Friday, August 18, 2017

Helms Alee

Take me to the middle of a river and feed me, and I'm yours for life.

As meals go, having one aboard a sailboat with my favorite river rats made for pretty spectacular eating.

I'd been eyeing the dropped wooden table in front of the helm sine the first time I'd set foot on the boat last summer, but today was the first time we set the boat to auto-cruise, pulled the table up and lunched on the Rappahannock.

In our own modified version of "Groundhog's Day," today's outdoor adventure, like yesterday's, began with a ride in the powerboat to see what we could see and ended up on the sailboat. With a whole lot of talk and laughing in between.

One major difference was that today we finished up our sail trying to outrun a squall. As the sole occupant of the bow when the going got rough, I tried to ignore the choppy water splashing up around me and keep my eyes fixed on the horizon.

Only occasionally did my stomach register a complaint about the rough water, but I didn't falter (much).

But without a doubt, the high point was breaking bread on the water with these two people who act like I'm doing them the favor by coming to visit, when the reality is I'm the lucky one. We've gotten so comfortable with each other that they can now discuss family matters in front of me and pause to listen when I put in my two cents' worth.

Today's voluminous cloud cover was a welcome relief from yesterday's unrelenting sun - with both female members of the crew having the overly brown legs to prove it - while also providing fodder for the cloud game (look, a strapless bra...look, a hen on a nest) when we felt inclined to play.

The captain was in fine comedic form as usual, coming up with the concept of The Church of the Holy Dolphin, wherein people would join in hopes of being reincarnated as a dolphin. To the three of us, it made about as much sense as any other church.

They regaled me with stories of the maritime artist John Barber coming to their house for dinner and took me on a water tour of the some of the more notable locals' houses. We discussed the Monkees in depth and when we take a tangent to my long ago phone conversation with singer Bobbie Gentry, my friend demands to know if I'd asked her what Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

I have to admit I hadn't and she sighs in disappointment.

One of my favorite things about these two is that every sentence out of their mouths is an opening to sing a song. Mention darkness approaching and one begins to sing, "Hello darkness, my old friend..." or comment that the dog isn't as spastic as usual and I hear, "He's grown accustomed to your face..."

It's hilarious and non-stop. It also helps that both can sing. You won't find me inflicting my singing on anyone.

And when the sail was said and done, we took turns in the palatial outdoor shower so that we could go out to dinner without the stink of sailing, sweat and sunscreen on us.

We ate at Relish in Warsaw because so much of their sourcing -vegetables, fruits, seafood, meat - is within a few miles and because the place has a charming colorful vibe.

It was also date night and crowded, a testament to both the locals and the summer people. We briefly considered passing ourselves off as on a date - what, no man ever dated two women? - but decided we were too hungry for that and ordered with abandon.

No matter how good lunch on a sailboat is, it only takes you so far. The good news is, with the right friends, that's pretty far. I think these two know they've got me for life and they're okay with it.

Cue "Hungry Like the Wolf."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Wow, Look at the Time

If you found out you only had one year to live, what would you do?

That was one of the 36 questions my girl crush and I spent last evening answering - not that we didn't already know plenty about each other - more as a conversational jumping off point than anything else.

As her husband joked when we told him about all we'd learned about each other, "You two would make a great lesbian couple."

What we all agreed upon by the end of today was that one way we'd spend that final year was exactly how we'd spent today: on the water.

When the captain said he was going to spend the day working out and cutting grass, I wasn't shy about asking him how I was going to get a boat ride if he didn't give it to me? It was enough to get him checking the forecast, only to find that there was no wind predicted, a bummer since we'd hoped to go sailing.

The way I saw it, though, that was of no consequence since he also has a motor boat, so a cooler was packed, bathing suits were donned and the dog began running in circles in excitement second only to mine.

What followed was a glorious two and a half hours cruising the Rappahannock on what turned out to be not just a a beautiful day but a recon mission. Once out there, we realized that the wind had picked up after all.

The two of them claim I bring luck with me, but I'm inclined to think it's more about what happens when we're together. We're magic together.

We'd passed under the Whitestone bridge and were tooling along when I spotted a dolphin jump out of the water, do a somersault in the air and slap his tail on the way back in. That was all the captain needed to hear to turn the boat in their direction, the better to appreciate the show these dolphins were putting on.

We'd seen dolphins in the river near the bay last year, but these were three young pups - no scarring on their bodies or fins - with endless energy and they were in full-on play mode. They didn't just swim nearby, they jumped, tumbled, rolled and entertained us in high fashion.

At one point, they ducked under the boat and came out in front of us, facing us head on and looking directly at my girl crush and I. I mean we locked eyes with these dolphins.

We came back through an especially narrow channel that took us by Parrot Island with its decrepit pier and overgrown green-roofed house and then within sight of Merroir and its colorful umbrellas.

Returning to the cottage only long enough to eat lunch, reapply sunscreen and repack the cooler, we loaded up the car and headed to the marina to take out the sailboat. It had been almost a year since I'd seen the sailboat and she was looking mighty fine, having had her bottom painted since I last saw her.

We headed out, passing a regatta struggling in a particularly un-windy stretch of the Carrotoman River and were greeted with whitecaps on the Rappahannock, an indicator of good winds just waiting to be taken advantage of.

Although technically I'm part of the crew, it's only my fourth time sailing, so my contributions are small and untrained, but I did well enough to be dubbed the "winch wench." Mostly I reveled in the sight, smell and sound of the river around us while they did the heavy lifting.

I did, however, contribute to the innuendo-filled banter that we're inclined to toss around, being great fans of each other and all. Today's recurring theme was "It only takes 15 minutes...and then a lifetime," a phrase we applied to everything from successful relationships to tying off sails.

