Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Run Over by a Bus

Not to start out too deep, but life is all about timing.

There have been certain instances in my life when I knew that a good thing was happening to me, but it wasn't the right time to accept it. Other times, I feel like my arms were wide open to whatever life handed me, but nothing appropriate came into them.

The biggest lesson of my life happened when I was 28 and it taught me that I have absolutely no control over what awful things could be dropped in my lap.

It was also a gift that convinced me that I'd had my lowest point and nothing could ever destroy me like that again. Of course, I was wrong.

These days, I'm really quite happy with my life, simple as it is. I feel lucky to have the people I do in my life and fortunate to still get so much pleasure out of what I do.

Would I change a few things if I could? No doubt. Am I complaining about where I am? Not a chance.

Tonight's adventure began at Graffiato's early, meaning when I walked in, it was uncrowded enough that I could actually hear the music (Goo Goo Dolls, Tom Petty, Bowie) and there were plenty of bar stools available for dinner. At that point the staff outnumbered the guests three to one and I saw more than one restaurant owner was in attendance.

Taking advantage of happy hour, Montelvini Prosecco on tap was procured, followed by a plate of cheeses- Grayson and Bianco Sardo- and meat -finocchiona, a fennel Tuscan salami, served on slate with all the usual suspects.

Pickled veggies, you are as ubiquitous as tattoos in this town.

Conversation was more focused than usual, defining, designating, qualifying and planning for a project that has its seeds in a decade-old idea.

Finally, it's time to walk the walk.

As customers - the kind who like to sit at tables and not the bar - began to arrive and with plans for a movie, we moved on to entrees: satisfying gnocchi with pork ragu and whipped ricotta followed by rich, meaty monkfish with farro and gremolata.

I'm getting used to the showmanship of the food runners who not only bring the plates but deliver a detailed explanation of what you're getting along with a spoon, whether you need it or not (um, a spoon for a meat and cheese board?).

Easy as it would have been to linger for more Prosecco, we had a movie to catch at the Westhampton, "Love is Strange" with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

Having just last month seen Lithgow in "The World According to Garp," although he was 38 in that and he was 69 (and playing a 79-year old) in tonight's film, it was fascinating to see a more recent representation of his superb acting skills.

The story of two gay men who have been together for 39 years was sweet, romantic and a reminder that marriage can still get a gay person let go from a church-related job. Is this not 2014?

Most of the film revolved around them having to temporarily bunk with relatives after they sell their apartment when one partner loses his job.

The story sails along with family interruptions, comic moments and couple tenderness when the two can be alone and then suddenly there's a huge surprise that I never saw coming. It's sad and surprising/not surprising at the same time.

Is anyone ever truly ready for whatever life hands them? Of course not. We adapt, adjust and regroup, we're mended at the places that broke but we're also changed for good.

Sometimes there's still time to move on changed, but not always. Who doesn't remember what our mothers told us about life being fair?

So after an exquisitely acted film, the only logical thing to do was stop for a nightcap and discuss the film, the bartender's path in life and chat with the woman who, when "Sweet Caroline" came on, told me she's been known to dance in the window of the bar when it plays.

After her jukebox picks ended, I insisted on making some of my own selections, to which she retorted, "I'll tell you if I don't like them." No doubt.

With her in mind, I went old school - Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Jackson Browne, Al Green- and she didn't badmouth a single one. That said, she was also outside smoking cigarettes much of the time.

When "Cracklin' Rosie" came on, she exploded with happiness singing along and when her man finally dragged her out, she again reminded me to come back when she's drunk so I can see her dancing in the front window.

Since it's hard to say when that might be, I stand a good chance of never seeing her dance in the window, much as I might want to. Timing.

Then again, life could surprise me with something so much better I'll forget all about her. Lucky timing.

For better or for worse, always the optimist.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Houseguests and Fish

I've become a cottage groupie.

For the third time since August began, I headed the car east to visit the happy couple who live in the most charming cottage on the northern neck.

Despite warning them that their effusive hospitality was going to result in me saying yes every chance I could, they keep rolling out the welcome mat.

"Who wants to go out in the boat?" our handsome host asked seconds after arriving not long after noon. Pointing at me, he grinned, "I know you do."

I've known the man less than two months and he's already on to me.

Meanwhile, our hostess, my girlfriend, was crackling with enthusiasm; she'd just read an article about oyster gardening and was jazzed to take it up.

When I asked her who'd written the piece, she pulled out the magazine, checked and whooped in surprise. "I didn't even notice your name!"

Sometimes in life, you have to point out your own byline. What thrilled me was that my article had done exactly what I'd set out to do - encourage anyone on the northern neck with a dock to take up oyster gardening.

