Friday, December 14, 2018

My Kingdom for Someone to Ride With

Some Christmas presents come early and arrive in the form of words.

A: I learned from your blog that X and Y had broken up. You are my conduit to the Richmond social, food and art scene. Thank you.
K: It pleases me no end that you still catch up on my blog on occasion.
A: I don't catch up on your blog "on occasion." I've subscribed via a feed reader and read EVERY SINGLE ENTRY AS THEY POST.

Some Christmas music is just a new song from an old artist that evokes memories.

Hearing on the radio that David Bazhan is back making music with his band Pedro the Lion, I immediately fell for their new song, "Yellow Bike" which is as much a tribute to Christmas past - the song begins with him seeing the bike next to the Christmas tree - as any "traditional" song...with a far better guitar line.

And speaking of music, as if it wasn't enough to be reminiscing about childhood bikes and holidays, I also heard a live version of "Never Going Back Again." It was recorded on the "Tusk" tour and is part of a new Fleetwood Mac box set because, somehow, someway, the Mac has apparently been a band for 50 years.

Granted, I didn't discover them until the mid '70s but, yes, I was that college kid who went to all the shows with her best friend when they played multiple night stands.

Holy crap, I'm old.

But not too old to appreciate seeing a piece of classic feminist theater for only the second time in my life. Back in 2010 when I couldn't afford a theater ticket and wasn't yet on the Theater Alliance Panel, I'd ushered a performance so that I could see Henley Street Theater's production of "A Doll's House," my first time seeing it.

Planning to see TheatreLAB's production of the same, Pru and Beau had expressed interest, although Pru changed her mind, deciding she was no longer in the mood for Ibsen. That left the odd couple, Beau and me.

We started the evening at Longoven, a place I'd been but he hadn't. Walking in, a favorite bartender greeted me with a smile and we were led to a table underneath a giant wreath that gave off the most delicious evergreen aroma.

Carrying the "pink bubbles fo-evah" banner, I stayed true to form with Montand Cremant du Jura Rose, while Beau furthered his Hungarian curiosity with Evolucio Tokaj, the latest in a series he's had from that region.

Naturally this led to a discussion of the Balkan restaurant Ambar, where he'd first fallen hard for Hungarian wines. I've been to the one in D.C., while Beau's been to the one in Clarendon and both of us had been intrigued and wowed by a wine list covering places like Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Moldovia and Macedonia.

So many grapes, so little time.

Everything we put in our mouths was exceptional and highly creative, leading Beau to dub Longoven "non-safe eating," a term I love. One of my sisters used to regularly proclaim that "Only boring people get bored," but I'd tack on an addendum of, "Only boring people prefer safe eating."

Knocking it out of the park was a dish of smoked duck, over which rested a mound of turnip slices and turnip confit and topped with a leaf of grilled radicchio and horseradish cream. Delicately fried cauliflower leaves added the final texture and flavor. It was a dish that got better with each successive bite as my palate absorbed the brilliant combination of rich and bitter, soft and toothsome.

Waiting for our next course, Beau did his best to toss a compliment my way, observing, "Your hair always looks good, but tonight's dishevelment is less." The backtracking that followed may have been the humorous high point of the evening.

Next up was a risotto of seeds - sunflower, chia, pepitas, millet and quinoa - arranged in a circle like a wreath and bordered with autumn greens, a dollop of Fontina fondue at the center. It was vegetarian comfort food of the highest order and our only regret was not having a piece of crusty bread to sop up the remains with.

More Cremant arrived for me as Beau made the switch to the Loire with Domaine a Deux Sauvignon Blanc Touraine and we geared up for our shared large plate.

We'd chosen a favorite for both of us, skate wing, seared and riding atop cauliflower puree with maitake mushrooms and dollops of soubise, which combines two of my very favorite staples, onion butter, into a sauce. The edges of the wing were seared to golden brown crunch perfection and our server (a transplant from Raleigh) commented on how clean we'd licked the plate.

We are nothing if not eaters, Beau and I. And, unlike Pru, we both need a shift to sweet after multiple savory courses.

Intrigued by the combination of black sesame ice cream with black sesame sponge cake, both dehydrated and fresh, and a pear sauce, Beau's dessert was a fascinating shade of gunmetal gray and pastiche of sweet and savory.

Meanwhile, I savored a glass of 20-year Tawny Port with hazelnut sponge cake and hazelnut praline with rosettes of hazelnut mousse and the thinnest of slivers of dark chocolate, a dish that took a turn for the obscene with Comte ice cream.

Whoever thought of translating Comte into ice cream deserves a major award. It also convinced both of us that even the dessert-avoiding Pru could have been seduced by its cheesy richness.

When our server came over to inquire if she could get us anything else, Beau piped up, "What else you got?" Clearly the wine had kicked in and it was time to motor.

Some plays may lack traditional Christmas characters - the Grinch, Scrooge - but the fact that they take place at Christmastime more than qualifies them for December entertainment.

Full as ticks from a meal of non-safe food, we headed east to the Basement for a lesson in female empowerment. In a play oozing male chauvinism, the production was a solid reminder of how revolutionary Ibsen's script had been when it was written in 1879, but how it still resonates today.

I wouldn't change the smallest part of you, not in any way.

Even the music chosen to be played before and between acts reflected the kind of strong women Nora found herself becoming: Aretha, Adele, Carole King, Dolly Parton, Marian Anderson. Director Josh Chenard had chosen groundbreaking women to establish the mood.

I hardly saw you for four weeks. I was never so bored.

Watching Landon Nagel switch seamlessly from adoring, sweet-talking lover to bullying husband was disturbing and unsettling, like reading about abused women who choose not to press charges against the men who beat them because they focus on his "good" side. Nagel's ability to convey both convincingly speaks to his well-honed skills as an actor.

Although whether the sweat on his face was due to his 19th century costume or his passion in portraying Torvald, I really can't say.

I'm your husband. It's your job to indulge me.

Katrinah Carol Lewis wrung every possible emotion from the character of Nora as we watched her abandon the fantasy of a strong and happy marriage to go from docile wife to a woman who is driven to understand herself and her own needs before she can address any other aspects of her life.

"A Doll's House," for me, is the kind of play that reminds a 21st century woman how fortunate she was to come up during a time when women could be themselves and follow whatever (convoluted, in my case) path they chose. The confrontational scene near the end where Nora tells Torvald she's leaving him - and why - remains a classic of female empowerment.

And that door slam as the story concludes? Has there ever been a more satisfying ending to a play?

Or to a day more satisfying than one that began with learning that there are some people who read my ramblings every single time they post?

Some Christmas season evenings, I'm just grateful that my dishevelment isn't an issue for everyone.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Too Much Champagne is Just Right

If I was in charge of planning holiday celebrations, they would all include Champagne and eggnog.

But that's probably the bubbly and nog talking.

Our sole original intent was to make it to the Acacia Mini Bubbles dinner for three courses and three variations on the most festive of wines. Pru and Beau had both signed on for whatever the night held, with Beau (the non-bubbles fan), promising to show up with an open mind. While he's not as quick to have his head turned by sparkling wine as we are, he at least approaches these dinners with a willingness to have his mind changed.

And, truly, what more could a woman ask of a friend (or lover) than an open mind?

Driving to Acacia, Beau chose an unusual route that stranded us twice between double-parked cars on still snow-packed Mulberry Street, where Pru lived for many years. Some of our best friendship memories involve me going to Mulberry Street, where I'd scoop her up - planned or unplanned - and we'd have an adventure, many of them involving dancing.

Those halcyon, unemcumbered times are fondly referred to as the Mulberry Days and always spoken in a reverential tone. In fact, Beau slowed the car in respect as we drove on to Acacia.

As the front-of-the-house manager (and wife of the chef) greeted us, I couldn't help but be impressed with her attire: a t-shirt listing out the various forms of bubbly - Lambrusco, Cava, Prosecco, Cremant - with the most important, "Champagne," spelled out in silver sequins, a gift from her husband. Finishing it off was a ballerina-length black tulle skirt that turned the clever t-shirt into the most festive of attire.

When Pru noted that she had the same skirt, I couldn't resist suggesting that she wear it on New Year's Eve. If ever a girl can get away with tulle, it's at bubbly events or the turn of the calendar.

Moving on to more important matters, it should be noted that as always, Acacia's food offerings were superb.

Beginning with Azienda Agricola Brancher Prosecco di Valdobbiandene Superiore Extra Dry, we were immersed in sparkling wine. Accompanying the wine with its hint of residual sugar was smoked salmon atop a cauliflower pancake and topped with pickled onion, capers, egg dust and a dollop of creme fraiche.

Yet again proving the power of pairings, none of us were raving about the Prosecco until the fattiness of the creme fraiche obliterated the sweetness and made the Prosecco shine. Pru immediately dubbed it a perfect brunch sipper, reminding me of that Noel Coward quote, "Why do I drink Champagne for breakfast? Doesn't everyone?"

Not often enough, no.

As an added bonus, wine rep Brandon became our hero after announcing that mankind should drink as much sparkling wine as possible and that Champagne is his favorite beverage, bar none.

He then went on to extol the beauty of the Prosecco region and assured us it was still an uncrowded oasis for bubbly lovers (note to self).

While devouring that tasty course, conversation turned to the long-term prospects of Pru and Beau, a couple who have known each other for 35 years. When the subject of Pru tiring of Beau came up, he noted that she would have to pry him out of her life with a crowbar.

"Like a barnacle," he explained, sublimating his manhood to the metaphor and cracking me up.

Next up was pure decadence: crab fritters atop braised cabbage with Surry sausage in a creamy truffle sauce. With this, Brandon had paired Mont Marcal Cava Brut Rosado, thus satisfying my love of bubbles and Rose in one fell swoop.

The exquisite and oh-so mid-Atlantic pairing of crab and pig made all three of us inordinately happy because, let's face it, the combination is about as Virginia as you can get. When I wished that this combination could become an entree, Beau reminded me that it would be obscene to have any more of it.

So excess is bad now, right?

I parted ways with my friends when it came to the main course. My choice was sauteed rockfish over spaghetti squash under a blanket of clam chowder sauce, served with Larmandier-Bernier "Longitude" Blanc de Blanc, the pairing a symphony of whites and beiges.

The dynamic duo opted for braised beef short ribs over Yukon Gold potatoes with sauteed Swiss Chard made even more delicious for being paired with what Brandon described as "not like any other Champagne you've ever had," Andre Clouet Grand Cru Brut Rose.

Between the unexpected strawberry notes and creamy mouthfeel, it was completely seductive, the only problem being they each had glasses of it and I didn't. Being friends, however, I did get tastes. Of note was how well the wine paired with the Swiss Chard, of all things.