After a couple of hours of pitch perfect sailing, we decided it was time to head back, but given the wind direction, it was a lovely, leisurely return trip that allowed the female members of the crew to stretch out on the bow of the boat under the jib (not to be confused with the lower part of the butt cheek, which has always been known in my family as the "jibs") and admire the mast and sail against a sky so blue it a good way.

If that's not zen, I don't know what is.

So it took us another couple hours to get back, not a one of us regretted a moment of such an idyllic sail. It's not always about the speed and angle of the boat, although some of us are inordinately fond of both.

Back at the cottage after our four hour sail, it was decided that Mojitos were in order and while the captain took over the outdoor shower, I was sent to the yard to fetch mint. When I asked where I'd find it, her response was, "The toilet."

Because all the best river people grow mint in in old toilet tank, you know.

We sipped our toilet Mojitos and ate dinner while crowing about how perfect our day had been. When talked turned to the Monument Avenue business and our young mayor, I wasn't shy about sharing my thoughts.

"Karen, I love your mind," my host tells me after I get off my soapbox and before he makes me watch a clip of Elvis dancing, part of a tribute to the 40th anniversary of his death today.

It only takes 15 minutes to meet a charming couple...and the rest of your life to enjoy their company fully. No less so if it's your last year.

Lucky me that so much of that time involves bawdy humor, dolphins and wind.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A View to a Talk

There are some people I would drive through hell or high water to reach.

As it turned out, today I got to. It wasn't exactly smooth sailing - I had to maneuver through massive puddles, mudslides and a rivulet of displaced gravel along the last stretch to reach the riverside cottage of my friends - but I knew it would pay off in spades.

And, as I learned upon arrival, I'd been the fortunate one. I'd missed the series of storms that had deposited the aforementioned on the narrow, twisting road, while my hostess, returning from her other land-locked house, had been forced to pull off the road during the worst of it.

Maybe that's the hell part: driving rain, flooded roads and debris.

Still, she'd recovered enough to welcome me onto the back deck with a glass of wine just as the sun began peeking out. It was there we stayed planted for the next few hours as we tried to catch up on a year's worth of life.

Usually, we start our summer visits in July but we'd both had too much going on to make it happen sooner, a fact which only added to the sheer amount of back and forth we both needed to unload. The ever-changing sky and weather were an ideal visual metaphor for the highs and lows we shared with each other.

When her adoring husband showed up while she was in the house, I asked for a hug ("You don't ever have to ask for a hug") and he delivered. "I don't know which we've missed more, your brains or your beauty," he tells me.

Honestly, either answer would flatter me but mostly I appreciate how men like him excel at saying just the right thing, not just to their female friends (thank you), but to their main squeeze on a regular basis (and even in front of other people).

One reason I love visiting these two is to be around a couple so determined to verbalize their feelings for each other regularly.

Another is the sweeping view of the river, the long (and now lighted) pier and the ample deck from which to appreciate the few small boats out on the water today and later, the sky crowded with stars and cloud traces.

And always, I revel in the opportunity to lather myself up in an outdoor shower and sleep on a screened porch for a few nights.

Without sounding too hyperbolic, that's the heavenly part.

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Love, We Shall Hang

In order to be one of my people, you have to be able to talk.

Two of my regulars were missing in action after she face-planted in Carytown at the Watermelon Festival shortly before the wine dinner was to commence. Truth be told, I wouldn't have thought any of my people would bother with the madness at that festival. Nonetheless, they were missed.

You can begin the ascent to my people status, as the newcomer at my table did, by announcing, "I'm a lonely man" and wind up so comfortable with us that you start humble-bragging and show us photos of your mid-century Alan McCullough house on southside. So much glass.

I awarded him points when we discovered that he also shares my hometown and then again when he inquires of the table who's been to Italy, thus providing a chance to share my memories of Florence and the Amalfi Coast and launching a wide-ranging discussion of Italy's provinces.

That he'd been so many times pre-retirement, back when he was a wine rep, only made his stories more colorful.

In order to hang, you need a bank of stories and experiences to share, so that when I talk about the food poisoning that hit me last week, you can come back with a story of a cassoulet you ate in France that did you in.

Being at my table means that tonight's wine rep tells us, "I think you're my favorite table" and later, as she's pouring us glasses of Fazio Nero d'Avola, "Nobody wants a thin wine with pasta."

She failed to elaborate on when a thin wine was warranted and we didn't pursue it.

Pru showed up in a maxi-dress, Beau offered me relationship advice and, as a sidenote to Pru telling us about the time she dated a football player, we somehow got on the subject of AMC cars like Gremlins and Pacers.

It should be noted that I kept it to myself that I once owned an AMC Hornet. A woman can't be expected to give away all her secrets at a Sicilian wine dinner, now can she?

As for the dinner's pairings, top prize went to grilled prawns with lemon aioli accompanied by Fazio Grillo, a creamy summer sipper of the highest order. Nearly as perfect was Fazio Rosato sipped with watermelon, mozzarella and prosciutto, a pairing that managed to wed the wetness of the watermelon with the bone dry finish of the Rosato.

All my people, new and old, appreciated those combinations.

What I hadn't anticipated was the afterparty that unfolded on an outside patio once the wine dinner cast of characters had gone home to watch TV.

A new configuration of my people gathered to dish with abandon in the night air and not on the subject of wine or Sicily because there's so much more worthy of conversation.

Six of us convened around a table, opinions and questions flying, while, unbeknownst to us, a scofflaw scaled the crane on the construction site behind the building and cops sped by to get him down.

