Saturday, August 2, 2014

You Don't Even Have to Say It

Don't be so sure I have plans.

Everybody assumes my schedule is jam-packed every minute of every evening - it's even been referred to as CSS, as in "crowded social schedule" - but in reality, many nights  find me with multiple options but no actual commitments.

Which means when a friend phones at 3:30 saying he's decided he wants to celebrate his birthday eve tonight and asking if I can join him and a favorite couple at 6, I enthusiastically say yes.

Think about that question. Can I join three good friends in two and a half hours for an evening of good food, drink and conversation? Must be a rhetorical question.

The plan was to meet at Rappahannock and I was the first to arrive, staking out seats on the far side of the bar and soon joined by the birthday boy toting two bottles of French Chardonnay (2006 and 2009) to enliven the festivities.

Before long the happy couple arrived and we learned that tonight was also the 13 year anniversary of their first date, so everyone had something to celebrate. For me, Friday night with friends was plenty.

Jumping right in with the intimacy of good friends and some vague details about the birthday boy's recent sex life, the 2006 wine was poured, revealing a very slightly oxidized nose and leading to discussion of wine and women past their prime but still worth savoring.

You know I had a few things to say on that subject.

It was the birthday celebrant's first time at Rappahannock so we began by diving into oysters on the half shell: butter Rapphannocks, slightly salty Stingrays, Old Saltes and, as a treat from the great north, Blue Hill Bay oysters from Maine, tasting like a mouth full of saltwater when a wave knocks you down. Divine.

Half of us (okay, me and the birthday boy) thought that the wine paired better with the saltier oysters while the other two thought the opposite.

It didn't matter what anyone thought because in no time at all, both were history.

We took an educational detour for a lesson in oxidation with a glass of sherry (but made no converts in the process) and the pork and pickles plate with pork rillettes and country pate, both nice enough but safe tasting.

"Needs more liver!" the celebrant pronounced and I agreed. Both seemed to have come from innocuous cuts like pork shoulder and lacked any real earthiness or rustic qualities, tastes well seek out.

Opening the 2009 Chardonnay, we found far more minerality, a much lighter color and a lovely choice to go with first a ceviche and then rockfish and barcat oyster bourride, a satisfying bowl with potatoes, garlic and a poached egg in a sop-worthy broth.

Sopping vehicles became the topic as the merits of Billy Bread and Sub Rosa were compared.

As usual with this crowd, a lot of the talk centered on food, drink and going out and before long we found ourselves listing future occasions for get togethers.

An authentic Ukrainian meal. A guest bartender competition party. A blind wine tasting. A trip to Merroir for the one who's never been. A mezcal tasting.

We could come up with countless reasons to hang out and put things in our mouths. And, no, we're not creepy swingers.

By then Rappahannock was completely full, so we decided to hit the road, with our first stop being Art 6 to see Helena Magnusson Ogburn's vibrantly colored, texturally dynamic painting show.

Funniest thing I was told about the artist? "She was so happy when she discovered hinges," a reference to several pieces that incorporated sections of brass hinges into the exuberant works.

My second favorite thing was that she paints every single day, a tenacity I respect.

The show was large with paintings of many sizes and we took our time seeing them all as they wound up the staircase, each of us choosing a favorite and explaining to the others why.

It's not enough to have an opinion with this group. You have to be able to defend it, too.

At one point, a girl walked by wearing abbreviated shorts she had no business wearing and before I could even form the words, my friend grinned and said, "You don't even have to say it."

It's a good friend who already knows how you're going to judge a stranger's shorts with just a look.

From Art 6 it was a quick hop, skip and a jump through the rain showers to Saison which was hopping, too. Perhaps too much so because all three of my companions were disappointed with their cocktails while I had no problem whatsoever with my Espolon.

Sometimes keeping things simple is the way to go.

Somehow a discussion of making moonshine led to my friend sharing some Russian history about Peter and Catherine the Great (who, I have to admit, sounded pretty interesting), at least until her man insisted on saving me from the educational tangent.

What? They don't teach us that stuff in America.

We nibbled on oxtail sopes before finding our passion in tender and fragrant chicken a la brassa, its smoky broth a sensory delight we drank with spoons until it was gone.

Our final stop of the evening was for dessert because what's a birthday without sweets? The birthday boy was presented with obscure beers from the happy couple while accepting nothing more than sincere wishes from me.

Standing on the sidewalk under umbrellas saying goodnight, I reminded my friends that it never hurts to check with me at the last minute to see if I'm busy.

Hey, I've got no problem chucking my CSS when the party's this good.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

More Feeling Than Fact

I made sure that this last day of July was a good one.

Beginning with a walk down to the river and along the pipeline walkway, I made the most of the blue skies and low humidity.

I chose to ignore the guy siting on the sidewalk who commented, "Look at those cheeks!" when I walked by.

This afternoon, a favorite drummer came by to bring me a painting he'd done for me in exchange for some writing I'd done for him.

He described it as an analogy for me: it has a decided colorful streak near the middle but it's not a bright painting. I loved it when he said that there are five other paintings under the one I ended up with.

It now holds a place of honor in my living room.

My evening began at Pasture for the "Case for Hope" drive, a happy hour collection of suitcases and duffel bags for children in foster care.

It's too good a cause not to support and I'd been out of town for the last drive, so I wasn't missing this one.

When I walked in with my three suitcases at 5 sharp, no one was there except Michele, the organizer of the event, and she was being interviewed by ABC.

Despite that, she broke to say hi to me before resuming answering questions.

After adding my bags to the pile, I headed to the bar for a glass of Conde Villar Vinho Verde Rose, spending some time talking to the guy from United Methodist Family Services who, like me, was wearing skinny orange stripes tonight.

What are the chances, we wondered.

Before long friends arrived: the PR whiz, my favorite Hopewell resident, the restaurant owner. I had just enough time to discuss "Cabaret," the music schedule at Strangeways Brewing and how hard it is to get a partner to do what you want before I had to leave.

After donating to a good cause, it was time for me to feed my head and Chop Suey was having a poetry reading.

Browsing the bookshelves before it even got started, I spotted the lovely poet across the room and she made it clear we had things to discuss after her month in France. Before long, she cornered me next to the music books.