When it came time for dessert, a shared chocolate cremeux was sufficient because everyone was in the mood for liquid dessert.

For me, it was my own glass of that Andre Clouet Grand Cru Brut Rose, while Pru decided to do a speedball: a cup of French press coffee plus a bastardized Irish coffee (no Bailey's) that redeemed itself with a massive float of whipped heavy cream.

The non-Alpha male among us debated the liquor menu long and hard before deciding he wanted 15-year old Singleton, neat, please. Pru, in fine form two-fisting caffeine, leaned over and observed, "None of that octoroon whiskey for him," referring to the blended whiskeys.

Get enough quality alcohol in a person and she'll say anything.

Knowing the best way to keep Pru happy all winter, Beau placed an order for the Cava and the Brut Rose and, on that note, we headed out into the night. My suggestion of a final stop at a holiday bar seemed a festive way to wind things down, so we drove to Carytown to check out Miracle on Cary, the latest incarnation of the Jasper.

Seeing a line come out the door was almost a buzz kill, one I mitigated instantly by suggesting Christmas Session instead. While I've been to Rapp Session's holiday pop-up in the past, neither of them had and they were easily malleable agreeable by this point.

Beau is fond of saying that I always get my way, but I prefer to think that I just verbalize what others are thinking. And, yes, I'm still campaigning for that fried chicken and grower's Champagne party, my friend.

Regardless of how we'd ended up there, Christmas Session was the right choice, festive and low-key with only a half dozen other people around. Looking at the drink menu encased in a Christmas card, I opted for the Ebenezer, a potent blend of Mezcal, Hornitos Reposado, Agave, Cocchi Americano and Hellfire bitters while the happy couple each asked for a Rebel Without a Claus.

Because our friendship is based on tasting reciprocity, Beau and I each took one sip of our drinks before handing them off to be tasted by the other. Immediately we both knew we'd ordered the wrong drink and the switch was made.

The Rebel, a creamy blend of kettlecorn-infused rum, Frangelico, heavy cream, simple syrup and mole bitters in a coupe glass tasted like swanky eggnog and smelled like nutmeg, a combination I found irresistible, while he needed smokey, strong brown liquors with a giant ice cube.

Pru and I were on our second round of Rebels and feeling fine when Beau started snapping pictures of us under the strings of colored lights like we were subjects in a holiday magazine spread. We kept the theme going by ordering a final Rebel, which our affable server delivered with two sets of straws for ease of consumption.

Picture-taking brought up the subject of me not using photos on my blog - my recent picture of a snow penis on my car being a natural starting point - which I reminded them is impossible because the dated Blogger platform doesn't support photos beyond the main image and profile photo.

Words, people, I'm trying to use words to paint a picture, not pictures. Anyone can do that.

By the time we rolled out of Christmas Session, we'd outlasted all the selfie-taking groups from Rappahannock, heard enough holiday music for the rest of the season and topped off our evening of bubbly with multiple glasses of Christmas Past.

A girl couldn't ask for much more on a Wednesday night.

Except maybe to get home to a mailbox with a sweet card from Mr. Wright full of words that made my night, as well as a note from a local curator telling me, "I so appreciate your writing and the way you make information about something visual come alive."

And that, dear reader, is why you'll never see the photograph of the snow penis here. I've got enough to do just making my adventures come alive.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Love is a Bohemian Child

I have two just questions, at least for right now.

Who changes their clock in the middle of the night? And will this slow death by snow ever end? Three days in and it feels interminable.

When I woke up in the middle of the night, I was inexplicably certain my bedside clock had stopped, so I checked another clock and reset it in the dark. Only once I got up and began making breakfast did I realize that I'd mistakenly set my clock half an hour ahead.

And, believe me, a snow day doesn't need to start any earlier than it already does, if you know what I'm saying.

While the snow didn't prevent me from walking, it definitely slowed down the process to the point that a four mile walk - usually an hour-long endeavor - took an hour and 20 minutes. A lot of that had to do with my inability to walk at my usual speed because of un-shoveled sidewalks, unexpected swaths of black ice when walking in the street to avoid icy puddles and detours due to enormous mounds of plowed snow deposited on sidewalks.

Pedestrians become secondary when it comes to snow removal.

Still, I was out of the house and seeing signs of life, so that at least was progress and there are worse ways to spend the afternoon than writing to the accompaniment of the sounds of snow shifting and melting outside. But after spending the last two nights at home, I also made a deal with myself that if got enough work finished, I was going to cut out in late afternoon to go indulge my inner documentary dork.

Besides mixing things up a bit, it was a chance to prove I could stay home three nights in a row and I know I have friends who doubted I could.

It was hardly surprising how uncrowded the Movieland parking lot was, not to mention finding only three other people in the tiny Criterion Cinema where I was seeing "Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words."

Two of them were older and obviously on a date, but they'd both lost the ability to whisper, so their frequent exchanges were loud enough for me and the other loner to hear every word. And he was one of those men who felt the need to explain every preview to her as if she hadn't just seen it with her own eyes.

Red flag, honey, cut bait while you can.

As for the documentary's subject matter, Maria Callas has interested me since the whole Jackie business. Back in those days, my family had subscriptions to three daily newspapers and I recall quite clearly that the Washington Daily News, an afternoon tabloid-format paper, always had the best juice in it.

So when they ran a piece about Onassis' plans to marry JFK's widow, they didn't stint on the fact that it broke Callas' heart because of their long-time relationship. It may have been the first time I'd ever read in a newspaper about a woman having an affair, so it piqued my curiosity and stuck.

Years later, I picked up "Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend" by Arianna Stossinopolous at one of the library's used book sales and learned a lot more about the diva. So it only took seeing the previews to tonight's movie once to know I needed to come back and hear the story of her life in her own words.

Because that was really the cool part of this non-traditional documentary. Director Tom Volf chose to only use interviews of Callas, along with home movies, filmed performances and press footage with an occasional overdub of American opera singer Joyce di Donato reading Callas' letters aloud.

Letters to people like Grace Kelley. Letters to Onassis. Letters that explained exactly where her head and heart were at any given time.

So without a talking head in sight, the story truly felt like it was being told by Maria herself, in all her perfect make-up and fashionable splendor.

An added bonus of the film was the extensive and dated footage of Europe, meaning I go to see Athens and the Acropolis in 1937 and Paris in 1963, neither much resembling the crowded metropolises I saw in the 21st century.

Pushed into a career in opera by a demanding stage mother, Callas talked repeatedly about a woman's value being in having a family and children, but that wasn't the hand she'd been dealt. "Destiny is destiny," she tells the interviewer. "There's no way out."

To add to the vintage vibe, some of the old footage had been colorized, giving it that over-saturated '50s look where yellow, orange and red reign supreme and blue is tough to find.

It was obvious how much of a Callas fan the director was because of the multiple live performances he included, and not just a snippet, but the entire aria. Seeing her perform onstage made it easy to see why her acting skills had been touted, along with her voice and technical skill.

But like with that long-ago Daily News, I reveled in the details of her love affair with Aristotle Onassis, whom she referred to as "Aristo," but whom she always described as a friend, not a lover. Tellingly, she said that Aristo made her feel "liberated and feminine" and that he was more than happy for her to take a break from a demanding career that had begun at 13 and never let up.

As a side note, I'd only seen photographs of Onassis in his late '50s and early '60s, but seeing him in his '40s revealed that he'd once been a very handsome, if very Greek-looking, man.

Everyone may know now who worships at the altar of divas, but back when Callas returned to New York City, her hometown, to sing after having been gone for seven years, it wasn't all that much different. A CBS correspondent roams the long line of people waiting to get into the Met, asking them why she's worth waiting all day to see.

All three men asked responded with praise and deference to the magnificent woman they idolized and, without profiling anyone, I'd guess that every single one of them was a gay boy. Slender, attractive and absolutely enthralled at seeing their heroine, they positively fawned as long as the CBS microphone was held in their face. One said he expected the ovation to be "standing and last 30 minutes."

 That's a true fan. Adorable.

But also of note was what that before there were rock stars, Maria Callas was an opera star of the rock star magnitude, the kind greeted at every airport and train station where she arrived with a gaggle of paparazzi hanging on her every word, at least when she deigned to talk to them. Performances sold out overnight when her name was announced as part of the cast.

And yet, the sad part was she didn't get the family and children she craved nor did she get the one man she truly loved, even if he did go back to meeting her in secret after marrying the world's most famous window.

It's like she told David Frost, "There are two people in me. I am Maria, but there is Callas that I have to live up to." Helluva trade-off to be considered the finest operatic female voice of the 20th century.

There are two people in me, too, but since I'm not the finest anything, I get to do whatever I want, even when it's not what others expect.

Destiny, shmestiny. Like Emerson said, the only person you're destined to become is the person you decide to be.

I'm shooting for liberated, feminine and almost always hungry. I like to think it's enough to keep me out of the diva category.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Closed for Snow

As goes Clay Street, so goes the world. At least, that's what I was hoping.

The moment I looked out the window this morning and saw that my street was passable was the moment I decided that my road trip to the Northern Neck was on, after all. If they'd gotten to Clay Street, Route 360 had to be clear.

Mom and Dad's pre-holiday to-do list awaited. I had to accept that absolutely nothing was going to happen in Richmond today with everything shut down and I needed to get out even if it meant driving an hour and a half away to escape the Hallmark holiday statis.

This girl was gone.

When I went down to clear off my car, a chore I expected to take 15 minutes but which took 30 given the foot of snow covering it, it was to discover that a very Jackson Ward thing had happened to my vehicle: there was a snow penis carved into the center of the hood.

I couldn't even be surprised. Instead, I went back upstairs, got my camera and took a snap of it.

That's because from the month I moved into this place - March 2009 - snowfall has meant male genitalia around these parts. The first one I ever saw was 3' high on top of a car and I tried to convince myself it was an aberration, except that the next morning I saw two: one on the hood of a truck, one in the truck's bed. Over the years, I've been able to count on seeing one whenever we have any appreciable snowfall.

Like so many things, it's just life in the Ward (insert shrug). I cleared it off, along with all the other snow that had blanketed my car and was on my way.

Driving east meant leaving J-Ward with its foot of snow and driving through Mechanicsville with its 7 or 8" (including the snow-covered windmill) to the Northern Neck where it wasn't much more than 4 or 5" and passing 17 snow plows along the way (I counted).

In the median between here and Tappahannock, I saw four vehicles abandoned, including a Fed Ex van, undoubtedly left yesterday since the roads were clear this morning.

Far more scenic was the landscape, with every evergreen resembling a Christmas card-worthy image of snow-laden branches. Large bushes like forsythia must have filled in and then over with snow, so that they now resembled giant Hostess Snoballs, minus the electric pink color.

