Monday, May 31, 2010

Restaurant Revelry at the River

So happy I was invited
Give me a reason to get out of the city
~The National "Lemonworld"

A friend who works at Tarrant's gave me a reason to get out of the city today when he invited me to join him and the rest of the restaurant staff, not to mention part of Bistro 27's staff, for a cookout on Mobjack Bay.

Their tradition is to close Tarrant's for Memorial Day and spend it at the river and I was happy to be part of that.

When my friend came to pick me up, he spotted a book in my bag.

 "You're bringing a book? You, the person who never met a stranger?" he mocked me.

I wasn't sure what to expect and it's a really good book (The Wild Vine) , but given a game plan of eat, drink, frolic, it did seem extraneous now that he mentioned it.

And frolic we did, with kayaks, canoes, floats and more beverages than a group of 100 should be able to consume.

Meats of all kinds were being cooked practically non-stop by Carlos, but then, who better than a Brazilian to do meat?

I started with a steak, but after a while I just did what the smart ones did and hung around the grill, snagging pre-cut pieces of whatever was fresh off the grill and put onto the platter.

It was a lot like the man meat dinner I attended a couple of years ago: course after course of endless meat.

Only the source animal, degree of doneness and seasonings changed.

My friend had been right about my social skills; I knew loads of people and met plenty more. In fact, my stock line of the day became, "Didn't expect to find me here, did you?"

One girl I knew greeted me with, "I'm a little tipsy already," but she loudly complimented my legs to the surrounding crowd, so I was fine with her loose lips.

Another familiar face was a former neighbor and blogging pioneer who reads my blog with a keen eye.

He particularly mentioned my response to a commenter with an attitude about my spending choices, here, seeing it for what it was: an explanation of the philosophy behind my blog.

It's satisfying to hear that there are people who read me and get me.

Like practically everyone else, we spent a fair amount of the afternoon in the water, which seemed unnaturally warm for May.

One guy, when offered the use of a kayak, declined by holding up his beer.

"Friends don't let friends drink and kayak," he proclaimed.

Unfortunately, it was walking that was his downfall and he later cut his foot on a mollusk (or so he said) and when he went to catch himself, cut his hand as well (same mollusk? I don't know).

Friends don't let friends drink and...move?

Later we ate watermelon and spit seeds, scored cookies and cannolis and listened to competing boomboxes.

Happily for me, I was nearest the one playing Daft Punk.

I gave my thumbs up to the guy who put it on and he asked, "Really, is there anyone who doesn't like Daft Punk?"

Sadly, I had to tell him about my friend Corey.

Some things are just beyond comprehension.

It was a day of good one-liners, like "Is that a seed on your ass?" topped only by "I've got corn pubes in my teeth."

Personally speaking, the highlight came after I aimed a super squirter at someone and missed.

The trio turned around to see who had such poor aim.

"Do I look like a super shot?" I shrugged.

Best line of the day directed at me: "With those bangs and those sunglasses, yea, I would have totally bought into you. Now, not so much."


I just need to stick to words.

Like Cookouts. Love Music.

I didn't get invited to a cookout tonight, so I went to the Camel instead to hear music.

It worked out well because there were 100 other people who didn't get invited anywhere either and it made for an enthusiastic Sunday night audience.

Or perhaps it was the fact that a lot of people didn't have to work tomorrow; actually the reason matters not.

People were into it.

My farmer friend appeared, freshly showered and ravenous after a day working the land.

He squeezed into the booth I was sharing with Treesa, the violin-playing part of Prabir's Goldrush, her visiting mother and a woman who coincidentally had replaced me at a former editing job six years ago. Just another random booth in Richmond.

The show began with Lexi and Kate, sisters who harmonized in that beautiful way only kinfolk can.

One nearby guy made the astute comment that, "I love skinny girls with guitars" and another said, "We need more clean hippie chicks."

Once they began singing, though, no one mentioned anything but their voices, but the night was already shaping up to be an interesting one.

Prabir and the Goldrush played their usual energetic set with only a few mixing missteps.

Before their cover of "Eleanor Rigby." Prabir specifically said that he wanted the strings brought way up, but they ended up lost in the mix; too bad because the violin and upright bass playing on that song were rocking.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" again closed the set but the crowd was not of the singalong type tonight so it played as a hard-driving instrumental for much of it.

About this time, another friend came over to ask us if we knew that Amazing Ghost was playing the Republic tonight.

"That's why half the crowd just emptied out," the farmer explained.

I am most definitely a fan of Amazing Ghost and most definitely not a fan of the Republic, so it was never an issue for me.

Besides, as someone pointed out, "Amazing Ghost will be around, but these guys are great and they may not."

Ophelia, a recent collaboration between Jonathan Vassar (he of the Speckled Bird) and David Schultz (of the Skyline) boasts the drummer from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down (and Diamond Center) as well as the bass player from the amazing Mermaid Skeletons.

They've already recorded a CD, due out late this summer, although tonight was only their second show live.

And it was every kind of impressive.

When you start with two great voices like Vassar and Schultz, add in some alt-country hooks, a melancholy accordion, harmonica, kick-ass drumming and a strong bass line, you get a sound that speaks to just about everyone in the room in one way or another.

Or at the very least, it speaks to the kind of people who don't get invited to barbecues on Memorial Day weekend.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I Love It When You Hang 'Em High

How lame was I today?

I got a hankering to spend a free afternoon admiring art and before I knew what I was doing, I was online checking on what the current exhibits at the Muscarelle and UVA Museum were.


Despite not one, but two visits of late to the recently reopened VMFA, it wasn't my default first thought.

Sorry, guys, but you were closed a long time, so perhaps you can understand how such a thing could happen.

I do so enjoy being able to enter the museum through the Boulevard entrance and it's how I hope every first time visitor experiences the new VMFA; personally, you couldn't pay me to go back to being a backdoor patron.

In a recent conversation with the President of the VA Historical Society, I shared my longing for them to also return to a Boulevard orientation.

A grand street is the way to enter grand spaces, if you ask me (and no one did).

I decided to do it European-style this afternoon, so I'm taking a mistress.

Mais non!

With so many more objects on display, I prefer to concentrate on one area at each visit.

I was leaning European today, in large part because I began by coming through the Tapestry Hall which put me squarely in the 18th century gallery, which focuses on the age of Reason and the Enlightenment.

I'm intrigued by how fascinated the Romantic era was with all things scientific (me, I'm all about the romance, but the science not so much).

But what I loved most about this gallery is that it's hung salon-style and while some people find it chaotic or a challenge to their neck muscles, I find it especially appropriate for paintings that would have been originally hung that way.

The only downside in this particular room was that it's narrow and a through-way, so in places it was challenging to get enough distance to properly admire some of the higher-hung pieces.

Still, I applaud the choice to do so and wish more of the galleries were hung like this.

Next up were the British Sporting Art galleries, also known as Paul Mellon's pride and joy.

I like these galleries for the glimpses they provide of a way of life I'll never know.

And as a former beagle owner, I have no problem looking at depictions of hordes of hounds (none as cute as mine was, but that's neither here nor there). I found the elaborate pictures of hunting scenes fascinating for their minute detail.

Which led me to a complaint with these galleries; only one of them had benches provided for distance viewing.

The center gallery had four benches and only one was worth the space it was taking up.

It faced a large hunting scene and offered the perfect place from which to take in the extensive action of the hunting party.

Two of the benches faced the archways between galleries and the fourth faced a storage door.

Where is the logic there?

There were four pieces of sporting sculpture on pedestals in the room and with some minor adjusting, the benches and sculpture could have been rearranged, resulting in a far more functiona, not to mention better viewing space.

Sure, some people use the benches to simply take a load off, but I am certainly not the only one who uses them for a more advantageous viewing point. If there's a VMFA suggestion box, that's going in it.

I finished in the 19th and 20th Century Painting and Sculpture in France galleries, enjoying a healthy dose of Corot, Pisarro and the "king of the skies" Boudin (and not to repeat myself, but Boudin so often worked on such a small scale that he's a natural for being hung salon-style).

The art progressed back into the Impressionists, although clearly a good part of that collection is still not on view; I know that there are at least two more European galleries slated to open in 2011.

The Degas gallery off to the side was a treasure trove of the artist's sculpture, discovered after his death for the most part.

It's challenging to look at it with modern eyes and know how poorly it was received for its "ugly realism" at the time.

The inclusion of a few of his paintings in a space largely devoted to three dimensional work was a good way to put his down-low sculpture work in the context of his well-known painting efforts.

By then it was closing time and I heard one guard tell another that now they just needed to get "all these people outta here so we can go."

I completely understood.

