Friday, October 28, 2016

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

This chair's for you, my imaginary friend.

Billie Jean King came to town, but this is really the story of a friendship that began in the mid '70s, right around the time that the legendary tennis player was showing herself to be a force to be reckoned with on many fronts.

An unlikely pair (and both Geminis, at that) who met during college, she was sporty and I was girly. She was athletically talented and I uncoordinated. She was a lifelong California girl, me, pure east coast. She hated me on sight.

Once we got past her youthful mis-perceptions, we became the yin to each other's yang, with sufficient shared enthusiasms to always make for a good ride. It was so comfortable that we knew early on we'd be lifelong friends.

Yet, somehow, we've lived in the same state for exactly two years. Or, more precisely, only two years.

We met, we had two wonderful years together and ever since, there have been multiple states in between us. Letters flew back and forth pre-Internet. Years would pass between visits, but we always reverted to instant familiarity.

Back when we met, she was an avid tennis player, even attempting fruitlessly to coach me in playing (I had no interest in the game, but coveted a cute strapless tennis dress) and naturally, BJK was a role model for what a woman could accomplish.

So when I walked over to the Seigel Center tonight to hear Billie Jean King speak as part of VCU's celebration of 40 years of LGBTQ activism, I knew my friend would have enthusiastically accompanied me if she weren't living in some far away Republican state.

Which is why when I chose a seat, I put my bag on the next seat as if I were saving it for someone, which I was, but more in spirit than reality. She'd have blended right in, too, because as the redhead in front of me observed looking around, "I expected it to be all middle-aged women."

My guess would be about 70%, but we're talking about an iconic '70s role model and women's rights activist, so that's hardly surprising. It would've been embarrassing if we hadn't represented.

After introductory remarks, we saw a video of photos, clips and sound bites (inexplicably set to the Rolling Stones and Dandy Warhols, and while the latter stole plenty of guitar riffs from the former, it's still an unlikely combination to soundtrack a tennis hero's bio), my main takeaway being how incredibly lithe, agile, fluid and altogether air-born she looked in so many of the old photographs.

Just as the video was ending, the woman who needed no introduction strode out smiling, looking 73-year old fabulous in sassy red glasses and a fuchsia jacket over black pants with her brown hair stylishly short.

Instant standing ovation. Just as instant, a fervent wish that my friend was here to experience it with me.

Taking to the stage, she began with a history of significant events in LGBTQ history, sort of a primer for those unaware, reminding us of the importance of history in our lives today.

She shared stories from her childhood about how her parents never pressured her or her brother about sports, yet both grew up to be professional athletes. "I think that's why my brother and I liked the pressure so much."

In fifth grade, Susan Williams asked her to play tennis and BJK had no idea what it was. After her second tennis lesson, she decided she wanted to be the best tennis player in the world.

In 1970, she and 8 other women signed $1 contracts to create the women's professional tennis league, with the vision that any girl who was good enough had a place to compete and could make a living playing tennis.

Helluva vision.

That's when the whole male chauvinist Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes nonsense started up and he wound up playing one of the nine women, trouncing her. BJK was next in his sites.

Here she paused in her talk to give some context to the time for the students in the audience.

"This was 1973. The war in Vietnam was winding down, but it never really did" - and here she deservedly scolded us as a nation for our treatment of returning Vietnam vets - "Watergate was just cranking up and a woman couldn't get a credit card in her own name, only her husband's!"

Audible millennial gasp from the crowd. Zinger from the star: "And why would they do that when  they know how much we love to shop?"

And here's where she set their brains ablaze. "The first portable phone came out that year, just as most of us were switching from rotary to touch-tone phones, and it weighed 2 1/2 pounds, you could only talk on it for 30 minutes and in order to do so, you had to charge it for ten hours!"

There were two reactions from the younger set: either their eyes glazed over or they laughed out loud. The middle-aged women nodded.

"I told the others I had to play him! The match was about social justice, not a paycheck!" Can't you just see her getting all riled up, raising her tennis racket over her head like the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue?

Perched behind the podium was a racket and BJK wasn't ten minutes in before she picked it up and never put it back down, her security blanket, moving from hand to hand.

She stuck her fingers through the criss-cross pattern as she spoke about being publicly outed by an ex-lover in '81, causing her to lose all her endorsements overnight. Theirs was the first "galimony" lawsuit, yet her husband wouldn't give her a divorce. Her parents were homophobic and she hated the shame-based life she was leading.

I tell you what, this would have made a highly successful nighttime soap opera at the time.

Our shero ended with advice to millennials, which would probably serve all of us well:
Be a problem solver
Relationships are everything
Stay informed and keep learning
Be your authentic self

Fascinating as her talk was, it got even better afterward when she dismounted the stage and walked in front of the seats answering questions submitted by the audience.

Did she ever think she'd lose to Bobby Riggs? Every day, all day.

Asked about diversity, she said she prefers the term equality ("It's like the '70s, we used to talk about equality. It's back!") because it doesn't focus on our differences.

Her advice to women was to use their body by harnessing its abilities.

When my question (Why do you think so many college students today resist being labeled a feminist?), she answered, "I do not know why that is, but if you believe in equality, you are a feminist whether you're male or female."

I felt equal parts pleasure that my question was asked and satisfaction at her succinct rebuttal.

The last question was from the English-born director of VCU's humanities resource center, asking in his clipped accent about how she and Elton John met up. Turns out it was two weeks before the Riggs match at a party for the singer who, she learned, wanted to write a song for her.