For incongruous charm, it was hard to beat getting on the bridge in Tappahannock to see each of the docks along the shore covered in a carpet of snow. For sheer grandeur, nothing topped coming off it to see enormous, untouched white fields of snow as far as the eye could see. They didn't look real and no one would have found them believable if CGI had made them look that perfect.

When I stopped at Food Lion in Warsaw to get sour cream for Mom (the one ingredient she didn't have for the cake she wanted me to make today), the cashiers were standing in a gossip circle near the chip aisle, bored out of their minds and dreading the day ahead.

All was well at Mom and Dad's, where the heat is always set too high and Christmas decor is omnipresent. Things did smell wonderful, though, because the Christmas tree they'd gotten in Whitestone, while smaller than their usual ceiling-scraper (for which they both apologized, as if they were shirking their parental duty to only get a 7' tree), had a particularly fragrant scent that I love.

Besides the sour cream, Mom had asked me to bring the recipe when she couldn't find her copy. Mind you, this is a recipe she first shared with me in the '70s after a German co-worker made it and Mom got the recipe from her, a backstory I'd never heard before today.

That led to a conversation about her years working at the International Monetary Fund and how she'd been passed up for a promotion when her boss retired. Everyone was shocked when she didn't get it, but then word leaked that the woman who had was the IMF director's god-daughter. As recompense, when Mom decided to take early retirement, they paid her full salary for a year and a half before benefits began.

I reminded her that she'd used that time to move to this house full-time and do things like plant butter lettuces and cantaloupes and soak grapevines in the bath tub to make wreaths. "Yes, I did," she said, looking pleased with herself at the 30-year old memory.

Somebody's got to remember these stories and it looks like I'm it.

Dad, meanwhile, is in charge of writing out the dozens of Christmas cards they send out every season, as well as addressing all gift tags. It's not just that his handwriting is magnificent (though it is) but that Mom's resembles nothing so much as chicken scratch, a fact she attributes to years of using shorthand to take notes.

In any case, it's a holiday chore that necessitates a great deal of back and forth between them about people and memories.

When 1953 comes up because of a song, Dad reminds me that 1953 was the year he went in the army, a pivotal decision in his life, he now believes, because it set him on the path to meeting Mom. Needless to say, he still considers this the best thing that ever happened to him.

You listen to these stories your whole life and you can't help but be a believer in love and romance.

Driving back late this afternoon against a low-slanting sun, I could see that this morning's pristine fields had now been violated, whether by sun, birds or animals, but there wasn't much more traffic on the roads then there had been this morning and that had been ridiculously light.

It was clear everyone who could be was at home today. Well, not everyone.

Back at home, where the neighborhood felt emptied out and there were parking spaces galore, I briefly considered a movie but decided instead that with my social needs fed by the people who spawned me, I'd stay at home and accomplish any number of things I needed to do.

After putting a load of laundry in, I grabbed the snow shovel and began shoveling a path from my door and along the sidewalk (as the city requires) to the basement door. If I'm being honest, it felt great to do something really physical in the cold evening air after not getting in my walk today...or much movement beyond wrapping presents.

I was scraping away, getting into the quiet of the 'hood in between my scrapes, when my neighbor unexpectedly opened the front door to see me there with my shovel.

"Oh I thought you were my friend," he said unconvincingly and probably annoyed to have gotten up from his video game to find out. "She's supposed to be coming over, so when I heard something..." I continue shoveling and smile. He goes away.

Once I finish shoveling, I pause before going upstairs to enjoy how unusually silent the city is. No hum from I-95 drifting over, no passersby, just an unnatural quiet. It's lovely.

It's broken seconds later when two young women who live next door walk up, crunching through the snow, each with a large bag in her arms, probably from the 24-hour Rite-Aid. In a voice that can only be described as young and inexperienced, one squeals giddily, "He didn't even card me! I mean, he.."

Before she finishes, her cohort brags right back. "He didn't card me, too," clarifying either that this guy casts a fairly wide net when it comes to underage drinking or to establish that it was her narrative, as well.

Both sound tickled pink to have gotten away with buying lots of beer to wile away another snowy night stuck at home.

Shoveling the walk, getting trashed, we like our pleasures simple in J-Ward. And, man, you should see our snow sculptures.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Not Washing My Hair with Snow

What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?
~ John Steinbeck

Not to sound like sour grapes of wrath or anything, but I got your winter cold right here, mister.

Oh, sure, I can accept an early snow day for the beauty of the big, soft flakes falling when I wake up. I can even make the most of it on my walk by ensuring that my route takes me by Nate's Bagels, where a handwritten sign on the door warns that they'll be closing at noon due to safety concerns.

As the woman who takes my order explains, pointing outside, "If it's that bad on Cary Street, how bad is it on the side streets?" Pretty nasty, I tell her, having just walked two miles on side streets.

Fortunately for me, it was only 11:34 when I got there and they weren't yet out of everything bagels, so at least my effort wasn't in vain. Actually, it was the shortest line I've seen at Nate's since they opened, but even so, the walk home felt even wetter and colder than getting there had, but maybe that had to do with seeing a guy in shorts walking down Main Street.

Seriously?

Although I was optimistic enough to clean off my car once I got back, it was completely covered again within two hours, so basically it was just some additional cardio I did.

And although I happily looked out my windows dozens of times today to admire the falling snow, I'm really not a snow day kind of a gal. I don't have a fireplace and I don't drink hot toddies. I'm not going to go sledding or build a snowman (or, as is more common in J-Ward, build a snow penis). I'm not going to eat gingerbread or sip tea, either.

Any moment now, I expect the walls to begin closing in on me. The occasional cup of hot chocolate aside, I'm really pretty terrible at celebrating snow appropriately.

So I did the only logical thing: I worked. I edited a piece I'd been working on so I could submit it early, then wrote up the artist interview of the exhibit I'd toured yesterday. I worked out, baked cookies and cleaned the bathroom.

I watched as one of my Clay Street neighbors did periodic snow measurement updates and posted them online so I didn't have to wonder how deep it was outside. I read my Washington Post from front to back, ogling photographs in the travel section of Nevis and the British Virgin Islands, pictures that felt like a tease compared to what's outside my door.

And I realized as the day progressed and the snow kept falling that while I could get by today, tomorrow is going to be a wash. Already, businesses and institutions have announced that they'll be closed. There goes tomorrow's road trip, as well as my plans with Lady G for tomorrow night.

It's doubtful I'll even be able to work since there's no telling if anyone will answer my emails if they're not at the office. Le sigh.

My only hope is that the VMFA with its policy of being open 365 days a year will open tomorrow, allowing me to trek through this mess to be culturally entertained for as long as possible. But being a state institution, I'm not counting on it. Absent that life line, my sole shot at escape would be Movieland if they choose to open.

It's not like I don't have a stack of reading material to dip into. But much as I love to read, it's just tough to get conversation out of even the best of books. It's not the snow I mind, it's the cessation of social life.

Just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean there isn't a bored extrovert inside.

Get Me to the World on Time

Ain't too proud to beg, or, more accurately, invite myself over.

Looking at a Saturday that involved a gallery tour by an artist I'm writing about, an interview with a curator and a protracted meeting of the Theater Alliance Panel I'm on, I didn't hesitate to call Holmes before leaving for my busy afternoon. My inquiry was simple: did he and the little woman have a bar stool available at their record-listening party tonight?

Bingo. Let me tell you, it's far more pleasant working through the afternoon and early evening knowing I'd wind up with a glass of wine in hand, listening to music with friends. They were making dinner at home, so we timed my arrival to coincide with post-meal cleanup.

You have to love hosts who immediately pour you a glass of Rose All Day, a French Grenache Rose that is currently Beloved's favorite and lead you to the man cave crowded with records, CDs, cassette tapes, a full bar and a wine fridge, sort of a bomb shelter for those who've just eaten.

To kick off our listening party, we usually begin with a 45 to set the tone before moving on to albums.  First up was Elvis Costello's "Allison," a slow start, but one that decided the era.

But to change things up, next Holmes pulled out another 45, this one of U2's "With or Without You," while Beloved and I marveled at the 1987 photograph of Bono on the sleeve. Clearly he'd still been in his "tortured Irish artist" phase, although Beloved put it best, noting, "He looks dirty. Like he's about to start digging potatoes."

And he did. Not yet developed was the grandeur poses of the humanitarian god he was to become.

And, mind you, I hadn't had anything to drink beyond a few sips of my Rose, so when Holmes turned the 45 over to play the flip side, "Luminous Times," it took but a second for me to realize that something was wrong. That didn't sound like Bono singing or the Edge's guitar.

Looking at Holmes for help, I asked if the 45 was on the wrong speed. Negative. He turned it back over and, sure enough, "With or Without You" was instantly recognizable. What the ...? He thought perhaps he'd accidentally hit the speed knob while changing records, but, no, it was on 45 rpm.

Maybe it was the Rose, but we debated the issue for far longer than we should have.

Only once Holmes took the 45 off the turntable and examined it did we see the problem. The flip side clearly stipulated, "Play this side at 33 rpm." We did and finally listened to the song as it was meant to be heard.

Bono no longer sounded like a member of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

All three of us looked at each other incredulously. Not one of us long-time music fans had ever seen a record with different speeds on each side of the same disc. It was almost like the young band (or perhaps artsy producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno) had been testing its fans to see if they were paying attention.

Check that, it was as if the lads of U2 purposely decided to mess with their listeners' heads. Apparently it never occurred to them that some people might be listening while drinking and not fully paying attention to such details on a Saturday night.

Instructing Holmes to look at the ceiling and randomly pull an album from under the bar, he came up with Rod Stewart's "Never a Dull Moment" and handed it to me for inspection. The moment I saw that "You Wear It Well" was on the album, I was on board.

Because it came out in 1972, we each began reminiscing about what we'd been doing then. For me, in my first year of high school, the song conjured up memories of hearing it on the college radio station, noticing its similarity to "Maggie May" and digging the fiddle parts. For my hosts, it was a college memory, so a lot more had been going on in their lives, though both had great memories of the album.

I mean, who wouldn't love hearing Rod the Mod's raucous cover of the Sam Cooke-penned "Twistin' the Night Away?"

Yet again, we succumbed to Holmes' two-record compilation of the best of the Zombies, a record we seem to regularly revisit for different reasons. For them, it's the soundtrack to their teen years, while for me, the Zombies' music sounds like the essence of the mid-'60s sound, which I was too young to be paying attention to when it came out.

The problem is, every time we put one of the records on, we pretend that we're only going to listen to one side, but inevitably, we can't stop ourselves. Classics like "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" never get old, but the unexpected pleasure of "Tell Her No" also caused no small amount of dancing and excitement in the basement bar.

My new favorite? "She Loves the Way He Loves Her."

