be on the lookout for a 6' black male robber.

A white friend of his happened to be riding by on the bus and noticed that his friend was surrounded by cops, so he jumped off the bus and charged the scene, hoping to clear his friend. Did the cops react to a white guy running at them the way they had to a black guy using a stapler? They did not. "That's white privilege," Knight said. "It's time for whites to start using their white privilege for good."

Another comic read, "All Lives Matter* (*restrictions apply, see skin color for details).

"You can't just be non-racist anymore, you've got to be actively anti-racist," Knight implored.

He talked for almost two hours, showing comics, telling stories and, like Reverend Campbell earlier in the day at the Historical Society, reminding people that right now is our Civil Rights movement and if we don't participate, history will be worse for it.

Impressive as the new library's third floor terraces and kitchen facilities are, it's already apparent that the level of programming they're bringing in is the real game-changer. I can't wait to see what's next.

My plan had been to go to Black Iris' opening afterwards, but the talk had gone long and I wasn't sure it was still happening. Of course, that didn't stop me from walking over there from campus, where I found a room buzzing with familiar faces to see Mickael Broth's "La Voie Sacree," a meditation on a World War I battle in Verdun, France and the supply line (la voie sacree) to that embattled town.

I knew of Broth from his wizard mural at the bus depot, but I hadn't known that he'd come to Richmond to be a graffiti artist, only to be arrested and jailed for ten months as a result of it.

Much of the work in this show was shiny and colorful and, at first glance kind of abstract, but looking more closely revealed elements of the war and how it shattered lives and perceptions. Buildings crumble, artillery flies through the air and, of course, being WW I, noxious clouds of gas hang over it all. A large scale sculptural installation in the back further drew the viewer in.

A friend suggested that the exhibit would be an excellent choice for a French museum devoted to that era. Another, whom I'd seen two of the past three nights at events, talked about similar sculptural work by a local puppet maker. I ran into a comic artist/VCU prof who had also been at the Keith Knight talk and been as blown away as I was. I chatted with the artist who's now 25 months sober about how much great stuff is happening this weekend alone.

When they finally threw us out, I walked down the block to Maple and Pine to join the Man About Town for a drink. So much walking in the cold, damp night air had me asking for a cup of tea and our bartender obliged with Quirk's special lavender blend, a tea that smelled more feminine than I do (not the tea's fault) and the ideal antidote for my cold insides.

Meanwhile, the MAT regaled me with stories of his current acting job as Ben Franklin for a FOX series ("That's right, Bill O'Reilly is signing my paycheck!"), a gig that's had him on set off and on since September. He even pulled out photos to show me how they've aged him from a younger man to an 81-year old.

All around us, Maple and Pine was hopping, with tables full of revelers and hotel guests (who was that handsome guy at the bar?) bustling throughout the restaurant and lobby. Being a late night type, I love how lively that space stays long after other places flag.

Not that I have pictures to prove it because, well, I have no cell phone and not because I misplaced it.

And, yes, that's bragging.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Stew of Inherited Hypocrisy

Heathen though I may be, I was mighty moved by a preacher today.

The Reverend Benjamin Campbell was speaking at the Virginia Historical Society on the topic of his new book, "Richmond and the American Dream: Revolution and Reality," a topic ripe for dissection (and worth walking two miles for).

I should have expected that a man of the cloth would be a practiced speaker in a way that most lecturers are not. He used notes, but only occasionally seemed to glance at them, but the cadence of his voice and the expressiveness of it ensured that you were always hanging on for the next sentence. At several points, he opened and raised his arms as if embracing the crowd while speaking.

But it wasn't just his manner of speaking, it was his message that while freedom was the purported goal of Virginia after the Revolution, enslavement was the practice, leaving unfinished half of the American Revolution's purpose.

When he said, "Richmond still follows 1780 patterns in 2016!" he was talking about the wall of white privilege established by the Slave Codes in 1705 (and - get this- the point at which the word "white" had been appropriated to refer to a race of people) to ensure that the "Great Men" had similarly colored people to fight for them when necessary.

