Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hugging a Tree

You know what's hard? Putting up a Christmas tree by yourself.

And I'm not talking about some 9 foot monster of a tree, I'm talking about a Charlie Brown kind of a tree, the kind that needs a little love to reach its full potential. The kind that needs Linus to wrap his blanket around the base to help it stay upright. The kind that starts to lean when you look at it.

It's not just difficult dragging it up a flight of stairs and through an extremely narrow hallway by yourself, it's also challenging to get it in the stand and determine if it's straight or not when you can't be under the tree and in front of it simultaneously.

Once all that was accomplished, I began stringing lights on it when it began to lean precariously and I lost an hour of my life reworking everything so it could stay upright and support lights and decorations, too.

After another hour in, my hands were brown with sap, the tree was wearing its holiday finery and I was itching to get out of the house. Where better to go than to meet the friend who'd been so kind as to send me to see "Mame" today?

We met at Amour because I also wanted to eat and they have terrific small plate options, the better to pair with an exquisite Blanc de Noir with which we toasted "Mame."

First up I had two oysters swimming under a mignonette of canola oil, sherry vinaigrette and shallots, each a perfectly balanced bite of the bay.

Cauliflower soup was a revelation made even more impressive when I heard that the cauliflower had still been in the ground at noon today. The rich soup was adorned with Parmesan-crusted cauliflower and sauteed cauliflower greens, a decadent bowl I couldn't finish despite how fresh-tasting it was.

Next came tuna and cantaloupe ceviche, the unexpected sweetness of the melon a delightful addition. I followed that with duck confit with gnocchi and Granny Smith apple sauce, a dish of contrasting textures- pillowy, crunchy - and mouthfeel - rich, tart - that was also being enjoyed by a couple of regulars at the bar.

Turns out the  woman was only taking in the gnocchi, though.

She said she eats nothing with feet, so duck was out but she also admitted to loving Soprasetta ("It doesn't have feet") and other cured meats. Her man said it wasn't an issue of ethics but rather the texture of meat she found offensive.

How anyone couldn't love that duck confit is beyond me, but the really strange part is that she loves blood pudding. "So she'll eat congealed blood," her man observed with a grimace.

That led to a discussion of other edibles such as Scrapple (he was raised in Philly so it was a staple) and his father's favorite: white bread with Karo syrup and butter. It makes my teeth hurt to think about it, but he said his Dad ate it for lunch as a kid and never outgrew his taste for it.

But the main reason for my visit had not been to discuss food or this couple's upcoming winter vacation in Key West, but to compare notes on "Mame," which my friend is already planning to see a second time this weekend.

And a third time on closing night.

As it turned out, the couple had also seen it, so our four-way conversation became a love-fest about the musical, how it captured even non-musical lovers, what a top-notch cast it has, how exceptional the choreography was and what a feel-good experience watching it had been.

"It grabbed from the opening scene and made me happy all the way through," my friend said. The non-feet eater told us that "Cabaret" was her favorite musical but allowed as how it was a downer. Not so for "Mame," which radiates sunshine, lollipops and rainbows start to finish (even through stock market crashes, job firings and death of a beloved/rich husband).

Given the caliber of the production, it's the kind of show every theater-loving patron in the city should see. Hell, even people who think they don't like theater or musicals are likely to get their socks knocked off by all the talent onstage.

Instead of dessert, we all shared a cup of Les Confitures a l'Ancienne hot chocolate (my latest obsession), a decadent French extravagance that capped off our meal nicely after so much savory.

But the Scrapple lover had other ideas for happy endings, so we ended up trying a 2007 J. Fritsch Gewurtztraminer, a swoon-worthy sweet and ripe late harvest wine that tasted of lychee and finished with honey. Perfectly lovely, in other words.

By then we'd all moved on from "Mame" to the pleasures of traveling France's 1,000 miles of canals, something the couple is planning to spend two summers doing.

But that's a few years off so for now, they're going to pack up the little teal Christmas tree she won at a fundraiser and drive to Florida for the holidays.

You know what's easy? A teal pre-decorated Christmas tree. You know what's way more fun?

Wrangling a Charlie Brown tree into yuletide submission. Decking the halls with a trail of fallen pine needles. Celebrating with sparkling conversation.

It made me happy all the way through.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Applesauce and Rolos

I love it when people give me experiences for gifts.

A theater-loving friend who'd seen "Mame" at Virginia Rep gave me two tickets, saying he was eager for me to see it so we could discuss it. I promptly chose to join the blue-hair set at a Wednesday matinee and invited a friend to join me.

Since the theater is only a few blocks from my house, I suggested he meet me here and we'd walk over. "Can we leave a little earlier so I don't have to walk so fast? he e-mailed me.

