Thursday, December 31, 2015

For a Good Time, Call

Like anywhere else, it helps to know people.

In this case, it was a winemaker and his wife who suggested the love of my life and I meet them at the New Orleans via Cali-themed Parish Café for beignets and Bloody Marys.

The charming restaurant does only breakfast and lunch seven days a week (nice schedule if you can get it) and its walls are covered in Big Easy-related art, so plenty of musicians represented. The soundtrack was vintage: the Turtles, the Hollies, a little Elvis with "Suspicious Minds," that sort of thing.

From the various hearty offerings, I decided on eggs with country ham and grits, surprised only when a thick piece of ham steak arrived instead of the salty country ham promised. Maybe they don't know the difference in California, but don't try to serve ham in place of country ham to a resident of Virginia and expect to get away with it.

That said, it was plenty tasty.

We walked off breakfast at a nearby vintage store and by vintage, Californians mean stuff made after 1940. The first thing I saw on walking in was a three-part tin exactly like one I have, purchased in the mid 1980s, if that gives you any idea what antiques are to these people.

After ogling 20th century artifacts, we hit the road. Despite spending the rest of the day in Dry Creek Valley, the rest of the day was anything but. Dry, that is.

From there, we headed to a nearby barrel room (located in a former cow barn, right down to the troughs still in place next to racks of barrels) to alternate through recent bottled vintages and barrel tastings of wines, many of them Italian varietals, crafted by the man who'd sat across from me at breakfast.

His pride in what he'd crafted was obvious - and deservedly so - but what surprised us was the array of Italian grapes they were growing, such unlikely things as Negroamaro, Aglianico and Sagrantino in addition to more usual suspects of Nebbiolo and Montepulciano.

After several tastes of hearty reds, his wife poured her taste into the bucket and rolled her eyes. "I think I need a steak." We'd finished our NOLA breakfast an hour ago,

There were so many wines to taste that it took us a couple of hours to sample them all, but along the way we heard all kinds of terrific stories about other wineries and winemakers (does anyone really need an 18% wine?) so the time passed quickly despite the heatless barrel room temperatures that had me periodically shivering.

From there, it was barely a mile or two to Lambert Bridge, a winery oozing charm with a functioning mill wheel and a persimmon tree heavy with fruit and almost no leaves.

Our pourer Shelby asked where we were from, leading to yet another discussion of the crazy weather - both here and back home- as we proceeded through the Signature Tasting. Shelby got a tad mixed up, pouring us a Zinfandel we weren't supposed to have and agreeably laughing it off before breaking a wine glass. Pouring isn't her regular job, she assured us.

Sipping a Viognier so unlike our Virginia take on the grape, I glanced over, amazed to see a VT cap on the guy next to us. Could it be that multiple Virginians ended up at this winery at the same time?

The foursome were from Austin, but it turns out that between the four of them, two had gone to Tech, one to UVA for grad school and one formerly taught at UR. They were as stoked to meet us as we were them, well, except for the one who grinned at us with dazed eyes and announced, "I'm drunk."

It happens, hon. They all but carried her out.

Dinner involved meeting the winemaker and his wife for drinks at Barndiva, a tres trendy little place that was part wine bar, part art/décor shop, but also with silent films playing on the back wall (and a stage for karaoke on other nights) and dinner at Scopa, a sliver of a restaurant in downtown Healdsburg.

Walking in with him was like walking in with a rock star and not just because he had two bottles of his wine in hand. After much fawning over him and his wines, we began eating and sipping in earnest, the table soon covered in glasses and platters.

Fat meatballs made with spicy Calabrese. Grilled baby octopus with cauliflower, pinenuts and currants. Scopa chopped salad with chicories, more Calabrese, chickpeas and ricotta. A special of mixed mushroom boudin that was like earthy silk in my mouth.

That got us through the first three wines (it was winemaker Wednesday, after all, and not the one accompanying us) before moving on to the main events and the bottles of Orsi Aglianico and Montepulciano our tablemate had brought.

Tomato-braised beef and pork rib sugo over spahettini, tomato-braised chicken with greens and polenta and the awe-inspiring grilled rib eye steak for two with rosemary-roasted potatoes and arugula salad, a behemoth of a dish that the four of us failed to finish, despite how beautifully it paired with his wines.

Midway through eating, the winemaker's wife elbowed me and asked if that wasn't Seth Rogen sitting at the high-top table right behind us. Damned if I knew, but our pixie waitress (whose cat had the oh-so clever name Feral Fawcett) provided confirmation and low-volume "Pineapple Express" jokes ensued.

Fortunately, the observant wife had also had the foresight to order chocolate soufflé when we'd ordered our mains and the airy dessert - with a small pitcher of cream- took a beating from the four spoons attacking it while the winemaker, a native Californian, regaled us with stories of boyhood fishing trips in the area. "We'd catch 60 steelhead full of roe in one weekend!"

Seth, it should be noted, passed on dessert, or perhaps was just eager to get his date home. We lingered because it's vacation.

And because you never know when your next dinner with a rock star will happen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Pleasant Valley Tuesday

Act 2, Scene 1

Today's action moved from the big city to wine country as we rented a car and drove to Napa listening to an outstanding R&B throwback station playing the likes of Pebbles, Janet Jackson, the Jets and the Whispers.

Our plan was to play wine tourists, like the couple on bikes we saw pedaling winery to winery with a baby carrier on the back of his bike. Our adventure began without bikes or babies under a cloudless blue sky at Heitz Wine Cellars. Started in 1961, the winery's tasting room was cozy, with a fireplace and small dog asleep on a dog bed on the hearth.

After tasting through wines that cost more than I get paid for writing an article, we bought a bottle to take outside and enjoy, only to discover a shady patio and men trimming vines on the pergola overhead. After being in a concrete canyon the past few days, shade had lost its appeal, necessitating a change of scenery to the front piazza and a sunny bench.

We saw the wine train chug by laden with eager wine tourists, a picaresque old-style train that would have been at home in a '40s movie. That bottle of Sauvignon Blanc was soon history, as was a good chunk of the afternoon, a fitting welcome to Napa.

Scene 2

After cruising through downtown Napa, which looked like more a pre-fab shopping destination than the center of a long-time winemaking community, we stopped for lunch at Gott's Roadside, a sprawling outdoor burger joint that began life as Taylor's Roadside back in 1949. The old Taylor's sign was showing its age, but then, aren't we all?

Joining the long line of people waiting to order outside, we were behind a hip-looking couple (with a muzzled dog), the kind who go to a burger place and order kale salads because the $22 lobster roll is sold out. Tragic, in other words.

Far more humorous was when the cashier asked for a name to call out when our order was ready and my smart-assed companion said Lord Vader. Hearing that on the speaker got a few snickers from other patrons and got me a bacon cheeseburger, onion rings and chocolate shake, all of which I inhaled after such a vigorous day of tasting wine.

Scene 3

At Mumm Napa, we sat inside a sunny patio facing the vineyards to do their Heritage Collection tasting - including the gorgeous 2009 DVX Rose - and a bonus, the Santana Brut, named after Carlos, who apparently visited the winery three times and now has a wine named after him.

Our affable server Jim, wearing a hat with a chin strap, shared his back story when I asked. Seems he'd ended up in Palo Alto after he and his wife set out to investigate three cities: Sante Fe, San Francisco and Seattle. 

When the wife got sick (actually pregnant), they ended up staying in California. "That baby's 27 now," he told us. "We never made it to Seattle."

Other facts gleaned: his first show was the Carpenters at the University of Georgia in 1970 and his draft number was 170, although he was never called up.

"Does your job involve asking questions?" he asks of me.

That and eating and drinking, Jim. Sure does.

Watching the sun set over the hills behind us, colorful people watching in the tasting room and observing the near-constant line of tourists posing for the requisite photos (not that we did) in front of the Mumm Napa sign just outside the patio all but ensured we had endless entertainment as we closed the daylight hours sipping bubbles.

The kind of place that puts a spell on you for better or for worse.

She's a black magic woman and she's trying to make a devil out of me...

Eat, Drink and Shiver

Everything is relative when you're talking about weather.

It's funny, in Portland this summer, it was uncharacteristically hot, much hotter than at home. Right now in San Francisco, it's cold, so cold it's a topic of conversation among locals and visitors alike. I layer jackets and bought knee socks yesterday.

We're amazed to walk down streets and see shop and restaurant doors open to the cold December air. At breakfast, people sit outside on oversized couches sipping coffee in the 40 degree morning. Just about all the patios have large overhead heaters.

In front of Trattoria Pinocchio, a Sicilian waiter in sunglasses tries to discourage us from sitting outside for lunch. "It's too cold today!" he says, gesturing inside but we hesitate. The hostess tries to save the business by coming out to turn the heaters on, using a stick with a hook to flip the switches.

The heaters help, although I eat lunch of Calabrese pizza, tri-color salad and Nero d'Avola with my gloves on anyway. People walk by and smile at us (or is that pity for our foolishness?) but no one joins us at the outdoor tables, either.

"Look at them braving the cold!" an older woman says to her companion before they choose a table inside. Look at those fools, says her thought bubble.

I ride my first cable car today, the California-Van Ness  line that takes us up to Russian Hill where we climb another hill and more steps to Lafayette Park, another splendid view, this time of rich people's houses.

Nice to look at, but no envy from me. Too much house for my lifestyle.

From there, we head downhill to see Jack Kerouac's love shack, the place he shared with fellow Beat Neal Cassady and his wife (all the more interesting for knowing that there was some partner-sharing going on inside) in a quaint neighborhood with a brass sign to commemorate their famous resident.

A trio of European tourists are taking pictures when we arrive but soon move on to the next destination in their guidebook, coincidentally the same as ours, so we are five minutes behind them for the next hour, trailing in their wake as we navigate narrow stone steps through cottage-lined crooked neighborhoods with stupendous views of rooftops and the bay.

I'm not ashamed to say my calves are still adjusting to San Francisco's hilly terrain and I'm a semi-pro walker.

Late afternoon, we head to the Ferry Building with its myriad high-end food stalls, detailed ferry schedule and masses of humanity, eventually scoring an outside table at Hog Island Oyster Company where we can see ferries leaving and arriving as we eat a dozen local Hog Island Sweetwater oysters and a dozen slightly saltier Hama Hama oysters from Washington.