Best of all, he was saying all this to a full auditorium of what looked like privileged white people. People who'd probably come for a history lecture and not a call to their better selves.

After sharing that of the 500 largest cities in the world (we're #495), Richmond's urban sprawl is in the top 1% (a shameful distinction), he pointed out that we have the resources needed to address the social, educational and economic inequities, but apparently not the social and political will.

Hence the dysfunction of metropolitan Richmond, where city schools crumble while suburban schools flourish. Where public transportation (and public housing) is relegated to the city only, while over 80% of the jobs are in the counties. Where people who go to jail have no chance of finding work once they're out.

And he traced it all back to the principles of freedom and justice created as a result of the Revolution: supposedly they applied to everyone, but in reality, only for half of Virginia's population. You guessed it, the white half. Sadly, he saw these discriminatory practices as having been passed into the public consciousness, making for "a stew of inherited hypocrisy."

That would explain the 1965 Social Studies textbooks that mentioned black Virginians on only three pages, two of them referencing "the benevolence of slavery during the Civil War." Absolutely nothing about slave trade, Jim Crow or white on black violence. Zip, nada.

Nothing about how white men were given a bounty - 300 acres and a healthy, sound Negro - in exchange for fighting in the Revolution. Where's that in our history books?

How is it that the state that birthed so many of our Founding Fathers could behave so badly?

His joke was that since Virginia felt like it had birthed democracy, it didn't have to actually practice it. His point was that Virginia had subverted the intention of the Revolution.

You know, if you closed your eyes, you could almost pretend that you were at a political rally for the smartest, most socially aware, most well-spoken candidate imaginable. Here was a man who was trying be the change he wanted to see.

We owe the Virginia Historical Society a debt of gratitude for bringing this man to a public forum.

The good Reverend kidded the crowd when he said that in 1781, England began exporting convicted felons to Maryland and Virginia. "Y'all thought they all went to Georgia, didn't you?"

When he finished, it took a moment for the audience to realize it before applauding for the learned white man onstage who was calling out every one of our lily-white asses.

It was a momentous thing to see.

Now if we can only marshal our collective social and political will to change things. Yes, Richmond, we can.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Madly, Extravagantly, Absurdly

Some people just don't get it.

My day began with reading RVANews' summation of today's forecast: Today's highs are likely to hit 70!! Too bad you'll be too busy stuck inside avoiding thunderstorms for most of the day to get out and take advantage of those summery temperatures.

Wrong. I don't know about the rest of Richmond, but I've got no issue with rain when it's as warm as all that.

Besides, my morning walk was uninterrupted by any precipitation and already warm enough to wear shorts. I walked by a guy sitting on his porch and we exchanged hellos. When I got a few feet past him, he called from behind, "Are you single?"

Are you so dense you think that works with women?

I worked all afternoon with my windows wide open, even once I began hearing thunder and right up until torrential rains began. I compromised by lowering them, unwilling to give up the sound and smell of clashing fronts.

By the time I got ready to walk to VCU Cabell Library, it had mostly stopped but ankle-deep puddles floated at every corner. I'd come prepared in my flowered boots, but I was surprised it was so much warmer than earlier.

Tonight's "Meet VCU's Authors" lecture on Oscar Wilde turned out to be the inaugural event in the library's new space and a pretty grand space it was, complete with kitchen and terrace overlooking the Compass. I was told that no other library in Virginia has all the features VCU's now has and that nugget came from the important-looking man who introduced himself to me. "UVA can't come close!" he boasted.

The only familiar face was a favorite poet and poetry lover I hadn't seen in ages. who came over to say hello.

Faculty, students and other middle-aged geeks (say it loud and proud) like me made up the crowd, but it was the two women in front of me who provided my entertainment waiting for the lecture to start.

"We met through So-and-So, remember?" one asked. "And you're a chemist, right?" The other corrected her quickly. "No, I'm a physicist, but I do have the periodic table memorized."

Now that I think about it, maybe everyone there was a geek, not just the non-VCU crowd.