It was with obvious pride that she mentioned that "Philadelphia Freedom" made it to #1 on the charts, but she said Elton's greatest pride was that it made it to #1 on the R & B charts.

Sensing only a vague reaction from the students, BJK suggested, "Look it up on your little Spotify!"

And then, like a video director's dream, the music for "Philadelphia Freedom" started playing overhead and two VCU students with baskets of tennis balls appeared behind her and Billie Jean King began hitting autographed tennis balls into the frenzied crowd as scores of middle-aged women tried their creaky best to snatch a flying green ball out of mid-air.

Since I have zero hand/eye coordination, trying to snag a ball was never a consideration, so instead I stood among the flailing arms and watched the effortless motion of this woman's arm where the racket was nothing more than an extension of her hand as she hit 4 or 5 dozen balls into the stands while Elton John blared all around me.

I soaked it in as completely as I could and then walked a half mile home to call my friend and tell her what I'd just experienced for both of us. Like me, BJK represents a very specific era of our lives for her, so before long, we were going down the rabbit hole to those days.

What's curious is that each of us has become the repository for different aspects of our shared history.

She recalls visiting my tiny Dupont Circle apartment on 21st Street, where I showed her the window that looked out on the cute gay couple's bathroom, in case we wanted to ogle a nice male form. Until she mentioned it, this bonus feature of that place had long since left my head.

I can still conjure up the disdain on her face, the hand on her hip, the complete condescension in her voice when she first laid eyes on me.

Long complimented for her exceptional listening skills, she tells me she only acquired them after we met because I was always telling her one story or another. In my head, she'd arrived from the west coast fully loaded with a sympathetic ear.

Not so, she assures me.

An hour into the conversation, she shares that she envies me my connection to a place, something she hasn't had in a couple decades now. "Your heart is in Richmond, Kare" she tells me about my conversion to being a Virginian. "You've always had a sense of place."

Have I? I point out that this has become my place only because I took a chance on moving here when I knew no one other than my mate. That I stayed because of the pace of life here, the cost of living, the quality of life. The old houses and the green spaces. The ability to craft the life you want without being a slave to it.

I sing Richmond's praises with abandon now that she has admitted she has no reason to remain where she is.

Then I play dirty, reminding her all my city has to offer. I just came from a free event seeing one of her idols talk (and even answer my own question) mere blocks from my house. Outstanding as such an evening might seem to someone languishing in an uninspired outpost, it's hardly out of the ordinary.

The campaign to get her here has begun, essential given that we can't go our entire lives waiting for the right time to live in the same state. It's not like we're going to live forever, despite what some people say about me. Fact is, you've got to choose where you want to live your life.

And as Billie Jean came to Richmond to remind us, relationships are everything.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

I'll Make Time

As every former Girl Scout knows, make new friends, but keep the old, blah, blah, silver and gold.

The old, a former co-worker and music buddy, had emailed with his standard, "Drinks or lunch soon?" so we'd planned lunch at Peking (I know, I know, who goes to Peking anymore, especially when a so-called Chinese restaurant doesn't provide chopsticks without asking) because it was near his office at the James Center.

Over my Sezchuan chicken and his General Tso's fried chicken, we discussed our shared allegiance in the mayoral race before moving on to the  state of the scene, a favorite topic of ours for a decade now.

Not for the first time, he thanked me for insisting he attend the Silent Music Revival back in 2008 when he hadn't a clue (always happy to be of service) and suggested a game where we chronicle our favorite cultural experiences back in that era when all the underground scenes were just beginning to burble up to a more mainstream audience.

Mermaid Skeletons in the Poe Garden, the first Listening Room at the Micheaux House, the Silent Music Revival with Blue Letter making our ears bleed, the first time we marched together in the Halloween parade.

We got a million of 'em, he and I.

Only problem is, we can play that game all day long and both of us had work to accomplish this afternoon, so I accompanied him as far as the James Center and continued my walk uphill to Jackson Ward.

As for the new (friend, that is), he was technically still wet behind the ears since we'd met exactly a week ago and this was our first outing. The man's only been back in Richmond for two months, so I'd offered to help a brother out by showcasing what I like about Richmond life.

Upon his return from a weekend in Asheville, the Barrister had notified me of his availability, I'd shared what my plans for that evening were and left him to decide if any or all of it was appealing enough to join in.

Whether bravely or foolishly, he'd checked all three boxes.

We met at Chop Suey Books for "One Hour, Four Places," with four writers reading from their work about linen closets, cheating spouses dying, overnights in a museum and bedside manner, although we were also those horrible people in the back row who only stayed for three of the readings.

Once out on the sidewalk, we agreed that Gayla Mills' ode to repeatedly patching the worn out jeans of the 21-year old she fell in love and began making music with rang truest.

As old friends of mine know well, memoir often trumps fiction for my interest.

From there, we did a convoy over to Vagabond for dinner, only to walk in and be informed that it was Restaurant Week and they were full up. On the one hand, I should probably have known what week it was given my occupation but on the other, I tend to block it out intentionally.

Fortunately, the bar was empty and dinner service extended to those stools, so we settled in to do battle with the unexpected constraints of the week, but the good news kept coming when I learned that ordering off the Restaurant Week menu was not required given the - ta da! - "Vagabond Staples" portion of the menu.

That and a glass of La Galope Rose ensured that even if Barr turned out to be dead boring as company, at least the meal wouldn't be (and he didn't). Additional points were earned because he's also firmly in the camp that food is meant to be shared so there can be no duplicate ordering.

Not a problem since I went with the staples and Barr went traditional with the Restaurant Week menu.