Irish men, the Loire valley, camping near Geneva and bicycle tours, that's all I'm going to say about what she shared. Really, who could have a bad time in France for a month?

I especially loved her descriptions of how overwhelming it was to experience so much new and wonderful on a daily basis.

Then we found seats in the hard folding chairs arranged in rows between the shelves and waited for the magic to begin. I'm the first to admit that I love being read to.

Reading first was non-poet Meg Rains (mistakenly introduced as a "poof-reader") reading from a short non-fiction piece called, "The Memory of My Disappearance."

Favorite line: Memory is more feeling than fact.

Joshua Marie Wilkinson got up next and read for far too brief a time.

His last new book of poetry, "Swamp Isthmus" provided some intriguing imagery such as "the moon flinches, flickers" and "poems composed in the battle of night."

Sometimes night is a battle, no?

From "Fortnight's Insignia," he read, "So it's going to be that kind of a century?" and referred to "the storm's indifference to its vehicle," something I can attest to after witnessing my first hurricane earlier this month.

I would have liked to have heard more from this quiet-voiced man.

Last to read was Zachary Schomburg, whose poetry was referred to as "emotionally confusing," by Chop Suey owner Ward, who introduced Schomburg.

Saying he was going to read from his latest, "Book of Joshua," he explained the story began in 1977 and ended in 2044.

He began reading from the 1977 portion and then took audience shout-outs for the remainder.

After reading a section from 1977, someone called out 1982 and he read from that. Then 1993 and eventually 2014 ("Life is a slow farewell") and 2023.

"And then more stuff happens and then he dies," Schomburg said wrapping up quickly.

Next he put music on and read another poem to it ("I want inside you in a good way") and then added in a recording of words being said.

Schomburg continued to read the poem while the recorded voice ("This is Joshua, but not a Joshua you know") read something else and words overlapped. It had become performance art.

When the reading ended, we took a stroll up Cary Street to Pomegranate because while I'd been several times, my companion had never been.

Navigating closed sidewalks, frozen yogurt eaters (including a city councilman) and packs of annoying West End 20-somethings, we made it in time for happy hour.

Taking advantage of the hour with Pinto Gris, we began with blue fish two ways - pickled and hash- with pickled onions and beets with creme fraiche and crostini.

We noticed a table for one upstairs, off the main dining room and backed against a wall on a narrow overlook, a seemingly odd place to dine. It looked like the "time out" table.

You know, in case you misbehaved at the restaurant.

Next up I had buttermilk fried quail confit over obscenely rich butter whipped potatoes with pancetta cream and it occurred to me I hadn't had mashed potatoes probably since Thanksgiving.

Too long.

My date had an enormous and phallic-looking housemade pork sausage over polenta, positively delicious but way more food than I could have eaten, so I made do with one bite.

By the time we left, Carytown was a bit calmer and we window shopped, looking at bikes, lingerie and kitchen utensils along the way.

We finished off the evening with Cantina Puianello Lambrusco and oblique references to when pigs fly.

On a day as good as this, who knows? I'd like to think anything is possible.

Rotting My Gut Out

Couple dates: all the fun, none of the pressure.

We agreed to convene at his house for a glass. Next thing I knew, the soundtrack to "Casablanca" was playing, "oui, oui" jokes were being bandied about and the last of the Gruet Brut Rose was being poured.

Everything goes so much faster when there's three people.

We talked about the upcoming gallery closings at the VMFA and the need to make it to the Corcoran before it closes. My friend showed me some of his "B" movie collection, warning me about how bad (so bad they're good) some of them were.

I was solicited on where to eat after my friend announced he was so hungry he could eat a whole cow (can we start with the good parts?) and while my first suggestion went over like a lead balloon ("Isn't that in eastern Henrico?"), my second got a 2/3 majority vote almost at once.

We piled in the car for the short drive to the Continental Divide, housed in the former Mint.

Not hesitating to ask strangers to move so we could have three stools together, we took up residence at the end near the service bar.

The music was loud, the place was hopping and we all spent a few minutes with the extensive tequila menu.

One of the guys behind the bar recommended 123, an organic tequila with which I was familiar, having had a flight of blanco, reposado and anejo at Casa del Barco a while back.

"Organic frickin' tequila?" my friend blustered. "I want it to rot my frickin' gut out! It's tequila!"

I knew what he meant even if the way he expressed it had not exactly been true.

Seeing my familiarity with the tequila menu, the woman next to me began chatting me up and soon told me that she was in sales and really, really liked talking to people.

After hearing about her cousins' restaurant and her family's restaurants and her career trajectory, I could believe it.

When she asked how long I'd been in Richmond, I told her and she perkily announced, "That's as long as I've been alive!"

See, honey, we do have something in common!

Actually, she was a delightful person, waxing on about the importance of doing something you love and never trading more money for less happiness.

As if I have to be told, sitting there in my $2.50 thrift store dress.

Although I'd been to the Divide once, I hadn't eaten, so correcting that was my first order of business. Deciding what I wanted was a snap once I spotted black bean nachos on the simple menu.

As a certifiable black bean nacho fiend, I felt obligated to see how these stacked up to my exacting standards.

The thing is, nachos are a very personal thing and one man's epic nachos are another woman's plate of "meh."

Here's what I don't want on nachos: meat of any kind, lettuce, black olives. Here's what I do: tortilla chips (preferably blue, but at least a mixture of yellow, blue and red) that are not overly salty. Cheese (and not goat, Feta or cheese dip) layered throughout and not just melted on top. An abundance of black beans. Tomatoes, onions and a small amount of jalapenos.

Sounds pretty simple, right? That combination is harder to find than you might think.

Not to give anyone a big head, but I was more than pleased with my plate of nachos. Sharing them with my couple date, they munched heavily and agreed heartily.

But once their tacos showed up- two behemoths to a plate, his pig, hers cow- they left me to the responsibility of finishing the plate, a task that soon had me feeling as over-stuffed as a birthday pinata.

After an existential conversation about following your bliss and an analogy on the part of the woman next to me that trivialized the subject appallingly, her evening's companion showed up and, lo and behold, was a friend of mine.

"You know each other?" she asked in amazement. This is Richmond, my dear, and if you go out regularly, there will often be someone who knows someone that you know. It's simply a numbers game.