English professor Nicholas Frankel was talking on the subject of Wilde's 1890 novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," because in 2011, he'd edited the first uncensored version of it. Ever.

If you were half the geek I am, you'd be wondering how in the hell this could be possible.

When Wilde had first submitted it for serialization in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (a Philly publication always on the lookout for "edgy" writing in the 19th century), his editor had removed 500 words he considered morally unacceptable prior to publication. Words suggesting men loved men.

Let me assure, you, no writer is happy when their words are deleted or changed.

The problem, as Frankel ably explained, was a then-recent law stipulating that men could be arrested for gross indecency with other men, followed by a scandal involving "rent boys" who were telegraph boys by day and male prostitutes by night.

So the feeling was that the public was a tad touchy on the subject of male love (fascinating fact: at the time, there was no word for homosexuality or even heterosexuality). The editor's goal was to remove anything an innocent woman might take exception to...and then take out a little more.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that those kinds of innocent women no longer exist.

Not only did Wilde wind up going along with the cuts (lines such as, "I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly" to a man) for fear of being arrested, he made even deeper cuts before the book version came out. Even so, out of 267 reviews of it, only two were favorable.

I was blown away to learn that before Frankel and Harvard Press, no one had bothered to bring out the original, uncensored version, re-framing it in an effort to bring new readers to it.

Um, like me? Now mind you, about ten years ago I'd purchased the Everyman edition of Wilde's "Plays, Prose Writings and Poems," reading all 525 pages, but it had only contained the preface to "Dorian Gray" (A defense, really: "Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital").

Geek alert: the Harvard Press edition just jumped to the top of my wish list.

Leaving the library (which was anything but quiet - is that not a rule for libraries any more?), it was even warmer than when I'd arrived, making for a delightfully sultry walk over to Triple Cross Brewing for trombonist Reggie Chapman's curated series "You Don't Know Me."

Tonight the VCU Jazz Small Ensemble was playing, followed by an open jam session. Although I'd heard from a beer-lover that the space wasn't ideal for live music, I walked in to find the place mostly full with an attentive crowd at high tables facing the band.

Taking a stool next to two guys, one turned to me and said, "I know you!" Ben and I had met at Secretly Y'All and discussed our lives, so we even recalled what each other did for a living. He introduced me to his friend ("My BFF, but not my boyfriend") and welcomed me to their table.

The quintet - bass, sax, trumpet, drums, keys - looked impossibly young, but sounded polished and for the most part, the crowd listened rather than talked.

It was the ideal combination: I wasn't far from the front door which was half open, letting in the unexpectedly warm night air as the musicians soloed and took off in perfectly-timed unison.

During the break, we talked about the Environmental Film Fest (did I want to cover it for the James River Association?), his friend shared that he writes haikus (immediate bonus points) and about how much Ben appreciates being back in Richmond after a fabulous weekend in NYC.

It was cool the way there were boxes with take-out menus on each table so people could have food delivered from nearby restaurants to go with their beer. The guys had ordered from Sang Jun Thai in the former Beauregard's spot and had nothing but raves for their meal.

I've got nothing but raves for an evening spent traipsing around the city on a warm, damp night for literature, conversation and jazz.

Just don't expect me to have the periodic table memorized. Ever.

Thank God I'm an Urban Girl

In the ongoing saga of "You know you're old when...," I had to explain Kodachrome to a woman tonight.

I was at the Valentine, taking in the vintage photography show, "Edith Shelton's Richmond," a sampling of the thousands of color photographs taken by an amateur photographer in Richmond during the '60s, '70s and '80s, and particularly intrigued by her focus on the Jackson Ward and Carver neighborhoods.

For me, the photographs were a treasure trove of neighborhood streets and blocks I pass often. A horse-drawn ice wagon on Baker Street, the horse grazing on grass, a little girl on Brook Road two blocks from my house, the John Woo Laundry on Second Street. Houseboats that used to reside at 17th and Dock Streets.