My first course was fried cauliflower with a swipe of earthy roasted pumpkin seed Romesco, while his was a smoked brisket taco combining pine nut salsa, pickled jalapeno and queso fresco that refused to stay contained in the tortilla despite our best efforts.

We covered the entire histories of all the people at the table where we'd met, as well as our conflicting plans for Saturday night. Despite his entreaties, Paula Poundstone yields to Julius Caesar for me in this instance.

Next up I tucked into scallops perfectly seared over smoked corn puree (something I'd love to see more of), butternut squash, pico de gallo and, yes, that's right, tortilla chips.

Snack food fine dining, yes, please.

His roasted rockfish brought up the whole roasted rockfish we'd shared with the table last Wednesday, a frequency he commented on, but, pshaw, I'd already had a second rockfish since then, making this my third in a week. Tonight's repeat fish benefited from toothsome collards, sea island red peas, potlikker and butter (although, let's face it, a fillet never measures up to whole fish).

Because that's what friends do - even brand new friends - I was happy to explain potlikker to the grown man next to me who was unfamiliar with the term despite an obvious affinity for the product.

More explaining was in order when he inquired about the photo on my blog  - Jonathan Borofsky's "Walking to the Sky" - which I took in 2008 laying in the grass at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (and good for me since it has since been dismantled and not reinstalled) on a glorious winter day.

And since I can't mention Dallas without sharing how distasteful I repeatedly found the city despite the friend I adore who lived there, he gave me his take on Dallas, which was far more positive than mine.

But even newly-minted friends are bound to have differences of opinion, so I didn't hold it against him.

His third course was a chocolate torte with a Fall-tasting sweet Asian pear compote and goat cheese whipped cream, which he graciously shared with yours truly before we took our drinks and headed downstairs to the Gypsy Tea Room for the main event: music.

Two large groups of noisy talkers were just vacating their tables when we arrived, ordered more wine and claimed prime spaces on the banquette facing the Scott Clark Other Other 4-tet in the moody darkness, which also happens to be one reason I like this space so much.

So. Much. Atmosphere.

Given that it was a first outing for this friendship, we both had plenty of getting-to-know-you questions, such as him inquiring what radio station I listened to. When I said public radio WNRN, he said that told him everything he needed to know since he was also a huge fan of the station.

People continued to trickle in for the next half an hour as the quartet began playing and improvising, meaning I saw a favorite candidate for City Council, one of the musicians who used to live underneath me ("How are the new tenants?" he wondered about his replacements) and the drummer whose park show I'd missed last night.

Across the room, I spotted the jazz critic and several up and coming musicians, little surprise given the quality of musicianship on display tonight: the low key and multi-talented Scott on drums, Cameron Ralston slapping, plucking, bowing and generally owning the bass, Jason Scott killing it on sax and clarinet and Trey Pollard on guitar while making outstanding guitar faces.

I could see that the Barrister was enjoying himself completely. Leaning over between songs, he asked rhetorically, "Shows like this are happening all over town every night, aren't they?"

Sure are and some nights, they're in the same place where potlikker is being ladled up.

If this friendship continues to go well, in ten years I'd like to think he'll be another long-time friend thanking me for suggesting all kinds of places.

My gold and silver motto? Making new friends, keeping the old and laying in the grass when it's called for.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Study Period

When it comes to what constitutes "women's work," I don't know whether to be insulted or complimented.

If you were one of the brilliant black women hired by NASA's Langley Research Center in the 1940s, it was to be one of their human "computers" doing the mathematical calculations for the male engineers trying to win the space race.

That's right, they were doing one kind of women's work (incredibly complex math) so that the engineers could utilize it and hog all the glory for their accomplishments.

This means that some of these women wrote the trajectory equations for putting a spacecraft into orbit around our planet, a feat which boggles my mind. More correctly, it shuts it down entirely since the notion of math making space (or even air) travel possible is beyond my scope of understanding.

Don't forget, I'm the one who freaked out when I was told that Neptune was discovered by mathematical predictions rather than by observation.

Tonight's reading at the Library of Virginia featured Margot Lee Shetterly, author of "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race" (easily the clunkiest book title ever) sharing bits of the story of women who, until recently, languished in the shadows of American history.

Which is crazy given that these women were trailblazers in their field during a key period of the development of air travel safety and the space program. I'd call that way more than a big deal.

One of her best anecdotes concerned, of all things, "Star Trek" and Martin Luther King ("He was a Trekkie," she informs us as if she's letting us in on a secret).

Seems that the actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, was ready to quit the show for Broadway when she ran into her uber-fan.

King told her she couldn't quit because of how important her role was. He saw the inclusion of her character as significant because it meant that whites saw blacks as equals and part of the future, at least by science fiction standards.

"This is the kind of role we've been fighting for," he supposedly told her, changing her mind about quitting. "Keep doing what you're doing because you're our inspiration."

Shetterly's research showed that when the first five black women showed up at Langley in 1943, they were in a separate office with a bathroom and cafeteria designated for "coloreds," which isn't much of a surprise given that Jim Crow still flourished outside of the military base.

Needless to say, it was a fascinating peek into the story of women with brilliant mathematical minds who did calculations most of us can't begin to understand at a time when they had no role models for black women going into such a field.

Leaving behind tonight's history lesson, I walked five blocks down Broad for a civics lesson.

The Bijou was holding its third salon, this one with mayoral candidate Levar Stoney as its focus and since I'd missed the first two - Jack Berry and Jon Baliles - this one I intended to make.

When Stoney arrived from his last candidate obligation - a house party - he wasted no time in removing his tie, rolling up his sleeves and inquiring if the beer was free (it was).