While that sounds like a typically middle-aged man thing to ask - I've learned that they're rarely as enthusiastic walkers as I am- I let it slide because I knew he'd been sick the past few days. So when I joined him on the sunny front porch, I made sure to set my body to old-man-stroll rather than my usual after-burner speed.

As it turned out, we could have crawled over because the play was delayed due to some casting changes. One of the leads was out with  complications of a root canal, so there'd been some shifting of parts. We might see a script in hand (we did).

Waiting for things to get rolling, my friend took the time to chide me for calling him a middle-aged man who ignores his doctor's advice in my last blog post about him. He clarified that he was only ignoring the medical advice for a day, not forever. That old chestnut.

When he asked me what the play was about, I drew on my memory of having seen the movie just last November and summarized it for him. Bohemian inherits nephew and proceeds to school him on how to live life to the max. And since this was a musical version, add in song and dance.

Luckily, he'd brought plenty of cough drops to silence his lung hacking, although most of the raucous song and dance numbers would have easily drowned him out. We were both particularly knocked out by the energy and swagger of "That's How Young I Feel," but maybe there's a reason for that.

How old do you think I am?
Somewhere between 40 and death?


Even a non-fashionable sort such as me had to be impressed with the scads of costume changes throughout. An old timer might say it was the equivalent of watching a Cher show.

Emily Skinner was terrific as Mame but Audra Honaker stole a lot of scenes with her portrayal of the timid nanny Miss Gooch and the siren she becomes under Mame's tutelage.

The scene where Mame visits her beau's plantation in the South provided one of the best lines. When told that the war between the states is over, Mother Burnside replies, "Don't give me any of that Appomattox applesauce!"

Discussing how much we were enjoying the show at intermission, my friend said, "It pays to be Karen's beard." While he didn't mean beard in terms of sexual orientation, he was referring to providing company so I didn't have to go alone, not that I have a problem with that.

But what was really generous was that he told me that he used to feel awkward doing things by himself until he met me five years ago and saw how often I was my own date. After he began venturing out solo, a friend of his followed suit, crediting him for being a great example. He wanted me to have the credit.

Such a nice middle-aged guy.

Not only did he buy us Rolos to share at intermission, but he only asked me to slow down once on the walk home. And now I can't wait to thank the gift-giver with a satisfying conversation about what I just saw.

Life is a banquet but it's unlikely I'll ever starve with friends giving me - and sharing - such enjoyable experiences.

No gift wrapping required.

I Wish You Christmas

There's something about Christmas music live. Maybe it's the sleigh bells.

With a final goal of the Mosque Landmark Altria Theater, I had just enough time to make it to Dash for dinner before the show. The challenge getting there was dodging all the eager VCU fans trying to make it to the game when all I wanted was food.

The Ram nation was on a mission.

My guess is that the eager young man at the Dash counter was fairly new because when I ordered a green salad with a scoop of chicken salad on top, he looked at me like I was brilliant. "I never thought of that!" he said in an admiring tone.

Here's the thing, though. It says right on the big menu "add a scoop of chicken salad," so the brilliance wasn't even my own and I told him so. "Yea, but I never thought of it."

I sat facing away from the two TV screens, enjoying an excellent salad (fried croutons, yum) when all of a sudden, my nose hair began to burn. It smelled like ammonia. Sure enough, I turned around to see a staffer diligently spraying the booths and wiping them down.

Good employee, bad timing.

Don't get me wrong, I really hate to be that person, but if there's one thing that's an appetite-killer, it's the smell of cleaning fluids mid-meal. When I politely mentioned it to her, she was perfectly gracious and stopped at once, clearly unaware of how bad a combination chemicals and food are.

It's strange, I once mentioned the same thing to a server, about how offensive I found it when someone sprayed the table next to me while I was eating, wondering why they couldn't spray the rag somewhere else and just wipe the table. She said it had never occurred to her.

I like to think I'm offering a public service message.

After dinner, I walked over to the theater which was mobbed with arrivals like me. Inside, an usher asked if I had a ticket, which I didn't (it was free, but I hadn't made a reservation, having decided only an hour earlier to go).

Pulling one out of his back pocket, he kindly said, "I have one for you." See, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Another usher instructed us to head all the way upstairs to the balcony because all the lower levels were full. Walking up four flights of steps behind a raucous group of high school students, I listened as they huffed and puffed, complained and bitched about the exercise.

Three of them peeled off at the first tier level, saying they were going to the bathroom to rest up for the remainder of the climb. This is the youth of America?

Once in the balcony, I scored a seat in the front row center on the aisle with a bird's eye view of the stage and the Richmond Pops. Behind me, a woman raved about the additional leg room in the seats since the renovation.

The first thing I realized about the Richmond Pops Band is that everybody blows, as in all the instruments are blown with the exception of the harp (which had a red Santa hat on top of it), the upright bass and the drums and percussion.