When the conversational free-for-all ended at nearly 1:30, we saw that a lone cop still sat in his car guarding the crane. Only later did I hear about all the counter protests going on at the same time across the river in reaction to Charlottesville's mayhem.

Sometimes I get so caught up with my people that the hours fly by in a haze of words and wisdom and I'm grateful for the people around me.

In the immortal words of the Cars, it was just what I needed.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hard to Handle

How do you blog  about your innocuous Saturday when white supremacist terrorists are mowing down peaceful protesters an hour away?

The same way a person deals with any of the unpleasantness of life - heartbreak, sickness and death of a loved one, natural disaster - I would guess, so any way you can.

When I left for my walk, I knew several friends were in Charlottesville as part of the resistance to the rally, but other than observations that some brawling had been happening, they seemed to think things were going well.

Walking down Fifth Street, I passed two motorcycle guys in leather vests dragging a cooler up the hill. When I commented that surely the load was lighter coming up than it had been going down, the one with the vest marked "chaplain" offered me (and a family exiting their SUV) bottles of cold water from his cooler (thereby proving that even heathens can benefit from a chaplain's ministrations).

Friday night's rain meant that some of the more elaborate spiderwebs on Brown's Island were dotted with raindrops, looking luminescent and lacy in the partly cloudy light.

I wasn't surprised to see how un-populated the pipeline was with just one guy fairly far ahead of me. What did surprise me was when he stopped, turned and began shooting photos of the pipeline where yours truly just happened to be walking.

For a nanosecond, I thought I was being smart by passing him, but now I'm not so sure.

Under a massive rock stood two men off to the side and submerged far enough that they looked to be naked, with the nearby rapids splashing water on their bodies. Ever the art historian, it looked to me like a study for Frederick Bazille's "Summer Scene."

Climbing out on to the rocks to put my feet in the water, the scent of men's cologne wafted toward me, although I couldn't see another person around. But it persisted and a while later, I saw a quartet of kayakers paddling downstream. One even waved at me.

As I was waving back, I couldn't help but wonder if one of these guys had decided to bathe in cologne before shooting the rapids this morning. Maybe what I'd been smelling had been traveling across river and not island.

Walking home along Broad Street, I overheard a young woman tell another that a state of emergency had been declared and her friend, busy texting, asked, "Why?" in a completely uninterested way. Clearly more had happened in Charlottesville since I'd left.

As I breezed through Jackson Ward, I spotted a family standing on a corner, clearly looking for help, so I offered my services. All the nice Australian tourists wanted was a lunch suggestion and preferably someplace their three young sons would be happy and I delivered three options.

They voiced their gratitude but offered me no "G'day, mate" as I walked on.

Facebook gave me all the unpleasant updates, although when people began posting video of the neo-Nazi driving into the crowd of counter protesters, I had no stomach for watching such a thing. Seeing photographs of people flying in the air as the car hit them was horrific enough for me.

I was most interested in reading the accounts of people I knew who were there, but just as compelling was the online commentary by my friends of color. I don't think there's any doubt that if a black group had organized this rally, the police presence would have been far larger and more proactive.

Sadly. At least none of my friends had been hurt.

I wasn't sorry to turn off my computer and go eat in service of my hired mouth while discussing the day's mayhem with a like-minded sane person. It seems forever ago that dinner dates didn't have to involve a rehash of whatever the latest can-you-believe-it-scenario-of-the-day is.

We decided to drown our sorrows on the patio at Saison where we acted as the clean up crew, finishing off bottles by having the last two glasses of a Jura bubbly before doing the same with a Willamette Valley Rose.

"Well, if we didn't, who would?" my date inquired, tongue firmly in cheek. Isn't that the staff's job?

Next to us was a guy with his adoring dog Jada Boo (who wasn't above snapping at a stranger) and on the other end, a trio of tattooed young women discussing all the things the men they've gone out with don't know.

The night isn't long enough for that subject to be exhausted, ladies.

Because today had been a difficult one in terms of where our country seems to be, it only made sense to spend the last of it laughing, so we rounded the corner from Saison and went to Comedy Coalition's late show.

If long form improv by the most senior members of the comedy troupe can't distract you for a while, you may as well call it a day. But it did and before long we were laughing at all of it and, for one bit where the guys slipped into a pretend language, so were the comedians.So hard they couldn't talk.

The bit was funny but their reactions were funnier.

It was a good thing, too, because I arrived home to read that people had died yesterday because of the rally over white supremacy. That was sobering news to learn.

It's difficult to process everything that happened in Charlottesville, but personally, today changed my mind. Up until now, I still thought that context could allow the statues on Monument Avenue to stand, probably because no art geek wants to lose public sculpture.

Wrong, so, so wrong. Those statues need to be relocated to someplace where only people who choose to view them can do so. They have no place on any street in our city.

If calling a statue-less street Monument Avenue bothers you, then let's replace the losing white men sculptures with some celebrating our non-white past (say, Gabriel Prosser, John Lewis or John Jasper and for heaven's sake, some women) and begin to unite as a city.

Before going to bed, I sat on the balcony and admired my lone moonflower in the near-darkness. It feels impossible to take anything for granted anymore when normal changes so often.

Only resistance remains a constant now.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Field Recordings

A non-native species is easy to spot in the wild.

After dinner in service of my hired mouth, my date suggested a foray to Forest Hills and a place called Cafe Zata to see some friends of his playing in a band called the Free Rangers. And while I'd heard of Zata, I had no clue where exactly it was or even what it was.

For us city dwellers, this sort of outing is what is known as field experimentation.

He warned me that every time he'd been to Zata, there were more people playing on stage than seated in the generous, high-ceilinged room. At least he did until we walked in and he had to eat his words since practically every chair and stool had a butt in it and lines snaked from the service counter and bar.