And let's not overlook the exquisite surprise of the Zombies' languid cover of Gershwin's "Summertime," which took mere moments to recognize despite its new-to-me arrangement. I have to admit, I never saw that one coming.

Despite our best intentions, last night we got through three sides before Holmes played the grown-up and pulled the plug.

As if music hadn't been enough to lure me over, Beloved had made sure that there was dessert in the house in the form of a multi-layer chocolate confection with layers of dark chocolate ganache, chocolate mousse, a dense, cake-like layer and chocolate icing.

That the slice was more than enough for three was proof that there is a dessert god.

Next up was a new addition to Holmes' collection, recently acquired at Hardywood's record fair: the promotional album, "1969 Warner Bros/Reprise Songbook," which turned out to be a Whitman's Sampler of musicians, songs and oddities the record company was putting out to entice fans to buy more albums.

I was tickled to see a range from South African songstress Miriam Makeba doing a powerful rendition of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" to Joni Mitchell to the Kinks.

And while I'd heard the name the Electric Prunes (a name chosen, according to the liner notes, because it was so far out), only last night did I learn of the psychedelic band's early role in combining classical music with rock, as in their attempted "Mass in F Minor." What?

When Beloved insisted she didn't know the band, Holmes assured her she'd heard "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" while I just smiled along because I'd never heard of it either.

Along about then, my host decided to celebrate the start of bubbly season by opening a bottle of Tattinger "La Francaise" Brut and making Beloved smile ear to ear. "Now that is Champagne," she announced after one sip with eyes closed.

Indeed it was, though I'm partial to sparklers and could drink them any time they're offered to me.

Equally worthy of celebration, especially for Holmes, was a collector's item cut by Jimi Hendrix, originally recorded for "Are You Experienced?" and then held for "Axis Bold as Love." Only problem was that that album wound up being too tight to include it, so they pushed it forward to use on "Electric Ladyland," which was even tighter.

A pattern was developing.

Apparently "Red House" finally got released on something called "Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits," but for Holmes, ever the music student, it was hearing an unreleased track and its backstory that made his night.

Side three began with the unlikeliest of tracks - unless you read that it was Dr. Demento who chose and sequenced the tracks - of Tiny Tim laughing long and hard before segueing into a track by the Mothers of Invention.

In 1969, or possibly with enough drugs, I'm sure these choices made perfect sense.

When we got to a track by the Fugs - apparently the name is a Norman Mailer euphemism for f*ck - what cracked us all up was the liner notes about some of the guys in the band, one who taught courses in the sexual revolution at the Free University of New York and one who was proprietor of the Peace Eye Pornographic Gallery of Art.

What better qualifications for forming a satirical, lewd avant-rock band? And truly, did we need courses in the sexual revolution? Couldn't you just learn that stuff going to parties and shows?

Shaking his head, Holmes summed things up. "The Fugs were bizarre. They did songs called 'River of Shit' and 'Wet Dream Over You.'" So there was that.

As if on cue, another Fugs' track began and Holmes reacted instantaneously. "Oh, my god, this is 'River of Shit!'" Except that the track's actual title is "Wide, Wide River," but it's still about a river of shit.

Last up was Arlo Guthrie doing a comedic bit about the FBI and how it takes 25 years to train agents to become bastards, a long-winded riff on authority that probably played better in 1969 than now when democracy is under siege.

And, just like that, four and a half hours had gone by and we'd only managed to listen to three albums and two 45s, albeit one of the latter played multiple times until we discovered our stupidity and had polished off two bottles of wine.

Tiny Tim can laugh all he wanted, but an evening that swings from Gershwin to Tattinger with stops at the Peace Eye Pornographic Gallery of Art makes asking for an invite worth the risk.

Even better, when tempted with my companionship charms, Holmes didn't tell me no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. But he also didn't play that fourth Zombies' side, either.

Never a dull moment when you force yourself on friends.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

So Much Funukah

Leave it to a man from Chicago to show Richmond what a monument can be.

The plan was for Mr. Wright and I to walk over to the ICA for music based on art.

When we walked in, the woman at the desk asked if I was a member (natch) and then sent us upstairs to the third floor's True Farr Luck Gallery for the Provocations performance with Marcus Tenney. Turns out the Provocations series was inspired by architect Steven Holl's design intention for that unusually shaped top floor space.

Holl called it a "provocation for artists to engage" and with its white sculptural ceiling, church-like acoustics and opaque glass wall, there was plenty to inspire. Sitting squarely in the middle of the gallery was Rashid Johnson's "Monument," a towering, multi-layer installation made from a steel grid and filled with plants, grow lights, books, small TV screens and sculptures made of shea butter.

Walking around and through the installation, I told Mr. Wright that it reminded me of everything I wanted in my living space - minus the screens, of course and with the addition of somewhere to sleep - when I was in college. Shelves punctuated the grid with stacks of books - Hawthorne, James Baldwin - written by writers I only aspired to read when I was that young.

Naturally, I've long since addressed those aspirations.

Verdant plants of all sizes in colorful, sculptural pots softened the grid, turning it into an oasis of greenery that soared almost up to the impossibly high ceiling, with two benches inside for contemplation.

Signage told us that this was the Chicago-born Johnson's first major project south of the Mason-Dixon line. That a black artist chose to create a work called "Monument" in a city struggling to reconcile its avenue of monuments to treasonous white guys felt like exactly the kind of provocation architect Holl had in mind.

Well done, sir.

In a stroke of brilliant programming, the ICA is scheduling performers to "activate" the space with live performances created in response to "Monument." We'd come to see horn player extraordinaire Marcus Tenney show off his skills on flugelhorn and trumpet, so we found a bench with a view of him and "Monument" and settled in.

Within moments, a guy walked in and took up residence on the bench nearest us and turned his full attention to his phone. As Marcus began playing, the gallery filled with sound, his notes having enough room to soar to the rafters and fall back over our ears. Gradually, other people arrived to make their way around and through "Monument," but this guy just stared at his device.

Most of the people who entered the gallery were there with one mission: to take a selfie (or ten) as they made their way around "Monument" and then to leave. One beautiful young man in a yellow sweater posed against one of the grids and proceeded to instruct his obedient friend which angles to shoot him from. Over and over.

Shades of Bradley Cooper directing himself in "A Star is Born."

Meanwhile Marcus's music was filling the room as the opaque glass wall went from warmly lit from outside to a cool almost blueness once the sun dropped low. It was a remarkable change in light in the gallery that could only be experienced at one specific time of day.

Half an hour into Marcus' playing, we looked over and saw that phone boy now had his head lolling on his chest and was clearly sound asleep, despite the richness and volume of the trumpet notes resounding off the walls around him.

Not to be too judgey, but why come to a musical performance to look at your phone and then go to sleep?

When Marcus' performance ended, we set out for Dinamo, arriving to find a menorah on the bar and a basket with not only a dreidel, but instructions for the dreidel game and a basket of gold-wrapped chocolate money. We'd barely taken seats at the bar when a young girl at the table behind us spotted the basket, scooped it up and excitedly suggested a game to her family.

As one of the non-Chosen People, I found it all pretty charming.

Wearing flattering new glasses ordered off the internet, our server immediately remembered us as lingerers, saying she was only too happy to let us order our next course only after finishing its predecessor, but delivering a bottle of house white wine to sip while checking out the menus.

Even better than a game of dreidel was a special of smoked whitefish crostini smothered in red onion, the kind of generous starter that left us content and in no hurry for more food right away.

Next to us sat down a couple and he immediately ordered the t-bone with arugula while she wanted the snapper. Eyeing the gorgeous hunk o' red meat when it was put down before him, he apparently felt the need to explain his choice. Seems his doctor told him he has protein and sodium deficiencies, so he's doing everything he can to correct that.

His wife rolled her eyes, jealous probably. I know I would be.

All we wanted to know was how we could be diagnosed with the same thing so we could start calling steak our prescription drug. I'm telling you, that was one good looking steak he loaded up with salt.

After considering Grandma Ruth's brisket, we moved on to what is probably my favorite soup in the city, their lightly spicy fish soup with every kind of seafood and fregola, a bowl of warmth on a chilly evening.

Mr. Wright's choice was crostini with cured salmon, capers and cream cheese and he insisted I needed to up my Omega 3s, so I obliged by scarfing a crostini. A Nutella and sea salt cookie was about all I could manage after that, although another glass of wine seemed to go down easily enough.

By the time we decided to clear out for greener pastures, Dinamo was hopping and the dreidel basket was looking a little low on gold-wrapped chocolate coins. And, I'm not sure, but I think as we drove out of sight, I heard the strains of Adam Sandler.

So drink your gin and tonicah
And smoke your marijuanikah
If you really, really wannukah
Have a happy, happy, happy Chanukah

Oy, or maybe it was Grandma Ruth wondering what I'm doing wasting a nice Jewish boy like that.

As the resident goy toy, how should I know?

Friday, December 7, 2018

One Stage, No Gender

Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together. ~ Anais Nin

I was at Strange Matter in January 2010 before they even had their liquor license, for cryin' out loud.

Fact is, I've seen all kinds of movies there, despite it being a music venue, a lot of them the kind that I couldn't have seen anywhere else.

That first night, it was for "All Tomorrow's Parties," about the music festival curated by other musicians. That was followed by the bike messenger documentary "Pedal" in March that year, then in April, the documentaries "American Hardcore" about that whole scene and "Festival Express" about musicians on tour via train across Canada in 1970.

I not only enjoyed every single movie I saw there, I learned something from each, too.

But it wasn't all music and bikes, because I laughed along to "Raising Arizona" (not for the first time) and that holiday classic, "Santa Conquers the Martians." And it was there that I saw the James Bond parody, "Our Man Flint," for the first time. Add in John Waters' "Polyester" and David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Wild at Heart" and you get some idea of the range that S'Matter showed.

I don't want to brag, but I saw the Monkee's magum opus "Head" there, putting up with the non-stop mindless commentary from the peanut gallery at the bar, people whose parents hadn't even met when "Head" was made.

But of course, it was mostly about the bands I saw there and there were some stellar ones.

I saw Real Estate on a humid, sweltering night, leaving with my dress as wet as my hair.

Some bands I enjoyed seeing there so much that I saw them again the next time they came back through, like Strand of Oaks, Wild Nothing, Speedy Ortiz. Sometimes once isn't enough.

Music fan that I am, I saw some bands simply because I had a free night and knew of the band, like the Man Man show in 2014.

Other times, it was a fellow music lover's recommendation, online or in person, that got me there, like with Kane Strang, Pylon Reenactment Society, Taco Cat and David Bazan of Pedro the Lion.