Of note, there is one Maryland oyster on the menu, but no Virginia bivalves (boo, hiss).

When we leave that madness, it's to go in search of somewhere for dinner, eventually landing at The Local, considered a hidden neighborhood gem and with good reason. Located in what must have been an industrial building, the glass front door is about 20' high and the interior ceilings higher.

Lighting fixtures look like Alexander Calder mobiles and the large black and white photos on the wall are barely visible through a gauzy fabric curtain that covers the wall. Techno music plays and a wood-burning oven makes the space feel cozy despite its epic height.

We've lucked into a Monday night treasure, the shame of it being that we're already full of bivalves. Still, a generous salad of kale, sliced brussels sprouts and dried cherries alongside spicy chicken nuggets deliver just enough sustenance to justify me moving on to dessert from there.

Warm chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and caramel sauce round out my progressive meal and another gut-stuffing day in this chilly city.

What was I thinking bringing shorts anyway?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

High and Dry Out of the Rain

Things got groovy today with an epic walk and a few flashbacks.

And by epic, I'm talking somewhere in the 12-15 mile range, up and down monster hills, winding up in Haight-Ashbury to ogle Janis Joplin's cheerfully pink crash pad, the Grateful Dead house (well cleaned up by this point), the Simbionese Liberation Army safe house where Patty Hearst was held captive (cue Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl"), plus one of the many flophouses where Jimi Hendrix crashed back during his "Purple Haze" phase and, appropriately, now a head shop and music store.

Medicinal weed is legal here (ads tout "30 minute evaluations and prescriptions filled") and we inhale its heady scent walking down countless streets and not just in Haight-Ashbury where it's always 4:20.

Almost as frequent are passersby clad in the grooviest of threads: wide bellbottoms, fur vests, funky hats and silver jewelry. It's jarring when the trip down Memory Lane ends at the feet and I spot Nikes underneath those bellbottoms.

Others nail the look and I admire their '60s vibe, if not the vacant look in their eyes.

Buena Vista Park is worth the near-vertical climb to the top for the fabulous views, but then, I'm learning that killer views abound in this town given the topography. The other thing I'm learning is that every day is a weather smorgasbord of cold, warm, sunny, cloudy, windy, calm and they can all happen in the same hour.

Micro-climates, my fellow Gemini warned me before I got here, and damned if she wasn't spot on.

In the Mission district, we head straight for Mission Delores, you know, the one Hitchcock used in "Vertigo," but also notable for its pocket cemetery, a charming space tucked behind the old mission and new basilica. I couldn't miss a gander and salute at the Roxie, a small, non-profit art theater exactly like the one the Bijou crew is trying to bring to Richmond.

The Castro was a primer in gay history with sidewalk markers explaining both history and key gay figures - Tennessee Williams, Virginia Wolf, Harvey Milk - every few steps. Inside Twin Peaks, the first gay bar with windows open to the street, I spot several couples taking selfies in those very windows.

It was kind of touching. Anybody got a tissue?

Playing at the Castro Theater is "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Roman Holiday," but who's got time to be inside when it's a sunny day in the Castro?

One thing, though, is already obvious: if you want fetish clothing or accessories, San Francisco is the place to come. Shops selling dog collars, leather panties and cut-out lingerie abound.

Not that I was in the market for any of the above.

Lunch was at tres hip and low-key Little Chihuahua, where grass-fed beef and organic vegetables are the order of the day. All I know is that my black bean nachos went down easily while our feet got a short break from the non-stop up and down.

On an unrelated note, I have never seen so many selfie sticks in my life and hope I never have to again. Everywhere we go, people stop mid-sidewalk to say cheese. Busses and cars roll by with sticks stuck out the side as if every moment must be documented for it to be believable. Spare me.

After a brief rain shower, we hoofed it down to the Embarcadero to RN74, a wine bar restaurant with lighting so dim I looked fabulous. Or maybe it was the Roderer Brut Rose that put a youthful blush in my cheeks.

We luck out at Boulevard, scoring a table at the bar in front of the open kitchen helmed by James Beard award-winning chef Nancy Oakes. Her crack team entertains us with the dance of the kitchen, putting out foie gras, tuna tartare and more plates of scallops than I could keep track of under a nonstop barrage of arriving tickets.

Both my roasted winter squash with red lettuce salad and the petrale sole in lobster cream sauce with lobster fritters that follow are things of beauty, much like the 1889 Victorian building in which they were savored. Sad to admit, but all I could muster for dessert was caramel ice cream with chocolate cookie crumbles.

Even a person who walks 14 miles in a day is not bottomless, try as she might. Fortunately, the week is just beginning.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Welcome to Mr. Bing's

I had no idea so many people flew on Christmas day. San Francisco, here I come.

My favorite food critic recently named Portland the best food city in the country, with San Francisco second. I did Portland this past summer, reveling in it just as he'd done a few weeks later. San Fran is number two and here  I am.

Welcome meal: sushi from "boats" floating around an endless water carousel at the sushi bar in Chinatown, reminding me of those restaurants that have a conveyor belt with dishes you pluck from the non-stop parade. There's a sign in front of my chair that reads, "Be aware of your purse." I assume this applies despite the late hour and fact that it's Christmas Day.

Our server is surly and we're the only people in the place until just before we leave. Still, it's a fitting and tasty welcome to the city by the bay.

First order of the first day after breakfast (and the sticker shock of an $18 omelet): the Coit Tower, an homage to concrete and a local female firefighter who left the city $117,000. WPA murals, steep walking paths and a docent with thick black hair growing out of his ears (distracting) make for a colorful experience.

I worship at the altar of the Beats, wandering down Jack Kerouac Alley where he was unceremoniously tossed after an epic binge nearby.

Walking Lombard Street, I am amazed at the log jam of cars waiting to drive its many switchbacks instead of actually experiencing them on foot. The Cliffside, garden-lined Filbert Street steps are worth the major aerobic workout they provide. I am a passionate walker in a walking town.

I can't very well come here and not go to the Fishermen's wharf, no matter how touristy, now can I? Salty's Famous Fishwich delivers massive fish and shrimp salad sandwiches with cilantro slaw, enjoyed at a sunny table with a view of Alcatraz.

But the serious fun is at the Musee Mechanique, a cavernous repository of vintage amusements and games. For a quarter, I watch the history of the San Francisco earthquake on a series of sepia-toned stereo photographs, squeeze a lever to determine my sex appeal (mild) and watch another stereograph series depicting what saloon dancers do on their day off (try on lingerie and pose fetchingly).

Before we leave, we squeeze into a vintage photo booth to mug for the camera to document this trip with four strips of photos as sepia-toned as those showing the earthquake and dancing girls. Best souvenir ever.

Walking back through North Beach's Italian section, we stop for wine at an old school Italian place where our server winks at us and touches us far more than you might expect him to.

The type thing you see here that you'd never see in Richmond: a handwritten sign in a restaurant window that reads, "Today's lunch special - half rabbit and fries," unfortunately spotted after we'd had lunch.

Dinner is at the kind of completely traditional Italian place - North Beach Restaurant - where the waiters (all men, natch) wear suits, the busboys wear black chef coats and the ancient Italian host has only half his teeth but great patter.

Our server reminds me of Crazy Nate back in Richmond, except in a suit and without the rickety bike.

An antipasto platter for two eats like a meal on four plates: housemade prosciutto, salame and cheese, veal shanks, beans and onions, and sautéed calamari. And that's just the appetizer.

Columbia Tower intrigues me because it was built by a shady mob boss, then purchased by the Kingston Trio in the '60s. The Dead recorded there. Since the '70s it's been owned by Francis Ford Coppola and operates as a wine bar with scads of old photographs from his movies and film shoots.

In the basement of the triangular building, I spot a Coppola family tree next to a photograph of Francis on a pedestal surrounded by nubile young women who look vaguely Pan-Asian. He looks as content as I feel sipping a glass of his Sofia Blanc de Blanc.

It may be my first day in San Francisco, but my legs tell me I've already earned it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Listening for Sleigh Bells

Definitely not Christmas Eve redux.

It's been decades, but I spent today at my parents' house with Christmas music playing in the background. To get there, I drove through squalls, the rumble of thunder, fog clouds and occasional weak sunshine. Try as the sun might, it didn't have a chance today.

Unlike every year since 1993, I did not go see "It's a Wonderful Life" at the Byrd Theater. I'm assuming George Bailey still wants to live and Clarence got his wings.

I did, however, get to pull on my flowered rubber boots and slog through the muck and epic puddles of my parents' back 40 to reach the dock and plant myself on the Adirondack bench to enjoy the tropical air rolling off the Rappahannock River. In a short-sleeved dress. On Christmas Eve.

It was so wonderful siting down there in this weather that I went back an hour or so later for a repeat visit once it stopped raining again. My mother thought I was crazy for wading through the marsh once, much less twice, but, unlike me, she doesn't see the beauty in this crazy weather.

When I get home from the Christmas Eve festivities, I close the blinds but leave the windows open before heading out for a walk, much needed after missing my usual constitutional today.

There weren't a lot of people out and about at 11:00 on Christmas Eve, but there were a few. Two guys on a porch wished me merry Christmas. A guy on his cell phone argued with someone, while another guy was taking a leak next to the mini-mart. A woman sat on her porch in a tank top, taking in the night air.

Walking past a house with a good-sized yard, I was amazed to hear crickets chirping. I stopped to make sure my ears weren't playing tricks on me. Earlier today, my Mom had shown me an ant in her kitchen, marveling at a December ant. Apparently the entire wild kingdom thinks it's Spring or something.

Of course it's not, it's Christmas Eve, however you choose to celebrate it.

Just now a guy rides down the empty streets of Jackson Ward on his bike, meandering side to side, and I hear him coming from a block away singing in a fine voice, "You don't love me anymore. That's news to meeeee..."

I get to sleep with the windows open on Christmas Eve. That's news to me.

You see, I really do have a wonderful life.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Always Second Choice

It's like I'm living at the beach.

Because all my windows are open, the warm, humid air outside keeps rolling into my apartment, the result being that every floor, every wall, every mirror and window is glistening. A wacky breeze periodically rattles the shades.

Everything looks and feels damp, not that there's anything wrong with that. My hair has given up.