The taco portions were ridiculous - two overstuffed tacos with enormous piles of black beans and rice- and neither of my companions cleared their plates, even though this is America.

Breaking my mother's first rule of dinner (no sweets without a clean plate), when we left there it was to go have dessert and ensure that we all ended the evening in a food coma.

When I got home, I was still so full I felt like I could pop, so I did what any overfed Jackson Ward resident does when she gets home at 10:30.

I went for a walk. Up one block and down another, enjoying the relative quiet of the neighborhood's brightly lit streets, running into people walking their dogs, a couple of guys trying to entice a feral kitty to eat out of a can, some guys chilling in their tiny front yard, music tumbling down the steps from inside the house.

I meant to walk for ten or fifteen minutes but the night air was so soft and the sliver of moon so expressive and clear, that every time I looped back around within sight of my house, I kept on going.

Keeping on my cute summer sandals may not have made for the best walking shoes, but this wasn't exercise, per se; this was more like the passeggita the Italians do in the evenings: a leisurely promenade after a filling meal, an excuse to see and be seen and work off some of that full feeling.

Just the thing after a filling couple date.

And unlike a regular date, I don't have to wonder if they'll want to see me again.

They will. Rumor has it I'm a fun fifth wheel.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Blown It All Sky High

Can you believe it took this long for me to see my first Ozploitation film?

To warm up for the momentous occasion, I began the evening at Amour for dinner.

There were people eating in the dining room, including a couple who appeared to be on a date night, but I was the sole occupant of the bar.

Edith Piaf was on the stereo, I had a flight of Roses in front of me and I had no idea what was in store. Already it was my kind of evening.

I chatted with one of the servers, a native of Louisiana (with the accent to prove it) who'd moved to Texas (and chortled over the differences in how the same words were pronounced differently in each state) and spent summers in D.C.

There was even a compliment on my joie de vivre and it's common knowledge how I appreciate a good compliment.

But the kitchen deserved more compliments than me.

Beginning with a sublime chilled vichyssoise, I moved on to vol au vent filled with creamed corn, pork belly and crawfish, a French take on southern ingredients so good I intend to go back and have it again.

And while I should have stopped there, I didn't, enjoying first an escargot and leek tart and then the tomato tart, as brilliantly colored as it was flavored. All hail tomato and corn season. I know I do.

When my server asked if I wanted dessert, I laughed. As if.

On this balmy evening, I did manage to find room for a perfectly lovely summer red, the luxurious and full-bodied 2012 Domaine Brusset, savoring every sip of my half glass and reveling in its depth of flavor.

While I usually eschew reds during the summer, this one was too beautiful to resist (yea, that's what he said).

Stuffed and happy, I said my farewells to go to the River City Not So Classic Movie Night, no doubt leaving behind a trail of envy at my plans.

Or derisive laughter.

Moments after arriving at River City Classic Bar & Grill, two sisters I'd met before asked if they could join me at my booth and I welcomed the company.

As usual, we got to see some pretty hilarious shorts before the main feature.

The first was about explaining sexuality to "the retarded" (yes, they used that word) and had a scene where a woman sits down on the bed where a teen is under the covers and asks him, "Do you know what a wet dream is?" and goes on to warn him that he'll have many more.

In another, Mom opens Johnny's bedroom door to discover him masturbating, so she a) explains the concept of responsibility for his behavior to him and b) promises never to open his door without knocking again.

Thanks, Mom!

It wasn't long after that a woman sitting at the bar moaned, "This just goes on way too long!" just as the scene where one guy at a urinal starts rubbing the back of the guy at the next urinal and we heard about inappropriate touching.

It was hard to top the hilarity and shock value of that gem, but the animated "Cautious Twins" about bad strangers preying on children had its moments, as did "Shake Hands with Danger," a film about workplace safety.

"Be careless for a moment, spend a lifetime with the blues," was the stated theme as machine parts went flying, body parts were bloodied and tractor treads rolled over innocent bystanders.

Finally, the room was darkened and "Gang Wars" began, starring, I kid you not, War Hawk Tanzania.

Only problem was that wasn't tonight's feature. Seems the planned film had been forgotten and belatedly collected, so five minutes into the gang wars, that movie was stopped and the real one put in.

"The Man from Hong Kong," billed as a co-production between Australia and Hong Kong, was a classic '70s martial arts film modeled on a James Bond flick.

It began with two bad guys exchanging briefcases (drugs and cash, no doubt) before the Hong Kong hood is captured and says to the Aussie cop, "Stick your head up your arse and close it around you."

I ask you, do we even have insults that good in this country? I think not.

The movie's theme song was instantly familiar, Jigsaw's "Sky High," a catchy Top 40 ditty that made me wonder how (why?) an Australian/Hong Kong production had chosen a British band to introduce the action.

Sadly, some things will forever remain a mystery.

One of the sisters sitting with me, the one with whom I'd shared my onion rings a few weeks back, offered me some of her chicken wings, so I had one before eating my hot fudge sundae, better than it had to be with real whipped cream courtesy of the kitchen and Ghiradelli hot fudge.

As you might guess with a cheesy 1975 "B" movie, cliches were rampant, such as when the woman who lands via hang glider asks the Chinese cop hero, "What's so special about the Special Branch?" and they cut to the two of them having sex.

"You're my first Chinese!" she squeals and the crowd let out a politically incorrect groan.

And because it was 1975, everyone -cops, drug dealers, old ladies on the street - had on bellbottoms and all the men had long hair and porn 'staches.

There was an inordinate amount of fight scenes, the kind where the added sound effects never quite match up with who was being hit at any given moment.

In car chase sequences, cars rolled and somehow immediately burst into flames. After the third time it happened, a guy near me said, "Never saw that coming!"

With a movie like this, nothing much happens that you don't see coming from a mile away.

When we finally see the big crime boss, Wilton, the same guy commented, "Oooh, pinky ring, bad sign." True that. Good guys don't wear pinky rings.

Mr. Big was played by George Lazenby, he of one James Bond movie fame and here sporting a Tom Selleck-worthy mustache.

He was the kind of evil man who entertains party guests by shooting an apple off his blond girlfriend's head with a crossbow.