I went for local boy-made-good Matt White, but also because he was playing with the Rosebuds' Howard Ivans and I'm a big Rosebuds fan. When I needed a neo-'80s fix, I went to see Cold Cave and Drab Majesty and wallowed in the reverb. For pure indie pop, I couldn't resist the Love Language, NOLA's Generationals and dancing to Beach Fossils before everyone knew who they were.

For an early show by Kurt Vile, I stood on the back of a banquette in a room so hot and sticky that I feared I might pass out (I didn't). Once, for an Italian fix, I went to see Sultans, a group of passionate Italians thrilled to be touring the U.S. and meeting American girls.

Over the years, I went to some of their annual shows, like the yearly Food Fights where groups of restaurant staffers formed a band for a night and competed against each other to win the audience's approval. A couple of Halloweens, I attended the Night of the Living Dead bands show, an extravaganza of cover bands of bands with at least one deceased member.

And don't get me started on all the local bands I've seen there over the years because there have been too many to recount.

I've been to many a sold out show where my foresight in snagging a ticket ensured I got in while I knew many people who didn't, but I've also been to shows where I was one of 20 people the band was playing to and I felt like Richmond was representing poorly.

In almost every case, I walked to S'Matter, but on the one occasion I didn't (I had uncharacteristically driven there because my hired mouth and I had come from the West End), I came out at 1:45 a.m. to find my car had been towed. Luckily, I also ran into a musician friend who lives in J-Ward and we walked home together, not because walking alone was an issue - I'd done it scores of times - but because I needed someone to listen to me beat myself up about my stupidity.

And now the news has come that Strange Matter is closing, so they're doing a series of farewell shows. There was no way I wasn't going to one to say goodbye to a place that has been a constant in my musical and film life since the day it opened.

Walking in, the doorman hugged the couple in front of me because tonight was their fourth night coming in for a farewell show. I paid my money, got a wristband and saved my hugs for friends.

Almost at once, I got a hug from the woman I'd met at this very venue, back during what she called Janet-palooza, when she was celebrating her fortieth birthday by going to a show every night for a month.

Seeing her there tonight brought things full circle.

Next was the trumpet player who was playing in one of tonight's bands, then the Chucks-wearing friend who used to complain that going out required too much work. Even he had apparently realized that sometimes you just have to make the effort. The writer who lived in my apartment before I did was there and we talked about all the great films he'd screened as part of RVA Movie Club, many of which I'd been there for. Later I got a greeting from the music teacher and the volunteer coordinator.

All the cool kids were out tonight.

When I spoke to the DJ whom I'd seen at the Byrd for "La Dolce Vita," then at the Hof for the debut of Trey Pollard's "Antiphones" album and again tonight, it was by complimenting him on his range.

Technically, I suppose he could say the same of me.

DJing between band sets was the owner of my local record store where I had first heard tonight's headliner, the Ar-kaics, back in 2013. My, how time flies. As always, he looked happy to be spinning 45s for the crowd in between enjoying the show.

Also on the bill were Weird Tears, who when they hailed from Philly considered S'Matter one of their favorite venues, the nine-piece Piranha-Rama (three horns, two back-up singers), Christi with their pastiche of girl group and hardcore and, finally, the garage band sounding Ar-kaics.

Appropriately sadcore song title considering the reason for tonight's show? Weird Tears' second song, "I Don't Deserve to Be Happy Tonight."

Before their set, I'd chatted with the lead singer of Piranha-Rama, giving her props for her cute red coat with a fake fur collar. She admitted she'd found it at For the Love of Jesus Thrift on southside and had debated long and hard about spending $14 on the coat before sucking it up and forking over the money.

Years later, she realizes it was a brilliant purchase.

Besides, what could I say, standing there in a thrift store wool dress, military-style  jacket and pleather-collared sweater, none of which cost more than $4?

It's an additional shame that S'Matter is closing since they'd updated the bathrooms to be unisex with a sign on the former men's room reading, "This bathroom has one stall and no gender." It also had no line, unlike the one that read, "This bathroom has two stalls and no gender," so guess which one I used?

You got it, the one with the two urinals.

In what I can only consider the most fitting tribute to S'Matter, we were barely into the second band's set when I realized how ungodly warm it was in there and began shedding layers. Janet had already removed her jacket and taken it outside to stow away under her scooter seat. All around me, guys were doffing their knit skull caps and wiping sweat off their heads.

Being a regular at S'Matter teaches you quickly that their temperature regulatory system is non-existent and it will be hot and miserable in there once the bands start playing, whether it is August or December. The only difference is that it's not humid inside during the winter months.

Still, that's part of its charm. You don't go to a venue like S'Matter expecting all the comforts of home, you go to hear music played from a stage a few feet from your face. And maybe to dance, which I began doing from the first song Weird Tears played.

But it wasn't all gloom and doom tonight because just today, a couple of local musicians started a Go Fund Me page to try to raise enough money to take over the venue. My writer friend said that they'd already raised $4K this afternoon, with a goal of $150K, in hopes they can keep it from falling into the hands of VCU and further gentrifying that block.

Godspeed, guys, I hope you pull it off.

Because, after all, that building has been a music venue since before I came to Richmond in 1986. I know I went to it when it was the Nancy Raygun, but even before then, it was Twisters and Back Door, I've been told.

What's a city without a small, gritty venue like Strange Matter? Especially one I can walk to. Too soon? Too selfish? The way I see it, music fans deserve to be happy on any given night.

Most importantly, Richmond needs a place where our separate body parts can melt together.

Or maybe that's just me.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

There's Bound To Be Talk

The problem with this town - besides snow flurries on the fifth day of December - is that the restaurant scene hasn't caught up with the theater scene.

How else to explain having to have a 5:15 dinner reservation in order to make an 8:00 curtain? To start with, that's an ungodly early hour to begin the evening meal (I've had lunches where I didn't get back until 5:15 and there's no shame in that) and secondly, I hang with serious food warriors who don't want to be rushed as they eat through nearly everything on the menu.

But, alas, eating after the play ends is challenging at best in Richmond, especially on a Thursday night, so we were gathering at the front table in the window at the Roosevelt, shortly after the clock hit 5. With a new chef in place, I was especially eager to revisit one of my long-time favorite eateries.

My hopes of beginning with a bottle of Virginia Fizz - the first wine I ever drank at the Roosevelt -  were dashed when our server got a stricken look on her face when I ordered it, went to check and returned with bad news: all gone.

I am nothing if not adaptable, so we instead requested a bottle of Dr. K. Frank Gruner Veltliner while Pru and Beau went with Illahe Pinot Gris because they're fans of Willamette. dammit. Queen B, as usual, abstained, although how she puts up with us sober is a miracle.

First topic: the banishment of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from the holiday songbook canon because of its suddenly now questionable lyrics. The consensus seemed to be that applying current standards to lyrics written in 1949 is a clear case of political correctness gone amuck.

Everyone seems to forget that in the original film where the song debuted, it was sung by two couples: a man to a woman and a woman to a man and nobody was forcing anyone to do anything. Somewhere, songwriter Frank Loesser is rolling his eyes in disgust.

Food arriving derailed any further discussion.

With the exception of the Queen who couldn't resist the braised boneless short ribs entree, the rest of the table made our meals of snacks and small plates. Chicken liver mousse with huckleberry jam seemed appropriate given that this week is Hannukah, while chicken wings with Alabama white sauce - which, I swear, have been on the Roosevelt's menu practically since Day One - were life-changing for Pru and Beau, who'd never had them before.

I foresee many future orders of those wings procured and devoured at the manse.

Perfectly Fall-like was roasted butternut squash with buttermilk ricotta and sunflower seeds, while Beau moaned over the creamy parsnip soup with apple butter, nutmeg, sage and peanuts.

Apple butter became the next topic when I recalled that "Have a slice of bread with apple butter" was my Mom's go-to suggestion when my sisters and I wanted a snack growing up because there was no junk food in our house. For Pru, apple butter conjured up memories of boarding school, since its location in the mountains meant she was in apple country.

She and Mr. Wright both got the roasted honey-glazed baby carrots with sumac, orange and dill, although I seemed to be the only one who appreciated how toothsome they were. "Just this side of raw but with a honey glaze, but I like them" Pru decreed, but that was a slight exaggeration.

When the owner, a long-time friend, came over to say hello, I introduced her as the woman who also owns Garnett's, Laura Lee's and Ipanema. She was surprised, announcing to the table that I usually introduce her as "the woman who taught me to drink," which is 100% true, but not my favorite way to introduce her, as I reminded her.

"Oh, yea, she usually tells people that if I were a man, she would have married me," she said grinning, to the surprise of everyone at the table, not the least of which had to be Mr. Wright.

Roasted beets got a boost from bleu cheese, pumpkin seeds and our old friend apple butter vinaigrette, but it was their arrangement resembling a Christmas wreath that got everyone's attention. An enormous bowl of mussels swimming in cider broth with bacon didn't even get finished, but the two green goddess salads with cornbread croutons sure did.

With an eye on the clock, we ordered chocolate mousse and corn cake with buttercream frosting to accompany Pru and Beau's requisite liquid final course, although Pru did jazz things up a bit by two-fisting caffeine with an Irish coffee and a regular coffee.

I had all the caffeine I needed in that mousse.

And while we rushed out of there and up 301 to Hanover Tavern, a series of badly-timed lights ensured that we all arrived moments after the play had begun. The Greatest Generation usher who greeted us informed us that the director stipulated that no one be let in late until the initial "play within a play" ended, which took until we heard a shot being fired.

In the interim, he filled us in on what was happening onstage, assuring us, "You're not missing anything important." Whether it was true or not, it made us feel better about our tardiness.

Then we scampered to our seats for "The Game's Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays," a story set in 1936 of a group of touring actors who gather for a Christmas eve party at the Connecticut home of the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in their production.

On a side note, what is it with Connecticut and the holidays? You know, like that Barbara Stanwyck movie "Christmas in Connecticut," or "Holiday Inn," which also takes place in Connecticut? Discuss.

The ensemble of actors was incredibly strong - and really, what play with Scott Wichmann starring is ever anything but outstanding? -  making for a fast-moving and hilarious story about the unexpected murder of a theater critic (prompting the question, does anyone really care if a critic is killed?) after dinner.

The ensuing comedy results from William Gillette, the actor who'd played Holmes, thinking his mother, played by the bombastic Catherine Shaffner, is the murderer. No one wants Mom to be the perp.

The manse group has long loved a good drawing room mystery, while I was seduced by the frequent quotations from Shakespeare woven into the dialog at every opportunity. Audra Honaker played the quirky police detective who shows up to investigate, although it turns out she also has an acting bent and wouldn't mind auditioning should the right role come up.