Then he sat down in the hot seat to talk to 9 people curious about what he had to say.

Although I was a salon newbie, I'd heard that they all begin with grilling the candidate on the Shockoe stadium issue and this one was no exception, an easy segue into the ballpark miasma (he wants the city and VCU at the table to discuss any future plans) and the challenge of getting the counties involved ("Attendees at baseball games don't look like city residents").

There was a polish to his patter, a sense that he's been well-schooled in numbers and talking points that made him feel very much like a professional politician, which he more or less is.

Humor still showed through occasionally (when someone joked that the Coliseum was "built to last," he quipped, "Yea, that's what Bobby Ukrop said," and laughed) but even it seemed practiced.

Assuring us that he'd be a mayor who could bring money into the city, he also insisted that the mayor's role is to be a visible cheerleader for development and new programs, selling business start-ups to the citizenry.

Additional fun facts: he's not a Redskins fan, Chuck Richardson told him to be patient and wait his turn to run and when told he seems "tight as ticks" with Governor McAuliffe, assured us that the guv did not put him up to running.

After he told a forum audience that he'd explore increasing the cigarette tax, he got a call from Altria the next day and he's meeting with them tomorrow.

And while I know that politicians have to play the game, a lot of his answers involved finessing the deposits and withdrawals of political capital, which to me just sounds like typical good old boy backroom negotiating.

One point he was clear on was that with a median age of 33 years old in the city, it's time to pass the baton to the next generation and employ newer, younger voices to run Richmond. That he would also be the youngest mayor (35) of a mid-size city also seemed to sit well with him.

My issue is not his age, it's his tenure in Richmond and his mostly appointed job experience. As one salon participant commented after he left, "This guy intends to be President someday."

With at least ten years before that can happen, I'm more concerned with his fitness to run my city, a place I've lived for three decades now and come to love. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm with Chuck Richardson, at least on this one. It's not quite Stoney's time.

I need to feel like my mayor truly knows the city, not just how politics works.

For what it's worth, that's how this woman's mind works.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Buttering My Bridges

Usually, you need to go to a low rent restaurant to see color pictures of the food before ordering.

Tonight's menu was nothing like that.

Oxford chef John Currence was bringing his new cookbook, "Big Bad Breakfast" to Southbound, who in turn were cooking nine of the book's recipes for guests. Having been to three of Currence's restaurants (including Big Bad Breakfast), it sounded like a hoot to me.

Only problem was no one warned me about the apparently-standard traffic issues going into Chesterfield County during rush hour, thereby proving that I almost never head out of the city into the suburbs around 6:00.

I'll never understand the attraction of dealing with that mess for the sake of mowing a lawn and sacrificing your soul, but that's just me.

Once inside Southbound, tonight's Currence mix (ELO, Clash, Guns 'n Roses, Fleetwood Mac) was deemed too short, so was in the process of being augmented when an editor came in and immediately began bemoaning the state of traffic to the Southside, a subject I'd just covered with the DJ and the chefs.

"Traffic is a thing here now," the bearded one said earnestly, explaining that he made a point to avoid it. Really, a thing, a real thing here? That's just proof of how buried a woman can keep herself by not making that trip but once in a blue moon.

I glanced at the menu with its three sections with three offerings in each, but with a brand new copy of "Big Bad Breakfast" in front of me, it seemed to make sense to absorb some of the gospel according to John Currence before ordering.

In case you don't have a copy of the book, allow me to summarize the Chef's philosophy: Breakfast should be revered, respected and adored.

Which is why he opened a restaurant devoted to breakfast and why he firmly believes breakfast food deserves the full dinner treatment. Hell, he believes even all the components for breakfast should be homemade like Grandma did.

But if I had to pick one of his 10 commandments of breakfast as the tipping point for why I've crossed state lines to eat this man's food, here it is:

4. Thou shalt slather with butter. It will not kill you (consumed in quantities within reason, that is)...No fat tastes better on toast with jelly or when cooking eggs (bacon fat included).

As someone who was recently cited for the massive amounts of butter I can consume effortlessly, these simple lines speak to my inner butterball.

Ergo, it's why I'd driven through traffic roughly equivalent to the beer lines at a summer festival to eat breakfast for dinner and score his new cookbook.

I know, I know, you're wondering why I'd need a cookbook and I don't. Fortunately, this one is also a great read since every recipe is preceded by an essay combining culinary history, personal anecdote, obscure food facts and dish inspiration stories sprinkled with a healthy dose of sarcasm, profanity and attitude.

You don't need to cook to enjoy this cookbook.

Let's just say I felt no shame in cracking my book at the bar and starting to read about the most important meal of the day as a prelude to ordering.

The reason for that was that everything on the menu was followed by a page number, so inquiring diners could look up the recipe to scope out the ingredients or see a photo before placing their order.

The essay on pork posole begins with, "Make this. That's all I really have to say" (before going on to say another 500 words) so I did, rewarded with a runny poached egg atop a bowl of spicy pork rib tips, fresh corn and hominy that spoke to needs I didn't even know I had.

Double oyster hangtown fry (introduced as a Gold Rush dish known for its pricey ingredients) scored as much for its crispy fried oysters as for the scrambled eggs with bacon and thinly-sliced slices of serrano chilis mounded in the center of the ring of oysters.

My final course, sausage cinnamon rolls, was also the first recipe in the book, which says a fair amount about its place in the chef's recipe pantheon, but also about our shared addiction to the siren song of sweet and salty.