The political incorrectness extended to the dialog with lines like "Never met a Chinese yet who didn't have a yellow streak." Ouch.

And don't even get me started on the special effects. As a guy in the booth beside me put it, "Is that blood on his track suit?  Cause it looks like strawberry jelly."

After our Hong Kong hero gets injured, he is rescued and whisked away to the country by a nubile young student whose father happens to be a vet and can sew him back up, good as new.

Once he's up and able, they go horseback riding and next thing we know, some singer who sounds suspiciously like Olivia Newton-John is singing, "Baby, baby, I think I love you," followed by sunny, dappled scenes of fields and lakes and the two of them looking intently at each other.

"On golden pond?" a guy joked. "Where's the barf bag?" asked a woman near me.

But while our hero may allow a temporary frolic, he needs to get back to business hunting down the bad guy. When the girl asks why, he says it's because he's Chinese.

She's already in love, so now she wants to be Chinese too, so she stretches her eyes sideways with her fingers and asks, "Will plastic surgery do?"

Wrong on so many levels.

"Do you think you've recovered enough for me to make love to you?" she asks our hero. "I think I can stand the pain," he deadpans.

Score!

As we're given a sunlit, lingering shot of her pre-orgasmic face, a girl at the bar called out, "I think he went down under!"

That, my friends, is what Ozploitation films are all about.

Of course there was a prolonged car chase that devolved into demolition derby style antics - hood flying off, doors snapped off, spontaneous combustion - but that was probably true of all '70s movies, not just martial arts films.

Or maybe that was the Australian contribution to the film (besides accents so thick they almost needed subtitles).

The whole movie was one unfortunate memory of bad fashion choices, best put by one of the sisters who said, "A lot of bad '70s brown outfits." Head to toe brown in many cases.

During the big climax scene, our hero stuffed a grenade in the bad guy's mouth and began wrapping tape around his head to hold it in.

"Oh, getting kinky now, huh?" someone teased from the bar.

Once the grenade went off, the secret cache of explosives detonated and the top of bad guy's penthouse was blown off, the cheesy familiar strains of "Sky High" came up as one of the truly epic Australian/Hong Kong, James Bond rip-off, martial arts movies ever made ended.

"That was amazing," a stranger said to me as I paid for my hot fudge sundae.

Never saw that coming.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Glowing in the Southern Summer

A third anniversary may not sound like much, but it is.

I mean, if you make it to the third anniversary of a relationship, you've really accomplished something.

Hell, if you make it to three years, you're ready to move in with that person. Or is that just me?

So how could I not attend Magpie's third anniversary celebration, dubbed "La Urraca," tonight?

I'd been there practically from the beginning - my first visit had been July 30, 2011, here- and no one had wanted a restaurant within walking distance of my house to succeed more than I do.

Correctly expecting a crowd, I arrived early enough to claim my bar stool and settle in for the long haul. Immediately, I ran into a former food writer and local celebrity and we caught up over stories of life as a tall girl and meeting Julia Child. Her, not me, that is.

Then it was time for my evening to begin. I can always count on co-owner Tiffany for groovy wine choices and tonight was no different, with the bio-dynamic Le Chaz Rose winning out as my starter.

I've been to plenty of pop-ups, but you have to give credit to Chef Owen for doing one in his own restaurant. With his usual sense of humor, he'd dubbed it "La Urraca," meaning magpie. Clever.

Before long, familiar faces were everywhere: the birthday boy who's usually behind the bar, the recent transplant I'd met at Amuse's bar, one of the chefs doing the industry takeover tonight, the record store owner just back from tour, the chef and his family, the mixologist and his main squeeze, the long-haired chef I rarely see anymore, the owner in her cute black platform shoes, the pastry chef at one of my favorite restaurants.

Well satisfied with the Latin music (what else?) playing, I eased back on mingling and began diving into the menu.

I'll start with a rhapsody about the braised goat pozole, a symphony of tender meat, tomato broth, hominy, avocado, jalapeno, lime and aioli and a dish with such depth of flavor and beautifully contrasting textures that it deserves to be on the regular menu.

And I'm not just writing that; I went up to the chef and told him myself.

One of the most popular items on the menu was street corn on the cob with butter, cilantro and barbecue spices. One of the bartenders told me he'd suggested calling it "Carver corn" but the chef had nixed that idea pretty quickly.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the room was full and it was feeling a little warm in there, even in a nothing of a summer dress and for someone like me who prefers warm to cold.

It's the Magpie glow. I know it well.

I'm not complaining; a Latin pop-up should be warm. I'd worn a hot pink, new-to-me ($3) dress and someone told me on the way to the loo that it was the perfect dress for the occasion.

Of the half dozen tacos available, I decided on three: Chorizo with crisp Yukon Gold potatoes, salsa verde, aioli and pickles; beef tongue with roasted chipotle salsa, charred corn, heirloom cherry tomatoes and radish; and pig's head with shishito pepper, pickled vegetables and mustard aioli.

The birthday boy insisted I try his "southern summer," a margarita with Espolon, Solerno, jalapeno shrub and lime with a pickled watermelon garnish.

The nose was entirely jalapeno but then the tequila kicked in and reminded me that I should be drinking Espolon, so I did.

People kept arriving for their reservations and more than a few people without reservations were turned away due to lack of space, so I appreciated how no one at the bar was made to feel rushed despite the waiting hordes.

It was obvious that the wait staff and kitchen staff were having a ball and, in many ways, it felt more like a party than business as usual, especially for a Monday night.

The foursome next to me inquired as to my later plans, and I turned the tables on them, asking theirs. Seems they were on their way to see Supersuckers at Bandito's while I had RVA Big Band at Balliceaux in my sights.

I couldn't help but enjoy myself when the dimpled woman I'd met at Amuse came around to sit next to me, asking what I was drinking.

When I told her Espolon, she responded, "You are a rock star!"

And while we know that's not true, I very much enjoyed our conversation about such fascinating topics as dark bras under light shirts, loose women and younger men and what we'd change about our behavior if someone else paid all the bills.

Meanwhile, the chef who's moving to Grace Street told me how excited he is to get new equipment and not have to deal with back-breaking steps.

By the time I got ready to leave, no one was waiting for my stool and I made sure to congratulate Chef Own on my way out on his accomplishment.