And don't you just know that I made my exit stage right from the Boulevard door?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

This Lady is a Tramp

The best is yet to come and won't it be fine You think you've seen the sun, but you ain't seen it shine
You'd never have known that tonight's Richmond Symphony Pops' performance of a "Simply Sinatra" evening was a fallback plan.
Originally planned for January 30th, one of the snowstorms from hell had prevented it from happening that night.
I'm sure there had must have been much hand-wringing amongst the Symphony board about having to reschedule for the Memorial Day weekend, when the city notoriously empties out.
And Monday to Friday's a gas And another week goes past But Saturday night is the loneliest night in the week
Tonight's full house demonstrated the lure of Sinatra's songbook and featured Steve Lippia on vocals.
His voice was as evocative of Sinatra's as the audience could have hoped for and not stray into imitator territory.
As one guy near me observed, he had the rhythmic sense, the vocal phrasing and certain notes may as well have been Sinatra, they were so spot on.

She loves the free, fresh wind in her hair
Life without care
She's broke, but it's o-k

Lippia pointed out that nestled amongst the symphony was the stellar big band orchestra with its huge horn section, so the audience should, "get ready to dance "and even challenged us with, "I dare you not to dance to this really kickin' tune." Later, introducing "That's Life" he said that Sinatra rarely "dipped his toe into the blues," but when he did, that song became a jukebox staple.

In spite of a warnin' voice that comes in the night 
And repeats, repeats in my ear 
Don't you know, you fool, you never can win?

Everyone in the audience had come hoping to hear a certain song and I was no exception.

Lippia did a stellar rendition of Nelson Riddle's arrangement of "The Way You Look Tonight," possibly the most romantic ode to a woman ever written.

The girl next to me, however, had been hoping for "Strangers in the Night" which he did not do.

No do-be-do-be-do tonight.

Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger

My love affair with the cheeseburger is long-standing and well documented, here.

No vacation is complete without one, even when the ground meat is from an unusual animal (South Africa) or it's being used as a hangover remedy (London).

And certainly no birthday goes by without a nod to the traditional birthday burger.

I was late getting around to it, but finally made it to Carytown Burger and Fries to relive my childhood birthday dinners today.

Just recently a friend and I had discussed our feelings about burgers being put on fancy bread or unusual rolls; we're against it.

For that matter, I know some people don't require cheese on a burger and that would have amounted to blasphemy in my family.

I'm all about the cheeseburger and not what's used to augment it ("gussy it up" as my grandmother used to say).

But I was alone in my purist feelings on the subject at lunch.

One friend got the Kojak Burger (bacon, egg, cheese, lettuces, tomato, onion, mustard, mayo and pickles).

I teased him about his burger, saying "You sure you couldn't have gotten more on that burger?" (it definitely qualified as tall food) only to have him inform me that it didn't have the chicken tender or it would have been the Barnyard Brawl Burger.

There are people who want chicken on their burger?

When did this happen?

I can more easily understand the Bomb (chili, melted cheddar, bacon, grilled onion, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, mayo and pickles) KA BLAM! than I can the Barnyard Brawl.

I wouldn't eat it, either, but it's not quite as off-putting.

Do I really want cow and fowl battling in my mouth?

Frankly, no.

So I happily ate my cheeseburger with catsup, mustard and pickles, although it took me longer than it did my friend to finish his Kojak.

That's just a guy/girl thing, though; I was savoring and he was inhaling.

A good cheeseburger is worthy of either.

Friday, May 28, 2010

After a Month, There's a Lot to Tell

I put the period on my birthday sentence tonight with an evening of merriment at Stronghill Dining Co. They've got a great happy hour until 7:30 Mondays through Fridays and friend had never seen the place. That massive chandelier, the art deco mural, the hanging sculpture were all things that I knew would impress and they did. Impressing me was the bartender, who actually remembered me from four moths ago, here, and guiltily admitted that she'd still not been to the theater. I didn't judge.

I ran into a musician I hadn't seen in years who introduced me to his friends and tried to persuade me to join them at tonight's baseball game; one of the friends asked what it would take to get me to come along. Um, shackles? As they were preparing to leave, the musician asked me about my relationship status ("are you still seeing that guy?)" and when I answered in the negative, asked if he could call me. Sure, I said, just don't ask me out; he took my number anyway. No comment here.

Friend and I were weeks behind in life updates, so we each got a couple of glasses of Villa Pozzi Nero d'Avola ($6 each at HH prices) and settled in to share details. As we got deeper into love lives and futures, it became clear that nibbles were in order (appetizers 25% off at the bar) so we asked for the wedge (iceberg wedge, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted Roma tomatoes, classic blue cheese dressing) and the lobster rolls ( poached lobster claw, sauteed baby spinach, nishiki rice wrapped in nori, flash-fried and served with sweet soy reduction and wasabi). We shared dishes while over sharing information; it was the perfect balance of both.

About the time we got to the "why do men do that?" portion of the evening, my friend suggested something birthday festive, which resulted in the Hillenger Secco (are you paying attention, Clement?), pretty and pink and the ideal birthday toaster.

The bartender informed us that birthday girls get the desert of their choice and I did the cliched thing and ordered the chocolate torte (with vanilla bean ice cream). Delivering it, the server laughingly admonished, "Appetizers may be shared, but not desserts." Oops, we were just trying to close out the 2010 birthday spectacular, a feat best done with a tell-all friend.

Afterwards, I dropped off my car and walked over to Gallery 5 for RVyAy!, an evening of bands and local vendors and artisans. Vinyl fans were in heaven with so many record sellers, but my turntable is long since dead, so I focused on buying a screen-printed bandanna for a friend and perusing and discussing show posters with a couple of local artists/music fans. I always enjoy comparing impressions of shows with others and these two guys had seen even more live music than me, or at least almost as much (I don't go to Phish or Widespread Panic shows, though, so I may have lost by default).

Mingling the night away, I heard about the upcoming season of the Richmond Symphony, a Memorial Day show I was told was a must-see and some comments on my Listening Room post. As I was about to leave, gallery owner Amanda asked me to name some of my favorite music to add to the gallery's repertoire. What, me share my music preferences?

Oh, okay, if you insist. But be warned: this is a subject on which I can go on and on.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Spell of the Poe Garden

The garden at the Poe Museum has been every, very good to me. Make no mistake, I love the museum and its interesting exhibits (here) but I have some downright magical memories from that garden. And tonight I was back.

A few years ago, local band Mermaid Skeletons did a CD-release show there on the hottest, most humid night imaginable. Buzz was huge on the show, so I got there early to ensure getting in. The scores of people who arrived closer to show time were reduced to standing on the other side of the brick wall or, more painfully, scaling the wall to see a performance that took our collective breath away. When I think of that night, it is the beauty of their sound surrounded by the palpable heat that I recall most.

Even more recently, I went to an early fall screening of Hitchcock's Vertigo in the garden. Unfortunately, it had begun to rain about an hour before showtime. The Poe staff cleverly erected a canopy over the garden and the small crowd sat under it, with the rain pouring all round us as the suspense unfolded. It was like being in a suspended universe, away from all reality. There could not have been a cooler or more eerie place to be in Richmond on that dark, wet night.

Tonight was another of the museum's Unhappy Hours, an excuse to mingle in the garden, listen to music (sometimes they have readings too), nibble munchies, check out the museum and partake of the cash bar. The theme for the evening was "The Balloon Hoax" which was the title used in collections of a newspaper article Poe wrote about a supposed balloon trip across the Atlantic, which was later found to be a hoax. To complete the theme, there were even balloon races (you had to be there).

As a tribute to Poe's parents, the music tonight was either English (Poe's mother) or Irish (Poe's father), mainly traditional folk music like "Danny Boy" and "Greensleeves." If you're going to be serenaded with a haunting female voice, the Poe Museum garden is the perfect place to do so. My friend and I planted our seats right beside the fountain, the better to feel the coolness of the moving water and enjoy the co- mingling sounds of water and woman.

The event only runs from 6-9 p.m., so we strolled over to Sumo San afterwards for a light snack (edamame, potstickers and spider roll, oh my) and to chat, since we'd not talked during the music naturally. Victor was not in the house demonstrating sake bombs tonight, but we sat at the bar and watched the nimble fingers of the sushi chef and that was entertainment enough.

Or maybe we'd just been so charmed by the Poe Garden that we didn't require anything further; it's that spell that the place casts on a person. I'm guessing that's why some people tie the knot there.

May as well use the magic to one's own purposes, no?

Comfortably Strange on the Playground

If you haven't already gathered as much, I have been a nerd practically since birth. It wasn't a conscious choice; it's just who I was from a very young age. Need proof?

In fifth grade, I appropriated a book from my parents' bookshelf about the Lost Colony and took it to school to read on the playground (I know, right?). A classmate came up and asked why I was reading that "grownup book" instead of playing. I told her it interested me, to which she responded, "You're strange." Nerd and geek weren't in our vocabulary back then or I'm sure she'd have been more specific.

Fast forward to today and the Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society, "A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke," by author James Horn. I go to a lot of these lectures and I can honestly say this is the first where every single seat was taken and people were standing in the back. Apparently the topic is of interest to more than just me.

The British Horn, an American history scholar, warned us in advance of a spoiler in the course of his lecture. His research has led him to a different conclusion about the fate of the Lost Colony than that of current prevailing thought. He was kind enough to say he'd alert us so that we could leave the hall if we wanted to save the surprise ending for our reading pleasure (the book had sold out at the museum shop moments before the lecture so plenty of people had bought it). I saw no one leave, though.