Walking back through Carver yesterday, I encountered two guys standing under an open garage door, arms crossed, enjoying the warmth of a gray, rainy day. But when I said it felt beachy, one guy disagreed. "It's a few months too late for the beach," he says. I'm not that picky.

Anytime is a good beach time to me.

I'm pickier about movies, so while the rest of the world is busy seeing "Star Wars," I saw "Spotlight," a well-acted film based on true events that showed the actual work of tracking a news story and not just a Hollywood scratch-at-the-surface take on the often-grueling work.

Says the woman who's never been any sort of investigative journalist.

This week is already feeling like a blur, let's see, there was Richmond Ballet's "Nutcracker," resplendent with fresh costumes I didn't recognize, a glamorous new sleigh and at least a couple of sets I don't recall ever seeing. The overall effect was lovely and succinct, touching down at two hours including intermission.

Out on the sidewalk at 4:00, we navigated treacherous puddles to set our sights on Castanea for a nosh to accompany a little holiday Cava. With the staff a bit less than punctual, the chef ably filled in as bar man, pouring our bubbles and being amusing before returning to kitchen duty to make our bacon-wrapped dates and bruschetta with chicken liver mousse.

For the record, my first time at Castanea without eating gelato.

Holmes calls to say, "I wanted you to know you weren't my first choice," and explains that someone has dropped out of his birthday dinner, so he'd like to invite me to the all-family gathering at Belmont Food Shop.

Walking into his house, immediately it's a party. His nephew, affectionately known as L.A. Ken (for his post-RVA adopted home), joins us to pre-game and for the walk over under ominous skies thundering and lightening like it's August.

"I don't think it's ever thundered on my birthday," Holmes observes to himself as he helps Beloved maneuver around a puddle.

As many times as I've been to Belmont, I'd never eaten on the special event side, so I couldn't resist looking around. "Being nosy?" our server Andy asks upon discovering me in the pantry. "This is where I hide."

Explaining that I'm the only non-family member at this shindig, Andy's there for me. "You just tell me if you need anything stronger." Rose was plenty because the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree and with Holmes as colorful as he is, well, so goes the fam.

Aunt Martha told me she saw Frank Sinatra in Pittsburgh in 1943 when she was 16, before she knew what the big deal about Frankie was. She confirmed for me that girls did indeed scream through the show. Erica and I found that we were kindred souls when it comes to photography: take a zillion shots and cull the herd. Simple. Brother Jerry told me that I should have been Holmes' first choice to invite to the party. L.A. Ken posed the question: Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison?

Belmont never disappoints with food and tonight's shrimp with poached endive and avocado, short ribs with barley and root vegetables and chocolate silk pie did nothing to change my mind on that matter. Bonus points were awarded because instead of the usual 20s and 30s music, they had on the Beatles, the birthday boy's musical bedrock.

And while I'm taking a tally, let's not forget about all the holiday goings-on.

Dozens of cookies have been made, presents have been wrapped, nog has been repeatedly sipped. Despite the oddness of the weather, I'm ready now to join the Whos down in Who-Ville in singing, "Welcome Christmas." And Spring, apparently.

It's all good. I don't think I've ever worn a sundress on Christmas Eve. And shiny walls are festive, no?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hear the Whistling

Sometimes we're so flippin' Mayberry you have to just embrace the charm.

Christmas shopping in Carytown Saturday, I'd spotted a find on Chop Suey's dollar book table, but because I was out on my walk at the time, I had zero ducats with me. Only problem is you can't get dollar books with plastic. It's cash money only.

Behind the counter, owner Ward had told me to take the book and pay me the dollar next time I saw him. Unwilling to wait for that eventuality, I head over there on my walk today, strolling through the deserted Fan and marveling at how everything already feels so holiday-like with few cars between the holiday-themed red and green lights and even fewer people on the streets.

But inside Chop Suey, things are lively with late shoppers, so I sidle up to the register and extend a one dollar bill in the general direction of Ward. Without missing a beat, he remembers why I'm there.

Thank you, he tells me enthusiastically before I have time to say the same to him. We exchange sincere wishes for happy holidays.

How many shopkeepers would be so trusting, even on a small purchase? I feel like I've just stopped by Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve. Hot dog!

Richmond may not be a small town, but we've been known to play one awfully convincingly. I'm a sucker for a good charm offensive.

Start the Day on a Swingset

Three nights in a row of music married to comedy. It's practically a Christmas miracle.

Call it heart-warming, the way talented people are going out of their way to entertain those of us who haven't left town and don't have holiday parties to go to.

Waiting for the back room to open, I got caught up in a conversation about the pros and cons of technology with a younger guy who had a rationalization for every point about the negative effects of technology. So what if people don't converse as much? Hey, more time to research on the Internet, he insists.

The only concession he makes is that in his peer group, if people are talking and there's a silence, everyone immediately goes to their screen. Silence means they're bored and need stimulus. "We're not too good on social interaction."

You realize your people are doomed, I inquire politely enough. He grins "We're all gonna die, so what does it matter?"

There's the old fighting spirit.

Eventually he admits that he works in IT and brags about an app he's developed which allows the user to put in a neighborhood and find out pertinent details about the bars there. And by pertinent, he's talking things such as the energy level, the age range of patrons and whether there's dancing or karaoke.

Cute, sure, but as I inform him, I already know all that information about most of the places in the city, so I've no earthly use for his app. As it turn out, neither do other locals, but visitors and tourists are a different story.

When I got up from the bar to find a seat in the back, my new friend joins me as the room filled up quickly for the Brunswick Christmas Extravaganza, an original Christmas tale told by a big band and friends. Santa hat-clad bandleader John Hulley had dreamed up a whole scenario of the band at an imaginary cabin (Tuckaway Lodge, get it?) in the snow-covered woods trying to put on a show.

Think Mickey and Judy (go ahead and Google it, kids, I'll wait).

I gotta say, it was a festive-looking band with various members dressing the part in Christmas sweaters, a wreath bow instead of a bow tie, a sweater that lit up, even a string of lights on a trombone.

It was every bit as corny as it sounds and perfectly delightful at the same time. Anything that begins with Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" played by a 12-piece band is off to an excellent start.

From there, a Christmas music sampler alternated with skits such as a mailman played by singer Kelli Strawbridge delivering John mail at the remote cabin, only to take over the mic - "I got this covered" - when he hears the band is about to do James Browns' "Soulful Christmas."

Who better to play a Santa-wannabe who looks more like a bum with attitude than Balliceaux's music guru, Chris Bopst? Perennial toothpick in mouth, and looking a little like the Grinch, he explains to the bandleader that he's the replacement for the guy he hired for the show. "He had a few problems, girlfriend got pregnant, kids are screaming, you know."

Charlie Brown was channeled when bassist Cameron Ralston got "Christmas Time is Here" started and I was reminded how terrific that song sounds live after hearing it a million times recorded. Reggie Pace nailed the triangles and other percussion in the song and did it looking like a sharp-dressed man in a lavender shirt and tie under a black vest.

Listening to the lovely Sam Reed, radiant in a long red gown, sing "The Christmas Song" was almost as good as hearing Nat King Cole sing it, although it didn't hurt that she was three feet from my face. I'd call it a perfect holiday moment.

The reliably funny Josh Blubaugh from Richmond Comedy Coalition must have drawn the short straw because he played the Sugar Plum Fairy dressed, incidentally, in a hot dog costume, to the kickin' Duke Ellington arrangement of Tchaikovsky's dance of the sugar plum fairy, the "Sugar Rum Cherry."

Words can't adequately convey both the hilarity and the pure pleasure of sitting in Balliceaux listening to a classic composer's music channeled through a black musical pioneer while a large man with a beard dances around the seated audience. The premise was trumpet player Sam Koff's dream sequence (brought on by experiments to create the perfect Christmas cocktail) a la "Nutcracker," but with tequila in hand, it was practically transcendent.

Then, oh, no, there was a power outage at the Tuckaway! Fortunately, staff scrambled around setting up candles and the yellow stool next to me, which had been labeled, "Reserved! NOT a seat!" suddenly had four votives casting flattering candlelight my way while the band played "Silent Night."

But poor John was bummed that guests wouldn't make it for their Christmas show (which he'd dubbed "Home for the Hulley-days," causing the band to shout out that they had not agreed on that), so Reggie left the percussion onstage to come  play the Linus role and remind John what Christmas is all about and it's not a packed audience.

Kind of brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it?

Before closing with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," John shared that he'd spent the afternoon making 15 or 20 Brunswick Christmas ornaments. "Please take one. I painted them for you."

When the song ended, the crowd jumped up clapping and John, clearly thrilled with the reception to and success of his writing and conducting endeavor, threw his Santa hat up in the air. It landed neatly on my shoulder in the second row, where I left it as I applauded along with the rest of the room.

When I return it to its rightful owner, he proclaims it a Christmas miracle. Nah, it's more that taking someone's Christmas hat is wrong, just wrong.

You see, friends, here in Richmond, our big bands not only dream up Christmas variety shows and execute them flawlessly, they take the time to hand-paint Christmas tree ornaments for us to take home as a memory. Brooklyn only wishes it was half as mind-blowingly sincere.

Would you believe
I got peace of mind
And I'll be groovin'
At Christmas time

And that perfect Christmas cocktail I'll have in hand as I groove? Chances are it'll be a Sugar Rum Cherry.

Monday, December 21, 2015

You Are Dreaming

Holiday hustle and bustle, my ass. I'm losing track of where I've been and what's still left to do.

One thing that got crossed off my to-do list was a sunny road trip to Williamsburg for research.

There I meet a restaurant owner whose son is having his reception there tonight (I spot the large silver sparkly letters spelling out "Mr. and Mr." through the doors of the charming enclosed patio), making her a bit harried trying to find enough time to be both mother of the bride in full preparation mode and a restaurant owner.

Three guys in a British pub argue vehemently about the proper ingredients for chili while I eat a bowl of the house black bean and beef chili and eavesdrop. A local walking by advises me, suggesting I try an osteria because, "You can't beat it for the money." I like how the plastic enclosure on the patio is so heavy it looks like old-fashioned wavy glass (cue Ye Olde Paul's Deli).