You never know when you begin something how long it'll last. Some relationships last six dates, others six years. Then there's my parents who've done almost six decades.

I've got my fingers crossed that Magpie will still be serving Carver corn and whatever else for years to come.

Happy anniversary, neighbor. Double or nothing?

Anything Can Happen

This is becoming a habit. I got out of the city for the third time this week.

After being invited to a deck christening by the deck builder himself, I'd packed a bag and my favorite pork chops, ready for whatever the brief getaway entailed.

A whole lot of goofing off mostly.

Starting with a big breakfast accompanied by a glass of Prosecco to wash it down, we walked it off with a sunny stroll to a nearby pond in the early afternoon.

The sound of tree frogs dominated as I refilled the hummingbird feeders and within minutes, a tiny, red-striped hummingbird showed up to eat. How do they know?

In order to christen the deck, it had to be completed, so the builder added the last five boards while I finally finished my last beach book - Tom Dehaven's "Dugan Under Ground"- and started a new one under the fan on the screened porch.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a feminist through and through, but sometimes it's nice to be the girl and not have to do manual labor in the afternoon sun.

Especially because I did get to enjoy the celebratory Piper Sonoma Brut we used to toast the new outdoor room - by drinking it, not by smashing it over the bow of the deck. Please.

But, lovely as the new deck was, it was still taking the brunt of the late afternoon sun at that point, so it seemed prudent to use that time for a nap before finishing the celebration.

I warned you, I did a whole lot of nothing...and it was absolutely wonderful.

Post-nap, we took on the rest of the bottle of bubbles to the music of the Finn Brothers, in my opinion, always a fine choice musically. Don't get me started on the poetry of Neil Finn's lyrics - "Wherever You Are," "Fall on You" - the man oozes smart romance and nothing beats that combination.

Watching the sun slide down in the sky from the new deck lasted until dusk when the bugs arrived en masse and three citronella candles couldn't keep them at bay.

Dinner was pitch perfect with grilled heirloom breed pork chops courtesy of Fred and Wilma, corn on the cob, yellow teardrop tomatoes from the garden and watermelon.

Soundtrack: Pandora set to Marvin Gaye, so O Jays, Chi-Lites, Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Good stuff, funky stuff.

Most importantly, the new deck had its inaugural stump and drag session on the new outdoor dance pavilion in the country, always my goal for it.

Stargazing, happy hours, wiling away time reading, the new deck offers endless possibilities.

And absolutely no good reason not to cap every evening out there dancing under the stars. Like the Finn Brothers said: "Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you."

Even dancing.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Trying on a New Sun Bonnet

Like a giant magnet, the museum was Saturday-sucking me in.

A new Degas on exhibition? I'll be right there! A cook-in at Amuse, a way to have summer food in the sunniest dining room in Richmond? On my way!

But one doesn't just jump into an afternoon such as that. No, no, one prepares for it, as if one were bound for a hat shop appointment to be fitted for a new chapeaux.

Which meant I stopped by a friend's house for a glass or two of pink - Domaine du Pere Caboche - to cool down with a dressing drink to prepare for the pleasures ahead.

When I inquired about her fabulous art collection - hung salon style (my fave), no less - she was gracious enough to walk me through it, sharing artists' names and the dates of the works.

Then we finished off our wine and moved on.

It only took a short walk and two security guards to steer us to the European galleries and the French room.

There it was, newly on exhibit, Degas' "At the Milliner," a sublime, little oil painting from the Paul Mellon collection, showing a woman trying on a hat with the shop's clerk already offering another in case the first didn't satisfy.

We admired it from close up, far away and with an eye to the singular pleasures of hat shopping.

As a bonus, I heard how my friend's mother had worked at the millinery shop at Thalhimer's and she shared that in most cases, women chose the hat first and matched the ensemble to go with it afterwards.

Such is the power of just the right head dressing.

Most of my hat memories come from childhood and hats chosen for occasions like Easter and summer vacation.

These days, my hat wearing is almost exclusively based on sun.

When we left the French gallery, it was for Amuse and their first ever cook-in. As excited as I was about the idea of cookout fare at Amuse, I have to admit that I was just as thrilled about being in the museum after hours.

You see, the cook-in was from 5-8 and usually the VMFA closes at 5. Tonight, while a lavish wedding went on in the marble hall, we were celebrating summer with an ants-free indoor picnic.

When we arrived, hostess Sam informed us that every seat was booked and led us to the green lounge chairs until some bar stools opened up.

Continuing the pink theme, we enjoyed Rose and spicy pork rinds which arrived still crackling from the fryer.

A couple joined us - she worked at the museum and lived with her handsome husband of 17 years (in Goochland where they kept horses), a charming man who'd once played football and had recently had a knee replaced - leading to unexpected discussion of later life relationships (they'd met at a co-ed sports league in 1990) and why subsequent marriages fare better than first ones (oops, don't tell that to the newlyweds in the marble hall).

Possibly the best part of the conversation was on the subject of horses and their small brains and huge emotions. We heard about what an extended period it is that horses grieve, something I had never considered, but they had witnessed firsthand.

Once their friends arrived, our bar stools opened up and we moved over to eat.

It was a cook-in, so the menu was decidedly casual and we chose accordingly. A yellow cheese dog (American cheese, bacon and grilled onions), a corn dog coated in French fries (as obscene as it sounds) and the housemade cheeseburger on a homemade buttermilk and pork fat bun, with bacon jam and bleu cheese made up our meal.

A ridiculous amount of food for two women and yet we finished every bite.

My friend followed that with a watermelon collins made with gin (the pitchers of fresh watermelon juice were the most fetching brilliant pink) while I had a glass of the Renegade Rose.

That's when we began slinging the dirt, talking about men and what they need to be told (everything from what flowers not to bring to what, ahem, practices we appreciate), with our lovely bartender joining in on the opining.

We were too full for the boozy popsicles, although a woman at the bar raved about hers. Next time.

Needless to say, the crowd kept growing, many people attracted, like us, to the idea of being in the museum on a Saturday night. That just doesn't happen.

Except that it does.

While some people were celebrating their nuptials, we were kicking back with a summer meal with strangers.

Not to sound like old folks, but I think we got the better deal.