I was assigned to find perches for us while he set out to procure wine and almost immediately I heard my name called out. It was the landscape architect for whom I'd ghost-written a few articles, but more importantly, she's lately been posting old photos on Facebook of her, her friends and her Mom in vintage bathing suits.

Well, not vintage at the time the pictures were taken, but definitely dated looking now in a charming late '50s, early '60s way that predated the youth revolution and the swingin' '60s. She was thrilled that I'd taken notice of her youthful fashion choices.

I'd scored us stools at the end of the bar with a fine view of the band, who seemed to have a chicken theme - on their sign, on the stage and next to the old suitcase housing their CDs for sale - because, well, Free Rangers, get it?

I met a charming couple, friends of my date, who both teach at UR while he's also a musician. Looking around the room, I observed a lot of Friday night date action going on, albeit mostly middle-aged couples whom I'm willing to guess lived in the neighborhood. A bottle or two of wine graced most tables.

Then it happened. I couldn't have been more surprised (or pleased) when my former Jackson Ward neighbor showed up in the bar line. For years, he and his wife lived four blocks away from me and we ran into each other at shows and events regularly. I'd been to plenty of their pre-First Friday happy hours.

When they'd moved out there, they'd promised that they'd still be in the city often so we'd still see each other just as frequently. That hasn't happened much at all and I miss their upbeat energy and passion for live music.

He seemed as glad to see me as I was to see him and we wasted no time in catching up. I knew that, like my date, they'd been at Red Wing Roots Music festival, but they'd also gone to FloydFest, where our mutual friends Lobo Marino had played this year. He said local band Dharma Bombs had also played to great success, another band we'd seen together.

We were knee-deep in musical conversation when all of a sudden, he got a perplexed look on his face and said, "Wait, what are you doing here?" Apparently he didn't see Cafe Zata as my natural habitat.

Pointing to my date and introducing them, I explained that we'd come to see his friends play. Not surprisingly, he was also friends with several people in the band and from there, the mutual associations poured forth. The two of them had loads of people in common and not necessarily people I knew, either.

Leaving them to man talk, I headed over to the table where his wife was sitting with friends. Putting my hands over her eyes and making her guess who it was, it didn't take long for her to figure it out and squeal in delight. It had been way too long since we'd last seen each other and she was quick to say she missed me as much as I missed seeing them.

"Remember that time you invited me to iHop for pancake day and I said no?" she asked out of the blue. "I regret that now." I couldn't believe she even remembered - that had been almost 2 years ago while she was between jobs - but it was a terrific starting point for planning something for the near future.

"But I don't think I could keep up with you on your walks," she admitted, holding on to both of my hands. Not to worry, I wanted to plan a get-together to eat, drink and be merry, not walk our asses off.

Besides, I've got a couple people who like that from me.

From behind her came the woman who used to host house shows at her Franklin Street apartment (the one that once housed Mrs. Morton's Tea Room in the brownstone where Mrs. M. lived) and where I'd seen the Honey Dewdrops, Sons of Bill and Haze and Dacey in the candlelit intimacy of her living room.

She, too, has shifted home base and is now ensconced on southside, although she went to great pains to share that she feels lost and cut off on this side of the river. I didn't point out the obvious (move then) because everyone has their own reasons for where they roost. But I certainly understood her point.

She was trying to convey that she, too, was a non-native species here, at least in her soul.

The band - two guitars, bass, dobro - provided plenty of middle-aged entertainment, covering songs by Gram Parsons, Allison Krause and Crystal Gale, doing a song that involved yodeling (now there's a rarely seen skill set) and inciting an audience-wide singalong when they did "Teach Your Children," in addition to original material.

Also, it should be noted, a woman had brought her cowbell and used it liberally to add the requisite cowbell when a song screamed out for it.

And because the bass player and rhythm guitarist were married, there was plenty of banter about what a good cook and guitarist she was (cleaning not so much), what a showboater he was (see; yodeling and white Stetson) and a corny joke about him sucking in his stomach for two hours to be around a bevy of bikini-clad women.

It was all in good fun.

By the time we left, the place had cleared out considerably and we joked about why people had needed to leave before 9:30 on a Friday night. But of course the answer is obvious: this must be the typical sleeping pattern for natives of the area and who am I, an interloper, to judge?

For us, there was still plenty of evening left, so we decamped for his front porch swing, where we were promptly joined by the musician from across the street, guitar in hand. He told us Vespa stories, did a bit of strumming and asked for a summary of the show we'd just seen before disappearing into the darkness.

As we sat there in the sticky air, it suddenly became cool and breezy enough that we both got a chill, only to be followed by a blast of hot, humid air that announced rain.

And oceanfront aside, is there really a better place to watch a gentle summer rain roll in than from the recessed depths of a dark front porch within spitting distance of the river?

Depends on your species, naturally, but it worked for this urban bird.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Last to Know

I made the woman I once aspired to marry want to turn on the waterworks tonight.

After months of not seeing each other, we met up at Laura Lee's for an evening of former bandmates, chicken wings and tomato salad and surprising revelations.

It was while we were digging deep on the scuttlebutt she'd heard about me that we were joined by the director of a certain museum. We offered him the comfort of either/both our laps, but instead he stood, sharing a host of anecdotes about the Monument Avenue public meeting last night, being interviewed by NPR and our illustrious mayor.

So. Much. Dirt.

Once she began digging for the scoop on my personal life, we decided to take our Gruner Veltliner and relocate to the patio for a more in-depth conversation that began with her telling me about a guy she'd been wanting to set me up with for months.