In true Kodachrome style, a shot of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church on Easter Sunday in the 1950s was a riot of colorful hats against cars of orange, dark blue, pale green and turquoise.

Because Edith had shot on slide film - Kodachrome- the Valentine had included a carousel slide projector and an explanation of the vivid beauty of Kodachrome. After reading it, the woman walked over to friends and asked if they knew the song "Kodachrome."

They didn't. Eavesdropping, of course, I spoke before I thought, asking how she could not know "Kodachrome."

"You know it?" she responded incredulously. "It came up on my playlist today and then I just read that sign about it. That's what the song was about?"

Clearly she was having a moment of synchronicity.

So it was that I wound up downstairs at the Valentine Museum explaining what Paul Simon's song was about to three people who'd never heard of it. Because somebody's got to.

I'd walked there for this month's Community Conversation, but I'd arrived early because I wanted to check out Alyssa Solomon's photography exhibit, "A Chicken in Every Plot" about Richmond's backyard chicken scene.

Since backyard chickens became legal again, people all over town - Church Hill, Fulton Hill, Woodland Heights, Windsor Farms, the Executive Mansion, even my beloved Jackson Ward - now have yard birds in residence and chicken-owner Alyssa photographed them.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm fascinated by coop architecture since that seems to be one way people can express themselves, besides with their choice of fanciful breeds of chicken. Fun fact learned tonight: it was English breeding with Chinese fowl that resulted in those fancifully-plumed birds in the pictures.

Adding to the cool factor was a wall of photographs of deviled egg dishes, those fanciful plates meant to hold slippery egg halves and look just as pretty when they're empty, which never takes long with deviled eggs. From the Valentine collection came egg cups, egg cozies (who knew?), metal egg crates and a 1935 photograph of a woman and her chickens in Jackson Ward.

The exhibition tied in nicely with tonight's Community Conversation topic: Urban Farming, which brought out a really good-sized crowd. I'd barely slapped on a name tag and found a seat when a friend sat down next to me and a stranger looked at my name tag and said, "Hi, Karen! You have great hair" moments before things got started.

The Valentine's director always starts things off with a slide show from the collection and tonight's showed us images of the many outdoor farm markets Richmond once had, as well as a wonderful shot of a woman picking blackberries in the shadow of the John Marshall Hotel.

A few of the images shown were even Edith Shelton's, abundantly obvious because of their brilliant colors.

Next came audience polling to figure out who we were and what we think about certain subjects. This part of the evening always starts with a fun question so people can get the hang of the devices we use and tonight's question was about what happened in Iowa.

Once results were in, facilitator Matt observed, "Hmm, 42% of you are Sanders supporters and you're at an urban agriculture event. How interesting!"

Politics aside, discussion was robust tonight because there were so many people passionate about the topic in attendance. I don't know about the others, but from 31st Street Baptist Church's nine-year old urban farm to Tricycle Garden's Manchester farmette which I just saw for the first time last month, I learned all kinds of things tonight.

Like Slow Food RVA and the ARK of Taste, a living catalog of local foods facing extinction, such as the Hayman sweet potato, Hog Island sheep, Bradford watermelon and Hog Island fig, all delicious and all being brought back by local chefs, seed savers and food lovers.

We used to have 15,000 kinds of apples growing and now we have 1,500.

Pigs are the only animal you can't have in the city. You can have up to four hens, but no roosters. We have one cow in the city and multiple horses. Spayed feral cats with up-to-date shots are available free if you have a mice problem on your property.

Talking about how so many people get into urban farming by first growing tomatoes, the guy next to me nailed it. "Tomatoes are the gateway drug to farming." All hail the heirloom.

Unrelated to farming, but best story: the FBI did a raid on a local house and found a cottonmouth snake being used to guard the owners' drugs and money. Brilliant, right?

And then there's what other people learned.

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day

Isn't it?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

For CW, Wherever You May Be

Tuesdays are "ethnic" nights for my meat and potato parents.

I learned about this quaint custom only because I've gone out to the Northern Neck to visit them so often on Tuesdays.