Acting! (insert raised arm)

It didn't hurt that the story was full of twists and turns so that by the time the inspector arrives, every person at the party is a suspect. Characters come and go from the drawing room, just missing each other, but constantly delivering witty dialog. First a closet then a hidden bar is used to store the corpse, which won't stay put and on the wall hangs a collection of murder weapons: guns, swords, axes, you name it, within easy reach. And don't get me started on the gorgeous period costumes,

The charm was that the wacky antics were pretty much non-stop until the very last moment when we found out who'd really put a knife in the critic's back (and right through that stunning red velvet dress of hers).

In a perfect world, we'd have left Hanover at 10:00 and gone out for a lovely post-theater dinner at a little bistro somewhere where we could all discuss the energetic romp and laugh-out-loud worthy dialog we'd just experienced, but that's not how Richmond works.

Instead, we were split up into separate discussion groups. I don't know about theirs, but ours may have gotten a little off topic.

Cause, baby, it's cold outside.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Heaven Knows

At our first meeting, my girl crush and I fell hard for each other.

Seated in the bow of a power boat (hers and her husband's) sipping pink bubbles while skimming the Corrotoman River, we bonded over age (ours, the same), the quest for true love (she'd succeeded in finding hers, I was still working on it) and having sex in their spacious outdoor shower (her, not me).

The date was August 11, 2014 and our admiration for each other was immediate and mutual.

By the time I got home from that weekend, she'd emailed me gushing, "Meeting you was wonderful and I can't wait to see you again! Anytime you can visit, please do!"

Sigh. A girl lives for that kind of romance.

In my efforts to see as much of her as I could, I managed two more visits back to their river cottage before that summer ended and a fabulous friendship was born.

Over the four summers since, I've spent many a day and night back at that river cottage so that she and I could talk, laugh, walk, drink, eat, talk, boat, jet-ski and lounge on the deck. Oh, yes, and talk. Finally, last year we had an a-ha moment when we realized we could also spend time together during the other seasons.

Translation: we didn't just want to be each other's summer fling.

When I introduced her and her handsome husband to Mr. Wright, they were not only thrilled for me but eager to spend more time as a foursome. We all enjoyed our summer get-togethers so much that we planned a big river weekend together in October, only to be thwarted when some hurricane or another knocked out power at both their Richmond and river houses.

But while our couple date hadn't worked out, you can only keep a couple of girl crushes apart for so long, so when she emailed me last week suggesting a catch-up dinner/girls' night out, I couldn't say yes fast enough.

Knowing your crush's preferences is essential, so when she assigned me the task of choosing the restaurant, I took into account her dislike of parallel parking. Suggesting Hob Nob because I'm a fan of their food, and guessing that she hadn't been there, I was pleasantly surprised when she responded, "Is that where the old Hermitage Grill was?"

Yes, it is. Turns out that Lakeside is part of her youth, a fact I hadn't known.

Arriving without reservations, we were surprised to find that every table except the sole occupied one was already reserved, so we settled in at the bar for dinner. Her beer and my Anjos Vinho Verde Rose had barely been placed in front of us when a server offered to seat us at the just-vacated table.

We certainly didn't mind since now we could look at each other.

With so much to talk about - it's been two and a half months, after all - we opted for the special of crab and shrimp spring rolls, a fine choice given the crispy golden wrapper that shattered with each bite and the crab-heavy filling.

A cheeseburger, Gouda grits and a Brussels sprout/bleu cheese/pomegranate seed salad fueled us through the next few hours as we dissected millennial anxiety, shared film recommendations and talked about what our menfolk have been up to.

Her man is as much a word nerd as I am - I know he's fond of lumbago, swale and gadabout, a term he's used to describe me once or twice - so I laughed hearing how he has "Dead Guy" listed as one of his phone contacts. Naturally, I also got the backstory on how he got to be "Dead Guy" in the first place, because there's always a good story with him.

He's also full of surprises, having recently suggested they go sailing...so she could see their new sailboat.

Seems he'd decided to sell the sailboat I'd been on with them for so many splendid adventures and upgrade to a new one. Like a proud parent, she pulled out her phone and showed me gorgeous photos of it, pointing out its handsome woodwork, sleek galley and sleeping quarters and new toilet (more important than you might think when pink bubbles are involved).

But she made sure that I knew that the main appeal for us girls is the flat bow, which she assured me would be easier for the two of us to maintain our balance on when we're sitting there chatting as the boat cuts through the water. Depending on the wind and the angle of the boat, we've had to do some serious bracing to stay upright while lounging under the mast.

When I reminded her that we could also not drink while we're up there, she gave me that look that made me crush on her from the beginning. "No, we can't!" she said emphatically.

They'd tried taking the boat out this past Sunday when temperatures had been forecast to warm up into the '60s, but between the cold river and warm air, it was so foggy they gave up. But the fog had other compensations, it seems. "Driving over the bridge, the clouds were so thick you couldn't see the river or the sky or anything except what was right in front of you," she told me dreamily. "It felt like being in heaven!"

Is it any wonder I love this woman?

Eventually we looked up to realize that every table and bar stool was now occupied, a fact neither of us had noticed happening. It didn't affect us, though, so we went on to share a slice of mint chocolate chip cake, its pale green buttercream frosting as sweet and rich as accidentally finding your girl crush at a crab feast.

But we're not idiots, so we also cooked up a plan for another couple date weekend to make up for being robbed of our October plans. It doesn't hurt that our mates have a bit of a man crush on each other, too.

Heaven is a weekend I get to spend with Mr. Wright, my favorite word nerd and my girl crush. But don't give me credit, I'm just doing as I was told.

Which is why, gadabout that I am, every time I can visit, I do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Blowin' in the Wind

Where was I when Dylan went electric? In elementary school.

By the time I was buying records and forging my own musical path, Dylan was passe, or at least in the junior high circles I moved in, he was. And while I could have circled back around at some point to acquaint myself with his  extensive catalog, I never did.

Which is not to say I didn't come around to appreciating his songs, even (especially?) when sung by others, But I was definitely out of the Dylan loop. Years ago, I recall an older friend and massive Dylan fan telling me about a recent Dylan concert, notable because he'd played "Masters of War," which apparently was highly unusual up to that point.

Only problem was I had to go home and look up "Masters of War."

Eventually, I tried to correct my musical inadequacy by reading books such as his chronologically-challenged "Chronicles, Volume I," as well as David Hajdu's "Positively Fourth Street." I made sure to see "I'm Not There" and the iconic documentary "Don't Look Back" in an effort to glean more of Dylan's back pages.

See what I did there? If not, you may be as Dylan-deprived as me.

Still looking to learn, I jumped at the chance to go to Firehouse Theater to see local Americana/bluegrass band Whiskey Rebellion celebrating the music of Dylan.

The producing artistic director expressed surprise to see me there  for something other than a play and a discussion of restaurants ensued.  Next to me was a woman who'd seen the band before when they were doing an evening of Grateful Dead music. Waiting for the show to start, the guy behind me sang along loudly to Stone Temple Pilots, assuring those around him, "I'll stop singing when the band starts."

Instead he stopped when the director came out and said, "Hi. Happy December and happy Hanukkah!" No candle was lit, however.

The show officially began when the singer/guitarist and upright bass player took the stage and launched into "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," a song I knew from the Peter, Paul and Mary version.

Please don't judge.

As we applauded that, the remainder of the band came out: violinist, keyboard player, drummer and banjo player and began a song I didn't recognize. But I was okay with that because I went into this knowing that I likely wouldn't be able to identify every song.

Luckily, I immediately recognized "Forever Young," delivered after the singer explained how exciting it had been to select from so many Dylan songs and spend the Fall learning them. And even a Dylan neophyte like me knew "Like a Rolling Stone" from the first measure.

I mean, I'm not a complete idiot.

"Dylan was such an inspirational songwriter," the singer said, pointing out that with guitarists, later generations built on what guitarists accomplished in the '60s and '70s. "But it never got better than Dylan's songwriting. He was untouchable as a songwriter."

Even I knew this. After all, isn't that how he wound up with the Pulitzer prize?

He went on to posit on Dylan's inscrutability and how his songs could be taken literally or how a person could think he was somehow writing about their own life. He seemed to think the latter was the case with "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

After a swig of his Miller beer for his scratchy throat, the singer joked that he need it because, "Dylan had that clear crisp timbre, right?" and the audience (95% of whom could have told you where they were the day JFK was assassinated) laughed.

"Then you need a shot of bourbon for that!" a guy near me suggested.

His revived voice was for "Meet Me in the Morning," a song I didn't know, followed by the spot-on "Political World."

We live in a political world
Courage is a thing of the past
Houses are haunted
Children unwanted
The next day could be your last

After their powerful rendition of the song, the singer looked at the audience and said seriously, "True story," causing a guy down in front to holler out, "Good stuff!"

It was, too. All six musicians were strong players clearly enjoying the chance to get their Dylan on, although if I was in elementary school, they weren't even a gleam in their Daddy's eye when Dylan went electric.

"Knockin' on Heaven's Door" got the full-on treatment with a heartbreaking violin part and a reminder to the crowd that it had been written for the film "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." And while I may have known that at some point, it had long since slipped from my mental Rolodex.

No one should be surprised that I knew "It Ain't Me, Babe" from the Turtles' version, but who knew what a banjo and brushes on the drums could add to it?

Saying that the band needed to get "refilled and tuned up" meant that intermission was imminent and the singer used the opportunity to test our Dylan knowledge. "Everybody must take a break," he announced with an expectant look on his face.

Doesn't quite have the ring of the original lyric, now does it?

They closed the first set with "All Along the Watchtower," which turned out to be the ideal song for shredding on banjo, guitar, violin and keys while the rhythm section held it all down.

I can't even tell you how much more fully Dylan-qualified I felt during intermission.

Around me, I listened as two blond women discussed the benefits of Alexa and two middle-aged men discovered that they'd been at the same high school football game in 1974. I kid you not, they even recalled a short player who could run like hell, though neither remembered the guy's name.

"Ten minutes, that's all it takes in this town to find your connection," one said to the other. If not for the lights going down, I would have turned to him and challenged that theory. Sir, you could talk to me all night and I can guarantee you won't find a connection.

Whiskey Rebellion's second set was all original music and their stellar playing meant that even unfamiliar songs were a pleasure to hear, though as the singer reminded us, these were not Dylan songs because Dylan is at the top of the songwriting pyramid.

An evening of untouchable songs meant that I got a refresher course tonight and even a little inspiration to go deeper, maybe at my next record-listening party. It's never too late to up your Dylan quotient.

I may be late getting on the Dylan train, but only because I didn't know better.

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

Paying Attention or Not

As of this month, Playboy magazine is celebrating its 65th anniversary.

From that first issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover through decades of iconic sex symbols and insignificant tarts, the "Magazine for Men" has managed to weather everything from abandoning full frontal nudes and then returning to them to its first transgender Playmate. And still, it persists.