So, sure, I was pretty proud of myself. And hungry, too.

We began with the quintessential river meal: crabs cracked and eaten on a picnic table overlooking the river while the man of the house prepared the boat for takeoff.

You see, he's not a fan of cracking crabs (like so many men who find it far too much work for the amount of meat), so his adored wife cracks for him, leaving a pile of backfin meat for him to enjoy.

After gorging, we washed the Old Bay off of our hands and took off in the boat, a bottle of champagne in hand, our skipper abstaining as always.

We moseyed up toward Irvington and gawked at the pricey boats in front of the Tides Inn, bantered about the difference between true cottages and river McMansions and saw sailboats of all sizes breezing along.

Returning to the shore mainly because their dog Jake seemed eager to relieve himself, we took time to snack on the deck, scarfing black bean, corn, onion and avocado salsa our smiling hostess had made. It's a personal favorite, something I could eat almost daily and still look forward to.

Not that she knew that. Is it any wonder I'm such a fan of hers?

When we'd arrived, I'd seen a piece of paper on the dining room table that said "lumbago." Curious, I'd asked about it and our host, as much a language geek as I am, said he'd written it down because it's one of those worlds that has fallen out of use and he wanted to remember it.

He's right, of course, these days people complain of lower back pain but no one (except maybe octogenarians) refers to it as lumbago anymore.

Similarly, he was talking about a trial he'd attended where one of the attorneys had used the word "swale," another underused word that had captured his attention. Later he referred to me as a gadabout. How can I not get a kick out of a man who delights in obscure words?

Soon we left wordsmithing behind and took off again, his wife and I planted on the bow of the boat, pink polka dot beach towels draped over our legs, laughing and talking the whole way.

Most hysterical thing to come out of her mouth (and there were many because she's a funny woman)? "If I recall correctly, I threw up on the dog."

This time, we boated up the eastern branch of the Corrotoman to deep water areas where huge sailboats and yachts were anchored and moored.

One of the most interesting homes we saw was not up on a bluff like most of the houses around, but down near the waterline, so close we worried that the wake from the boat was going to send the river lapping at their front door.

You have to admire those who choose to live dangerously, no?

Heading back, the sun was dropping lower in the sky and everyone had an appetite. My mother has always said that children eat and sleep better near water than anywhere else and apparently it's true for adults, too.

Steak and steelhead trout were expertly grilled outside while the womenfolk made an elaborate salad (spinach, strawberries, glazed nuts, bacon, raspberry vinaigrette, oh, my!) and set the table inside to avoid the mosquitoes that had recently taken up residence on the deck.

Full as ticks, we spent the evening listening to music, talking about Grace Street in the old days, reminiscing about past dogs and wishing our hostess did not have to drive back to Richmond. But duty called.

For the second time, I got to spend the night on the bed that sits on the porch of their guest house, a bedroom with a ceiling fan, three screened walls surrounded by trees and the sounds of nature for a lullabye.

It's about the most perfect place to sleep you could imagine.

Our morning plans to boat to Urbanna and have lunch were canned once we looked at the weather and saw the massive front of rain approaching.

Making lemonade out of lemons, we came up with Plan B, even though it meant leaving the charming, little cottage: a visit to nearby Menokin to see its historical ruins, walk its trails and see Cat Point Creek on which it sits.

It's not as random as it sounds. In 2012, I'd heard a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society about Menokin and the efforts to restore it. Just last January, I'd seen an exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture of design plans envisioned by Harvard Graduate School of Design students.

So my curiosity about the real thing had been piqued twice.

The heavy gray skies and impending rain were a dramatic backdrop as we pulled up to the 500-acre estate (back in original owner and Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee's day, it had been 1,000 acres) for a look around.

A short film told us additional history, but I was more impressed with the room full of architectural features removed from the house back in the '60s and destined to be returned once the ruins are enclosed with glass walls.

Closet doors, mantel pieces, the front door keystone and many other significant elements of the original house had been presciently stored away in a peanut barn at Bacon's Castle a half century ago and await return to their home.

The ruins are striking because when the roof eventually collapsed, it left standing two corner sections of wall diagonally across from each other and two massive chimneys, in addition to various other bits of walls and cellar, now all somewhat protected under a large shed.

Just so you know, there is nothing cottage-like about this place. It was a big house for an important man.

The once-terraced gardens that sloped gradually down to Cat Point Creek are now overgrown with trees blocking the view, but restoration of the grounds will come in phase two of the project after the house is redone.