Host Tim Timberlake welcomed the crowd, mentioning the recent renovation. "We hope you take full note of your tax dollars at work...and our corporate sponsors." That would be Dominion and signs saying "Dominion Stage" flanked it.

After a medley of holiday music by the band, an Air Force master sergeant - also known as a singing sergeant - came out to impress us with his big, deep voice doing songs such as the one he picked, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and other poppy Christmas standards.

Full disclosure: I happen to like the "Christmas Waltz."

But whenever I hear the music to "O Christmas Tree," all I hear is "O, Maryland, My Maryland," a function of where I grew up.

Tim came back out to read us a hysterical "politically correct" holiday greeting which talked around every possible holiday greeting without ever really saying anything. It got a lot of laughs.

I was in no way prepared for the next act, the Royalettes Baton Corps who came out to a chorus of "awws" from the audience, but apparently they're a regular part of this performance every year. Who knew kids still wanted to twirl batons in the digital age?

Then out came the Richmond Choral Society, an all-volunteer singing group that's been around since 1946, doing "I Wish You Christmas," a song I'd never heard of.

Although I had heard of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians (although I don't know why), I'd never heard their arrangement of the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas" as performed tonight. Sounded to me like Fred took some liberties with the poem, adding in words and even tacking on a verse about the night after Christmas. Blasphemy!

The singing sergeant came back out for a singalong, then Santa showed up with the twirlers and it was intermission. Tim's instructions were, "Go admire the renovated bathrooms!"

I opted out, staying in my seat and listening to the people around me chatter. Most were employees of Dominion who were expected to attend and cut out before the lights went down again.

It was during "Sleigh Ride" that I got a lesson in musical instruments when a guy played the whip, which looked like two pieces of wood which he would clap together. Now I know.

The people who cut out during intermission were saved from hearing the cheesy Whitney Houston song, "One Moment in Time," which sounded overwrought and out of place in a Christmas with the Pops program. I say that, but it got a huge ovation, so once again, I was in the minority.

After the conductor told us a joke about a goat and a railroad tie, the evening wound down, moving from secular ("Sing Noel" with congas and chorus) to all the traditional Christmas carols.

You know, like when good king Wenceslas came upon a midnight joy to the world where they were decking the halls while hearing angels on high at the first noel of a silent night when all ye faithful came.

Heathen that I am, the songs still sound beautiful when heard through live voices and instruments.

Maybe it isn't only the sleigh bells.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Heard It in a Love Song

If I'm going to drive an hour plus in the driving rain, it helps to have a talkative architect of the right age at the other end.

My purpose in visiting him at his modernist Northern Neck office - glass front, soaring ceiling, table with sculptural metal pieces that began in the floor, went through the glass and ended at the ceiling - was to interview him for a story I'm working on.

After offering me espresso or tea (I chose peppermint tea, made in an electric tea kettle his Scottish wife chose), we sat down in front of the enormous window with the sound of rain falling on the metal roof. The sophisticated vibe was anything but small town, despite being in a hamlet of 400 people.

As we dispensed with the purpose of my visit, me asking and him answering, it didn't take long for the Irish Catholic (me) and the German Catholic (him) to realize we had loads in common. Partly, it was our similar ages, but partly it was everything else.

When he heard I had six sisters, he shared that his mother was one of 19 kids and his Dad one of 12. "Meaning I had close to 200 first cousins so I had to leave town just to find someone I could marry legally. And that's just first cousins!"

Talking about how he'd ended up in such a small pond, he admitted wanting to escape the unrelenting cold weather and boring people of the Midwest. When I asked about his current house, he pulled out a national magazine and showed me an 8-page spread on the bay-front house he designed.

When I asked about a huge watercolor painting of NYC's Chrysler building on a nearby wall, he explained that he'd traded his table saw for the painting after his wife worried about him losing fingers to the saw (which dimmed all the lights in the house when he used it) and being unable to have sufficient digits to continue as an architect.

There's a woman looking out for her man.

Hell, we spent 20 minutes just on nutrition, exercise and sleep. Rarely (or should I say never?) do I meet a man who cares, much less addresses in his own life, such issues. Based on how good he looked, he was obviously doing something everything right.

Probably our longest topic was the tectonic shift in the world that we've seen in our lifetimes.

Not the obvious stuff like cell phones and computers, but the fact that we began life in a world that no longer exists and got to live through the sea changes that resulted in this brave, new world we now inhabit. How it was easier for us as young people to adjust to the new world order than it had been for our parents who still embraced the old ways.

What a gift it had been to have to navigate college - choosing, applying and paying for it ourselves without parental assistance - on our own and come out of the experience with so much more than an academic education. He said his father gave him a book of stamps and told him to write. That's it. No advice, no help, just stamps.

P.S. He never wrote.

We gabbed about ourselves, sharing our similar and dissimilar memories (he had conservative parents while I was fortunate enough to be raised by two screaming liberals) for the rest of the rainy afternoon until finally I got ready to take my leave, my peppermint tea long gone.