It's been a good week for timely train rides and a belly dancer with undulating hips and a sword balanced on her head.

When I say I'm going to Lulu's for a band, everyone at Pizza Tonight is surprised to learn they occasionally do weekend live music, but when I mosey over for The League of Space Pirates 3rd annual "There's No Winter in Space" non-denominational holiday special, no one is surprised to see a heathen like me in attendance.

Besides, I'm all about celebrating the winter solstice or anything to bring on even an extra minute of daylight every day. Let guitar and bass duo Flashlight Tag sing it into being so and I will watch.

I've noticed I make it difficult for some people. Walking briskly past a guy on Broad Street, he asks if he can walk with me. I assure him he can't keep up. "I would try!" he insists, then proves he can't. Walking towards GWAR bar with a fellow film and music enthusiast, I hear from behind me, "You're walking too fast for a guy with a sore foot."

Surely it's okay to razz a 42-year old about already having old man-itis, isn't it?

I hope all the photographers I know are capturing Mother Nature's rare December pageantry. Every day I pass rose bushes covered in fragrant flowers. Entire hedges of pink and white azaleas are in full bloom around the Siegel Center. In my own yard, I currently have dianthus, daisies and geraniums blooming. A musician friend and I spend time marveling at now meaningless traditional rules of what to plant when.

Best rapper line comes from local Noah-O, who, when he spots a plastic squirt gun on the stage, leans down and exclaims, "Oh, shit, I'm not a rapper without this," and tucks it in his waistband.

I'm inordinately happy to be told that my Style Weekly piece on the Historical Society's new "Dressing Downtown Abbey" exhibit is up and getting good reads. The way some of us see it, beautiful dresses never go out of style.

Nor, apparently, do cool threads. The members of a band covering vintage '60s and '70s music dress like it's 1967. I'm particularly taken with the white and gray striped bell bottoms the guitarist is wearing, but they're all looking pretty groovy singing "Dance to the Music" as people do.

Three days, four bands, the poetry of a pie with Calbrese and a glass of Sangiovese, late night fried bologna served on the bartender's penultimate shift and the distinct pleasure of listening to my now-functional car CD player and specifically, my favorite Swedish export, the Shout Out Louds.

Unbeknownst to anyone, it was their "Time Left for Love" that provided the name for this blog.

The rumor said it was a serial killer
But they got hit by a Caterpillar
You know the engine was still on
I smashed a window, I could go on...

And on, as you may have noticed. Keep up if you can.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

That's Just the Way We Get By

Well, all you winter whiners, I hope you're happy. I'm freezing.

Walking west against the wind to Carytown this morning to do some holiday procurement required significant layering, leather gloves and adherence to the sunny side of the street.

In Mongrel, where they were practically operating on a one-in and one-out basis, I ran into a woman who used to work for me as an editor, a woman I hadn't seen in 15 years. She surprised and delighted me by saying that she's always noticing my byline, but I know that it's only because of her writing background that she does.

Joe Average, I've learned, rarely notices bylines.

Across the street at Chop Suey, I scored a book for a present, then went upstairs to shop at the Bizarre Market where I not only found a gift, but also heard one of the most romantic songs of all time, Talking Heads' "Naive Melody" and was entered into a drawing to win an overnight at Quirk Hotel.

Granted, it's only four blocks from my apartment, so if I win I'll just think of it as a neighborhood sleepover.

Walking home was so much more pleasant with the wind behind me that I detoured to Deep Groove, crowded with people and dogs, to browse the bins for a gift. At the counter, the owner asked me if I'd found what I'd been looking for. No, I hadn't seen what I'd come in for, so I was buying this.

Don't you know he led me over to a back bin, located a used album by the band I'd mentioned and handed it to me after he peeled off the sale price. "I'll throw this one in," he said. "The album cover's in bad shape but the record's in good shape."

Sure, the one I was paying for cost ten times as much as the one he was giving me, but still. I had to ask why the two-fer."That's how we do things around here," he said and smiled.

Holy Cindy Lou Who, how Christmas-spirited can you get?

At home I wrapped some presents using a sheet of wrapping paper that had been included in the DC City Paper I'd picked up when I was in Washington last week. If I'd known, I'd have picked up a couple more.

You could call it gift wrap with an attitude - black background with silver sketches of candy canes, girls with guitars slung over their shoulders, holly leaves, sunglasses, tubes, your typical hipster trappings tied up with ribbons and a gift tag.

And speaking of attitude, I accidentally stumbled across the brouhaha lighting up Facebook about what was going on at Hardywood today with the Kentucky Christmas Morning release, reading how people had stood in line for five hours only for them to run out of the new release because they'd upped the limit from two per person to six.

Those who'd gotten in line early crowed about scoring beer while those who'd felt safe coming later given the higher bottle limit felt screwed. Some people got home to find they'd been given Apple Brandy Gingerbread stout instead of Kentucky Morning and, boy, were they pissed and, because it's the Internet, no one was holding back online.

To be clear, all this anger and judging was about beer. Santa doesn't appreciate name-calling this close to Christmas, kids.

I put off the most odious chore of the day as long as possible, finishing some writing, reading the paper, hemming a skirt on my vintage sewing machine (because it's a rare dress or skirt I buy at the thrift store that doesn't need to be shorter) before I just made myself do it.

Go to the (shudder) mall.

Believe me, I didn't want to, but I had no choice. More than once, I've been that unfortunate soul who has to go to the grocery store the day before a prediction of snow solely because I'm almost completely out of toilet paper or milk, unlike the kooks who are in there stocking up for excitement's sake as if Richmond's going to have a blizzard.

I've been putting off going to Victoria's Secret for new underwear for far too long, so long that now I had no other option but to go shopping on the last Saturday before Christmas. Inside the store, it wasn't pretty. Decorative displays had been replaced by explosions of undergarments on every surface.

Desperate-looking guys begged salesgirls to assist them while women in packs discussed everything from just the right wedding night attire to where the money came from that the younger of two teen-aged sisters was using to buy a thong ("I thought you only had $9? Where did you get enough money for a $12 thong anyway?" big sister demanded to know while Mom rolled her eyes and looked exhausted).

Waiting in line behind six other people, I had no one to blame but myself. Unlike the Hardywood crowd, I'd already accepted whatever unpleasantries resulted from my late arrival. This ain't no beer line.

Productive day. New underwear secured. Everyone has their Christmas priorities.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Nothing's More Than Words

Don't talk to me about the local economy.

Local is winning $10 (and a VHS copy of "Ernest: Volume 1", but that's another story) playing bingo (third win in as many months) at Gallery 5 and days later turning around and giving those same ten bills to Richmond Comedy Coalition two blocks away for "Musical, the Improvised Musical."

Just keepin' it in the 'hood, which, by the way, is uncharacteristically low-key with nary a band practicing or porch of beer drinkers to be seen as I walked from place to place in the windy cold. The liveliest thing I passed was a bunch of West End types hugging and saying "Merry Christmas" to each other in front of Max's on Broad and that's a pretty sad state for affairs in J-Ward.

For the record, it was a distinctive crowd at RCC because when asked how many people had already seen "Star Wars," very few raised their hands. "Oh, wow!" our host exclaimed, clearly surprised at the absence of pop culture slaves. "Don't say anything!" a guy in the front row admonished.

Don't spoil it, in other words. The theme for the evening, as it turned out.

Few evenings have gotten off to as fine a start as hearing earnest duo Chet and Steve do the unlikeliest of power ballads considering they were a couple of high school sophomores. Midway through Extreme's "More Than Words," I was sorely regretting not having a Bic lighter with me to show my devotion 1990-style, while fully cognizant that no one in the room would have any idea why I was doing it.

Best line afterwards was Chet asking rhetorically, "This is a comedy show, right?"

Because the audience's first suggestion - Ebola - had been used just last week, the improv musical cast solicited a second and that's how we landed on "Star Wars Spoilers" as the name of the musical they were about to create before our eyes.

That meant everything from a waiting room full of mothers singing "Moms Can Be Bitches" to a couple of guys who spend their lives putting TV show and movie spoilers out into the ether. Their motto was, "How can we ruin it for others?" so their song was "We're Trolls" with accompanying hand and facial gestures.

The goal is comedy, after all.

The entire cast joined together for the musical extravaganza, "It's Like They Don't Know Us," a lamentation for the significant others who are clueless about present-buying come Christmas time ("It's been three weeks and two dates! Come on, check my Tinder profile!").

Most importantly, we all got through the evening without finding out how Princess Leia wears her hair in the new movie. Now that was a close one.

Childhood flashbacks followed at Comfort where I arrived just in time for their new late night burger, a masterful layering of burger, fried bologna and cheese, grilled onions and Duke's mayo, along with some Espolon.

While there was no tequila in my childhood, there were scores of fried bologna and cheese sandwiches and all my memories are good ones. Tonight's match and even exceed, probably thanks to the onions. Along the way, the barkeep and I agree to have no more awkward moments.

Honestly, I didn't even want the burger, just the other ingredients on a bun, but the late night burger comes as a matched set, a fact disappointing to the Philly woman next to me who doesn't do dairy. Too bad, doll. I did share a bite with the couple at the end of the bar because I'd heard her asking about it  and now she's my devoted slave.

As if that wasn't enough to make me blissful, the music was way too good to be satellite or Spotify, so I had to ask and got a story as good as the tunes.

Former cook and enormous music nerd (and by music nerd, I was told he had an entire room with shelves on all four walls for albums so when his girlfriend insisted he stop buying music, he began having his purchases sent to Comfort) makes multiple play lists for the restaurant, then quits and leaves various mixes.

We're listening to the dance mix, notable, I'm told, because the cook was a shy, awkward guy you'd never imagine dancing. "I had to know what his idea of dance music was," the bartender tells me. Now, he admits, it's easily his favorite mix.

Mixing lesser artists with great hooks (When In Rome's "The Promise') with classic grooves (Talking Heads), it's the best kind of dance mix, not dance music per se, but songs that make body parts move involuntarily.

A fabulous enough mix to accompany a fried bologna and cheese sandwich and that's saying something. In words, no less...'cause sometimes you need more than a Bic lighter.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Cue Theme from "The Love Boat"

Like Julie on "The Love Boat" but not so wholesome.