Never one to pass up a good water view, we took the trail down through the woods past walnut trees (the ground under them a minefield of green nuts), dogwoods, American beeches, dark cherry trees and tulip poplars until reaching the creek, serene and silver on a day like this.

Old Lightfoot Lee and the wife would have had a marvelous waterfront view back in the 18th century.

Today it was all ours.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Tonight turned out nothing like I expected it to.

I watched one of my moon flowers open.

There was the unexpected invitation to a friend's house where we shared a bottle of Corail Rose and discussed feminism, anacondas and mens (plural intended).

Best of all, she shared with me egg rolls and cheese smuggled in from Bermuda.

I was sprayed with perfume for what was perhaps the first time in decades. Mmm, I smell like a girl.

On the way to our next stop, she observed, "You know, we're not going to meet anyone who knows what Rose is."

Point taken. I drank 1800 and she had Ketel 1 on the rocks. The female bartenders glared at us both.

Of the first two gents who tried to be friendly, from Chester and Hopewell respectively, one was wearing a t-shirt that read, "Don't Bro me 'till you know me."

The other one had the audacity to put his tongue on my friend's hand, causing her to warn him, "Don't lick me like you know me."

It was the first time I ever slow danced with a girl. It's better than you might think.

Best compliment of the evening: a man walked up to me and said, "I had to talk to you because you have the beautiful hair."

Why is it the wrong mens always say the right things?

So that you know, my plan tonight was to watch "Grease" outside at Quirk Gallery.

For the record, I definitely qualify as a beauty school dropout.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Le Petit Mort au Diner

Truth is, I'd planned to stay in tonight.

Sure, sure, whatever, Karen, I can hear the derisive laughter now. As if.

But here's the thing: I have five deadlines this weekend and at the last minute, I was informed that one of my subjects would not be available for me to interview after all.

Not the news I wanted to hear, just when I was down to my next to last piece.

So I (albeit briefly) considered staying home, working so there would be less to do tomorrow.

But then a friend suggested dinner on his dime and I thought, what the heck, a few hours eating isn't going to make much difference.

It's not like staying home would ensure that the publicist puts me in touch with the musician I need.

Looking at it that way, it only made sense to go to dinner.

Friend asked where and I suggested L'Opossum. Although he can be hard to please, I had a feeling it would be right up his alley.

As it turned out, the music wasn't, although I was drawn to its quirkiness.

Liberace, Tom Jones, Bobbi Gentry (twice!) and "Little Green Apples," a corny song I haven't heard in decades.

Arriving first, I took a stool at the end of the bar near an available stool for my tardy friend, where I was offered a taste of their new pink, the well-balanced Domaine Bellevue Touraine Rose.

The genial bartender introduced me to a guy deep into his crabcakes, leading to a little music talk, a little discussion of Buddhism (never refuse free food), and a lot of praise for the dish he'd just inhaled.

A photographer I know spotted me and we caught up on what she'd been up to, including a summer photography retreat at a Mississippi mansion complete with wandering armadillos and plenty of brown liquor drinking.

Frankly, I see both as conducive to the creatively-inspired taking of pictures.

My friend showed up full of apologies for his delayed entrance, no big deal since I can amuse myself.

It was his first visit, so he began by assessing the wine list, impressed with not only the bottle choices but the price points.

Once he made it to the food menu, he was flummoxed, unsure which of several tantalizing options to go for.

We began with Chapel Creek oysters rock over watercress, misted with a green fairy fog (my beloved absinthe) right before our eyes, resulting in some of the most exquisite oysters Rockefeller I've ever tasted.

With a nod to the VMFA, Faberge eggs bedazzled with caviar and vodka-laced accoutrements including pale pink gelatinous "les jiggles de la Champagne Rose."

We got into a discussion with a bar sitter and our barkeep about cars, including the "artist series" of BMWs, something I'd never even heard of.

But my friend had and the other guy had actually seen a Warhol BMW (supposedly took him 27 minutes to do) at a museum , so they got going great guns on this.

It was a fitting tie-in to the Warhol- designed pattern that festoons the bar and table tops in the restaurant.

That led to talk about cop magnets (Porsches, red cars, high end black BMWs), getting pulled over and suspended licenses, again not my forte.

But eating is, so I couldn't have been happier when my whole fried baby chicken on mashed potato waffles showed up with pan gravy, kale and pickled okra.

Crispy golden brown, I went for the drumsticks first before turning my attention to the perfectly cooked kale but the most striking part of the dish looked like two little red balls.

They turned out to be Fireball butter, knobs of spicy butter to slather on my waffle and swoon over.

When I offered my friend some pickled okra, he hesitated, remembering his mother's pickled okra full of red pepper and left to sit for a year until it was unpleasant to eat.