In what was surely a surprise to her, I shared that I'd skipped the matchmaking and made contact on my own back in early June. While she'd been dithering, I'd been getting acquainted.

She minced no words in her assessment: "See? When someone is interested, they show it," which was followed by a sly smile at her husband across the table. "Of course I showed it," he grinned. "I wasn't about to let you get away!"

Anybody got a tissue?

I'd barely gotten into the details of my new situation when she began welling up, saying, "I think I'm going to cry." In 9 years of friendship, I don't think I've ever made her so happy. Of course she had to remind me that everyone knew before her.

Only after we'd dished mightily did we turn to the other guests and join their conversation.

Her former bandmates, meanwhile, were a fascinating bunch who obliged with audio of the band's songs (including digs at the hair band-sounding guitar solo by the guitarist) and frequent references to the seismic shifts in their lives since then.

Because so much deep conversation requires sustenance, we noshed through General Tso's wings, fried oysters and heirloom tomato salad under a gorgeous blue evening sky. She and I were asked about our trip to Memphis and Oxford, Mississippi, dredging up memories of fire truck rides, the Stax Museum and every John Currance restaurant we visited.

Good times.

When I finally got up to go, it was with reluctance (who wants to walk away from four men and the woman of her dreams?) but I was double-booked and had no choice.

Truth be told, a friend from D.C. had also inquired about my dance card tonight, but I'd been unable to accommodate.

Act two involved a short walk with another friend to Jackson's, the new smokehouse and beer garden on Second Street. We made our way through a series of doorways to wind up on the patio, in this case, a high-walled space complete with smoker and fan to disperse the smoke and heat.

All I know is that when I left the restaurant, I reeked of smoke.

The four top at the next table were agog when our bottle of wine arrived because it was inserted into a stone wine tap at our table, the better to serve ourselves, we assumed. The only problem was that it didn't actually keep the wine chilled.

Ah, details.

While I listened to an annotated accounting of my friend's trip to D.C., we made a meal of chicken tacos (meh) and a rack of ribs with collard greens and mac and cheese, but only after our server had brought us samples of four types of barbecue sauce (sweet, spicy, sweet/spicy, smoked) to choose from to accompany our meals.

The walls of the patio may have been high, but the sky was the color of dark blue velvet with a lone star punctuating it and we gabbed about the upcoming Perseid meteor shower and the eclipse that has everyone planning trips south.

We had a nightcap at Lucy's, along with a brassy, loud-mouthed woman who earns a living as a shrimper and her crew, but they cleared out shortly, apologizing for their decibel level.

The owner talked about his upcoming trip to Mexico, the bartender showed off her white lace bolero ("I wear it over everything") and we drank Rose from Provence while having polite conversation of no consequence.

Some evenings begin with heartfelt admissions and end with innocuous blather.

And when it comes to the best dirt, someone has to be the last to know. You just hate for it to be the person who wanted it to happen all along. She swears she told me that, but she didn't.

The good news is, it happened. It finally happened.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Missing in Action

How goes it? Haven't seen you in a while.

My absence around town - in this case, especially shows - has been noted and challenged by a guy I used to razz about not going out enough. Meanwhile, I haven't been out for live music in 10 days, probably a record for me.

I hope you are doing well. I miss you.

I am doing well, downright swell even, but I've also been out of town or busy so much that weeks go by without being able to catch up with my regular crew, not to mention the only woman who can keep up with me on a walk and match me crab for crab.

Today's walk was my first since Saturday and that's much too long. My companion and I rewarded our legs with an extended soak in the rushing water of the James while a cadre of firefighters set up nearby to practice swift water rescue maneuvers and a coal train rumbled overhead.

Hi, friend! Hope you are having a wonderful summer. Let's plan lunch or dinner...I miss getting you all to myself once in a while.

My summer has rocked, but it's also different than the past few summers. I'm lucky enough to have been away more often and there are several trips on the books still to come. My personal life has also bloomed and that's a big factor.

What'cha doing that's fun? Let's figure this out soon...miss you.

I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that fun has been in abundant supply with four beach trips and multiple day trips already under my belt. But I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that I've also been entertaining at home far more than at any point since I moved into this apartment 8 years ago.

Last night's listening party on the balcony was as notable for introducing a musician to Pete Yorn's masterful first album as it was for the extended discussion of Socratic democracy and its innate weaknesses.

This camera is a "do-over" for your birthday present. Nifty unit. Automatic image stabilization and the cunning screen that flips out for selfies. Please let me know how the pictures come out; I'm very curious. Spec-wise, it's quite a unit. As for the selfies, it's perfect for taking them, as are you for being the self.

My circa 2005 digital camera died last year after my trip to Paris and the Loire Valley (RIP), so having a new camera will be pretty wonderful on a boat or on the beach, although I'm not much on the whole selfie business.

The other problem with all this gallivanting is it cuts into the earning-a-living time, so I've found myself playing catch-up every time I get back into town.

As soon as I finish doing laundry and get settled in at home, my time is occupied by servicing my hired mouth (tonight, for example), attending to the theater-going required of a Theater Alliance panelist (the last few of the season) and interviewing/writing for my approaching deadlines (I've noticed that rent doesn't pay itself).

To top it off, once I learn that today is National Book Lovers Day, I feel entirely justified once I've finished my work meal in blowing off a movie and opting out of a jazz show to spend the evening with my biography of Olivier.

I take a simple view of life: keep your eyes open and get on with it. ~ Laurence Olivier

Mine are not only open, but I'm happily getting on with it. Just not always in public view these days.

In life, unlike with birthday presents, you don't always get a do-over. When you're lucky, though, you get a nifty new opportunity.