I was in my 20s when I was first dubbed "cruise director" by family and friends, who even presented me with a t-shirt spelling out that moniker in sparkly letters. And, no, I was no more the sparkly letter type then than I am now.

It wasn't because of anything to do with travel over water, mind you, but because I enjoy researching travel plans. I'm that person who will happily devour a couple of travel guides in pursuit of knowledge.

When I went to Memphis and Oxford with a friend earlier this year, she left cruise directing in my hands and later marveled at how much I'd uncovered for us to do.

So it was a no-brainer to use my train ride to Richmond today to gather intel for my upcoming trip. So far, I've found far more I want to see and do than there could possibly be time for, a first world problem if ever there was one. The way I look at it, better to have too long a list than too short.

Amazing what a person can accomplish on Amtrack's Quiet Car (yes, the same Quiet Car Chris Christie was thrown off of for talking on his cell phone). Where to start? Where to stop?

A literary walking tour that includes poetic focaccia (and I have to know)

An oyster company with half price oysters twice a week for happy hour (because I can eat some bivalves)

A garden featuring 150 plants and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's writings

A western saloon located in an alley and serving lamb pot pie and bone marrow fritters (howdy, pardner)

A Victorian camera obscura projecting outdoor seascapes on a parabolic screen

A restaurant design that won a James Beard award

A sea cave archway that offers end of the world views at low tide (not to self: check tide charts)

A bowling alley that does Soul and Bowl nights (so stoked for this)

A vintage tiki lounge with rattan booths serving Hurricanes with two straws

Communal baths where bathing suits are only required on co-ed Tuesdays (better not to take my suit?)

A dive bar with cheap drinks, pogo-worthy music in the back room and peanuts for eating and throwing

A live music bar in a Victorian hotel, a stalwart of the '70s underground scene and now host to indie label debuts

A park dedicated to a poet laureate with awe-inspiring vistas

A beach shack bistro near a nine-mile ocean beach (this could be an entire day lost)

An art bar with rotating installations and regular Prince/Michael Jackson nights (Purple Thriller, yes!)

And don't get me started on museums, architecture, rooftops gardens and viewing platforms.

Besides, all that just might show up in upcoming  posts, complete with details, conversations and conclusions. Consider this the movie trailer version set to the rhythms of a rocking train.

Just don't call me Julie.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Let It Happen

Sitting here eating dark chocolate with sea salt - not because it's National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day, which it is, but because - a few things occur to me.

It's tough to keep up. How is it I am just now hearing about boozy advent calendars? A friend just got her annual whisky version (Drinks by the Dram), according to her an "awesome way to taste the good stuff," but assures me it also comes in a tequila version. Liquor as learning tool...or holiday coping aid, your choice.

Biscuits may move, but burgers are forever. It's a knowing friend who messages, "I will pick you up at 12:45 and treat you to your fave, Roy's big burger." Of course we eat lunch in the car, just like everyone else in the parking lot. Early Bird may be ditching Lakeside for the Fan, but Roy's will never leave. Fact.

Gift-wrapping is a zen practice. A skill learned at my mother's practiced knee and honed briefly in the Gift Wrap department of the Hecht Co. in college, wrapping presents is both mindless and productive. Truth is, it's really all about the loud music playing while I wrap.

First was a BBC recording of Bob Moses, a Canadian duo I've been mad about for the past few months, introduced to me by Holmes for its Bryan Ferry-set-to-dance-beats vibe. I certainly heard that in listening repeatedly, so I'm a tad surprised to hear the band say that they were influenced by the grunge of their youth, but not that they were influenced by the likes of The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy.

We'd better be teaching young people about a badass like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They should know her response to when there'd be enough women on the Supreme Court. " My answer is when there are nine. There's been nine men and nobody's ever raised a question about that." Imagine how many things might be different if all the justices were XX. It boggles the mind.

There are new ways of looking at "It's A Wonderful Life" live. Violet was practicing Vamping 101 while still in elementary school. That swimming pool scene is like the swimming pool scene in "Rocky Horror" but not. Ernie kissing Bert on the head is a problem because Bedford Falls doesn't cotton to that kind of thing. Like Annie the maid, Mr. Martini is one of the cherished ethnic stereotypes allowed to live in Bedford Falls.

Like a date, you know within the first five to ten minutes whether you're going to like a band's sound. Sure, sometimes you have to warm up to an album, but in general, you have a gut feeling after a song or two. With something like the new Tame Impala, I am in lust before the first song is half over and the successive songs only cement my love.

Best of all, it shows growth. I really liked the last album, but this new one is different, the guitars dialed way back or non-existent. Like a partner who continues to evolve, the sound has developed and with it, exponentially, my devotion.

And because I can be a serial record listener, it's been on repeat all day, which is nothing. Weeks and even months aren't uncommon. If I like a record enough, I'll want to listen to nothing but it until I've heard enough to sate me, enough to understand or at least ask questions. Let's call it dog with bone syndrome.

Holidays are highly personal. During my personal wrapping/listening party, it occurs to me that the most wonderful way to begin the 25th would be a Christmas morning listening party and breakfast. I'm not sure if it's been done, but I love the thought of people coming over to eat with me and bring music they love while I do the same. There would be so much to talk about.

Nothing else on the agenda but using our ears and mouths to celebrate some sort of Festivus. It would be the ideal follow-up to Jolabokaflod, that Icelandish holiday where people give each other books on Christmas Eve and then spend the rest of the night reading. I love how geeky that makes Iceland sound.

Then wake up and come to my house for breakfast, but be sure to bring music that makes you feel as happy as the fried bologna and cheese sandwiches of my childhood made me. Book discussions optional but not unwelcome.

Don't forget to RSVP because it is a wonderful life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Impossible As It May Seem

In my book, the gold standard of road music cruising is the Bodeans, so when "Good Things" comes on the radio, I am as happy as I can be driving east in winter.

Sunlight fall down on the fields
Sunlight fall down over me
Work all day, be all that I can be

The Back Street Boys' "Quit Playing Games With My Heart" is a guilty pleasure song (and co-written by the omnipresent Swede, Max Martin, to my surprise), while hearing Rod Stewart's whiny "You're in My Heart" reminds me of eating breakfast in Vico Equense, Italy where Rod's greatest hits played every morning as I ate breakfast, the sole occupant of the dining room overlooking  Mount Vesuvius.

Once I get far enough out in the sticks, I see seasonal signs, one misspelled, reading "Christmas candie is here!" and the other at Thomas' Store proclaiming, "Old-fashioned Christmas candy." Growing up, Mom always ordered a tin of Jingle Bits, an assortment of hard candy, from the milk man. Milk who? Look it up, kids.

A church sign reads, "Slow down! Keep the Christ in Christmas" and I am left to wonder if the two are related. Cause I'm all about the first and at odds with the second. Come on, Christmas long ago became a pagan holiday for plenty of people, nothing more than a winter celebration falling a few days after the darkest and briefest day of the year.

Candy-making and cookie-baking are on the agenda at my parents' house on the Northern Neck, so I'm surprised when I walk in to find a nephew from Maryland there to help my Dad set up their new mondo TV.

There's a line in White Christmas when Bing Crosby's character says, "I know it sounds crazy, Al, but you're working for crazy people." There was a point today when I said to my nephew, "I know it sounds crazy, nephew, but you're related to crazy people."

You see, the reason my parents wanted a bigger TV is because my Dad moved their chairs - their "thrones," their stations from which their worlds emanate - further from the TV because it made the room look better (Mom's words). So in pursuit of feng shui, they discovered that their octogenarian eyes required a larger set because it would be too simple to merely return the chairs to where they and their predecessors sat comfortably for 30 years.

I call this "eccentric as you wanna be" and leave it at that.

After a fried chicken lunch, my nephew announces he intends to head down to the dock to "sink a pole" so I join him, doing nothing more than lazing on a bench while he relentlessly casts a line and schools me about.lures versus bait. We keep hearing fish jumping, but he never catches anything.

Given the gorgeous afternoon, we're both completely happy to do nothing more than talk while we squint into the sun for an hour.

Back at the house, he and Dad start talking about the fish that got away and I overhear Dad offer him his surf rods, an unspoken acknowledgment that he won't be doing any more surf fishing in this lifetime. Just as I'm getting a little choked up about this, Dad launches into one of his trademark tales, as always, tailored to the subject.

He informs nephew that one day he and his buddy are out at the ocean's edge when he spots a school of bluefish in a feeding frenzy. "They'll bite anything when they're feeding like that," Dad tells his buddy and then pulls the pop top off a can of PBR and attaches it to his fishing line like a lure. Moments after tossing it in, he reels it in with a blue on the line, his point proven.

I tell him I'm amazed I've never heard this story before and not the least surprised at his making use of the nearest beer can. "That's nothing," he says. "People used to make bracelets out of those things!"

Is anyone really surprised that pop top jewelry was a thing in the late '70s?

In between baking three kinds of cookies wearing a red and green Christmas apron over bike shorts, I 'm asked to make fudge as a gift for my aunt from my Mom. When I inquire if we're making old-fashioned fudge, the kind she'd taught me to make as a child, she laughs, saying she long ago switched to making microwave fudge.

What? No soft ball stage? No endless stirring? No two-hour cooling? Horrors! I refuse to participate in such a travesty.

Instead I insist we make real fudge, despite it taking half the day. Over the course of the afternoon, Mom winds up sharing a story of how when she was in junior high school, they used to have parties where kids would get together to do three things: make fudge, make taffy and pop popcorn.

How wholesome can you get? Sounds like something out of a Judy Garland movie to me.

The fudge turns out so lusciously it could have made a shy junior high kid popular. Dozens of cookies are tucked into bags and containers, but only after Mom and I differ on how Hershey Kisses should top peanut butter cookies.

The funniest part is her reminding me, "We have this same disagreement every year."

Whatever. Smells like Christmas tradition to me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lickin' the Barn Floor

Because I live in a city where a trio of mounted policemen and women trot along beside me on Franklin Street.

And then there's how I teach a stranger who thought he didn't like liver to rave about duck liver mousse on thick Sub Rosa bread when I share mine. Not once, but twice: after he eats it and again as he's leaving.

For the first time in my life, a man actually says to me, "Are you double ducking tonight?" To be clear, I was not and told him so.