Walking the Beat

A man approaches me at a crosswalk.

Stranger: Can I give you a compliment?
Me: Sure.

Stranger: Those sure are some pretty legs you have.
Me: Thank you.

Stranger: I saw you walking before and was thinking you don't often see legs that nice.
Me: Not bad for an old lady.

Stranger: You don't look old, you look great. Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: Yes.

Stranger: Do you want another?
Me: Nope, one man is plenty for me.

Walk resumes.

The Beat of Dancing Feet

It's not summer in Richmond without a trip to the Dell.

The combination of perfect weather and opening night for "42nd Street" was cause enough for a picnic at Dogwood Dell with a friend.

Claiming it had been 20 years since she'd last been to the city's annual summer Festival of the Arts, she nonetheless knew to pack a picnic cloth, chair and corkscrew.

It's like riding a bike. You never really forget how it's done.

Of course, there's also the little matter of house rules such as no glass and no alcoholic beverages, so we just thought of our Le Petit Rouviere Rose as pink grape juice and drank it out of plastic cups while munching on sandwiches and salads.

The evening's emcee greeted us with, "Let's talk about this weather. This doesn't happen very often in July." It was nice enough that I'd brought a sweater and beach towel to keep me warm once it got dark (and needed both).

Unfortunately, beautiful weather and absence of humidity did not eliminate the bugs, though, so we slathered on bug spray and gave props to those around us who'd been clever enough to bring big citronella candles to burn (note to self).

Once again, I was at a play as a first-timer. I'd neither seen the original 1933 film or the 1980 play of "42nd Street." Hell, I hadn't even known that movie musicals ever got made into plays. Idiot.

So you can imagine how dazzling the opening number was to this newbie, with 30-some tap dancers creating a Busby Berkley-like spectacle right there on the Dell stage.

I'll put it this way: it was everything I thought "42nd Street" would be in one number. Not to mention how gratifying it is to see a play with that many female roles in it.

And speaking of my people, most of the costumes were on point, evoking both 1933 and the way chorus girls dressed in rehearsal. All except one anyway.

For some reason, one actress wore her blouse outside of her skirt instead of tucked in, something no woman in the '30s would have done unless she was cleaning house or working on a farm. It looked totally out of place next to all the other women and their cinched waisted ensembles.

So much of the dialogue was funny, such as an exchange between members of the chorus about men.

What is it about tenors that makes them wolves?
Must be all that tight underwear they wear.
No, that's what makes them tenors.

Despite my "42nd Street" virgin status, I soon discovered I knew many of the songs from it - "We're in the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and, of course, the title song.

But you could have knocked me over with a feather when the prima donna character, Dorothy, began singing "I Only Have Eyes for You," one of my all-time favorite songs.

Turns out that's a song written by Warren and Dubin, the talent behind all the songs in "42nd Street," although not part of the 1933 film version.

So there I was, lucky enough to be at Dogwood Dell sipping Rose, listening to one of my all-time favorite romantic songs with stars twinkling above me. My smile was as wide as our picnic blanket.

While that may have been the musical high point for me, make no mistake, I enjoyed every minute of the colorful spectacle that was "We're in the Money."

I don't think I was the only one, either, because at intermission (at almost 10:00) almost no one in the capacity crowd left. Even the pre-teen boys in the chairs next to me seemed enthralled.

Given all the hoofing and high kicking, it could have been that they were leg men. Maybe they were first timers at Dogwood Dell.

Or maybe they were just as enthralled with getting to see a free production under the stars of a big, glitzy musical, complete with chorus girls, set at the height of the Depression.

Goodness knows I was.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Here Comes the Rain Again

May I just say how much I appreciated today's weather?

With the exception of a few minutes in the morning, the sun has been M.I.A. all day long. Between the gray, overcast skies and intermittent showers all day long, it's been, for me at least, an absolutely gorgeous day.

My garden, my potted plants, the trees, everything looks so lush and verdant as if the green pigment in them is on steroids. Even the humid air, so like the beach air I recently left behind, feels like a lovely thing.

But I seem to be in the minority when it comes to a day (or night) like this and when I invited Pru to join me, she begged off, claiming it was raining cats and dogs and lizards.

Umbrella in hand, out I went solo to Chop Suey for a reading.

The book store seemed crowded, but maybe it was just that everyone had umbrellas and books in hand. Not willing to risk it, I found a chair and planted my backside while mingling from a seated position with a painter and then a poet.

I was thanked for attending, to which I remarked that I love having people read what they wrote to me.

Marie Potoczny led off by reading a short piece called "If Not Now, When?" about car sex in a traffic jam. Sample line: "I go at him like he's an Arby's cheddar roast beef sandwich." There was a lot of laughter at the end.

Reading her short story, "The Third Prophesy," Katy Resch wove a story of a guy from a difficult background making his way in the world, not without some issues along the way.

Tonight's main event was Allison Titus (who looks younger every time I see her) reading from her new novel, "The Arsonist's Song Has Nothing to Do with Fire."

Chop Suey's owner Ward introduced her, telling us he'd taken her book to the pool one recent afternoon and didn't get much swimming accomplished because he cracked open the book and was immediately sucked in.

She began by reading the prologue about one of the characters "practicing" dying and then jumped into the middle of the book, which involved a doctor secretly creating wings to be implanted on humans, a pyromaniac who did not want to be labeled an arsonist and a mother who died seven years after her daughter stopped talking to her.

So, you see, it's really no surprise that Ward was engaged in this saga from the first pages.

When I left Chop Suey, it was still raining hard and puddles were getting wider and harder to cross, but I wasn't going to let that matter. Besides, I had on platform shoes.

Over at Saison Market, California winemaker Andrew Jones was pouring his "Field Recordings" wines and Saison's chef was pairing small plates with them.

Don't mind if I do.

His Chenin Blanc was fabulous with the pickled shrimp, as were the fennel-crusted lamb lollipops with the smoky "Neverland," a Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot blend and I adored the "Fiction" red blend with the southern-fried quail with mole sauce.

That's the wine Andrew said he makes the most of, using leftover bits from all the different vineyards he works with and blending until he gets it to just where he wants it to be.

Don't stop 'till you get it right, brother.