He walked me to the door and thanked me for driving out on such a nasty day but mostly for all the conversation. As I scooped up my umbrella, I turned for one last talking point, my favorite.

His first concert was Marshall Tucker. "No one even remembers who that was anymore," he laughed. Looking at this extremely urbane and stylish man dressed in a European-cut suit with the kind of fashion-forward shoes and glasses unheard of on the Northern Neck, I never would have guessed.

Driving home, the rain had stopped but the swamps were shrouded with the ghosts of fog making its way across the landscape. Passing a junkyard, the sign out front read, "Go tell it on the mountain."

I had a far better time telling it in an architect's office, but that's probably just me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It Is To Laugh

All it took was reading Chris Rock's opinion about cell phones in comedy clubs to get my interest.

Rock is not anyone I've paid much attention to, but that article raised some provocative points. In it, he'd worried that fans shooting video of comedians working out new material in clubs and then posting to YouTube were going to be the death knell for stand-up comedy.

The point, he said, of comedians trying out new stuff in public was to see what worked and what fell flat. What was groan-worthy. What was too offensive. The absolutely essential step of self-editing.

But with the ubiquity of phones as cameras, stuff is being published online that comedians never intended anyone beyond the first audience to hear. Instead of a hundred people being offended, now millions can and the fallout can be tremendous.

Significantly, he saw it as having the potential to be the death of stand-up comedy and naturally I agreed.

Honestly, I don't think cell phones should be allowed in any sort of performance spaces and I really mean any at all. But that's a rant for another day.

Tonight it was enough to make me look differently at Rock and decide to see "Top Five," the new film he wrote, directed and starred in (can you say "Prince"?), despite knowing little about it except that it was about a comedian and critics seem to be liking it.

I took a seat in my favorite row - the front elevated one- near a guy wrist-deep in popcorn and Milk Duds. Had he offered to share, I'd have gladly taken him up on it. After previews for every upcoming movie with a black actor in it (talk about racial profiling), we finally got to what I came to see.

What surprised me the most was that it was essentially a film about conversation. From start to finish, the comedian is being interviewed by by a New York Times reporter who questions him on everything- why he's not funny anymore, why he's marrying a reality star, how bad things got before he finally got sober - and, per their mutual sobriety, demands "rigorous honesty" in return.

The film got a little too raunchy for me (some sexual things I just don't need to hear or see) and occasionally sexist ("You can go all "k.d. lang" on me"), but Rock was funny, articulate and such a keen observer of culture, that I overlooked the overload.

All kinds of real life comedians people the film, including Adam Sandler, Whoppi Goldberg (warning him never to cheat on his wife because she'll know) and Jerry Seinfeld, looking noticeably older than the last time I saw him.

In a scene in a club for Rock's bachelor party, Jerry accuses a female dancer of taking his wallet. Referring to her negligible bikini costume, she asks where she could possibly be hiding it. "Do I have to say it?" Jerry says in that affronted tone we heard so much in the '90s.

And the film's title? That comes from his favorite question, which he puts to almost everybody. What are your top five hip hop artists? As someone who asks practically everyone I meet what their first concert was, I can appreciate having a stock question with which to get to know and understand a person.

Between reading his insightful comments about the future of stand-up and now seeing "Top Five," I'd say I have a much better grasp on what Chris Rock is about.

And given my cell phone-less existence, he's got nothing to worry about with me.

Okay, Miguel, Drake, Weeknd, The Roots, Outkast. Judge away.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Swayziest Christmas of Them All

Sometimes you make sacrifices for the right people.

Among those I made this weekend were sawing off the sappy base of my parents' Christmas tree until my arm went numb. Twenty eight trips up and down three flights of stairs to dig out obscure holiday decorations from the storage floor, where dust mites are outnumbered only by the minutiae of a half century of marriage.

My parents had asked me to come down yesterday and help them get ready for Christmas, yet by early evening, they were suggesting I spend the night in order to provide more assistance today.

Putting aside plans to watch the boat parade of lights, catch "Holiday Inn" at Movieland, see musicologist Christopher King deejay gospel at Steady Sounds and attend a friend's Christmas party, I stayed.

If I can't be a good daughter at the holidays, then when?

After my final effort of the weekend - making a pound cake - I made a beeline for the great outdoors, determined to enjoy a riverside walk in the 60-degree late afternoon sunshine, returning to the house lomg enough to remove the cake from the oven and kiss my parents goodbye.

Much as I love them, I was more than ready for some outside contact beyond the man who'd greeted Dad and me at the dump this morning.

I needed Movie Club.

Tonight's installment was looking to be just the holiday boost I craved: "Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." You better believe I was cleaned up, dressed for the city and walking over to Strange Matter within an hour of getting home from the country.

My parents would never understand.