This okra, he had to admit, was a horse of a different color, piquant and still responding with snap when bitten into. Southern perfection.

He'd chosen bunny, as he put it, - "Madame Dot du Powhatan's cider-braised rabbit peppered with gingersnap spaetzle and schadenfreude" - the latter one of many clever word plays ("uninhibited mushroom broth") on a menu where alliteration reigns supreme.

Have I mentioned how much I like literate restaurant owners who use their menus to convey more than just the kitchen's offerings, using language to engage and entertain and not just inform?

Just so you know.

Since it had been ages since my friend and I had gotten together, a goodly part of the meal was spent catching up.

Since he's read all of her books, I knew he'd want to hear about my evening listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin and he did.

That reminded him that he wanted to find a good biography of Woodrow Wilson and then a multi-volume series on WWI, an era he feels he is not well enough informed on.

I, on the other hand, accept that I am ill-informed on plenty of things and read what I choose, which probably makes him a better person than me.

When neither of us was able to finish our entrees, he explained that he wouldn't be able to take his leftovers home because he had no room in his refrigerator.

After cataloging what was in there (including a lot of bread: croissants, bialies, baguettes, sandwich bread, pizza) he reconsidered and got a box for the rest of his rabbit but chose to leave the schadenfreude behind.

Language geek humor there.

Both stuffed, we did the only logical thing and got dessert: caramel-glazed figs in a refreshing elixir of watermelon, plums, sake and lime.

I'm passionate about figs and these had sugar fired on top but just as wonderful was that elixir, which we spooned up greedily and would have happily eaten as a soup if it had been delivered as such.

That only whet our appetites for our second dessert, a chocolate pate seductively named "le petite mort au chocolat" (and yes, I know what that means) set aflame by our bartender.

Who, by the way, caused me to turn pea-green with envy when he told me that he'd been given a free ticket to see Bryan Ferry in Washington next week.

I wanted to put my head down on the bar and weep in jealousy but it would have been unseemly.

What I will do is go back and get a blow by blow report from him on the show, not that it will assuage my loss any, but at least it's something.

By that point, Friend was raving about what an outstanding meal it had been but we were also balancing precariously on the edge of a food coma, so we decided to cede our stools to latecomers and go our separate ways.

After all, I had "work" to do.

But you better believe there's Bryan Ferry playing in the background as I do it.

Keep the Gloves On

You can imagine how well I fit in in a room full of banking types. At the Jefferson, no less.

Not that it mattered because a friend had invited me to be his stand-in date (his beloved was working) for an evening with Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Yes, that Doris, the one who wrote "Team of Rivals" on which "Lincoln" was based.

So many Dorises this week.

My friend suggested we arrive fashionably late to the cocktail reception, making us the exception since the banking revelry was in full swing as we descended the grand staircase to the rotunda.

First came name tags (magnetic, of course, so as not to have to put a pin through anyone's expensive ensemble) and seating cards so we'd know which table would welcome us upstairs.

Everywhere were dark suits with drinks in hand, a sea of navy and black broken up only by their accompanying female guests.

Before we could even order a drink, a functionary informed us that we could stand in line to have our photograph taken with Doris.

We opted out of that nonsense, scored glasses of Barboursville Pinot Grigio and found a place to stand and chat.

I'm 99% positive that Doris has no interest in having her picture taken with me.

Once we roosted, some sort of invisible bat signal went up to the roving waitstaff who immediately zeroed in on us to offer bite-sized hors d'oeuvres.

A fat little crabcake. Tomato bisque with a sliver of grilled cheese. Ham biscuits. Corned beef roll-ups.

The roll ups caused some consternation because they came mounted on little metal stands shaped like an inverted "V" and nobody was quite sure how the food was attached.

No fear here, so I took one, bit the meat off and went to return the stand to her tray.

"Don't you put that there!" the server barked before remembering herself. "Oh, I'm sorry, miss, that was rude," and scuttled away.

I put my metal stand on a nearby table.

A man came over to chat with us, sharing that Doris had been taken in a limo up to St. John's church today to see it and hear some of the Patrick Henry re-enactment. When she climbed out of the car, a cluster of tourists immediately recognized her.

Call me a historical nit-wit, but I wouldn't have recognized Doris from Adam on the street. Okay, from Eve.

Not long afterwards, a man appeared on the grand staircase and began ringing a bell like the town crier. Apparently it was time to withdraw to the grand ballroom for dinner.

"This is the cattle call part," my date whispered, leaning down as the slow-moving crowd began the trip upstairs, not everyone happy to leave the open bar behind.