The tasting wasn't overly crowded, but with plenty to eat and drink, no one was in any great hurry to move through, especially once the wine began softening the hard edges of everyone's rainy Thursday and laughter became the dominant sound in the room.

When I left there, it was to a gentle rain, sending me directly to my balcony and four days worth of newspapers to catch up on while the rain dripped on the metal roof next to me.

Did I mention how I love a rainy night?

Reflections After Karen

From the ocean to the mountains in a matter of hours.

I may have had to leave the beach, but I had a good time awaiting me at home.

Well, not immediately, since I needed to scrape the layers of beach gunk off my body and hair, but once cleaned up, I had a date to go to Charlottesville for dinner and a show.

If I'm going to give up surf and sand, that's the way to do it.

A few weeks ago I'd seen that the Clientele was playing the Southern and been intrigued by both their sound (reverb-drenched, art and literature-based lyrics) and their story (formed in '97, broke up in '11, back together because Merge re-released their debut album).

I'd invited a date to join me, bought tickets and been looking forward to it ever since.

After failure to find a park (don't ask), we wound up at the C & O for dinner, only to be informed that it was restaurant week. Not our first choice, but not disastrous, either.

To get things started well, we had flutes of Virginia Fizz in the downstairs bar (with the rustically uneven wooden bar surface) where couples were already eating the three-course menu.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

In a fine display of date cooperation while drinking Rose, we would each eat half of what was on our plates and then swap so as to taste two dishes for each course.

That's how marinated heirloom tomatoes with mesclun and pesto complemented by the creamiest burrata atop creamed corn was traded for beef sirloin carpaccio with truffle aioli, arugula and hashed potatoes.

Roasted halibut with ciopinno sauce, saffron rouille and summer herbs got switched with pork saltimbocca with sage and Fontina over a summer panzanella salad.

There was less sharing when dessert came, probably because I scarfed my chocolate gateaux with salted caramel and frozen peanut nougat while he lingered over his cheese plate.

My appetite has been called many things, but seldom ladylike.

Walking out of the restaurant, as if on cue, fat raindrops began falling so we ducked into an alcove to stay dry. After waiting for about ten minutes for the driving rain to stop, we wised up and went inside what turned out to be the Melting Pot.

Since it only made sense to drink something once we sat down at the bar, we did, killing time until the rain stopped and we could make it to the show.

We'd missed part of Borrowed Beams of Light's opening set, but caught enough to hear a definite '70s influence.

Then it was the Clientele, taking the stage in that low-key British way to play music, including a lot of songs from that first album - really a compilation of singles - that's now being celebrated with Merge Records' reissue of it.

The songs are gorgeous (I'd been listening to it all the way to and from the beach) in that smart, yet melancholy way where you love the sound but if you listen closely, it's a tad sad. And very smart.

I don't know about the rest of the room, but I know I was happy when they played "Reflections After Jane," an ode to a woman loved and lost.

Actually, I was happy with the entire evening. It had been a long day, for sure, and driving back from the beach only to hit the road for the mountains may have been a bit ambitious (my date generously let me sleep on the way back), but I had such a terrific time anyway.

Dare I say it? I'm happy to be back.

Have a Vacation

First rule of summer: never ever turn down an invitation to the beach.

This particular opportunity to spend a night in South Nags Head came courtesy of my #2 and #4 sisters who are down there for a couple of weeks. "It'll be like a mini sister trip," #4 said, referring to our annual gathering of all six of us.

To round out the group, #2 had her 34-year old son there and #4 had her 17-year old daughter. The two of them represent the oldest and youngest of the nieces and nephews in the family.

But talk about an odd quintet! At no point in our lives had this group of five ever spent time together.

The nephew and I bonded over old school beach pleasures. We were the ones who insisted that all the cottage windows be opened (gratified when later Sister #5 walked through the house inhaling the salty air from outside saying, "It smells like a beach house!"), that we spend time socializing on the deck together, that outdoor showers are the way to go (although this one had no wooden floor, just two differently-sized boards to stand on, making showering a bit of a balancing act).

My first order of business was getting in the ocean and the 17-year old joined me. There, we bonded over her recent decision to graduate high school a year early, something I had also done.

We did not bond over her shock at the explicit language on the first few pages of "The Color Purple," one of her summer reading book requirements, and one I have no problem with.

The ocean was rough when I arrived Monday around noon, the rip currents so strong that the ocean patrol had pulled three people out of the water just that morning, all people who'd gotten out too far and couldn't get back in.

One guy was a 17-year old from Nebraska and goodness knows, it may have been his first time at the ocean, but I'll never understand what makes people think they can do whatever they want in something as massive and strong as the ocean.

Of course I went in the water, just not too far out.

Most of the afternoon was spent with my two sisters catching up and talking a blue streak and occasionally one of the other two interjecting.

During a discussion of men, the nephew piped up, saying, "We don't mature," and then went back to his music, never having so much as looked up.

Sister #2 is a hypochondriac, and because we don't see each other that often, I'd forgotten how every little ache or pain is suddenly a Big Deal with her.

She's a smoker and she likes to eat salty food, so when her tongue began bleeding mid-afternoon, she was convinced it was fatal.

When no one would get as worked up as she was about it, she shrugged and said, "Okay, I guess I'll just Google "bloody tongue" and then make dinner."

Google reassured her that the top two causes for bleeding tongue were cigarette smoking and salty foods, but she still saw tongue cancer in her future.

We got a mess of seafood for dinner from a local fish shop and sat down to shrimp and clams with hot cornbread and the bounty of a beach vegetable stand: corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes and sauteed squash and zucchini.

Best line from dinner: "You don't bring up uteruses at the table, Karen. You just don't."

Now I know.

The catch phrase quickly became, "Have a vacation, Mom!" as the niece and nephew kept reminding their mothers that they didn't need looking after at their ages.

I was having no problem having a mini-vacation, even deciding to stay an extra day and night when it was offered.

Because I usually stay about sixteen miles north of South Nags Head, the area was new to me. We were next to the Outer Banks Pier, which I hadn't even known existed, and the beach was extremely wide there with giant tidal pools and a huge sand bar.

The variable weather made for a day of clouds Tuesday, not a problem for me and the nephew, but the others mourned the absent sun.