The yeast rolls' filling of brown sugar, sausage, butter and cinnamon was as integral to their perfection as the cream cheese and butter frosting they were lavishly frosted with. Even as I felt my arteries hardening, I used my very last bite to wipe up every last dab of icing from the plate's crevices.

It's probably safe to say that I had not consumed butter in quantities within reason tonight, and for that I make no apologies.

In fact, if I were the one writing a footnote under the 4th commandment about the power and memory-making ability of butter, I'd share that I can still recall with absolute clarity a childhood episode involving me on a backyard swing having my first slice of toast thickly spread with butter and  topped with a layer of jam.

The sky is blue, the swing is moving only slightly, and there is nothing in my life so far that has been quite as overwhelmingly wonderful as the layers of that toast.

Just another five year old who knew instinctively that no fat tastes better on toast with jam.

Try it. That's all I really have to say.

Black Fall's Nights

Some last-minute invitations you can't RSVP to fast enough.

Wanna come out to the country and start a fire and listen to Maxwell? Oh! And I have half a bushel of oysters...

If I didn't know better, I'd have thought I was being wooed.

The music alone - Maxwell's latest album, "BLACKsummers'night," which Pitchfork described as detailing "another emotionally complex romantic relationship" and exploring "the full spectrum of love. Curiosity - the desire to dissect and examine a partnership - has always set him apart; Maxwell wants to push far past the surface, almost clinically so, of any easily won emotion" - had me packing tout suite.

Cross your fingers, babe
I know sometimes your love is pessimistic
Oh, baby, baby

There may be women out there who wouldn't drive an hour for a chance to listen to any man who chooses to dissect and examine a relationship, but I'm not one of them.

Nope, I'm the type aiming for favorite guest status by making a pit stop at Rapp Session to pick up mignonette for the bivalves and a whole Branzino for dinner before heading west into the blinding setting sun.

After dropping my bag and the provisions, we parked ourselves in front of a fire on the deck, sipping Prosecco and slurping some of the freshest-tasting oysters we could hope for as dusk settles in around us and Maxwell sings it to us.

Maybe your love is just a big mistake
Maybe your love is what you fabricate
If you get the courage, baby
Someday, maybe, probably, maybe
You'll be mine, all mine

"This is a very civilized way to enjoy oysters and Prosecco," my host observes in between shucking duties.

Before long, our favorite locals show up to sip and slurp to Maxwell with us, ratcheting up the conversation with tales from country life ("Here comes the minutiae," his wife cracks) seen on his daily runs around the county.

A flurry of excitement erupts when I casually mention that my grandmother grew up in the very same county and my grandfather in the next one over, and, again, the wife gets the best line in, saying, "We're probably sisters!"

Strangely enough, it wouldn't be the first time I was late learning that I had new-to-me sisters out there.

They left before the Branzino was grilled over the fire, but it was for the best, really it was, given that we destroyed that fish without any outside assistance.

Sunday's road trip took us to Culpeper, first to the picaresque and tiny Honah Lee Vineyard (because where better to frolic in the autumn mist than in a land called...?) for a wine tasting of their wines as well as a few from Gabrielle Rausse, Well Hung and Michael Shaps, all enjoyed in an otherwise empty tasting room.

From there, we cruised on listening to whatever radio station we could get, which is how we wound up hearing Poco's "Call It Love," a song neither of us had heard in years.

I play my hand
You call my bluff
We push each other
'Till we've had enough
When it's all you've got
Call it love

I put in an immediate request to add Poco's "Legend" to our evening listening repertoire because it was an album I'd loved back when it came out - back when two of my three roommates owned it - so the songs were seared into my brain, yet I hadn't thought of Poco in years.

Then it was on to the farm that sells the best pork chops I've ever put in my mouth, a place I hadn't been in three years, although the farm stand store and a new dog appeared to be the only change from my last visit.

Looking for updates, I was sad to hear that Fred and Wilma, the parents of the past 3 or 4 years' worth of pigs, had been retired, but fortunately, their offspring (Pebbles and Bam Bam) were continuing the family tradition of spawning fine pork.

Talking to one of the farm interns after scooping up every chop in the freezer, my date inquired about the availability of pork bellies, to which she nonchalantly responded, "We've got 'em. I call 'em chef bait."

Predictably, he'd taken the bait and after a stroll over to the tree line (where a bunch of piglets had escaped the enclosure where Pebbles and Bam Bam noshed almost continuously), we left with multiple bellies and additional chops - enough to last until Spring, we're hoping - and brats.

Naturally, evening #2 began with more oysters and Prosecco and after a dignified amount of time, two of those fat chops landed on the fire to become dinner, followed by fireside music.

From the first two notes of "Boomerang" off Poco's "Legend," I was back in Kensington, Maryland, with my former roommates listening to an album funkier than either of us recalled and without a weak song. "Spellbound, " "Barbados," "Little Darling," I somehow still knew every word to every song.

I'll spare you the rabbit hole some people can go down trying to draw the lineage of the country rock genre once they're deep into dissecting a Poco record.

We've got all night
Let's take our time
Tell me your secrets
I'll tell you mine
When it makes us feel better
Call it love

Like Maxwell, I'm inclined to seek out those emotions not easily won. Whatever you want to call them.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sit Down, I Think I Love Your Music

That moment when you know you made the right musical call.

It's after you get home from the University of Richmond's International Film Series seeing "Tokyo Story," a black and white 1953 post-war commentary by the Japanese director considered second only to Kurasawa.