I walked into the venue I've been to so many times to find a row of recliners lined up in front of a screen set on the stage. Behind them were small tables and chairs for a cafe-like cinebistro setting. I was right where I needed to be..

Ordering a bowl of vegan chili with Twin Oaks "chorizo", the only answer the bartender needed from me was whether I wanted real cheese or vegan cheese. Excuse me, but if it's vegan it technically isn't cheese (just like those vile individually wrapped American cheese food product slices, which are made with vegetable oil and no actual dairy. Blech!), although some would say I'm arguing semantics here.

Drink in hand, I found myself a table and chair directly behind the recliners and waited for the movie to begin. When my chili was delivered, I found it jalapeno-spicy and chock full of beans. Considering the massive cheeseburgers Mom had made for dinner last night, I could forego meat tonight.

While "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" had been made in 1964, the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version had been made in 1991, meaning we were going to get cultural references from two entirely different periods. I was in heaven.

Host Andrew warned us that the original movie has consistently been listed as one of the 100 worst of all time and it didn't take long to see why.

For starters, they obviously didn't have budget for so much as a copy editor since the credits read "custume designer" not "costume." Yeesh. There was also a credit for "Martian furniture."  Somebody's mother must have been very proud.

And, given that it was 1964, Santa still smoked  a pipe. I guess he hadn't seen the surgeon general's warning yet. And speaking of, his elves all liked like miniature C. Everett Koops (for those who remmeber who he was).

I was glad we were seeing the MST version because all the best lines came from the exiled spaceman and his robots. "You know, elf tastes just like chicken." When a Martian asks what Christmas is, the MST robot says, "A Christian holiday ruined by commercialism." Bingo.

On the other hand, it didn't take long for me to begin wondering how many people in the room were getting the 1991 references.

Walking into the Martian spaceship control room, a cliched '60s idea of a high tech center with reel to reel tape machines lining the walls, the MST robot says, "But first a tour of Paisley Park." I laughed out loud at the Prince reference, but no one else did.

Ditto allusions to the book "Alive," the movie "Ice Station Zebra" and actor Larry Storch. References to Jimmy Durante and McGyver. Or when the robot sang in a whiny voice, "Old man, take a look at your elf, I'm a lot like you are."

I'm just saying that I seriously doubt many people in the room knew that the "whipped cream and other delights" reference was the name of an iconic Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album. Or what "The Long Goodbye" was.

Some humor is timeless, though, such as, "And now for your enjoyment, some suggestive scenes of jets refueling."

There was no forgetting that the original film was from the '60s and had a finite budget because of things like an actor in a polar bear costume, the headpiece clearly separate from the body or a robot that looked like a tin foil box with a coffee can on top.

When Santa said, "Falderal and fiddle dee dee," the robots chided him, saying, "Language, Santa, language!" Hysterical.

For those who don't know, the premise of the movie is that the Martian children are quiet, remote and very unhappy because they are fed information but never allowed to be children with freedom. Once the Martians kidnap two earth children who tell them where to find Santa, they nab him too. Then they're all taken to Mars, where the fat man makes everybody laugh because he's such a jolly fellow.

"It's the little signs of drug abuse," one of the MST robots observes about the corny laughter.

Patrick Swayze and the movie "Roadhouse" were a recurring theme throughout the commentary, probably because the movie was barely two years old at that point. Lines from it were repeatedly quoted and worked into the Martian story to hilarious results. You know, "my way or the highway" and "You're gonna be my regular Saturday night thing, baby" kind of stuff.

In Santa's Martian workshop, he had a machine instead of elves to help him make toys. When a load of baseball bats came out, the robot quipped, "Okay, those are marked for the L.A.P.D." Some black humor still resonates.

Eventually, the earth children get homesick, and the mother Martian explains to others that the kids miss their friends and family. "And Nintendo and sugar," an MST robot cracks.

By the time the movie ended with a singalong, I was pretty clear on why it had been so firmly entrenched in the worst of lists for 50 years. Which is not to say it hadn't been great fun, a real time capsule of two completely different eras. One of the robots even sang a violent Christmas carol about "Road House" to close out the MST part of the movie.

What's also notable is that Movie Club doesn't make a habit of showing perfectly awful movies. This had been a holiday selection (yet, in part chosen for its awfulness) while next month's will be something far superior, namely "Raising Arizona." I'll be there.

The funny part was that after the last of the trivia questions and prizes handed out after Santa conquered the Martians, host Andrew announced that, "Inspired by tonight, we're planning to show "Road House" in the future."

I. Can. Not. Wait.

We're talking about a film with the line, "That gal's got entirely too many brains to have an ass like that." It'll be a night of '80s splendor, I feel sure of it.

Should Mom and Dad ask me to stay over that night, I'm afraid their needs will have to be sacrificed on the altar of Patrick Swayze.