And while you'd think that meant that my Mom gets wildly creative making dinner, it usually boils down to tacos or spaghetti, occasionally frozen Chinese food. Always on Tuesday.

So my jaw dropped a little today when I get there and, for the sake of conversation, inquire what's up for ethnic night. I'm amazed when Mom says they might not bother tonight because she made a frittata for dinner last night.

First off, this is front page news since I had no clue she even knew what a frittata was, much less made them, since she's long been firmly in the cream of mushroom canned soup casserole camp.

My Dad, shambling in from the family room and overhearing this discussion, joins in. "Yes and there was some left over, so she promised I could have it for breakfast this morning. Imagine my disappointment when I sat down to a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast!"

From the other side of the kitchen, Mom shrugs and says, "I forgot." To her, it's no big deal but not to Dad, who'd apparently had sweet dreams of more frittata, only to have them dashed.

A modern woman might have told him to get up and warm up the leftover fritatta if he wanted it so badly, but that's not how my parents' marriage works.

My reason for visiting today was that Mom wanted to clean out several closets and requested my assistance doing it, knowing how much pleasure it gives me to get rid of stuff and they've got six decades of accumulation.

One of the jobs involved cleaning out the six drawers - crammed with spools of thread (dry-rotted?), grosgrain and satin ribbons, elastic and dozens of buttons - of my Richmond grandmother's wooden treadle sewing machine. To put that in perspective, Grandma's been dead since 1984 and my Mom doesn't sew and we were just now getting around to cleaning out those drawers.

Once those chores were finished and I loaded up my car with donations for Diversity Thrift, I decided to take advantage of the sunshine and take a short walk before I left.

Heading down what's known as the "crab road" because it ends where a crab-processing shack once sat and is now home to million dollar condos, I was happy just to be outside and stretching my legs. It's not a particularly long road, but it is right along the river, meaning every breath is a deliciously salty one, especially on a breezy day like today.

Out of the corner of my eye I see something moving on the porch of a raised house, unsure at first what it is, but finally realizing it's a hand behind a window. Whose hand, I have no idea, but everyone waves at everyone down here, so I wave back and keep going.

Walking back toward the house, I spot a guy in his front yard and say hello.

"Who are you?" he asks enthusiastically, extending his hand for a shake. "I'm Alan." Here's the thing: I met Alan a couple of months ago when I'd gone out for a walk after Mom and I had finished some baking, so we'd already talked. I know he lives in Richmond and bought this place five years ago. Hell, I even know his walking route.

So I razz him about not recognizing me and he points at my head. "Your hair's different," he insists, trying to save face since now he clearly does recall our last chat and wants to pick up where we left off.

Twenty minutes later, I know which neighbors had burst pipes, how far up the water came after the snow storm surge and why it's better to do a hip replacement from the front rather than the back. Apparently it was Alan waving at me from inside his house earlier.

When we finally say so long and I turn to go, he takes one last shot, gruffly saying "Your hair's different!" to my back.

Oddly enough, I flash back immediately to 5th grade. I was walking the two blocks home from elementary school and Scott Rudiger, a boy in my class, was walking behind me, talking to my back. When I didn't respond, he threw some broken glass from the sidewalk at the back of my feet, confusing the hell out of me and making me walk faster.

When I got home, I asked my Mom why a boy would throw bits of glass at my feet. "Because he likes you," she said with authority and a few months later, Scott's best friend confirmed it.

Alan likes me, or at least talking to me.

And, just so the curiosity doesn't kill you, Mom and Dad decided to have spaghetti and meatballs for tonight's ethnic night. Fingers crossed, Dad'll get that frittata for breakfast.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Lucky Seven

And I would walk 500 7 miles...

Give me a 70-degree day on the first of February and I'll walk all day long, just to be outside. Unfortunately for me, I was on multiple deadlines with a whole lot of writing on my plate, but at least there was my walk.