If you want the truth, I was a dedicated reader of Playboy for years.

Look, as a female, I was never into airbrushed pictures of 20-year old twinkies in their birthday suits. But my Dad always had a subscription when I was young and after the initial titillation of naked girls in a magazine I could access wore off, I grasped the broader appeal.

Playboy showcased some damn fine writing, both current and past. All those cliched jokes about "I read it for the articles?" This non-airbrushed woman really did. Not going to lie, I could ignore the nudes for the sake of a good read.

I was that woman who would gift my boyfriends with subscriptions to ensure I had access to the writing. No, really. Before we called it that, that was a win/win.

So you can imagine my complete delight recently when, while having a record-listening party at Holmes' house, I spotted a copy of the March 1980 Playboy - all 264 pages of it! - on his bar.

I knew from conversation that he had an extensive collection of back issues, but I also knew they were buried in a basement room along with scores of vintage comic books, copies of Mad magazine and god knows what else.

Flipping through, I was bowled over by the width and breadth of what was considered Playboy-worthy circa 1980. In fact, it was too much to take in all at once, much less while vintage albums were playing, so I asked to check it out of the basement library, with a cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to return it intact.

What constituted Playboy 38 years ago? Popular culture, for one thing. The cover features Bo Derek in a fringed leather bikini and touts, "Bo Derek, the "10" girl in a sensational nude pictorial." What struck me about her body was not its sexiness, but the sheer athleticism of it.

Inside, the '80s announced themselves with tableaux such as a Ronrico Rum ad with a slender but not ripped guy in a black Speedo on a sailboat, his girlfriend on tiptoe while he masterfully adjusts the sail while kissing her.

Tucked into "Playboy After Dark" was a small feature called "Checking In," which amounted to a brief interview with 29-year old Tom Waites. Asked what he thinks he'll be like as an old man, Waites responds, "I'll probably be your real irritable son of a bitch."

What 29-year old musician could we interview now and still care about in 2050? Far too few, I'd wager.

I'm gratified to read a review of the newest Eagles album, "The Long Run," which Playboy describes as "like a press release from the ontology department of the California Institute for the Mellow" with cuts that describe "that vapid kind of angst, that vague existential discomfort southern Californians are prone to contract. Bimbo starlets, power-crazed moguls, urban cowboys all dressed up with nowhere to go -- haven't we had enough of all that already?"

If the reviewer thinks the world had had enough of that peaceful, easy crap in 1980, imagine how some of us feel now, after 38 additional years of listening to them whine.

Always one of the strengths of Playboy was its extended interview (devoted readers like me salivated over the generous page counts assigned to its interviewers) and if any one subject sealed my devotion to the format, it was the 1976 interview with Jimmy Carter. And not particularly for the "lust in my heart" thread, but the fact that a man running for President saw the value in sitting down for Playboy magazine.

This was truly a new world order.

But this issue's interview was with quarterback Terry Bradshaw, described as wearing white elephant skin boots with the number twelve on them (made out of the bellies of a lot of little lizards), a nod to his jersey number, or maybe just his over-sized ego.

The intro says Bradshaw "makes about a quarter of a million dollars a year for throwing a football very straight and very hard." That $250,000 seemed outlandish in 1980 seems downright quaint now.

Throughout the magazine, I spot ads for all the brands my audiophile guy friends worshiped in 1980: Audiovox, Sony Audio, AR, Pioneer and Bose. The only ads more plentiful are for cigarettes and booze, both of which seemed to require a mustache.

As for the obligatory nude spreads, some are laughable, such as "Welcome Back, Haller," showing the only female "sweathog" from "Welcome Back, Kotter" reminiscing how her erect nipples drove the show's censors crazy. Poor little thing, they made her wear a padded bra to cover them.

Others give me pause. Henriette, the southern centerfold, admits that her ambition is to be a yoga teacher, her favorite drink is ice cold lemonade and her fave authors are Ray Bradbury and John G. Neihardt.

In case you aren't as well read as a 26-year old in 1980, Neihardt was Nebraska's Poet Laureate for 52 years and his masterpiece is considered to be "Black Elk Speaks," told in the voice of a Lakota medicine man.

But what impressed me most was the sheer talent on display throughout.

Here's a new Shel Silverstein poem "Uncle Don, Who Read Us the Sunday Funnies on the Radio." Further back, there's a two-page comic drawing by Silverstein called "And He Has Never Been Heard From Since" that involves a tiny, hatted, naked man who seems to be crawling into a woman's nether region, only reaching back out to grab his hat.

To be clear, that's four pages, two different features, devoted to Silverstein's work. Astounding.

Over here is an entire page called "The Cockeyed Muse- a little treasury of comic verse, some intended, some not" and inconceivable in anything but a literary journal today. Along with two in-house illustrations and a fair amount of white space are pieces by - wait for it - Emily Dickinson and John Keats, among others.

Yes, in Playboy.

Leroy Neiman's Sketchbook shows extraordinary renderings of Charles Mingus, done in Chicago in the late '50s, in NYC clubs in the late '60s and early '70s and finally, confined to a wheelchair during the Newport Jazz festival in 1978, essentially telling the story of one artist documenting another.

And, of course, Playboy was always staying current on the political scene with pieces like "The Canny Conservatism of John Connally" about the then-presidential candidate who'd been governor of Texas and in the car with JFK in Dallas that fateful day in 1963. Who even recalled he was in the running for the White House?

Culled from the Ayatollah Khomeini's writings (while in exile in Paris) about proper behavior for Shi'ite Muslims, "Rules to Live By" covers everything from how to urinate and defecate to relations between humans and animals. After decreeing that, "A woman can not have any sort of sexual relations with an animal; that is reserved for men alone," he further clarifies with acceptable species: dogs, cats, pigeons, donkeys and lambs.

Pigeons?

Since you may not have access to this particular issue of Playboy, allow me to also share with you that he's firm on one thing. After having sexual relations with a lamb, it's a mortal sin to eat its flesh.

Sex or chops, you have to choose.

Another fascinating piece, "Who'd Profit from Legal Marijuana?" breaks down just whose grass would be greener if it were made legal, a topic still being worked through today. Witness:

"It's only a matter of time before Uncle Sam will want to cut himself in on a booming business that seems destined for greater growth. And forgetting for a moment the alleged moral and psychological ramifications of legalized marijuana,  a Federal scheme that would generate considerable tax revenue, impose rigid controls and take the paranoia out of pot seem to make solid social and economic sense."

"Tomorrow's News Today" offers up some  predictions from the director of the Central Premonition Registry, including one that predicts, "The next president will be shot in 1981."  You read it first in Playboy, folks. The question is whether or not Reagan did.

And at the back of the book is "Grapevine," the ragtag two page-spread of inappropriate black and white photographs, assembled as reward for those who make it to page 258.

Here's Tim Curry posing, arms outstretched, astride a huge stone eagle and Andrew Young practically sticking his thumb up his nose, but it's a photograph of Iggy Pop, penis in hand at a Detroit show, coming 93 pages after Keats that best sums up the state of the union as Playboy saw it in March 1980.

Back then, a magazine that could swing from Derek to Dickinson was entertainment for all, not just men. The shame was that the parts I so looked forward to - literary, cartoons, interviews - moved to the back burner as articles about foot fetishes, the value of the quickie and viral sensations began to fill its pages.

Wherever he was, Shel Silverstein was softly weeping at the changes.

So while my interest waned long ago, enough people are apparently still reading (or gawking at) it to justify Playboy making it to their 65th anniversary, even if you can be damn sure there's no more white space.

Forgive me if I sound like a real irritable son of a bitch. Fact is, 38 more years of the Eagles would do it to anybody.

Enough already.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Stick to the Script

This is a tale of two movies.

Despite zero interest on my part, two of my favorite people wanted to spend perfectly good money to see "A Star is Born" Friday night. Putting love and friendship ahead of losing two hours and fifteen minutes of my life that I could never get back, I went.

And I didn't even get popcorn, because I'd just scarfed one of Giustino's Bianca pizzas, so I didn't even have butter to console me.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mac and Mr. Wright were counting on the film to prove wrong my Negative Nancy prognostications about a remake of a remake of a 1937 movie. And while I've never seen the original, I have seen versions one and two and had no real need for a 21st century version.

As for why, I've got reasons. Of course I do.

I'd only seen Bradley Cooper in one movie ("Burnt") and while he was attractive enough, nothing about his acting said I needed to see him in another. Something about seeing a former alcoholic play an alcoholic was distasteful to me. And while I can appreciate a first time director as much as anyone, I think it takes a lot of hubris for someone to wear both the hats of first time director and leading man.

If that wasn't sufficient, I was equally unimpressed with the choice of Lady Gaga as his costar and not just because I haven't heard any of her songs. Both versions two and three of "A Star is Born" benefited from casting a double threat - actress/singers Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand - so what on earth made Cooper think that casting a singer who hadn't acted made sense?

But despite all my reservations, I went along for one simple reason. If I saw it and hated it, I'd have full justification for trash-talking it, whereas if not, my opinion was based solely on what I'd read and a gut feeling.

Ding, ding, ding, I have my justification in spades.

Plus now I can also speak to other weaknesses: characters with no chemistry, a film that checked the millennial buttons without actually aiding the story, a weak screenplay and some bad directorial calls. Somebody needed to call "Cut!" on some of Bradley's scenes and clearly he wasn't going to do it.

And while the people in the row next to us were sniffing and sobbing by the end, knowing the story and its tragic conclusion meant I didn't have to worry about that.

Best of all, Mr. Wright and Mac didn't hold back once we exited the theater, neither one too proud to admit that it was a disappointment. Mac did allow that she could look at Bradley's bare chest all night long and that Gaga had done a fine job with singing, but not much more.

Except for the hours of my life lost, it was the best possible outcome I could have hoped for.

Now, tonight, that was a whole different ball of wax.

Back in September, I'd bought a ticket for the Afrikana Film Festival's screening of "Sorry to Bother You," but then the threat of Hurricane Florence had canceled the festival. By the time it got rescheduled for this weekend, tickets had sold out, so I went solo to the Grace Street Theater.

Which didn't mean I didn't run into plenty of familiar faces - the retired VMFA pro, the DJ spinning records, the former gallerist, the diversity specialist, a former Floyd Avenue neighbor - as well as being introduced to the couple next to me, film buffs who knew nothing of the VCU Cinemateque series (though I made sure they do now).

Musician and activist-turned first time director Boots Riley came out to introduce his comedy/fantasy/sci-fi film "Sorry To Bother You," a film about the dangers of capitalist exploitation that I'd missed when it played in local theaters. Lauded by critics for its ambition, scathing humor and originality, it nailed the crazy times we live in.