Shot from the point of view of a person sitting on a mat on the floor, the film offers a heart-breakingly sad look at the already seismic cultural shift from old to young after WW II. In fact, it may have been the birth of the whippersnapper generation that spawned successive legions of disrespectful children with no interest in history or heritage.

A beautiful film, but also a dispiriting one.

No, it's when I'm getting ready to head out in search of my evening's repast, but before I pick up dessert and head to Holmes' basement for a two-month catch-up session and music fest ("We've got some new music," he says with a leer in his voice on the phone call to arrange things).

Certainly, it's when "Almost Cut My Hair" comes on the radio and it's followed by John Prine and then Leonard Cohen's latest album "You Want It Darker" (do I or is that just his old age talking?) that I feel the universe patting me on the back.

Go to the vinyl, Karen. And take chocolate...

But my family's rule was always "no dinner, no dessert," so I head directly to Bistro 27 where a rehearsal dinner is in progress for what will surely be no more than a starter marriage for these two impossibly young people. Watching the guests occupy themselves with alcohol and each other's spawn reminds me how tedious such events are when small children are involved.

My meal, on the other hand, delivers in spades: the rockfish is weighed down with lumps of crabmeat and the accompanying sauteed vegetables - squash, mushrooms, zucchini and tomatoes rounded out with lemon juice and herbs de Provence - could not have been cooked more perfectly. The mushrooms, especially, are so flavorful they all but burst in my mouth.

I order two chocolate mouse cakes to go and head to the party of three.

Holmes and Beloved are just finishing up dinner when I arrive, pleased to no end with how their first attempt at chicken saltimbocca and pasta has turned out.

After our shared dessert, Beloved excitedly tells me she has a present for me: a hardback copy of "Valley of the Dolls" scored at an estate sale. Miraculously, the deceased had had two copies and she'd picked one up for herself as well. We're both elated at our new trashy reading score.

As a result, the time machine for the evening is right that moment set to '60s/70s as we move to the man cave, take up our assigned bar stools and the musical focus begins with them showing off some new vinyl finds: The 101 Strings' "East of Suez," and an Arthur Murray party record with appropriate music for rumbas, the waltz, fox trot, samba and others to keep your guests cutting a rug all night.

Then the radio's earlier foreshadowing kicks in as Holmes puts on Crosby and Nash's "Wind on the Water" so we can moon over "Sit Down, I Think I Love You," but it's when he puts on "Nuggets: Original Artifacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968" (modestly claiming that he'd just happened to come across it while perusing the "N" section of his record collection) that the party truly gets started.

Don't get me wrong, I only recognized a very few songs on this two-disc set, but the overall sound was completely memory-inducing. "Lies" by the Knickerbockers was familiar and the Standells' "Dirty Water" almost was, while Mouse's "A Public Execution" sounded eerily like Dylan, if he could sing.

Easily the most dramatic song was the Barbarians' "Moulty," an autobiographical ode to the drummer losing one of his hands. The song winds down with Moulty telling us not to pity him because he's happy with his lot in life. "I just need to find a good woman and I'll be complete!" he sing-songs dramatically.

"No, you won't!" hollers Beloved at the turntable. "You haven't got a hand!"

But it was when the Castaways "Liar, Liar" came on that Beloved got excited, recalling that the band had played a school dance when she was at Albert Hill Middle School. A classmate named Mac had been inspired to start a band, she said, and when they played "Gloria," all the girls at Hill swooned and screamed.

Not willing to be outdone in school memories, Holmes shares that he and friends at John B. Cary also started a band, with the dubious name of Dr. VD's Observatory. No report on how the girls reacted.

Virtually all the songs were one hit wonders, sometimes one of two, but one band was instantly recognizable and that was Nazz. No one sounds like Todd Rundgren and none of the other songs had the production his "Open My Eyes" did, either.

It was after listening to all four sides of "Nuggets" and lamenting Holmes' loss of a similar version except of original artifacts from the first English psychedelic era that he pulled out another album for one last bonus nugget, Syndicate of Sound's "Hey, Little Girl," who - we really shouldn't have been surprised - had also played at Albert Hill during Beloved's junior high tenure.

As we're listening, Beloved reaches over to the end of the bar and randomly picks up a 1967 issue of a Mad Magazine Special and begins flipping through. Shrieking, she holds it up, saying, "You know what's in Mad? Valley of the Dolls!"

Actually, it was Valley of the Dollars, a spoof on the millions author Jacqueline Susann had made on the book and movie, but also mocking the cheesy film with abandon. Actress Barbara Perkins is shown on her way to the movie set, walking past a sign that says, "You are now leaving Peyton Place.

I may be too young to have seen the cheesy prime time soap opera, but I nonetheless got the joke.

It was then that the happy couple pulled out another piece of the web they were weaving over me with the soundtrack to Valley of the Dolls, complete with movie montage music and the theme song sung by an uncredited vocalist because Dionne Warwick was under contractual obligation to another record company.

I ask you, how many friends gift you with the book, provide a period-appropriate magazine satire of it and then follow up with the music from the film?

Four plus hours into our evening, we had to decide on the final vinyl and Beloved scooped up the double "Shaft Soundtrack" album, asking rhetorically, "What is this?"

Holmes, no more than our obedient DJ by this point, barely looked up, mumbling, "I don't know. I'm just a captive."

Since I'd just seen "Shaft" a week ago, it was especially satisfying to hear Isaac Hayes' masterpiece on speakers as fine as Holmes has.

And because even when you're heading toward 2 a.m. Holmes will still try to slide in one last record to dazzle his guests, he put on a pink vinyl copy of a club mix of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You." Since it had been ages since our last rendezvous, he could have been trying to tell me something.