Given how long it had been since I'd been to Great Shiplock Park, I made a decidedly un-bee line there, only to be gobsmacked when I saw that the canal is still sporting an ice crust over two thirds of it. How is this even possible after the past two days of Spring-like weather? Birds were standing on it, I kid you not.

Heading back up the hill toward home, I passed a man who observed, "Someone is making the most of this day!" Was it the shorts and t-shirt that gave it away?

Total: 4.9 miles

My invitation to join me at the Environmental Film Fest got a yawn from my friend - "Ugh. I know urban farming is something I should be interested in, but just not doing it for me. Blah." - but he didn't hesitate to say yes when I suggested meeting for dinner at 821 Cafe.

Turning down his offer to pick me up, I walked there, umbrella in hand, although somehow, the streets of Jackson Ward were wet while the streets on the other side of Monroe Park were not. More science I don't understand.

Total: .8 miles

He'd already scored a booth for us when I arrived, but the real news of the day was that 821 was playing electronica and not its usual punk or thrash, making for a far mellower atmosphere than I expect there.

That didn't stop me from ordering my usual half order of black bean nachos, but it was a massive full order that showed up instead. When I pointed out the error, our server reached for the platter to whisk it off to the kitchen, but I insisted that that wasn't necessary.

"I want you to be happy," he said, reaching for them again. Making a fortress with my arms, I assured him I was happy and could easily make do by eating half and not bothering the kitchen in the least.

My friend was having a terrible, awful, no-good day, partly because his bum knee was hurting and partly because he'd slept poorly due to his cat waking him up repeatedly last night. Even if I weren't highly allergic to them, that kind of annoying behavior (see also: sleeping on your face, or so I'm told) would keep me firmly in the anti-cat camp.

I told him about my road trip to Norfolk Saturday and that got him reminiscing about Hampton Roads in general because it's his hometown. "You're never far from the water," he said. "I miss that. Even the smell of marshes I miss."

One fascinating thing I'd learned while there had been of a terrific local alternative station and that DJ Paul Shugrue had landed there, something my friend already knew since he's down there far more often than I am.

After Paul left Richmond, I'd unexpectedly heard him on the Coast in Norfolk years ago, but nothing since, so this was great news and I'm already tuning in to listen to his knowledgeable music talk and record selections. My friend was hardly surprised.

But he was in a far better mood by then, buoyed by getting out of the county, addressing his hanger and being in proximity to Suzy Sunshine, so when we said good-night, he was a far happier person than when I'd sat down.

Another job well done.

He took off, sore knee and all, for Carytown while I got out my umbrella and hoofed it over to the main library for the first screening of the Environmental Film Fest, arriving with a decidedly damp left foot thanks to a puddle that I mistook for a reflection.

Total: .7 miles

Tonight's film was a documentary, "Plant This Movie," about the rise of urban agriculture and narrated by Darryl Hannah (now there's a name I hadn't heard in forever), beginning with the horrifying fact that lawns are the #1 irrigated crop in this country.

And this from a country who had rallied to grow 40% of the vegetables eaten in the U.S. in Victory Gardens back during the war years. There were even self-help canneries to help all those urban gardeners can their excesses.

Then came the post-war years with highways, better refrigeration methods and the growth of suburbia (a la Levittown) and the newly-minted state-given right to have a lawn. Easy to see where we got off track isn't it?

Yet - and I found this surprising - in those early years, lawns were made up of dandelions, clover and the like, things we'd now call weeds. It wasn't until the mid to late '50s that grass became the gold standard for lawns, a symbol of upward mobility.

Depressing history aside, the film mostly focused on urban farming advocates all over the world, starting with Cuba, who after breaking ties with USSR, their primary food source, had to suddenly start growing their own.

From there we saw innovative projects (student-run gardens, CSAs, public farming on public lands) all over the world - China, India, Peru - including the U.S., namely Oakland, Portland, Philly, New Orleans and even New York City. Brooklyn Grange is a rooftop garden project, Manhattan has Battery Park Urban Farm and  Brooklyn also has Window Farms, a vertical indoor hydroponic vegetable-growing operation.