He wove a fascinating story of Sir Walter Raleigh whose grand intentions of exploration and profiteering were made possible by doing the nasty with Queen Elizabeth. I have little doubt that the trade off was well worth it for the queen; portraits of Raleigh show a handsome, virile looking guy in spite of the foppish clothing of the day.

During the question and answer period, we heard from a surprising number of native East Carolinians, all of whom had a tale or legend associated with the missing people of the first English settlement in the country; they wanted to see if Horn's research could shed any light on what they'd heard over the years. They were probably reading books about the Lost Colony in fifth grade, too, but I bet nobody made fun of them.

Not that my classmate Anne's comment did any lasting damage to my young psyche. In addition to being born a nerd, I was also born comfortable with that fact. Feel free to call me strange.

Sword Fighting and Sea Bass

Let's just sum up my evening by calling it Agecroft afore Acacia. And, really, how better to follow up swordplay than with seafood? No need to answer that; it's a rhetorical question about the events of my evening.

"Sword Fighting: From Shakespeare to the Present" at Agecroft was an hour and a half of lecture and demonstration of men with weapons. Unlike now, back in Shakespeare's time men were trained in weaponry, making them an educated audience at his plays. In fact, having a weapon-savvy audience informed how he wrote.

Tonight's talk/demonstration spanned the period between medieval and modern times. Starting with the sword and buckler (an offensive or defensive shield-like device), medieval training manuals depicted the first known fencing student as a woman. Leave it to my people to set a trend for civilized fighting.

Next in weaponry was the long sword, which established distance as driving the dynamics of the duel. With this weapon, fighting was circular rather than static. And the stroke of wrath was exactly what it sounds like: deadly.

Tonight's demonstration continued through the rapier, which had a length limit which was measured at the entry points to the city of London (36" or the rest of it was whacked off before entry). Young toughs who walked the streets with their bucklers clanging against their swords were referred to as swashbucklers. Fun fact learned and stored.

The broadsword apparently transitioned weaponry from the medieval times to the modern. The small sword came next and that's what we saw on Civil War officers in this country.

The lecture and demonstration ended with a fencing round or several, refereed by an electronic device that measured hits. The cord attachments and flashing lights took a bit of the romance out of fencing, I have to say, but it is still fascinating to watch.

Leaving Windsor Farms, I went to Acacia for their mini-wine dinner, a tribute to southern France with Brandon Brown of Potomac Selections. I'd made my reservation at the bar and was ready to return to the drinking world after a short recovery period post-birthday extravaganza.

The meal began with olive-oil poached lobster escabeche style, grapefruit supreme, fennel and basil paired with 2008 Domaine La Bastide Roussane and the pairing was just beautiful. The generous lobster portion was an elegant first course.

Following that was the house-cured floral bacon (yummy beyond words), cress lettuces, pepino melon, American-style Roquefort, poppy seed dressing and it married beautifully to the amber-colored 2009 Chateau Les Valentines Rose de Provence. The bacon, always a welcome addition to any dish, was superb; we could have eaten a plate of that, the wine rep Brandon and I agreed.

I passed on the duck (it had been only three days since my last duck after all) and went for the bouillabaisse braised Mediterranean sea bass, sourdough bread and sea urchin touille with the 2006 Domaine Monpertuis Counoise. Brandon said I could impress all my wine geek friends by simply telling them I'd had multiple glasses of a 100% Counoise, apparently a rare occurrence in the wine world. Geek friends take note and assign points, please.

The crowd around me provided various entertainments including a proposal from a man just arrived from his mom's funeral ("Maybe we should be married") and, from a visitor from Connecticut/Chicago, a different kind of suggestion ("I'd like to kiss you."). What the...? Is the moon full or could it be the heat? The evening finished with a drink with a stranger at Can Can (who knew that at closing time bags of leftover bread were distributed to bar customers? Chocolate croissant, baguette and cinnamon raisin roll were in mine). Nothing like jumping back into the deep water.

The take-away from tonight's escapades? The higher the arm of the swordsman, the more noble the fighter. Also, the cachet of a blending grape as a stand-alone wine can not be understated.

And most unimportant of all, bacon makes everything better.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Just Look and You'll Be Sucked In

I marvel that there was ever a time when photography was not considered true art. I knew a guy who worked at the VMFA in the 70s and he told me what a huge shift it had been when they started showing photography exhibits. Personally, I'm a sucker for photography, as much for its artistic merit as for its ability to capture a moment in time.

The new exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society, "Memories of World War II" was curated by the Associated Press. Today's gallery tour of it was the perfect opportunity to admire some iconic photographs and learn the back story on others. Because WWII was the first war to truly exploit the power of photography as well as have the technology to transmit the images quickly, it provided a wealth of images, some familiar and many not.

It also was a powerful reminder of the use of propaganda, a term not necessarily as negative as is often perceived. Information dissemination comes in many guises. A photograph of a group of German school children in gas masks from 1939 was en eerie foreshadowing of the toll the war would take on the civilian population.

A photograph of a very young and handsome Jimmy Stewart being fingerprinted as part of his induction could have been used in a movie poster about wartime commitment. It's almost impossible to imagine a bankable Hollywood star today enlisting in the military, but then it's unlikely this country will ever see the wholesale commitment to a war effort like that of WWII.

Photographs of a somber Churchill amongst the ruins of the House of Commons or Queen Elizabeth purposefully making her way through the rubble of Buckingham Palace were undoubtedly effective images in encouraging the US to snap out of its isolationist mentality. Mother country and all that sort of thing, after all.

One of the most striking images was "Leipzig Mayor and Family Suicide," showing the mayor, his wife and daughter after their triple suicide. He was sprawled face down on his desk, the wife in a nearby chair and the daughter on a couch, head thrown back and her legs still crossed demurely at the ankles. It was riveting in its look at a scene few would ever imagine, much less witness.

Not all the photographs were quite so serious, though. One of my favorites showed a group of men being processed at an induction center. Clad in only their underwear, socks and shoes, it was an interesting glimpse into the boxers vs. briefs debate circa the 1940s. Of note, too, was how in shape they all were in their skimpy attire; not a beer gut in sight.

Another enjoyable piece showed the comedian/violinist Jack Benny being held aloft on the shoulders of soldiers as he played the violin. The grins on the faces of the crowd of 40,000 GIs was positively heartwarming and the biggest was probably Benny's. The value of the USO seen in one simple picture.

Rather than continuing to rave about these incredible photographs, I suggest you get thee to the Historical Society and see them up close and personal. And in case you didn't know, they don't even charge admission.

It's a history lesson of the most riveting kind. And if nothing else, you'll leave convinced that photography is indeed high art. Careful, though; you could end up a photography sucker like me.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Upping the Ante at the Listening Room

What if we took the Listening Room concept to the next level? What if we tried to make Richmond a place that became known for attentive audiences who did not shout or party at top volume during a show? What if I discovered that I wasn't the only person who had this fantasy?

Well, damn if I'm not. During a conversation with band photographer extraordinaire PJ Sykes at tonight's Listening Room performance, we talked about the recent Spoon show at the National. Like me, he'd been appalled at the rude and unruly crowd. Since then, he said several people had brought up the same subject to him and an idea had begun to foment.

What if a grass-roots movement started to encourage listening rather than talking at places like the National? PJ suggested carrying small cards which would be politely and silently handed to talkers at shows. They'd say something along the lines of "Here in Richmond, we like to hear our shows. Please, no talking during the performance." Then there'd be a website address should the cardholder want to learn more about the movement.

As he pointed out, bands would spread the word that rva was a great listening town. Hell, they spread the word about the backstage facilities and bands have admitted to booking here for that reason alone. Imagine how popular we could become among the earnest musician set. And as someone who's had my fair share of being surrounded by partiers with no interest in listening, I wouldn't hesitate to hand a stranger a card that paraphrased "Shut the fuck up."

But I digress. It was another stellar, in fact, possibly Top Two Ever show at the Listening Room this evening. It was most certainly the biggest crowd so far at the Michaux House and while I was quite comfy (having no blood or circulation) many around me were fanning themselves. The poor musicians, under the lights, looked downright shiny and hot.

First up was Brown Bird from Rhode Island. The last time they played here was five years ago at the now-defunct Nonesuch and they were a duo then. Tonight's trio put on a show to be remembered, rootsy and folky; it's not often you hear a sea chantey as a finale. Or see a guy playing guitar with his hands, drums with both feet and singing lead.

With dobro, guitar, cello, fiddle and drum, they had an unusual sound, far more driving than your typical Americana band. And such a drum: upside down and open on top to allow the addition of bells and whatever, it made for a hard-driving element throughout. The audience reacted with moving heads, feet and shoulders. Favorite lyric, "I haven't quite thrown enough of me away." Brown Bird got the most extended applause of any band I've seen at the Listening Room and I've been to every one.