Oh, yea, Movie Club's gonna be my monthly Sunday night thing, baby.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It's Chritmas Time in the City

It's come to this: I had to join a group to find people to walk with me.

No, that's not a whiff of desperation you smell. I merely saw that there was a holiday light walking tour and realistically acknowledged that no one I know or love would be willing to do such a thing with me. When I told one of those people about it, the response said it all. "I bet you'll love it."

Yes and no.

The group met in front of New York Deli and I was one of several first-timers. The last thing I'd expected was anyone I knew and yet there was a woman I'd met at a restaurant last year, apparently a semi-regular in the group.

Interestingly enough, there were plenty of people who'd come because, like me, they enjoyed walking but couldn't find friends to do it with. So at least I wasn't odd man out.

We began by walking up Boulevard admiring lights and decorations before turning on to Stuart Avenue. By then it was already apparent that the group's members were going to move at wildly different speeds. I should have had a clue when the group leader told us that the 10K walk would take approximately 3 1/2 hours.

Seriously? I could walk to the Lilly Pad Cafe in Varina in less time than that.

Here's the thing: it's cold outside, a few degrees above freezing at best. And while I'd dressed appropriately for the weather, when it's cold like this, my walking speed picks up for the first few miles so I can warm up. A couple of women joined me at the front of the pack but the rest of the group lagged a block or two behind.

What this meant was that periodically, we'd turn around and shout to the group leader asking about the route he wanted to take. Since the goal was seeing decorated houses, our path was completely subject to change depending on which streets appeared to have lots of bling.

Someone observed that the popular decorating style seems to be that of strings of lights spilling off a porch or roof. "Hell, I could do that," one woman sniffed. It's not rocket science, that's for sure.

As we outdistanced the pack, one in our trio told me that men her age aren't active enough and can't keep up with her. But she doesn't want to date younger men because they don't have any money. Conundrum.

After Stuart, we went east on Hanover for a bit before switching to Grove and eventually Franklin to get us to the Jefferson, our first stop. No surprise, the hotel was packed to the rafters with a huge Christmas party in the Rotunda, a smaller party in the Flemish room and scads of families dragging squalling kids dressed in their Sunday best around the lobby for photo ops.

Santa must do a lot of self-medicating this time of year.

Our group leader gave us 15 minutes and told us to meet back by the desk. My two walking companions and I made a quick pit stop and then stood there waiting for the others to join us. One of the women pointed to Lemaire and said, "I got engaged there 40 years ago and had my reception there," pointing to a ballroom.

Her Daddy was in steel fabrication, no doubt the source of the checkbook that funded such extravagance.

Once the group reassembled, our speedy trio was ready to get walking again but first we had to pose for a group picture in front of the holiday-bedecked alligators outside. Twice.

From there, we headed down Franklin, turning on 8th Street to get to Cary and the splendor that is the Grand Illumination at the James Center. I knew we were getting close when traffic all but stopped alongside us.

Under the bright lights of all those illuminated reindeer, our leader told us we had 25 minutes to explore before reporting back for the return trip to Carytown. Only problem was, we were finally warmed up and none of the three of us wanted to spend 25 minutes getting cold again for the walk back.

That and the less experienced walker in our trio was starting to feel the effects of shin splints and was afraid if she stopped, she'd never get started again. We looked at each other and made the decision to start back.

"But we walked all this way to see this," our group leader said, gesturing toward the decorations. Truth be told, we'd come all this way to enjoy a night time walk and admire lights along the way. We'd done that.

Another guy in the main group overheard us saying goodbye and elected to join us on our return trip, so then we were four.

But to show our appreciation for organizing the tour, we took a few minutes to walk around the lit figures before heading back up the hill and westward ho, running smack dab into VCU graduation ceremony crowds spilling out of the Mosque Landmark Altria Theater.

Further along, we saw holiday parties through windows, in shops and closed restaurants, in stretch limos driving by.

Even our little splinter group eventually splintered, with the shin splint victim and the last minute addition electing to adopt a more leisurely pace coming back while my lively companion and I kept up a conversation as fast-paced as our steps.

She told me she's in training to bike across Iowa and shared details of biking across Barbados. We discovered a mutual love of quinoa, fried chicken and daily walking.

Before we knew it, we were back in Carytown in what seemed like no time at all. "How'd we do that so fast?" she asked, half joking. "I'm going on the group hike tomorrow at Dutch Gap. Are you coming?'

Nope, I have other plans tomorrow. Besides, I'm not entirely sold on all aspects of the group walk thing yet.

Earlier, a very tall, bearded man with long hair had said that he'd ended up on this walk solely because he'd seen it in Style Weekly, loved to walk and doesn't have anyone to walk with.

We might be walking soul mates since that about sums up why I was there. The question is, could he keep up?

So few can. Tonight that total came down to exactly one woman. And I'm not switching teams even for a fast walker.