The smallest carbon footprint award had to go to Food From the Sky, a London rooftop garden over a market that sells the produce below. That's an impressive ten-yard journey from source to shelf.

A middle-aged woman made the point that many of this generation's urban farmers have roots in the '70s' Back to the Earth Movement, while a guy with a green bandanna espoused the benefits of collecting your urine for watering plants. Apparently they'll be significantly greener and lusher inside a week.

There's a practice that may take longer to catch on.

Post-film, there were local speakers on the subject, including a city employee who helps start new community gardens.

Currently they're looking at allowing rooftop gardens in Scott's Addition given the tiny amount of green space in the once-industrial area. She also shared that lead was a serious problem in the yards of Fulton Hill, making it a dangerous place to grow vegetables unless you create very high raised beds with a defined barrier underneath.

We also heard from a chef who passed out fresh carrots (irregularly shaped and better tasting than any carrots I've had in years) from Tricycle Gardens and upon reaching me with the bowl, reacted with a huge smile and announced to the room that we'd met at a movie a few months ago.

You never know if someone's going to remember you so it's always flattering when they do.

Not that I went to the Environmental Film Fest for flattery. I went because I was interested in the topic (unlike my dinner date) and curious to know more. I'm not sure my prodigious oregano growing is enough of a contribution to the cause.

Total: .6 miles

And because, even with a light rain falling, I'd walk almost anywhere on a February day like this.

Seven miles' worth even and worth every step.

Three's Company

Bigger isn't always better.

Often when I'm going to a wine dinner, I assemble a party-sized group around me, a chance to catch up with friends and savor wine and food pairings over the course of an evening. Only problem is, there are so many conversations going on at once, that's it's easy to miss out on one on one interactions.

Tonight I kept it intimate.

It was just me and a favorite couple and it wound up being a most enjoyable wine dinner because of it.

He and I have been friends for six years, having met over his bar and forming a solid friendship in no time. She's the smart and personable girlfriend I helped him win (dating tips from one who's been there), not that he needed much assistance given his looks, talent and charm.

Our table a trois was situated  in front of the "fireplace" at Camden's, putting us out of the fray but within earshot of the '80s British soundtrack: Bowie, Echo and the Bunnymen, Talk Talk. My youth, in other words.

Ancient Peaks Winery out of Paso Robles provided all the wines and I have to say, most were atypical Central Coast wines and that's a good thing.

Representing Ancient Peaks was Chris, a genial fellow who began by explaining why their wines were better than the average Central Coast bear, namely five distinct soil types, winds and an unusually cool growing environment.

The difference became obvious with the first wine, a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted more of tropical fruit and apple than the traditional grapefruit, and a fine pairing for brined shrimp salad with kiwi in cucumber. "I haven't tasted anything this fresh-tasting in a while," my friend commented, devouring his.

After being asked about how it was I began my writing career, I blathered so long I was still sipping my wine long after my companions' plates had been cleared and our server was making jokes at my expense.

Don't ask me to talk because I am a blabbermouth.

The elegant Zinfandel that accompanied Virginia's Mountain View Farms Marmac Cheddar (plus grapes, almonds, pear and crackers) was as unlike a typical California Zin as we could hope for and a genius pairing with the wine. I could have sipped that all evening long.

We took our time with this course, discussing back stories and tales of love while eating our way through the massive platter of food.

When Chris came over to talk about the wine, he made the point that Ancient Peaks was still doing Zin the way California had been doing it 40 years ago. "We're behind the times," he explained and our palates were the better for it.

Accidentally, the three of us got off on a deep discussion of home and home meals and what that meant to each of us while being poured Merlot and served California's favorite cut, tri-tip steak, along with braised chicory, horseradish cream and fried oysters.

The Merlot had fabulous structure, nice acidity, gorgeous mouthfeel and wasn't overly alcoholic, all in all everything balanced so perfectly it dispelled the myth of flaccid Merlot.

My male friend was happiest once a big bowl of pork stew with onions, potatoes and carrots arrived, as much because of the chunks of venison sausage and perfect farm egg as for Renegade, the big red blend of Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec that accompanied it.