The headliner was local band Homemade Knives, who hadn't played a show in three years. Lead singer Will told us right up front that he'd prefer to play for us, "ten at a time" and asked that the rest of the audience step out of the room for a bit. No one budged. "I couldn't be more nervous," he admitted.

They're a five-piece (accordion, keys, guitars and cello), who've also been around for a while, but on hiatus after the death of a member. Their harmonies are beautiful and their acoustic folk sound a thing of beauty, and tonight put them back in the spotlight in front of an adoring crowd.

When Jonathan took a minute to change instruments and grab his harmonica, the band prepared to start without him. "Wait for me!" he implored. "I'm just trying to get through this," Will lamented. The did a Tom Waits cover and an "old song done new" from an early EP, Industrial Parks. Favorite lyric, "If you would only run, I could chase you."

Their set was short and ended with Will telling us that "that's all the songs we know." As a musician friend said to me at that point, "I could have listened to another 25 minutes of that." Me, too.

And the beauty of that statement is that we were listening. The only voices were the ones on stage. Maybe it has something to do with the program cards which are on every seat when the audience arrives. "Please, no talking during the performance."

Hmm, sounds like the basis of a grass-roots idea. Count me in.

Blue Plate Special

I've got a friend who used to be front of the house manager at a local restaurant and after being unceremoniously dumped by her employer last year, took a job that requires being out of town for days at a time. It makes getting together tougher, so our plans tend to be last minute. As of last night, we were getting together today for lunch and she suggested the Grill at Patterson and Libbie, mentioning that she knew someone there.

Continuing the Freckles' tradition of a blue plate special, today's was liver and onions with mashed potatoes and string beans ($6.95). My grandmother would have ordered that in a heartbeat, but after the overindulgence of the past few days, I had to pass on that classic. Their other special today was chicken pot pie with a salad. It was a good day at the Grill for old-school food.

It turned out that my friend was too modest about "knowing" someone there. I arrived first and took a seat on the enclosed patio (the shade was partially up since it was sprinkling), surprised at how light the lunch crowd was. When the server saw my friend come in, there was much exclaiming. The two guys eating at the table next to us knew her and leaned over to chat; she later mentioned how attractive they both were, but in very different ways (something for everyone!). Three different servers from inside the restaurant proper came out to greet her. A customer walked in and recognized her at once from a former restaurant life.

It was fascinating, like being out with a celebrity. We've been out many times together, but some alignment of planets put a surprising number of long-time restaurant types in one place today. I just sat back and watched and listened. The anecdotes from rva restaurants past was positively fascinating; that's an incestuous world, for sure.

As I ate my spinach salad with pancetta, mozzarella, roasted red peppers and grape tomatoes dressed in balsamic, I imagined eating liver and onions...or even chicken pot pie. The kind of food that was showing up on diner menus with far more frequency, back in the days when all these people reminiscing first got into the restaurant business.

You know, back before balsamic ruled the restaurant world.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Coveting the Unicorn

I walked downstairs to leave my apartment this evening and discovered an orchid perched atop my mailbox.

There was no card or note to indicate where it came from.

It's a beautiful pink color, much like a lot of the wine I've been drinking this weekend, and I have no clue who left it.

It must be a birthday present, right?

Yesterday I got home from the house music show, here, to unexpectedly find a shiny purple bag containing wine and a CD on my front porch.

That time, there was a card, so I at least knew the source of the obviously-chosen-for-me gifts.

Most of the people who know me shy away from giving me music, afraid that I'll have it or it won't be to my odd taste.

This was spot on, as was the wine choice. Definitely a birthday present.

Last night at my birthday soiree, one of my favorite couples gave me a-- wait for it --shellacked wooden unicorn-head clock.

It is the most impressive piece of heavily-plasticized wood designed for telling time that anyone there had ever seen.

I kept it close to me all night because I knew that others were coveting it.

If you saw it, you'd understand what I'm saying.

And this evening I gave myself a birthday gift.

A friend has been telling me about the chair massages they do at Globehopper Coffee on Mondays between 5 and 8:00 for $1 a minute.

After a solid four nights of birthday debauchery, I had some girl parts that were a bit knotted, so I placed myself in the capable hands of Margo and in front of god and Globehopper, melted into that chair to be pummeled.

It's funny about presents.

I didn't need a single thing I was given for my birthday, but they were all stuff that I love: music, wine, chocolate, flowers.

Wait, let me correct that.

I needed that shellacked wooden unicorn-head clock.

My abode, and by default me, became infinitely cooler the moment I hung it.

That's a birthday gift that will keep on giving...with or without the AA battery.

The Birthday Formidable

Birthday dilemma: when you eat out as often as I do, it presents a challenge when deciding where to birthday sup. A Sunday means fewer restaurants open, plus I'd already visited all my regular favorites in the lead-up to the big day.

My partner for the evening suggested Millie's and then rescinded it, saying that she hadn't eaten there in years so who knew how it would be? I was in the same boat; it had been at least four or five years for me. Still, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good idea. Besides, the after-party was what mattered and where I'd end up spending most of my birthday evening anyway.

It worked out very well. It was certainly the most chill I've ever seen Millie's and we had a delicious and unrushed meal. She deferred to me in the wine choice since it was my day and I couldn't resist the Mulderbosch Rose, as pretty and pink as a birthday wine should be (South Africa strikes again!).

My friend recalled the Cesar salad there as one of the best in town, so we split that to start; she was right, it was much better than most. She went on to the crispy-skinned duck breast with creamed spinach and saffron potato salad. Totally impressed, she set some of it aside for me to taste; it was incredibly rich with a comfort food feel given those side dishes.

Knowing how well the rose would work with crab (a personal favorite anyway) I ordered the tuna tartare with jump lump crab, sesame cucumber salad, tobiko, jalapeno vinaigrette and poached quail egg. Friend referred to it as deconstructed sushi and that little quail egg provided an accompanying richness to the clean flavors of the tartare.

We'd begun our evening with me opening a fabulous gift from her: a dozen different kinds of exotic chocolate bars. There was a dark chocolate bar with toasted panko and sea salt, another had grains of pistachio, and yet another was Belgian chocolate with hazelnuts. As she pointed out, I can taste and blog on chocolate for months to come.

Despite this wealth of chocolate, I ordered dessert rather than reaching into my gift. We shared the chocolate/orange pot de creme, a dark and creamy delight with cream and orange zest on top. It was funny, the server set the dessert down and then took off like a shot, only to return with a mound of whipped cream on a plate with a lit birthday candle in it. Once again, I made a wish (same one) and blew it out. Dessert done, we left for the big celebration.

I'd invited friends to join me on the patio at Ipanema, anticipating a balmy night, which it was. When I arrived, Rob the bartender wished me a happy birthday and noted that I was a Gemini. I knew his birthday had just passed, so I returned the birthday wishes and asked if he was a Gemini, too. "I'm on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini," he explained, "which makes me a stubborn two-faced bastard." Me, I'm just a multiple personality, who chose Don Julio for her constant companion tonight.

I'd asked a variety of people whose company I especially enjoy for one reason or another, people I knew would increase my enjoyment of my birthday. At one particularly interesting moment, I took stock of the demographic of the group and came up with multiple restaurant types, a photographer, various musicians, a farmer, VCU teaching types, an artist whose work hangs in my house and some media types. And not a normal person among them, myself included.

It was the perfect gathering with people coming and going at different times, but with everyone lingering once they did arrive. Several friends had told me that they had earlier plans and wanted to know how late we'd be celebrating. I assured them that the party wouldn't end until Ipanema closed and we didn't even make that deadline.

A couple of friends had particularly mentioned wanting to finally see me loopy after years of nothing but responsible drinking in front of them. One of the last to leave noted as he stood to go, "Karen I've never seen so much giggling out of you. So this is you loopy."

Or maybe not loopy, but just me having such a better birthday than last year. As one late-leaving guest said, "I don't know which birthday this is for you, but you are absolutely gorgeous."

It was a fiercely fine line on which to head home, happy for more reasons than I'm acknowledging here. And another year older, not that that matters in the least.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Birthday Afternoon of House Music

Say a musician friend was planning a casual performance on the afternoon of your birthday. He asks you what you think of the idea weeks in advance. You tell him the idea is magnificent and made all the better because it will take place in between your birthday brunch and birthday dinner. Say he decides to call it the "Great Music, Great Spaces Inaugural performance" instead of "Karen's House Music Show." Whatevs.

But let's be clear, the show was not at anyone's house; it was at Urban Farmhouse Cafe, that high-ceilinged space with a facade of nothing but enormous windows, all of which were open. The "house music" term comes from the tradition of composers playing their latest creations for writers, poets and other musicians in a room in their house before debuting works for a symphonic audience.

Today's house show was organized by good friend and clarinet player Nicholas Lewis of the Richmond Symphony and involved four partners in crime (two violins, a viola and cello), also Symphony members. Urban Farmhouse was filled to capacity and I must have run into a dozen people I hadn't seen in years. Clearly Nick's circle is a wide one and yet somewhat overlapping with mine.