Just don't hold your breath for the selfies to prove it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Ship Shape

Captain's Log, August 8, Easptort, Maryland

Visiting the Maritime Republic of Eastport - and, yes, that's what residents call this place and what's emblazoned on their flag because of course they have their own flag to differentiate themselves from the residents of Annapolis - for a couple of days guarantees a good time.

Across from my friend's house is a heavily shaded lot on which sits an odd Tudor-ish house, part brick and painted in places a dated, stale green. When I comment how out of place it looks for this waterfront community, my friend says it's the home of James Gamble of Procter & Gamble.

"He's a hoarder!" she shares and looking at the off-kilter, faded, plaid curtains in the front windows, it's not hard to imagine the neglected -looking house as stuffed with the detritus of a lifetime or more.

And soap, lots of dried out bars of soap, I'd imagine.

At the end of her street, a mere three houses down and just past the Annapolis School of Seamanship, is Back Creek, so each time she arrives home, she has a water view. I was terribly impressed with that until she reminded me that Eastport is a promontory, so I can walk in 3 of 4 directions and be at the water.

Still, that view would make me happy every time I was outside.

Come dinnertime, she asked where I wanted to eat and while I love the  restaurants of Chef Cindy Wolf she's taken me to, I wanted to go eat crabs riverside. Never mind that a half dozen large crabs cost more than my utility bills combined because Cantlers gets some monster crabs.

Before we even began cracking them open, I inhaled a bowl of Maryland crab soup thick with vegetables and crab while she went for a special of jambalaya. We followed that with tastes of a crab pretzel, a distinctly Annapolis creation that I'd seen on another menu but just can't get behind.

I see no reason to slather a perfectly good hot pretzel with crab dip and then drown it in melted cheese. How can you appreciate any of those elements that way?

The sky was too cloudy to see the full moon, not that we didn't try, although it was enough to appreciate dusk settling in over the river and watch the shadows fade to darkness, the white hulls of the boats still visible long after the sun set.

Walking back through the dining room, I paused to read a tabletop, or, more precisely, read a 1986 newspaper article encased in yellowed epoxy adhered to a table that had doubtless been whacked zillions of times by crab-eaters.

Bent over, intent on enjoying the dated journalism, a man walks up to me and announces that I must be an athlete. Um, no, anything but, sir, I tell him, but he's not convinced. "Well, with a figure that great, you must do something!" he insists. "Do you play tennis?"

As if. Would you accept walk? Just as I'm reaching for a pithy comeback, my friend calls me over to the bar to introduce me to John, an older man she's just met. Or so she thinks.

Laying eyes on John and his glass stuffed with slices of cucumber, I recognize him immediately. He was sitting at the end of the bar a year ago when I was in and we both met him then.

She has no memory of this while mine is crystal clear, but she's been to Cantlers countless times while I've been only on 6 or 7 occasions, noting more than once that all the men here look like they can fix a diesel engine, if you know what I mean.

I think it's just part of the Eastport mystique, like sleeping with the windows open so I can hear masts clanging gently against each other all night.

Walking through the parking lot, we overhear a man ask his two companions, "Aren't you glad you didn't order just crabs? You'd still be hungry if you had. You can thank me later."

I could have taken a moment to point out that the only people who walk away from eating crabs still hungry are amateurs and that the only way to move beyond that status is to eat crabs as often as possible, but my friend shook her head.

No good reason to harsh a maritime mellow.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Rainy Days and Mondays

The thing about working for yourself is that there are no hard and fast on or off days.

Which means when I take off for the beach on a Tuesday and don't come back until Friday, working the weekend is a foregone conclusion. That's merely an observation, not a complaint.

There are worse obligations than having to drive to the Northern Neck on a beautifully sunny day to check out a soul food restaurant. The special of the day was meatloaf, mashed potatoes and collard greens, but I had to have the crabcake sandwich because, well, because I'd passed multiple roadside signs advertising crabs for sale so my tastebuds were set.

Honestly, they were set for crab in childhood, but that's another story.

And while I certainly didn't need it, when I saw that they made their own cinnamon buns for breakfast, I had to have one of those, too. The size of a well-made pastrami sandwich, the roll was flaky, spicy and overly-indulgent with icing that surely contained a stick of butter on each roll. Mac would have loved them.

Because the Whitestone bridge is still under renovation, it's down to one lane which results in being stopped high atop the bridge for 3 to 4 minutes while the opposite lane passes.

The beauty of such a high perch is the magnificent view of the Rappahannock and, yesterday at least, the dozens of boats (both motorized and sailing vessels) traversing the rivers in pursuit of pleasure. The sailboats are the most picaresque to me but the foamy white V-shaped trails of the motor boats against the turquoise blue of the water also have their charm.

I was barely home an hour when I headed to an ACLU fundraiser and legislative letter-writing event organized by a 12-year old, albeit an extraordinary 12-year old. When I asked him if he could imagine a time when he wasn't active in the community, he paused and said without irony, "Yea, when I was 11."

Kids today! When I was 11, I was reading Nancy Drew books and riding my bike around the neighborhood, not trying to shine a light on democracy. I'm not sure one is better than the other but they sure are different.

I intended to spend part of my evening in service of my hired mouth but we arrived to find a locked door (despite online Sunday hours...grrrr, there's a pet peeve) and wound up at Garnett's instead. We took the table in the front, the one next to the two open windows - aka the best seats in the house - for an MLT (meatloaf clearly being pro-ordained today) and a Scuffletown chicken salad.

In lieu of dessert, I got a tour of my date's recently-built outdoor shower nestled between an old tree and the house. Textured window for view? Check. Large showerhead? Check. Bench? Check. Multiple hooks and shelves? Check. View of stars? Check.