The first to arrive at our table, we took the best seats facing the stage and subsequently met the remainder of the table's occupants as they arrived.

Up there, our libation choices had been reduced to a couple of Californians, Stag's Leap "Karia" Chardonnay and Belle Glos "Meiomi" Pinot Noir.

Two of the men had dates who looked decades younger than them, but it wasn't our place to judge (although we did discuss the disparities once we left), so instead we left the conversational ball in their court.

You know what everyone wanted to talk about? Richmond restaurants. Even without any prodding, this is a town obsessed with food.

Speaking of, our mesclun greens with pears, Feta, candied walnuts and sesame pomegranate dressing were already waiting for us, so once we had a quorum, I dove in.

Polishing off my greens, I looked around to see that most people had taken only a token bite or two before pushing their plate away.

But the real issues came with the meat course.

At our table we had one gluten-intolerant and one vegetarian, meaning they had to have special plates brought to them while the rest of us just wanted to dig into our beef tenderloin, pumpkin-encrusted salmon, sweet potato dauphinoise and petite squash and asparagus.

The eating world used to be such a simpler place.

Over that course, people started conversing across the table, one guy talking about his move to Vistas on the James after his sons left for college, another about his 18 grandchildren.

I was asked by a man if I was a native (no) and a woman told me I looked familiar. "Are you famous?" she inquired (no).

"You have great dimples," another man said, always one of my favorite compliments.

Dessert was a trio of miniatures: bourbon chocolate pecan pie, red velvet opera torte and Jefferson banana pudding (which apparently meant whipped), my date's favorite because it reminded him of the banana pudding his mother had made for him as a child.

Finally it was time for the woman who needed no introduction, not because she won a Pulitzer prize, not because she wrote the book that got a movie filmed here but because (drum roll)...

She was the first female to enter the locker room at Fenway Park.

So, yes, there was baseball talk (never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn but eventually became a Red Sox fan when she moved to Boston), mainly about how her father had her listen to the game and take notes so she could report it back to him play by play, thus planting the seed for her love of retelling history.

Her talk was focused on lessons learned by three Presidents, coincidentally three that she's written mega-selling books about.

Beginning by saying it was good to be back at the Jefferson after a half dozen previous times, she said, "It's probably the most graceful hotel in the country."

Recalling her time with a White House fellowship under LBJ and the many conversations they had then and later when she helped him write his memoirs, she said he was a great storyteller and she turned out to be  great listener, only later realizing that not all his stories were based in truth.

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Explaining that the best presidents had traits in common, she went on to illustrate those traits using Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR as examples.

Because of his humble beginnings and his mother dying, Abe wanted to do things that would make him live on to future generations.

Teddy's life-threatening asthma motivated him to become a mega-athlete who could ride a horse for 50 miles a day or walk 20 miles.

FDR's polio-induced paralysis made him expand his mind, reaching out to other people and empathizing with the poor and underprivileged.

Talking about how brilliant Abe was to put his top three rivals in his cabinet, she quoted LBJ on the subject.

"Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in." Don't know about you, but a man who can turn a phrase like that and has beagles is my kind of man.

There was a terrific story about the first black motorman hired for Philly's mass transit system. When he showed up for work, transit was at a standstill because no (white) drivers had shown up as a way of protesting his hiring.

FDR had letters sent to all the men telling them that if they didn't show up for work, they would be considered non-essential to the city and drafted immediately.

Guess who all returned to work the next day?

She told how on the morning Abe was to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, his hand was tired and sore from shaking 1,000 hands that day.

Rather than sign the important document in a shaky hand, he waited, aware that posterity would see his shakiness as tentativeness.

For stress relief, FDR instituted nightly cocktail hours where war was not to be discussed.

The soirees became so popular, people moved into the White House ("the most exclusive residential hotel," Doris called it) for weeks, months and years to make it more convenient to attend them.

Teddy just made people go on walks through Rock Creek Park with him, insisting on a point to point walk. Ergo, if they came upon a rock, they had to go over it.

Once when he and a French diplomat came to a stream, the man was sure they'd turn back.

Instead, Teddy insisted they strip down so as not to get their clothes wet crossing.

The Frenchman insisted on keeping on his violet kid gloves, "In case we run into any ladies."

Put that kind of thing in the history books and kids will be a whole lot more interested, I'd wager.

During the Q & A, Doris made the point that partisanship has gotten worse because the members of Congress didn't always leave town every weekend as they do now.

According to her, because they stayed in Washington more, they had more chances to socialize, play poker and drink with fellow House and Senate members week in and week out, making it easier to forge alliances when necessary for voting issues.