The program began with Mozart ("a civil discourse"), followed by Brahms ("more agitated"). Next came selections from Ralph von Williams consisting of folk melodies arranged as high art. The finale was spectacular. Nick had asked his friend and musical peer Gary Powell Nash to do an arrangement of the spiritual "Over My Head," a feat accomplished in an unbelievable three days. Of note here is that we were the very first audience to hear this arrangement; it was truly magical.

The words of the spiritual were demonstrated by Nick because the scheduled vocalist was unable to perform. I was so glad that he took the time to share the words because it made the piece resonate even more.

Over my head I hear music in the air
Over my head I hear music in the air
Over my head I hear music in the air
There must be a god somewhere

Now I'm a card-carrying heathen but I found those words to be as true as any ever written or sung. I might also mention how completely appropriate they were for the music-loving birthday girl at the finale of Karen's House Music Show.

Or whatever Nicholas was claiming it was called.

Birthday Brunch at Zeus

Let me state right up front that I require breakfast. I need my fast broken almost as soon as I wake up, although I know that most people feel differently about the first meal of the day. And while I've lived with several men (not concurrently, mind you), not a one of them considered breakfast the necessity that I do. I accept that I'm the odd man out on this one.

But on my birthday, I'm not going to get up and have my usual oatmeal and fruit. Nor did I have to because I have a friend who wanted to take me to brunch at 10:00 this morning (in his defense, when we made the plans, I didn't know the extent of my birthday eve plans or I'd have suggested something closer to noon). So by 10:10 or so, we were ensconced at Zeus Gallery Cafe with nearly every other table already taken (including one with a shrieking child...'nuff said).

We both got the Olympic breakfast, with bacon and scrambled eggs for me and sausage and fried eggs for him. My friend had quizzed our server on the nature of the toast, hoping it would be toasted brioche like what they use in their French toast, but was told it was artisinal bread instead.

Artisinal bread makes for fine toast with an unusually good toast crust, but it also requires copious amounts of butter and jam. After all, one must have a sweet element to balance the saltiness of the potatoes, eggs and breakfast meat, no? The meager amount of butter and jam originally served had to supplemented within our first slices and, truth be told, could have used another replenishment. Birthday or not, what's the point of toast without a thick schmear of butter and jam?

My friend admitted that he'd considered bringing along a birthday candle to insert in my food and decided against it. But it wasn't a birthday candle I needed, it was a big old breakfast, which I got. It may have been a little short on butter and jam, but it went a long way toward mitigating last night's Corazon before tonight's debauchery.

A Birthday Eve Celebration

The birthday eve celebration, while absolutely essential, requires a delicate balancing act. Like its more well-known relative Christmas Eve, it has the benefit of being an anticipatory event; no matter how well it turns out, the main event is still to come.

But it cannot be mishandled. The birthday eve festivities require staying out late enough to acknowledge the actual birthday arriving, but can't be so raucous or late-ending as to negatively impact the big day (and night).

So naturally I went to my neighborhood joint, Bistro 27, where everyone knows my name. I was greeted by kisses and hugs and shameless flattery, all of which added to the experience. Pedro immediately announced that I should not order dessert because he was buying me chocolate mousse. In a nod to the chef, who has a penchant for over-indulging me, I decided to keep my imbibing to the wines of Portugal, beginning with the Vinho Verde, a bubbly birthday beginning.

A nearby bar sitter, a vacationer from California, took note of the various conversations we were having and moved over to sit next to me. He was looking for recommendations from a local about where to eat and wanted some opinions on the restaurants he had tentatively planned to try. I'm not sure how he knew that I have opinions to spare, but share I did.

We were just finishing up a discussion of where to eat in Carytown when Chef Carlos sat down a plate with a flourish and said to me, "Let's see if you have balls," to which I replied, "Would you like me to pull up my dress and show you?" He was serving me Rabada, a tail stew from his native Brazil and a dish his mother made often. The aroma was heavenly.

And while I already knew that I liked oxtail, the man sitting behind me wanted a look at my plate because, as he said, "I've never had oxtail, so I was afraid to order it." The peppery watercress that lay atop the stew and the creamy polenta underneath were amazing complements to the heartiness of the vegetable based stew. I ate what I could with utensils and then just picked up the bones and sucked the meat out; Carlos came over to praise me for eating the dish properly. With the Quinto do Crasto Douro, a blend of four grapes including Tinto Roriz and Tinto Borroca, I was in birthday eve heaven.

I followed that master stroke with the Bistro 27 salad and next thing I knew Pedro was bringing me mousse with a big grin on his face. Apparently the kitchen was down to its last five mousses when a table of five prom kids ordered the remaining ones. Seeing what was about to happen, Pedro had scooped up one for me and told the other server that his prom kid would have to choose another kind of chocolate (27's dessert menu has three chocolate options, so it wouldn't have been too much of a hardship).

Placing my mousse in front of me with as much flourish as his father had done with the oxtail, he said, "Taken from a child to give to a great woman." Like I always say, I love this place.

Balliceaux was my last stop for multiple reasons, including Ornette Coleman and Beach House. Bass player Trevor Dunn was presenting the Proofreaders (there's a band name I can relate to) and while free jazz is not everyone's cup of tea, these guys were too cool to miss, as evidenced by the number of jazz musicians I saw there tonight. Music was wailing.

A mutual friend had informed me of bartender Austin's affinity for Baltimore duo Beach House and while Austin and I have talked music plenty every time we see each other, this was news to me. I've been seeking out someone with whom I could share my BH passion and Austin was my man. Best of all, diners be damned, he blasted the new album from his computer while we discussed every nuance of it.

Austin also had the perfect birthday libation knowing what a fan I am of high-end tequila. Corazon tequila was a smokey and smooth delight that got drier as it went down and with some slow-melting ice cubes, it was as expressive as the music I was listening to. He introduced me to some friends of his at the bar, visiting from San Diego and I enjoyed hearing their take on rva. Once again, someone wanted opinions from me and I had some to share.

Once the rain ceased I asked Austin if the window near the bar could be opened to let in the night air and he had obliged me. Sitting there, sipping Corazon and admiring the night sky to a jazz quartet, my birthday arrived almost unnoticed, but that may have had something to do with the second Corazon appearing in front of me.

Even so, I never lost sight of the first rule of birthday eve celebrations, and reluctantly left a few minutes ago. Now, a little sleep and I'll be ready for the main event.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Birthday Bounty: Critics, Candles and Conversation

Reason #867 why I have the most random life on the planet: my conversation with a perfect stranger at River City Cellars today.

Me; Where do you live?
Him: Hyattsville, MD.

Me: No way. I grew up in New Carrollton.
Him: You went to Parkdale?

For the uninformed (okay, everybody reading this), those two places are a couple of miles apart. In the two decades I've lived in Richmond, no one has ever uttered the words "Hyattsville" or "Parkdale" to me. A person who grew up here couldn't possibly relate, but as a transplant, I just don't run into people who know of the planned community where I was raised (except possibly as a Metro stop), much less identify where I went to high school.

And to add to the haphazard nature of the conversation, I was talking to Todd Kliman, food and wine critic for Washingtonian magazine. He was doing a reading at RCC this evening to promote his book, The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine, about Virginia's own Norton grape. Talk about an event with my name on it!

As a wine lover with a preference for non-fiction, this reading/Norton tasting was my idea of a really good time. Kliman read a bit from the book, including a letter Daniel Norton had written, a letter which is housed at the Valentine Museum. Norton, the book's central character, was a Richmond doctor who bred the grape and whose personality came to life listening to that letter; I immediately bought the book.

After the tasting, I went over to ask the author to sign my copy and it was at that point that we got started on our shared heritage. In describing where he lived, because apparently Hyattsville has changed dramatically since I last saw it, he referenced DeMatha High School, a notable point of reference since my first boyfriend (and deflowerer) was a DeMatha graduate. Small freaking world, isn't it?

It was positively delightful to spend so much time talking about old neighborhoods and the types of people we grew up with. We discovered that we're both members of the FB group "Bitch, please! I grew up in PG County," and reminisced about how distinctly and positively we were shaped by that area and its demographic.

After a while, I felt guilty for taking up so much of the guest of honor's time, but not before he invited me up to join him on a restaurant critiquing endeavor or two. He's very specific about the kind of people he likes to have along when he's reviewing and somehow I made the cut. I can already guess that our problem is going to be paying attention to the food and not just jabbering on about shared memories and places.

We're also convinced that in all likelihood, there are almost no degrees of separation between us and with further conversation, we're bound to discover who we knew who might have slept together. We barely scratched the surface today and yet already found connections, and with a night or two in DC, I foresee all kinds of overlapping stories. Saying our goodbyes, Todd reminded me, "Call me within the next two weeks." You know, I think I will.

With such a fine start to my evening, I moved on to Acacia for a bit of dinner before music.When I arrived, the place was mobbed; a sixty-person rehearsal dinner was just finishing up. Luckily the hostess knows me and assured me that there would be a seat at the bar for me within moments and voila! There was. My timing had been impeccable.