Playing that classic parlor game "Two Degrees of Separation in RVA" with a bearded stranger from Charlottesville (who's silly enough to describe a friend in Richmond as having a mustache as if that's a distinguishing factor), we discover that I not only know his best friend's ex who works there (and the reason he came), but I've been to the restaurant where he tends bar as well the one where I know the chef he used to work with. I've even picked up the C-Ville Weekly for which he writes.

Attempting to best my "Richmond is so small a town that..." stories, he shares how he and his wife once went to a bar in Charlottesville only to find that both of their exes were tending bar. Both also refused to serve them. He scores and wins.

That, friends, is a small town.

Because I eat this and it rocks my world, although no words will be able to convey how sublime the combination was. Imagine using earthy Meadow Creek Grayson cheese to make a silky espuma and then using it to coat buttery mixed lettuces, autumnal fruit, apple cider vinegar and for textural contrast, ginger snaps.

(Eyes roll back in her head) All I can say is, that's a hell of a cheese course.

Then there's how the beauty of going to an all-ages show is for the reminder of what today's children look like. They are adorable, each with a crude "X" on both hands and, for the most part, appear tragically awkward and aware of it. I think this makes them post-modern.

As a guy in a t-shirt reading "Drink Wisconsinbly" points out, "At least this is something for them to do."

Agreed. If there are kids who want to listen to music created by a female poet and filtered through the likes of Pavement, more power to them. It certainly suits me. Besides, I was owed.

A couple of years ago, I'd been picking up an Apology - that was ham, turkey, bacon and mayo between two grilled cheese sandwiches - at Strange Matter and while waiting for my obscene order, started talking to the musicians at the bar eating dinner.

They turned out to be Massachusetts band Speedy Ortiz, but I already had plans for the evening (hence the front-loading of the Apology) and missed their show. An album later, I catch them.

Because girl power executed intelligently and compellingly - with the front door propped wide open to the warm night air - is always a welcome start to the week.

Even when I'm not double ducking.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Happy Monday, Stay Beautiful

It wasn't the words he was singing so much as that he was on the phone when I rounded the corner. "I'll call you back," the stranger says into his phone.

And then he starts singing at the top of his lungs.

She's got legs, she knows how to use them
She never begs, she knows how to choose them
She's got a dime, all of the time
Stays out at night, moving through time

I keep moving down Fifth Street, but do a full turn to salute him in thanks, netting me a spoken word compliment before he goes back to singing. "Your legs are as gorgeous as your face."

Shorts weather has been very, very good to me this December.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Yippee-Ki-Yay, Comrade

Just another December day chock full of sewing, sunshine and silent movies in the heart of hipsterdom.

Still Life with Clementines and Pincushion

Driving to southside with the windows down, I'm listening to Juliana Hatfield singing "Everybody Loves Me But You" likes it's 1992 again.

Beauty and brains are all that I've got
I've got a cold, cold bed and a broken heart

South of the river I find a friend playing gardener while I set up camp sewing on her screened-in porch, somehow sure that Richmond women have a long history of sewing aprons on porches and that I'm merely the latest in a long line of needle-pushers doing so.

I bring along my Shaker pincushion and my friend immediately pegs it for an '80s purchase, which it was.

Because the right tool for the job is essential, I'm using a Kenmore sewing machine circa 1970, back when they were still made of metal and not plastic. It's remarkably similar to the '68 Singer my Washington, D.C. grandmother taught me to sew on, which I still have.

Despite J. Roddy Walston's admonishment, I do manage to break the needle, but replace it like the pro that my grandmother taught me to be.

I dip out as my friend begins preparing dinner from a new recipe for her homecoming warrior who's been off for a fortnight's hunting (deer) and gathering (tall tales probably), apron duty accomplished.

All the Young Middle-Aged Dudes

Hard labor behind me, I primp to go out, recalling a peculiar conversation I had with a favorite bassist the other night. Topic: big hair. That descriptor's been thrown my way plenty and the bassist cops to a full-on "Jew- boy 'fro" when his stylist-to-the-stars goes on vacation, meaning we both know the pain of a big 'do with nowhere to go and being crowded by clothing and scarves.

As men go, he's the exception who gets that. Hell, he mentioned it first.

The Byrd was filling up as I walked in to find lots of familiar faces to say hello to - Mike, Trent, Todd, Don, James, Nate, Josh - all suspiciously male. When I note as much to a former editor buying Non-Pareils ("They're really the movie standard," the concession girls pronounces) while I purchase popcorn, his response is, "Now you're here to balance us all out."

Not my job.

Of course a screening of Chaplin's "The Kid" with legendary guitarist Marc Ribot is going to attract every guitar geek over 30 who knows he's played with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, et al. As for the visuals, I'd already seen the movie at the Silent Music Revival back in April 2013 with Wolf//Goat improvising a soundtrack.

A guy sitting alone in the row in front of me must have been a Byrd virgin because as I sat down, he was snapping photos of the large popcorn wedged between his thighs. Odd, I thought, but eventually, he turned his phone up to document the chandelier as well and I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

If I am to be honest here, the movie was a bit of a blur, not for any reason you might readily guess but because the entire day was. I only had one contact lens in. Getting lost in the musical score to a plot I already knew was as effortless as it was enjoyable as he nailed the moods of the story on his guitar.

Waling out afterwards, a guitarist friend summed it up. "That may be the best thing I experienced the entire year." And that's saying a lot considering how fab this town is these days. As a photographer and chicken owner neatly observed to me yesterday, "We sold out Dream Syndicate. In Richmond!" And it was amazing, as we both had seen.

So it was dark but not late when I left the Byrd. Movie Club was showing "Diehard" and I think we can all agree on what a Christmas Eve classic that is, but the timing didn't work with Silent Music Revival at Gallery 5, so I had to give up seeing Bruce Willis save mankind.

Vamp Him

It was worth it, though, because the SMR organizers had turned G5 into somebody's Christmas rec-room with a fake fire, Christmas lights strung along the stage and a live tree top decorated in a container. The neighbor's tree had been too tall, so when he sliced off the top, my friends had adopted it as their micro-Christmas tree.

Reuse and recycle, friends.

The grooviest of J-Ward neighbors were in the house with their friend, a petite woman who happens to be a stonemason and shared wildly immature things men have done to her on the job. As she put it, what grade are you in anyway?

Best random thing said to me by the guy to my right: "Never take acid and watch that film." Duly noted.

We were treated to a series of holiday shorts with Antiphons improvising along through drama (Scrooge-like rich neighbor and large, happy poor family), my second viewing of "The Insects' Christmas" (2011, also at SMR), a film I called a classic, garnering many laughs when organizer Jameson repeated it, and "The Snow Man" that starts sweet and goes south quickly as he becomes a snow monster who eats small animals and eventually gets a sword in the anus.

But my favorite would have to be "Soviet Toys," a Soviet propaganda film with a Christmas tree made of soldiers who hang various people so that the workers can rise to the top and presumably do egg nog shots in celebration.

The kind of film where you'll feel guilty for contributing to a capitalistic society by eating Non Pareils while a farm-wave sad rock band plays.

Chances are, the kind of film that could go either way on acid. Your call.

My Back Pages

Well, greenhouse gasses have given this man a 70-degree birthday. I think I'm happy about that?

Nick was far from the only person talking about the weather today because, much as everyone is totally digging this sudden shorts and convertible weather, it is less than two weeks until Christmas and some people just can't reconcile flip flops and sleigh bells.

Of course, to former denizens of Bermuda and Mexico, December was never jacket weather. Poinsettias are warm weather plants, don't you know?

So the first order of the day is opening up all the windows, not that I had the heat on last night anyway. By the time I return sweaty and happy from my walk, the afternoon warmth is making my front rooms the most gorgeous place on earth.

There's a large blue mason jar of hydrangea blooms (hello, global warning) on the mantle in the living room. A pile of aprons, a sewing project, is just the right shade of blue to coordinate with colors of the chair they rest on, as sun streams through the open window and past the hot pink geranium blooming on the sill.

One thing's for sure and Truman Capote could attest to it if he were still alive: Despite the calendar saying December, it most certainly does not smell like fruitcake weather.

When a friend comes to collect me for the afternoon, I can't resist teasing him about his sub-arctic attire: shirt and sweater and heavy pants that look ridiculous next to my shorts and t-shirt. How is it possible a man constantly tethered to his device is completely unaware of the forecast (his excuse for wearing everything but a snowsuit), especially such an atypical one for December?

I Christmas shop, I wrap presents, I walk over to Saison for a stocking stuffer and wind up running into one of those inane food tours where people clump together taking pictures of shelves of beer, but the consolation prize is a short cocktail of bubbles and vermouth that lacks only a drunken cherry. It's worth noting that it also makes the afternoon sun a bit sparklier.

We are a mere ten days until the Winter Solstice when the days begin to get incrementally longer. This is a very big deal to me, a ray of hope during my least favorite season, yet when I mention this to someone, they express surprise. "Really? I didn't even realize when that happens." I marvel at this.

For the second time in recent days, another chef laments his insane December schedule which allows for a) no sleep and b) no life. At least the money's good, I like to say.

Arteries close in surrender to every bite of crostini dipped in foie gras spinach dip, a funky French twist on an American party classic. And 'tis the season for parties. A spotted quail's egg atop beef tartare qualifies my plate's presentation for cutest on the table, but I'd also have to say that the vibrant colors of my butternut squash and beet salad adorned with pea shoots make it the prettiest.

While I can relate verbatim entire passages of "White Christmas," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Holiday Inn" and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," I am completely without knowledge of more obscure Christmas pieces such as Capote's short story and subsequent productions of "Holiday Memories" about his childhood celebrations in Alabama during the '30s, simpler times that involved handmade ornaments and gifts and making fruitcakes for the likes of FDR and Eleanor.

To me, such memories emanate from a galaxy far, far away, since at no time in my life span can I recall knowing of people who actually made fruitcakes, or, for that matter, cared to eat them. I did have a chef wanna-be friend in D.C. in the '80s who always made rumtopf and invited friends over to indulge in it at Christmastime. But fruitcakes? Never.