Already, he's forsaken indoor plumbing for a daily diet of outdoor showers, as would I given half a chance (and an outdoor shower where I live). My sole contribution was giving my opinion on details (when asked) such as stringing covered lights for late night bathing.

Today I was up at the crack of dawn (okay, 6:45, but I don't honestly know when dawn cracks) to catch an 8:18 train to Annapolis. My only regret is leaving a forecast of two days of precipitation in Richmond because I love a good rainy day or two.

Taking such an early train on a Monday morning puts me in the company of lots of business types who undoubtedly do far more serious jobs than I do. They look so serious and they may be nice people, but I wonder how many of them know there's a full moon tonight?

I'm barely settled on Amtrak's Quiet Car when we stop in Ashland, where I spot Cross Brothers Grocery with a hand-written sign saying "Hanover tomatoes" in the window. Tis the season.

So much of the scenery after Ashland is swampy or at least low and recently rained on, so enormous puddles fill in between trees and track. I could practically feel the mosquitos breeding.

In Fredericksburg, the streets are empty and rain-slicked and while passengers climb aboard, I watch an older couple loading what looks like antique furniture into a space-age looking trailer from the back of a building labeled Gunston Hall in fading paint.

Meanwhile on the Quiet Car, people work on their laptops or nap, some with their heads awkwardly resting against the window and others, like the guy across from me, stretched out across two seats, his shorts-clad legs sprawled open and his sock-covered feet atop the armrest.

As we reach the Potomac river, the view becomes monochromatic with the water a still silvery gray and the surrounding trees a green-gray, very English landscape artist-like.

I can always tell when we're approaching Quantico because the architecture takes a hideous turn.  The military makes no secret of its preference for function over form, resulting in an abundance of warning signs, chain link fences and squat brick buildings with zero personality.

My guess is it would require a lot of off-base drinking to self-medicate the rigidity of that life.

But leaving that ugliness behind, the train precariously hugs the river for a bit and that's when I can catch glimpses of river life along the Potomac. Colorful little river houses hang off the side of hills, up on stilts to escape storm damage and no doubt difficult to get to unless you know the back roads.

I especially like the River Shore, which appears to be a bar and grill with a long dock, no doubt a social hub when the river people are down. The kind of place I'd like to drop in and strike up random conversations with people who spot me for the stranger I am.

The first time I made this trip, I got off in Alexandria and one time when I missed my train, I was driven to Alexandria to catch up with it, but I'm really not much of an Alexandria fan. The station is quaint, I'll give it that, but not much more.

Today, the station's environs continue to fail to seduce me with its brutalist architecture and scraggly trackside landscaping. Worse, no one in blazers or suits is smiling. Man, it must be a long week when you're already hating life on Monday morning.

Not surprisingly, I'm partial to stopping in Washington. It is, after all, the city of my birth and where I last lived before Richmond, so even though I'm sitting in a train car for 40 minutes while they change engines and crews, I still get a sense of the city. Self-important people are everywhere and I know their first question would inevitably be, "What do you do?"

Enjoy my life, sir, It's enough.

On this overcast day, the Washington stop's highlight is a gorgeous two-car vintage train with the words "Pennsylvania Norfolk Southern" written in gold. The cars themselves are a burnished burgundy color, the windows more intermittent than on Amtrak's newer trains. It clearly hearkens back to the golden age of train travel.

Just as familiar is my final stop, New Carrollton, where my family moved when we left the city. Of course, the train station didn't exist when I was a kid and even as recently as the late '80s, when I took the train to visit my family, I got off in Washington, but now Amtrak arrives at the same place the Metro does, a stones' throw from my childhood.

It's where I'll get picked up for the drive to Eastport, get some work done and then enjoy dinner riverside eating crabs while admiring the full moon.

Because who doesn't have a soft spot for being off in the evenings?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Knock Me to My Knees

My willingness to help friends celebrate their birthdays knows no limits.

This one was a two night affair that began Friday night with dinner at L'Opossum and ended early Sunday morning on a screened porch with the Ohio Players blasting.

The birthday celebrant was Beau, dressed fetchingly in a subtly toned Hawaiian shirt and still on a high because of his recent new job, making for a double celebration. The four of us arrived to the flattering semi-darkness of L'Opossum's interior and took over the corner banquette (only because of a reservation made months ago, natch) with a toast to Beau thanks to a bottle of pink bubbly.

The sheer amount of food that we ordered might shame a lesser bunch, but not us.

Escargots cloaked in ham biscuits, a couple of Lettuce Toss Your Salad (impressed, as we were, with its inclusion of "a tight little green goddess downtown"), "Faberge" eggs with caviar and salmon, clams with bacon and herbs and, given the old hippies at the table, the vegan orgy on Texas Beach (five vegetable spreads and papadom).

Next came halibut, beef Swellington, butter-poached lobster mac and the portabello stack with beets, butternut squash and shallot fondue. I'm not ashamed to admit I didn't do justice to my entree after so many starters, but there were no food police at our table.

Not that we hadn't reached an elegant sufficiency, but the birthday bylaws stipulate desserts after a birthday dinner and who were we to mess with rules? There was my flaming chocolate, an apple tarte tatin, lavender limoncello creme brulee and hot black bottom a la mode.

The funniest moment arrived as we sat there in a food coma contemplating our next move. Rubbing his hands together, Beau cracked, "Are we going dancing now?" That's a reference to the time we were out for my birthday and as they dropped me off at home, I turned and asked that question, only to return to the car so we could all go dancing. Not this night.

Saturday night, we reconvened on the screened porch at Pru's manse with additional guests for more celebrating, this time with bubbles, Rose, absinthe and chocolate turtle birthday cake from Northside bakery Morsels. And because Pru was hostessing, also enough cheese and charcuterie to stock a small cheese shop.

