Friday, May 9, 2014

What We Will

Oh, sure, I can plan, but I can also go along with someone else's agenda.

But when a friend puts the ball in my court with, "What shall we do with ourselves?" I feel it's my duty to concoct an evening worth doing.

Her response? "I just knew I could count on your poetical planning."

I had suggested we begin at Chop Suey for John Sealy's reading from his debut novel, "The Whiskey Baron," which conveniently allowed me to make a pit stop at Mongrel to buy a Mother's Day card for the impending holiday.

Two birds with one stone and all that rot.

Once at Chop Suey, we found seats for a pre-reading catch-up session about possible changes for her at work, how her dogs had chosen to wake her up at 5 a.m. (unbeknownst to her as she started her day assuming it was 6 a.m.) and the difference in cultured and country.

For the record, she's the former, not the latter.

Sealy took the podium looking young, which is fine, but being somewhat of a timid reader, which was less so. Just because you can write well doesn't mean you can read aloud well.

Beginning with page 3 in his novel, he treated us to a few pages of his story about a bootlegger's South Carolina crumbling whiskey empire.

Despite his less than ideal reading aloud skills, he had a way with a phrase, such as, "Time had at least given him the blessing of patience," a phrase that could apply to yours truly.

After reading enough to set up the story for us he drawled, "I think I'm gonna stop there," and opened up the room to questions.

A reader curious about whether he "heard" the characters' voices in his head as he wrote had him explaining, "What I love about fiction is writing in the third person, the ability to hear sounds and slide in and out of the people I create. I love the responsibility of going into someone's head."

I was intrigued when he compared the slow creation of a character to watercolor painting where you begin with vague shadows and gradually build up images as you keep adding to it. Nice metaphor.

He'd set his novel in a fictional South Carolina county based on Chester County, a place he knew well from summers visiting his family's home there.

We learned that part of his motivation for writing came from a concern that experienced history was fading into recorded history as the people who lived it are dying off. "I wanted to capture a period that'll soon be gone as the people who lived it die."

Idiomatic phrases particularly captivated him as he listened to people's stories about life in a mill town and "musical" terms like "bobbin dodger" and "lint head" captured his imagination, being evocative and unusual enough to make it into the book.

When someone commented that they saw elements of literary naturalism in his novel - elements referring back to writers like Theodore Dreiser, Jack London and Stephen Crane- he was impressed because exactly that sort of writing had been his interest in college.

That youthful focus had given way to a more contemporary fear that we have lost the ability to choose our paths. "I'm paranoid we're living in a computer simulation and no longer have free will," he said, sounding quite serious or at the very least, highly concerned.

Now there's a depressing thought.

Well, if tonight was a computer simulation, we were at least going to simulate good eating and drinking, so we strolled up Cary Street, where I came across a musician friend busking, playing mouth harp enthusiastically for anyone who would listen.

Naturally I stopped to chat, having missed his band's show last night, and garnering an invitation to his recently established compound on the east end of town.

I have no doubt it's all very groovy and look forward to going out for a visit.

We continued on to Amour Wine Bistro, my first visit since they reopened after the January fire, and found the bar full of a birthday party waiting for the guest of honor to arrive and be surprised.

While my poetical planning had chosen Amour, I can take no credit for the superb Rose that awaited us, Chateau de Valcombe Rose, the color of a pink diamond and so sippable my friend wished for a case for herself.

Perhaps my needs are simpler, but I'd have settled for a case for the two of us.

Since we were well into dinner time, we ordered housemade country pork and scallion pate (so fabulous it required extra bread and the grilled leeks a delightful bonus), asparagus with a poached egg, Parmesan and shaved radish (tasting as spring-like as the Rose) and warm potato salad with mustard, bacon and red onions (a deeply flavorful take that had my friend in raptures), a solid trio that came off the happy hour menu.

We had a great time with our server, hearing about his impending cohabitation in a 630 square foot apartment (so brave) and trying to discuss our own lives without him overhearing us.

Claiming to hear nothing, he made a reference to our chatter being the equivalent of Charlie Brown's teacher. Wahh, wahh.

I asked my friend about going to see "The Taming of the Shrew" with me, which you'd think was a pretty simple request to make of a theater lover, but which led to a deeply philosophical discussion of her objections to the play on the grounds that offends her '80s-era feminist sensibilities by belittling the Katerina character.

Funny, I don't see it that way, which means it was a lively discussion where we both learned a little about each other's views on the male/female dynamic. And wound up discussing "Much Ado About Nothing" instead.

As it happened, we also got into the art of haikus, but she shut that down by insisting that she preferred limericks. Not so me.

Since this was a girls' night out, we used our free will to go with two desserts, a chocolate caramel sea salt creme brulee paired with grapefruit sorbet and chocolate sorbet so creamy it coated the spoon and didn't want to let go.

The creme brulee and grapefruit pairing was inspired, the refreshing and tart sorbet cutting the richness of the dark chocolate.

With the chocolate sorbet we switched from Rose to Saint Dominique Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a lightly sweet wine that must have been created to be savored with just such a dessert.

We used the accompanying orange slices to swipe the last of the sorbet from the bowl, enjoying the sweetness of the oranges under chocolate for our last rapturous bites.

Sorry, no computer simulation could recreate that kind of mouthfeel, those beautiful flavors to close out our evening.

Turns out it wasn't only the planning that was poetical.

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