But I'm willing to do tryouts for anyone who's interested in giving it a shot. Perhaps I'm more of the small group type.

Orange and Stout

Tonight's cultural walk took me across the railroad tracks to Hardywood.

That's right, I walked 1.7 miles in the dark and cold to a brewery despite the fact that I don't drink beer. The reason? I did not want to miss Samson Trinh and the Upper East Side Big Band performing music from their Christmas project.

Arriving at the brewery, the door was magically opened for me by a friend who greeted me with, "Good evening, young lady." I rewarded him with a hug from my cold hands. All I could smell was the overwhelming scent of hops, not a favorite of mine.

He'd just arrived, too, so we both caught the end of the big band's first set, namely the Beatles' "Oh Darling" followed by Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," both sung by Laura Ann Singh (looking wonderful in a black dress with a red and green scarf) of Miramar, with backing vocals by Adrian Duke on keyboard.

During the break I chatted with a former neighbor who introduced me to the big band's sax player, saw a favorite actor kissing air and ran into yesterday's birthday boy, whom I immediately asked for a ride home. All around me, people clutched cups of gingerbread stout as if it were their lifeblood.

After repeated entreaties from the stage for the sax player to join them, the big band began a sultry take on Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" which soon morphed into a swingin' rendition.

Who wouldn't feel in the spirit listening to this?

The next song was penned by bandleader Samson and according to singer Laura Ann, was so catchy, "You might try to go to sleep and won't be able to after you hear it" After teaching the crowd the chorus so we could sing along, she instructed, "Don't be a turd! Sing it" and the crowd obeyed.

Except for the turd part, she'd been spot on; the song was poppy and infectiously catchy. An ear worm even.

Introducing "Christmas, Don't Be Late," a song I know because of the Chipmunks' version, Samson shared that they'd played it this morning on the radio with DJ Bill Bevins who'd called the song by the wrong name. Still, their version beat the Chipmunks' by a mile.

Asking, "Who's never heard of the Upper East Side Big Band?" a few people raised their hands, including the trumpet player, unbeknownst to Samson. I'd seen them before, so my hand stayed down.

He said that their Christmas project album had been eight years in the making and that they hadn't played the next song in eight years. It was irrelevant because the classic Charlie Brown tune "Christmas Time is Here" sounded fabulous live.

Their version of "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" was swinging in a way that the Carpenters' cover never did. I don't think Karen carpenter was the swingin' type. Well done, guys.

"When I brought in the charts for "Merry Christmas, Baby," our next song, everyone was scared of playing it," Samson said by way of introduction. Looking back at his band, he amended that. "Never mind, we're going to go on. I didn't put the music in their binders."


Instead, they played a Beatles medley from Abbey Road, including "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," closing out the night with the band whose altar Samson worships at. It was a fitting close to a terrific set of music.

Smelly hops aside, what could be a better way to get into the holiday spirit than listening to local musicians play songs from their brand-new Christmas album? I'd even say that the music was well worth the walk.

Walking out, I spotted Jackson Ward neighbors, gingerbread stout in hand, and paused to wish them happy holidays before catching my ride home. 1.7 feels a lot longer and colder after the show.

Then it was on to the Blue Goat, a place I hadn't been since they abandoned nose to tail for a mainstream West end menu. The preppy crowd looked right at home while overhead, the sound system blasted the Galactica Pandora station, meaning plenty of funky soul, including forays into Edgar Winter. And, you know, it worked.

A suggestion from the staff led us to something different, namely Biggio Hamina Cellars Cougar's Mark Pinot Grigio, a substantial orange wine. Since Blue Goat has more than its share of cougars, someone mentioned the frequency of leopard print garments on any given weekend night. Easy to imagine, but not something I need to witness.

For dinner, I chose shrimp panzanella, a salad of bibb lettuce, bacon, shrimp, grape tomatoes, cornbread croutons and bacon vinaigrette, a satisfying melange of flavors but with an insufficient amount of lettuce. Come on, give me a full serving of greens if you're going to call it a salad.

The place was bustling - a group of suits at the chef's table, the bar almost entirely full, a couple sharing their bottle of wine with the manager - but the well-placed sound system ensured that the music was always front and center. For that, they get points. For the bland crowd, not so much.

We lingered so long blathering - what happened to journalistic integrity, should you confit or smoke chicken before frying, what happens to old bathing suits - that some last minute stragglers saw us and came in. Without telling them not to be a turd, the bartender warned them that they could have one round only. The guy in the white pants didn't look happy about that.

From where I sat, they looked like the types who had never heard of the Upper East Side Big Band. No surprise there.

They did look like they'd appreciate a good cougar, though.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Doesn't Matter Where You Been as Long as It Was Deep

Accidentally, I had the evening that I needed.

Still without a vehicle, it seemed prudent to find neighborhood activity rather than having to walk too far in the December cold. The Oscar-nominated documentary "Promises" at the main library filled the bill nicely.