I remember as a child being thrilled with a gift of fudge - all for me - made by my aunt. These days, I make the fudge that my Mom gives to her sister, completing the circle. In college, I hand-painted little wooden ornaments, the better to craft "natural" decor for my tree, many of which which I still use. There was a time when I began Christmas shopping in September, not the middle of December, and definitely not wearing shorts or being offered a mimosa while doing it.

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

Or perhaps that's just the way I'm remembering things. We live in the hope of becoming memories. Like Nick the birthday boy, I think I'm happy about that.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

A History of Her Own

Random Friday thoughts, in no particular order.

That moment  when you hear a DJ say, "A love song like no other," before she plays Modern English's "Melt With You," a sentiment I agree with and a song I've danced to probably more than any other.  The subsequent moment when she identifies herself and you realize you used to know her and that you've danced to that song with her.

A disco nap from 7-8 under a new-to-me comforter. I've never thought of myself as the floral type, but I'm flexible.

No judging. None. So what if a 30-something I know tells me he's to the point where he buys only subsequent albums of bands he already knows? "The kids" - his terminology for his younger tech startup co-workers - know all the new stuff, he claims, but it's already too much for him to keep up with. As recently as 2008, he had told me his best show ever was Daft Punk in Paris and now he's abandoned new music to the kids. I don't need to be concerned, right?

Hey, lady! How you? Doing anything this evening? My friend asked about you ;)

Two more examples of Richmond's cool:
1) Like any top ten museum in the country, the VMFA has a bar overlooking the sculpture garden. For the win, ours also has an absinthe drip because this taxpayer thinks green fairies should live in museums. #itsyourart #itsyourbar
2) Because there was a period when you could "check out" a musical suitcase and follow a map to listen to pre-recorded music at the sites for which it was written.
Read that again. You could check out a suitcase of original site-specific music.
Those list-makers don't know the half of it.

Discovering that there's a full moon Christmas night, making for a marvelous night to be in the sky.

You never know what people appreciate about you unless they tell you, so I'm thrilled to receive a missive thanking me for producing clementines, being called out, sharing navigational secrets and shooting. Of particular note, I'm not sure I've ever been appreciated for urging before.

Early scuttlebutt about the Elbys, none good. Elbys en Blanc? More like en Beige.

Could it be true? A meme explains how much of an asshole your astrological sign makes you. Tell me, is it post-modern when "What's your sign?" becomes "What's your asshole quotient?"?
Cancer: either 1% or 100%. There is no in between.
Libras 98292%.
Pisces -400%.
Leo 65%.
Virgo 64%.
Gemini 0%. SURPRISE.
I especially like that the list maker felt compelled to put SURPRISE next to my sign's 0%. We are probably annoying in many ways, but not as full-fledged assholes, it seems.

Is there anything more eye-catching than a guy in a black "America Online" jacket listening to "Stand by Me" set to strobe lights?

Listening to an extended clip on public radio of Prince playing a medley of his songs in Paris last year. Those two times I saw him in the '90s will never last me until I die.

The power of shorts on a sunny December day. "How you doin', baby girl?" from a stranger who's most likely a leg man and definitely born after I was.

DIY goes digital. A handwritten note on lined paper tied to a tree instructing the finder to photograph and post it, then move it for someone else to find. Do you see how adorable this town is?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Those lists someone is always posting, placing Richmond in the top ten or twenty of this category or another? Spare me.

Make no mistake, there is no bigger Richmond cheerleader than me. The way I see it, our own River City nails it with the exalted holy trinity: low cost of living, high quality of life and a robust scene that defies you to be bored.

As a guy recently explaining to me why he was in a darkened art gallery on a week night to hear a string quartet play the work of Latin American composers said, "I couldn't think of any reason not to come."

I feel you, brother.

That's what these lists miss when they include us and tout the same old same old. By this point, every culture slave around has heard about our architecture, our myriad galleries, our rollicking restaurant scene. Rather than name-check the obvious - Carytown, St. John's, the James River - why not hint at the extraordinary?

If I were asked to explain why Richmond ended up on a "best of" list, I'd mention happenings such as listening to a cornet quintet (say that fast five times) in a bakery after hours. As the sun goes down on a steamy summer night, musicians and music-lovers shoehorn themselves into the bakery that grows its own ancient grains to make breads that have gotten national notice and city-wide devotion.

Because that's what bakeries in Richmond are for once the "closed" sign goes up.

Certainly I'd make an example of a top restaurant that has - since Day One, mind you  - maintained a $5 chalkboard menu, meaning even the poorest freelance writer can afford a couple of memorable courses.

Surely people would be impressed to learn that there's a group who every month invites a black director to screen their short film, take questions and then participate in a group conversation about the issues raised, making for the kind of diverse and free-wheeling discussion that's necessary if we're ever going to evolve as a culture.

For years, I told people that the highlight of moving from Washington, D.C. to Richmond was that I finally got to see a parade from the front row, which is really a metaphor for the difference in big city living and here.

It's so hassle-free to access what moves you.

It's a grass-roots print collective that holds annual shows selling the work of local printmakers, making it possible for anyone to own original art and support the creative community. A $15 print not only provides eye candy for years to come, but also introduces me to artists I may want to explore.

Without a doubt, I'd share how invigorating and inspiring it is to have such incredible waterside route options for walkers, runners and bikers. I'd insist they walk the pipeline walkway both ways, that they experience the dramatic height changes of the North Bank Trail and navigate the tangled paths of Chapel Island.

Water becomes your compass.

I'd explain that "venue" is a malleable term here and Latin bands play in art galleries, world music collectives in coffee shops and punk bands thrash in record stores. Art galleries host burlesque and bingo, while comedy clubs welcome booze panels and bad horror movies. I've seen Americana shows in cabins, communes and sheds.

Rarely do any of these shindigs cost anything.

My advice to visitors who want to really get a feel for Richmond would be to go to a local book store for a reading. Sit back and let poetry wash over you and then have the poet sign your copy. Or go to a non-fiction reading and try not to gasp when you take a swig of the jarful of moonshine that's passed around. To be fair, the book being read dealt with bootleggers and stills.

To finish my list, I'd tell visitors where to get a baguette worthy of a Francophile, the best places to dance to K-Pop, hair bands or vintage soul and why it's part of our ethos to do what you love if you live here.

Because we can.

Because those "best of" lists are never written by the people who are regularly participating in Richmond's vibrant scene. Because exciting and offbeat stuff happens here every single night of the week, whether you're paying attention or not. Because if there was ever an honest list of what's so terrific about Richmond, we'd be inundated by new arrivals and we're not ready for that.

It could be the city motto: "I never expected to stay, now I can't think of any reason to leave. Richmond."

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Mele Kalikimaka in a Tiki Bowl for Two

Today's greatest regret: I missed Vermeer's "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter" by eight days.

Compensation, if not full restitution, came partially courtesy of  "Wonder," the Renwick's opening exhibition after a two-year renovation, a show ranging from Leo Villard's "Volume," an LED light installation that was really just a visual representation of binary code (making it more science than art, I thought) to Patrick Dougherty's fantastical willow structures to John Grade's "Middle Fork," a casting of a 150-year old tree that was then reconstructed using tiny blocks of cedar.

Mind blown and a mid-morning geography lesson with Maya Lin's "Folding the Chesapeake," a green glass marble installation that showed the contours of the bay and its tributaries across the floor of the gallery and up the pale green walls.

The Potomac, whoa.

Ogling the insect-patterned deep pink walls of "In the Midnight Garden" by Jennifer Angus, I overhear a woman say, "My brother lived in New Guinea and he always said I should come see the bugs and I never did."

Her loss, but now she and I both were experiencing them in patterns of flowers, skulls and arranged flitting around the room.

New Guinea, Malaysia and Thailand bugs. Bugs the size of mice. BIG bugs.

Leaving to go to the American Art Museum, I catch the strains of the only Bad Company song I truly enjoy and stop to take it in under the silvery sky I had already commented on during the drive up.

Give me silver, blue and gold
The color of the sky I'm told
My rainbow is overdue

Nothing could have pleased me more than seeing a dazzling photograph of Spike Lee as part of "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze" exhibit. Why? Because while buying tickets for Lee's "Chi-Raq" recently with a friend, a discussion ensued with strangers about the notoriously topical director.

To my astonishment, the young black woman behind the counter was clueless. "So who is this Spike Lee? All y'all seem to talk like I should know him." When I insisted that she should indeed know about Spike Lee, a guy tried to make her feel better, saying the director hadn't done anything in a while. Does. Not. Matter.

I'm sorry, young lady, but you should know who Spike Lee is. Period.

Most obscure fact gleaned from "Eye Pop"? Kobe Bryant was named after the Japanese beef. Seriously.

My estrogen got a boost from "Elaine de Kooning: Portraits," from the many images of JFK for his official portrait to her artsy crowd (the Allen Ginsberg portrait was positively poetic) to the 1957 photograph at the Cedar Bar of her, Franz Kline and poet Frank O'Hara, all three of them looking so smart and sophisticated, as only denizens of NYC in the '50s could.

"Crosscurrents: Modern Art from the Sam Rose and Julie Walters Collection" delivered Hopper, O'Keefe, Thiebaud and Picasso, among many others, while the engrossing "Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs 1859-1872" brought home familiar imagery, like the ruins of the Richmond/Petersburg bridge, the pilings of which I see regularly on my river walks.

Plus, of course, lots of photos of dead bodies.

But the war seemed far away in "Walt Whitman and His Party," a sepia-toned photograph showing Walt and his guy friends on the banks of a river during that time he came to Washington to see his brother and stayed to have an affair with a handsome young man. You know the one.

Curious about what Richmond might be offering in a few years come holiday time? A variation on Miracle on Seventh Avenue, most likely.

When last I visited, it had been a sherry and ham bar, but until Christmas Eve, it's a Christmas extravaganza, lorded over by a door guy in leopard leggings with a bowl of mint Hershey's kisses between his spotted thighs.

Inside, holiday decor and punk rock Christmas music reward patrons who wait in a line that stretches down the block (unless you're as sage as we are and arrive at just the right time) for a shot at drinks like "I Don't Mind You Shooting Me, Frank, But Take It Easy on the Rum" or "Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?"

Thanks, no.

After toasting each other with nog shots of Baltimore egg nog laced with - what else?- sherry (and rum), we took sustenance next door at Eat the Rich, where we each downed a dozen oysters with some perfectly lovely Le Charmel Muscadet and far too many hushpuppies smeared with Old Bay mayo.