As I slipped between the departing crowd, a man said to me, "You should have been at our party!" Actually, sir, I couldn't have timed it better than arriving just as Acacia was opening to the public. I'd never been there with only five other people in the entire restaurant; it was almost surreal. But of course, within fifteen minutes the place was nearly full.

The bartender recognized me from picking up my softshell lunches last week, here, and asked how we'd liked them and where we'd gone to eat them. I was flattered that she even remembered me and shared with her how much we'd enjoyed our al fresco lunch in Scuffletown Park.

It wasn't only me in celebratory mode tonight, either; a couple at the end of the bar was celebrating her recent birthday and the couple next to me their anniversary. Congratulations were exchanged all around. I began by wetting my whistle with the Man Vintners Chenin Blanc, tangy, tropical and from South Africa, a wine-growing region to which I'm partial.

Food-wise, I had the tuna crudo with shaved green garlic and the local asparagus and housemate mozzarella with lemon, caper and green olive oil. The tuna couldn't have been any rarer or fresher and the salad provided the perfect contrast of textures and flavors and that salty dressing made it all that much better. But then. when does Dale's food ever disappoint?

Dessert followed and I went for variety. The plate included a cactus berry sorbet of the prettiest pink color, a passionfruit panna cotta and a chocolate ganache. There was a lit birthday candle in my panna cotta when it arrived and I made the most of it by making a wish before I blew it out. This trio of sweet delights was further enhanced with the Chambers Rosewood Muscat, also of a lovey pink color, and the ideal accompaniment. Oral satisfaction achieved.

My final stop was at the Camel to hear local band (and personal favorite) Marionette play an excellent set, including some new material. I arrived early enough to spend some time chatting with the band beforehand. Guitarist Adam wanted to discuss The National's new album and career trajectory (Target for $7.99... really, guys?) and as the only person I know who is as rabid about the band as I am, it was especially satisfying to compare notes with him. And when he asked for some new music suggestions, I was more than happy to oblige (aren't I always?).

I think every one of my nerd quotas was met tonight: literary, conversation, wine, food and music. At this rate, I'm going to be walking on air by my birthday Sunday.

Wrapping Up a Birthday Present

I'm really not the birthday present type. I mean, I always appreciate a gift, but I'm not the least bit disappointed when a birthday comes and goes and there are no gifts involved. What I love is to get words (especially written) directed at me or time spent with me because honestly, I'm not a big stuff person.

That said, a few minutes ago, I heard a knock on the neighbors' door downstairs and headed down to see what was up. I was greeted by the FedEx guy, who peered around the corner of their porch and asked, "Are you Karen?" I am, I told him, and seeing a package in his hand, I mentioned that my birthday was Sunday. I signed for it, he wished me a fun birthday and I took my unexpected package upstairs to open.

Inside were two bottles of wine from a good friend whom I had originally met in college (and who hated me on sight, I might mention). And not just any two bottles, but two I had specifically mentioned over the course of my blog as being particular favorites: the 2008 K. Vintner Viognier (mind-blowing aromas with pure balance and mineral) and the 2008 M. Chapoutier "Les Vignes de Bila-Haut" Cotes du Roussillon (concentrated flavors and a dark chocolate finish). I may not need presents, but I do love me some wine, especially ones I've had and been moved to rave about.

The interesting backstory to this gift is that the sender is the one who taught me to drink wine in the first place. When we met in college, I was not a wine drinker. As a native Californian, my friend was a huge wine drinker, even if what we were drinking back then was pretty mediocre. The Gallo Chablis and Black Forest cake incident will live on in our memories until death, although we've sworn to refrain from sharing it anymore.

Ironically, over the intervening years, I have gravitated to wine while my friend has moved away from it. During my last visit in 2008, I discovered that Riesling and Muscat make up the sum of my friend's wine drinking today; if it's not sweet, it doesn't appeal, which represents a huge difference in our wine taste. It didn't stop us from drinking together; we just drink from different bottles.

But the thoughtfulness that went into this gift is what struck me most. Any wine would have been appreciated, but the effort involved in choosing based on my own blog ramblings was incredibly considerate. I know people read me, but some of them are actually paying attention? That's pretty impressive, I have to say, even for a long-time friend.

So the person who doesn't need birthday gifts kicked off her birthday weekend with a surprise present. I'll drink to that!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Live and On the Air

Don't know much about history...Actually that's not true; I know plenty but nowhere near enough, which is why I couldn't resist going to the taping of Backstory with the American History Guys tonight at the Virginia Historical Society. It's a public radio show where they rip a current topic from the headlines and, aided by callers' questions, look at the topic from an historical perspective.

Tonight's topic was taxes so I wasn't surprised to see that it drew a big crowd to listen and challenge the History Guys. When the "on the air" light came on, the theme music started to play and the three guys began bobbing their heads. "Nod your heads together," they told the audience. We did, then we were introduced to the radio audience and clapped to demonstrate our presence. It all felt very old-school radio.

Nest came the clap-ometer to measure the audience's feelings about taxes. First the people who felt they are over-taxed were asked to clap; they made their presence known. Next those who felt we are under-taxed checked in. But when they asked for claps from those who felt our taxing system was just right, not two hands came together. It was a clear demonstration of what a polarizing issue taxes are.

The History Guys consist of an 18th century expert, a 19th century pro and a 20th century know-it-all. They launched into some background information, explaining that tax rates went up because of the American Revolution (no surprise there) and that the ante-bellum American south was one of the least taxed societies in the history of the world (it was mainly slaveholders who paid taxes).

The Guys made several references to the south and, as I've discovered, the VHS audiences tend to be a staunchly pro-southern bunch. At one point, one of the History Guys said, "Some of you may still have Confederate money at home. It's not going to come back." Awkward silence.

Tonight's taping differed from the usual scenario because, instead of being in a studio with a call-in audience, they were at the VHS and had us ask our penetrating questions live. The Guys were knowledgeable and funny; referring to the Constitution, one said, "I revere it too, but I don't read it." It was an analogy about the contents of a sausage (maybe you had to be there).

In any case, the taping was enlightening, entertaining and a terrific way to spend an hour. The VHS hopes to host additional tapings in the future, should you be as big a history geek as I am.

I followed food for the mind with food for the soul, which meant a stop at Six Burner to see bartender Josh and talk music; I'd promised to stop by and rub the Elvis Costello show in his face and he'd been absent my last couple of visits, so tonight I finally followed up on that promise.

To start things off on the right foot, I chose the Tegernseerhof Rose from lower Austria, a delightful dry rose and Josh was attentive about keeping my glass full. My rose was food-friendly, making my amuse bouche of spicy beef tartare over an avocado mousse a wonderful accompaniment to its dry pinkness. Of all the amuse bouches I've had at 6B so far, this was by far my favorite; the flavors were superb.

Next up I had a bowl of the bacon bean soup, redolent of bacon, so much so that my soup arrived practically with Josh's nose in it. It was thick and creamy and oh-so-bacony and with hunks of bread to accompany it, a lovely course. At one point, Josh came over to pour a glass of rose for another customer and asked me under his breath where the wine was from. I supplied the answer and was rewarded with a big grin and another pour; apparently my assistance was appreciated.

I considered the Caribbean banana split (mango sorbet, fried banana and chocolate) for dessert, but after checking with long-time server T, I was told that it did not contain sufficient chocolate for someone like me. Instead I opted for the chocolate gelato to ensure an adequate chocolate quota; it was positively sticky it was so dense. It's gratifying when the staff knows your taste well enough to steer you in the right direction.

Leaving the restaurant was a group of five and one of the women was leaning heavily on her husband as she left. "You're so good to me, " she purred to him. "I was a bad girl." It wasn't my place to ask, but, boy did I want the back story to that comment.

But then I'm always interested in people's back stories. I have no compunction whatsoever about eavesdropping followed by pointed questions to a stranger to learn more about a person. Some might consider me nosey, but I prefer to think of myself as someone with an innate historical curiosity.

Let's just call a spade a spade; if they're the History Guys, I'm the Curiosity Girl. No apologies forthcoming.

Lunching with the Birthday Girl

At the rate I'm going, I'll be the size of a house by my birthday. Or explode, whichever comes first. That's not a complaint because if there's any week I want to feel overfed it's my birthday week.

Growing up in a large family, my Mom always insisted that we choose the meals for our big day, so I must have gotten it in my head that over-indulging in my favorite foods is a birthday prerogative. Luckily, these days I have good friends who are happy to overeat with me.

Yesterday my nerd friend accompanied me to 821 for lunch. Yes, I'd just been there on Sunday, but the burning question was whether or not the black bean nachos (which I order way too often there) would remain as well done when they came out of a new kitchen. I even warned our server at the bar that I was there on a quality control mission.