While her lecture had the sing-song quality of an oft-repeated one, her stories were compelling and the obscure stuff she dug up in old journals and letters was wonderful to hear about.

Abe was a card. Eleanor liked to argue. Teddy could laugh at himself.

As if food, wine, compliments and the past weren't enough for one night, everyone got a goody bag with an autographed copy of Doris' latest book, "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism" on the way out.

Moral of the story: Better to have bankers giving you books than pissing in your tent.

Even so, I think they figured out I wasn't one of them.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mad About Good Books, Can't Get My Fill

I'd like to make a public service announcement. It's not winter.

Walking around today, I saw people in bulky jackets, scarves and hats. It was 65. Granted, drizzly, but 65 degrees.

When it's 65 in April, folks in these parts are sporting shorts and sundresses. Today suddenly, it's bundle up time.

Perhaps there's a chance it was a reaction, not to the temperature, but to the long-absent rain that fell all afternoon.

I know because I drove to the northern neck to spend the afternoon talking to a couple of award-winning sisters, the rain steady from the moment I left home and all the way to the Rapphannock and back.

While hearing one delicious story after another, one sister said that she didn't have any men in her life because she didn't want anyone telling her what she couldn't do.

Seems the David Letterman show had invited her on and when they called to confirm, she wasn't home and her fiance told them she wouldn't be able to come.

You hold something like that against all mankind, it seems.

So it was I spent a fascinating afternoon with the two of them, hearing 60 years worth of stories, with a whole lot of testifying and "uh-huh-ing" going on all the while.

We had a ball.

Back in the city, I found rushing water so deep in the curb along my street that I needed to shed my shoes before exiting the car.

I showered while it was showering outside, got dressed while it rained on and drove to meet a favorite couple at Pomegranate under a steady drizzle.

Not ashamed to say I like days like this. I can even do a stretch of them, just not daily.

But driving from J-Ward to Carytown, it was hard to miss how empty places were, even for notoriously slow September.

It's only rain, after all, and a mild, soft humid night at that.

Unless you're the Wicked Witch of the West, I think you're okay.

Because the only other occupants were taking up half the bar, we wound up right in front of the screen, so I just swiveled to look out the big front window and watch the rain and car lights make patterns on the shiny streets.

What screen?

This was not a random get-togetherbut a posthumous celebration of my friend's Aunt Doris, who would have been 95. In tribute to Doris, she'd had two martinis by 7.

I believe that's how the Doris tradition is kept alive, a nod to all the great adventures, drinking and otherwise, she'd had with Doris over the years.

Waiting for our food over Jean-Luc Columbo Viognier (with one abstaining for a cocktail), we toasted Doris and allowed our ears to wander with whatever Great American Songbook Pandora station they'd chosen.

Apparently it was just the kind of music Doris loved.

Jimmy Durante, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gershwin.

I like New York in June, how about you?
I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?
I love a fireside when a storm is due
I like potato chips, moonlight, motor trips, how about you?

A far cry from last night's thrash at 821.Variety, spice of life and all that.

I'd chosen mussels and frites in a tomato basil broth, getting such a plentiful serving of mussels (and a mound of flaccid fries) that I left little room for bread sopping of what was a perfectly delicious broth, hunks of cooked tomato throughout.

My friends told me about having seen violinist Joshua Bell with the symphony Saturday evening followed by a discussion of Bell's performance next week at the Union Station Metro.

It'll be interesting to hear how differently people react to him playing than they did when he first tried it in 2007 and only a handful paid him any mind.

We talked about how much my friend dislikes listening to WCVE's jazz show with Peter Solomon and having the musical vibe broken hourly with jarring news.

In his opinion, they should hold the news until after jazz ends. First world problem.

Sharing notes on each other's full moon-like experiences last Friday, they told me about finding a girl passed out on a neighbor's lawn and I shared how I'd seen a girl go from vertical on a corner to crumpled on the curb in less than five seconds.

Rein it in, kids. Life's a marathon, not a sprint.

They both smacked their lips over their dishes - his enormous and vaguely obscene pig and bacon sausage over spaetzel and apples, her steak frites made with culotte steak, a lean cut I like for its toothsome meatiness and she did, too - and we agreed on Espolon for dessert.

My friend whined that his high school reunion had been scheduled for opening night of the Folk Fest. He's not pleased.

I heard about a new exhibit at UR showing the development of the Westhampton area from amusement park to university, just the geeky kind of thing I'd love to see.

My aunt Faye went to UR back in the '60s and never quite accepted the merging of the men's and women's campuses, despite being extremely liberal and forward-thinking. I think it had more to do with academics than anything.