My rainbow may be overdue and I still regret missing Vermeer, but not another thing about this perfect silvery day. Also, nog shots are here to stay.

Pure Applesauce

The beauty of Facebook is being a fly on the wall for people you know but who inhabit a different demographic than you do.

A recent article in the Washington Post entitled "How Millennials are Cooking up New Thanksgiving Traditions" got some millennials in my feed plenty riled up. Witness:

Z: You get fired from the WaPo (or The Atlantic) if you think anything isn't millennials' fault.

P: Surprised they don't have a devoted whippersnapper beat yet.

R: Pure applesauce!

Z: Well, they're not writing for young people, they're writing for boomers who are scared of them and actually pay for newspapers to learn how scared they should be.

I must not have taken my Boomer Booster, because my I can't really cop to any fear of millennials. Occasionally a bit of disdain or pity is directed their way, but afraid of them? Sorry, no. And the reason I read a newspaper is because I appreciate the tactile quality of it and how much more pleasant reading the news is on paper at that size than one more thing to view on a screen.

And something else. If you go back to archives from the '60s and '70s, you'll no doubt uncover articles about how Boomers were reshaping Thanksgiving with new-fangled conveniences such as canned, jelled cranberry sauce or frozen broccoli instead of creamed peas.

Cultural evolution (devolution?), that's all that is, and certainly not millennial-specific.

So we'll move beyond that.

Today, a piece called "Soldiering On for the Kids" details how hordes of Boomers are over having to do the full-on Christmas decoration extravaganza, but still bother to turn their homes into a winter wonderland for the sake of their millennial children, who insist on maintaining the holiday rituals of their rosy-colored childhoods.

Seems plenty of Boomers are downsizing their Christmas decoration stashes, meaning that many thrift stores now get so many donations of blow-up reindeer and Christmas ornaments that they maintain a year-round Christmas department.

Parents are trying to gift their children with decades of holiday paraphernalia (Boomers being up till now the "holders of the legacy") and the millennials are saying no, thanks. But those kids have tiny urban digs and a minimalist aesthetic and want no part of storing Frosty and posse for 11 months of the year.

All they want is for Mom and Dad (or either) to faithfully recreate the elaborate decorating of the house and tree that they remember fondly.

So, I'm reading this and thinking surely it will set off another wave of hilarious commentary posts because while the piece makes the point several times that we're at the point where it's necessary for both generations to decide how to reboot the winter holidays, it could be taken as a millennial issue, much like the Thanksgiving one was.

And it struck me. This is a timeless issue, not another BB versus Mill thing.

My parents are part of the Greatest Generation and they went through a phase when we were in our 20s and 30s where they tried to pawn off some of their vast Christmas inventory to me and my five sisters.

Did we want it? Of course not. We wanted them to continue putting on the ritualized family Christmas that they'd been doing since we were a cohabiting family unit. Granted, some of us did have the legitimate excuse of small, urban apartments at the time but some of my sisters had far more generous houses in the suburbs and they didn't want my parents' decorations and ornaments, either.

Maybe we just wanted to do it our own way, secure in the knowledge that Mom and Dad would maintain the Christmas status quo. Mom's dime store-bought manger scene still delights me for the prices stamped on the bottom of each figure's base (generally 29 cents), all except the baby Jesus, because he doesn't stand on a base.

Maybe you got him free for buying the rest.

Some people stayed out of the fray. I have a friend who married late in life and never bothered to acquire Christmas trappings, which was fine until she had a family and her Mom and Dad decided to visit for Christmas. All of a sudden, she felt obligated to get her first decorations. Oh, the pressure.

I'm willing to bet that in 40 years, the media will still be writing pieces about how the younger generation wants to do things differently than their parents did and trying to make sense of it.

But, wait, aren't generational reactions sort of the point?

It would be wildly amusing to have the analysis of that from our dedicated whippersnapper beat reporter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Some holiday traditions are negotiable, others not so much.

Part of that is living alone, so there's no one else to Christmas-ify for besides yours truly. I'm unlikely to give up decorating a tree, even though taking it down is a pain in the ass, because I truly enjoy the smell of a fresh white pine in the room where I work every day.

I bake far less than I used to, typically making do with producing just two kinds of cookies instead of my former four or five and I rarely bother whipping up egg nog because I know I'd drink it all. Far better to indulge when I'm offered it out.

But apparently one habit can never go by the wayside and that's sending out Christmas cards. What has evolved over the years is when I send them out. Back in a former lifetime, I was that eager beaver who mailed her cards as soon as we turned the calendar over to December.

Not so much the past seven years or so. Generally, it's when I start receiving cards that it occurs to me that, whoa, mine haven't even been purchased, much less posted, and I get on it, like a dutiful elf.

Because Leo.

My long-time friend and former college buddy used to tell me that as far as he was concerned, the holiday season began when my Christmas card arrived. Now he lives in Key West so he certainly can't tell by the weather that the Yuletide is approaching, which means my responsibility to begin his season is even greater.

That would be why on December third, I got the following email from him:

Question 1. Is my Christmas card in the mail yet?
Question 2. If I asked you to tell me your through the wringer story, would you?

My answer - no, but it will be soon and of course, but I think you already know it - got us started on some memorable back and forth, resulting in some tentative planning about getting together, but got me no closer to sending out my cards.

Last night, he put his foot down and this is not a bossy man, at least not with me.

Now get to work and send me my Christmas card. I need to know the season has officially started.

Don't you know that on my walk today, I stopped to get Christmas cards? I'd bought Christmas stamps weeks ago, so part of my afternoon was devoted to making the male friend I've had the longest - the one I can laugh with for hours, definitely get bawdy with, fondly reminisce with, and certainly dance with - happy, or at least able to mentally commence his celebration.

Who am I, flippin' Rudolph? Christmas can't happen without my help? I jest, of course.

Years ago, Leo earned my undying devotion when he wrote me, saying, "The job at the radio station is so typical of you. If you didn't get something because of your educational or intellectual qualifications, you'd invariably wind up with it on sheer force of personality. It was one of three things that drew me to you, the others being your keen mind and your earthy sense of humor, a dynamite combination. Oh, yeah, you looked pretty good, too."

You flatter a woman with words like those and you earn the right to boss her occasionally. There's nothing quite like the right kind of man friend telling you what to do.

Oh, and my Christmas cards? They're in the mail.

Monday, December 7, 2015

All You See Is Where Else You Could Be

Because I am a dinosaur, dating is not much different for me than it was when I was in my twenties. Old habits apparently do die hard for my people.

But I also concede that my experiences have almost nothing in common with those born after John and Yoko's "Double Fantasy" came out. Eating dinner with a millennial recently, he mentioned an article entitled, "This Is How We Date Now," lamenting that the dating world I know doesn't exist for him.

Reading the article, I was reminded of the new normal for that generation. Why commit when there are so many choices available via Tinder, OK Cupid, Grindr and the like? Endless possibilities mean there could always be someone better on a different app or platform. Not to mention the endless stream of friends' posts touting their picture-perfect relationships because people live out loud now, endlessly Instagramming or tweeting so everyone can see how enviable their lives are.

Why would you want to settle when your friend's life is so fabulous? The missing piece of the puzzle is that few people post about the arguments, the frustrations of trying to make a relationship work, so what you're envying isn't reality. It's a glossy facade, and completely unattainable.

Truthfully, the article was overly facile, purposefully glib and, in many ways, an ideal metaphor for the kind of shallow introspection that passes for deep thought. As guitarist John Mayer observed all the way back in 2003, "Numb is the new deep."

If that prediction was merely darkly amusing then, it's full-on depressing now.

That said, Death Cab for Cutie's 2005 album "Plans" contained the hauntingly beautiful "Your Heart Is an Empty Room," a song about a guy who can't quite commit because of (what else?) possibility.

Spring blooms and you find the love that's true
But you don't know what now to do
'Cause the chase is all you know
And she stopped running months ago
And all you see is where else you could be
When you're at home
Out on the street are so many possibilities 
To not be alone

Choice has always been there, obviously, but at least you used to have to leave your house to find it. Now dating options are as easy to order up as Chinese food.

All of this was in the back of my mind when I attended a show recently at Strange Matter. Because the band had originally been active from 1981 through 1989, the crowd skewed older, but with some millennials scattered throughout.

Taking up my usual position, I tried chatting up the very tall younger man standing next to me. I was curious how deep his interest in the band went, so I asked, apropos of nothing.

He looked nothing short of fully shocked that I'd instigated a conversation, but shared his enthusiasm for the band. After some face to face conversation, he kindly inquired if I could see well enough given the sold-out crowd in front of us. Explaining that at 5'5" I can never really get a great view, he moved behind me and gestured for me to stand in front of him.

I was terribly impressed with his thoughtfulness.

But from there, my evening unfolded like it was 1989 again, and not just because I was dancing for the next two hours. Because I was alone, several guys born while John Lennon was still in the Beatles decided to engage with me, talking about how good the band was, making jokes about people in the crowd, offering to buy me drinks, trying to make me laugh.

Hitting on me, plain and simple.

Which wasn't why I was at the show. But it occurred to me right then and there that they hadn't hesitated to come talk to me in an effort to try to connect with me. They were working it old-school style.

I go to Gallery 5 for shows all the time and I never see this happen. I'm the consummate observer when I'm out, but I just don't see 20-somethings making the effort to hit on each other at a show. You already have a band in common, so why the hell not?

What I do see is a lot of people on their phones - checking Facebook, filming or taking pictures and Instagramming, checking texts - while a band is singing and playing their hearts out right in front of them.

But not talking to strangers they're attracted to.

True, not everyone sees a person who catches their eye at a show, but surely it's a generational statement that it can happen to a dinosaur like me and not to the manic pixie dream girl types I'm surrounded by at these shows.

Is it because they're on Tinder and swiping their way to meeting yet another someone? As the writer of the article put it, "Maybe romance is still there, we just don't know what it looks like now."

Yeesh, at the risk of sounding like Yoko Ono ("The regret of my life is that I have not said 'I love you' often enough"), I think I'd find out about romance by talking to people's faces and not waste time swiping in search of someone to say it to.

I know, I know, how utterly prehistoric of me.