Worry not, kids, they tasted exactly the same and my record is intact for not being able to finish the entire plate of them. I didn't feel too bad because my friend, who'd skipped breakfast in order to fully enjoy a half pound burger and fries, was unable to finish his lunch either. Considering I'd had breakfast (can't live without it), I'd say I did just fine and he was the food wimp. He may dispute that however.

Today I met photographer friend for lunch at Garnett's, my second lunch at Garnett's this week. Tuesday I'd had their stellar Cobb salad but today I went with the grilled pepperoni, turkey, Swiss cheese, onions and Dijon mustard on Italian bread sandwich. I managed to finish all of my black-eyed pea salad but only 90% of my sandwich. I'm guessing my breath wasn't the best after all that, either, but it was completely worth it (and no one was going to kiss me anyway).

My friend got the Big Daddy, an obscenely large assemblage of roast beef, bacon, ham, turkey, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, Dijon mustard and mayo on toasted Italian bread. I have to presume that this is Mac's creation, he being a big daddy and all, but he was too busy to do anything other than smirk a greeting at me and go back to making his supreme sandwiches, so I don't know that for sure.

The only shame of all this lunching out is that my over-ordering has precluded any chance of dessert while out and I am many things, but one of my most defining features is my need for sweet. Fortunately, there are still a few days left in which to address that.

Because another thing my mother instilled in us was that no matter how full you may think you are, there's always that little corner where you have room for something sweet (especially chocolate). I intend to fill that corner several times over before this birthday business is all over.

Why I Love Strangers

Grace Street, 8:15 a.m. A man getting into his car smiles at me. I smile back.

Him: Did anyone tell you that you look gorgeous this morning?
Me; No, they didn't.
Him: Well, I'm telling you now.

I am wearing black shorts and a Yo La Tengo t-shirt; gorgeous I'm not. The very first person I've spoken to and he's a stranger who has made my day.

Yes, I know I'm a lucky girl.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ask Me What I Really Think

Like it says in my profile, I like to share my opinions and people who know me know that.

For that matter, since starting this blog, even people who don't know me know that. But I digress.

I got an invitation yesterday from a filmmaker friend to come to the Firehouse Theater tonight to screen his four-years-in-the-making film and provide feedback.

When I arrived, he was outside looking as nervous as an expectant mother about to deliver.

He had not yet screened the product of his labors to an audience so I think he was both nervous and excited.

Slipping by the cast of Rent practicing the score, I headed upstairs for the birth.

The 47-minute film was called That Time We Talked, comprised of a series of vignettes of friends and family, including his Mom, Dad and sisters.

He'd had each of them film a roll of Super 8 film of themselves doing whatever they liked for the 2 1/2 minute duration.

Some time later, he'd had them watch what they'd shot and record comments about it, along with other people's comments, including his own.

There was a wide variety in terms of how people shot themselves, everything from playing piano to playing with a cat and playing on a playground to drinking a PBR.

What was truly fascinating though, was their verbal reactions to what they saw.

One female friend talked of nothing but how self-conscious she was about filming herself; she concluded by stating how boring she was, a fact the audience had already ascertained.

Several of the guys came across as hat boy types, mainly discussing sex and drinking (one guy gave up beer for Lent, but two days into the 40 took up hard liquor instead).

The most interesting commentary about them was what other people said rather than their own words, which were not particularly introspective.

One girl did a fairly insightful analysis of her relationship with her boyfriend as she prepared dinner for him.

His mother provided some of the most poignant commentary in the entire film, saying that she spent two hours every morning getting ready to go to a crappy job, as she resignedly tossed items into her bag.

Earlier she had noted that her body was square even as she walked on a treadmill before work.

The filmmaker saved his own piece for last thus completing the arc of the story begun with his college friends and ending with a shared meal with his parents.

And then it was time to rip the film apart.

Actually what followed was a two-hour discussion of what we liked and didn't like about the film along with suggestions for where and how it could be improved.

You have to understand that he and his partner have been working on this thing for four years now so he knew he was too close to the project to be objective.

Our purpose was to provide the subjectivity and did we ever.

I'm no film geek, just a fan of the independent and non-mainstream kind of movies that most people find too slow-paced or dialog heavy; in other words, this film was right up my alley.

He intends to rework it to get it to the point where it can be submitted to some of the smaller and more obscure film festivals where the audiences of people like me as well as the judges are looking for exactly those kind of creative endeavors.

But before he does that, he intends to have the eight of us back for another viewing and skewering.

Talent aside, you have to be a brave filmmaker to birth your baby in a room full of opinionated people.

But after all, he asked for it and I'm the last person to withhold my thoughts, whether asked for or not.

It says so right over there ->

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Secco Redux

My plans to meet a friend for happy hour were scuttled at the last moment because she wasn't feeling well. I momentarily considered staying home but it's my birthday week, so where's the fun in that? Instead I made my way to Carytown to see how crazy it's gotten at Secco since I was there last and perhaps have a bite to eat.

The place was perfectly manageable when I arrived (but it was early) and I easily snagged my stool of choice. Within moments, Can Can's king Bob Talcott came in looking very dapper indeed in a white blazer and blue shirt with a blue pocket square. After saying our hellos he asked what I was going to drink. I told him that that was up to him; why would I choose when I had a pro to do it for me?

The bartender brought out their two newest bottles for us to taste. The Vouvray was good, but the Chateau Cambon Beaujolais way more fun. Bob described it as, "Light, charming, unchallenging and not inclined to make one introspective." Who wouldn't want to drink such a wine? So we did.

Bob's topic of choice was the wine class he'd taught today, for which he used a song by country singer John Anderson as an analogy. That led to a discussion of country music in general and true country versus modern country. I have to say that it's the first conversation where someone brought up Juice Newton in a long time. About that time, Julia put on 'Karen's Secco mix' and Interpol filled the bar. I couldn't have been more delighted.

Bob admired the drapes that I'd made for Secco, which led to a discussion of boys who never wanted to take shop class, of which he was one. He wanted a lesson about Jackson Ward because despite 30+ years in rva, he felt he didn't know enough about it except its general vicinity and that its ironwork was noteworthy. The J-Ward girl in me filled him in on all he needed to know about my neighborhood.

Just as he was departing for a date, a nearby bar sitter struck up a conversation. He's a bartender elsewhere and I had noticed him sampling all over the Secco menu earlier. He was just finishing some white chocolate bark with candied black olives and offered me some of what he couldn't finish. I was wise enough not to go sweet before my dinner, though, and set it aside for later.

He'd been eavesdropping on my conversation with Bob and wanted to follow up on a few points (Balliceaux, the Belvidere, Six Burner, among others). And as is almost always the case around here, we had friends in common; he was later planning to see Josh of Six Burner, one of my regular music conversational partners. I even knew the chef who had told him to check out Secco, so we had plenty to talk about. When Kate Bush's "Running Up that Hill" came on my mix, I heard someone say, "Great song." I know.

When my food arrived, it caused a stir. I'd ordered the tempura-fried softshell crab with a warm salad of fiddlehead ferns, ramps and pioppini mushrooms and it sat there, a thing of beauty. Two women at a nearby table began oohing and aahing and asking what it was. Julia showed up to take a picture. The chef came out to ask what I thought about it (scrumptious). The guy I was talking to made complimentary comments. Let me tell you, as impressed as they were, it tasted even better than they could have imagined. Fiddelheads and softshells, oh my!

My new friend left but not before telling me where he worked and suggesting I come by for brunch and good conversation (his words). As I told him, I'm happy to eat alone as long as I stumble on someone worthy to talk to. He guaranteed it and left to Spoon's "Everything Hits at Once."

By this time, the bar was three deep with people waiting for tables; this was why I'd come early. I was close to asking for my check, but cheese was calling to me Their selection is unparalleled in Richmond, so I enlisted the help of my server. I told him I loved stinky cheeses, but had already had the Gorgonzola dolce and the Montenebro, and what could he do for me?

He returned with the Valdeon, a cow and goat's milk blue cheese from Spain, and as he presented it, he said, "This is gonna kick your ass!" to which I responded, "I want my ass kicked." It paired beautifully with another glass of Beaujolais and the Sondre Lerche playing in the background.

I took a break from cheese- eating long enough to say hello to a musician friend (of local band At the Stars) and his girlfriend who'd just come in. We run into each other a lot at shows, so I may have mentioned that the mix was mine, knowing he'd appreciate some of my choices. That led to a lengthy discussion of shows we'd both seen lately, causing his girlfriend to give up on us and stake out space on one of the couches until we finished.

After I'd scoured the plate of everything except the sycamore leaf wrap, it was time to go; the place was full of others waiting for a stool or table and I'd taken up space long enough. Besides, I'd reveled in charming wine, spring food, stinky cheese and multiple pleasurable conversations.

Birthday week or not, it was time to quit while I was ahead. I happily left with the strains of Pinback's "Fortress" in my ears.

My Stupidity Made a Difference

Obviously I'm doing census work for the cold hard cash, but I also managed to accomplish something meaningful through sheer stupidity, which has made the whole endeavor worthwhile and even memorable. I'll start by saying that enumerating has revealed to me the depths of the diversity of my neighborhood.