Holmes and Beloved were just that day back from a week's vacation on the Outer Banks and when I inquired how things had gone with the other couple, Holmes quipped, "I only got kicked off the island once!"

Apparently he'd had some harsh words for the owners of the Salt Air Motel across the street when they'd left their trashcans in the bike lane and his housemates saw his reaction as un-vacation like. I try not to judge.

Why, just Friday when I was coming back from my rain-soaked walk on the beach, a car driving by had splattered me as it drove through a massive puddle. Did I shake my fist and hurl unkind epithets at the offender? I did not, but probably because I was already soaked to the bone.

Never mind.

Pru's porch is an ideal space for a party of seven bent on non-stop banter and constantly chilling wines. When two of the male members of the party were directed to the same settee, I asked rhetorically what the two non-alpha males had in common.

Beau summed it up first, "We don't like pants!" but his comrade-in-clotheslessness nodded happily in agreement.

When we got low on chilling agents, Beau volunteered to make a 7-11 run, returning with bag in hand across the back yard. "The iceman cometh!" Beloved joked when we spotted him.

"That's the second time this week someone has said that about him when he's come back with ice," Pru noted. Because of course she would have multiple literary friends capable of referencing Eugene O'Neill.

Midway through the evening, the absinthe fountain was filled with ice water and it was drips for all, except the hippie chick who eschews drinking. As the Green Fairy settled over the porch, seconds were ordered and conversation revolved around the unique effect of an absinthe buzz.

That was when Pru decided to replace the Artie Shaw we'd been listening to all evening with something a whole lot more funky and danceable: the Ohio Players.

Because loud music and loopy friends on a screened porch make every birthday better. Pants optional.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Getting Out of the City

And so it ends, as all truly great beach trips must, in an epic manner.

Unless, that is, you don't consider a two-mile trudge through driving rain on a mostly deserted beach epic.

The ocean was warmer than the rain. On the way up the beach - pre-deluge - I chatted with a guy reeling in a string of croakers and on the slog back - soaked through my shirt and bathing suit to the skin -  a guy gave me a high-five from the dry security of his deck. By halfway home from the pier, the rain had so saturated my new orange hat that drips from my hair ran down my face despite the straw brim.

It was glorious. It was elemental. It was so much better than not risking a walk at all because of the intimidating look of the clouds. Any seasoned beach-goer would have done the same.

I'd driven down, windows open, Tuesday morning, much of the way behind a rattletrap delivery truck that smelled like sour milk when I was downwind of it.

My soundtrack was all beach mixtapes made for me by fellow beach-goers, so reflecting their states of mind. From 2003 came a giddy paean to love, heavy on female voices, and the other from 2008, all about heartbreak and mostly sung by men. Both have beach associations for me beyond the givers' intents.

My stellar beach read was a birthday gift, Sherman Alexie's memoir/poetry pastiche, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and while I finished it, it's a little worse for the wear after this week.

Sand clings to a circle where a sticker once read "Autographed copy" and the book jacket is inexplicably stained brown in places. It's also mildly waterlogged along the edges, as if a particularly bold wave lapped it at high tide.

I can't be watching my book every minute, you know?

In what is surely a first for at least the last decade, the cottage where we stayed had no wifi. Not even any available wifi to steal from a neighboring house. And while my online needs are minimal when I'm at the beach, technically, I'd be a fool not to check given that I work for myself.

My solution was to drive to the closest wifi hot spot, check my email quickly, respond only when absolutely necessary and return to the cocoon of non-digital access.

It only made this beach trip sweeter.

The big news was all the progress made on the beach replenishment since I was in Kitty Hawk in late June. Then we'd seen the dredging boats far out in the ocean, even at night, but no activity onshore.

Now it's full-steam ahead, pipes have been laid and sand is already widening the beach in places I've been walking for decades. An enormous - four story? - contraption glides in and out of the water, looking like a gargantuan metal spider, while measuring the ratio of water and sand with its sensitive feet.

On Wednesday, I tried walking past the construction site on the beach and a guard sent me back the way I came, but by Thursday, he was gone and I could get closer to the Kitty Hawk Pier to watch heavy equipment operators moving sand around at Southern Shores.

The collateral damage of all this reshuffling of sand seems to be the horseshoe crabs whose carcasses littered the beach every morning this week like used firework casings on July fifth.

At night, the dredging boats are strung with white, red and green lights until they resemble a colorful riverboat (or, if you squint, like a Chinese dragon) as they move up and down the coastline, out to sea and back to shore.

Not everyone is a fan of all the hustle and bustle activity when they're on vacation, but I'm guessing it'll just be one of the beach details I'll probably always associate with 2017, like the noticeable after-affects of Hurricane Isabel in Summer 2004.

Eating crabs at I Got Your Crabs one evening, I turned to my companion, as fine a crab picker as I am, and asked if we couldn't be 100% certain we were the most adept pickers in the entire place. Without so much as looking at me or the people who surrounded us, I got an impatient, "Duh."

Not that we went to dinner to feel superior, but we also know our strong suits and aren't ashamed to admit them.

But that was our only foray into the commercial beach world and all the other meals (which for me alone seems to mean breakfast, lunch and dinner) were taken on the porch with a view of the ocean while I slept my usual nine hours to the best of all possible soundtracks: crashing waves.

Don't get the wrong idea. I know how incredibly lucky I am to have landed back at the beach again for the fourth time since Easter. Or, as a favorite beach-lover put it:

Wow, another trip to the beach! Some summer, eh?

Some summer indeed. It's turning out to be epic in a whole lot of ways besides browner legs.