More likely, he was reminding me that when I stop by Dr. VD's Observatory, I always make the right musical call.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Hitting the Chisholm Trail Redux

Talk about your timely film.

The Virginia Historical Society was showing "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed," sucking me in on not only that era, but the women's rights movement, the Civil Rights connection and the parallels that a woman is running for President today.

Somehow I wound up sitting in the honorary Gerald Baliles seat, notable, sure, for my current top choice of his son for mayor, but also because of the woman who introduced the film and led the discussion afterward: Mary Sue Terry, who'd been running herself in '72 and had later been attorney general under Baliles.

See how I made a whole circle of life connection right there?

The crowd skewed heavily female, meaning lots of short gray hair and chatter ("I just came from yoga, so I'm a sweaty Betty" and "I went to see that movie "The Dressmaker" for the couture and it was the worst movie I ever saw!") before Terry directed the "Baptists in the back" to move closer to the auditorium's front for better interaction.

Oh, how they grumbled about that.

Regardless of where you sat, the 2004 documentary was a compelling look at a period in time and the sheer audacity of a black woman to decide to run for the highest office in the land.

She read her speech announcing her candidacy while holding the manila file folder that contained the speech, emphasizing that she wasn't the black candidate, she wasn't the woman candidate, that she was simply the candidate of the people.

And she did it with a West Indian lilt to her voice and a slight lisp that would likely not go over well in these highly critical social media times.

What was impressive was that from the moment she won a seat in the House in 1968, she was making it clear she was going to play by her own rules. About to be assigned to the agricultural committee, she balked, saying such a posting wasn't relevant to her Brooklyn constituency that included Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Thinks about it: that's a lot of nerve for for the first black woman elected to Congress.

My fondness for archival footage was rewarded with old news clips (Walter Cronkite referring to Chisholm and Muskie simply as "other candidates" not worthy of naming; saying that Chisholm was "throwing her bonnet in the ring" when she announced or referring to "old Hubert Humphrey" as "the warhorse") and commercials such as the one singing a "Nixon Now" jingle that was probably just as grating then as today.

Her commercial also involved singing - "If you're looking for freedom, take the Chisholm trail, We will set our women free" - but looked more like an outtake from a multi-cultural Partridge Family shoot than you might expect.

That she frequently wore a full-length fur coat (and corsage!) on the campaign trail seemed both odd and appropriately feminine for the times.

As much of a determined fighter as she was, Chisholm knew better than to think she'd win the Presidency, admitting that her role was to pave the way for other women.

You could just feel the female pride rising in the room as we watched and when a montage of women's rights marches was shown over Helen Reddy's '70s anthem "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar," I heard voices throughout the auditorium singing along.

If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

Probably most striking about the footage of Chisholm on the campaign trail was just how forthright and outspoken she was, absolutely certain of her beliefs and goals.

"I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century," she says stirringly near the end of the documentary and you get the sense that she really meant it.

Terry returned to the front of the room to lead a discussion once the film ended and some people (and most males) left. Her first question was about who had been born after '72 and what had shocked them most about what they'd just seen.

"That she ran against George Wallace!" one said and while I'd known that, I'd never seen the riff on "American Gothic" using her and Wallace. Bad taste has always been the currency of the body politic, it seems.

"That she stayed in the race," said another who hadn't realized she'd made it all the way to the Democratic convention. Terry had also been at that convention, sharing that it was nothing like today's highly-scheduled events.

"We worked for 37 hours that convention and 17 of them were after midnight," she recalled of the late night wheeling and dealing of delegates to produce one nominee. "People characterized our convention as all about sex, pot and queers."

As good a place to start as any..

She reminded us that in addition to Chisholm being black and female, she was also extremely short and, "We like our elected officials tall!"

"We prefer good hair, too, don't we?" a woman in the crowd called out, getting momentarily topical about bad comb-overs.

Terry stressed how much higher the health standard is for women running for elected office than it is for men, recalling George Allen attending an event with his arm in a sling because he'd signed so many autographs he had tendinitis.

She said she could never have gotten away with doing the same.

In fact, when she'd broken her back in a few places playing racket ball, she had less than a week before she needed to attend the opening of the General Assembly. "I've got to get out of this hospital," she insisted about the looming event. "And get a permanent!"

Every woman has her priorities. A woman once told me she couldn't stay out and drink wine too late because she had an appointment the next afternoon to get her fake lashes reapplied. We don't judge.

Terry's plan was to use a cane to make walking into the General Assembly and down its steps slightly less painful but she was instructed that if she planned to arrive with a cane, she shouldn't plan to come at all. She went cane-less and without taking a pain pill for fear it would make her appear out of it.

Always held to a higher standard.

Discussion was lively, both about Chisholm and her legacy and about Terry's personal soapbox.

"I hope I'm not being recorded tonight," she joked. "I'm not anti-man, really I'm not." But she did question how a Martian would perceive a place where the larger population (my people) had a governing body primarily comprised of the smaller population.

"My plea is for more women to be elected to office. Men just decide to run but women usually have to be pushed and convinced. Let's elect more women!" She was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the cause.

Walking outside next to a young black woman, I asked what she'd thought of the film. Admitting that she'd never even heard of Chisholm before today when she saw it was being shown, she'd been impressed with the candidate and confused as to why she'd never been taught about such a historic run for the Presidency.

I asked her when she'd been born: 1991. Chisholm left Congress before then - 1982 - but was alive until 2005, yet this woman had woken up today with no idea of her historic run for the White House.