The male in our midst was left behind when we got off on a tangent about VCU's Grace Street area in its heyday.

I told her how when I first moved here from Washington, I was thrilled to discover Sunny Day, a clothing shop on Grace Street that carried decidedly un-Richmond like clothes for 1987.

Squealing in delight, she said she'd bought two pairs of sky-high platform shoes there in the '70s, one pair black and the other silver, both of which she danced in until destroying the black ones.

The silver ones she still has.

And get this, she paid for them by the shoe, not by the pair. Crazy, man.

I told her I'd danced a half dozen times this summer and had on platform shoes every time. Old habits die hard.

Just for the record, I also like potato chips, moonlight and motor trips.

Motor trips, even in rain like this. Here's to you, Doris.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For Once in Your Life

You learn better when your belly's full.

Since I had plans to attend honors film class, I made plans to meet up first with a fellow film lover at Cafe 821, where it turned out to be "breakfast all day" Tuesday with discounted mimosas.

Fittingly, since when I go to 821 for breakfast I always order black bean nachos, I did the same tonight.

Only hitch? I requested a half order and was told there's no such thing.What, I dreamt it?

The strange thing about that is that I'd ordered those nachos for five years before the day a server asked me if I'd prefer a half order since I was never able to finish a whole.

Why, yes, a half order would be ideal, I'd told her, surprised that no one had ever told me it was a possibility to do so.

Tonight I was informed that it's not a possibility, just something that particular server does.

Fortunately, my companion was willing to nibble off my plate in a vain attempt to help me do justice to the mega plate of food in front of me.

I still sent back as much as I ate, thereby proving I should be allowed to get a half order.

My fellow film lover took off to pick up his date while I strolled over to the Grace Street Theater for VCU Cinematheque's screening of "Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

It was my first Cinematheque of the fall season and instead of just the usual blase film students, tonight also included an honors class so nearly every seat was taken with earnest artistic types.

Dr. Rob began by listing out the staples of any Stanley Kubrick film: creative cinematography, use of ironic, contrasting music, a melding of genres, realism and innovative visual effects.

"You're really fortunate to get to see a 35mm print of this," he said of the 50-year old classic. "This is probably the only time in your life you'll see this."

Since I've never seen it before, it seemed only right to get to see it the proper way my first time.

Although I'm not big into war movies, I am a huge fan of satire, period details and '60s movies, so except for the absent girl parts, it turned out to be very much my kind of movie.

There was one female character in the entire film and she wore a bikini and high heels while laying on the bed reading under a sunlamp, waiting for her man to come out of the bathroom.

You see, kids, this was back before we knew that tanning was bad for us.

Since it was 1964, she had a soft, curvy body, so unlike the hard body norm of today. It was lovely.

When we see the soldiers aboard the top secret B-52 Bomber, they're reading a Playboy magazine, with the centerfold sporting a newspaper over her bottom.

You know, for decorum.

When they have to go inside the B-52's safe to get the bombing instructions, more nudie picks are taped to the inside of the safe door.

Ah, for the good old days when men had to cut and paste their porn and not just click a mouse.

Because it was a college-aged crowd, there were the usual tittering at that which with they weren't familiar, such as when one of the three Peter Sellers characters had to use a pay phone and insert coins.

OMG, pay phonz, LOL!!

Spare me.

Watching Sellers play three such different characters - the President, the RAF officer and the demented German Dr. Strangelove- was like watching a master class in comedy.

Sometimes you could even spot another actor cracking up in the background.

But honestly, it was just as fascinating to watch a young-looking George C. Scott go absolutely bananas in his scenes, as only a younger man can do.

Clearly most of my memories of his film roles were older roles when he was more staid.

After the film, half the room cleared out and the remaining film devotees discussed it.

I was thrilled when Dr. Rob asked who'd seen the movie before and pointed out that seeing it on a small screen - TV, computer or god forbid, phone- made it come across more rational whereas seeing it on the big screen made it more visceral, the way Kubrick had intended it to be.

Pshaw. Like he had to tell me that.

Discussing Kubrick's influence on subsequent directors, he appealed to the students. "What big film of your youth had a similar plane interior and flying shots?"

It took two guesses before someone came up with the obvious: "Star Wars." Even I knew that and I haven't seen "Star Wars" since it opened in 1977.

Please note, I did see it, though.

After more discussion of how much of Sellers' dialog was improvised (a lot), how Kubrick would do up to 50 takes on a scene and about the importance of editing for impact, he dismissed class.

Walking out, I saw a friend and we stood outside discussing the film on the sidewalk.

He'd been taken with the race issues raised in the film and I'd been struck by the feminist issues.