On the very first day we were sent out as trainees with our shiny new binders and pencils, I screwed up. Despite years of living here, I went to an East Clay address when I should have gone to West Clay. I knocked on the door, introduced myself and asked the man to confirm the address; instead he corrected me, explaining that the house number was right but that I was at East Clay Street.

I apologized and went to leave, but he insisted I stay. I explained that someone else would come by to count him, but that he wasn't on my list. Newbie that I was, I was determined to follow the rules. "No, no," he insisted. "I didn't get a census form. I've never gotten a census form. You're here now and what if no one else comes? I want to be counted. Please come in."

Once inside, he explained that he didn't want to rely on someone else showing up since no one ever had. Being a freshly-minted, dewy-eyed enumerator, I felt like the right thing to do was to fill out a form for this man, despite him not being a person I was supposed to count.

When we got to the race portion of the form, it all became clear. He was Native American, of the Holiwahali-Sponia tribe and he said his parents had never been counted, nor had his grandparents. "When I looked up records, there's no trace of my family because they were never counted," he said. "I want my great- grandchildren to be able to find out about me."

Wow, was I glad I'd come in and done the wrong thing. The man was absolutely right; he should be counted. And the irony was that once I had the information, I took it to the person who had his block and indeed, his address was not listed. Apparently because he lives over a business, no one had ever known about the apartment and put it on a census list. If not for my faux pas, he would have remained invisible.

In the weeks since, I have enumerated far more people of Native American descent than I had any idea lived in J-Ward. Happily in the 'hood are Cherokee, Pamunkey, Lakota, Umpqua and even Pomo-Mewak, a Mexican tribe, and all now denoted as such on their census forms. And that's just the people I personally counted.

A future generation will be able to do genealogical research about this man because of me. I'm incredibly proud of the results of my incompetence.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Southern Fried Black Sheep

I don't know how it's possible at this point, but I somehow had one friend left who had never been to the Black Sheep, a place barely four blocks from my apartment. In my own defense, she can be incredibly picky (and doesn't eat a LOT of things) so I may have unconsciously steered her away for fear that their creative menu would be off-putting to her. Which just goes to show you how little I know.

She loved the feel of the place. the art on the walls, our server's friendliness and the extremely reasonably priced wine menu. Her only disappointment was that there was no fried chicken on the menu, but she got over that.

We began with a bottle of the Albet i Noya Xarel-lo, a light Spanish white with which she couldn't possibly find a reason to complain. She did find the menu a tad overwhelming in its choices and was disappointed to hear that they'd run out of deviled eggs. Since she was taking so long to decide, I gave up on her and ordered my first course, the Field & Stream, consisting of mixed lettuces with asparagus, fingerling potatoes and smoked trout with a creamy dill dressing. A superb combination, with a slightly larger serving it would have been an entire meal.

She finally settled on the Fire and Ice (iceberg lettuce wedge with cilantro-chili marinated queso blanco, cucumber, grilled corn and jalapeno vinaigrette) and the Cuban Reuben (pastrami-cured pork loin, Chorizo, pink sauerkraut,Swiss and Cuban Reuben sauce on a ciabatta).

I could not resist the southern fried quail, buttermilk-battered and fried, and served with a cheddar and green onion waffle, sauteed greens and pepper jelly glaze. Dear god, this interpretation of the southern classic fried chicken and waffles was so far removed from the original and yet completely evocative of it in its own way. I sucked bones, I scarfed waffle with jelly and I left not one scrap of greens. Not that I earned any real southern cred for it (we northern types never really can you know), but damn it was good.

Our server is a friend of mine and just back from a vacation to the Eastern Shore and Luray, so she told me all about their scenic routes, the B & B where they stayed during their eastern stay and the time spent canoeing and swimming when they moved west. It was her first day back and she did look remarkably relaxed. She said she was especially enjoying waiting on our girls' night out because it reminded her of how much fun she has when she does the same.

My friend and I hadn't seen each other in a month, so there was much to catch up on, especially from her side. For me, not much had changed except the beagle's departure; otherwise my love life is still non-existent and I continue counting Americans. She had a couple of good man stories, one dismissed and one potential on the horizon, as well news of a meeting with a dating coach (I suppose if I watched TV I wouldn't have been so surprised that such people exist). I encouraged her in all of it because that's what friends do.

Naturally I finished with a La Brea Tarpit because, as Melissa reminded me, I'm not allowed to leave without having one. I still maintain it's a magnificent chocolate finish, especially for only four dollars (I know I'd pay more for it).

Now I have it in my head that what I need is a dating coach because apparently they teach you what you do that sends out the wrong messages and how to present yourself well to the types of guys who would interest you. Silly me, I thought all I needed was a good conversation to take care of all of that.

On the other hand, the last guy I tried dating started talking marriage on the third date, so maybe I'm not being clear enough about who I am and what I'm looking for. No, I think I'll just keep on talking until the right person figures me out. Imagine the dating coach fees I'll save.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Scoring My Life, Glows in the Dark-Style

You gotta love the Camel for their Sunday night shows; when nothing's happening at other venues, they frequently have music with which to end the weekend. Tonight it was Lux Vacancy and Glows in the Dark, two bands I knew were worth seeing again.

Last time I saw Lydia Ooghe was at the Listening Room, here, and tonight she'd added Cameron Ralston on bass, a worthy addition to the band's sound. Her quirky lyrics ("You make my timbers shiver" was a personal favorite) on topics such as falling in love with a rat or Dad being a waffle cone and Mom being a scoop of strawberry ice cream are ear-catching, especially given her unique voice.

Introducing a cover, she said it was "...a Bill withers song. You've probably heard it," and handed off her guitar, crossed her legs, clutched the chair seat and launched into "Ain't' No Sunshine." It was brilliant. Closing with the song "Jam, Baby," she sang, "I quit you, but you stuck to my shoe." In her little girl voice, it was a charming finish to a fine set.

Then it was on to Glows in the Dark, a band I love for many reasons. First, the beauty of their music is that any song sounds like it could have been lifted from an atmospheric scene in a movie. If I ever want the story of my life scored, they're doing the soundtrack.

Also, with song titles like "Gary Glitter" and "Europe" the listener is inevitably surprised at how the music develops, given the improvisational quality of it. There were plenty of musicians in the audience, all nodding in appreciation as the melodies took off on various tangents.

And then there was dancing guy, the one who planted himself front and center while the rest of the audience sat. The problem being that free jazz is a bit tough to dance and clap to, what with musicians improvising all over the place and ever-changing time signatures, not that this guy didn't try anyway.

You could see the smiles and murmured conversations around the room from his first shout-out to the band through his ever-twitching dance moves. I have no doubt that he thought he was one with the music and he did provide some stellar entertainment, sometimes dropping to the ground, other times just shaking his head so hard you thought his neck would snap.

Not that I'm making fun of dancing guy; he was obviously a music lover and was demonstrating that with his body. It wasn't that the audience was embarrassed for him, but he got to be a little distracting after the first few minutes.

And you don't really want distractions when Glows in the Dark is playing. Their music is an aural trip on its own, taking the listener wherever his or her head wants to go.

I like to just sit back and imagine which episode in my life each song is describing...or perhaps even predicting. No visuals needed.

This Usher Got Lucky

I don't want to brag or anything, but if you went to the matinee of A Doll's House at Henley Street Theater today, I was the one handing you your program.

That's right, I ushered for the first time in my life and I think I did a damn fine job, if I do say so myself. I'd received an e-mail soliciting ushers for the run of the play and since I wanted to see it anyway, I figured, why not do it for free?

A Doll's House is one of those plays I've read more than once yet never seen produced When I last reread it in the early aughts, I put it on my short list of plays I intended to see live. The funny thing is, a 70-something playgoer told me today that she's been waiting 50 years (since she was in college) to see it produced. A teacher had told her it was one play she must see and she'd never forgotten his words. So there were at least two of us in this afternoon's audience crossing something off our lifetime to-do list.

And it was so worth it.

The production was excellent, perfectly cast, nicely paced and with beautiful costumes and a set composed of antiques. I know it's been referred to as the first feminist play, and deservedly so, but the dialog was still striking in its chauvinism.

Nora: Correct me like you usually do.
Torvald: With pleasure.

In addition to a clutch of the Red Hat Society ladies, there was a group of students from the Appomattox Governor's School at the performance and the more egregious lines elicited titters from them.

Torvald: I wouldn't be a man if you being helpless didn't make you doubly attractive.

Gender cliches aside, I considered it a real treat to usher in exchange for a seat, but I got an even bigger surprise when mine was one of two names pulled from the bowl to win free tickets to next season's opener, Waiting for Godot.

And unlike Nora, who at the end tells Torvald that, "I no longer believe that something glorious can happen," I'm still of the opinion that it can. True, seeing such a well-done play for free and winning tickets might not qualify as glorious, but it made for an especially fine Sunday afternoon for someone like me.

Which tells me that the something glorious is still out there just waiting to happen to me. Bring it on.