Presented by Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine, I was apparently easy to spot as neither a Jew nor an Arab. The women at the welcome table wasted no time in inquiring how I'd heard about the event (Style Weekly's calendar), delighted to have lured out an Irish Catholic.

Or maybe just someone who'd never been to their film series before.

I have to say, I go to plenty of documentaries and few have a spread like this one - rolls filled with pimento cheese and chicken salad, fruit salad, punch and six kinds of dessert. Food aside, I spotted only two people I knew (a poet and an artist), but was pleased to see wide-ranging age diversity in the makeup of the crowd.

The film was introduced by the professor of Middle Eastern studies at Randolph Macon, who said he shows it to his classes as a way to help them understand the deeply ingrained conflict.

The filmmaker had followed seven children  - Israeli and Palestinian - for five years to make the documentary back during a time when it had been possible to travel back and forth easily (for Israelis anyway) to the West Bank. Updates to the story had been done a few years later.

What was fascinating was how entrenched ideas about the so-called enemy were in children, most of whom came across far more savvy about politics in their country than a typical 10-year old American kid would be. No doubt it was a function of war being the norm their entire lives.

The children represented a spectrum of secular, somewhat religious, right wing and ultra-orthodox, but just about every single one knew firsthand someone who had been killed, in some cases a friend. Scenes of children at the grave site of another child felt unbearably sad, much like a scene of a Palestinian boy and his grandmother visiting the site of the home from which they'd been ousted and relocated.

Listening to children spout learned hatred led to the filmmaker setting up a meeting between Israeli twin boys and a group of Palestinian kids. They were chosen because they were the only ones willing to fraternize with the "enemy."

The scenes where the children finally meet each other were the most hopeful in the entire film. From a spontaneous burping contest to a pillow fight to soccer playing, once with the "enemy," they became just kids and forgot about politics. At last they saw the hated Israelis or Palestinians as actual people and not bogeymen.

But the most startling part of all was when the  filmmaker went back a few years later to see what was up with the seven. With age came adherence to the principles of hate they'd been taught.

All except one Palestinian boy who'd moved to Massachusetts to live with relatives. Not only had his English improved hugely, but his vitriol had faded. He made the point that if so many different kinds of people can coexist in the U.S., why couldn't his little country get along?

After the film was a discussion led by the professor and he requested that people not get on their political/religious soapboxes (although one woman did try to defend Israel's mandatory military service) but consider the issues raised in the film. It was fascinating to see how differently people had interpreted it.

The issue that had the most people in agreement was about how unequally the U.S. provides aid to Israel and Palestine and how our overt support of the former is a major problem. Granted, it was an audience of people already interested in the subject, but it was definitely one of the more thoughtful and intellectual post-film discussions I've attended.

By the time we finished, the security guards couldn't get rid of us fast enough.

It had been extremely satisfying for me because I'd learned so much about the conflict (maps and diagrams throughout the film were invaluable in absorbing the different stages of land grabbing, camps and occupation) but also because it had been a very well made film and I got to see it on a big screen.

Leaving the library, I was more than ready for some food. I considered Rappahannock, but couldn't stand the thought of going even three blocks out of my way, so I stopped at Saison Market.

There, I found the owner behind the register ("Hello, young lady!"), James Brown singing "Sex Machine" on the stereo and a good looking root vegetable winter salad on the menu. Just as I was signing my check, I noticed Abuelita hot chocolate on the chalkboard and ordered that, too.

Coincidentally, I'd just read about Abuelita on the Pioneer Woman's blog and finding it at a Latino market is on my to-do list. Here was my chance to try it. But rather than wait and have it for dessert, I sipped the cup of chocolate before my salad even arrived, licking the last bits of chocolate from inside the cup with my finger.

Chocolate, it's what's for appetizer.

Then came salad. Butternut squash, beets, watermelon radish, frisee, Maytag blue cheese, spaghetti squash fritters and apple vinaigrette sat atop squash puree for a plate that was as much eye candy as surprisingly filling.

The brain trust from Richmond Comedy Coalition came in and I saw one of their best comedians, whom I'd also seen at last night's birthday party. Trying to get the jump on humor, I told him I was following him.

"That's what you think, but I'm really following you," he said with raised eyebrows and a grin.

As I ate, I read an article from the department of inspiration in a summer issue of New Yorker magazine called "A Room of One's Own" about a woman who won a three week residency for a writer with a book contract at a swanky East Village hotel (including free breakfast and coffee). She went to work on her book of poetry.

The down side was she was awakened far too early every day by nearby construction and had to live on a writer's (read: tight) budget of $20 a day for food, not an easy thing to do in NYC. But she also wrote poetry, taking her greatest inspiration from late night walks in the city.

See? It's not that I'm car-less, it's that my night walks are for soaking up inspiration. And cold toes.