You see, at the end, Dr. Strangelove proposes a plan for post-nuclear survival where people live underground breeding to replace all those killed.

To do this, he says, there must be a ratio of ten highly stimulating women for every man.

George C. Scott's general character immediately sees the benefit of this, asking if this means that men would have to give up monogamy. That old male fantasy.

Naturally, all the men now see this as a fabulous idea.

Culturally speaking, it's obvious there's been no consciousness raising prior to this film.

After ten minutes of film dissection, he suggested a drink and we headed to the Village Cafe for hot tea with honey (him) and a chocolate shake for me.

You know, the good, old Village, where you can count on some rummy at the bar reaching for his backpack, only to have a half-full 40-ounce roll out of it, clanking on the floor on the way down.

And nobody bats an eye.

A fine place to wile away a couple of hours talking about Hillary's chances, lowering the drinking age, good websites for music shows and historic preservation of the heart of Grace Street corridor.

It's interesting, when you're having your first in-depth conversation with someone you've only known casually socially, you have no idea when you might cross a conversational line or offend with your opinion.

We even trash-talked Smart phones and people who don't like going to movie theaters.

He posited a theory that the older you get, the more comfortable you get striking up conversations with strangers and expressing your opinion to new people.

Hell, by that measure, I was born old.

Tuesday Evening or: How I Never Started Worrying and Love the Conversation. Anywhere, anytime.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

You Oughta Know

The universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed, or so said a French philosopher.

I began the evening being the observed.

That meant a first stop at Lakeside Tavern where a half dozen seasoned-looking regulars (I'm guessing anyway) turn and gawk on arrival.

Sipping my 1800, ignoring the TVs, I see no one at the pool table, a steady succession of wizened old men going outside for a smoke barely outside the front door and the most magnificent dive bar chandelier I've ever laid eyes on.

Racks intended for wine glasses have instead been intermittently filled with empty beer bottles - Schlitz, Miller Lite, Yuengling - and strung through with tiny, blinking Christmas lights for a one of a kind redneck light fixture.

It alone was worth the visit before moving on to do some observing at the new Southern Season, the specialty grocer on Staples Mill.

Despite the crammed parking lot with the likes of Lexus, BMW and other high end cars, I quickly observe that no amount of tinned foodstuffs and artisan cheese straws is going to make this place a regular stop for me.

Besides the obvious - a far higher employee to customer ratio than seems prudent to stay in the black - I am struck by the array of high-priced items I can't afford.

Jose Andres brand tinned seafood. $149.99 per pound Iberian ham. Esoteric counter appliances I neither need nor want.

What I did like: Sprite in individual green glass bottles (99 cents) and "try me!" sample size pieces of expensive cheese, wrapped up in pieces that cost a couple of bucks. Long-stemmed yellow roses that still have a scent.

Will I be back? Probably for research only. As an observer.

My final point of observation was as one of three attendees at the Criterion Theater to see "My Trip to Italy."

The film used two British TV actors and the premise that the London Observer sent them to Italy to review restaurants, drive the scenic coast and stay at boutique hotels with rooms named after American movie stars.

If only I could figure out how to get that job for myself.

Like several movies I've seen lately - "Chef" and "One Hundred Foot Journey" immediately come to mind- food and food prep are lovingly shot to the point they become characters in the film. Not a complaint, mind you.

Within the first five minutes, I was laughing out loud so hard at the duo's verbal interplay that I was missing the next line, always a good sign.

Setting off in a Mini convertible with only a soundtrack of Alanis Morrisette's 1995 classic, "Jagged Little Pill" provided stunning scenery and hilarious music discussion as they retrace the long-ago journey of Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

While I've done the Naples, the Amalfi Coast and Rome portions of that journey, I've yet to take in the entire swath they did, ranging from the Piedmont to Capri.

Fingers crossed, before I die.

As they cruise from hill town to ancient city, they try to out-do each other with put-downs, film trivia and impersonations of famous actors.

Some are quite good and after a bit, I had to marvel at the ability to do impressions of everyone from Dustin Hoffman to Clint Eastwood to Marlon Brando, complete with pieces of bread stuck in his cheeks.

They even did a bit on how only one actor who played James Bond was actually English (Roger Smith), doing spot-on impressions of each along the way.

And the pithy one-liners!

"Where do you stand on Michael Buble?"
"On his windpipe."

Hysterical, right?

Using "Roman Holiday" and "Notting Hill" as contrasting examples of how love works out in films, it winds down with a poignant discussion of how there is no unrequited love in the world anymore, a point I would argue.

But not tonight. Plenty of requited observation and droll conversation was had.

Here's where the story ends.