Chris shared that the name had to do with the historic ranch where the winery is located and the notorious James Brothers who hid out there for a while between 1869 and 1872. It would have been a terrific wine anyway, but it got even better with a story behind it while that killer stew was the ultimate crowd-pleaser.

Needless to say, we weren't paying any attention to the other tables with all the lively conversation going on at ours, but that's exactly why tonight's smaller gathering was so satisfying. All three of us learned things about each other we'd never known before, but I'm willing to bet all of us learned stuff in general from the brilliance of others.

I'm happy to report that dark chocolate pate with a schmear of cranberry accompanied our last wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a blackberry nose, the grapes for which used to be sold directly to the house of Mondavi for their blending purposes.

Now that Paso Robles has been designated its own AVA, you'd better believe those grapes are staying where they're grown. They didn't stay long in our wine glasses, though, because of the appealing black cherry and cocoa notes. Yum, in other words.

We lingered, talking about hot dogs versus sausage, how it is that people no longer feel like they have to follow the rules and why I should have visited my friend in Denver while he was living there. They worked out their wine order while a woman at another table bought a piece of art off the wall. Strangers told us goodbye as they left.

Best of all, I got to be part of every conversation because it was just us three, which, when you're eating and drinking, is definitely not a crowd.

It's actually kind of civilized. And as our host had said, civilized folk belong in chairs, not bar stools.

Even when they're the last to leave. As usual.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

January in the Rearview Mirror

Could there be a bigger treat than waking up on January 31 to a predicted high of 66 degrees?

While I was already looking forward to brunch plans in Carytown, it never occurred to me we'd be able to eat on the sunny patio or that I'd be inclined to walk there. Double score. Also, totally weird to be wearing a skort and t-shirt while still climbing over massive snow piles on the north side of the streets.

Knowing that Dixie Donuts closes in two weeks, there was no way I was walking by it without dipping inside for a doughnut. I may live far closer to Sugar Shack, but I far prefer Dixie's doughnuts.

The guy in line in front of me was dithering about his choice because as a newcomer to Richmond, it was his first time in, but he finally decided, telling the owner that he'd be back every Sunday after church to try all the other varieties.

"We close after Valentine's Day," she told him and his face fell, as mine would've if I hadn't already known. Somehow, the owner remembered me from our ages-ago meeting at Cask Cafe as I ordered a my usual: a chocolate chocolate doughnut (but not, it should be noted, a chocolate chocolate chocolate doughnut  because I'm not a jimmies fan).

Walking home, the streets were buzzing with everyone who'd been trapped inside last weekend, strolling, running, porch drinking, dog-walking, biking, eating outside and generally just hanging out in the sunshine. It was glorious.

My first order of business once I got home was opening all seven windows in my house, which means opening storm windows, too, but completely worth the double duty. Coming a week after the near-blizzard, I'd have done pretty much anything to access fresh, warm air.

I no sooner got the apartment opened up than I left for Sub Rosa to hear some '60s Turkish music.

Yeni Nostalji was playing a set and, as you might expect on a sunny, warm winter day, people were out and about in Church Hill withsome, like me, stopping by specifically because of Christina's dulcet tones and Vlad's beautiful guitar playing, but also others seeking the best breads in town.

The bakery was filling up quickly when I arrived to find a stool behind the wide open door. Unfortunately, one idiot closed it on his way out and after that, everyone followed suit, trapping the hot air from Evrim's wood-fired oven and putting a glow on everyone's face in minutes.

But who's going to complain when Yeni Nostalji are playing their exquisite take on Turkish pop?  A foursome came in and stood right next to the musicians, riveted, even dancing a little in place. Turns out they were Turkish students, paying Christina the ultimate compliment by praising her Turkish accent before they left.

Most of us couldn't determine that, but just being in a place that sounded and smelled so good on this beautiful last day of January was more than enough.

Thanks, Mother Nature, for the payback. Double or nothing tomorrow?