We may have numbers too big to ignore, but how're we ever going to set our women free if we don't teach them about the efforts of their foremothers, even when it includes sex, pot and queers?

My plea aligns with Terry's. Let's show the Martians who's in charge, shall we?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mambo Italiano

Bite your teeth into the ass of life and drag it to you.

What better way to bite the ass of life while also celebrating the 20th anniversary of "Big Night" than with a Big Night wine dinner with friends old and new at Camden's?

The usual suspects - Pru, Beau, Beckham and the Beauty - were joined by a new face from the neighborhood, only two months into his return to Richmond after forays to Baton Rouge and Atlanta.

The Barrister, as he was immediately dubbed, proved a worthy addition to the group and seemed unfazed by our ricocheting conversations, despite having been warned by the chef that we were a handful.

But most of the tables were similarly enthralled with their tablemates since the chef had made a point of combining reservations to create groups of 5 or 6, the better to appreciate a truer "Big Night" experience. My guess would be that we weren't the only table to make a new friend or two over five courses while the movie played and the music was set to Louis Prima.

This is a restaurant! This is not a f*cking school!

Good thing because all of us would have gotten marked down for talking out of turn.

In true "Big Night" style, platters of food and bottles of wine were dropped off at each table for people to enjoy family style and woe to the server who tried to remove a bottle that still contained a few sips in it from ours.

Tellingly, she only tried that once.

Starting with zuppa Toscana accompanied by Monferrato Bianco Giabine, we were fully into our food-friendly wines and elaborate meal before some of my fiends even realized that the Barrister was as new to me as to them. "Everyone gets along with you!"  Pru said by way of explanation for her assumption that Barr and I were BFFs.

The handsome Vittorio Fracchia of Sulin Winery paused at our table to introduce himself, explaining that he was the fifth generation of his wine-making family, but all I could think of was the scores of women that five generations of his male Italian ancestry must have gone through.

Speaking from experience with Italian men, I feel certain had I said it, he would have taken it as a compliment.

Tri-color risotto - pink seafood, white cheese and green spinach - resembled the Italian flag and was paired with the winery's crowd-pleasing Chardonnay while discussing the rigors of jury duty. As a juror for a murder trial, Pru had been appalled at the quality of the experience.

"Exhibit A was a Hennessy bottle!" she said to laughter. "All the character witnesses were wearing orange prison jumpsuits." New black, right?

"Here's your first Barbera of the evening," our server (and VCU prof) said, causing Beckham and I to swoon a bit at the prospect of more Barbera to come. What a lovely and extremely rare thing to be told, we agreed.

You could hear the oohs and ahhs at every single table when a whole roasted rockfish complete with cherry tomato eye was dropped off at each, along with roasted hens, grilled asparagus and roasted beets to go with glasses of the appealing Aleramo Barbera.

I can't speak to how refined the other tables were about de-boning and serving their rockfish, but from where I sat, it was a joint venture, hands-on continuum that ensured everyone had their fingers in that succulent fish at some point.

The chef went table to table, amusing himself with how each table autopsied the secondi course. I can't even recall the last time I ate so much rockfish at one sitting or enjoyed it more.

Goddamn it, I should kill you! This is so f*cking good, I should kill you!

Rapidly approaching full-as-a-tick territory, we nonetheless soldiered on happily because next up was suckling pig (the photo posted on Facebook earlier in the day showed us what the poor thing looked like before it got shredded and brought to us) to be washed down with Barbaresco Brasal Fracchia and savored listening to Vittorio's heartfelt ode to the Nebbiolo grape.

In this arena (and probably others) Vittorio and I are in complete agreement.

All the while conversation swirled from board games to restaurants to Beckham and the Beauty's envy-worthy plans to get married in South Africa in less than 8 weeks. When the topic turned to drink and why we do, Beauty made sure Barr understood that we don't drink because we have to.

Pru set the record straight quickly. "Not gonna lie, sometimes I do. I do have to." Beau would undoubtedly be qualified to attest to this.

The earlier promise of more Barbera was fulfilled with Barbera Ornella accompanied by the culinary orgy that is timpano, a pastry-covered "drum" holding ziti, cheese, sauce, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs and sausage and that, by all rights, none of us should have had the room to attempt.

We dove in with abandon.

When to-go boxes were brought out after tables threw up the white flag in surrender to the final dish, we quickly determined that we needed boxes for everyone. Despite the appearance of three couples, we were a six-top, all of whom lived separately.

When the chef walked around tossing Squirrel Nut Zippers in front of each guest, it was the signal that the dinner portion of the big night was over, and that the Presidential debate portion was about to begin. Moving to the bar for a better view of the screen, we settled in for some Italian wine-fueled commentary as the nominees faced off.

Every time Trump used his favorite adjective, we'd hoot and holler "tremendous!" to show our disdain for his limited vocabulary and braggadocio. How can anyone watch him say, "No puppet. You're the puppet" and not expect to hear "na-na-na-na-na" next?

Beckham and the Beauty drifted out into the night before Trump had insisted he won't necessarily accept the election's results and sometime around midnight, Pru and Beau took charge of our friend and deposited the Barrister at his home five blocks away (and, yes, he'd gotten major points for walking to dinner).

Conversation didn't end then, not with the Prof there bringing up assorted salacious topics such as, "A dude better be able to - we'll sub in "perform oral sex" for how she actually phrased it - like a champ" and, "You got a sweet ass, Karen" to round out the evening.

We're not talking life here and it's not like she tried to bite it or anything.

Primo, do you know why this night is happening?
Because it has to happen.

And this, as you may have guessed, was how we dragged ourselves to it.