"If you had told me back then that it would take seven years to make this film, it wouldn't have gotten made," he announced from the stage. He also shared that all the actors, including Danny Glover and Armie Hammer, as well as Patton Oswald and David Cross in voice roles, worked for scale because they believed in the project.

Also, P.S. Bradley, Boots wasn't foolish enough to star in the film he was directing.

Interestingly enough, the black comedy had originally had a line about "making America great again," a line he'd had to edit out once the Groper-in-Chief hijacked our country and made it his motto. So while the dystopian tale was written before he began dismantling the country, its ferocious satire felt pulled from the pages of the Washington Post I'd brought to read before the film began.

The story of a lowly black telemarketer in Oakland whose life changes when he's advised by a more seasoned employee to use his "white voice" on the phone, it was one of those films where you had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. It would have been tough to foresee a plot line about a company that offered people lifetime labor contracts in exchange for room, board and medical care.

Oh, wait, didn't we used to call that slavery?

When the movie ended jarringly, the audience gasped and groaned in surprise, only to be fooled because there was an addendum that changed everything at the very last second. It was impossible not be impressed with how many difficult subjects Boots had tackled in his first film or how thoughtfully he answered questions during the Q & A period with the audience.

All I can say is, kudos to Afrikana Film festival for gathering a full house of black, white and brown people to watch a film that allowed us look at the state of race in our country while laughing at its absurdity.

If you'd told me that I'd swing from soul-crushing mediocrity to trail-blazing capitalistic commentary on film in 24 hours, I might have asked to skip the former.

But where's the satisfaction in that?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Black and White

For the third time this week, I was up by 8 a.m.

I'm not thrilled about that, but Lady G was picking me up at 9:12 (her suggestion), which actually turned out to be 9:38, but who's keeping track? A last minute plan hatched to put us in Washington in time for two exhibits and lunch meant we needed to be on the road early-ish.

The things I do for art.

An hour and 45 minutes later (it's best if I don't look at the speedometer when G's driving), we were pulling into a prime parking space in a sunny spot on Constitution Avenue, feeling pretty smug about our luck.

I'd barely uttered the words "I'm so happy to be here" to the world at large before discovering that the parking payment station was malfunctioning, an inconvenience that sapped the next 20 minutes between downloading the parking app and speaking to a customer service representative who asked G everything from her gender to her mother's maiden name.

More than once, she muttered, "I'm not comfortable giving these people all this information."

Had I been there alone, I'd have been out of luck since a phone is apparently a requirement now to park. Don't get me started.

Walking the half block to the museum, we were soon stopped by two lost-looking women who sized us up and asked, "Excuse me, you're from here, aren't you? Where's the Museum of Natural History?" You never saw two natives beam like G and I did from being identified correctly and sent them on their way.

Once inside the National Gallery of Art, our heavy coats left behind at the coat check, we made the requisite first stop, causing G to observe, "Wow, of all the bathrooms I've been to here, I've never been in this one."

Some women never forget their loos.

The primary reason for the trip was to see "Corot: Women," a show neither of us could resist since the artist is known for landscapes, not figure painting. Seems he'd take occasional breaks from lucrative landscape painting gigs to paint models dressed up in prop clothes in his studio, notable because he didn't idealize them.

And why would he? He didn't idealize landscapes.

What was extraordinary about his paintings of women was how he set out to capture the mood of his models more than their garb or as a way of telling a story. Whether introspective, brooding, aloof or sad, the models' full-on gaze back at the artist flouted contemporary expectations of what femininity was.

These women had opinions and feelings and weren't afraid to show them even when they were being captured for posterity. Our kind of women.

"Melancholy," a figure of a woman with her cheek resting in her hand, her left sleeve having fallen off her shoulder, set the tone for the rest of the show. Corot had meticulously captured the woman's face in great detail - everyone in town had to have known who she was - but her body and voluminous white gown were depicted in such loose brushwork that the painting almost looked unfinished.

And here's where I had a teachable moment by reading the signage. Apparently  Albrecht Durer had done an engraving of a woman in the same pose back in the 16th century and ever since, pensive cheek in hand poses were shorthand for melancholy.

This was news to me.

Just as fascinating was how Corot made a point to keep various props and furnishings in his studio, including an easel with a Corot landscape on it. Most of the paintings had interiors showing Corot paintings hanging on the walls behind the figures. Three of the paintings depicted the same woman in his studio, one hand on a Corot landscape, the other holding a mandolin.

It was Corot paints Corot paints Corot, a hall of mirrors effect that undoubtedly fed the artist's ego.

Then there was "Woman in a Yellow Sleeve," notable because the signage explained the painting's provenance: "Accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government from the estate of Lucian Freud and allocated to the National Gallery of London." All I could think was, wow, that must have been a helluva lot of money Sigmund's grandson owed the Queen.

"Lady in Blue" was distinctively different than the exhibition's other paintings because rather than a model in prop costumes, it showed a lovely young woman in an expensive and deeply ruffled blue dress, one plump arm crooked to draw the eye to her face. Because the painting showed her bare-armed without her dress jacket (shocking!), it had an intimate and erotic charge to it.

It also showed the clear influence of Manet in the black-tinged blue gown. Nobody has as much black undertones in their colors as Manet.

Just as good were his nudes, which he'd taken up solely to demonstrate his abilities beyond landscapes, because he depicted real women, the kind who weren't idealized like marble statues with smooth, flawless skin. Who has that kind of skin anyway?

What scandalized 19th century viewers was that these were real, recognizable women who were actually nude while a male artist had observed and painted her.

Why, it was a downright affront to decency and social decorum.

Turning to look at another wall of Corot's figures, G gasped and asked rhetorically, "What is this man doing in here?" She was referring to "St. Sebastian," essentially a male nude with a swaddle of cloth over his twigs and berries. A stranger walked up and exclaimed, "It's a man! What's that about? This is the third time I've seen this show and I never noticed him before!"

Hold the phone. How in the world do you see a compact exhibition - there were only 45 paintings, for crying out loud - of women three times and miss the sole male nude?

Granted, I may have silently judged, but I voiced not a word.

Naturally a confident, successful painter such as Corot wanted to show off his mastery of the male nude, although G and I could make a case for the canvas not belonging at this particular show.

And just in case I ever get asked to pose nude, I've decided I will mimic the reclining nude pose of Corot's "Marietta" for best effect.

By the time we finished soaking in the beauty, our heads were full of images of women captured by the artist in whatever their mood of the day had been. Corot, it seems, gave no instructions to his models, but allowed them to move around and settle in whatever way they chose, even if it was with a dismissive or condescending gaze.

Because sometimes, that's how a girl feels and she can't mask it.

From there, we made our way to see "Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Works," a large (150 strong) show of the first decade of Parks' photography career. Some of the works were familiar to me from seeing the VMFA's "Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott" show back in 2016. The photograph of gang leader Red Jackson doing the "slow drag" with his girlfriend - some people might call it grinding - I recognized immediately.

But there was so much more to learn about Parks at this exhibition.

Like how he'd moved his young family to Chicago to start a career in portrait photography and how he'd worked at the Southside Community Art Center. How his close friendship with Langston Hughes produced images of Hughes smiling, something I'd never seen before.

Easily one of my favorites was "Self Portrait 1941," a stunning image of his face and shoulders next to his large-format camera, the light and shadow on both producing exquisite tones of black and gray. Many of the photographs had been taken in SW Washington, mere blocks from where we stood.  "Negro Woman in Her Bedroom" showed her looking into the kind of round dresser mirror my own grandmother had had, with a large picture of FDR on the wall next to it.

Who didn't believe in FDR back in those days?

Even in his first decade of capturing American life, you could already see Parks' commitment to documenting the inequities of black and white life. "Young Boy Standing in the Doorway" showed a boy on crutches from behind, one of his legs amputated after a streetcar cut the leg off while he was playing in the street. It was Park's commentary about white children having playgrounds to go to while black children had nothing beyond the streets for recreation.

"Drugstore Cowboys, Alberta" showed five young men in dungarees, caps and jackets, staring back at him with looks of cockiness, uncertainty and disdain, in front of a "Drink Coca Cola" sign. All of them look street-wise and ready for their close-ups.

Meanwhile, "Panhandler on 7th Street, NW" was a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Also that we needed to head up Seventh Street ourselves or risk passing out from starvation.

Jaleo was covered in scaffolding, but the signs said they were open during construction and that's all we cared about. Given that owner Jose Andres was just the other day nominated for the Nobel Peace prize, G and I thought it only fitting to pay our respects by eating his food.

That, and the food's always fabulous.

By arriving so late in the afternoon, the lunch rush had quieted down and many tables were unoccupied, making it nice for a change not to have to raise our voices to converse. After so much art, all we wanted to do was sink back into the banquette and give in to the four course lunch menu.

G and I are so easy sometimes.

For me, diving in meant gazpacho with cherry tomatoes that inexplicably tasted like August. How does Jose do it? Next came endive with goat cheese, orange sections and almonds, a collection of bright and light flavors, then garlic slices and shrimp in chile oil, all of which I washed down with Cava Sangria.

G, meanwhile, began with roasted onions with bleu cheese, a practically perfect sweet and salty balance, before moving on to chicken fritters, which essentially tasted like chicken pot pie inside the lightest crunchy shell imaginable. She was drinking red Sangria to accompany her Daniel Patrick Moynihan pork sausage over white beans, a dish she freely admitted choosing because of its nod to the long time Democratic senator.

Although we'd intentionally ordered different dishes for each course so as to have as many things as possible to taste, when it came time for dessert, neither of us was ordering ice cream on a chilly day. Instead, we each devoured a flan with vanilla-flecked whipped cream and oranges, a heavenly finish to a stellar lunch.

All I can say is, it's a good thing Jaleo isn't in Richmond or I'd be having four course lunches every chance I got.

We'd taken so long lingering over lunch that I-395 was already starting to back up by the time we got on it, but since G and I never lack for conversational topics - old loves, new loves, crazy exes and hard-of-hearing friends - we didn't care. Still high on art, we tried to look like three people while in the HOV lanes and marveled at the beauty of the late November sky through her filthy windshield.

We tried cleaning it with Windex on I-95, but that turned out to be a bad idea in moving traffic.

Barely crawling along in the left lane near Stafford, I happened to glance over and saw two young deer standing just barely on the other side of the guard rail in the median, inches from us and thousands of moving cars.

One looked right at me, like one of Corot's models, as if to say, yea, I'm here, so what?

"Well, that was magical," G observed of our wildlife moment as the sun began to set. Parking issues aside, she could have been referring to the entire day.

My plan is to celebrate by sleeping way past 8 a.m. tomorrow. And if not, you can expect to see my cheek resting in my hand, melancholy style.

And, let's face it, no one wants to see me melancholy again. Once was plenty.