Frankly, as long as it's not raining hard or thunder storming, I've got no problem being on the beach on a cloudy day. Every time a sprinkle came up, we just moved under the umbrellas and waited it out.

The ocean was 75 degrees either way, so what do I care if it's not a postcard-worthy sky?

During happy hour, the nephew interrupted out girl talk by saying, "I need a dude!" referring to the absence of his people. Have we been that bad, Sister #4 asked. "It has been pretty catty," he said with typical male understatement.

Wednesday dawned hot and sunny, making everyone happy except me because I had only a few hours before hitting the road.

Make no mistake, we had a big breakfast, then I took a walk with Sister #2 (and eventually #4 joined us) before we all took our chairs out on the sandbar for some morning chatter in the ocean.

While the nephew was lamenting how calm the ocean was, it was ideal for our purposes, a fitting ending to my mini-sistertrip.

Sweaty, sandy and sticky, I threw my beach supplies in the car and headed north, letting the beach radio station provide the final soundtrack to my getaway.

Driving  up 158, it was Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

Help me make the most 
of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever

Apropos. Further up, the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" came on just as I passed signs warning me, "Inmates Working."

Let's just say I like a day in my life better than a day in theirs.

Then it was Johnnyswim, the husband/wife duo (she's Donna Summers' daughter) I saw a few months back doing "Don't Keep Heaven Busy."

Skies changing, tides raising, ain't good enough
World spinning, all heaven is watching us
Don't keep heaven busy without me
When time comes, I move on, don't turn and weep
I'll catch up soon enough, wait and see

It was a terrific going home soundtrack.

For the first time on 168, I saw a sign saying, "Welcome to the Hampton Roads Wine Region." Who knew they had one?

Then there was a Tractor Supply store, with a sign announcing, "Chicken swap this Sunday!" I'll admit I had no idea people swapped chickens. I was learning a lot on my drive today.

The e-mail waiting for me from Sister #4 when I got home made me smile. "Kare, you were such a fun houseguest!"

I can't think of a better vacation compliment.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Life on a Chain

With a nod to Pete Yorn, I give you my Sunday.

First it was laughter for the morning after.

M*A*S*H* was playing at Movieland and I'd been looking forward to seeing it all week. Apparently I was in the minority (so what else is new?), though, because there were only five other people there.

I don't get it. A screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr., the low-key, smart humor delivery of Donald Sutherland and the over-the-top hilarity of mustachioed Elliott Gould in a film about trying to maintain the American way of life in Korea three miles from the front? And all filtered through the prism of 1970?

What's not to love?

I walked to and from the theater, taking in all the tents being readied for the hoopla at Redskins Park along the way and passing my Newtowne guys selling steamed crabs on the sidewalk.

Not today, gentleman, I've got plans.

Next up was day I (almost) forgot at Steady Sounds. Napping may have been involved.

A big crowd was gathering for the afternoon of DJs, music, book readings and everything but the kitchen sink, probably.

I found a few friends - the cute couple, the DJ, the state worker - but as one of them noted, "This looks like an older crowd." I assumed he meant people like me but he denied it.

Reading first was author Amanda Petrusich (who looked eerily like Laura Dern) reading from her just-released book, "Do Not Sell at Any Price" about the cult of old record buyers and sellers and the amazingness of Hillsborough Flea market in N.C., where my friend had already thrifted.

Then Chris King played old 78 records from 1926-28, part of his world-renowned collection and recent compilation, but scratchy enough to make my cute friend cringe and a musician friend reach for earplugs for her tinnitus.

Still, these are not records you will hear just anywhere and I admit I appreciate that.

I'd have stayed longer, but I needed a shower.

Nightcrawling

There was a Wildaire Cellars wine dinner at Camden's, so I was in Manchester by 6:30, ready to meet the winemaker, Matthew Driscoll, and see how the pairings held up.

Verdict: Wildaire Viognier with local corn chowder topped with lump crab meat kicked butt and took names.

But, hey, we're talking about Willamette Valley, so props also go to Wildaire Pinot Noir Reserve, paired with house hickory smoked chicken and shitake fricassee and deservedly eliciting oohs and ahs, both for aroma and taste.

And is there ever a time that local mixed melons with fried capers, Portuguese olive oil and micro-basil isn't sensational with Trevari Blanc de Blanc? Not likely.

I had a group of four at the bar with whom to discuss eye surgery, multiple marriages and art postcards sent to my house, so I was not lacking for company.

My recent thrift store purchase dress garnered me a comment because a friend had mistaken the trim on it for a new tattoo, something that seemed highly unlikely for me.

I was seated next to a woman who shared that she'd read all three volumes of "Shades of Gray" and that the story of the characters far exceeded the sex talk. Sorry, don't believe that.

Stronger women than me succumbed to chocolate pate, but I held fast, knowing I had one last place to crawl before it was over.

At Steady Sounds earlier, a friend had asked if I was coming to Live at Ipanema tonight.

As one of the the organizers, he'd been concerned that I hadn't been to the last two (I'd been out of town). "No, I'm serious," he said, "Allen and I discussed that if we couldn't get you to come out for it, maybe we should stop doing it." Oh, the pressure!

That said, My Sister, My Daughter was already playing when I arrived and slid into the stool my cute friend had saved for me.

I am devoted to Nelly Kate, the singer/songwriter who is half of the band with Brent Delventhal from Warren Hixson and after so long with Nelly absent from the scene, reveled in hearing her play and sing with Brent.

It was a full house for Live at Ips tonight so my presence was hardly necessary, but there were many talkers, many people who paid more attention to their friends than the music, always a shame, in my opinion.

When Hypercolor finally got started after a protracted set-up period, we were rewarded with the dulcet tones of the female lead singer playing guitar (and not your typical lead since she was even doing some finger-picking), plus lush-sounding guitars (including 12-string and one of the guys from Avers) and Chrissie, the bassist (and flautist) from Fear of Music, who together with the drummer kept everyone from wandering off into psychedelic, reverb wonderland.

They were fabulous and while it was hot as a July night, one of the most enjoyable Live at Ipanemas I've been to in a while.

Given all the unfamiliar faces, it was a bit of a strange condition, but also an ideal way to wind down my life on a chain.

Another fine day, another Sunday. There's a reference no one will remember.